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SYMBOLISM OF THE ROSE IN MASONRY
Would “a rose by any other name smell as sweet”? Very likely it
would. The connection between the way a word sounds and the qualities of the
idea behind the word is tenuous. But when a noun like “rose” comes to have
symbolic resonance, there is, in the beginning of the symbol making process, a
close connection between the qualities of the object and the characteristics of
the symbol it represents. Later, as the symbol takes on an intellectual life of
its own over time, the connection between the symbolic meanings and the essence
of the thing itself may fade from consciousness. But the most powerful symbols
are the ones where that connection is still bright.
The simple structure of the early roses featured a
fairly large golden center with the five petals blown wide open. The
descendants of these roses are still grown today and sold in nurseries as “shrub
roses.” They have lots of short-stemmed flowers and lots of thorns and not much
Though the rose started out fairly simple, as
man’s understanding of the possibilities of plant hybridization increased,
people began to press this life form to become more complex. The roses we buy
from the florist today fall into the class called “modern roses” and the type
called “hybrid teas.” They have very long, stiff stems; strong, fairly big
thorns; and between 70 and 120 petals. Their hearts, which remain gold, are
completely enclosed by those petals until quite late in the life of each
individual bloom. Eventually, however, they do open far enough to expose the
heart to view.
Not surprisingly, as rosarians worked to breed the
complex rose flowers prized today, they gave up certain genetic pluses as a
tradeoff. For instance, the old shrub roses are practically disease free and
grow in all sorts of semiarid climates without irrigation. Hybrid teas, on the
other hand, require watering, fertilization, and all sorts of chemical
interventions to stay free of blackspot (a fungal pathogen) and produce
blemish-free flower heads. Shrub roses bloom all summer; hybrid teas make a
single big show, usually in May or June, and then typically go on vacation until
the following spring. Old roses really smelled sweet; some moderns don’t smell
Our national love affair with the rose, despite
its finicky nature in the garden and its absurdly high price at the flower shop,
strongly argues for the fact that we get an emotional kick from this kind of
flower that no other provides. In short, roses are working for us on more than
just the visual and olfactory levels. There is something deeply embedded in our
psyche that calls out to this flower. Roses are putting us in touch with our
collective past and with the Divine. They can do this because the rose has
become, across the centuries, a powerful symbol.
In Christian iconography, the rose is associated
with Rebirth. Our fellow seekers, the Rosicrucians, employ the mature
but not fully opened rose at the center of the Cross as the emblem of their
order. In a famous speech delivered May 10, 1785, the Comte de Cagliostro, the
founder of Egyptian masonry, declared that the Rose-Cross is the ancient and
true symbol of the Mysteries. So the emblematic significance of the rose comes
very close to us as masons.
Is there a sense in which the rose is still
mystica today? After all, we give each initiate into our order a single,
slightly opened long-stemmed red rose. We tell the new Apprentice that this
blossom represents our love for him or her as a brother or sister, welcomed into
the larger family of the Craft.
This cycle is emblematic of the process of
self-actualization that begins with our ceremony of initiation. As the
candidate undergoes the changes stimulated by the “antique beverages” of memory
and forgetting, she dies to her old life and is born again through the
renunciation of vice and the embrace of virtue. In the beginning, the true core
of the self is hidden from examination behind many layers of protective gear,
just as the heart of a young rose is concealed by its petals.
In the fullness of enlightenment, we may hope
that, like the mature rose, it is possible to exist in the real world with our
hearts exposed to view. We should be able to give up whatever thorns we use to
protect ourselves from genuine contact, heart to heart, with other people. But
before we reach that stage, where we can love others, we must learn to let
ourselves be loved. Our older sisters and brothers give us that rose as a sign
that they already love us even though we are greatly defective. They love us,
in short, without our being at that moment much worthy of it. Freemasonry has
made it possible for them to see the heart of gold inside us when we still
cannot see it for ourselves.
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