Spiritual Knighthood for the Common Good

Originally published in the September 2020 edition of The Oklahoma Scottish Rite Mason magazine.

The title of this piece highlights a theme of immense importance in the Scottish Rite, a theme of wisdom, strength, and beauty that is sorely needed in present times. Many of our degrees confer the title of Knight on their initiates, and teach impressive lessons on the noble virtues Masonic knights should embody and the principles they should serve. We shall examine what the Scottish Rite teaches about those virtues and principles, and how we can employ those lessons for the benefit of all.

Just as Craft Masonry makes speculative use of the language and imagery of operative stonemasonry and architecture, so does the Scottish Rite symbolically employ stories and scenes of knighthood as allegories for making ourselves better human beings. Properly understood, the path of Masonic knighthood does not lead us to become literal warriors ready to do violence against other people. Instead, we honor and seek to emulate the chivalric virtues of discipline, devotion, courage, and perseverance in service to our highest ideals.

Every good knight of old served a cause, creed, or tenets valued as more important than one’s own life. Such a reference point provided inspiration to begin great quests and campaigns, direction when the path seemed unclear or confusing, and motivation during bleak times of frustration and despair. As Masonic knights, we should remember our Principal Tenets are Truth, Relief, and Brotherly Love, and not only for each other, but for everyone. As a traditional closing charge for the Blue Lodge puts it, “all persons have a claim upon your kind offices.” Within the Scottish Rite, this ethos is expanded upon by our official creed:

Human progress is our cause, liberty of thought our supreme wish, freedom of conscience our mission, and the guarantee of equal rights to all people everywhere our ultimate goal.

What does it mean to be a spiritual warrior with such a lofty creed? To be a warrior presumes an enemy. So, who or what are our enemies? In the 30th Degree, Knight Kadosh, we learn they are always ignorance, fanaticism, and tyranny. We are taught that we should not only fight against these destructive forces, but that we also have a duty to protect, defend, and liberate those who are oppressed by them. But, if we are to be speculative knights rather than operative combatants, we must understand that our battles are not waged by taking up arms to shed blood. Our campaigns are of the heart and mind, first and foremost within ourselves, and then in the way we conduct ourselves with others.

Just as an actual knight was prepared to leave behind his home and family and shed his own blood, so we too may be called to make great sacrifices for our ideals. Wielding the sword of truth and justice within ourselves, we must be willing to confront, acknowledge, and battle with our own ignorance, prejudice, intolerance, cruelty, and arrogance. We find these inner “enemies” lurking within the shadows of our own souls, such as in our wish to appear more knowledgeable or certain than we actually are, in the temptation to feel proud and self-righteous in comparison to others, or in the desire to “win” an argument rather than have mutually beneficial dialogue. We also find these ruffians in our unquestioning submission to our religious and political communities, or siding with them to the point of ignoring their own shortcomings and failings while exaggerating those of other communities.

Behind all these conflicts, we find very ordinary human fears, and the understandable instinct to protect ourselves and loved ones from the threats we perceive, and easily imagine, in this complicated world. Fear is always behind the armor of our defensiveness, yet the more we try to shield ourselves behind the appearance of toughness and fearlessness, the more fragile and defensive we become. These conditions produce even more conflict within oneself and with others, which leads to further pain and fear. Therefore, a spiritual warrior’s first duty is to face one’s own fears with genuine courage, not in the misguided attempt to destroy them, but to accept and understand them, and find constructive, healthy, life-affirming ways to manage them. The extent to which we have come to reasonable terms with our own fears determines the extent to which we are able to authentically respond with the “kind offices” of Truth, Relief, and Brotherly Love to the fears of others, even to their fears of us and our communities.

While our first duty is vigilance within ourselves, the greatest tests and trials of our knightly virtues often arise in our dealings with others, whether in our immediate circles, through social media, or in the political friction between groups with different perspectives and beliefs. Differences between individuals and groups are simply natural, and that diversity facilitates the development of much wisdom, strength, and beauty in the world that would otherwise not exist. Yet, differences can also be uncomfortable, challenging, and even seem dangerous, especially when we do not truly understand them. These natural complications are further amplified by the common effort to polarize all our differences into irreconcilable opposites of right and wrong, good and evil, true and false. It can be easy to start thinking about everything of importance in terms of combat, an all-consuming war in which every individual and every group is either an ally or an enemy, and where even our comrades must continually be tested to prove their loyalty lest they become traitors in our midst.

There are terrible costs to habitually thinking and acting in terms of binary oppositions or conflicts of only two sides with irreconcilable differences. In this framework, we too easily ignore the subtleties, nuances, and complexities that allow for many more perspectives, positions, and possibilities. In effect, we leap into combat where it does not need to happen, destroying the middle ground and surrounding territories of thought and behavior. We lay waste to psychological, social, and political space where it would otherwise be possible to find and value our commonalities with other people, and to discover and enjoy the richness of our differences. Our dear brother, the late Dr. Jim Tresner 33rd Degree G.C., sometimes spoke about this destruction as “losing our center.”[1]

Losing Our Center to Polarized Conflict

In this context, the center is not a position of avoidant neutrality, a naïve or rigid defense of the status quo, or an expectation that every ideal must be completely and permanently sacrificed to compromise. It is instead the tireless, courageous, and sometimes heroic effort to establish, maintain, and develop the commonalities in which as many as possible can, in Masonic language, “best work and best agree.” That kind of work requires all the prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice a Masonic knight can muster. These virtues enable us, individually and collectively, to demonstrate the patience, tact, diplomacy, empathy, and compassion demanded for achieving mutual understandings and acting for the greatest mutual benefit.

Differences in Harmony on Common Ground

For a moment, let us return again to the internal campaign of a spiritual knight. One of the greatest obstacles to being victorious in that campaign is pride. Spiritual pride is what we feel when we regard our own efforts toward enlightenment and harmony as so superior to others that we no longer question or adjust ourselves, let alone extend our hands with faith, hope, grace, and humility. In spiritual pride, our focus increasingly becomes how others need to admit and atone for their faults, how others need to realize and remedy their ignorance, how others need to be willing to collaborate and make peace. What is actually happening in such moments of arrogance is often more about moral and spiritual laziness, and behind that is the fear of humbling ourselves and continuing to address our own ignorance and temptations to fanaticism and tyranny.

In closing, we should recall the 18th Degree, Knight Rose Croix, where, in reflecting on the existence of evil and its opposition to the good, we are reminded of an alchemical operation known as the resolution of contraries. That operation involves taking what seem to be two opposite, even antagonistic, elements and bringing them into harmony with each other. This work is necessary in order to transform the crude metals of the soul into the philosophical gold of an enlightened being, which in turn enables one to shine that golden light out to the world. But the operation requires a fluxing agent, a third element to integrate the others. A Knight Rose Croix learns that agent is love, and is given the New Law of Love as the banner one must always faithfully follow and valiantly serve. The Knight Rose Croix is also reminded of the wise teacher from Nazareth, who charged his followers to love even their enemies. If we as Masonic knights accept this charge, then we can perform the greatest resolution of contraries possible in this world we inhabit together, and move things ever closer toward the ideal of peace and harmony “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jewel of the Rose Croix by John Augustus Knapp

Jewel of the Rose Croix by John Augustus Knapp

[1]Bro. Tresner wrote about “Strengthening the Center,” in the March-April 2017 edition of The Scottish Rite Journal, Vol CXXV, No. 2https://scottishrite.org/blog/journals/march-april-2017/

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