The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Another Visit to the Scottish Rite Valley of Guthrie

I am a member of the Scottish Rite. I knew I wanted to be a Scottish Rite Mason before I became a Mason. The reputation of the Scottish Rite as the University of Freemasonry extends into the profane world, and a person who might know nothing else about Freemasonry knows what the 33° represents, and that a man who has earned the 33° is worthy of respect. When my father heard that I had earned the 32° six months after I took my Entered Apprentice degree, he told me that the Fraternity must have been profoundly impressed with me to have given me such a high honor so quickly. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I took a one-day class, and had only taken six of the 29 degrees under the Scottish Rite's jurisdiction.

I joined the Scottish Rite in the Valley of Boston, Massachusetts. I took the 4° (Secret Master), 14° (Grand Elect Mason), 16° (Prince of Jerusalem), 18° (Knight Rose-Croix), 21° (Prussian Knight), and 32° (Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret) in a full day. The Scottish Rite degrees are theatrical, and I was not an exemplar in any of them. They are performed in a theater, by actors on a stage, and in many of the degrees, a candidate, called an exemplar, is selected from the class of candidates and brought onto the stage to be part of the drama. I was given a passport with a page for each of the 29 degrees, and the six degrees I observed were stamped and dated in my passport. Years later, I still have not filled more than half of the pages in my passport. Many degrees are difficult to perform, and the rituals of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction change often, so it is difficult to observe all the degrees without years of hunting down the more obscure degrees. Boston will perform the 17° (Knight of the East and West) degree for the first time in many years this April, and we anticipate a very large turnout to see this rare degree.

In the Southern Jurisdiction, the degrees are arranged in story arcs, sometimes forming a single narrative, but more often in thematic blocs. The choice of the arrangement of the degrees is very deliberate, and is designed to initiate and instruct the candidate in a particular way, revealing many subtle concepts in a precise order to maximize the effect it has on the candidate. So the Southern Jurisdiction degrees, which come from Albert Pike, the most influential Sovereign Grand Commander in their history. He intended the degrees to form a complete system, and they do.

Because of this, the Scottish Rite Masons in the Southern Jurisdiction study their degrees long after they have first taken them, in order to sound the depths of what they have experienced. Because the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction degrees are more individuated, and change often, fewer people study their degrees, and it is harder to do so even if more people did. Books on the degrees would be obsoleted very quickly, and so the South is at an advantage when it comes to Scottish Rite Masonic education.

Learning this, I became a student of the Southern Jurisdiction degrees, even though my mother Jurisdiction is Northern. I took a correspondence course through the House of the Temple, called the Master Craftsman program, and completed it six months later. I then took a course through the Valley of Guthrie, Oklahoma, called the College of the Consistory, which is far more in depth. There is a 1500 word essay required for each of the 29 degrees, with a minimum completion time of five years, although I am not aware that anyone has yet completed the course in its entirety.

It was as a student of the College of the Consistory that I was invited by my instructors to visit Guthrie, Oklahoma, and see the all of the degrees performed over a three-day weekend. I talked a few friends into joining me, and last year, we arrived and observed all 29 degrees in a marathon session over several days. Very few Valleys perform all the degrees, and still fewer do so every year. It is an astonishingly difficult task. Over four hundred men work on the degrees, including actors, costumers, make-up artists, set designers, musicians, and set crew. There are innkeepers who manage the hundreds of beds where the brethren stay, there are men managing the shops that sell books, regalia, gifts, and a snack bar, there are service groups that manage the registration of the hundreds of Scottish Rite Masons who visit, educators who instruct the candidates, and many more people who work very hard to put on 29 excellent performances over the three-day weekend.

Guthrie has become the Alexandria of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, and Scottish Rite Masons from all over the USA visit every Spring, along with some foreign Scottish Rite Masons as well. It is not unusual to meet in Guthrie men who have seen all the degrees in succession a dozen times or more. The level of Masonic knowledge, scholarship, understanding and wisdom is unparalleled anywhere else. It was my great honor after my first visit to be made a member of the Valley of Guthrie, and I wear my membership badge with deep pride. I say this with all due love and respect for the Valley of Boston, but the two organizations are providing different experiences, and neither would presume to deliver what the other one does so well.

This year, I brought five new brothers from the Valley of Boston with me so that they could experience the degrees for themselves. Brethren attended from 19 different US States, 24 arriving from the Valley of Pasadena, California alone. I made such good friends on my last visit, and we have stayed in touch via phone, email and Facebook, so it was very easy to pick things up where we left off last year, and my friends from Boston found it just as easy to make friends as I did, and we made a lot of new friends this year as well.

In the basement of the Scottish Rite Temple at Guthrie is a smoking room, and on a given evening after the degree work is done, it is not unusual to see a group of brethren, in leather chairs and sofas, with cigars in hand, discussing together some subtle point in William Preston's ritual, or in the writings of Albert Pike, or in the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, or the theology of Origen. Or telling a hilarious story of something funny that happened to them over the last year. There is a lot of philosophy and a lot of laughter in the smoking room. Things I discussed last year gnawed at me all year, and I was very pleased to have, in a year of study since, some answers to the questions generated by last year's conversations. And it is ironic that I came home last night with an entirely new set of questions to ponder for another year.

This year, there were roughly fifty candidates. The candidates are required to attend every one of the 29 degrees offered, and attendance is taken before every degree. The result is a marathon experience that they never forget. There was candidate education, member education, and meditation classes in the mornings and during the lunch breaks and in the evenings. The most venerable and distinguished scholars in the Valley stayed around after the degree work each night to take questions from the brethren about anything in the degree work, and whatever could be gleaned about their deeper meanings.

Leaving the Temple after the degree work has ended is like the last day of summer camp. Brothers exchange contact information and stay in touch over the year, eager to be re-united the following Spring.

Men have sold all their possessions, and journeyed to the remotest parts of Tibet or Samarkand or Timbuktu in search of knowledge and wisdom. They have devoted years of study and meditation in remote monasteries and ashrams, or in universities. Pythagoras traveled to Asia, Africa, and Europe, and was initiated into several orders of priesthood. How much simpler it is to persuade one's employers to let him take Thursday and Friday off and travel to Oklahoma (and if he is truly wise, the following Monday to decompress). There is a renaissance in Freemasonry, and there are places where the Craft zings and hums with zeal and fervency and penetrating Masonic light. It is only fitting that we travel to where the light shines brightest, and bring home with us what light we can bear and convey.


  1. Great post Brother. I'd love to publish this in Living Stones Masonic Magazine...the hard copy monthly masonic magazine for Freemasons. Let me know if you're interested.

    Robert Herd~ Grand Orator/CO

  2. I would be honored. It might need some gentle copy editing beforehand.

  3. O my...just an absolutely inspiring read...Bravo...
    Sotoyome-Curtis 123 - Santa Rosa Valley - AASR-SJ