From left: Master of Ceremonies Rob Morton, R.A. Gilbert, Piers Vaughan and David Lindez.
The trilogy of presentations given Saturday would be possible only at an event hosted by the Rose Circle Research Foundation. Three Rosicrucian scholars, all with international reputations, gathered at one podium to impart three unique perspectives of their common subject.
I'll say at the outset that I am restraining myself from quoting too extensively from these three presentations because the papers will be available to Rose Circle members via the Foundation's website. If you are reading this blog with any specific curiosity, you would benefit from Rose Circle membership.
Piers A. Vaughan spoke brilliantly on Alchemy in relation to the three degrees of Craft Masonry. There probably is not a way to collate all the information pertaining to Piers' work in Freemasonry and other initiatic societies. Here is how one Scottish Rite publication put it:
Bro. Piers Vaughan was initiated in Southwick Lodge No.7058 in England in 1979, and when he moved to the USA he affiliated with St. John’s Lodge No 1 in New York City, where he was Master in 1998. AGL of the First Manhattan District , High Priest of the Ancient Chapter No.1 RAM, Illustrious Master of Columbian Council No.1 Cryptic Masons, and Commander of Morton Commandery No. 4 KT, are just some of the Masonic functions that this Worthy Brother was or still is active in. As a Past Most Wise Master and a Ritual Director of the Chapter of Rose Croix, he greatly improved the standard of proficiency in this Body’s Ritual work and through his extensive knowledge of the Craft, and especially of the Rose Croix Degrees, has increased the understanding of the Rituals, Symbols and Tenets in the Chapters and in the Valley.
With wonderful illustrations projected by PowerPoint, Piers led a tour of sacred sites around the world, from Chartres to the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, with pointed sightseeing of Green Man examples and other depictions of esoteric thought rendered in stone for the understanding of illiterate generations of long ago.
Part of his point is to demonstrate how alchemical images were built into medieval churches, on their walls, their arched entrances, stained glass windows and elsewhere. More than Western sacred spaces, Piers' visit to the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Hong Kong produced a photo of a statue of the newborn Buddha with one hand raised, pointing up, and the other hand lowered, pointing down, as if to say "As above, so below." (The word "gobsmacked" comes to mind, and that's not even a word I'd ever use.) He describes the symbolism chiseled into the multiple arches of the entrance of Notre Dame as "an initiation in itself."
Using additional graphics, Piers reveals direct relationships between alchemical elements and Masonic ritual.
Defining the "puffers" of material alchemy (that is, those who endeavor to transmute metals, like lead into gold) as akin to operative masons transforming raw stone into beautiful structures or adornments, Piers explained that the Master Mason Degree's message of spiritual renewal contains too much alchemical information to be ignored, and he furthermore linked both, thematically, to esoteric Christianity in that all three schools of thought lead to the unification of heaven and earth.
Look to the Gospel of St. Thomas, he reminded us: "Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." (77:2-3)
Other Alchemical-Masonic parallels were identified. To touch on a few:
The Chamber of Reflection awaiting aspirants in traditional Scottish Rite Masonry and other Masonic rites is likened to Alchemy's Calcination phase, the first of seven (boy, does that number come up frequently!) major stages of alchemical transformation. This involves the use of heat – "a gentle heat, not a roaring fire" – to reduce substance to ashes. In psychology, we'd call this a humbling process that deconstructs the ego, liberates the mind from concerns for material wealth, and grants time for introspection.
The Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) and Quadrivium (Geometry, Astronomy, Arithmetic and Music) of the Middle Chamber Lecture parallels Alchemy's act of Conjunction, which is a period of examining higher concepts in steps toward achieving a community with deity.
Of the Middle Chamber Lecture's borrowing of Judges' tale of Jephthah, Piers describes it as the "most transparent" of Alchemical symbols in the Masonic body of degrees, a "fascinating allegory" that uses the Jordan as "a barrier between two states of consciousness."
(Among the papers accessible to Rose Circle members on their website is "The Illustrious Order of the Red Cross" by Piers, which explores this concept in convincing detail.)
But more is required than intellectual understanding, said Piers in conclusion. "All rituals are in vain if they bring only an increase in knowledge. Masonry is nothing more than a hobby when it is not practiced in our daily lives."
I'm going to be especially protective of David Lindez's presentation, a historical look at Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry in the United States, not only because this candidly expressed paper will appear on Rose Circle's website, but also because this never before revealed information will be extrapolated in a book, soon to be published. Furthermore, not being a Masonic Rosicrucian myself, circumspection and common sense demand that I not err by confusing the names and dates of historical import that David shared. Suffice to say that as Grand Archivist of the Masonic Rosicrucians of the United States, Fratre David possesses priceless historical gems (personal journals, correspondence, rare books, etc.) that are among his sources of information.
From left: William H., David, Rob M., and Jonathan C.
If I'm comfortable at all sharing one thrust of his paper, it would be the crucial and indisputable fact that Masonic Rosicrucianism is intended to be more than the literary and research society it is officially known as. Instead, the fratres, of all grades, should be employed in the Great Work of spiritual transformation, as guided by their rituals, ceremonies that illumine the secrets of nature and the will of God.
But I digress.
I believe Piers and David would agree that the star of the conference was R.A. "Bob" Gilbert, another luminary in the field of esoteric education and instruction whose resume runs too long to be published here. Bob's presentation, "Beyond the Image: The Spiritual Reality Behind the Symbol of the Rose and Cross," instructs in a non-dogmatic investigation of what these two timeless symbols can tell us. He began with general information – a definition of "symbol," and a quick sketch of the early history of the Rosicrucian movement, among other points – and gradually worked his way toward the brilliant thesis of his talk, punctuating his message with terrific illustrations.
In fact, it is his visual presentation that will make it difficult to relate the details of his talk. You know a picture is worth a thousand words, so:
Better symbols have "restraint and gravitas" and do not depersonalize Christ. And they "have to work in practice and be practical, or they will not work."
This previously unpublished image comes from a Shaker community in Pennsylvania circa 1890. To me it seems to recall the Tree of Life, but Gilbert was careful to point out that representations created in isolated Christian communities of early America were characterized by the symetry with which they depicted crosses, circles and roses. You'll have to forgive me for not getting a quality photograph of a second image that comes from a Quaker community in Massachusetts, but that image is strikingly similar to this Shaker illustration.
"We shouldn't be surprised by the commonalities," Gilbert explained to a visibly astonished audience. These communities were not in contact, but they had commonality in their respective monastic Protestant cultures. "Both encouraged artistry and spiritual introspection."
The point is "human unity is manifest in a shared hunger for enlightenment."
The capacity crowd in the Chapter Room of the Grand Lodge of New York was evidence of that.
(Actually this photo was shot during the Q&A, by which time dozens of guests had flowed into the hallway to stretch their legs.)