Well, the holiday season is over. It really puts me out of work for two weeks at least, if not indeed for the whole time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, because I have to put in more time taking care of my daughter home from school and doing family things. My dear wife took off nearly two weeks of work (though she still works from home here and there as crises arise), and so we had a chance to do some adventures together, such as seeing the Pompeii exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. That was something that will stay with me forever, I suspect. I did not realize beforehand that the casts of the dead people and animals were made when the archaeologists discovered strangely shaped pockets or voids within the thick layer of solidified ash. To see what these pockets were, they poured plaster of paris into them and disovered they were where the remains of the people had been. I’m not sure why there were not any bones left. Maybe there were. But the casts made revealed the dying postures of the residents of Pompeii, down to the imprint of their clothing. One woman had pulled her dress up around her head to shield herself from the ash and fumes. A guard dog had struggled against his chain, climbing the mounting pile of ash until he reached the end of his chain and died struggling. That dog was one of the most striking images for me. These plaster casts are like the death masks they used to make of poets, taking a cast of the face of Keats, for example.
The ash buried Pompeii to a depth of 13 feet. One cannot help but put oneself into that position and think about death and the fact that we can never know when we might die, suddenly, just like that.
American culture seems a bit obsessed with death right now. Linnea and I were joking the other night about the National Geographic channel and how it seems as if every show on it ends with something or other being killed off by a comet crashing to earth. National Apocalypse Channel. There was an advertisement teaser about a show on King Tut and new information about how he died, and I commented, “He was hit by a comet, of course.”
So, it is a new calendar year. 2008 will shortly mark my the end of my 48th year of life on May 31st. And so the beginning of my 49th year. Without wishing to depress my vast reading audience here, I will say that I am myself rather depressed by this age. Middle aged by any standard, and in my case, battling with what seems to be Celiac Disease, I cannot seem to go for a fortnight without being sick in my guts. Yesterday I had an episode and am still feeling weak today, and bloated. I’m also fat, of course, but being fat and bloated is quite unpleasant. My only positive claim is that I’m not too fat. Lots of Americans are fatter than me, sadly. But I’m not in good shape and am easily exhausted, often achey, and all to a large degree because of excess adipose tissue and inadequate exercise.
So, New Year’s Day is a time for resolutions. I’m trying my druid mala beads for affirmations on this. Here we go, for posterity:
1. To get half an hour a day of exercise. Not just running up the stairs to go to the toilet or let the dog out.
2. To cultivate joy and happiness in my heart. That is, to recognize that joy is something one makes and draws out of oneself just like love, not something that is merely a response to external stimuli.
3. To ask friends and new acquaintances about their lives and listen to them. This will make me feel better and make others feel better too, and culivate brotherly love.
4. To think more positively through affirmations. I will feel better if I don’t dwell on things I cannot have and accept life as it is.
Well, four is probably enough. Notice I did not include “lose weight.” I think that will come if I exercise more and it isn’t the mass that is the problem, but the lack of muscular strength and energy.
I did start out the new year on a good foot by visiting a Naturopathic doctor who is a friend of Sarah. She uses some very interesting electronic diagnostic equipment on acupressure points to measure responses to substances and to measure deficiencies. It was good and I came home with some homeopathic remedies tailored to my symptoms. However, it was also depressing (probably because of this Celiac episode coming on) to learn that I now should also avoid chocolate and peanut butter and white potatoes because my system is reacting negatively to them. The only bright side is that these factors may change, if we can get the candida out of my system.
My lung-heart chakra area seemed to register most weakly, which confirms a diagnosis I had from an orthobionomy practitioner some years ago, and something I’ve known intuitively. My heart chakra is weak and wounded, blocked and unhappy because my emotional life is so negative and I am so often dissatisfied and sad. Dreams dashed, love lost, unrequited, lack of loving touch too self-centered — and all that.
I am, however, now Master of the Royal Secret, a 32° Mason. The Scottish Rite is really marvelous and I am going to be spending the next year absorbing it, attending the degrees again, and writing about them. The relationship of French/Scottish Masonry to the first three degrees of the blue lodge are also on my mind. One sees the first three degrees (Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason) in a whole new perspective from the vantage point of the 32nd degree.
Of course, as you would expect, I am bound by vows not to tell what goes on in the degrees to anyone who has not been through them. This means that I have to watch my mouth around other brothers who have not been initiated in the Scottish Rite degrees. Even those who have been given the 32nd degree in a one-day course that only communicates the four terminal degrees, cannot be told about the degrees they have not seen. At least technically. All of which is frustrating to me because when one has been through such a transformative experience and is so amazed at the process, method, and content, one naturally wants to share this amazement and excitement. How do you describe it?
Well, here’s what I would say generally, without breaking any vows. The Scottish Rite degrees are mystery play dramas in which the candidate participates (at least vicariously) as one of the characters. The play presents many symbols and many symbolic stories that are designed to explore the idea of virtue and character (and indeed vice). Each degree is a separate dramatic tableau that teaches through allegory and legend, not through exposition. Each degree is accompanied by a more expository lecture, but in all cases in Masonry the interpretation of the symbols and signs is left up to each individual mason. Masonry is thus non-dogmatic in the narrow sense of “dogma” as it has come to be used in the present day. Masonry does not teach you the meaning of what you see and experience, but rather teaches you to think deeply for yourself. It inspires the candidate to look deeply into the symbols and into himself.
It is very intriguing for me to see this process and method at work in Masonry because I was first exposed to it in Druidry through the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Philip Carr-Gomm and his co-creators of the OBOD lessons have consciously or unconsciously followed the same sort of method as Freemasonry, the method of the ancient mystery schools. The main difference is that OBOD uses the Celtic mythos while Freemasonry draws upon the Judeo-Christian Biblical myths and legends, and on comparative religion, examining the symbolic teachings and main ideas of Kabbalistic, Alchemical, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Sufi traditions. The treatment of these other spiritual traditions is superficial or introductory, yet very powerful because of the method of dramatic presentation instead of a more scholarly, historical, or expository approach. One is introduced to these esoteric subjects only to inspire further research if one choses.
In my case, however, the situation was the reverse of that of many of my brothers in the Rite. While they may have never heard of these symbolic systems before, I have spent twenty seven years studying them. I cannot claim to have studied them in great depth, and indeed Zoroastrianism was little known to me except in basic outline and a few terms. But I came to the Scottish Rite degrees and saw things that were familiar and beloved presented in a new way that was alive and exciting to the emotions and the eye. Alchemy and Kaballah brought to life on the stage, as it were. Where else can one go to see such things? Nowhere. Nowhere at all.
I now also understand much more clearly the motivation of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and other magical lodges. They were exposed to Freemasonry and wanted to develop further degrees to explore the details of these systems further. Some wished to explore the Egyptian mythos, others the Hindu, others alchemy, and others discovered still more obscure nooks and crannies of practice, such as the magical systems of John Dee or the Tantric practices of the yogis. The magical lodges wanted to explore the moral and spiritual teachings of “pagan” systems (by which is meant polytheistic) and the practical application of spiritual teachings to self-transformation. That is, they went beyond the Masonic degree system to develop methods for putting Masonic light into practice, such as meditation techniques, rituals focuses on particular outcomes in the aethereal fabric of reality (i.e., “magic”).
Exposed through Masonry to the Egyptian mysteries and then subsequently exposed to the great boom in archaeological and scholarly knowledge about ancient Egypt following the 19th century, a few Western magi took the title of “Magus” seriously and wanted to know more about the practices of the Persian Magi and the Egyptian priests and the Qabalistic mystics and wonder-workers. All of which was followed in the 20th century and into the present century by scholarly interest in the history of magic – uncovering the magical pracices of the Greeks and Romans and speculating about those of the ancient Celts. These coupled with anthropological study of living magical practices such as we find in Australia, Africa, Tibet, India, and among the Shamans. Scholarly study in the exoteric world of academia feeds and is fed by amateur study among modern magi.
As much as I appreciate the Latin term “Magus” I prefer the Anglo-Saxon “Wizard.” The reason is this: Magus derives from the Persian Magi and the little study I have done so far of Zoroastrianism — or Mazdaism — suggests that the Magi to whom the Greeks refer were a rather late priesthood of Mazdaists who had corrupted the original monotheistic teachings into something much more polytheist and dualist. I want to research this further because, of course, the Magi might be getting a bum rep here. They might be misinterpreted, as so many wizards have been, as literally believing something that is actually intended symbolically. I do not wish to react with a knee-jerk negativity to polytheism. I like polytheism. I like gods and goddesses and the more the merrier. The reason, in my case, is that I see divinities as expressions of facets of our lives (inner and outer). They are cultural expressions — which does not mean they are not “real”. On the contrary. It means that we are really linked to our culture. It is in us as we are in it.
The monotheistic God, ineffable and mysterious and all-encompassing, is also necessary for me. I do not think that monotheism and polytheism are mutually exclusive. Those who do think so, are (if you will pardon me saying so) not thinking deeply enough. They are not getting past their own dualistic and cultural conditioning. Thinking deeply means changing the patterns of your mind. The conditioned, habitual ways of thinking, and seeing beyond apparent oppositions or paradoxes. But each person has to come to this point at his or her own speed, through study, meditation, writing, and thinking (also perhaps talking to others, though I have observed this mode of discourse to be largely circular and bound by shared presuppositions).
Anyway, for me there is God and there are many gods and goddesses and it is not necessary to organize them into a hierarchy of angels or claim somebody or other to be the top of the hierarchy. They are gods. They don’t need that sort of organization we humans seem to crave. I am not so sure we even need it. My feminist training in graduate school taught me that you can have a circle of men or women (or both) and pass the talking stick and arrive at consensus diplomatically, peacefully, and without hierarchical leadership. I know that is a hard idea to achieve. But then there is also the model of freemasonry, in which a seemingly strict hierarchy of authority is softened considerably by being a hierarchy that rotates on an annual basis, with officers changing and drawn from a democracy of brothers.
This was the Athenian ideal, it seems to me. Equal citizens serving as officers of the state, each taking his turn, and each giving up power gracefully at the end of the term of office. Of course, that oversimplifies the reality. Inevitably some men want to serve in office and wield power and some do not (women too). The system of equality breaks apart more or less as the few take on leadership roles and the many are content to just follow, or not even vote. Look at the lodge! What a small percentage of our members at Lake Harriet Lodge come to meetings to vote or express an opinion on the lodge’s management and plans, or its members. It is a microcosm of our democracy in America, sad to say.
But divinities are above all that. They are immortal, transcendent, immanent, and powerful beings who can interact in ways that humans cannot image very well. They can know each others hearts. They can cooperate at many levels and play out wholeness even when seemingly in conflict. They are like a human soul — full of contradictions but also whole – or striving for wholeness. And wholeness does not mean homogeneity or hegemony. It does not mean that the ego wins and everyone else in the psyche must retire from the stage. It means that they put on plays together and sometimes take turns being the director. We could not have the capacity for allowing others to direct the play if God Himself did not have that capacity too. Hence free will. And it is free will that produces the pantheons of divinities of the so-called “pagans.”
But, I forgot, I was talking about the Persian Magi and that they may be a late and somewhat politicized priesthood. The line between wizard and priest is a fine one and it is a little like the line between statesman and politician. One is admirable and thinks for himself; the other is part of a pack mentality and thinks only about accumulating and preserving the power of the pack.
On the other end of the etymology of Magus, I don’t like where the word went in modern language as the “magician” became a stage illusionist acceptable only as an entertainer, not someone whose use of theatrical art was intended to move an initiate and transform souls. It is a bit like comparing Greek ritual drama to this summer’s Hollywood blockbuster. Entertainment, as a separate category of business, as a commodity, is in itself not a bad thing, but I don’t like the idea that it has replaced enchantment in our lives and self-transformation through the use of the dramatic arts.
I was thinking the other day, what if one put on a drama based on the soul’s questioning in the Egyptian Book of the Dead? There is the soul, standing next to his mumified body with the Egyptian gods and goddesses all around, questioning him with scores of questions about his behavior in life, weighing his heart against a feather. There is Isis, there is Thoth, there is Osiris and Horus, Ptah, and Nut, Nephthys and Set and all the rest. Wow! Think of how that would be if done in full costume with an Egyptian temple for a stage, reconstructed with all its colors, the actors in animal masks for those deities that have the heads of totem animals, symbolic qualities, rendering them distinctly not human, part of nature.
That very well might have been the purpose of the book of the dead — not as a description of a literal belief in what happens after death, but as an initiatic ritual to cause the soul to question itself and its behavior while it is still alive in the body.
So, I go off into the new year, a Master of the Royal Secret, a Knight of the Rose Cross, and a Knight of the Temple. I start my year as Lodge Education Officer, hoping to explore Masonic light further this year and enlist the greater wisdom and experience of my older brothers in the Craft. Surely they are better equipped than I am to delve into the mysteries? But in any case, I will step in and do that talking and facilitating myself if necessary. I am trained as an educator and finally, after nearly ten years out of it, I have a viable venue to put that training to good use. I hope I don’t just tick everyone off!
Happy New Year,