Censing in Freemasonry: Practical or Symbolic?

Censing in Freemasonry: Practical or Symbolic?

The act of censing has been said to create a pleasing and purified ritual space.  There is nothing quite as inspiring as walking in to a sacred place and being hit by the smell of lovely incense, which immediately transports us into a more reverent state of mind.  What are the reasons censing is important, or is it?

The Rite of Censing came before, most, if not all, the current concepts of religion. It is said to have originated from a distant past when men worshiped the sun and other fiery forces of nature. Most researchers agree that there is a connecting link between the use of incense in the ancient mysteries of the past, and the speculative Freemasonry of the present day, for those lodges who use incense. From what I have read, this connection can be fairly well traced by archaeologists.  However, there is less agreement on why it is important.

Is censing and the use of incense in ritual more practical or symbolic today?

I recently read an interesting book called “A history of the use of incense in divine worship” (1909) by Cuthbert Atchley.   It contains a rather unique and objective history of censing within ritual, both pre-Christian and Christian. I especially enjoyed the section explaining various Egyptian ceremonials.  However, I was somewhat disappointed when I finally arrived at the end of the book to hear researcher Atchley’s conclusions:

“The ultimate basis of all use of incense in the Church is its pleasant odour; that is, it is fumigatory.  The more superficial reasons are what are called ceremonial.”

In other words, he is saying that the main use of censing and incense is for “deodorant” purposes, to mask awful smells and the stink of decaying bodies, and so on. He says that any connection to ceremonial purposes is “superficial.” While I might be somewhat forgiving because the book was written over a century ago, the thinking underlying still seems flawed, in my mind at least.

If something did have a practical origin at some point in time, does that mean that any symbolic value is of no account? Following from that, should it be done away withNeff_Angel accordingly?  It seems to me that this fails to think deeply enough about the nature and function of ritual and ceremony – no matter what century we are talking about.

Practical Origins

It is true that many of the early uses of incense were practical and operative. For example, the fragrance obscured odors, and was aesthetically pleasing. There existed a mystical healing art hidden surrounding the use of certain incenses. Ancient Egyptians (3000 BC) practiced medicine with aromatic plants and even went so far as to establish astrological relationships for them.  There are many pictures that can be seen where a Pharaoh is depicted with a censer casting the incense. Each civilization, throughout the ages have all added their own contribution to this handed down practical knowledge. 

Over time, the burning of incense formed a link to spirituality in a speculative sense when it was offered to the gods alongside sacrifices and prayer. Incense is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The psalmist expresses the symbolism of incense and prayer:

“Let my prayer rise like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:1)

What the ancients knew intuitively, science has verified today.  Of all of the five senses, the sense of smell is most strongly connected to the areas of the brain that process memory.  Even the smallest hint of a fragrance that you had previously associated with a certain place can bring you back to there in moments.  Incense, then, is a way to tap the mind quickly and with a great deal of exactitude.  Certain combinations of aromas can quickly adjust not only the atmosphere of the room but the atmosphere of the emotions Temple Censingand mind. Knowing all this, how, then, is censing significant in Freemasonry?

A Symbolic Perspective from C.W. Leadbeater

Freemason Charles W. Leadbeater placed a great deal of importance on the ceremonial value of censing in his book “The Hidden Life in Freemasonry.” He said that the entire process of censing in a Masonic Lodge is meant to prepare and purify. It provides an atmosphere of solemnity and due introspection. He explains that the ceremony of censing, being a vortical movement, is connected with the way in which the Great Architect has constructed the universe.

Leadbeater writes:

“In the movements made and in the plan of the Lodge were enshrined some of the great principles on which that universe had been built.”

He thought the censing ritual to be significant giving four main reasons:

  1. Raises the vibration of the lodge.
  2. Unifies the lodge members in thought.
  3. Bridges the inner worlds with the outer.
  4. Lifts and aids the candidate.Buddha censing

Leadbeater’s premise is that the basis of any ritual is intent. The intentional thoughts of the members set the purpose and vision for the ritual. The lodge work concerns lifting and raising humanity from the human to the spiritual kingdom. The Craft performed is therefore applied to the mastery of the forces of one’s own nature, whereby “that which is below” may become truly and accurately aligned with “that which is above.”

He says:

“The time has come when men are beginning to see that life is full of invisible influences, whose value can be recognized by sensitive people. The effect of incense is an instance of this class of phenomena… each of which vibrates at its own rate and has its own value.”

Any of us who has experienced censing may have a different opinion of what it means. Practical or symbolic? Perhaps both?  For myself, censing kindles a wonderment at the eternal mystery of an all-knowing Deity, whom we have not seen and cannot yet see clearly. Our human vision is not suited to that. The smoke obscures the air briefly. It is salutary for us to be reminded every now and again that our concept of the Most High is always incomplete, inadequate; that he is other, transcendent, and holy.

The Masonic Pursuit of Freedom

The Masonic Pursuit of Freedom

What makes a Freemason free? I started brooding over this question one day when wondering which word is better to use, “Freemason” or “mason.” Is one term more correct? Historically, the distinction is said to be a carry-over from the medieval period of the stone masons. In a grammatical sense, both terms are used interchangeably today. Like any word, I guess you can speculate more about their deeper meanings, if you are so inspired.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, a smaller question led to bigger ones. 

What is freedom? How is it important to a Freemason?

The concept of freedom is difficult to understand because it can work in mysterious ways from within out; it is not imposed from the outside. Rosa Parks was not protesting so that she could be free, nor was Mahatma Gandhi in prison waiting for someone to anoint him with an elixir of freedom. In their hearts and minds. they were already free!

Freedom means many things to different people. Some philosophers call freedom a principle, a law, or a right. It can be defined from various perspectives like economic, social, political or religious. Freedom has also been said to be a state of mind or even a state of being when a person is liberated from the “tomb of matter.” There are a select few who don’t believe it exists at all.

Regardless of how we define it, most would agree that freedom is part of our approach to life. The very ideas such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of choice all have become the very water and air of our societies. These freedoms are highly prized.

The American Declaration of Independence tells us:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Is, then, the instinctual striving toward freedom and the pursuit of happiness inherent in all human beings?

The Pursuit of Happiness by Aristotle
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The great philosophers in earlier centuries had a huge impact about how we think about these types of questions today. More than anyone else, Aristotle enshrined happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics years ago before becoming a Freemason and adopted it as much of my own personal philosophy. In the lectures he presents a theory of happiness that has carried through all my years as a mason which says a lot.

Aristotle sought to answer the most fundamental questions you can ask yourself. What is the highest good of human existence? What is the highest good achievable by action?

Aristotle suggests that human existence is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue. To understand the nature of happiness or “eudaimonia,” as he called it, we must investigate the nature of virtue.

As Aristotle puts it:

“If happiness is in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us.”

Now, I thought the conclusion that Aristotle comes to after his lecture on virtue is very interesting. He says that none of the moral virtues are inherent in human nature. For example, the moral virtues, such as fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, can only be attained through practice and habitual action. Essentially, his line of thinking is that happiness comes from virtue, and then virtue comes from  freedom of choice. He says that “to entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement.”

statue-of-liberty-1746808_960_720Choices, as he defines them, are the things that can be brought about by one’s own efforts. Responsible choices are the ones that provide the greatest good for the greatest number. The freedom of choice is an essential component in the formula to happiness and consequently to becoming more “free.”

Which aspects, then, of freedom are most immediately identifiable to a freemason?

The “Free” Mason

In the writings of Manly P. Hall, we find many ideas that are in sync with Aristotle. When a mason passes through the door of the Temple and takes his seat, he has made a choice to let his entire nature be subjected to a drastic discipline of ethical training. By development of virtues, he advances in the Craft.

Manly Hall writes in The Candidate:

“There comes a time in the growth of every living individual thing when it realizes with dawning consciousness that it is a prisoner. It is at this point that man cries out with greater insistence to be liberated from the binding ties which, though invisible to mortal eyes, still chain him with bonds far more terrible than those of any physical prison.”

soul-2698886_960_720One can only speculate what Hall meant by the binding ties that chain him. 

What is the candidate being liberated from? Perhaps it could be said that the candidate is a slave to his dogmas and ideologies. He may be further tainted by the dynamics of power and profit. When a person is liberated from the prisons of ignorance and vice, then the attainment of greater freedom is automatic. There’s a greater purpose to life than the egotistic individual who is running the show.

Hall writes again:

“The eternal prisoner awaits the day when, standing upon the rocks that now form His shapeless tomb, He may raise His arms to heaven, bathed in the sunlight of spiritual freedom, free to join the sparkling atoms and dancing light-beings released from the bonds of prison wall and tomb.”

As Hall expresses, to be released from the bonds of prison wall is not a simple task. As Aristotle emphasized, it is easier to miss the mark than to hit it. For this reason, “right conduct is rare and praiseworthy and noble.” Freedom comes from examining everything in the light of whether it comes from an inner truth, or from a reaction to outer things.

In the end, why is it so hard to align with that inner truth? I say that maybe it’s much harder to hold out against it.

“Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”  ~ George Washington

As Above, So Below: What Does it Mean to a Freemason?

As Above, So Below: What Does it Mean to a Freemason?

From the teachings of Hermes comes the well-known maxim, “as above, so below.” Those four words have become a sacred phrase, an adage of wisdom, an underlying principle, an ancient aphorism, and a mystic saying. The dramatic opening lines of the Emerald Tablet read as follows: 

“Tis true without lying, certain and most true. That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing.”  – The Emerald Tablet (Isaac Newton Translation)

Over the centuries almost every organization and religion has loosely put their own spin on the formula. Many philosophical schools believe “as above, so below” is the same thing as the Principle of Correspondence. In other words, everything above (spiritual) corresponds to something material (below). Nothing exists in isolation. Matter contains spirit, and vice versa.

More often today, I think the phrase is carelessly bandied about. For some thinkers, the spiritual dimensions are dismissed as unverifiable or inadequate to explain how and what life is. Some say modern man’s understanding of the entire Hermetic chain has been flattened over time. I hope not.

Of interest to me, however, is how deeply and how widely that maxim is embedded into the teachings of freemasonry. 

How is the Hermetic principle applied to a Freemason? Or is it?

I may be mistaken, but “as above, so below” is not a masonic phrase, per say. If used in any way shape or form, it did not have its origins as words in ritual. I can only remember the phrase mentioned one time in conjunction with a lecture on astronomy. Even so, Freemasonry has some roots in the Hermetic tradition of Western occultism and so the philosophy is heavily embedded in the teachings. And it is here we begin the introspection and speculative discussion of the phrase itself.

The Masonic Ladder according to W.L. Wilmshurst

It is clear that a serious study of words and symbols can bring anyone quite far afieldJacob's labber blog into the poetic lens of metaphor. Sometimes, before venturing into my own fantasy land, I like to read what the masonic scholars say. 

There is one symbol in particular that W.L. Wilmshurst writes about in his book Masonic Initiations that struck me as a good example of the maxim “as above, so below.”

That symbol is Jacob’s Ladder. It is also called the Masonic Ladder and is said to reveal a connection between heaven and earth with God at the top of the ladder. Angels are seen ascending and descending. Some say the ladder shows a hierarchical ordering of the Universe, a great chain of being, a principle of correspondence.

Wilmshurst tells us:

“Indeed Life, and the ladder it climbs, are one and indissociable. The summit of both reaches to and disappears out of ken into the heavens; the base of both rests upon the earth; but these two terminals – that of spirit and that of matter – are but opposite poles of a single reality.”

If you think you can spot Plato in this, you are quite correct. Plato offered theories of knowledge that were also illustrated by ladders. Those who climb the ladder advance from one step to the next and build on the knowledge gained from the one below.

Now, there is something that Wilmshurst writes later on that I found interesting. He believes that this cosmological truth, the Principle of Correspondence, is one that Masons should all know. Yet, he claims that most Freemasons have “hazy notions on the subject.” And I quote: “The modern mason is not interested or treats the information as not credible.”

This line of thought left me with a question. Where does the modern Mason learn about cosmology?

The Great Chain of Being – Veiled in Allegory

Of course, there are always books and study papers to read to gain knowledge. But I am wondering if the true cosmological truths that Wilmshurst speaks of are kept alive in Allegory of Arithmeticthe masonic rituals and allegories. Each masonic ceremony speaks to the unconscious mind, slipping past the usual dogma and conscious defense mechanisms. 

If I can use a masonic metaphor for a moment; in the Mind of The Great Architect it has been written that there is a ritual taking place all the time. It is a divine drama with the building theme of making perfection out of imperfection. When, therefore, here upon earth, a ritual is enacted, symbolizing that eternal process, then some of the spiritual realms above are brought down to earth. It is this mysterious unity of thought, synchronizing above to below which gives Freemasonry its magic and eternal purpose.

In the book Spirit of Masonry, Foster Bailey writes:

“A symbol is an outer, visible, and tangible sign of an inner spiritual reality. If this is admitted, then behind all the outer forms of the Masonic work, latent in its rituals, and hidden behind the entire system of symbols, is some spiritual value and some definite and intended teaching which can be discovered by those whose vision can be awakened.”

Perhaps the “biggie” truth is this. The “inner spiritual reality” that Bailey writes about isHour Glass an inner state of being. For Freemasons, each of us is a builder, working with the hierarchical order of things, according to his ability. Each must not only contribute his work, he must also grow to be capable of greater work.

I believe that when the two realms of spirit and matter unite, the Lodge on High sends its spiritualizing forces of life to the humble lodge below. Yet, the idea is greater than just what can be experienced in a ceremony. I think Freemasonry is an exposition of Life itself – the creative life we all have to live. 

Certain and most true.

“Ascend with the greatest sagacity from earth to heaven and unite together the power of things inferior and superior; thus, you will possess the light of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly away from you. This thing has more fortitude than fortitude itself because it will overcome every subtle thing and penetrate every solid thing. By it the world was formed.”  – (H.P. Blavatsky Translation)

 

The Power of the Spoken Word in Freemasonry

The Power of the Spoken Word in Freemasonry

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”  — Lao Tzu 

According to Tzu, the very essence of what it means to become a consciously creative person begins with examining the content of thoughts and words. How does speech have the power to shape our inner and outer universe? How is the spoken word significant to a Freemason?

In the ancient mystery schools, speech and sound were considered divine energy in motion and a type of vibration that could be harnessed in creative work. The entire Universe was understood to be under the control of men and gods who knew the power of sacred speech and how to harmonize the ideal and the material worlds in accordance with the divine plan.

Somewhere along the way the teaching about the magical force of words has been lost. And yes, we have been lost ever since.

It was felt in those earlier times that it was the initiates’ duty to restore the lost language. Just as Masons are in search of the “Lost Word” and have found it not, initiates also used a substitute language, until this inner Word could be reestablished. It may well be said that the knowledge of words, of speech and of sound is perhaps the most carefully guarded secrets of all the ancient mysteries.

Do words have a far greater implication than normally conceived?

A Perspective from Albert Pike

In Albert Pike’s, Morals and Dogma, he has volumes to say on this subject. There is nogod-large doubt the book is dense with wisdom; so much so, I find myself studying a paragraph for hours on end to fully grasp it. It’s almost as if you have to look at Pike’s writings as if the ancients looked upon cryptic messages. 

Recently, I read a chapter where Bro. Pike was examining the following passage from scripture:

“In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”  John 1:1-3 (KJV)

I realized how casually I had looked at this well-known Bible verse before and how much more could be revealed. Looking beyond the religious overtones, there is a great mystery of “the WORD” (all caps) that Pike explains. It’s something out of a deep esoteric playbook. “The WORD” did not cease at the single act of Creation but set in motion the absolute potential for man to become a divine creator in his own life circumstances. Could this passage be a formula for creative work? 

Pike says:

“The WORD conducts and controls the Universe, all spheres, all worlds, all actions of mankind, and of every animate and inanimate creature.”

In short, the goal of “the WORD” is to “become flesh and dwell among men.” God and “the WORD” are one and the same. They are WITH each other. All good stuff.

Now, I realized that the theological distinction between “the WORD” and “a word” had always escaped me. The words we speak are not “the WORD.” But it is possible that EVERY word spoken has the potential to align with “the WORD.” Speech carries intention, force and information. We long for words like Love, Truth, Beauty, Strength and Justice to become flesh and dwell among us. Words and speech are the initiating forces behind all things. What can a Freemason learn from this idea? How are words and action related?

A Freemason Suits Action to Word

In Masonic circles, we hear the phrase “suiting action to word” which can mean that a Masonic-Image-HD-1person will do what he claims and deliver on his promises and obligations. Masons are charged to make a conscious effort to integrate masonic philosophies into daily behavior, appearance, and words to others.

In the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, “Right Speech” appears in third place preceded only by “Right Belief” and “Right Intentions,” and immediately followed by “Right Actions.” Thus, the way we speak is of vital importance, not just for moral reasons, but also because communication is one of the most powerful means whereby we can intelligently change the world around us.

Spoken words are especially significant to anyone who has undergone a ceremony blindfolded.  For me, it was only through intense listening to the words of the masonic officers that I knew what was happening.  Even decades after some degree work, entire lines from the ritual are still memorable.  I remember vividly the sacredness of words that have been laid upon my heart.  

Right speech, when properly executed, is one of the most powerful and mysterious activities.

An example of what it can mean to “suit action to word” can be seen in the life of the immortal Goethe: poet and Freemason.   He changed inquiring minds around him by breathing enlightened ideas into many of his writings. With his last breath, Bro. Goethe cried the immortal phrase:

“Light, more Light!”

These words for a Freemason are powerful!  Worthy of opening and inspiring a life as well as closing it in death.  There is no doubt to me that beyond the confines of his dark room his invocation was answered and there showered upon him a brilliance of light such as no mortal could see.  Some accounts of Goethe’s last moments say that when he spoke his last words a ray of light shot through the shutters of the window.  

“Light!” Goethe’s spoken word of power and His service to mankind. In the end, light was all he craved, symbolically, the highest of blessings. Not money or fame, but a glimpse of the1_spZ_EN5KfcjgZSbiVQl_zQ treasures of eternity. 

Maybe the real secret of right speech is to truly recognize and respect the authority that words carry. As we have seen with the writings of Pike, there is more to language than meets the eye, or ear. To delve into its mysteries just might reveal some extraordinary truths about the world we live in.

“Here Masonry pauses and leaves its initiates to carry out and develop these great Truths in such manner as to each may seem most accordant with reason, philosophy, truth, and his religious faith.”  — Albert Pike

The Secret Life of the Masonic Beehive

The Secret Life of the Masonic Beehive

“Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.” ~ (Secret Life of Bees)

We don’t have to look far from this quote to find an analogy in Freemasonry. The beehive has been said to be a metaphor for the working lodge with seven bees flying around the hive, making a perfect lodge.  Bees are thought to be exceptionally auspicious throughout the world. They have played an important part in symbolism since ancient times. Turns out, a valuable teacher in mother nature has been with us all along.

Is there anything that can be learned from our buzzing friends? What do they symbolize in Freemasonry?

In ages past, people believed that bees were prophetic – that their actions were messages not to be ignored. Bees were regarded by some as an example of a divine intellect woven through nature.  In medieval times, one could find many farms that kept beehives and collected honey. In a wonderful text called the Geoponika, the beekeepers would praise the creatures, even read to them.

One of the chapters says:

The bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence; its works is truly divine and of the greatest use to mankind. 

I loved reading this.  The writing portrayed a scene that I imagine has been played in countless bee farms, between untold numbers of masters and their hives. The work of the beekeeper seems so magical and yet so commonplace. It was all about the watching, the learning, the reverence, and the abiding trust. The desire of looking to nature as teacher seems to me to be one of the elements that is missing from our culture.Annotazioni...reading to the bees

Could it be the bees are trying to tell us something, but we’re just not listening?

It is said that Albert Einstein once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared. Pretty chilling to think about.

Why? Because there exists a global phenomenon today of bees disappearing. Many say that the mystery of the bees disappearing is a warning to all of us.  If something is wrong in beehives it means something is wrong everywhere.

Andrew Gough, an expert bee researcher says:

I’ve labelled the three eras of the Bee; Beedazzled, Beewildered and Beegotten for good reason. The question remains, will there be a fourth era, and if so will it be called Beegone?

Sadly, Gough states that modern humanity has become notorious spoilers of nature’s divine harmony. The concept of nature being something “out there” is largely what is amiss with our view of it.  Likewise, the bees also seem to be disappearing from masonic workings and in many places today is considered a lost symbol.

beehiveartIs a lost symbol in Freemasonry something to be concerned about?

Masonic Speculative Meanings

The early Freemasons incorporated bee symbolism heavily into its philosophy and regalia. It was especially pervasive in masonic drawings and documents of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the heart of its message even today are the concepts of industry and stability, harmony and cooperation, virtues that the craft values highly.  The masonic symbol of the bee does not stand alone.  It also includes the beehive and the honey.

The following is taken from the monitor of the lodge.

As Masons, we must imitate the bee, be industrious, work with others and for others, take pride in our vocations, obey the rules of our society, and strive to add to our body of knowledge and understanding. Otherwise we are useless members of society.

Other monitors and masonic books give the same type of explanation. Some longer and some shorter but all what I consider somewhat along the lines of virtue and morality.

I believe we are now in an era where it is vital that we take a deeper look at the secrets of the bee symbol.  What might those be?

History, Culture and Myth

In the myths and histories of ancient times is where I found some possible avenues for further inquiry. Looking back to various mythologies, bees revealed elements of the mysteries of initiation.  In Egyptian mythology, bees were considered tears of the sun-god RA. The sun has been thought by some to be a very mysterious concept in freemasonry related to the initiatory process.  For example, the sun’s daily “rising” in the East is the image of rebirth and new beginnings, just as its setting in the West is the image of decay and death leading to transformation. indian-bee-goddess goddess Bhramari Devi

One of the most interesting mythologies is the Egyptian Goddess of Neith who lived in the House of Bees. Neith was primarily an Egyptian goddess of wisdom, often given the title “Opener of the Ways.” Neith would say to the initiate, “Come look beneath my veil.” Her call was both a summons and a challenge.  By the blessing of the goddess, the veil would be lifted. Only then would the initiate perceive the secret workings and patterns of nature.  At that moment, when the veil is rent asunder, he can consciously participate in those mysteries, thus becoming a human administrator of the will of the God.

In fact, the initiate at this point fully sees his own inner divinity and the service duties to humanity that such recognition brings.  He has become something more than human. To be initiate, one must take nature as his master.

This every Freemason knows. Becoming an initiate is to investigate the hidden mysteries of nature and science.  This could mean ruling and governing the hidden forces of one’s own nature accordingly. It can be hard, sometimes embarrassing, to “look beyond the veil,” to admit we do not have all the answers.

I still ponder what aspect of the bee first inspired man to consider it as special and sacred, all those thousands of years ago. Where does the true secret lie?  Is it something as simple as a bee’s sting? Is it the honey?  Is it the buzzing sound? Is it the honeycomb? It’s impossible to know really, for any one of those traits could easily make it exalted.

“The bee has insights into the secrets of nature, the secrets of creation, and a special connection therefore to the Creator.” ~ (Koran)

 

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

When I joined Freemasonry, I realized the ceremonies were full of symbols meant to allude to greater meanings. One of the items that caught my attention during my initiation was the tracing board or picture in the Lodge room which displays the symbols for the degree. Later I learned that artist John Harris (1791- 1873) was responsible for creating the design that I saw displayed. My curiosity was forever peaked to better understand John Harris and his symbolic art.  Although John Harris was well-respected during his life, I soon discovered that in recent times he has been labeled “a forgotten artist.” As an advocate for the arts, I immediately felt a resonance with this hard-working Freemason who seemingly never got his due.

What can we learn from his life story?  Is he really a forgotten artist?

Harris joined Freemasonry in 1818 during a time of exciting cultural developments. As part of the new organization of the United Grand Lodge of England (U.G.L.E.) in 1813, British Freemasons were moving away from tavern culture. The masons, now owners of beautiful massive buildings, were able to contemplate adorning them with permanent furnishings such as antique art or elaborate pipe organs.

Part of the standardization occurring in the furnishings of new buildings was that each of the Lodges were to own a set of tracing boards. Upon entering the Lodge, Harris very quickly became fascinated with the concept of the tracing boards and started drawing designs almost immediately. His talents, as a painter, facsimilist, and architectural draughtsman, fitted him perfectly for the task.

1809 Microcosm_of_London_Plate_038_-_Freemasons'_Hall

1809 London Freemason’s Hall

In 1823, Harris dedicated a set to Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.  The Grand Master immediately recognized Harris as a very talented young man. It is assumed that he commissioned Harris to make a standard official model for each degree.

These developments helped to standardize the designs. Until that point, there had been no consistency in the way the boards were painted.  It was not unusual for individual Lodges to have a variety of symbols and designs and employ their own artists.

 Why are symbols on the tracing boards important to the Freemason?

Albert Mackey, in his book on the Symbolism of Freemasonry, suggests that the symbols that are illustrated for each degree are a key to its mystery.

He writes:

To study the symbolism of Masonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy.

In the masonic teaching, symbols are a way to investigate the deeper meanings because they speak to the whole human being, not only the limited waking intelligence. It is said that a symbol will communicate its “message” even if the conscious mind remains unaware of the fact. The power of the symbol does not depend on it being understood.

Harris spent his whole life painting and studying the symbols of the Craft. As he furthered his masonic career, his designs evolved accordingly.  His life was his art.

Studying the boards of Harris really made me think about the question:

Can you separate the artist from the art? 

1825_tb_harris_fc_500_860 (1)

1825 Second Degree

Some say art and an artist’s biography are not so easily separated.  What I found striking about the Harris boards is how much his art did reflect his life. The first designs he created in 1820, just two years after he joined, were very simple.  I imagine he was still unraveling all the deep teachings of Freemasonry.

The 1825 designs convey more depth of experience. His life at that time truly reflected a fruitful craftsman. He was forging his fraternal ties with the Grand Master, a relationship which seemed to blossom and mature over time. The Grand Master loved the “Harris Boards,” and every Lodge wanted a set of the “approved” designs. Harris could hardly keep up with the orders from the Lodges and also kept very busy as a facsimilist at the British Museum.  His client list consisted of some of the major collectors in rare books in England, many often royalty.

A 1846 advertisement praises the skill of Harris:

The Craft Tracing Boards have been of essential service in promoting instruction among the Society at large; they are eagerly sought after every place where Freemasonry is cherished.

Relentless demands and grueling labor ensued for the next couple of decades.

John_Harris_3rd_1850

1850  “Open Grave” Third Degree

In those days, there were no photocopy machines so each one of the boards for each of the lodges had to be hand painted.  It was not unusual for a lodge to wait longer than a year once they ordered a set from Harris.

The last board he designed was in 1850 for the third degree, referred to as the “open grave” design.  This was a period in his life he found himself reduced to the lowest state of poverty and distress due to partial blindness. In 1856, he went completely blind and was paralyzed from a stroke the same year. The darkness of the 1850 painting gives a feeling of emotional starkness not experienced in any of his earlier designs.  Although seemingly dismal, the sheer intensity of the painting does suggest something exceptional.

One of his friends comments:

At the age of sixty-six, he is deprived of the only means he possessed of supporting himself and an invalid wife.

In 1860, Harris moved with his wife to a masonic home in East Croyton for aged Freemasons and their widows. In earlier times it was named “The Asylum for Worthy, Aged, and Decayed Freemasons” but known today as “The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (R.M.B.I.).” Harris found an outlet for his art in the East Croyton home and used his remaining years there to write poetry to raise money for the R.M.B.I. He answered his summons to the Grand Lodge Eternal on December 28, 1873.

From my research, I believe that Harris in the truest sense embodied the teachings of Freemasonry. His strength sustained him to endure in spite of overwhelming circumstances of unforeseen misfortune. He persevered until the end, laboring ceaselessly in the tasks that the Master had confided to his care. In my opinion, he is far from being a “forgotten artist.” His light continues to shine in one of the most treasured of all lodge furnishings.

In the words of Beethoven:

Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.


Note: Images for Harris Tracing Boards were retrieved on the website of Harmonie Lodge No. 66.

Masonic Fortitude: A Hero’s Journey

Masonic Fortitude: A Hero’s Journey

The great spiritual teachers, culture bringers, warriors, Freemasons and saints are living examples of the virtue of fortitude. Whether they fight the dragon or obtain the great treasure it guards, those with fortitude are people who deliver on their promises. They are people who do what is right, who take on any trial or opposition and see it through to the end. The importance of fortitude is truly significant in the masonic teachings such as are found in the Blue Lodge, the Scottish Rite, and in the York and English Rite.

Have you ever stopped to think how much fortitude you have?   Why does it matter?

I know I am correct in saying that we live in a time of great opportunity.  All progressive groups in the world are being called to accountability. The demand is under way that we actually, factually accomplish. I am also fairly certain that most golden opportunities go unfulfilled because people are hoodwinked to the presence of the opportunity. People are afraid to act.

Fortitude is defined in the Mason’s Manual as:

 That noble and steady purpose of mind, whereby we are enabled to undergo any pain, peril, or danger, when prudentially deemed expedient.

It is the virtue of courage and much more.  Fortitude gives us strength to act.  Ethics without the component of fortitude to act keeps it in the realm of heady philosophy.  As it is said by the mystical teacher Morpheus in the movie The Matrix: 

Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking it.

Fortitude is bringing both halves together, the knowing and the doing.

Human frailty tells us that if we do nothing about immoral behavior it will continue or 14595755_516608225215652_6008544087224846220_nget worse. Allowing ethics to “slide” will eventually take everything else for the same ride.

I ponder sometimes the amount of fortitude around me: leaders, scholars, scientists, legislators, religious guides, Freemasons— myself. I ponder how often we betray our morals and principles on every topic.  On the other hand, we admire people who have voluntarily or forcibly departed from the status quo, faced great challenges, and saved themselves and others.  Possibly we want to believe that we, too, can go on an incredible journey and come back transformed for the better.

How do we acquire more fortitude? How do heroes do it?

The Path of the Hero

As most know, the phrase “hero’s journey” or Monomyth was made popular by Joseph Campbell in his book Hero with a Thousand Faces.  It’s the idea that one single protagonist undergoes a life-changing journey to come out the other side wiser than they began. The Monomyth has been a pretty stunning formula in movies and books such as 330px-Vasnetsov_samoletThe Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It is also the allegorical pattern in many of the masonic rituals.

The hero is often faced with questions about himself. What kind of person should I be?  What is the best way to live? How do I attain excellence? What should I aim for? What training must I do to achieve those aims?  Many of us eat, sleep, and breathe the ideals of the hero.

Joseph Campbell says:

The All is everywhere, and anywhere may become the seat of power. Any blade of grass may assume, in myth, the figure of the savior and conduct the questing wanderer into the sanctum sanctorum of his own heart.

The monomyth idea suggests that, given the call to adventure and favorable circumstances, we might be able to advance beyond our current limitations and unearth, if not exactly superpowers, at least latent virtues that we can use to serve the greater good.

At the onset, the hero isn’t a hero. At the onset the hero does not have fortitude.

Fortitude is instilled when one desires something so intensely or values that something so highly that he will settle for nothing else, and is willing to sacrifice many things.  It is17499398_595913547285119_2024712522915719750_n the virtue that gives a hero a willingness to die and stand by his principles to the very end.

The Masonic Quest

In an article published in Vol. 2, Issue 8 of Living Stones Magazine, author Jason Marshall suggests that the rituals of Freemasonry set a high bar for the hero, especially in the Hiramic Legend of the Third Degree.

He writes:

The Hero’s journey provides a powerful blue print for transformation, and it is no coincidence that the ritual experience of the craft follows this timeless formula. Just as the hero’s quest calls seemingly ordinary men to undertake feats of greatness, which have far-reaching impacts, the masonic fraternity calls men of all backgrounds to undertake their own hero’s journey, to not only transform themselves, but the world around them.

Marshall explains that a Freemason transforms humanity through modeling the process of an initiatory experience. He finds something underneath life that gives it purpose; that works, and has a sublime lesson. Marshall says that the ultimate hero is one who is resurrected from his world of adventure to immortality.

To transform the world around us might mean that today we are looking beyond the individual hero to a collective hero – one in which a society changes itself for the better by seeking answers en masse. It might mean there is one brotherhood fighting battles for human kind and not only individuals fighting their own monsters.

In the end, what is it that allows a courageous individual to tolerate the loss of life, that which the great majority of humanity cherish so highly? In my opinion, fortitude is ultimately based upon identification as the immortal, invincible Self.  In short, it is based upon the realization of one’s true Identity. Who can lose the immortal Self?

In 1 Corinthians 15:51, Saint Paul talks about the immortal Self when he says:

Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

Cowardice crops up from the overwhelming feeling that something of rare value will be lost. The truly courageous person is not only able, but eager to give up all things short of the Self, for the sake of the greater realization.

For he knows that the further he journeys, the vaster the perspective, and the more humbling the realization.20375805_658664157676724_3202398839325588042_n

Lead me from darkness to Light.

Lead me from the unreal to the Real.

Lead me from death to Immortality.