Brother seeker of enlightenment,
We have been examining the Religious Degrees of the Council of Kadosh at this Holy Time of year. First the 23rd degree, from a Hebraic viewpoint, at Passover; then last issue the 26th degree, form a Christian viewpoint for Easter, and now the 25th degree, from an Islamic viewpoint for Ramadan.
The apron is white lined and edged with black, the white side spotted with golden stars, and the black side with silver ones. Those on the white side represent, by their positions and distances, the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion and Capella. Those on the black side represent the stars of Perseus, Scorpio and Ursa Major. To the ancients, their lives were intertwined with astrology and astronomy, namely the signs of the Zodiac. When the Pleiades were in Taurus, among these stars the sun was found when Light began to prevail over Darkness, i.e the days started getting longer again. This was when the Mysteries were held. On the flap is a serpent in a circle, with its tail in its mouth, often taken to symbolize introspection, the eternal return or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself. It also represents the infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation.
This is a very difficult degree. The candidate is instructed by receiving some of the allegorical teachings of the Mullah Nasruddin. And although the degree presents several philosophical teachings, little of the Islamic faith is presented, rather most of the lessons come from the lecture of this degree. It appears that Pike needed to include Islam among his discussions of the major religions, and awkwardly inserted it into this degree. The reader is warned that Pike devotes 88 pages, fully one-fourth of the entire text of Morals and Dogma, of closely packed information, to this degree. The full benefit can be obtained only from reading the original in its entirety. A rudimentary understanding of astrology and astronomy will go a long way in helping the student glean the pearls so presented.
The first lesson is more of an admonition rather than a lesson. It first asks if we have truly performed all we have promised. This is a question we must frequently ask ourselves. In our Masonic careers we have assumed obligations in the performance of many duties. Many men have assumed vows but afterwards forget them. These obligations are real. If we have agreed to live by them and do not do so, we are hypocrites and dishonor the fraternity.
The second lesson is that knowledge, the Truth, and opportunities for service often come to us in forms which are at first unrecognizable, and may seem at first sight unacceptable. The Truth is elusive, and though present is often not recognized. By withholding premature judgment and by applying mature reflection we learn to recognize Truth and in so doing we broaden our horizons of understanding which leads to greater wisdom.
Let‘s examine the jewel of this degree next, as its symbolism expresses many of the lessons to be learned; a circle is surmounted upon the Tau cross on the 25th Degree’s jewel. Also called the Crux Ansata, this cross represents life. Obviously, the circle symbolizes infinity. Hence, when combined with the Tau cross of life, a symbol for eternal life or immortality is revealed. Overall, the Tau cross and the Crux Ansata represent balance, both figures having vertical symmetry. The Tau cross and the Crux Ansata thus remind us of the balance between faith and reason, between the material and the spiritual, a lesson we learned in the previous degree. This doctrine of balance, harmony, and equilibrium are hallmarks of the mystery traditions’ teachings as well as the great lessons of our Masonic Order.
Any survey of the ancient world reveals that it was indeed fascinated by the serpent. We find the serpent used in virtually every ancient culture’s symbolism. In the Old Testament we see the snake used as the sign of a healer or a savior. The fact that the snake sheds its skin teaches us one of the key lessons of this Degree, the lesson of continuous renewal. It also reminds us of the immortality of the soul, an entity that lives on even after death. As Masons, we are to continually hone the rough ashlars of our human nature into the perfect ashlars of our Divine nature. By shedding our passions, vices, and frailties, we renew and perfect ourselves, thereby fulfilling our destiny as children of a Divine Creator.
In sum, the Tau cross depicted on the jewel of the 25th Degree teaches us that through balance, harmony, and equilibrium we arrive at the core of our being – the spark of the Divine – which is implanted in every child of God. Hence, we arrive at the state of perfection, signified by the circle surmounted upon the Tau. However, the snake of wisdom guards the circle of immortality. In order to arrive at perfection, we must overcome our fears, our frailties, our passions, and our desires – those things that envenom our souls and lead us astray. As in every Masonic Degree, the Knight of the Brazen Serpent learns that the noblest purposes and duties of man in life are to struggle and overcome and win mastery over the material and sensual, to reach the spiritual and divine within himself. There is in him, as in the universe, God’s harmony and beauty and equilibrium. Thus, the jewel of the 25th Degree reminds us of the importance of balance and teaches us to keep earthly Reason and Divine Faith in perfect harmony.
This brings us to the final lesson a discussion of perception versus reality or more exactly not substituting the symbol for the thing symbolized. It is easy to confuse the symbol with the reality. Accordingly the ultimate teaching of this degree deals with the soul. The soul and the heavens were closely linked in the minds of the ancients because they believed the soul originated in the heavens, descending upon birth and ascending upon death through the stars. Since the purpose of initiation was to purify the soul and impart to man hope for a future life, the paths of the stars and planets were given a great deal of symbolic meaning which in time was corrupted into a worship of the heavens themselves.
The Mysteries taught the great doctrine of the divine nature and longing after immortality of the soul, of the nobility of its origin, the grandeur of its destiny. Our Philosophical degrees teach by ceremonial and instruction that the noblest purpose and duties of man in life are to struggle and overcome and win mastery over the material and sensual, to reach the spiritual and divine within himself. There is in him, as in the universe, God’s harmony and beauty and equilibrium. This laudable aim requires a knowledge that man is possessed of a spiritual nature, an eternal soul advancing ever nearer to perfection and the light of the Divine Presence.
To all my brethren, stay well, and God Bless,
Ill. Harry Eisenberg, 33°