“We are going to wake our consciousness,” announced Antonio Perez to his three students, “To succeed, we need to learn the higher level of thinking, which is not to think. We need to stop being slaves to our minds.”
The attentive adults nodded their heads in agreement as Perez hung each word in the air. A thick Spanish accent coated Perez's remarks as they floated softly out his lips. Slouched on a wooden stool with one foot resting on the ground and the other suspended in the air, he made little arcs with hands his hands as he spoke.
Perez, Gnostic evangelist, attempted to impress spiritual seekers about the singular nature of his faith in New York City. “We are the only group that represents this in Manhattan,” he claimed, “Something is in process here. The most important thing right now is to transmit the teachings.”
The teacher was carrying the message of Samuel Aun Weor, the South American founder of the Universal Christian Gnostic Movement. Weor’s group also has practitioners in Europe. In his book Magic and Mysticism: an introduction to Western esotericism (2007) historian Arthur Verslius called the sect neo-Gnostic to distinguish it from the ancient Gnostics who flourished during the early Christian church.
In Greek, “gnosis” means knowledge, particularly esoteric knowledge. The ancient Gnostics emphasized secret knowledge, rather than histories and miracles. They made a strong distinction between the evil material and good spiritual worlds. Popular topics among the ancient Gnostics, which were usually an elite social group, included cosmology, anthropology, and salvation. Different schools of ancient Gnosticism existed in the Middle East and Europe from the 2nd century onwards.
In Washington Heights Perez was holding Gnostic classes at Libreria Continental, a plain-looking Spanish mom-and-pop religious bookstore. Set off a short distance from the busy intersection of 207th Street and Broadway, the bookstore was easily overlooked amidst the hustle and bustle of people going into small businesses, public transportation, apartments, and the supermarkets. Hurried passersby hardly glanced at the full magazine racks. The store seemed to sink into the wall of its own non-descriptness. The metal sign for the store was faded with colors settled into rustic shades. To promote the Gnostic classes, a yellow poster with the word “Gnosis” was tacked onto a board lost in the clutter of a trash can and a pile of newspapers on the sidewalk.
Libreria Continental housed a collection of readings and memorabilia from various spiritual trends. Spanish translations of the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Bible, the Torah and the Qur’an filled the shelves. Placed next to them were books, on topics like Astrology and how to access one's past lives. Rolled up posters of Buddhist mandalas and Native American dream catchers sold for a couple of dollars each. The store was stuffed with offerings like these. The shop provided the space gratis to the Gnostics with the hope that Perez's students will become customers.
A strong fragrance of rose incense pervaded the air. Three sticks were lit up at a time, creating a film of smoke through which one could behind the cash register more incense flavors like “Relax” and “Sun.”
Perez and his students squeezed into the small amount of free space on Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings to discuss Gnostic principles. His classes were free of charge and usually in Spanish (unless there was an English speaker in the room). Perez offered two levels, which he called the “first and second chambers.” The first chamber is a beginner's level course for newcomers; the second chamber is designed for experienced students “who are already Gnosis.”
When most of us think of Gnosticism, words like “ancient,” “clandestine,” and “esoteric” come to mind. The spiritual system is often associated with lofty scholars of Christianity and practices too strange for us to fully comprehend (perhaps, even too strange for us moderns to take seriously). Worldviews difficult for us to wrap our minds around provoke a response, as human nature dictates both our fascination and aversion to what is strange to us. One’s response to a different worldview can provide a mirror for self-reflection.
Scholarly fields have arisen upon the curiosity about the unknown. Anthropology originated from a Western interest with the “primitive other;” Astronomy attempts to explore our vast, mostly unknown universe. Gnosticism appeals to this human interest in mystery.
Perez grew up in a Catholic family in the Dominican Republic. But he found the lessons in his theology class at Catholic high school were not satisfying to his curiosity about life’s mysteries. A friend, who was already immersed in Gnosticism, gave him answers that seemed more adventurous. “It was on questions related to the world, like how to float in the air,” recalled Perez with a mischievous smile on his face.
By the age of 18, he decided to join Monasterio Hercules Santerio, a Gnostic monastery in the Dominican Republic, where he stayed until he was 25. He said Gnostic centers exist all over South America, but its main center, Monasterio De Lumine, is located in Venezuela. After his training, Perez spread the Gnostic teaching for twenty years in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Cuba, and Venezuela.
In 2002 Perez said he received a personal call to spread the Gnostic message in New York City.
Perez also taught at the New York City Gnostic School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Currently, he said they have 3 teachers, including him, who lecture in first and second chamber classes. Perez taught second chamber classes at the Gnostic school with students who were already Gnostics. But in Manhattan, his students were primarily beginners.
Modern-day Gnostics undergo an initiation ceremony to become a Gnostic. When A Journey asked Perez to describe the ritual, his answer shied away from a description of the ritual. Instead, the teacher offered a theological explanation. “The initiation leads us to the truth and to our real Christ,” he said. “It's a process in which the person asks themselves if they're going to continue in this slavery or if they want freedom. If they want freedom and truth, they must know the price. The price means a very high sacrifice. If you want Christ to be born inside of you, you must complete the sacrifice that's required. You must sacrifice your wrong behaviors, you're wrong thinking, and you're wrong feeling. All of them are stated in the 10 Commandments, what Moses gave to Israel.”
In the New York City Gnostic School, Perez claimed that his classes were each comprised of 40 to 50 people. Like the lectures he offered in Manhattan, classes at the New York Gnostic School were also gratis. “We cannot charge for the service. If you want God to do something, you need to do whatever you can do without wanting anything in return. God just gives,” he said. “If you want the truth to burn inside of you as Christ and the divine spirit, you need to service in the right way.” He mentioned that operations are maintained through charity and donations.
On an autumn day last November, the lecture taught by Perez was on the mind and ego. “Most of us have 3% of our consciousness awake. Einstein had 6% awake. The rest of our consciousness, 97% of it, is trapped inside the ego. The ego is a piece of the mind. If we are able to overcome the mind, we'll be able to acknowledge all the genius inside of us,” said Perez. It's believed in Gnosticism that identifying with the mind is to be stuck in the physical world, which prevents us from accessing the human potential.
For those of us grounded on earth, Perez's message on the mind and ego might seem like wishy-washy advice. But in the moment, while his students sat on flimsy metal chairs deep in thought, Perez's tranquil voice and penetrating dark brown eyes seemed to quell the worst of fears and over-zealous egos. Harnessing one's consciousness was one of many topics taught by Perez. Other topics included transcendental meditation, techniques to combat stress, and spiritual mysticism. Perez's evangelistic territory was Manhattan. He stated, “I'm the only one pushing with my bare hands to build Gnosticism in Manhattan.”
In the United States people have not been as receptive despite the efforts by groups like the American Gnostic Association and The Gnostic Society. The groups were unresponsive to our interview requests.
Contemporary Gnostic movements are more common in Central and South America than in the U.S. Perhaps, the favorable reception to Gnosticism is related to the popularity of religions in Central and South America that also focus on magic and notions of good and evil.
Gnosticism and Christianity
Scholars still debate about some elements of Gnosticism in the early Christian period, but Christ's presence brought a Christian flavor into the belief system. In a phone interview with A Journey through NYC religions Edwin Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Miami University, Ohio, explained, “Most of the Gnosticism that we know is Christian Gnosticism, Gnosticism combined with elements of Christian teachings.” The ancient Gnostics focused upon the idea of Jesus's resurrection from the dead, but not on his life as the earthly, fleshly presence of the Son of God. To the ancient Gnostics, Jesus was the one who brought salvation through knowledge, but he was not the Son of God. The ancient Gnostics also made selective use of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Book of Genesis.
Perez explained that Gnostics believe that there are two types of Christ: “One is Jesus, and the other is Christ. Jesus is the vehicle of expression, which is Christ. Then, there's Christ as the universal. The universal is the divine spirit. If Christ stays in a person without a soul, that person could die because the soul needs to internally restructure its energy. That energy is the source. People need to understand that's what Jesus Christ was teaching.”
From the time of the early church, Christians criticized Gnostic teachings. The apostles who wrote the New Testament condemned the Gnostic teachings. In his letter to a fledging church in Colossians Paul warned about some who said that they had a superior knowledge based on secret teachings and denied the value of the body and the Christian doctrines of creation and resurrection. An early church father Irenaeus devoted part of his book Against the Heresies to the Gnostics. In control of the state the Romans, Christians, and Muslims often used their power to persecute Gnostics as heretics or political threats. Even today, militant Muslims target the Iraqi Mandeans, a remnant of ancient Gnostics. In their defense Suhaib Nash runs the Mandean Society of America in Morristown, New Jersey.
The emergence of modern Gnosticism
After centuries as a clandestine group, Gnosticism emerged during the 19th and the 20th centuries. In 1945 Gnosticism received a stimulus from the discovery in 1945 of ancient texts called the Nag Hammadi Library (also see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels). In 2006 a third or fourth century manuscript, The Gospel of James, was released to coincide with the film The Da Vinci Code.
The revival of Gnosticism brought an incredible mélange of religions, including Perez’s brand of Gnosticism started by Samael Aun Weor in South America.
Aun Weor was born Victor Manuel Gomez Rodriguez in Bogota, Columbia during 1917. He was raised in a Roman Catholic household, but as a child he grew disaffected with Catholicism. At age 12 he began to study metaphysical ideas and gained an extensive knowledge of Eastern and Western religious traditions. His interests brought him to a lecture at the Theosophical Society, a spiritual group with a similar philosophy of esoteric knowledge.
Aun Weor amassed a modest number of disciples as he traveled throughout South and Central America, later settling into Mexico City in 1956. By then, he had published his most widely known book, The Perfect Matrimony, which claimed to unearth the secret sexual techniques of the world's religions. By the time of his death in 1972, he had built Gnostic centers in Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico, and El Salvador.
Roman Catholic and Protestant churches denounced Aun Weor's movement as a sham. Critics slammed Aun Weor’s inclination toward magical sexual knowledge found in his book The Perfect Matrimony. Gnostics see their critics as a continuation of the persecution that they had received in former times.
Perez did not mention these theological disputes in his conversations or lectures that I heard. His strategy was to stick to spreading the Gnostic message. He liked to point out how his work of providing assisted home care living is “related to Gnosis. By being part of charity, people learn to serve others and care for others. You can relate it to the Gnosis philosophy because you cannot comprehend what Gnosis is without connecting the reality to your life.”
Perez was optimistic that the Gnosis movement will catch on and become one of the city's strongest institutions. “When I talk to people, when I see, speak and hear what they saying, they're hungry for knowledge. Many people don't have a strong reason for living and they're confused,” Perez said with a note of sadness in his voice, “Gnosis is an important ideology with a strong historical base.”
He says that people of other faiths need Gnosticism to make their life whole. People are yearning to have integrated lives. Religion alone is not enough. “Religion is a part of Gnosis, as one of the four ways of knowledge,” Perez said. “But there's also science, philosophy, and art.” The teacher announced that Gnosticism will make knowledge holistic.
At the time when A Journey reported for this article, Libreria Continental was open. During a follow up interview with Antonio Perez, he relayed that the store closed. Perez conducts his classes at a student's apartment in the meantime and is currently looking to build up the gnostic movement in Manhattan to be able to provide funds for renting class space. He is still teaching at the New York City Gnostic School.
147 Wythe Ave (between 6th and 7th Ave.)
And check out the nonprofit, educational group run by Gnostic church leaders:
280 Madison Ave
#912 - 9th floor
New York, NY 10016