And now I'm following S. Brent Morris
down the marble staircase, deeper into the bowels of the Washington headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry -- the building known as the House of the Temple.The place is as hushed as a cathedral, as silent as a sarcophagus.The only sound is the crisp clicking of
Morris's heels on the marble stairs.Morris
is 51, a balding, gray-haired man in a gray suit.He's a mathematician who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the science of card shuffling.For 25 years, he worked as a cryptographer for the National Security Agency.
can't talk about that.It's classified.He's
also a Freemason.He
is a Royal Arch Mason and a Cryptic Mason and a Knight Templar.He
is a Perfect Elu, a Grand Pontiff, a Knight of the Brazen Serpent and a Master of the Royal Secret.He
is a 33rd-degree Mason, and there is no 34th degree.He's also a Masonic historian and the Scottish Rite's director of membership development.Morris
leads me down the Hall of the Scottish Rite Regalia, where the walls are lined with photo-realistic oil paintings of the garb worn for each of the 33 degrees -- the aprons, the caps, the cordons, the baldrics, the jewels, the rings, the gloves.He
heads down another hallway and stops at the threshold of a room.
"This is the Burl Ives Room," he
passed away, his
family gave his
personal collection to us."
The room is dark but when Morris steps into it, lights automatically pop on, revealing walls covered with the folk singer's pictures, and an Ives song begins to play.
"It senses our presence," Morris
"There's J. Edgar Hoover's picture," Morris
"We have a picture of him in his
"There's the picture of him in his
...Soon, there were literally thousands of higher degrees, says Brent Morris, the Masonic historian who took me on that tour of the House of the Temple.
And some of the new rituals were very bizarre.In one ceremony, for instance, the initiate carried a human skull while watching a depiction of Christ's death and resurrection.Then he
drank wine from the skull, symbolizing "the bitter cup of death, of which we must all, sooner or later, drink."
"When it got back on its feet, it was a much more circumspect organization," says Morris
is the Mason who took me on a tour of this place, who fooled me with his
joke about Hoover's dress.But giving tours is just a sideline.He
spends most of his
time on his
job as director of membership development for the Scottish Rite
It's a tough job, maybe an impossible job.The rite has lost a third of its membership since 1979.
"One of the dilemmas we have," he
says, "is that the people who are the most active and the most involved are really satisfied with the way it currently exists -- otherwise they wouldn't be active.