A 32nd degree Scottish Rite Freemason is called “Sublime Master of the Royal Secret.” Today, I write not feeling especially sublime. What does it mean to have this title? That will vary from one Mason to the next. For some brothers, it means almost nothing. It means only that he has paid his dues and been in the audience of the degree. These days (and maybe it was always thus) there is no further teaching or work to be done once a brother has attained a particular degree. Listening and observing the lessons and symbols of the degree are all the work that is required.
Yet, such is only passive work, the work of the bystander, the observer. This is (I suppose) because in the time when the Rite degrees were created, education was conducted in much the same way. The pupil attended a lecture, observed demonstrations, learned terms, and memorized. Today, we have dropped even the memorization from our standards of measuring proficiency in the Scottish Rite degrees. I have heard that things are more rigorous and serious in other countries.
One of our famous brothers, Bro. Robert Davis of Guthrie Oklahoma, has been the leader in creating a study course that Masons of the Rite may go through after having “completed” their degrees. This course consists in deeper thinking and more active work with the content of the degrees. Think of a degree as a lecture in a school. It is not like getting a bachelor’s “degree.” It is like taking a single course which consists only of one lecture presented in dramatic form, almost like a play. The Scottish degrees were intended to be given to one candidate at a time, just like the first three degrees of Masonry. Indeed, there are Scottish Rite versions of the Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason’s degrees, though they are, to my knowledge, no longer performed in Scottish Rite temples.
These “courses” (if one may call them that) are normally only about an hour long, more or less. In our Valley of Minneapolis, candidates for the degrees often sit through and observe two degrees in a single night. There is no homework. In our Valley we do have discussion in small groups after each degree, for the candidates go through their degrees in a class of some fifteen or twenty (or more). This means that each brother acts as the principal candidate in only a few of the 29 degrees. But, however dramatic and moving it may be to be the principal candidate in one of these degrees, the role is still mostly passive. The candidate is lead through the ritual by a member of the ritual team. There are a few degrees in which a number of candidates all participate, forming a posse of sorts in a dramatization about the apprehension of some murders.
But having been though all that, a Sublime Master of the Royal Secret is urged to attend temple regularly to see the degree cycle over and over, and even to become a member of the degree team. But all of that seems somehow circular and folded back in on itself. Is the Sublime Master only to learn a role? Only to contribute to the running of the temple and the giving of degrees? Hasn’t there been something left out?
If a degree in Masonry is a single lecture or, as we might say, presentation, then the student cannot be expected to learn the contents of the lesson merely by observing it. There must be work to be done besides passive observation. Each degree instructs us to do certain things, to alter or adjust our behavior, to examine ourselves and our behavior. Each degree may also contain esoteric lessons that are not spoken out in plain words. These lessons are presented in symbols that invite the pupil to investigate deeper concepts. The “Royal Secret” is, after all, the culminating concept to be learned.
Yet, in the Scottish degrees the candidate is led to believe he is receiving the “secret” several times before the 32°. Again and again the lost secret is found, but in finding it anew, we must suspect that we are only being pointed towards it. It is not a secret word, a handshake, a password. It is not a magic word that will give us supernatural powers. It may, however, be the very fact that we have supernatural powers already.
Sublime. It is a word that is not used so much today in English. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it was a term in aesthetics, the philosophical study of beauty. The Sublime was characterized as something different from beauty. While beauty was a quality of proportion, harmony, and pleasure, the Sublime was sometimes quite horrifying, wild, and beyond comprehension. A mountain landscape in Switzerland was not, to the English at any rate, “beautiful” but it was sublime. It transported the spirit. Sublimity is most especially a quality of Nature. Deserts are sublime. The starry canopy of the midnight sky can be sublime. The vastness of the Ocean. Indeed, vast destruction and disaster can be sublime in that it affects the heart while it horrifies the rational mind and excites human compassion for its victims. Volcanos and tsunamis are sublime. Or can be.
How then can a Master be “sublime”? It is in the discovery and realization of the vastness of his own soul, and its connectedness to Deity and the Cosmos. The Sublime Master is sublime because his inner landscape is vast, untamed, and powerful. It goes beyond the scale of mere human individuality. The soul itself is revealed to be too large for the ego’s self-conception to take in, like a mountain range; too deep to be fathomed by the reasoning mind; deeper even than our hearts can fathom.
How many human individuals have felt this inner sublime? I would venture to say all of them. But how many understand what they feel or glimpse? I don’t know. I don’t know.
For myself, I do not feel very sublime today. The disaster on the other side of the world has left me drained of all my energy and my concentration broken in a flood of images and feelings filled with the debris of life. My mood is melancholy. The doctors call this disthymia, which is Greek for unhappiness. Sigh. The circumference of my material life seems very small. I do not love enough. I do not every seem to have time to address all my duties as a “homemaker.” My heart is not in it because my heart wants the kind of limitless freedom it was promised when I was a boy learning what it meant to be a “real man.” The “man of the house” is not supposed to be the homemaker — so says my conditioning and all the images I internalized as a boy. For a Man, sublimity is what he faces out beyond himself, and the depth he struggles to plumb within himself. For a boy, by contrast, Woman is sublime — the vast Mother Earth and unfathomable source of love. In my experience, real women do not like to get this attitude from their lovers. From their babies, okay, but not from their Man.
And this too is the Royal Secret — the deep understanding of masculinity, of being a Man in Nature. By this phrase I mean being a man in a more primal way than Domesticated Man. Since before our Masonic fore-brothers founded the fraternity, men have been domesticated animals. Some are like bulls. Some like sheep. Some like stallions. Some like geldings. But they dress, act, and conduct themselves as, most often, yoked to a job, to family, to a wife and children. This state of “domestic bliss” is supposed to be every man’s goal (and every woman’s too). Yet, such a system of domesticated humans has never worked as well as its creators hoped. Men and women will still break free from their circumference, from their social limits, even painfully break away from family and children, or parents.
In the twentieth century we see that men and women have struggled with the old established gender roles of domesticity. Some cultural historians blame the Victorians for this “cult of domesticity.” Feminist critics particularly blame it on Patriarchy. There is little question that it was a part of the old Patriarchy that was so called into question during the past century. However, feminists sometimes leave the impression that it was all jolly for men, the oppressors. The problem with that point of view is that it supposes that all men were on the oppressors side. Indeed, however, men have been just as oppressed by Patriarchy as women. Not deprived of social and political power because of their sex, but yoked to the culture of patriarchal expectations and the iron rule of domesticity.
Oh, yes, it has been easier for men to have mistresses and pay prostitutes for sex, because of their greater mobility, while women were supposed to be tied to the home and to a man. But men were (and are) kept in a state of dependency to other men. They are taught that they are freer and more powerful than women (a lesson that has slipped in the past two generations); yet, that “superiority” is cold comfort to the vast majority of men who are under the command of other men. Is any man not under the command of other men? Indeed, is this not the dream of dictators and absolute monarchs? And having achieved it in their way, do they not often end up madmen?