Knowing Thyself in San Jose

Visiting the world headquarters of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis

Childhood curiosity led me to consider a number of esoteric subjects. In my general readings -- which whirled around subjects such as the tarot, meditation, automatic writing, visualization, self-healing, and a variety of other psychic phenomena -- I would frequently come across mentions of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, a secret fraternity of men and women who study the great mysteries of the universe and human consciousness and who, through discourse and experimentation, attempt to enrich their lives by rigorously adhering to a seemingly simple adage: "Know thyself."

From what I can tell, the Rosicrucian Order, as it is known today, was founded in 17th-century Germany by Christian Rosenkrutz,who initiated a number of brothers into a systematic study of personal illumination. The Rosicrucian Order, however, was not a religious sect, and it had no leader of thought (though imperators were eventually elected to oversee the operation of various lodges). Under the Rosicrucian model, every man is his own master and apostle; nothing in life, mystical or otherwise, should be swallowed as dogma. True learning is achieved through study, experimentation, application, and personal substantiation.

According to its own lore, and the myths vary greatly, the Rosicrucian Order may have existed throughout European history and before, plotting the stars, studying auras, or searching for the Philosopher's Stone through alchemy under the secret symbol of the red rose (representing unfolding consciousness) and the cross (representing human form). Some claim that the first Rosicrucians were followers of 16th-century scholar and occultist Paracelsus and his magical dictate "As above, so below"; others claim that Paracelsus was a Rosicrucian. Going further still, others claim that the Rosicrucian method of gaining erudition of secret knowledge, or gnosis, stretches back to Egypt's 18th Dynasty when Pharaoh Thutmosis III supported a state-run "mystery school" and its initiates.

Whatever the historical truth, today the order counts among its membership Leonardo da Vinci, Francis Rabelais, Edith Piaf, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Francis Bacon (past imperator of the order), Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and Claude Debussy. The order has given rise, if not encouragement, to countless other mystical fraternities, including the Illuminists as well as the Order of the Golden Dawn, a group of Christian Kabbalists, which in turn gave impetus to Aleister Crowley and numerous other magical adepts; during the rise of National Socialism, the Rosicrucians were among those targeted for extermination in Germany, which, eventually, caused the world headquarters of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) to be relocated to San Jose.

In 1909, businessman and philosopher Dr. H. Spencer Lewis was initiated into the order. He first opened a lodge in New York City, then, after brief stops in San Francisco and Florida, he opened a lodge among the expansive fruit orchards of San Jose. While, historically, Rosicrucian lessons had been taught to students only in lodges, Lewis decided to print them and send them out by mail, uniting students across the great expanse of North America and the world. Over time, Lewis' San Jose lodge became the world headquarters and was expanded to include a temple, university, Egyptian museum, planetarium, amphitheater, research library, rehabilitation center, and shipping-and-receiving building to support the Rosicrucian Press Ltd. The sprawling Rosicrucian Park, which replaced the simple lodge, became a center for students.

Embedded in the nondescript hubbub of workaday San Jose, the Rosicrucian Park looks like a peeling Las Vegas theme hotel or a deserted movie set. Egyptian gods carved in stone overlook gazing pools, where tourists lounge under giant rams, snacking on submarine sandwiches; the imposing administration building, shaped like a monolithic vault with smooth impenetrable walls, supporting a gold-gilt sun couched by two cobras, faces homely residences and automobile traffic; a statue of Thutmosis XVIII sits on the busy corner of Chapman and Naglee, surrounded by an ankh-shaped walkway; two sphinx statues guard a large obelisk covered in Egyptian text near the long-closed planetarium; water from a large fountain, bearing the symbol of the "rose cross" in tile and topped by a golden statue of Aset, leaks across the courtyard in front of the once-impressive university building (apparently no longer in use). Most of the windows in most of the buildings are curtained, and the smell of mold curls out from under doorways, but there is no graffiti (a surprise given the sheer, flat walls stretching at inclines into the sky). The lawns are well-trimmed, if browning in spots. A fresh rose garden has been planted near the library, which is adorned by impressive brass door-knockers fashioned in the shape of the starlike symbol of Solomon. There is no movement inside.

The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is another story: Under the rose- and gold-hued columns, through the towering brass doors, hundreds of families and middle-school students swarm in and out of the galleries, ogling ancient mummies of priests, cats, hawks, and baboons, listening to docents spin tales about early Egyptian life. Scale models and replicas of ancient statues sit intermingled with authentic artifacts from the era -- tools, pottery, jewelry, games, sarcophagi, and epic warnings written on stone and papyrus. This collection, which began as Lewis' personal assembly of ancient mystical relics, is now the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on the West Coast, and the only collection housed in a building fashioned after the era. There's even a dimly lit tomb tour that leads through stone caverns covered with fabricated ancient writings, but for someone looking for real mysteries, for someone looking for Rosicrucians, it's a Disneyland-style disappointment. Only one small display mentions them by name, briefly outlining their possible history. I am assured there are no Rosicrucians on staff, even though I imagine seeing the secret symbol around one or two necks. I am directed to a pamphlet called Mastery of Life, stationed by the front door, near the brochures for Hearst Castle and Winchester Mystery House, and in the gift shop, nestled among various Egyptian curios and New Age books (including the oddly placed Biology of Star Trek), I find four slim booklets titled Esoteric Essayswith writings by Dr. H. Spencer Lewis and his son, Past Imperator of the Order Ralph M. Lewis.

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