In Search of Gnosis: Interview with Father Jordan Stratford
One of the ceremonial magicians I interviewed in my Yule issue of ACTION considered himself to be a Gnostic Christian and suggested that I interview Father Jordan Stratford who is a Priest of a Gnostic Christian Church. Stratford is also an author on Gnostic spirituality. His most recent book is titled ‘A Dictionary of Western Alchemy’. It soon became obvious that I was in over my head.
Christopher: Who is Father Stratford?
Father Jordan: I’m a dad, I write books, I’m a dog person. I live on a tiny artist-colony island in the Pacific Northwest. And I’m a Gnostic priest. I’m a Jungian, and that bias is reflected in most of the artifacts of my activity. My background is in advertising; I used to teach film school, and I lived briefly in Brazil in the dot com era. So I go from suit-and-tie business meetings to clericals to gumboots pretty readily, although most days it’s beaches and gumboots. Bibliophile, oenophile, cinephile, Traditionalist-a-la-Guenon-but-not-Evola, I can flirt in half a dozen languages, and have. I’m a decent enough swordsman, Paris is my favourite place on earth, and you’re likely bored of me by now if you have any sense whatsoever.
Christopher: Your spiritual life has taken a great many paths to get you where you are now, some which might be considered more spiritual than others, some perhaps more magical. Could you tell our readers a bit about the paths you have followed?
Father Jordan: I identified with the word “witch” from an early age, in the archetypal sense of seeing and working in the borders of experience. The witch is a liminal figure, between life and death, between the village and the wild wood, between waking consciousness and dreaming. I’ve always felt very free in such spaces, creatively and spiritually.
What I came to realize is that in the 19th and 20th centuries, this was largely a literary construct formed in response to anti-clericalism from the French Revolution. So it’s been poets, the Romantics and Symbolists and Decadents, who sought the witch archetype, and enshrined her, and brought her center-stage. The core of that approach and presentation was laid in the Renaissance revival of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, due to availability of translation. The witch’s aesthetic, via Goya and Shakespeare, was still rooted in this practical and academic Renaissance exploration of classical mysticism.
Going back further, we see these communities of Hellenized (Greek speaking, Greek educated, toga-wearing) Jews, living in Alexandra around 200 BCE. Much of the Greek magical papyri which resurfaced in the Renaissance and kicked off the whole “witch” thing originated in these communities, and there’s a tremendous overlap between these Orphic cults and the Gnostics, in terms of their vernacular, aims and aesthetic. So, honestly, I took a time machine from 1970s neo-Paganism to 200 BCE Gnosticism.
Jung, too, looked to root his work to the Gnostics, and spent a great deal of research into identifying a ligature between their world and his own. Eventually he seized on the Alchemists as the bridge between classical Gnosticism and modernity. Following Jung, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the alchemical milieu.
Christopher: Are there any ties between spiritually and magick?
Father Jordan: In my experience that excreted “k” never fails to endumben the conversation. I could kick Crowley, I really could.
I think a more apt word, if we’re afraid to talk about magic, is theurgy. Wonder-working. Things like banishing demons and turning wine into the blood of God. So of course there’s a tie; there’s never not been a tie. Theurgy, whether it’s the transubstantiation of the Eucharist or the summoning of angelic blessings, has always been the practical application of spirituality. So too, ultimately, I think, are great works of art, when they are rooted in spiritual enthusiasm and mindfulness. We are all of us constantly engaged in the wonder-working of kindness, of compassion, of charity. And I find that fascinating and marvellous, this innate and expressed priesthood of ordinary people. It’s lovely. That’s Sophia, Wisdom, blossoming into flower in the daily lives of absolutely everybody. I find that miraculous.
Christopher: So what led you to train for the ministry and how did you find the Apostolic Johannite Church? Could you tell us a bit about the Gnostic Christian Church.
Father Jordan: Well, Gnosticism hangs its hat on the maxim “know thyself”. This knowledge, or naked self-knowledge, is the “insight” to which the term gnosis best equates. Such an objective and world-view is the crux of what’s been called the “perennial philosophy”, and has always been around, expressing itself in such things as Qabalah and alchemy and various societies. We can blame Plato and Pythagoras for almost all of this stuff.
In 1804, Napoleon’s doctor claims to come across a medieval copy of a dark-ages copy of an ancient copy of the Gospel of John. In this version, John, with his obviously Platonic leaning and high Christology (Christ as manifest God, less about the person of Jesus), is the heir of Christ, and not Peter. Also there is no resurrection narrative, and Jesus is said to have studied his wonder-working in Egypt. Well, that implies that this is something study-able, learnable.
The good doctor uses this text to reboot the early Church of John, the Johannite Church. Now, there have been survivors of this Church and this idea from antiquity to the present age; the Mandaeans of Iraq, and to a lesser extent the Druze of Israel, medieval French Cathars, and Chinese Manichaeanism, although the latter’s a bit of a stretch. Regardless, the doctor’s Church gains valid, apostolic succession from the Archbishop of Haiti, and ticks along as a kind of parallel Catholicism, protected by Napoleon, who was mad about Egypt, and liked having something with which to annoy the Pope.
If you’re familiar with Gerard Encausse, or “Papus”, who was an esoteric mover and shaker of the late 19th century, he was a Gnostic bishop and Martinist who worked very hard at maintaining vitality in this tradition. One can draw a line from Encausse to the Golden Dawn or Wicca or any other expression of 20th century freakiness you choose.
Well, Independent Catholics tend to be an incestuous lot, so all manner of Indie Cath churches have this lineage, this heritage, via cross-pollination and “sub-conditione ordination” which is an elaborate game of tag played by men in large pointy hats. Honestly, while some claim exclusivity to some thread or another, we all have one another’s family tree. The Apostolic Johannite Church, however, makes this particular strand in the tapestry its main focus of inquiry and spiritual work. This Johannite Tradition is the stuff we show up for.
The Church has a four year seminary program, which is reflected in the traditional Minor Order rites of the Church. It’s academic in emphasis but there are practical aspects as well, manifesting in volunteering, chaplaincy, hospice, prison ministry, what have you. We’re very old-school; we employ the seven sacraments of Western tradition, but with an esoteric (“deeper”), alchemical understanding. You can bring your granny to Mass. But if you’ve some experience in the Western Mystery Tradition, you’ll catch on pretty quick as to how we’re doing what we’re doing and why.
Christopher: How do they feel about other beliefs both outside and within the church?
Father Jordan: My former parish consisted of Pagans, Buddhists, and agnostics. We have an open communion, and everyone is welcome, whether you’re in Boston or Calgary or Australia. Your answer to the “know thyself” problem is not my answer. As a priest I can cheerlead for you, I can listen and hear you, I can love you through this process, but that answer of how you fit in the grand scheme of things is for you alone. I’m the sherpa who can show you the path and help carry your stuff, but I can’t climb the mountain for you.
This is, I think, why Gnosticism will never be a popular world religion. It’s too much work. Realizing that you are an eternal spark of the infinite divine gives you an ability to respond; a response-ability. That sounds lonely and difficult and boring. And it is.
Way to sell it, I realize. But we wouldn’t do it if Wisdom Herself wasn’t so beautiful, and worth… everything.
Christopher: You are also a scholar and author. Could you tell us a bit about what you have written, including your latest book?
Father Jordan: I don’t consider myself a scholar. The closest I’ve been is a doctoral student, which means I’ve paid to sit in the class. It’s like comparing somebody who bought a movie ticket to the film director. But yes, I’m a digger and researcher and asker-of-deep-questions, and I write about these things. Most people know me from my very brief layman’s-language introduction to Gnosticism as a living tradition, Living Gnosticism (Apocryphile Press). Last year Quest Books released my Dictionary of Western Alchemy, which is my own lab notes into the etymology and symbolism of alchemy as a language for personal and creative work.
Christopher: For our readers could you tell me some things about the Gnostics? Firstly, where do they come from and how do they relate to Jews and Christians? What is Gnosis?
Father Jordan: I think I jumped the gun on this one. Gnosis is insight, into one’s own nature and the relationship of that nature with the Pleroma, the totality. What we now called Gnostics were individual, separate, and arguing communities of Greek-educated Jews living in Ancient Egypt down the block from the temple of Isis, on the doorstep of the Roman Empire, 2200 years ago. They were writing Plato fan-fiction, and influenced the origins of Christianity by writing Christian fan-fiction. They revelled in myth and metaphor and simile and jazz-riffed off each other’s ideas, joyously pillaging the intellectual heritage of the classical world. They were beat poets who figured out that we’re all imprisoned by forces who wish only power and our submission, and the Gnostics were planning a jail-break through wit and intuition and creativity and love and cipher.
What St. Paul called “the powers and principalities”of this world were identified by the Gnostics as destructive, limiting, cruel patterns of behaviour and institution, and they sought to supplant this authority with direct, mind-blowing personal encounter with unconditional love. So this embraced the Jewish love of learning and literature with the Greek’s bias towards evidence and logic, and later the Christian myth of the triumph of love over death. And they hit purée.
Christopher: Was there ever an attempt by early Christians to wipe out the Gnostics?
Father Jordan: There wasn’t, really, an attempt to wipe out the Gnostics. We fell into disfavour. Gnostic texts became unfashionable. It wasn’t so much a persecution as a devaluing. Gnostics weren’t martyred so much as we were either assimilated or ignored. But this did allow a Gnostic current to survive and flourish within orthodoxy. Every Christian mystic and Orthodox hesychast tapped into the Gnostic vein. St. John of the Cross, St. Francis, St. Julian of Norwich, St. Hildegaard, all finding gnosis, championing it, and embodying it. The grail romances are a cipher for Gnosticism. And, again, of course, alchemy and Renaissance Hermeticism. We hid in plain sight.
The exception is of course the Albigensian Crusade. This was a war between Roman-influenced French forces to crush the blatantly Gnostic heresy of what is now southern France. It was a bloodbath, more political and territorial in nature than religious, as these things always are, but it did drive underground an authentic, contiguous Gnostic culture in Europe in the thirteenth century.
Christopher: Do the ideas of the Gnostics influence the development of Christianity and western civilization?
Father Jordan: This is a very complex issue, but the brief answer is yes. Archaeologically, the first Gospel we have is John. It wasn’t written first, but it’s the first we have any scrap of, the first we have mention of. And John was written in two distinct, phases; a Gnostic phase, and a we-kicked-the-Gnostics-out phase. According to scholars such as Dr. Bruce Chilton, that second phase was edited to refute ideas presented in the über-Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. And according to Dr. Elaine Pagels, parts of Thomas were written to address ideas written in The Gospel of Mary. So in this way, we see Christian canonical texts transforming themselves to refute or clarify Gnostic ideas.
Christopher: When does Gnostic ideas begin to become popular again? What discoveries have helped it along?
Father Jordan: We’ve always had bits and pieces of Gnostic literature, philosophy, liturgy. In fact the first Christian theological texts were written by those we now identify as Gnostics. But it’s been fragmentary, with much conjecture. In 1945, in Egypt, a jar was discovered with a number of codices, books as opposed to scrolls, chock-full of Gnostic literature. This was a massive game-changer in terms of scholarship. Rather than the radical world-hating dualists of anti-Gnostic propagandists, Gnostics spoke with their own voice for the first time in 1600 years. And what they were saying was affirming, beautiful, exotic, rich, nuanced, considered, and lovely. We now had complete – or more complete – texts of which we’d only had clues or snippets or misquotes from those who wished we’d just shut up and go away. Having access to primary source texts was an unimaginable gift of grace.
Christopher: Do Gnostic ideas play a part in any other organizations?
Father Jordan: Gnosticism influenced the birth of Islam, the Druze, Manichaeanism, Sufism, Jewish Qabalah, the Knights Templar, Freemasonry, and all the rogues gallery of early modernism from the Rosicrucians to the Illumaniti. We’re memetic. There’s just no escaping us. The Gnostic Restoration of the 19th century directly and deliberately impacted the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, Traditionalism, the Liberal Catholic Church, and through to the Neo-Pagan movement of the 1930s onward. Gerald Gardner was an Independent Catholic bishop with a Gnostic lineage. Even those who have done Gnosticism a tremendous disservice, such as Crowley, Browne and Rodriguez, did so in order to co-opt the validity and authenticity of Gnostic continuity.
Christopher: Were there any gnostic ideas that our country was founded on?
Father Jordan: I’m a Canadian, and we have an official religion which is the Anglican Church of Canada. In some ways our total lack of separation of Church and State – our *union* of Church and State – has translated into much greater religious freedom. Same sex marriage, reproductive rights, “creationism” as a total non-issue, mosques in urban centers, entrenched minority religious rights; these are much less incendiary in Canada than in America. Common sense tends to prevail. And yet our Head of State is the head of the Church and Defender of the Faith. Go figure.
In America, the values of your founding fathers were Masonic values, and by extension Gnostic values. The idea not of original sin but of original blessing, and original responsibility. That each for their own must determine what Jung called their individuation, and that all society must be structured in such a way as to enable and celebrate this.
Christopher: What are your hopes for the future of Gnosticism?
Father Jordan: I have a thousand archaeological questions I’d love answered, out of my own curiosity. But I really don’t have a desire for us to be anything other than what we are: a community of sincere seekers pursuing a solemn, quiet, traditional path; accepting, embracing, creating, questioning. It wouldn’t bother me if our numbers shrank to 10% of what they are now. We don’t convert, we don’t proselytize. We do what we do. We know what we know. We love what we love. We abide in gnosis, and, in doing so, we endure. The door is open, and the light is on.
Christopher: Anything else that you would like our readers to know?
Father Jordan: “Hearken to the Logos, understand Gnosis, love life.” – The Secret Book of James. I can’t do any better than that.
Jordan Stratford (born 1966) is an author of books on religion and spirituality. His contribution to the identification and definition of Gnosticism as a literary genre is oriented around the soteriological (salvific) role of gnosis (direct, firsthand experience) in any philosophical system or religious tradition.
His work has been cited in college course material (Haverford College) and in doctoral dissertations (Graduate Theological Foundation), and he was interviewed in a feature article on Gnosticism in 2006 in US News & World Report along with NT Wright and Dr. Marvin Meyer. Additionally he has been widely interviewed and featured on blogs and websites relating to Gnosticism, Esoteric Christianity, Paganism, New Religious Movements, and the Independent Sacramental Movement. In 2009 he was interviewed in the documentary “I’m A Witch… So What?” (Gamut Productions 2009)
He was ordained to the priesthood of the Apostolic Johannite Church in 2005, having received a Licentiate of Sacred Theology from St. Raphael the Archangel Theological Seminary. He serves on the board of directors for the Apostolic Johannite Church and was the Rector of Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) Parish in Victoria BC Canada from the parish’s inception to 2008.
His book “Living Gnosticism” (Apocryphile 2007) was reviewed by noted Pagan author Caitlinn Matthews, Dr. Chas Clifton (editor of the Pagan academic journal “The Pomegranate”), Jennifer Emick of About.com, and the Pagan newsstand publication PanGaia (Summer 2008). The book is currently being produced as a feature documentary for broadcast.
His most recent book, “A Dictionary of Western Alchemy” is published by Quest Books, Chicago, with a release date of October 31, 2011.
In his private life, his career has included being an advertising Creative Director, filmmaker, screenwriter, instructor at Vancouver Film School and writer for CBC. – SOURCE