Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tim Wallace-Murphy at Alpha

Dr. Tim Wallace-Murphy is welcomed to Alpha Lodge by Worshipful Master David Lindez. The world renowned scholar visited Saturday night to discuss “Rosslyn Chapel: Reliquary of the Holy Grail.”

The August Order of Alpha Males inducted a new member Saturday night when Dr. Tim Wallace-Murphy of Lodge Robert Burns Initiated No. 1781 in Edinburgh became the latest world renowned scholar to lecture at historic Alpha Lodge No. 116 in East Orange, New Jersey.

(I recently dubbed Alpha the Provincial Grand Lodge of Essex County because it simply surpasses everything else going on in New Jersey Freemasonry in terms of Masonic culture, while not at all forgetting about the basics, the brotherhood, and its relationship to the neighborhood.)

They came from miles away to be at Alpha that night. Masons from New Jersey’s Fifth, 10th, 12th Districts and more; and from Pennsylvania too. We gathered to listen to this prolific author, lecturer and familiar face from documentary films discuss “Rosslyn Chapel: Reliquary of the Holy Grail.”

“I started my spiritual journey 35-36 years ago,” said Wallace-Murphy, prefacing his lecture with some personal background. Fascinated by the books of Trevor Ravenscroft and Joseph Campbell, he was intrigued by the great power that symbols and myths have to conceal hidden wisdom while inspiring seekers to break the codes.

In particular it was the Holy Grail that first drew him in.

“My first literary collaborator, the late Trevor Ravenscroft, composed his masterwork, “The Cup of Destiny,” to reveal to the younger generation that the Grail romances reveal, within their drama and symbolism, signposts to a unique path of initiation: the true teaching of Jesus,” he explained. “He was not alone in this conclusion, for one of the world’s leading mythologists, the late Professor Joseph Campbell, writing of the importance of the Grail, cites a passage from the Gospel of Thomas: “He who drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I shall be he.”

“Campbell came to the conclusion that this represented the ultimate form of enlightenment that can arise from a successful Grail quest. Thus the Grail quest is not what it seems, for there is a hidden agenda designed to conceal a heretical truth from the prying eyes of the clergy,” he continued. “The original Grail sagas of Chrétien (de Troyes) and Wolfram (von Eschenbach) are coded guides to initiation.”

Which leads us to Rosslyn Chapel, the enigmatic structure Wallace-Murphy credits with being the reliquary of this inspired initiatic heritage.

“The care and precision that went into the construction of the chapel fall into a category of what we would now call ‘quality assurance,’ ” said Wallace-Murphy. “Every carving and every decoration was first made of wood, and then shown to William (St. Clair).” They then were carved in stone and placed where he directed. Earl William St. Clair was the builder of Rosslyn Chapel and the last Sinclair Earl of Orkney.

Our speaker, using PowerPoint, lead a tour of the amazing site.

The Exterior

There are many flying buttresses of the Gothic order of architecture, but they are not weight-bearing. On the East Wall is found a bust of Mercury, “the first of many anomalies we’ll come across.” The West Wall he said was originally meant to be an inside wall, but the building was never completed; work on the site ceased upon the death of William St. Clair in 1482. In a window on the South Wall is carved a Knight Templar leading a blindfolded man by a rope about his neck.

The roof, made of solid stone, is divided into five sections, one of which displays what Wallace-Murphy said is a “profusion of five-pointed stars,” another sign denoting the Chapel’s relevance to the Knights Templar.

The Interior

“The inside is superbly carved,” he said. “Profuse, with very intricate carving at eye-level and above. A symphony of carved spirituality!” There are Zoroastrian and ancient Egyptian symbols. “Every form of spirituality known in the 15th century, but this is supposedly a Christian church.”

The Apprentice Pillar – The master mason, having received from his patron the model of a pillar of exquisite workmanship and design, hesitated to carry it out until he had been to Rome, or some such foreign part, and seen the original. He went abroad, and in his absence an apprentice, having dreamed the finished pillar, at once set to work and carried out the design as it now stands, a perfect marvel of workmanship. The master mason on his return was so stung with envy that he asked who had dared to do it in his absence. On being told it was his own apprentice, he was so inflamed with rage and passion that he struck him with his mallet, killed him on the spot, and paid the penalty for his rash and cruel act.

(Source: “An Illustrated Guide to Rosslyn Chapel” by Tim Wallace-Murphy. Photo from “Cracking the Symbol Code” by Tim Wallace-Murphy.)

The Apprentice himself, Wallace-Murphy explained, is seen in the southwest corner of the clerestory wall, his gaze directed downward at the Master Masons Pillar. Relating a fascinating anecdote, he told of how a colleague laboring in the restoration of the Chapel had discovered that this Apprentice once had a beard. “Apprentices in the 15th century were not allowed to have beards,” he added. An esoteric clue lies therein.

Other aspects of the Apprentice Pillar include its allusions to the Tree of Life; the musicians playing medieval instruments; and what is called the Stafford Knot, a pretzel-shaped configuration that Wallace-Murphy said is a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Bro. Wallace-Murphy discussed many symbols found built into the architecture of Rosslyn Chapel, varying from Green Man depictions to symbols of the Deadly Sins and Cardinal Virtues to carvings of maize, lilies and rosettes. The Magpie Mason strongly recommends his books for detailed description and analysis of these and more. But one aspect he did discuss in detail that I ought to share concerns the Templar symbolism, which is the crux of his theory of initiatic intent in the design of the Chapel.

There are “five diagnostic elements” embedded in Rosslyn Chapel, he explained.

The Agnus Dei, or Paschal Lamb – the seal of the medieval order of Knights Templar that in this instance has carved into it a pair of hands drawing back a veil, all but exclaiming a sense of esoterica revealed. In addition, an angel in the south aisle is carved holding a Sinclair shield, with another pair of hands pulling back a curtain.

The Engrailed Cross of the Sinclairs – depicted throughout the main chapel is what Wallace-Murphy called the Croix Pattée: a Knight Templar cross converted into the Gnostic Gross of Universal Knowledge.

The burial stone of Sir William de Sinncler, Grand Prior of the Templar order who, according to legend, had commanded the Templars in their intervention on Scotland’s behalf at Bannockburn.

“Commit thy work to God” – is the St. Clair family motto, which the author likened to that of the Templars: “Not to our name Lord. Not to our name, but to Yours be all the glory.”

The heraldic colors of the St. Clair family – are argent and sable, the same color scheme of the Beausant, the battle flag of the Templar order.

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As regards the medieval Knights Templar and their alleged role in the history of Scotland and as forefathers of Freemasonry, the Magpie Mason stands comfortably in the Cooper camp. It makes for a far less romantic story, but the trail of facts into Masonic origins does lead to the builders of the great cathedrals. The rival theory of Freemasonry descending from the Templars is very exciting, has sold many books, and is entirely speculative. But on interpretations of the countless symbols carved and placed throughout Rosslyn Chapel, I’m open to informed opinion and very much enjoy reading the research of those who actually study this enigmatic site, using their training in religion and mythology to translate what they see. In Freemasonry, there are tangible facts, but there also are the intangibles that spark curiosity and ought to mark common ground on which academics and ordinary thinkers like myself can build together. Bro. Tim Wallace-Murphy’s books are accessible to all, and intentionally so. He knows his material thoroughly and presents his theses in language and style that can bring together the most orthodox of Quatuor Coronati disciples and the undecided seeker beginning his journey.

That embodies the ultimate goal of the Masonic lodge.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

‘Hamlet Rhythm’


The Unterberg Poetry Center’s 2008-09 season continues at the 92nd Street Y, its Reading Series last night offering an insightful and colorful exploration of “Hamlet.”

The panel consisted of five highly informed representatives of the Theatre For a New Audience:

Cicely Berry is the Voice Director of the RSC for the past 40 years who holds the O.B.E. for services to theatrical arts.

Alyssa Bresnahan is Gertrude in TFANA’s current production of “Hamlet,” and whose presence justifies the repeal of the photography ban at these performances. She is a veteran of “Macbeth,” “Heartbreak House,” “Streetcar” and other Williams’ dramas, “Antigone,” and more. You may recognize her from the film “The Wrestler.”

Christian Camargo is Hamlet in TFANA’s production. Past Shakespearean work include “Coriolanus” at TFANA, and “Henry V” at Shakespeare’s Globe and again for Shakespeare in the Park. Masonic movie-goers may recognize him from “National Treasure 2.”

Director David Esbjornson has done “Much Ado About Nothing” for Shakespeare in the Park, and many other productions, including two premier Arthur Miller plays. His longstanding relationship with Edward Albee includes his direction of that playwright’s Tony-winning “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” on Broadway, as well as “The Play About the Baby” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

TFANA Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz founded TFANA 30 years ago, and since has produced Shakespearean, Greek, Jacobean and Italian classical drama, and numerous modern works. He also serves on the advisory board of the Shakespeare Society, and is part of the directorate of the Globe Theater in London. He is a recipient of the John Houseman Award from The Acting Company.

With credentials evidently in order, the group treated its audience to 90 minutes of readings from The Bard’s ultimate Revenge Tragedy, with much well informed commentary on why this play is Shakespeare’s most quoted, best remembered play. The initiated ear can understand; indeed there is much a Freemason can learn from these experts. Let’s not forget one of the most enduring phrases of Masonic ritual is borrowed directly from this play.

Freemasonry, whose highly literate rituals gradually compel its initiates to eschatological understandings, had to borrow from Hamlet’s timeless soliloquy to condense thousands of words of instructive prose:

“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns...”

(Bro. Jeffery Marshall expands on this here.)

For starters, I wish there was a way to put Ms. Berry in charge of every Lodge of Instruction. She, more than any Freemason I’ve ever met, understands how memorized language can be robbed of its value. “We speak in order to survive, and we’re at risk of losing the feeling,” she said, explaining that the speaker’s over familiarity with the written material can be detrimental to the comprehension of the listener. “In Shakespeare’s time, only 8 percent of the people were literate. They were innocent when they heard the play, and they relied on the sound of the language.”

Actor Camargo concurred. “You can just ride the language,” he said. “You can allow the language to just carry you through the scenes.”

There is an “energy” that guides you, he added. “It’s esoteric or Buddhist! There is this element of ‘what is.’ You accept ‘what is.’ ”

We are so used to sets and to looking at things that we can lose the language, Berry continued. She then told of a Shakespeare production in which she was employed in China. The play was spoken in Mandarin, and yet her ear allowed her to catch poignant moments in the delivery despite the language barrier.

“When we still have an ear for sound, we can laugh (at Shakespeare’s wit) without fully understanding the comedy,” Berry added, before recounting an experience with Scottish comedian Johnny Beattie. “He was knocked out by the Fool in ‘Lear.’ He found something primal in the rhythm.”

Depending on the production, a “Hamlet” can run longer than three hours. The TFANA version reaches the three-hour mark, broken into three parts with two intermissions. “This gives the audience a chance to breathe,” explained Director Esbjornson. “We break at the right moments.”

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The Hamlet character is often mischaracterized as the ultimate procrastinator for his delays in confronting the duty charged him by his father’s ghost: to avenge his regicide by killing Claudius. (It is an unjust assessment of the character, considering the many actions he undertook, displaying uncommon cunning and bravery: his questioning the Ghost; his feigning insanity; breaking up with Ophelia; testing the Ghost’s veracity; killing the eavesdropper; stealing the dispatches and forging their substitutes; and fighting the pirates before winning them over. Not too shabby for a teenager.)

At the end of Act III, Scene 3 comes a moment that ought to arouse the empathy of all Masons. This is the famous Prayer Scene, when Hamlet finds a choice opportunity to slay his uncle in this moment of unguarded helplessness, and yet he declines, surmising that anyone killed during prayer is guaranteed an eternity in heaven. He is unaware that Claudius is not actually praying; the king has enough sense to know his fratricidal crime recalls Cain and Abel, rendering any entreaty to deity a folly.

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.

No Mason would need prompting to see the contrast of this prayer to that of GMHA in the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Operative Grand Master received no such spiritual regard from the Ruffians. This gives Masons a tidy comparison of assailants: Consider Claudius the regicide, in voicing his lament, expressing much of the same shame that gripped the Ruffians, and doing so within earshot of one intending to bring him to justice.

“Hamlet” also is one of Shakespeare’s plays that explicitly mentions masons. From Act V, Scene 1:

First Clown
What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?

Second Clown
The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.

First Clown
I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows does well; but how does it well? It does well to those that do in: now thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to thee. To’t again, come.

Second Clown
“Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?”

First Clown
Ay, tell me that, and unyoke.

Second Clown
Marry, now I can tell.

First Clown

Second Clown
Mass, I cannot tell.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

‘An evening at Hiram-Takoma’

RW Rashied Sharrieff-Al-Bey speaks to Hiram-Takoma Lodge No. 10
on Feb. 12 on the subject of ‘Symbolic Interactionism.’

Also during Masonic Week (and on Lincoln’s birthday) but not part of the Masonic Week schedule, was the stated meeting of Hiram-Takoma Lodge No. 10, under the Grand Lodge of Washington, DC. Not just any regular communication of the lodge, but a combination of guest speaker RW Rashied Sharrieff-Al-Bey from Cornerstone Lodge No. 37 of MW Prince Hall GL of New York, and the lodge’s Valentine’s Day thank you to the brethren’s ladies. Needless to say, expectations were high among those of us who wondered how Bro. Rashied would craft remarks not only appropriate for a program open to family and friends, but also keeping in tune with the quickly approaching Valentine’s Day.

Pffffffft! No problem. It’s Rashied!

Delivering a talk and PowerPoint presentation titled “Symbolic Interactionism,” our speaker, himself a student of organizational behavior working toward his Master’s Degree and part of the management team at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, deftly segued from the concept of communicating in symbols, to some of the specifics of Masonic symbols, to the key to understanding why men and women just don’t speak the same language. And he did so with the confidence and humor that the Magpie Mason envies in public speakers.

As usual my notes are a mess so I can’t quote him verbatim (but I don’t feel too bad because he snafu’d his own recording device!), but to summarize his thesis: A person can say exactly what he means with perfect clarity, but the point is to be understood, and even when ideas seem to be at opposites, there still is a relationship. “There is thesis, and antithesis, and somewhere in the middle is synthesis.”

In our relationships we are forever communicating and sharing, and not always in spoken words. Every message requires translation, interpretation, and extrapolation, from which we make inferences and act on those inferences.

A masterful speaker who illustrates his main points with personal anecdotes, Rashied told of his son and daughter-in-law: the former a Muslim, and the latter a Roman Catholic from Panama. “He can’t speak Spanish, and she can’t speak English, but there’s communication.”

Justin, Reed, Glen, and a local visitor enjoy the program.

Tapping into Masonic symbols, the Beehive and the Pomegranates, he showed that their symbolic values are not idiomatic to Masonic teachings – most of the ladies and other non-Masons present acknowledged an understanding of the Beehive representing industry and the Pomegranates exhibiting bounty – but that their usefulness in Masonic instruction is apt and offers layers of meaning.

Demonstrating just how many layers of interpretation can be peeled back in simple communication, Bro. Rashied produced a pack of standard playing cards. He asked Worshipful Master Marcel to choose one. To divine the identity of that card, Rashied investigated by inquiry. Not direct questioning to get to the point, but a process of investigation to arrive at a common answer.

Is the card red or black? Is it Diamonds or Hearts? Is it a number card or a face card? Is it a high number or a low number? In short order, he determined that Marcel’s card was in fact the Three of Hearts.

To better – well, frankly to best – explain why it is so crucial for those who think and speak directly (men) and those who think and speak in, ah, complexity, Rashied put onto the screen a graphic borrowed from a brilliant McCann Erickson campaign for Goldstar Beer:

Man asks Woman out for a drink. Man’s flowchart efficiently outlines what he wants.

Woman is game for the same things, but with an exuberance of elaborate considerations planted like so many seeds in her mind.

(“Thank God you’re a man,” goes the slogan for this Israeli brew, which I’m fairly certain comes from Leviticus.)

The question we have, said Rashied in conclusion, is how do we best achieve harmony and reconcile differences?

Whether in marriage or in Masonry, Magpie readers, some things never change!

The Worshipful Master then led his brethren in a ritual that probably is not worked enough: a heartfelt ceremonial thank you to their ladies for supporting them while they spend so much time on their Masonic labors. Roses, balloons and kisses were among the wages paid to the women who ultimately make it all happen.

The Worshipful Master makes the introductions.
Worshipful Master Marcel Desroches
on different points of fellowship with his Grand Master.
The Ritual Instructor ensures the floorwork is correct as Junior Deacon Fred plants one on the missus.

The Bat Signal towers over historic Takoma Park in DC.

Agent Reed keeps paparazzi a distance
from the Past Grand Masters.
A rare historic artifact on display at the lodge: a beer bottle emptied by Benjamin Franklin himself!

Friday, March 6, 2009

‘At the House of the Temple’

The altar in Supreme Council’s Temple Room room displays multiple VSLs. Made of black and gold marble, engraved into the front are the Hebrew letters that read: “God said, ‘Let there be Light’ and there was Light.”

Before another month passes, I had better resume Magpie coverage of Masonic Week 2009, but first a stop at the House of the Temple in Washington, DC. During a tour nearly two hours long, thanks to the indulgence of our guide, the Magpie Mason shot more than 100 photos. Herewith I share some of my favorites:

Bro. Jim, docent Kendall, and Grand Commander Ron.

Architect John Russell Pope’s columns.
I swear there was a dog outside
that was almost as big as this sphinx. Ask Jim!
You know they had to work 33 into the street address.

On the bicentennial of President Lincoln’s birthday, Bro. Jim Dillman of Logan Lodge in Indianapolis – a Board member of The Masonic Society, by the way – and I visited the headquarters of the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction. This is the home of the “Mother Supreme Council,” the governing body of Scottish Rite that was established in Charleston, South Carolina on May 31, 1801.

In preparation for the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the House of the Temple’s Library Reading Room displayed numerous images and books highlighting the 16th president. This statue caught my eye because it is a miniature of a famous statue very near Magpie headquarters. Sculpted by Bro. Gutzon Borglum, of Mt. Rushmore fame, it stands – or maybe sits – in Newark behind the old Essex County Courthouse.

The marvelous sites within this landmark structure truly are too numerous to list. Every Freemason, whether a Scottish Rite Mason or not, who visits DC should make some time to tour the House of the Temple. The architecture, statuary, stained glass, countless museum exhibits and stunning library demand hours of your attention. Hang around long enough and you’ll bump into Sovereign Grand Commander Ronald Seale or Brent Morris, the managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal.

The East of the smaller (not subterranean) Supreme Council meeting room.
In the Temple Room.

There are many likenesses of Albert Pike in the House of the Temple. Left: a bust overlooks the Grand Staircase. Right: a Classical interpretation.

Above the staircase bust is the inscription: “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us: What we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”

These are found in the Albert Pike Museum on the Ground Floor.

I'm sorry to say this photo fails to capture the effect of this beam of light entering the Grand Staircase. It was sublime.

Some of Pike’s A&ASR regalia.

A frequent chess player and occasional pipe smoker myself, I couldn’t help but notice these personal items owned by Albert Pike.

Aprons on exhibit.
Above: Master Mason.
Below: Rose Croix.

The Egyptian style statues at the foot of the Grand Staircase are representative of guards to a portal or entrance. Each is carved from a solid piece of marble quarried on the shores of Lake Champlain in New York state. Each statue carries a hieroglyphic inscription. Freely translated by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, they read: “Established to the Glory of God” and “Dedicated to the teaching of wisdom to those men working to make a strong nation.”
(Caption courtesy of House of the Temple.)

Above: A wall in the Library Reading Room.
Below: Part of Pike’s personal library collection.

This is about 25 percent of the Robert Burns collection.

Here is a collection of fountain pens once owned by Bro. Maurice Thatcher. (Yes, I sent a JPG to Cliff.) This gavel is made of pine once part of the White House, discarded during the reconstruction of the Executive Mansion after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812.

Left: stained glass. Right: Hermes appears frequently in fixtures about the building.

Under glass, a copy of Anderson’s Constitutions.

Back when America had folk music, Bro. Burl Ives was a popular voice. Ives was a friend of Manly P. Hall and was well known about the apartments of Scottish Rite Masonry in California.

The Burl Ives Collection is surprisingly large!