Friday, May 21, 2010

‘Men will always differ’


The Magpie Mason has mixed feelings about a really spectacular event that took place last Saturday. New Jersey Scottish Rite Masonry conferred the 23° (Knight of Valor) aboard the USS New Jersey, which is permanently docked on the Delaware River at Camden where it serves as a museum and tourist destination.

The battleship is great. I suggest you visit if you can. Even if military history or culture isn’t your thing, it is impossible to fail to appreciate this ship for the engineering and industry its existence embodies. It is a wonder of human achievement. That it traveled the globe, blasting the hell out of enemies of human liberty for generations, inspires even more reverence.

But on the other hand there is this “degree.” Titled Knight of Valor, the 23° is perhaps the best example of what the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s Committee on Ritualistic Matters has been doing to the body of Scottish Rite rituals in recent decades. That is, there has been an obvious retreat from spiritual and philosophical work in favor of “degrees” that really are only plays. They are one-dimensional dramas that tell stories an average informed man already should know.

The story unfolded in the Knight of Valor Degree, if you do not know, is based on the true life story of four U.S. Army chaplains who perished aboard the USAT Dorchester in 1943. It was an Army transport ship taking 900 soldiers to the European Theater when a U-Boat attacked it with three torpedoes, sinking it. Nearly 700 men perished.

As the ship sank, the four chaplains – a Catholic priest, two Protestant ministers, and one rabbi – gave their lifejackets to others, locked their arms together, prayed in their respective ways, and went down with the ship. The act was one of those supernatural sacrifices that helped the American people sustain their war effort until unconditional surrenders were dictated to the Axis powers, and it has been memorialized by a variety of military, civic, and religious expressions of thankful awe.

This history must never be forgotten. Fathers should tell their young sons about it for as long as there is a United States. I just don’t agree that it truly has a place among the degrees of Scottish Rite Masonry.

The corpus of AASR teachings has included alchemical, Biblical, hermetic, Masonic, Rosicrucian, and other multifaceted, deeply textured modes of instruction intended to nourish heart, mind, and soul. While grips, signs, and words can be imparted face-to-face during a single encounter, the secret teachings those tokens represent should inspire a Mason to work hard all his life to reform his attitude, values, and behavior.

Like the histories and legends of Benedict Arnold’s treason, Joseph Brant’s mercy, and Lewis Armistead’s conscience, the Four Chaplains’ story should be known and understood by Masons and everybody else as part of proper citizenship and true patriotism. Frankly, these are stories that a man should comprehend before he is initiated into the First Degree. It is not the job of Freemasonry to teach these basic lessons, let alone make them the highlights of its system of High Degrees.

There are changes that have been made to Scottish Rite degrees in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction that are even more serious.

Six years ago, the Knight Kadosh Degree was eliminated. Not rewritten, but discontinued because it allegedly “no longer expresses a meaningful message to Scottish Rite Masons.” There was a time when Kadosh was the Ne Plus Ultra degree of Scottish Rite Masonry, but instead of making it comprehensible to modern men, it was eliminated. For a similar reason, the word Shekinah was excised from the rituals a few years ago. What is Shekinah? To Jews it is a manifestation of God. When anthropomorphism is unseemly, the term Shekinah is invoked either as a term for deity itself, or to be understood as a manifestation of deity come to dwell among men. Theologically, the word has very deep meaning and purpose, and I certainly am not qualified to relate all that. Suffice to say that without Shekinah, there is less need for Solomon to build the Temple, and naturally without King Solomon’s Temple, Freemasonry would have very different rituals and mythos... if Masonry would exist at all.

But of course my point is Freemasonry is voluntarily adopting very different rituals and mythos.

“The things that unite us are far more fundamental than those that divide us. We can never hope to have absolute uniformity in belief. Men will always differ as long as men think. This difference need not lead to hatred or ill will or the shedding of blood. Let us respect each other, enrich each other and look for the best in each other. Let Christians be truly Christians and Jews truly Jewish, and let the good and the noble of both faiths unite for the realization of common ideals and aspirations for the glory of God and the redemption of humanity.”

Rabbi Lt. Alexander Goode, U.S. Army
as characterized in the Knight of Valor Degree

There is a tightrope that I want to walk. What happened last Saturday aboard the battleship meant a lot to the brethren who were there. A tiny group of Masons labored diligently for months to conceive and execute the plans for the day. There were others who had personal connections to the ship. One brother from Ohio had served aboard BB-62. Another from Maine had sailed on the New Jersey to Pearl Harbor for its christening. And then there is the namesake of my valley’s class of initiates: Ill. Peter Skerchock, 33° is a retired captain in the U.S. Navy. He skippered a PT Boat during the war, exhibiting a penchant for machine gunning the crap out of Japanese ships. He turned 86 on Sunday.

I think one would have to be a heartless automaton to impatiently or blithely dismiss what happened on the ship on Saturday – one who can’t see the forest for the trees – and I do not want to be that guy. Brethren traveled from all over the eastern United States (and maybe elsewhere) to be in community and taste the air of history; in short, to be part of something larger than their individual selves. My concern is for this Scottish Rite jurisdiction’s increasing reliance on simplification as a means of reaching men in the 21st century. I understand that people today do not have the same grasp on matters allegorical, theological and philosophical as did our great-grandparents, a depth of understanding that is crucial to assimilating into what I term “traditional Scottish Rite Masonry.” But I cannot agree that abandoning so many fundamental elements will serve the AASR well. As the degrees become plays that require little, if any, introspection and meditation, we will continue to see the membership become less attentive and dedicated.

I hope it doesn’t sink us.

1 comment:

Anon_e_mouse said...

Well put, Jay. While I was unable to attend the degree on the battleship, as a Scottish Rite Mason (Southern Jurisdiction) I share your concern about the changes that the Northern Jurisdiction has made in the Rite and its impact on Masonry in general. In particular I lament the loss of the 30th degree in the Northern rite, because that degree means a great deal to me: I was the active candidate at the Spring reunion of the Valley of Raleigh, North Carolina in 1983 and served as Degree Master of the first three sections, beginning that fall, for the next dozen years or so under the guidance of Earle R. Purser, 33˚.

We need to teach our newer brethren more, not less.