The Scottish Rite degrees of the Lodge of Perfection span the fourth to fourteenth degrees. If we boil these degrees down, they are the continuation and completion of the Scottish Rite craft ritual as well as the discovering of the word that was lost. The degrees take us through a moral pathway of lessons where we are taught that we are ultimately responsible for ourselves and our own actions. And, we learn that we must act in certain ways if we are to expect positive results. This paper is not, however, intended to focus on the actual degrees of the Lodge of Perfection or a commentary of its philosophy which can be read in many of the books on this subject. I wanted to take a bit of a different direction with this paper and focus on an aspect that is often ignored, but is an important part of the philosophy; the consequences of the quest for perfection.
We are taught that Freemasonry is a moral organization which takes good men and makes them better. We must choose to join and then advance by degrees. The suggestion here is that, step by step, we grow and become better (however that is defined). This is an important aspect of all moral philosophies because while change is inevitable, positive change, or growth, is our choice. We don’t have to do anything that we choose not to do. If desired, we must choose the Masonic path. If Masons, or in this case, Scottish Rite Masons, are given the proper tools, they can use them to make the conscious decision to improve themselves when they do change.
In this case, we may forget that we are using the specific word perfection. What do we mean by that word? Very few humans will claim to be perfect and if they do they are normally discounted as delusional. The quest for perfection can sometimes be misunderstood. If we are thinking that we are striving to a final goal of actual perfection, then we can expect to live a very frustrating life. We will never reach such a goal. No human can expect to make perfection out of his life. The most that we can hope for is to make positive changes until our last day on Earth.
Throughout history many societies have pondered the idea of the quest for perfection. There is an old symbolic legend from the Orient which might be considered. The story is of a Buddhist monk by the name of Kobo Daishi. We learn that Kobo was an artist of great renown. His talent and the beauty of his work was known throughout the land. One day Kobo was asked by village leaders to create a dragon to be placed on the arch of a newly built temple. Kobo accepted the task. As the dragon was being carved, villagers would come to watch the master at work, marveling at the beauty coming from the large piece of stone. As the work progressed, crowds began to gather to witness the transformation of the raw stone at the hands of Kobo. As the dragon was near completion, the whole village was there watching the incredible work being done. The dragon was magnificent. No one had ever seen a more beautiful or life-like statue. When Kobo hit the very last strike on the statue, everyone knew that they were looking at perfection. It was then that something completely unexpected and terrifying happened. The dragon began to move. It was coming to life. The expressions of delight on the faces of the crowd were replaced by shock and fear. As the dragon began to move its head and wings, the villagers began to run in terror. The story tells us that when the Heavens saw the dragon and realized that it was perfect, the dragon was given life. Kobo, realizing what was happening, rushed down to the base of the statue where a bucket of paint had been placed and flung it up on the dragon. As soon as the paint hit the dragon it froze and returned to stone. It was no longer perfect. And there dragon remained for some five hundred years as a stone statue on the arch of the temple. Inside this story there is a lesson offered to us. We are taught that there are consequences for perfection or, at least, the quest for perfection. And, the consequences are not always what we expect.
A painted silk portrait of Kukai or Kobo Daishi (774-835 CE). 14th century CE. (Tokyo National Museum)
In another Oriental story, we are told of a group of artists and musicians who called themselves “The Cult of Imperfection.” The reason why this group called themselves such a name was because in every piece of art or music created by the members of this group some flaw or imperfection was deliberately incorporated. The flaws were placed in their work was because they felt it was a display of audacity for anyone to try and create something perfect. They knew it could not be done, but to even try was an unthinkable act of ego. How dare anyone seek perfection! They knew that any such attempt could result in consequences which might be very unpleasant. So, their answer to the problem, and show of humility, was to create work with designed flaws.
Now, if we look at Freemasonry, we learn in the craft degrees the importance of improving yourself. The first collection of degrees in the Scottish Rite beyond the craft lodge is known as the Lodge of Perfection. But is the suggestion that we are really seeking perfection? One of the things we have to learn about all of Masonry is that we teach in symbolism. We often find that our symbolic manner of instruction presents lessons on top of lessons. We can, of course, seek only the outer levels and that’s all that we will find. But by digging deeper into the lessons we can find so very much more.
I believe that the Scottish Rite presents us with a good example of the duality of Freemasonry. One suggestion is that this concept is outwardly represented by the double-headed eagle, or, as I believe it originally, the double-headed phoenix. The thought is that the double-headed eagle (or phoenix) represents the two parts of the Scottish Rite — the organization and the philosophy. The two parts operate independently of each other, but are tied together by their roles. The philosophy remains constant and unchanged. It is the actual nature of the Scottish Rite. The organization is the human participation in and application of the philosophy. Problems begin when the two heads are out of sync. If there is a change or a movement in the organization away from the philosophy then things begin to deteriorate. But is a move away from the philosophy unnatural or a preplanned and natural part of the cycle of nature?
In nature we have four seasons. Some view these seasons as aspects of human life. Spring represents birth. Summer represents learning or growing. Fall represents passing on what we have learned to others and Winter represents death. But then the cycle in nature begins again with another Spring. In nature, this calls in the rebirth of trees, flowers and the beauty of the Earth. Some view this as representative of the rebirth of the human spirit following physical death. The Rosicrucians have an old thought that anything considered of value must face the test of death. The idea is that everything positive and good must reach a point where it ceases to be as it once was and begins to fall. It begins to die. But once dead, if it is of any value to humanity, it will find a way to come back just like the Phoenix or Spring. If it is of no value then it will fade away and be forgotten.
There are aspects of this thought that we can look at from the Lodge of Perfection. If we look at this body as the Lodge of Growth then we must recognize that there is only so much growth that can take place. If you happen to be involved in the leadership of the Scottish Rite and you obtain every office and degree that you desire, then where do you go? If change is unavoidable and if our steady growth has a ceiling, what does this mean? If our upward growth can go no further and change is still going to take place, then the only option for us is to come back down. Is this the death of our growth?
Death in the scenario of winter and the Rosicrucian idea of a particular test of death does not necessarily mean the end of something; and it does not always mean that it will happen in the blink of an eye. Death can be long and drawn out. Many hold that death begins at the moment of birth. Death can also mean just another form of change. Individuals can belong to an organization and if their only goal is rank, power and authority then there will come a time when this is no longer available to them. They will fall and die as a force in the organization. Unfortunately, if there are more than a few with this same attitude, then this can result in the whole organization meeting the same fate. It is one of the reasons why an organization can pull away from the philosophy.
Every Masonic body — Scottish Rite, York Rite, all rites — belong to their philosophy. The body is either in line with the philosophy (which does not change) or it is not in line. If it is not in line with the basic philosophy then it begins going down. There is thought that going down is part of the growth cycle and it’s natural. If this is the case, then it could mean that the Lodge of Perfection is designed for us to realize that we are growing to a point where we must start over again and relearn and rediscover all we have experienced. So, the concept of going down may not realistically be as devastating as we might imagine.
Over the last number of years, we have heard many reports that Masonry as a whole is declining. The Scottish Rite is declining in some areas, and many are not attending meetings (and, in other areas it is growing). I firmly believe that the Scottish Rite is going through a period of realignment in its natural cycle. I am seeing more and more young Masons who are joining the Scottish Rite who are not at all interested in the gold and silver prizes or awards that may be won. They are looking for the real gold which is the teachings. And this all seems to be part of a cycle. If this is the case, then the Lodge of Perfection can hold a special place as a fundamental aspect of a continuous, never ending cycle of esoteric teachings. Teachings designed to reveal new lessons with each revisiting.
The change that the Scottish Rite, and really all of Masonry, is going through now has no guarantee that it will be painless for everyone. There could be some who find this change wholly unacceptable. And, we can look at art for an example. I read something not long ago about an artist who was probably more ego than artist. He was having an art show at a respected European art gallery. The show actually featured works by several artists, but this one artist billed himself as the main part of the show. He considered himself as the new wave of modern art. He felt that the old masters were “yesterday’s news.” He felt that his work was far superior to theirs in quality, style and meaning. The show went on for a month, but the artist did not visit the galley until it was several weeks into the event. When he arrived at the gallery, he went directly to see the display of his newest piece and was horrified at what he saw. The gallery had hung the work upside down. The reason they hung it this way was because they had no idea which way was up and which was down. Well, the artist was furious. He began yelling that no one in the galley had any sense of art, they were all incompetent, etc. In truth, the galley workers were all highly experienced and skilled, but the problem was that they just could not tell the direction of his work. The argument reached such a level that the owner of the gallery told him to take his art and leave. They replaced his art with copies of works by the old masters. In a statement made by the gallery owner, he said that if art is meaningful and understood only by the artist, then of what value is it to humanity?
And what of our organizations? If what we are doing in our various bodies is meaningful only to the ones who confer the degrees or run the meetings and not the general membership, then a disconnect is taking place. We must be of value to more than a few. The Scottish Rite is a venue for the personal growth of all, not a place where only some can enjoy personal satisfaction through caps, titles and offices. A meeting of the Lodge of Perfection is an opportunity to teach and learn the philosophy and nature of the Scottish Rite. Those who do not or cannot understand that philosophy will need to begin their own cycle to learn or relearn what they have forgotten or never learned. It is all part of the natural cycle of change.
What is known as the Lodge of Perfection might be better understood as the Lodge of Perfecting. The perfecting is the steady growth of the individual. It is building on what is already known to fine tune oneself without the unrealistic goal of actually achieving perfection. And while we may obtain the highest offices and degrees, it can mean nothing as far as our personal growth. The two are not tied together. We must always continue to personally grow. We have to objectively recognize when we are growing, and we have to recognize when we have ceased to grow. When we realize that we have ceased to grow, we must look to the teachings of the Scottish Rite to begin our own cycle of learning. We must do this without being hampered by ego or false pride. We must recognize that we are part of the whole and begin on the natural cycle with the eagerness of when we first saw the Scottish Rite degrees.
Like so many aspects of Masonry, the Lodge of Perfection has layers upon layers of moral philosophy built into it. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution. In this case, no one rides the fence. It is one of the consequences of the quest for perfection (improvement) which we embarked upon when we joined. So, next time you are at a Lodge of Perfection meeting take a little time to close your eyes and just feel what is all around you. Allow yourself to be open to the deeper teachings of the ritual and the philosophy. Explore them. If you truly feel nothing, then try to have the strength and courage to start over. There is no shame. It is part of what growing means. Don’t limit yourself to only what you must do; take the extra step. Reach out and up. It is part of what it means to be a Scottish Rite Mason.
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