"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Edingurgh Evensong

Part of the real pleasure of this trip was our small tour group who went to the famous sites around Edinburgh. John Heisner and I spoke whole we toured Rosslyn Chapel. I have spent the last six years trying to get at the honest history of Rosslyn as best I could, because I believe it is wrong to spread a dishonest version of the significance this place plays in Masonic and Templar history. This is why I think Bob Cooper’s book, The Rosslyn Hoax, is the most important Masonic/Templar book since Born In Blood. But John challenged me with something, and I am not sure how I feel about it yet.

Namely, so what if it is a myth?

The place of myth in the fabric of our lives is a prominent one. Myths tell allegories, teach lessons, and point the way to understanding. Apart from the blindfolded initiate carving, there is no overt Masonic sign, symbol, word or image in all of Rosslyn (and the hoodwink and cabletow doesn't seem to provably appear in Masonry until the 1700s). The Apprentice Pillar was called the Prince’s Pillar until 200 years ago, and the three pillars that are said to represent the three degrees predate the third degree in Masonry by a good 275 years.

But maybe what is important about Rosslyn (or any cathedral, for that matter) are not dates and facts and proofs, but the power that symbols of faith have to teach us and inspire us. Rosslyn is like no place I’ve ever seen in terms of so many disparate images and concepts collected in one tiny place, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come alive. There’s no Mary Magdalene here. There’s no Seal of Solomon in the floor walked by centuries of pilgrims, or over the lintel of a secret repository of secret sacred scrolls. But perhaps there doesn’t have to be, and perhaps the 120,000 Dan Brown fans who tromp through it at £7 a head are looking for more than was ever intended of the little chapel. This is William Sinclair’s vision of his own devotion to God and his desire to build a place that would inspire his own faith – not mine, or yours, or John Knox’s or Oliver Cromwell’s or even Dan Brown’s.

Paul insisted Sunday night that he wanted to attend Evensong services at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal church, around the corner from Grand Lodge. He talked about it most of the day, but I really had no interest. As the day waned, I knew the shops closed at 5, and I had done no gift shopping for anyone at home. So, I left the clot of the last dogs to die at The Dome as they hoisted their last round and shouted their farewells. I took a cab up to the High Street, and made my way through the blocks of shops selling kilts and cardigans, scotch and those all important coffee cups tourists always buy, only to sell ten years later in garage sales, after the trip of a lifetime becomes a distant memory.

Maybe by accident or design, I stuck my head in a wine shop by mistake, and walked right up to a row of bottles of Chevaliers des Templiers St. Julien 2003, emblazoned with a simple Templar cross. Dan Brown and the Templars tapped me on the shoulder once more, and as I exited with two bottles, I looked down at the street and saw I was once again standing over the mosaic cross of the Knights of St. John.

I wandered a bit, and admittedly got a little lost in the warrens of steep closes behind the noise of the High Street. At last I regained my bearings and made it across the bridge headed back to the hotel. I know more than ever at this stage in my life that things happen for a reason. So I suppose there was a reason that just as I walked back past The Dome about to cross to the hotel, Paul and Adam came down the steps. I had assumed they left hours ago when I had, but they had stayed. Paul was now in search of a taxi to get to his Evensong service before 6. Without waiting for me to object, he shoved me in the cab, and I was off to church, hauling my sack from the wine shop. I know, typical Catholic. We think every occasion is BYOB.

St. John’s Church on Prince’s Street is like so many other of the literally dozens of such churches that dot Edinburgh, all stone, and all blacked by two or three centuries of auld reekie’s airborne filth. Unlike other cities, Edinburgh, like Rome, wears its aged, blacked stone with pride, almost like legitimate scars of battle. The minister and deacon stood at the door, genuinely grateful that three American gawpers had strolled in at the last minute for the service. This was no mighty, well-heeled church with bags of cash and a massive congregation. There were maybe ten of us there in all.

Funny the things you know out of thin air or some repressed memory, or even some book long forgotten. I’ve never been to an Anglican service before, but it seemed oddly familiar. Not like the Catholic services from my own experience, but somehow more appealing to me. I don’t mean the endless paging through the cross-referenced hymnals and prayerbooks and paper addendums that took on an almost “Day At The Races” confusion for me. What dragged some forgotten faith from my past was the soaring voices of the choir and the organ that dominated the south wall. Maybe it was from a lifetime of wearing out recordings of Thomas Tallis hymns and Vaughn Williams variations.

And as we left, John’s discussion back at Rosslyn rolled over me as I shook hands with Reverend Armes and glanced back one last time into the church. Maybe it has been Freemasonry that has taught me more than anything else in my life that artificial boundaries of religious labels only separate men from each other. My beliefs or Adam's or Paul's, or the beliefs of all of those attendees at this conference did not unite us. Rather, it was the celebration of an institution that welcomes men of every faith, that truly brings together those who might otherwise been kept at a perpetual distance. And that was the greatest gift of this week to me.

Thanks, Paul, for tossing me into that taxi.

But then there is always an ironic twist in life. In the south aisle of St. John's Church there is a memorial – one of dozens to be seen all around the church. It is to Sir John Robison 1778-1843, inventor of the siren. But Sir John invented something else as well in 1797. Namely, he invented the modern conspiracy theory of the Illuminati and the Freemasons in his book, Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies.

As a good friend of mine so often laments, so it goes.

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