Understanding Chaos

Understanding Chaos
In this first 100 days of  2017, here in America and in some other countries, there has been a great deal of what we like to call chaos. Chaos is “complete disorder or disruption.” However, I’m going to challenge us all, especially Freemasons, to look at Chaos differently. We put “Order out of Chaos” but what does this mean? The challenge I have is to look at Chaos as something different and necessary to life and growth, or at least our ability to tell the difference.
 

Let me first start by saying this is not, emphasis on NOT, a political discussion. This is using an event in politics to illustrate a point. However you feel about the politics/events, right or wrong, is irrelevant to the content of this blog. What I want to do is illustrate how science and nature have a real place in our processes to affect change. Think differently. That said, here we go.

A recent event happened in politics in America – the Immigration Executive Order that Trump signed on January 27th. The executive order was, by mostly-credible accounts thus far, written by Steve Bannon, a self-designated fear monger. He stated, in a 2010 interview, “Fear is a good thing. Fear is going to lead you to take action.” He also stated that “I’m a Leninist,” [quoted as saying by a writer for The Daily Beast] He later said he did not recall the conversation. “Lenin wanted to destroy the stA30B258A-524B-4688-9D2F-EE9E6F4D5652ate, and that’s my goal, too,” the site quoted him as saying. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  Mr. Bannon told The Washington Post this year, “We call ourselves ‘the Fight Club.’ You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy. We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class. We say Paul Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.”

I do not think that Mr. Bannon is alone in
his thinking this way, especially across the current appointees and heads of various government agencies. I think Trump has a specific goal in mind: introduce chaos into the system to turn it on its head and change it. The difficulty that most people have is that it is chaos mixed with fear, hatred, and injustice – not Masonic values at all.

In a recent Facebook posting, historian Heather Cox Richardson explained this “shock event” in very succinct and clear terms – what it is, what the outcomes may be, and what we can do to overcome it. The full text can be found in this blog. I think that one of the best sentences in this piece, and one we should all take hold of is this: “But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event.” Her point, in other words, is that we don’t have to react in ways we’ve always reacted – we can take our emotions and work differently. It takes consciousness, focus, and effort. It takes energy. Energy.

Here’s where I want to turn chaos on its head. In the world of science, specifically physics and thermodynamics, chaos equates to entropy. Entropy is not sitting on your couch, drinking a Coors, and watching the game. No. In physics, entropy is the lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. Simply stated, entropy is the spreading of energy until it is evenly spread. A great, in-depth, and head-expanding article on the second law of thermodynamics and entropy is here. I warn you, it’s long and even though it says “simple,” it takes focus to really follow the whole article. Bottom line: let’s just say, energy disperses.

If you look at our country, or any “related system” I will call it, we were founded by many humans with a great deal of energy for change. Events which upset the equilibrium – taxation, religious persecution, and the like – created energy, which in turn led people to expend their energy differently – fighting for and creating a new country and a new form of government. This energy, related to the creating of the United States of America, has over time, received influxes of upsets to its equilibrium; these are the events more remembered as shapers of the country. It is how we got to where we are today.

How does this relate to thermodynamics and physics? Hang with me, I’m getting there. There is new discussion about entropy and how physics can be applied to the biology of life. Another long article but with a very clear video about the thoughts and theories is found here. In essence, the article explains that in the end, thought (that is, intention, logic, and problem-solving) are the keys to fighting entropy and disorder. Another way of looking at this is that the destruction of forms happens because of entropy; the introduction of an upset to the equilibrium staves off entropy (chaos) and causes the current energy to reorganize and become a viable source for change. We can look at teleology as having a connection to thermodynamics rather than biology. Simply said, thought is energy.

Did I lose you? I might have lost myself. But, stay with me. Where I’m getting to is this: Freemasonry values nature and science – we need to look at both for the answers of how did we get here and where do we go next. Let’s take a step and connect biology, physics, and politics, weird as that may be, into a line and we can see how we got here. And, to Heather Cox Richardson’s point, how we get out. We need to take whatever energies we receive from the upset of the equilibrium and turn it into a thoughtful way to change our world.

Like the small discs of atoms the researchers used in their experiments in the above article, we too can use tools and socially organize into effective change advocates. We can create something new from the impetus we’ve been given. To me, Freemasonry has given me the balance to look at something like Chaos as see it as a blessing. I’m not talking about how that chaos is delivered, which may involve incredible emotional and physical upheaval. Pain, Fear, Hate, Ignorance – all of these continue. It is in our responses where we can affect the change. Until we think about our next moves, use the energy that we’ve been given to that plan of thought, and execute well, the shock event will actually create nothing new at all. I might even venture to say that what we might view as negative change can actually be what positive change needs to get going. All of these lessons are clear in nearly all degrees of Freemasonry. Sometimes, it takes chaos for us to see the value in what we’re learning. If we can take a breath and use our thought processes to absorb the disruption, we might be able to see the value in all sides of an event.

Touching the Void: Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting One’s Fellow Man

Touching the Void: Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting One’s Fellow Man

What responsibility do we have towards our fellow man? Masonry teaches that each of us is “our brother’s keeper” and that mankind consists of a Universal Brotherhood. When safe and secure, we may be quick to argue that we would go out of our way to save our friend, brother, or neighbor. What would happen, however, if you were forced to choose between saving your own life versus protecting the life of another? Touching the Void, a book written by Mountaineer Joe Simpson, tells the harrowing true story of two men trapped on a mountain faced with such a life and death situation.

The Journey: Climbing The Siula Grande

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates had a bold, yet dangerous dream: to be the first climbers to summit the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Touching the Void begins with the following quote by T.E. Lawrence from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Siula GrandeDespite perilous conditions, Yates and Simpson became such “dreamers of the day,” making their dream a reality by ascending the Siula Grande’s 4,500-foot west face in three days. Their celebration was short lived, however, as disaster struck during the treacherous descent of the peak. Whiteout conditions enveloped the climbers eventually leading to Simpson slipping down an ice cliff and breaking his leg, crushing his tibia into his knee joint. The team’s ambitious ascent had depleted their supplies, and they no longer had fuel for heating, cooking, or melting snow for drinking water. With daylight fading and Simpson in critical condition due to this injury, the pair had no option but to attempt a fast and tricky descent of 3,000 feet back to base camp.

With his right leg shattered, Simpson relied on his climbing partner to methodically lower him down the mountain 300 feet at a time via two knotted ropes. Simon Yates reflected on his burdensome new responsibility, “I knew I couldn’t leave him while he was still fighting for it.” Hour after hour, Simpson and Yates made painstakingly slow progress down the mountain. Eventually, a blizzard surrounded the climbers bringing chaos and destroying communicationThefall between the pair. In the confusion, Yates mistakenly lowered Simpson over the edge of a cliff. Dangling eighty feet above a crevasse, the injured and exhausted Simpson was unable to climb back to safety with his frost-bitten fingers.

Yates’ Ultimate Moral Dilemma

Swallowed by the blizzard, Yates was essentially blind to his partner’s situation. Because of the weight on rope, he knew Simpson was suspended over some kind of cliff, but he was unable to see or communicate with his partner. He also was unable to pull Simpson back up to safety. Through sheer willpower, Yates kept his footing on the icy slope for over an hour protecting both from plummeting into the void. His strength failing, Yates faced the moral dilemma of his life: should he save himself by cutting the rope and send Simpson to almost certain death?

As his snow anchor began to collapse,  Yates cut the rope and Simpson’s body plummeted down the cliff and into a crevasse: a deep fissure in a mountain glacier. When Simon Yates descended to the ice cavern,  he called out to Simpson but received no response. Assuming his partner was killed in the fall, Yates made his way back to base camp.

Simpson’s Survival

Miraculously, Simpson survived the 150 foot fall, landing on an ice shelf inside the crevasse. When Simpson regained consciousness, he discovered the cut rope end and realized what his partner had done. If he wanted to live, Simpson knew he had to save himself. Repelling further into the dark ice cave, Simpson discovered a small opening in the ice and climbed out of the glacier, emerging like Lazarus from his tomb.

Forced to crawl due to his injuries, Simpson tenaciously began a three day crawl back to base camp. Exhausted and fighting delirium, he reached base camp only a few hours before Yates was set to leave. Arriving at camp, Yates and another climber treated Simpson’s injuries, and the three men then traveled back to civilization.

Somewhat surprisingly, Simpson expressed understanding and sympathy for Yates in his fateful decision to sever the rope. He reflected, “ Simon (Yates) did more than anybody could possibly have been asked to do to save someone’s life. Everybody misses that crucial point. He took a very pragmatic decision. He wasn’t to know I went down a crevasse. He wasn’t cutting a rope to kill me; he was cutting a rope to save himself.”

Many climbing experts argue that, paradoxically, it was Simon Yates selfish decision to cut the rope and save his own life that also saved his climbing partner, Joe Simpson. Even if Yates could have held him aloft for many more hours, many argue that Simpson would have died from exposure to the elements. Simpson, while understanding his partner’s decision, writes in Touching the Void about his initial hope that he was still connect to Yates: “Did he fall with me? Find out… pull the rope! I tugged on the loose rope. It moved easily…. I pulled again and soft snow flurried on to me. I pulled steadily, and as I did so I became excited. This was a chance to escape.” Based on Simpson’s position after the fall, there was more than a chancsimpsone that Yates would have also lived, either landing on the ledge or being held aloft by the rope tethered to Simpson. Realizing that his partner had left him to perish, Simpson was filled with despair and faced with the improbable odds of returning to base camp alone.

Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting Our Fellow Man

When an individual acts against their own self-interest,  should we let that person fall, metaphorically speaking, in order that they can develop the strength and wisdom to rescue themselves? The institution of Freemasonry exists as an exception to modern society’s tendency to severe ties and abdicate responsibility towards those who are struggling in a state of darkness. As a brotherhood comprised of men and women, senior Masons with experience and knowledge lend a helping hand to those who may lack the guidance and support necessary to change themselves.  As freemasons, we are obligated to help our fellows, regardless of their background or station in life. Interestingly, the word “obligation” is derived from the same Latin root as “ligament.” A cord by which one thing is tied to another, a ligament is not dissimilar to the very rope which held Simpson above the precipice. Bound by oath, Masons stand firm as protectors of humanity refusing to sever the tie that binds regardless of the consequence.

 

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

Imagine yourself as a citizen of the Roman empire. It is 52 BC and a warm summer night’s breeze brushes across your cheek, ruffling the tails of the blindfold tied tightly around your head. Perhaps you are a merchant or a sailor, possibly a soldier between campaigns. You are being led swiftly along a jagged rocky path, your hands bound, deep into the woodlands close to your home town. You come to a stop and you hear a series of passwords exchanged between your escort and a second voice. The words you recognize but their emphasis and arrangement is strange to you. Your escort tugs at your arm and you resume your brisk pace but as you step forward a few paces the unmistakably dank, cool air of a subterranean refuge fills your nostrils. After several twists and turns, your escort once more pulls you to a stop and says to you:

“I can bring you no further, neophyte. You must meet him alone.”

With a gentle push between your shoulder blades, he propels you forward into the unknown labyrinth. Your heart hammers against your rib cage as you take you first step into formless dark. Your foot meets nothing but air and you are plunged headlong into a pool of impossibly cold water. After negotiating several more trials of a similar nature, you feel an unnatural warmth on your skin and you begin to hear the crackling of a fire and the echoes of chanting ahead of you. As you step forward into this room, you are seized at either arm and rushed forward and pushed down on your knees. You are beginning to regret your foolish decision when suddenly your hoodwink is removed. You are blinded by the light of burning braziers and as your vision readjusts to the new light you see a man standing before you garbed in a black robe and wearing a fearsome mask. Behind him is a towering stone stele depicting a man astride a writhing bull, plunging his dagger into its breast. Plants appear to be growing from the wound and various animals are depicted as sharing in the feast. The entire scene is bordered by the zodiacal sigils and cornered by effigies of the Four Winds. The man in black begins to speak:

“When the peace of our world was threatened by the great demon Ahriman, humanity had no hope of prevailing against such a potent force of violence and despair. Ahriman sought to destroy this world by inducing drought, thirst and starvation. Not a drop of moisture remained in the kingdoms of the plants and animals and the whole world cried out in desperation. In our darkest hour, the great hero Mithras, sprang forth from the stone of the world and took up the orb of the Cosmos in his protective embrace. From his bow he let fly an arrow that struck the earth and from this wound came a renewing spring, which rejuvenated the Earth, if only temporarily. Still the threat of destruction persisted and with the assistance of the moon-mother, Selene, the vital fluid essence of life itself was secreted away in a giant bull on Earth. A raven, acting as the messenger of the Sun, came to Mithras and told him of the forest in which the bull was hiding. Mithras burned away the withered and desiccated trees and forced the great bull out in the open. He captured the bull and dragged it underground into the bowels of the Earth where he wrestled it into submission and plunged his dagger into its breast. Trees sprang from the wound, bees were born from the droplets of blood and all of the earth was rejuvenated by this great sacrifice.”

The man in black steps forward and cuts you free of your bonds and takes your right hand in his and, clasping it firmly, declares, “Behold the grip of Mithras. It shall ever identify you as being in allegiance with your brethren as Mithras and Helios were united in like manner. Rise, Raven, and take your rightful place amongst your Brethren!”

The Dawn of Mithras

Although embellished with artistic license, the above account is close to the experience that the novice initiate into the Roman cult of Mithras would have had. Mithraism has its roots in the dawn of civilization, a deity named Mitras making an appearance in the Vedas as the bringer of the light of dawn nearly 2,000 thousand years before his bull-slaying counterpart would appear in Iran. From Persia, Mithras made his way to Greece through Mithradates Eupator VI, a grizzled naval commando of the ancient Mediterranean Sea and king of the Cilician Empire who helped the Greeks repel the attempted conquest of

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Mithradates Eupator VI

Rome. Mithradates was the first to establish Mithras at the head of a mystery religion. This fraternity, created and led by Mithradates himself, functioned as a sort of ancient special forces to be used in piratical incursions across the Mediterranean. The Cilician navy rose to infamy and came to dominate the Mediterranean slave trade after the dissolution of the Carthaginian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. These “pirates of Mithras” also carried out an enterprise of kidnapping Roman magistrates and their families, most likely under the direction of Mithradates himself for political motives as well as profit.

These early Mithraists, who were in nearly constant opposition to the forces of Roman imperialism, conceived of themselves as a sort of hidden militia of Mithras, the cryphii or ‘hidden ones’. They recognized Mithras as a god of righteous warfare, of resistance to oppressive force. Eventually the iron hand of the Roman general Pompey shattered the rule Mithradtes VI and his fraternal mercenaries were scattered to the winds. A few of these Mithraic pirates were captured and paraded through the streets of Rome as part of Pompey’s tribute, the general then installing them as beekeepers in province of Apulia. From here, Mithraism was rekindled and slowly spread northwards to the teeming and lively marketplaces of Rome and found welcome among the Roman collegia, associations of tradesmen and merchants. Mithraism further ingratiated itself into the fabric of Roman society as the cult spread like wildfire among the legions, similar to the expansion of Freemasonry in the 19th century throughout the military of the British Empire. At the height of the Roman imperial period, followers of Mithras ranged as far afield as the scorching fringes of the Sahara to the windswept moors of Hadrian’s Wall.

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Mithras slaying the bull

The Cult of the Invincible Sun

Mithras was a solar deity and bore the title of Sol Invictus, “Invincible Sun”, in reference to his pact with the Sun to restore the Earth. Very few Mithraic liturgical texts have made their way into contemporary hands, as befits a secret society, but a few scraps do remain. Some scholars, such as Robert Turcan in ‘Cults of the Roman Empire’ (1996) speculate that in performing the duties that the Sun was normally responsible for (duties that Helios was somehow prevented from fulfilling), Mithras assumed his throne by his act of heroism. Within the mithraeum, Mithras’ position was always in the south, representing the Sun at full strength at the meridian. On the entrance of the Mithraic crypt and within the mythology of the fraternity, Mithras is flanked by two attendants, Cautes and Cautophates, who represented the Sun at dawn and sunset respectively. Cautes holds a torch pointing upwards while Cautophates directs his towards the ground. They have also been taken as representing the vernal (ascending) and autumnal (descending) equinoxes, which along with the winter and summer solstices, were of the utmost importance to the Mithraic cult.

Mithraism was a religion of the crypt and unlike other Roman mystery religions, had no exoteric function. They held no public ceremonies and the mithraeum were strictly off-limits to outsiders. Because they took no public tithing, Mithraism had to adapt to the circumstances of the individual chapters. The mysteries of Mithras were held in tent’s on the battlefield, discreet taverns and, when possible, in custom built subterranean temples financed by wealthy patrons of the brotherhood. These lavish temples, such as the mithraeum of Ostia, would have been ringed in statuary depicting the seven classical planets and had ceilings painted a deep sky blue, daubed with white stars. The regular meetings of the Mithraic brotherhood were known as “magic banquets” and were held weekly if not daily. They consisted of the brothers entering the temple in procession determined by rank of initiation and taking up places around the edges of the mithraeum. The master of the temple fulfilled the symbolic role of Saturn and sat in a throne wreathed in solar symbols. On occasions that required no extraordinary ceremonies, the proceedings began with a lecture upon spiritual and moral philosophy, no doubt illustrated by the symbolism and astrological allegories of the myth of Mithras. Following this period of study the brethren would participate in a symbolic meal of bread and wine, similar to the Catholic Eucharist, as a symbol of the feast shared by Mithras and Helios, followed by a communal meal.

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A drawing of Aion found at the mithraeum of Ostia

Under the Canopy of Heaven

The study of time and astronomy were of central importance to the mysteries of Mithras. One of the dominant artistic figures of many mithraeum, the lion-headed deity Aion watched over the proceedings of the mystery cult. At Ostia, he was depicted as holding the twin keys of wisdom, the scepter of royal power and the thunderbolt with the tools of a smith, a rooster and a pine cone at his feet. He also has a serpent wrapped around him, the snake’s ability to shed its skin representing infinity. Aion represented unbounded time, in contrast to the limited and linear form of time personified by the Saturnian deity Kronos and was often encircled by the zodiac. Mithraism came into being in the same era as the discovery by Grecian astronomer Hipparchus of the phenomenon now known as the precession of the equinoxes. The precession of the equinoxes is caused by the subtle wobble of the orientation of the Earth’s axis and takes 25,920 years to complete. It has astrological significance in that every 2,160 years the Sun rises on the summer solstice in alignment with a different zodiacal constellation. The Mithraic mysteries were conceived in the midst of a change in ages. Mithras, as the newborn ‘Sol Invictus’, represents the victory of the fire-sign Aries over the previous age of Taurus the Bull. The twin aspects of Cautes and Cautophates symbolizing the addition of Gemini to the retinue of the Sun, the astrological age of Gemini having preceeded that of Taurus. In the tauroctony scene that could be found in every mithraeum, several animals are shown feasting on the bull, including a dog, a lion and a scorpion. These animals surely represented constellations though their exact symbolism and interplay within the Mithraic myth has been lost to history.

The Degrees of the Crypt

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An artist’s interpretation of the initiation ritual of the degree of Soldier

 

The mysteries of Mithras were divided into seven degrees, each connected to one of the seven classical planets. The initiation of the first degree gained the initiate the title of Raven. This oracular bird who could speak like a man occupied a position between the worlds and was thus the first point of contact between the neophyte and the ineffable. Candidates of the grade of Nymphus wore the flammeum, the bridal veil worn by Roman women on their wedding day. At the crescendo of the ritual, the veil was removed to reveal some particular arrangement of ritually significant objects. The words, “Look Nymphus! Hail, Nymphus! Hail young light!” were spoken, these phrases suggesting that the candidate held a lantern. The title of “Nymphus” implies that this degree represented a intermediate stage between the novice state of the Raven and the mastery implicit in the rank of Soldier. The Soldier bore a mark, either tattooed or branded, as a sign of his commitment to the militia of Mithras. During his initiation, the Soldier would have been presented with a crown on the point of a sword. He was then required to divert the crown to his shoulder, declaring that Mithras was his only true crown. The consecration of the degree of Lion was a ritual bathed in fire. The emblems of this degree are the fire-shovel, the sistrum of Isis and the heavenly fire of the thunderbolt. Fire being the enemy of water, the candidate’s hands were washed with honey to ensure his purity. The ritual itself consisted of physical trials by fire, presumably similar to the fire-walking stunts of the Hindu fakirs.  The candidate for the rank of Persian also had his hands washed in honey but for a different symbolism. The Persian was granted the privilege of harvesting the fruits grown by the grace of Mithras’ sacrifice. His emblems were thus the sickle and the Phyrgian cap of liberty. We know nothing of the ritual of the Heliodromos, the Sun-runner, other than that the symbols of his grade were the torch, a radiant crown and the flail. The Father, adorned in a headdress likening him to Mithras, led the proceedings of the temple and it has been speculated that he and a Heliodromos fulfilled the roles of Mithras and the Sun in the ritual re-enactment of the celestial feast.

There is one gift that the mysterious brothers of Mithras gave to the world that has survived to modern times. Every time we clasp hands with a friend, a colleague or a stranger in a handshake, we recognize them as brothers initiated into the mysteries of the cave-dwelling god of sacrifice. The modern handshake was birthed from the cult of Mithras and has endured millennia in its original form. It is obvious, from what scraps of their rituals remain, that some core concepts of Mithraism have survived in modern Freemasonry. It would be irresponsible to attribute the origin of Freemasonry to this cult or that society but it is beyond doubt that certain aspects of many ancient fraternities have been folded within the embrace of Speculative Freemasonry. The Mithraic obsession with utter secrecy concerning the whereabouts and operations of their temples is certainly echoed in Freemasonry, as is the practice of greeting brothers by certain handshakes. As Freemasons, an examination of Mithraism and similar ancient mysteries will surely bring us closer to timeless and unwavering truths glimpsed by so many throughout the vast expanse of time.

“When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart: ‘By the same powers that you are slain, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hands shall deliver me into a mightier hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the Tree of Heaven.'”

-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese poet and Freemason