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Mummy Dearest

Winston Smith

Long an intellectual curiosity, the Rosicrucian Order--and its colorful San Jose Egyptian Museum presence--continues to attract mystery-seekers who might be your next-door neighbors

By Christina Waters

IN A BRIGHTLY LIT meeting room in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood, three dozen casually dressed people are sitting around in a circle, munching cookies and tea and sharing their stories of personal fulfillment. "We are an educational and humanitarian organization," counsels a kindly white-haired man in the center. "And if you sign up today, I'm able to make you a special offer--half price for a three-month membership."

Hmmmm, this wasn't at all what I expected. Not only does this meeting have all the ritualistic secrecy of a bingo game, but the organization itself is a recently downsized 501(c)(3) nonprofit eagerly awaiting an updated computer system. In charge of this domain is a former publicity director for the city of San Diego. This profile could easily fit any number of community and civic groups from Friends of the Library to Goodwill. But these are the Rosicrucians. Expecting to find a group of weirdos babbling New Age jargon, I find well-adjusted, ordinary folks, delighted to enthuse about how much fun it is to be a member of the Order and not in any hurry to bombard me with propaganda. When I find out that the local grand master of the Order is actually a CEO hired for her business and marketing savvy--and that mentioning an ugly bit of corporate mismanagement under the previous administration fails to work up anybody's sweat--my disillusion is complete. What if--what if--the Rosicrucian Order is alive and well because it's doing something right?


Rosicrucian history.


Local Attraction

IN EGYPT LAST month, making a long-dreamed-of pilgrimage to see the great antiquities of the Nile Valley, I found myself standing inside the great temple at Karnak. "My God, that looks just like the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose," I blurted out in one of those art-imitates-art realizations that define the postmodern era. The front entrance of the South Bay tourist attraction is faced with similar papyrus-based columns and rows of ram-headed sphinxes just like the ones lining the processional road to Karnak. From its anatomically correct model of Queen Hatshepsut's temple in the Valley of the Kings to its celebrated and eerily preserved mummies, the annex to Rosicrucian headquarters is an archaeological theme park for Egyptophiliacs. And it held that honor long before King Tut mania made images of the glittering boy-king as ubiquitous as McDonald's golden arches. (Yes there is a McDonald's within spitting distance of the pyramids at Giza.)

Owned and operated by the Rosicrucian Order, the museum is a lavish update of the original Moorish structure that housed the private collection of H. Spencer Lewis, an American businessman with a bad case of Egyptomania who revived the Rosicrucian Order in the New World seven decades ago. Lewis thought big, envisioning a grand complex of temple-style buildings and gardens, a cultural showpiece that would attract spiritual heavyweights and the general public as well. When the present-day Egyptian museum was dedicated on Nov. 26, 1966, it contained the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities on display on the West Coast. More recently, the discovery of surgically implanted pins reattaching limbs on a mummy have attracted teams of scientists who continue to carry out DNA research on selected museum specimens. According to the museum's acting director, Jill Freeman, schoolchildren from Sacramento to Fresno--six groups a day--pass through the museum's polished hallways, ogling the linen-swathed mummies and squealing in the darkness of an authentically re-created 4,000-year-old stone tomb.

Surrounded by lotus ponds and life-size sculptures of long-dead kings, the museum is a startling yet curiously confident fixture of its upscale neighborhood. Inside the heavy brass-plated doors reposes glittering eye candy from a culture so obsessed with eternity that it meticulously mummified cats, filled tombs with food, clothing and "travel" money for the dead and developed scientific instruments--also on display--to extract internal organs without leaving any unsightly flesh wounds. Delicate perfume vials still filled with their essential oils share shelf space with macabre mummies still wearing their hennaed hair and fingernails. Almost every local resident can recall some kind of trip there, plunking down that $7 admission fee to sate their curiosity, or at least to check out the mummies. Small wonder. The very word "Rosicrucian" is saturated with deliciously cryptic associations.

Before there was the New Age, there were the Rosicrucians, a secret order of truth-seekers whose promises of heightened consciousness and reincarnation beckoned from the back pages of popular magazines throughout my girlhood. Yes, I did want to know the secrets of the ancient Egyptians. Who wouldn't be interested in occult wisdom shared by such enlightened individuals as philosopher René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Dante and even whiskey-throated chanteuse Edith Piaf? So historically juicy is the idea of secret Rosicrucian knowledge that forms a Sargasso Sea of innuendo extending from the biblical era's Essenes and the Gnostic gospels, through medieval laboratories and into Masonic lodges and Crusader conspiracies. To see just how much Egypto-inspired Rosicrucian imagery has permeated our everyday lives, try to imagine a dollar bill without that glowing pyramid and its all-seeing eye.

The Egyptian Museum & Planetarium are sponsored by the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC®, a worldwide educational and philosophical organization. It is not a religion and does not require a specific code of belief or conduct. Through its teachings, individuals can discover inner wisdom, form personal philosophies of life and enhance physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
Rosicrucian flier

The Grand Master

IN AN INTERVIEW at her private office, Grand Master Kristie Knutson, a fresh-faced brunette in her mid-40s, hits the ground running. "The Order came here in 1927, looking for a headquarters," she explains in a voice honed by countless public-speaking engagements. "The museum happened by accident. People gave Dr. Lewis gifts of artifacts to add to his own collections. From one display case," she smiles, "pretty soon there were two and then three and then four cases in the hallway filled with artifacts. In those days they could still bring artifacts out of Egypt." The museum evolved out of the need to stash all the loot, so to speak.

And as for those magazine ads hawking "secret mysteries" to be revealed if you join the Rosicrucians? It's true, Knutson concedes, that the order did evolve from the ancient mystery schools of Egypt. But, she patiently explains, the "mystery" part of it evolved in an effort to protect maverick thinkers, the upstarts who questioned the dogma of their day. Their oft-unpopular intellectual challenges remained an oral--and hence secret--tradition to protect their freedom of thought.

"In the '30s and '40s, as far as spiritualism went, Rosicrucians were the only game in town--one-stop shopping if you were interested in metaphysics." When I grew up in Minnesota, no one was asking about past lives," Knutson laughs. "The ideas of visualization and meditation were considered weird, real fringe concepts." But no longer.

"It's fascinating to me," she continues, "that in the last five years there's a tremendous shift happening." Knutson cites an article in a recent Newsweek, revealing that "58 percent of all Americans felt the need for spiritual--not religious but spiritual--growth. So there's something happening," she adds, "and we have contributed to that. We were there at the beginning."

But let's not confuse spiritual exploration, Rosicrucian-style, with organized religion. "There's also an explosion of fundamentalist religion." Her eyes narrow. "Fundamentalist religion, in my opinion," she contends hotly, "is intolerant, judgmental, bigoted, divides people, does not heal and creates dependent thinkers." I'm glad I'm sitting down. "How dare someone say we'll be damned if we question?"

Despite getting in on the ground floor of the New Age, so to speak, Rosicrucian Park's once-bustling Alexandria Bookstore closed last year. In an environment where every corner grocery sells books on channeling, the Rosicrucian emporium was up to its crystals in competition.

"Barnes & Noble and Borders opened," Knutson sighs, "and they just killed us." But the Order still sells mystical and Egypto-theme paraphernalia via a glossy catalog crammed with books, inspirational CDs, hieroglyphic tie tacks, tarot cards, dowsing rod kits and umpteen models of the pyramids at Giza.

Winston Smith

Re-ordering the Order

AFTER GRADUATING from UC-Santa Barbara and working for the city of San Diego, Knutson was hired as public relations director for the Rosicrucian Order, where today she joins five other women all over the world who hold the position of grand master. "When Imperator Ralph Lewis died, it was a classic situation. There was no transition planning. And so there were a few problems reorganizing the company," she says without flinching. "It was a big shock in 1990--there were real problems. We had a choice to go belly up or to change things."

The changes were big. Once the world headquarters of the Rosicrucian Order, the local institution underwent a complete shakedown during its messy divorce from yuppie visionary Gary L. Stewart, who held the post of imperator from 1987 to 1989. (The designation "imperator" is the Order's highest rank and usually a lifetime appointment. Today's imperator is 45-year-old Frenchman Christian Bernard, who administers the worldwide Supreme Grand Lodge from an office in Normandy.) A 1990 lawsuit against Stewart, alleged to have embezzled $3.5 million of the Order's funds and squirreled it away in an Andorran bank account, flared up and quickly dissolved into a quiet settlement. "We prevailed," maintains acting director Freeman. "All the money was returned, and everything was settled out of court. We honestly don't know where Stewart is; he's long gone."

After the dust had cleared, it was obvious that the Order needed to keep closer tabs on its books. An all-new board of directors was formed, Knutson was hired and the lodge was downsized. "We have jurisdiction over a much smaller territory now," Ron Skolmen, master of the local Ralph M. Lewis lodge, explains, "just North America and the English-speaking Caribbean. So we're a much smaller body now, just 10,000 members in the whole grand lodge. So we don't have as large a fiscal base."

"It will take a great deal of work and imagination," says Rosicrucian teacher and occasional employee Mark Moulton, "to make the transition from the head of everything to just a grand lodge."

"There was an immediate downsizing of staff," Knutson admits. "We just don't need all that staff." A recent rash of leave-takings on the part of key museum employees, including its director, also creates vacancies among the nine full-time-equivalent staffers who run the museum.

Back to the Future

IN THE MIDST of this, Knutson and company have begun focusing on a master plan for the Rosicrucian Park, an area of five square blocks housing gardens and buildings whose estimated value is anywhere between $10 million and $30 million. Without revealing specifics, Knutson says she's talking with the city and with the park's neighbors about "various scenarios scheduled for implementation in 1999." Refurbishing, retrofitting and razing are on the agenda. "Our annex building is so old it will have to go down," she says, adding that other dinosaur structures might have to be sacrificed as well. "But whatever is built will have the same look and feel," she quickly maintains. "And I can say that we're looking forward to the museum as the crown jewel--putting in new carpets, reinstalling exhibits with interactive displays."

When asked about the sign "SBI--Services for the Brain Impaired" recently added to one of the park's buildings, Knutson admits that the Order has begun leasing some of its property. "SBI is a wonderful nonprofit, and we've definitely got a lot of office space out there," she grins with a shrug. "I'm excited to offer people the park as a setting for future activities, but it's going to be a real trick for an organization this size to raise the necessary funds."

Winston Smith

A Rose by Any Other Name

IF YOU POINT your Internet search engine toward the word "Rosicrucian," you'll turn up a blizzard of arcane data and links to various groups, all liberally lacing their cyber-slogans with the label "Rosicrucian." Confusion would quickly set in without the reminder that not all the links lead to a single organization. "Rosicrucian is a word," grand master Knutson explains. Though the Order's highly touted lineage to the mystery schools of ancient Egypt cannot be traced without huge gaps, Knutson insists that her group alone can claim that history. "But we don't have an adversarial relationship with those other groups that use the name," she adds.

Combing these Web sites for nuggets of enlightenment embedded in the elaborate jargon can't compete for sheer seduction with the teasing hyperbole found in Foucault's Pendulum. In Italian linguist Umberto Eco's masterwork, a maverick band of computer hackers and historians stumbles upon the Rosicrucian riddle to find nothing less than the lost treasure of the Knights Templar, the mysterious secrets of the cabala and the location of the Holy Grail, all embedded within a tantalizing digital formula. Eco has his protagonists speculate at length about the possibility that the Rosicrucians are the secret identity of the Jesuits, and that rosy thread leads through Mozart, the Masons and mass transit, on to multinational corporate coups and the secret of eternal life. Eco's fictional order of the rosy cross is a far cry from the local temple's public get-acquainted meetings offered the first Sunday of each month.

Ordinary People

EXCITED AS TWO kids sneaking into a drive-in movie, Charlie and I take our seats around a big circle in a meeting room of the Grand Temple Building on Randol Avenue. We've never met any card-carrying Rosicrucians in the flesh before, and we're not sure what to expect. The people sitting around the table look like ordinary humans, neither spacey nor low-rent. As introductions are made, I note the group's demographics--slightly more women than men, average age roughly 45, few persons of color, and all friendly and relaxed--especially the white-haired leader, Skolmen, a retired boat builder.

Disappointed by the amiable normalcy of the group, we remain alert for sounds of mumbo jumbo or dogma. A grassroots organization of volunteers, its members take turns talking about their personal growth through the Rosicrucian Order. The avuncular Skomen talks unself-consciously about Atlantis and its link to Egypt, ancient Greece and Alexander the Great. If he believes this stuff literally, he's not telling. Another member demystifies the relationship between Christianity and Rosicrucianism. "There isn't any," he patiently explains. "The cross is an ancient symbol, the sign of a crossroads." "Yes, it's much older than Christianity," chimes in another member. "After all, we're 3,500 years old, and Christianity is only 2,000." Skolmen explains a bit about the Order's educational mission. New members are sent monographs to study each week. After each degree of study--expected to take roughly a year to 18 months--the member is initiated (everyone questioned remains politely vague as to the nature of these initiations) into the next phase, where the principles are explained in a way (of course nobody's about to tell us just how) that builds on what has gone before.

What goes on is a goo of vague but serious terminology about personal growth and a body of knowledge involving universal laws--there's mention of medicine and alchemy--that can be applied to everyday life. "We're the original New Age group, but without all the high-priced paraphernalia," chuckles the group leader.

However vague and reassuring the patter, Charlie and I realize that nobody is making the slightest effort to seduce or even convince us. "You are in control of how you implement these principles," Skolmen says. "You're free to reject anything until you personally prove it." Another member proudly notes, "We like to call ourselves human question marks. We aren't afraid of free inquiry."


Power Outage

FORMER MUSEUM director Julie Scott, a former marketing rep for a tourism company, is one of the most vocal participants in Sunday's open meeting. Scott also considered her recent job as museum director a great opportunity to contribute to the Order--"though it wasn't quite as lucrative as the cruise business," she adds with a smile. According to acting director Freeman, Scott's recent departure--along with that of the assistant director and a few other key staff members--was "just a matter of very unusual timing."

Freeman, who is handling the day-to-day budget, staff and programming at the museum while open recruitment continues, acknowledges that the museum has gone through "some growing pains recently." A museum volunteer, who asked not to be named, described Scott's departure as sudden and without the usual two weeks' notice, adding that the locally famous student tours no longer seemed to be a museum priority (an accusation Freeman says is unfounded, adding, "There are only so many student tours we can handle.")

Chatting with Skolmen after the meeting, we hear a calmly delivered psychic bombshell--that shortly after the turn of the millennium, the Order will probably disband in this country. "Every 108 years it goes dark," he revealed, admitting that such a dismantling might have worrisome consequences for the future of the Order and of Rosicrucian Park.

The idea of going sub rosa for a period of 108 years allows the organization to breathe, Skolmen contends. "If we stop for a period, we can begin fresh from the bottom up. The information has been archived and will be carried forward, waiting for when the time is right."

This sounds suspiciously like the secret order's 120-year cycles of activity and hibernation, the same notion that perfumed the plot line of Eco's Pendulum. "When Dr. Lewis was invited by the masters in France, he was given the task to initiate a new cycle. That's when the Order began again in the United States," Skolmen continues. "The French cycle started in 1948, so they will continue while we're dark. It's always going on somewhere."

Will the local Grand Lodge of the Rosicrucians really discontinue activity in the year 2016?

If so, Knutson, for one, isn't planning to pack up. "I think the 108-year cycle has to do with a natural span of institutions and organizations," she explains. "They usually begin with a charismatic leader; pretty soon they become a movement, then buildings get built. Pretty soon the institution is stuck.

"In the 16th and 17th centuries," she continues, "there was a single group that called itself Rosicrucian. Now we've got so many different groups, it would be hard to pinpoint the beginning of the life cycle. Besides we're in the electronic era, so I don't know how we could possibly 'go dark.' Does 'going dark' simply mean a profound shift in how we communicate the teachings?" she asks. And then she adds, almost exasperated, "What the hell does it mean? Planning for a period of inactivity is silly. That 108-year thing is literalism. We're dealing with symbolism. Learning to live in the now is what's important; I don't care what happens in 2016."

Doing the Math

SPEAKING FROM HIS worldwide headquarters in Normandy, Rosicrucian Imperator Christian Bernard deals with the big picture, so to speak, and explains his work in a strong French accent. "One of our largest goals is to develop the Rosicrucian Order worldwide. And we've been very successful in the old Soviet bloc," he says with relish. "There will soon be a Hungarian grand lodge. This year there is a lodge based in Moscow, also one in Poland. We will go step-by-step," he notes. "I also work on refreshing the monographs, on updating the writing--but always the content remains the same." What about this 108-year-cycle thing? "The idea of the cycle existed in the past," he acknowledges, "mainly in Europe. For example, the Order was alive in Germany but not in France. The cycle pops up here and not there; it's mainly for religious and political purposes, partly so that the Order will not be infiltrated."

So Eco was on to something when he aligned the cycles with conspiracies to take over the secrets of the Knights Templar and their compatriots, the Rosicrucians.

"But also," Bernard continues, "the number 108 is a symbol. When you add one plus zero plus eight, you get nine. And nine is the route to unity. The idea of a 108-year cycle is much more of a symbol than something literal."

As to the immediate future, Bernard believes that "people will continue to come to us, looking for something within themselves." And hopefully bringing enough money to keep the Rosicrucians alive. "The Supreme Grand Lodge is happy to accept donations," the imperator chuckles.

Retrofitting its infrastructure for the existing spiritual climate, today's Rosicrucian Order--secrets available for $240 a year--seems as mysterious as a tax write-off.

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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