Prayer beads, rosaries, malas. The idea of prayer beads is a good one. The principle is one that has served humans well since Ur. Repetition. To repeat a phrase, a wish, an affirmation (as we say today) is a way of fixing it into our minds, our unconscious minds and memories. Memory is a precious faculty because it is so close to our unconscious. Indeed, it might be said that it mediates between our consciousness and our unconscious psyche. Consciousness is that center, that point in the Now. It is the present moment and in a sense our consciousness can only ever actually exist in the present moment. Yet, one of the curious things about the human mind, and one that seems to largely set us apart as different from other species of animals, is that our consciousness lives also with the past and the future in mind.
Now, I suppose, as with everything, this varies from person to person. Some people undoubtedly think about the past and future more than others. Some folks worry about the future; some plan. The art of divination was built upon this human tendency — the ability to think about the future and to anticipate. Humans hope. Humans also dread. I do not think there is much evidence of other animals doing this. We cannot really get at the feelings of other animals because they lack language.
Indeed, it is language itself, and curious human accomplishment, that seems to inspire out sense of past, present, and future. Our languages are (often) built around those three verb tenses. We categorize events and experience into those which happened in the past and what is happening in the present moment. Science, by definition almost, aims to predict the future; that is, it aims to document causes and effects which have happened in the past so predictably that we can say with great assurance that the same causes will produce the same results in the future. Scientific observation might have had its birth in astrology and other forms of divination where the same attempt was made to record repeating phenomena and relate them to effects.
But back to malas and prayer beads. I made a mala this morning after breakfast. My lady wife is a great beader and has quite a collection, so I helped myself and made a druid mala of three sets of nine beads. This configuration permits one to pray or make an affirmation 81 times, a mystic number being 9 x 9. Three times around the three sets of beads. I made to of the sets green stones and one white. If I had had some turquoise beads the same size, I would have made it blue, green, white. The colors of the druid order’s three grades, bard, ovate, and druid.
The power of repetition is related to the human power of observation and induction, the scientific method of observing repeated causes and effects and then predicting them. Of course, everyone likes it best when a mathematical formula can be produced to describe causes and effects, but we would be too hasty if we concluded that all causes and effects must conform to such mathematical regularity. I am content that causes sometimes produce effects in strange and unpredictable ways — or partially predictable but not explainable. Astrology and other forms of divination are like that. They deal in qualitative matters, not quantitative, and so cannot be expected to be expressible in mathematics. A different sort of mathematics, or a different symbolic language must be developed to express such formulae.
Having one’s natal sun favorably disposed in Gemini gives one notable powers of language, for example. Purely a qualitative matter and to try to quantify how much gift of the gab one person has would be a bit silly. Besides, Gemini’s aren’t all talkative. Some more introverted types are good writers or communicators in other ways. So, these kind of causes and effects are predictable to a certain degree but not absolute and not simple. The effects may be different from each other with the same cause, and the outcomes good or bad, depending on many other variables.
So, what about prayers? In many religions the idea of prayer is put in terms of a human being beseeching an immortal or omnipotent being. Modern druids sometimes think of prayer this way, offering prayers to Brighid or Manannan or whomever. It is certainly more comforting to feel that various areas of human need and human art are aided by specific persons who have more power and scope that a simple human friend or benefactor. I mean, I suppose I would like to have a human benefactor who sent me a check in the mail every month and cared about what I was doing, encouraged me in my writing and other creative work. But in lieu of that, it is of some comfort to imagine that one has a superhuman benefactor who cares and might send you good fortune or might make you struggle, but only for your own self-improvement. The more helpless we feel in our own lives, the more we are likely to find the idea of gods and goddesses comforting.
Some modern druids take a more humanistic approach, considering prayers to be positive affirmations that will work on the subconscous mind to bring about internal changes in attitude and behavior. Some will go further to suggest that these inward changes to the psyche can then bring about outward changes of circumstance too. For example, if you are depressed and say the affirmation “I will be more cheerful tomorrow” 81 times each night before sleep, in a while that thought will become rooted in your subconscious mind and will sprout and flower and bear fruit. Becoming more cheerful might make you feel like talking to people more and lead to networking and the opportunity to get a better job or meet a mate or whatever. Happiness draws others to us, and is a gift to them, just like a smile, a hug, a kiss, or simply a handshake and saying a friend’s name.
This is the doctrine of Masonic charity and Druidic respect. It comes down to love. Loving oneself, one becomes free to love others. But merely being puffed up with ego and self-congratulations is not the same thing as love. If someone walked up to you and patted you on the back and started raving about what a great person you were and how your work was all genius and on and on — well, you might be flattered at first, but you would not jump to the conclusion that such a person loved you. Love is different than flattery. It feels different.
But there is no question that whatever love is, we can project it and cultivate it to produce good things in our lives. Cheerfulness and happiness go hand in hand. External possessions or accomplishments might make you temporarily happy, but they are not the real source of happiness. Indeed, the relationship is often the reverse: a mental attitude of happiness gives one the motivation and joy needed to succeed.
That is why affirmation is so powerful. No matter how bad things are, you can make them a little better by telling yourself to cheer up and stop worrying. That old song from the 80’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” came in for a bit of sneering from the cynics, but it had a good point. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s like crying. It is an emotional outburst or reaction, but it does not bring about any relief. Sometimes crying does bring relief, but sometimes it just feeds self-pity and sadness in a cycle. Worrying almost always does that. It just perpetuates itself.
These emotions are accompanied by inward talk, the chatter of the mind everyone experiences. It seems to be a part of being human and learning language. The process of language acquisition has the by-product of leaving us with voices in our heads, other subjects besides our ego sitting at the center of consciousness. These other subjects, other persons, Jung linked to certain archetypal images from myth. But, simply put, they are our inner gods and goddesses. Next time you hear someone exclaim “Oh, My God!” think about it. They are invoking their god. It’s exactly correct linguistically and ontologically. Each of us have our own god. Possibly, they are all the same god, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to demonstrate that. Certainly members of the same religion will tend to have shared notions about gods and goddesses (however many they have). Pictures help that. But in the end, we each have to come to grips with our own inner gods and inner demons.
You cannot tell other people what their god is like. That is really a fundamental teaching of modern druidry. Some druids today don’t seem to have grasped that fundamental concept, but the wise ones do. Each person has to come into their own relationship to and understanding of his or her own gods. Call the super-personalities if you like, complexes, invisible friends, the inner child, or what you will.
So, talking to these gods is a matter of talking to ourselves. It is though our own minds, our own imagination, and our own ability to listen, that we can approach the gods. Prayer beads can help this. So long as they do not become simply thoughtless repetition, affirmations will work wonders on the psyche and on one’s life. Mantras are a sort of prayer too, reduced to a simple sound or phrase. I read recently that nineteenth century Hinduists speculated that the mantra AUM was an acronym for Agni, Usha, Mitra, the Vedic god of Light, Dawn, and the morning star, Venus. Three manifestations of light, all suggestive of illumination and dawning enlightenment.
True? Plausible? I do not know. Most things believed by 19th-century writers has come to be seen as pure speculation and wishful thinking. But I just call it creative thinking. Might not be any good to get to what the Hindus and gurus themselves believed, but it is a nice interpretation, poetic, and thought-provoking. Whatever the literal truth, the fact of the matter is, a mantra carries whatever meaning you assign to it. A “Hail Mary” carries whatever meaning you assign to it too. And in some senses, the more fuzzy and illusive a mantra is, the better it can be adapted to your own needs.
The druid mantra “Awen” comes from the Welsh word for inspiration, but means more than that to many druids today. It is Divine inspiration, calling, visionary experience. It might be likened to the Christian Holy Spirit — the breath of inspiration that brings knowledge, intuition, ideas into our consciousness from we know not where. In psychological terms it is the unconscious. In the poetic terms of the Celtic bards, it is the Sea. It is the source of ideas, thoughts, images. The darkness of the sea, impenetrable and deadly (prior to the aqualung anyway) is the source of light, illumination. Ironic? Paradoxical?
Eighty-one affirmations. That’s my prescription. The first step toward action is to make those affirmations. The rest will follow in the fullness of time, as the planted seeds sprout and bear fruit.
It seems that every culture has had its warrior class and its ideals of how warriors should deport themselves. The most famous of these ideals in the West is the chivalric ideal which descended from the ancient Celtic cultures and was tempered by Christian ideas. I consider myself now to be a knight. I have long thought of myself in such terms but only now — at the in my case rather decrepit age of 47 — have I been dubbed a knight by an authority with the traditional power to grant such title.
A Masonic knight is, of course, not the same thing as a feudal knight or even a knighthood given out by the Monarch in Britain or elsewhere as a reward for services rendered to the crown. A Masonic knighthood is a purely chivalric one in the old sense of the term. It calls the knight to service and rewards certain displays of virtue and potential for virtue. It rewards — or acknowledges — that the candidate for knighthood has exhibited the sincere desire to do good and live by the chivalric code.
What does that mean for us in a time when there are few horses and even less shining armor (outside of museums in Europe). Does it mean toting rifles or machine guns or artillery and joining the military services? No. It is quite apart from the profession of soldiering. The Masonic knight pursues chivalry reduced to its fundamentals — virtues and commitments and a sense of duty that may be applied to any field and any sort of conflict.
For example, among the chivalric virtues are to always protect and defend women and children, the poor and vulnerable. To stand up for justice, which is to say that every man (or person) be given his due, no more and no less. To not act as judge and jury, much less executioner, but rather to verbally, and if necessary physically defend against violence or injustice as one sees it.
No one expects a knight to be all-wise. That is what gods are for. Our inner God – that supernal being who calls us to service and is the voice of conscience — must take that duty. One can only do one’s best. Strive to be wiser today than yesterday.
No one expects a knight to always be courageous either, but that is a primary knightly virtue. Across all warrior classes and professions, courage must be paramount; for it is the virtue of being able to act even when one is afraid. Courage does not mean to be without fear. Not at all. If one had no fear, it would take no courage at all to act. So those bumper stickers one sees that say “No Fear” strike me as rather bad. They imply an unwise recklessness and disconnection from the reality of life. Our lives are extremely fragile. Our souls may carry on, but our bodies can be killed in a thousand different ways by a small hole or a sudden shock or a microbe.
In a sense, however, courage does overcome fear. It overcomes its opposite, the vice of cowardice. By trusting in our spiritual immortality we can overcome the fear of death. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel it, but we can overcome it. Such courage does not result in recklessness. The “berserker” of ancient Norse and Celtic tradition was certainly useful for killing lots of people and scaring the opposition silly, but berserkers were not really (and still are not really) virtuous people. Whether using the sword or the pen, or the tongue, the berserker lacks any sense of judgment or proportion, any sense of justice or empathy. Cuchullain had this mental health problem and he is a justly famous warrior in terms of fantastic achievements. But I wonder if the storytellers about Cuchullain meant us to take his story in such simple terms. Maybe they did, but I give the bards a bit more credit for thoughtfulness. I don’t think they were barbarians. The story of Cuchullain read like the model for so many video game heroes — living a life of mass destruction and killing until he is tripped up by fate.
It was the same with Achilles. Amazing superhuman feats, lots of death, which is valued in the heat of battle. Arguably such superheroes are heroes because they save the lives of so many of their friends and comrades. That is a good thing. But at the same time, just killing lots of “enemies” is not simply good. It is still killing and it is still damaging to the soul, the mind, and the person. If the hero-killer goes on to survive the battlefield, he often finds it impossible to return to normal life and is haunted by all the death he has dealt out.
I gather that some men and boys find pleasure in destroying things, especially with explosives. I suppose this appeals to one’s Shadow-complex. The dark side of the inner God. The creator and the destroyer. I like creating things and never (as far as I can recall) have enjoyed destroying anything except perhaps a snowball. I did once light a model spaceship on fire with some friends and film it while melting and smoking, which, at age 15 was sort of cool. I suppose there is a kind of sublime awe in witnessing the decomposition of things, as in a fire. The power in nature to reduce everything to dust and atoms. Still, I would rather witness a fire or volcano than cause one.
And that, for me, is part of the chivalric code of conduct. One doesn’t engage in destruction lightly and should avoid it wherever possible. Even more acutely, one must strive not to derive pleasure from destruction, especially the destruction of the innocent. If another person is charging at you with a gun or sword or spear, then, yes, one is bound to take the extreme action of fighting back, fire with fire, and preserving oneself rather than allowing oneself to be destroyed. The reason for this is not selfishness, but that, as a knight, one is a guardian of others. You are protecting not just yourself but your family, your people, your nation. This courageous act of protection is an act of love, not hate.
That’s hard, of course. Virtue isn’t easy. To defend yourself or your family against someone else without hatred, or indeed even anger, is hard. I think of the old TV series Kung Fu. That was a great example. Even John Wayne movies often depicted this kind of dispassionate courage. Today’s movies are more likely to depict men acting out of rage and vengeance.
Is that wrong? Yes and no. It is wrong to act vengefully, even if the other person has done a great wrong. However, it is right to justly defend against someone who has done a great wrong. We love those Stephen Segal movies where he takes revenge on the corrupt oil companies in defense of the Inuit peoples of Alaska. That sort of story is a classic hero story. But would it be right for a person to act that way in reality (as distinct from story)? Vigilante justice may seem like the only solution in a corrupt society where the powerful abuse their power so horribly. But vigilante justice undermines the fabric of a just society. The vigilante, by circumventing due process of law, undermines that system. The movies would have us believe that the system is so irrevocably flawed that there is nothing to do but rebel.
As an American, I was raised with a fairly positive attitude toward rebellion and revolution. After all, the American Revolution founded this country. But, sadly, the American Revolution is seldom presented to children clothed in all its horror and death. It is romanticised, its heroes deeds emphasized, and the sufferings of thousands ignored. Successful revolutions are always defended as necessary evils. It is always said that there was no other way to bring about change, except through violence.
But a moment’s consideration will force one to admit that such statements can have no warrant. Time and patience and due process can also change a society. History attests to it. Even though humans lack the virtue of patience and so often give rein to their passions and act rashly and violently. Arguably, some people simply won’t listen to reason and calm discussion of needs. Some will not respect other’s right to freedom. And in such cases, violence is, as they say, “the last resort.” But as Isaac Asimov said through one of his characters in the Foundation Trilogy, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
In other words, we resort to violence when we cannot think of anything else to try and we have run out of ideas. It marks the limits of our intelligence and craft. It marks the limits of our reason and ability to empathize and act diplomatically. Each one of use has only so much of these virtues, and when we reach the limits of our particular supply of them, violence seems like the only option. We, in the United States, are taught from birth that violence is an option, that there are times when it is the only option. Television and movies and even folklore cannot make a good story out of non-violent protest or diplomacy or compromise or patience. Can you imagine a television show whose main theme was patience?
So, we are conditioned for violence and only by cultivating intelligence and other resources to express and put forward our will, can we build a repertoire that permits us to avoid violence and when forced, minimize it. That was the message of Kung Fu. Faced with vicious people who will use violence on the innocent and weak, the true knight must summon his valor to stand up to them, and do so effectively, which often means employing both superior skill in violence and superior reasoning. Usually the hero outwits the bad guys. He doesn’t simply get a bigger gun.
I find the American culture of the gun extremely sad. It saddens me when a man’s biceps are referred to as “big guns” thereby reducing manhood to nothing more than killing machinery. What as sad definition of manhood that is, and how far from the chivalric ideal.
When I place “Sir” before my name, and note two of the several orders of knighthood into which I have been inducted by the Scottish Rite Supreme Council, I do so not to brag or create a pretense of nobility or aspire to old-fashioned noble titles I do not “really” possess. Anyone who is not a Mason will have difficulty understanding that point. It isn’t pretense. The titles remind me, when I sign my name, that I am bound and called to act with chivary, to examine myself, to improve my own virtue, to overcome my vices, and to be courageous and grow in courage each day so that I am able to act to help those in need. To help not with a sword alone, but with a pen, with a word, with a hand, with care, listening, love, and the sacrifice of my self. Not necessarily my own death, but more often simply putting aside my own desires to assist, to teach, even to admonish others with courtesy and respect.
As a druid, this ideal goes even further, for I am pleased to extend it to animals and plants and to Mother Earth herself. To defend, protect, and give help to all beings who may require it, to the best of my strength.
Finally, I will add that this does not mean rashly sacrificing yourself, your health or your life. There must be also a balanced sense of self preservation because if you are a guardian and you die, then there is no guardian to take your place. Someone may be able to step in, but no one can truly replace you as a guardian of your loved ones or as a friend.
So, I sign off,
Knight Rose Croix & Knight Kadosh
Gratia †Deo† Magister Artis et Doctor Philosophiae
Druid Companion of the O.B.O.D.
So, all went well last night. I got to wear a microphone and everything! (Oh, is that a Masonic secret? No? OK.) The upstairs of the Scottish Rite Temple is soooooo cooool. It is like a very old theater, with costume closets and makeup chairs that look like they date from the turn of the last century! And old wood everywhere. I am so looking forward to participating in putting on the degrees in the future!
But for the moment, I’ve passed the hurdle of being dubbed Knight Kadosh, which is interpreted to mean Knight of the Kadosh, or Knight of the Temple, meaning the Temple of Solomon. This is the Knights Templar degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction in the U.S.A. and the brothers did an excellent job putting it on. It was thrilling to kneel in the center of that sacred space and be dubbed a knight. Well, this was the second time, actually, as I was also dubbed a Prussian Knight in an earlier degree where I got to be principal candidate.
I have long been interested in the historical Knights Templar and their reputation, both chivalric and sinister. Secret societies have a irresistible magnetism, though, of course, one might not be so happy to stumble into one for real. But chivalry, without all the militarism and killing, has always fascinated me. I studied it a good deal as an undergraduate and my researches formed the basis for the military culture of the Rhûzamedi in my first novel (still, alas, in revision) Marzanx. Indeed, the whole society of Marzanx and its subject planetary systems constitutes a secret society. Hence the subtitle of the story, “The Hidden Kingdom.” Hidden in the middle of the Red Nebula.
But I digress.
The chivary of Masonic knighthood is not, of course, the old military chivalry of the Middle Ages. A knight today is one called to an order of chivalry and expected to exemplify certain virtues and precepts. In the case of the Knight Kadosh it is to give of oneself, to sacrifice one’s pride, selfishness, and ambition in order to help others, not only within the order, as a loyal member of its organization, but outside of the order. The Templars of old were dedicated to helping pilgrims on the path to the Holy Land. As a druid, I interpret this symbolically as a calling to help pilgrims on their path to understanding of the land as holy. Not the literal Jerusalem or Palestine, but the Jerusalem, as William Blake used the image.
Blake was a visionary poet of the early 19th century who illustrated his poems and printed them himself with a method of copperplate printing he invented. He was a total artist. Trained in architecture, I think he must have been part of the current of Masonic ideas in his time. He is often numbered among the Romantic poets, those English poets who set themselves against the excessive masculine rationalism of the Enlightenment and embraced the human imagination as a power at least as profound (if not moreso) than the human faculty of Reason. Blake’s visionary poems are epics of the soul, dramatizing the splitting of the whole human psyche into parts. It is the Reason (personified as the godlike Urizen) who causes the breaking apart of the whole Man, the Giant Albion. Blake is a consummate allegorist and mythologizer, who understood how to weave a symbolic picture in such a way that it was not a simple allegory but a complex one, a myth. We are forced to work to interpret Blake. The meanings are not simply spelled out through a code, as earlier medieval allegories were.
Jerusalem, in Blake’s mythos is the “emanation” of Albion, something like Albion’s soul or “anima” in Jungian terms. His female or feminine half, which is split off from him and lost to him because of the usurpation of Urizen. So, in my druidical interpretation of the Templar legend, I would say that Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple are both allegorical images for the architecture of the soul. To be a knight of the Temple is to be dedicated to protecting and guiding those who are daring to make the journey to wholeness, to rebuild the temple of psyche that has been torn apart, not by any literal despot or war, but by the very growth of the human species, our evolution.
We have reached a place of wisdom now where we may — standing upon the shoulders of giants — glimpse the road travelled by our ancient ancestors. They were pilgrims in their own right, traveling upon the level of time and evolving our unique species. This evolution was most remarkable in the way our human brains changed, which is also to say, our souls. The psyche, or soul, is the inward life of the mind and heart. Our feelings and thoughts, and their relationship to expression in words, discourses of various kinds, including songs and poems, and other forms of expression through art — dance, painting, drawing, acting, sculpture, pottery, architecture.
Architecture serves as a symbol itself. The building of the temple or the celestial city of God is the building of ourselves and we must understand not only how to shape rough stones and lay mortar, but also we must understand the geometry and architecture of the psyche. Yes, the geometry and architecture of nature too, but our own psyche as part of nature — perhaps unavoidably the most important part to us. For the mind is the instrument through which we view nature. We can make the pilgrimage toward this new place by escaping from the ego, from language, and its literalism. Only through symbols and the free working of the imagination can we find the pilgrim’s road and truly grow in understanding of ourselves and our fellow human brothers and sisters.
This is the genius of Masonry. The Fraternity is often condemned on the grounds that is is based on “false” history and “forged” documents, on “legends” and on ridiculous pomp and ritual. It is rejected too as “false religion” because it refuses to admit that it is a religion of any sort. Those who conisder it dangerous because it is “false religion” completely miss the point. It isn’t religion. Masonry has been designed to employ ritual and symbolism, some of it borrowed from major religions not to “imitate” or set itself up as some sort of truer religion, but rather to point out the methods of religions and keeping them out of religious institutions to free the minds of its brothers to approach symbols and rituals in a new light.
Masonry, and druidry for that matter, both do this. They use implausible legends to jostle the stubborn mind, to dethrone the Ego that is based on Reason and selfishness and literal thinking. The ego is, by its very nature, inmeshed in language. “Ego” in Latin is the first person pronoun. The ego, psychologically speaking, is that part of the Self that speaks and says “I”. The evolution of a speaking ego at the center of our consciousness has served humankind well in many ways, but it is only a stage along the pilgrim’s path to higher understanding. For the ego is fragile and will defend itself to the death, assuming the bad habits of a tyrant over the rest of one’s psyche.
Pride, greed, sloth, lust, envy, gluttony, anger — all are sins of the ego. They are ways that the ego puts itself first and indulges in fantasies of its own importance and power. This ego is Blake’s Urizen, setting itself up as a God, imagining that it creates the world through its endless talking. (Keeping a blog might be added to the seven deadly sins.) But the ego does not have to split away from the whole Self, as Carl Jung taught us. Ego can be integrated into the whole and the speaking self realize that words aren’t everything.
It may sound as if I am making Ego sound rather sophisticated and educated with all those words. But that has little to do with it. One can have an overweening ego with a small vocabulary. Those persons who seem unable to talk without spewing a stream of “swear words” as we mistakenly call them. We used to call them “oaths” but that isn’t really what is going on these days. The F-word and all the other impolite words that ornament people’s conversation are power words, they are the ego’s expression of its belief that it can magically control an external world through words.
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view), magic doesn’t work this way. Words alone do not control the world or change it. Words can be used as weapons to harm others or tools to create good things, but that isn’t what we mean by magic words. Magic words are tools that are employed by the deeper or higher aspects of the Self, not merely the ego. And that is where so many would-be magical practitioners fail. They try to work from their ego rather than learning to escape its tyrannical hold on the personality.
This is why some of the wisest writers on magic emphasize the need to contact one’s Higher Self, sometimes poetically called one’s Holy Guardian Angel. Some of the magicians who worked for years to manifest their Higher Self seem only to have inflated their egos. Jung warns against ego-inflation. The ego is like a balloon, or a Microsoft program in your computer: it will expand to take up as much space as it can. It is a defense mechanism. Ego, fearful of being annihilated if it abdicates its rational control over the psyche and the body, puffs itself up by identifying itself with an archetype — Mother, Father, God, Wise Old Man, Wise Old Woman, Dragon, Shadow, Changeling. Doesn’t really matter which archetype. If the ego identifies itself with one it will blow up like a balloon and feel powerful and invincible and become, on the whole, insufferable to everyone else.
Obviously, identifying one’s ego with the Knight of the Temple archetype would be a mistake too. We today are not literal knights from the Middle Ages or storybook romances. But the knightly image can reside in our psyche as part of its repertoire, part of its dramatis personae. And out of this part of our psyche, we can improve ourselves as we wish, seeking virtue rather than vice, and becoming chivalric in all the best senses of that ideal – courteous, humble, helpful, courageous, willing to devote our lives and fortunes to the quest for understanding. And the Quest is, we should remember, something far beyond ourselves. It is the evolution of the species itself, the evolution of soul, we might even say the evolution of Being.
It seems appropriate somehow that I will be completing the final two degrees of the Scottish Rite as the Sun settles at its most southerly position and then stops in its pilgrimage at the solstice. Its southerly journey ended, Sol will begin his slow return northward to give us Spring and rebirth once more. But my masonic quest will end and its next stage begin in the bleak midwinter, that time of meditation and celebration, when we honor the Sun and express our faith in its motions. The movement of the Sun through the seasons is a symbol of fidelity. We honor it as a sign that we can trust the Great Architect, the Creator and Author of the Universe.
And so I must now go bake some fish for dinner.
I have been battling a virus since my return from our Thanksgiving vacation to Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. It was a good trip and I was happy to see my sister, brother in law, niece, nephew, grand-nephew and my mum in the desert lowlands. Then it was equally fun to introduce my daughter to the canyon and the high uplands. It always does my spirit good to see mountains and the canyon of the Colorado River itself is unparalleled in sublimity. I hope some day I can afford to stay there for a week or two and really explore, write, perhaps paint, and to get to know more about the native nations who live there and who were so brutally displaced and mistreated by the first European settlers in that country.
I got very little writing done or editing on my manuscript for Wandlore. A respiratory ailment came over me and I felt weak some of the time. Plane travel disagrees with me and I long for the age of the airship. Packed into a couple hundred people in uncomfortable seats and subjected to hellish noise for three hours has predictable effects on my nervous system and I was exhausted coming and going. Then followed a fortnight with the coughing virus and the wonderful world of sputum as the doctors call it.
Tonight, however, I am hail enough to attend Scottish Rite after missing the last three degrees. I discovered only yesterday that I am the principal candidate for the 30th degree, Knight of Kadosh. I take this as a high honor and am very excited for the evening. Before I take all those vows of secrecy, I wanted to talk about it a bit here. I don’t think that the point of the vows of secrecy in Masonry are really to keep things secret. That may sound daft, but hear me out.
Taking vows of secrecy, to not reveal what goes on in a degree and in particular the secret recognition signs and words, is a way to keep the integrity of the organization and also to keep its initiatory rituals exciting for those going through them. If everyone was as familiar with Masonic degrees the way, say, Lutherans are familiar with the order of service on Sundays, it would not have any impact at all. Indeed, that is one of my beefs with organized religion. It appeals to the sort of person who wants things to stay the same, or who wants the familiar message, the old platitudes, and as little interpretation as possible.
Masonry, like most initiatory societies, works differently. One is presented with a surprise, a drama that is new, something the candidate has never before experienced. The vows of secrecy are there not to keep out the riffraff or cover up devil-worship, or be elitist. All such accusations are codswollop. The secrecy protects the future candidate from having his experience spoiled. If you read a really good novel that takes you by surprise, a “mystery novel” as we say, you don’t run out and tell the whole story to your friends, including the ending. You encourage them to read the book for themselves. No book report can possibly be like reading a good book itself. Especially if the book is something like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, full of history, symbolism, and puzzles. You have to experience such a book in time, unfolding it, savoring it. It’s like the Grand Canyon. You have to be there. That is the reason for the prohibitions against blabbing about the degrees.
But there is another reason too. And that is simply the value to each of us of making and keeping vows. It’s rather like wedding vows. It does you good to curb your tongue or your other passions and keep a promise. Keeping a promise, or fidelity, as they say in Latin, is a virtue and practicing it builds a virtuous character. It isn’t the only virtue, of course, but it is a very important one. It is only through the practice of honesty and fidelity — keeping our word — that we can trust one another or even trust ourselves. Faith in oneself and faith in others is all built upon this ephemeral spiritual quality we call fidelity. And it is upon fidelity that our whole human society is based.
What society can one have if no one can trust others? The Mafia perhaps, but if we are to believe Mario Puzo, even organized crime relies on loyalty and fidelity. It falls apart when people blab secrets or tell lies or renege on agreements. How much moreso a just and peaceful society free of crime and vice? Masonry is structured in such a way that its members are given the opportunity to exercise the virtue of fidelity and to trust their brothers. That aspect of Masonry is very hard to describe to non-masons. It almost seems counter-intuitive. How can taking vows and keeping secrets be a virtue? But it is not the secrets as such that are the value here. They are really quite valueless secrets, and that is the point. It is the act of keeping faith with your brothers that is valuable, not the secrets.
Not even the handshakes or secret passwords are the real value because there are very few people who want to break into a masonic lodge or would get so far as the password if they were strangers. It’s not like sneaking into the back of a big church where you won’t be noticed. The point is not to keep out “outsiders” or the “profane” (even though it is put in those terms sometimes in masonic ritual); the point is really to build strength of character by asking brothers to make a sacrifice, the sacrifice of keeping private things private and honoring the secrets of brothers (apart from obvious crimes). Yes, it is clubby. Sure. And that is a pleasure in itself. But its a pretty benign club, at least in the U.S. Masonry is probably not as powerful as some Ivy League fraternities and sororities are, because it represents a cross-section of all economic classes, not just the ruling elite.
And I’m sure it is true that there are many Freemasons who keep the secrets but don’t grasp the virtue they are supposed to be practicing. Keeping quiet about the degrees and their contents prevents bragging too. If you came home and started describing some of these dramas and the titles that go with them, it would sound pretty pompous. But it isn’t really because all of those titles and costumes and grand language are symbolic. They are there to tell a story and inspire each mason to think for himself. That is why there is precious little interpretation offered either. Even in the voluminous writings of Albert Pike, and all the thousands of other books written by Masons, there are no standard interpretations offered, no orthodoxy. Indeed, one of the points of Freemasonry is to avoid the trap of orthodoxy and dogma. I’m not sure why Albert Pike’s book is called Morals and Dogma except that, as I believe he says himself, he means “dogma” in its original, pure meaning, which is simply “teaching.” Since the 19th century, “dogma” has become a much more negative term for many people, signifying some teaching that a church insists upon and will never question.
Freemasonry encourages its members to ask questions, to seek, to quest, to take on the role of knights, not as “crusaders” in the sense of religious fanatics, but in the model of the legendary Knights Templar who went to Jerusalem seeking ancient wisdom and truth and who came away from their sojourn in the East with some radical ideas about the abuse of power and the need for religious authority to be separated from secular authority. Ironic, in an order that started out uniting the concept of a military order with that of a religious order in the age of chivalry.
I take this all very seriously. Maybe more seriously than is good for me. But Masonry involves the historical study of virtue as it relates to the principal myths of the West found in and around the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its message of tolerance, which originally applied to all of the warring sects of Christians, now has even more power as nearly all Western societies are becoming multi-cultural and one is regularly exposed to people of very different religious beliefs. For someone like me who has always been interested in religions, and since about age 17 in Eastern religions and philosophies, Masonry offers a unique organization in which such interests can be pursued for a lifetime.
It is not like college or university, where one can explore for a few years, but when you get your doctorate or the money runs out, you have to leave. I had hoped to become a professor and thus stick around in academia, but since that didn’t work out, the fraternity of Freemasonry offers me an alternative institution. It is full of structure and honors and friendliness. I’m sure there is also rivalry, jealousy, and backbiting, as in any group, but I haven’t run across much of that at all, and the tenets of Masonry specifically enjoin us against such behavior. Instead, we are admonished to be civil and point out each other’s mistakes gently, and mostly to encourage each other to grow in virtue and self esteem so that we can give generously of our time and talents to help others, brothers and non-brothers alike.
When I was in Phoenix and was trying to explain Masonry to my family, I felt distinctly awkward. It isn’t like converting to another religion but it isn’t like joining a men’s club either. Freemasonry has a reputation. For many it is highly suspect because of its secrecy. For many more it has a mystique that is almost as hard to overcome. I realized that among non-masons, I feel a bit self-conscious about being a Mason simply because it doesn’t mean anything very clear to non-masons. They might have all sorts of associations, vague or personal, or derived from the DaVinci Code and other sorts of conspiracy fiction. None of that has anything to do with the reality of the fraternity.
But, oh, well. I guess I’m used to the difficulty in explaining druidry already, which is similar in many ways because so poorly known to most people. We’ll see if I can get this juvenile fiction series written and then maybe more people will know more about both druids and masonic brothers. Still, writing stories about it will not even convey the reality of the lodge room or the temple. You just have to be there and you have to be initiated for it to make any sense or have any symbolic depth. To a non-initiate a lodge meeting would just look sort of goofy, I suppose. A lot of guys in suits and white aprons. I think Scottish Rite degrees would strike the uninitiated immediately as more interesting because they are more dramatic, more theatrical. But they certainly would not make much sense without the gradual accumulation of understanding of the symbolism and the method of teaching by allegorical legends rather than by the usual school method of factual expositions, chronologies, and formulae.
Well, by Christmas I will be a 32° Mason and proud of it. By next April, I will have completed my first Masonic year. I’ll have to have a party, I think. French Champaigne in honor of Jacques de Molay and Hughes de Payens and a big pooh-pooh on Philip the (Un-)Fair.
/|\ Eques ab Ivsticia et Veritas R . : C . :
P.S. My anam cara and clan mother Chalcedoni still hangs about keeping me company and is never far from my thoughts. May blessed spirits keep us from ever feeling alone.