If I tried to explain all the minutia involved with the cult/self-improvement organization once known as NXIVM, I don’t know what would happen first: my head or the reader’s head exploding with all the pseudo-philosophical gobbledygook. I dare you to even pronounce NXIVM. 

Thankfully, a multi-part HBO documentary called “The Vow” has done the heavy lifting for us.

The documentary is a thorough exposé of NXIVM, which at first seemed like every other self-help, professional development seminar for upwardly mobile types, until it evolved into a morass of deception, control, and abuse. 

The leader of the movement, Keith Raniere, is a soft spoken, bespectacled, and self-proclaimed modern-day philosopher. In reality he is a manipulative sexual predator. 

This cult loved to record its actions, and the documentary relies on footage of actual members of the organization doing things people in cults do. This lends a fly on the wall feeling for the viewer that accentuates the creep factor. The creep meter redlines when we watch countless scenes of Raniere, who gave himself the name “Vanguard,” holding court with male and female acolytes hanging on every word.

How did these highly educated people of the world not see through this pyramid scheme? They were promised perpetual happiness and spiritual equilibrium as long as they were signing up more people to learn the secrets of perpetual happiness and spiritual equilibrium — at several thousand dollars per new member.

Beyond the weirdness of the leader “Vanguard,” there was his zealous right-hand woman whom the group referred to as “Procter.” There were color-coded sashes awarded for attaining various levels of mind-opening advancement. There were plenty of other red flags that went unnoticed, especially the most scarlet of them all, the cult within the cult, referred to as DOS.

The acronym “DOS” represented the Latin words “Dominous Obsequium Soroum.” NXIVM members used the phrase to indicate a master/slave relationship, with Raniere as the head slave master. 

DOS was presented as a vital female empowerment tool of the NXIVM universe. As the documentary makes abundantly clear, it was instead a sex cult that used extortion and physical mutilation in the form of branding as control mechanisms.

The power of cults never reverberates louder than when the documentary shows the attempts of parents and former cult members to convince young women, who have had Keith Raniere’s initials carved into their skin, that they need to rethink their life choices, and face resistance.

Thankfully, like all cults, the truth came out, brave women and men came forward, and Vanguard now goes by another name — federal penitentiary inmate — within prison walls where he currently serves a 120-year sentence.  

As the world has shown us since the beginning of time, cults attract a diverse population group. What is not so diverse is that people, like those who entered the nightmare of NXIVM, were all searching for inner peace. 

When people search for meaning in a man who claims to have all the answers, much misfortune bodes. All cults, no matter how diverse their membership, possess the same means to that end: abject obedience to the leader or their designated lieutenants. The other essential element is that all cults, like the one rightfully vilified in this documentary, promise immediate and profound worldly gains — an express train with its final destination nirvana.

What a comforting thing for someone reading the Gospels. Just a few weeks ago we heard at Mass how two disciples began wondering about the seating arrangement when the Lord came into his kingdom. 

The leader of the cult in “The Vow” certainly had taken care of that problem and had organized an insipid, immoral, and illegal pecking order, all for the purpose of his own pleasures.

Jesus bitterly disappointed his followers by telling them the truth. There were not going to be any armies of angels establishing his dominion and seating his followers on golden thrones. Instead, he promised a path leading to Golgotha.

The apostles continued to suffer from the same tendency we do today. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, people prefer a domesticated god — one more in their image than in his own. Most cult leaders through history seem to have a heightened sense of that, and fill that role for as long as it takes to reveal they are predators. 

If there is one great takeaway from “The Vow,” it is this: To avoid wolves, stay close to the shepherd.