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Wings Of The Eagle, Wings On Our Feet

Jim Tresner, 33°, G.C.
PO Box 70
Guthrie Oklahoma 73044-0070

One of the joys of attending the re cent 1998 Scottish Rite Leadership Conferences was the chance to visit with and pick the brains of friends. I had been reading a book entitled Who’s Afraid of Freemasonry? There, I had encountered the word hermeneutics. I had a vague thought that the term dealt with explanations, but I resolved to corner Bro. Bill Fox at one of the three 1998 Leadership Conferences and inquire further.

Ill. William L. Fox, 33°, is the Grand Archivist and Grand Historian of The Supreme Council. (I hope, by the way, that you have read his new book about the Scottish Rite, The Lodge of the Double-Headed Eagle: Two Centuries of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in America’s Southern Jurisdiction. It’s a first-rate work!) He is also a minister, a professor, an author, an editor, and one of the three people I primarily go to with questions on comparative religion. He has a remarkable ability to express a difficult topic in terms even I can understand.

“Well yes,” said he, “in a way it deals with explanation. But it really means the process of understanding an explanation, of systematically seeking out hidden or less obvious meanings, of explaining something thoroughly and completely in order to make the meaning plain in context and in contemporary terms so that the person has a full understanding of an idea. It comes from the name of the Greek god Hermes, the god sometimes shown with winged feet, who was the messenger -- the carrier of information from Olympus to the world.”

Wooof! Like a blow to the stomach!

For that, of course, is the purpose and mission of the Scottish Rite. “The symbol,” we are told, “conceals -- it does not reveal.” Training in the teachings of the Scottish Rite is rather like training in hermeneutics. We learn to look for the meaning beyond the symbol.

And then I saw the picture which is on the front cover of this issue, the head of an American eagle in the foreground with the flag of the United States in the background.

I must admit I usually cringe at the thought of writing an article on patriotism. It’s not that I’m opposed to patriotism. Far from it! Rather, it is just that it is so very hard to find something interesting to say on the topic which has not already been said better by Brothers Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and a myriad of other Brethren. It’s hard not just to massage platitudes. But the idea of hermeneutics was fresh in my mind when I saw this cover illustration shortly after speaking to Brother Fox at a Leadership Conference.

Thus, the photograph spurred me to ask “What does patriotism really mean -- or the flag -- or the eagle? What is the concept behind the symbol?”

The eagle is a royal bird. Only members of royalty were allowed to use eagles as hunting birds. All others were limited to hawks. There is something powerful in the thought that, in the United States, the eagle became the symbol of the nation and thus of the common man.

It is a fierce defender of its young and its territory. Predictable symbolism there, perhaps.

But in the ancient symbol systems, it was also a symbol of regeneration and rebirth, being rejuvenated in its old age by its flights toward the sun. In Greece, Egypt and India, it was the general symbol of the spiritual principle. It represented the triumph of the spirit in the battle of the spiritual with the earthly or material. Dante calls the eagle the bird of God. It is associated with lightning (the wavy sword which the Scottish Rite double-headed eagle grasps in its talons is, in one sense, a symbol of lightning) which punishes evil and justifies good. The eagle symbolizes power; not raw power, but power under superb control. And it represents keen, far-sighted vision and, therefore, symbolizes understanding and a knowledge of the future.

A flag has an obvious symbolism of freedom. It rides high, enraptured with the air. It streams and flashes, both submitting to and defying the winds. But it is freedom with restraint. If a flag breaks free of its supporting pole, it becomes a plaything of the elements, dashed about in chaos until the winds hurl it to the ground.

Perhaps that is the real message of patriotism, too.

Patriotism which is simply a knee-jerk reaction, unthinking, uncritical, all-emotion-and-no-logic is like a flag broken free of its mast. It has no anchor, no purpose or direction. In this form, patriotism has nothing to hold it in place, and so, ultimately, it falls crumpled into the dust.

The anchor for a flag is the staff or mast; the anchor for the freedom the flag symbolizes is a sense of values. Freedom without values becomes anarchy, a tossing about in the elemental chaos. Laws are not the anchor. Laws only punish after freedom is abused, but they cannot prevent the abuse. The law can punish me if I cheat, but only a value of fairness can keep me from cheating. The law can punish me if I kill, but only a value which says that life is precious and to be protected can keep me from killing.

With values, freedom leads any man or woman to self-development and growth. Without values, freedom leads any man or woman to destruction.

That is why the cover picture of this issue is so powerful to me. For the flag represents freedom, but the eagle represents values -- spiritual, not material values. And, as it should be, the eagle is in the foreground.

That combination of freedom and values is, to me, the real meaning of patriotism. Patriotism is not the mindless obedience of rules, doing whatever your country tells you to do. The trials at Nuremberg proved that, and other trials for war crimes since have confirmed it. Patriotism involves thought and an insistence on values. One Brother remarked that patriotism means loving your country so much that you refuse to let her do wrong, just as you would love your sister so much you would not let her become a woman of relaxed virtue, or your children so much you would not let them be destructive.

We must combine the eagle with the flag-the spiritual values with freedom.

Here, I think, is where hermeneutics enters the picture.

Each Scottish Rite Mason must become his own hermeneutist (or, since we are building vocabulary, hermeneutician). Each must explore for himself the meanings of the symbols of the eagle and the flag -- values and freedom. Each must decide what patriotism means in his own life.

The questions are not easy. The balance between values and freedom never is. It takes more than the wings of the eagle or the winged sandals of Hermes to come to a true understanding of patriotism; it takes the best thought possible and the deepest consideration one can muster.

The flag without the eagle -- freedom without the firm anchor of values -- leads to chaos. The eagle without the flag -- spiritual values without a free country in which they can grow and develop -- leads to pain, frustration, and the ultimate destruction of the individual.

Patriotism is both -- flag and eagle -- in balance.