The Masonic Trowel

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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. Roses have been around for a long time.  The oldest fossil record of a plant clearly identifiable as a member of what the botanists call the genus Rosa comes from a Colorado rock formation dated to between 35 and 32 million years ago.  The rose first appeared as an artistic motif in Asian documents around 3000 B.C.  The first record of a European-looking rose is a stylized rendition in a fresco from the 16th century B.C. on the Greek island of Knossos.  Homer pointed out in the “Iliad” (ninth century B.C.) that Achilles’ shield was decorated with roses.  And Confucius claimed that during his lifetime (he died in 479 B.C.), the Emperor of China already had in his library 600 books about the cultivation of roses.

Early roses had only five petals, and legend says the original color was always white.  The ancient Greeks believed that roses turned red when Venus chased after her lover, Adonis, and pricked her finger on a thorny bush in her haste to reach him.  According to Christian documents, the blood of the crucified Christ spilled down onto a white rosebush growing at the foot of the cross and ever afterwards, rose blossoms were red instead of white.

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 perfume.

It appears that roses changed little in structure until fairly recently.  When the British houses of Lancaster and York were fussing over who really deserved to control the monarchy, each family used a rose (red for the Lancastrians and white for the Yorkists) as its symbol.  Their artistic renditions of the rose in heraldry, battle flags, and shields show, for both families, virtually identical versions of the five-petaled wild rose, wide open.  When Henry VII came to power at the end of the War of the Roses in 1485, he “married” the warring factions by combining their red and white roses to create the two-tone Tudor Rose, the symbol of his reign and also the symbol of England today.

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.

The roses grown for perfume-making come from the class called “essence roses” and have a much stronger scent than the any of the modern class.  Essence roses don’t make such pretty blossoms, but the scent they produce is important to the entire cosmetics industry.  Japan’s Shiseido cosmetic company set perfume scientists on the trail of the makeup of this complex scent and found that the smell we identify as “rosy” contains no fewer than 540 different aromatic elements!  There appears to be a great deal more going on with roses than meets the eye.

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 at all.

How big a deal is all this?  How much are Americans obsessed with roses?  It happens that my employer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is responsible for inspecting all the imported cut flowers that come into this country from abroad.  This gives me access to some amazing numbers.  In 1998, the latest year for which we have figures, from Mexico alone, we imported a whopping 28,397,249 individual roses.

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.

The rose was beloved of the mother of our order, Isis.  Cleopatra understood its power:  when she set up her first meeting with Marc Antony, she arranged for the floor of the room to be strewn with rose petals.  The records show this carpet of roses was 15 inches thick.  The most beautiful woman of India, the goddess Lakshmi, is reputed to have been born from a rose comprised of 108 large and 1,008 small petals.  There is a repeated thread associating the rose with the process of birth beyond India, as well.  Rose petals fly through the air in Botticelli’s famous painting “Birth of Venus,” for instance.

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.

Linguists long ago noted that the word “rose” is an anagram for Eros, physical lovemaking and the attraction for opposites that literally makes the world go ’round.  But just as sexual attraction leads to reproduction of the species, so Eros devolves into that other, nonsexual kind of love expressed originally by the Greeks and coopted by the Christian religion as “agape.”  The passion of the honeymoon is displaced over time by the more enduring love of the parent for the child.  Interestingly enough, the flower sacred to Venus became the flower of that very nonsexual demigoddess we call the Virgin Mary: she is called the Rosa mystica in medieval texts.

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.

Then what happens?  The rose opens up over the following few days and dries out and dies.  The peak of its beauty is short lived.  Late in its life cycle, the rose reveals its heart.  Eventually it breaks down into dust.

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.

Over time, however, the initiate peels back those layers of protection because there is a categorical imperative operating within masonry:  it is simply mandatory to look into your own heart of darkness in order to expunge the evil there and replace it with the Light.  Nothing else will do.

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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Last modified: March 22, 2014