The Virgin Mary Is All That 

Christian mystics give Mary her just desserts.

The Virgin Mary is a victim of sexism, according to Father Peter Bowes. "She's disrespected by most people," including most mainstream Christians, "who seem to believe that just any woman could have given birth to Jesus," Bowes said. But in the Order of Christ/Sophia, a mystical spiritual order that he cofounded in 1999, "we see Mary as Jesus' equal. Even though they had different jobs on Earth, they both suffered. And they both redeem. If you contact her, she can heal you."

Ordained as a minister in 1974 after training with the now-defunct Holy Order of Mysterion Agape Nous Sophia, Bowes was raised "severely Catholic," as he puts it. "I always had a longing for God and for a teacher — somebody who had had spiritual experiences and from whom I could learn." The Benedictine monks teaching at his middle school and high school didn't fit the bill.

"These were very bright guys," he said. "Some had worked on the atom bomb. Some were Oxford scholars. They were all miserable. Some were mean; some were alcoholics. They were devoted to God, but they were so unhappy that they scared me." In church, "I was grossed-out and saddened. Yet I had a calling for the holy life," mused Bowes, who leads a seminar about searching for the soul at the Center of Light (2944 76th Ave., Oakland) on Friday, April 24.

Like many other baby boomers, he experimented as a teenager with Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. He calls the I Ching "my first nonhuman teacher."

Then one night, he watched the classic film Ben-Hur at a drive-in theater. "Jesus is not in that movie," Bowes said. "But his hand is, as he gives Charlton Heston a cup of water in a wooden bowl." Unexpectedly, that scene "broke my heart. In that moment, I could feel myself being loved by the teacher, and the teacher was Jesus." Like Heston's character, "I was that man on the chain gang who was hungry and humiliated, and Jesus was reaching out to me. I didn't know what to do with that."

This epiphany led Bowes to Christian mysticism, with its emphasis on meditation and initiations that he calls "absolutely real, the whole body filling with light: completely conscious-mind-defeating and ego-crumbling, a bursting in the heart. This is stuff you couldn't make up."

Two-thirds of the Order of Christ/Sophia's clergy, who wear traditional white collars, are female.

"That's pretty radical, I guess," Bowes conceded. And maybe that's why, in seven years spent traveling weekly with female co-priests to deliver seminars at the order's fifteen Centers of Light, "only one Catholic priest has ever smiled at me," he said. "Even the Tibetan monks don't smile or say hi to us. It's odd that people who are dedicated to God don't have at least some kind of good feeling for other folks who are dedicated to God, but I guess their attitude is that if you're not doing what they're doing, you're a heretic." 7:30 p.m., $25. CentersofLight.org

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