The Freemason’s Words: Can the Secrets be Googled?

The Freemason’s Words: Can the Secrets be Googled?

In a discussion with a few masonic friends recently, someone asked the question:  Why are oral traditions fading away? One could dispute the premise. Still, I think the brother was onto something.  Are oral traditions still relevant? Are they slowly being replaced with technology?

In its plainest form, an oral tradition is information passed down through the generations by word of mouth that is not written.  Examples might be legends, stories, proverbs, riddles and so on. Certain modes of recognition, including masonic words and passwords are considered part of the oral tradition in Freemasonry.

Where did masonic customs originate?  The tradition becomes more understandable if we look back before the 1600’s. At that time, masonic lodges were stonemasons’ guilds of builders whose “secrets” concerned how to construct buildings. The hidden modes of1Modes of Recognition recognition, whether they were certain passwords or handshakes, were a way to identify an impostor passing himself off as the real thing. The “operative” masons were artisans that were the best at their craft. 

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, lodges evolved from “operative” to “speculative” builders. The “speculative” masons were different in that they became more interested in arcane studies. Their secrets were no longer building trade secrets but based on moral and philosophical concepts. When Masonry identified itself as a speculative craft, it placed the meanings of its allegories and symbols within a realm that is more esoteric.

Some say that these more esoteric secrets were inspired from ancient traditions – such as  Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, or Hermeticism – however the theory is hotly debated. An opposite view is that the passwords in freemasonry are not meaningful at all.  They are not particularly earth-shattering, nor are they exactly secret. I have heard many times recently – “just google them.”

This current debate begs the question. When it comes to a mason’s words, are they a meaningless carry-over from former times? Or to the contrary, do they have some An_encyclopaedia_of_freemasonry_and_its_kindred_sciences_-_comprising_the_whole_range_of_arts,_sciences_and_literature_as_connected_with_the_institution_(1887)_(14762810774)deeper significance for masons today?

Definitions by Albert G. Mackey

Usually when I have a question or questions that I have been wondering about, I must confess I use any resource available, including the internet to research that topic and related topics. At the same time, I am very careful. There are many things that I will read “everyone knows” that are simply untrue. It is amazing how many things fit this category.

Often when confronted with some sort of puzzle in masonic research I go to Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. In this case, he lays out some very interesting distinctions between the various kinds of masonic words.

Mackey gives several different definitions – 

  1. Recognition Word: Identifies one brother to another as a means of recognition.
  2. Lost Word: Relates to the mythical history of a venerated lost word in which a temporary word was substituted.
  3. Sacred Word: Applies to the unique word of each degree, to indicate its peculiarly sacred character.
  4. Significant Word: Used as a word that is equivalent to a sign in each degree of the craft.
  5. True Word: Indicates a symbol of Divine Truth.

As you can easily see, he illustrates a hierarchy of words.  Some words, like recognition words, are more matter of fact, the ones that can be transmitted mouth to ear.  But other words, like the True Word are more mysterious. The True Word, he says, is the most philosophic and sublime.

The Word becomes the symbol of Divine Truth, the loss of which and the search for it constitute the whole system of Speculative Freemasonry.  ~ Bro. Albert Mackey 

Is it possible, then, that the real secrets of Masonry cannot be heard by the ear or uttered in words? If this is true, where are the secrets hidden?8097861684_b0d6213661_z

When faced with deep philosophical questions it’s sometimes nice to look at old allegories for wisdom. Here’s one of my favorites.

Man’s Divinity: Where to Hide the Stolen Jewel?

There was a time in the history of the race when the gods stole from man his divinity, and meeting in a high conclave, sought to decide where to hide that which they had stolen.

One god suggested that they hide it on another planet, for there man could not find it, but another god arose and said that man was innately a great traveler and they had no guarantee that, eventually, he might not find his way there. 

“Let us,” he said, “hide it in the depths of the sea, at the bottom of the ocean for there it will be safe.” 

But again, a dissenting voice was heart, and it was pointed out that man was great natural investigator, and that he might someday succeed in penetrating to the deepest depths, as well, as the greatest heights.

(As you might suspect, the problematic discussion ends with one member of the conclave suggesting as the final hiding place the following location…)

“Let us hide the stolen jewel of man’s divinity within himself, for there he will never look for it.”* 


The Secrets of True Masonry

Sometimes when we think of The Craft, we only think of meetings, dues, minutes, and rituals, etc. True Masonry, however, is a system of enlightenment. It is a quest for the hidden within us, the precious jewel. The Lodge is a bastion of virtue. Add to this the desire to live the high principles of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Then add the passion for creativity to make the “builder’s art” truly artistic through the Arts and Sciences.

BEHOLD!  You have found the true secrets of Masonry.


Like all the things most worth knowing, no one can know it for another, and no one can 330px-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatourknow it alone. It is known only in fellowship – by the touch of life upon life, hand to hand, breast to breast, spirit upon spirit.

The secrets are a way for Masons to bond with another. It’s something we all share together. Each person knows “The Word” according to his own quest and capacity.

Humanity has always been filled with curiosity about things unknown or unseen.  I like to think that oral traditions have not disappeared. Their settings may change, but their power and use remain.

Can the secrets be Googled? Sure, you may find some interesting facts about the Craft. In the end, however, the best hiding places for the mason’s mysteries are where we least expect them.

The attentive ear receives the sound from the instructive tongue, and the mysteries of Freemasonry are safely lodged in the repository of faithful breasts. ~ Masonic Monitor


*Note: The ancient allegory can be referenced in Foster Bailey’s Spirit of Masonry.

The Sun as a Symbol in Freemasonry: What is it trying to tell us?

The Sun as a Symbol in Freemasonry: What is it trying to tell us?

“There is nothing so indestructible as a symbol, but nothing is capable of so many interpretations.”  –  Count Goblet d’Alviella

What does a symbol have to do with you or me? Well, it’s possible that it doesn’t have anything to do with us.  On the other hand, the meaning behind a symbol just might be pretty significant. To know what a symbol means (or at least what we think they means) is one of the important speculative studies in Freemasonry. The teachings of the craft are said to be “illustrated by symbols.”

What are symbols? The definition of a symbol is something that represents something else through resemblance or association.  As the well-known saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words! There are everyday symbols and then there are the more universal and esoteric symbols which we are mainly concerned with as Freemasons.

Esoteric symbols are those with a hidden meaning. They have been used throughout time in the great spiritual traditions to guide seekers after truth. Esoteric symbols both conceal and reveal the truth.

For example, I consider myself to be a seeker of truth.  The other day, I chanced upon the following passage about the esoteric symbol of the sun.  It set me thinking on a number of different levels:

“The blazing star, or glory in the center, refers us to the sun, which enlightens the earth with its refulgent rays, dispensing its blessings to mankind at large and giving light and life to all things here below.” – Masonic Lectures

little23915567_706115002931639_2286788907160304511_nWhat are we to make of this statement? Why would the blazing star, usually depicted as a five-pointed star, be a symbol of a sun, too?  And if it is, what is different about this sun?

While the answers to these questions remain a mystery, some of us may know that the blazing star makes its appearance in several of the masonic degrees, and the pieces to the puzzle reveal more of the secrets at each stage.

How, then, do you study a symbol? How do you know if what you are interpreting is truth?

A Symbol: Exoteric, Conceptual, and Esoteric

I have found with symbols, it’s possible to go overboard with analysis.  Especially as Freemasons, we love to “speculate.”  We open the whole thing for scrutiny and dissect every little piece to see where it leads.  We use lots of words while trying to nail things down: “This means this” and “that means that.”

Unfortunately, in my opinion, when we over-analyze, especially early on, we may unintentionally rob the symbol of its power. In the end, we may have analyzed it to death.

The good news.

resizedimages (1)The process of symbolic analysis, while wrought with paradox, is actually doing something beneficial to the mind.  The best summary of this idea I found in a theosophical article of the Beacon Magazine (1939) written by Alice Bailey. The article details how the mind is actually being trained when we study symbolism.

Bailey gives three ways that a mind can analyze any symbol.

  1. Exoterically: This concerns the concrete or objective appearance, its form and structure.
  2. Conceptually: This concerns the concept or idea which the sign or symbol embodies.
  3. Esoterically: This concerns the energy or feeling that you register from the symbol.

Studying a symbol in three ways, she says, is activating the mental mechanism on all three levels: concrete mind (exoteric), higher mind or reasoning (conceptual) and the intuitional mind (esoteric). The goal is to arrive at a synthetic concept.

Why does the process matter?  Bailey says that practical work with symbols over time serves to bring a student closer to truth.  It lifts an individual out of their emotions; it develops clarity of perception; it energizes the mental life; it shifts the focus and attention and consciousness out of the world of illusion into the world of ideas.   How then could Freemasons apply this technique?

Let’s take an example.

Freemasonry: The Point within a Circle 

bigcircumpunct-symbolThe sun is often symbolized by a symbol called the circumpunct.  For those of you who’ve read the novel by Dan Brown called The Lost Symbol, you probably are familiar with what a circumpunct is.  For those who aren’t familiar, it’s simply a point within a circle.

There are hundreds of things the circumpunct can represent, anywhere from the “Eye of God” to the “Google Chrome” icon that I use to launch my search engine.  Using the Bailey technique, the circumpunct could be studied and reflected upon by an inquiring student and hopefully, after a little while, reveal a synthetic understanding of what it means.

Freemasons for centuries have taken a stab at analyzing the circumpunct.

W.L. Wilmshurst, for example, says this:

 “As the sun is the centre and life-giver of our solar system and controls and feeds with life the planets circling round it, so at the secret centre of individual human life exists a vital, immortal principle, the spirit and the spiritual will of man. This is the faculty, by using which (when we have found it) we can never err.”

In other words, Wilmshurst (and many other masonic scholars) see the point within a circle to be where we, as Freemasons, stand.  It is the point from which we cannot err. The point is timeless, eternal, subjective, immeasurable, invisible, absolute. For these reasons, it is often attributed to Deity and the Sun.

big Slades masonic manAs Freemasons, the study of symbols helps us to make sense of ourselves in relation to the universe. Planetary symbols such as the sun, moon, stars, and blazing stars inspire the contemplative mind to soar aloft and read the wisdom, strength and beauty of the Great Creator in the heavens. They challenge us to dig deeper on matters of eternal significance.

Sun or blazing star?  I’ve learned there seems to be a certain humility in recognizing that we may never fully understand a symbol in a complete way, one that allows us to cross it off the list and totally explain its meaning.

How do you know if what you interpret in symbols is true? Perhaps the better question might be:

Where is it true?

If I may,

“Truth is within ourselves. It takes no rise

From outward things, whate’er you may believe.

There is an inmost centre in ourselves,

Where truth abides in fullness…

– Robert Browning


Note: The last image is an engraving by Alexander Slade dated 1754,  titled “A Free Mason Form’d Out of the Material of his Lodge.” For further study, see the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

 

Finding the Middle Path: Esoteric and Non-Esoteric Freemasonry

Finding the Middle Path: Esoteric and Non-Esoteric Freemasonry

There are two groups in Freemasonry, the so-called “Esoterics” and “Non-Esoterics,” who too often do not get along. They should. After all, they need each other.

This, to my mind, is best illustrated by an image I have observed floating around the Internet for a decade. It’s the High Priestess card in the Rider Waite tarot deck with the Kabbalistic “Eitz haChayim” (עץ החיים) or, in English, The Tree of Life, superimposed upon it.

My own version of it is pictured above, along with a box of cigars. Because, as in the statement often is attributed to famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It does not really matter if Freud ever said or wrote that. The point is that things are not always metaphors or symbols for something else.

That said, I think it’s equally possible for them to be and not to be – all at the same time.

My observation of the High Priestess Card and Tree of Life pairing is that individuals, especially those esoterically inclined, who see the connection for the first time, generally experience a kōan moment. That is to say that their minds are completely blown. There is a good deal to be gained in such a moment, i.e. when the mind is absolutely blank. That seems to be the aim of a good portion of esoteric study, inside Freemasonry and out. The aim being to assist the neophyte in unraveling hidden or higher truths deep within themselves and stretching outward to farthest reaches of the Universe.

The image itself supposedly originated with an unknown individual, possibly the late Paul Foster Case, who noted that if you draw circles around the pomegranates on the card and then draw lines between them the image drawn resembles the Tree of Life. The problem is that the tree of life cannot actually be constructed through the process. As is the case with many of these studies, this exercise breaks down under non-esoteric scrutiny.

There are no pomegranates on the card to represent the lower Sephirot, namely Yesod and Malkuth. Thus, the High Priestess’ knees and toes, along with one end of the crescent moon, must be pressed into service. A circle around the cross at the center of her chest also is required. Without those pomegranate-free circles, there is no Tree of Life on the card. The decision to accept any part of the picture, in an exercise to connect an image, leaves us open to circles, squares, and other doodles on the card.

Tree of Life

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life

In my observation, the esoterically inclined Brother may declare that, simply by making that perfectly reasonable observation, the non-esoterically inclined Brother is just not open to the experience and not worthy of the special knowledge imparted. The non-esoterically inclined Brother may reply that the whole thing is nonsense and then try to turn the subject toward something practical, such as an upcoming fundraiser.

That, in turn, frustrates the esoterically inclined Brother, who sees the upcoming fundraiser as meaningless compared to the exploration in search of answers about life, the universe, etc. The Brothers with opposing viewpoints might even start squabbling at this point, each implying that the other should be more like themselves.

That argument generally leaves those individuals in the middle thinking both of the original points is valid and worth considering. They may wonder why those on either side cannot get along.

To be clear, as a historian in Freemasonry I have endured my own share of being annoyed with esoterically inclined writers who, to my mind, flippantly make up historical events to bolster their own writings. Quite recently, I heard an operative alchemist claim that medieval architecture originated with the Templars, stating it as a fact without supporting documentation, something more academically minded Templar scholars would have no trouble refuting.

Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight, who were big deals when I came into Freemasonry about a decade ago, have been seen by some to invent things to bolster the message and lessons they want to get across.

Which, I think, is the point. For esoteric writers, the focus is on the message or lesson they are trying to teach not necessarily about the complete historical accuracy of the facts underlying their arguments.  They may ignore some historical data or information if it is seen as cumbersome, irrelevant, or diminishing to their argument. 

Non-esoteric writers may prefer to establish their messages and lessons in well-documented and verifiable historical analysis. To do otherwise, may seem to these writers as “making up history.” They also might express a certain irritation that esoteric books far outsell non-esoteric tomes.

Both points of view are valid, but both sides also often also forget to take a hard look at themselves.

I suppose it might be helpful, even this late in the blog, to define the term “esoteric”, which is no easy thing. Merriam-Webster lists the popularity of the word “esotericism“as being in the bottom 30 percent of popular words and defines it as “the quality or state of being esoteric.”

Spheres Dante

The Concentric Spheres of “The Key to Dante’s Divine Comedy,” by Augustus Knapp

The same source defines “esoteric” as pursuing something “designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone” (my emphasis) or “requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group.”

To be “non-esoteric,” in Freemasonry and without, would be not to be part of that specially initiated group or to not have that knowledge restricted to the small group. Or, I suppose, to reject all that.

Brothers on both sides live in the same place. They really do, but they fail to recognize the concentric spheres spheres that share the same center – which make up that place. In Freemasonry, there are those who labor in the Inner Order, they who keep the Light; and those who labor in the Outer Order, they who keep the lights on.

There is no point in making sure the power bill is paid to keep the lights on if there is no Light to keep; and the Light cannot very well be kept if the power bill is not paid to keep the lights on.

There are Brothers who prefer the Outer Order. They enjoy the sumptuous banquets, the social functions, and getting out into the world to show how good Freemasons can be. The Outer Order excels at financial planning, in setting aside trusts for the future, for that is where the Outer Order lives. They are careful to remember the past and plan for the future.

The Brothers of the Inner Order live in the Now. They see Freemasonry as a body of individual seekers of Light, an heir to the ancient mystery schools, and a system to impart morality, ethics, and the benefits of mutual service. The Inner Order tends to dismiss the past as unimportant and reckons the future will take care of itself. For them, clarity and correctness about the past and future is a secondary concern to the now.

Ancient Mysteries

Ancient Mystery School Symbolism

Then there are those achingly tolerant Brethren, “hybrids,” who can pass between the spheres and see value in both. They historically have been in the minority in Freemasonry but, in my observation, their numbers are increasing. I see them as Brothers deeply rooted in the center. I wish there were more of them.

I am not the first to observe this disharmony between the spheres. Bro. Robert Davis, in his 2010 paper “The Path of the Esotericists Among Us,” pointed out that “no sincere adept’ would force truth on someone not prepared to contemplate it. “We all know Masons who believe with all their heart there is nothing spiritual about the rituals of Masonry,” Bro. Davis wrote. 

There are those who claim there is nothing to learn beyond the ritual words. There are even more who are appalled when it is suggested that Kabbalistic, Alchemical, or Hermetic associations might be made from a study of the Degrees of Masonry. Never mind that every aspirant is told before he receives the very first Degree that Masonry is a course of hieroglyphic instruction taught by allegories. Oh well. As obvious as this may seem to the esoteric minded among us, there is little to be gained by arguing with those who aren’t listening.

I would add to Davis’ point that there *is* a middle path. It is worth seeking, and Esoterics and Non-Esoterics need to tolerate, if not respect, each other.

Until we can all be there, I continue to hope that Brothers of the Inner and Outer orders will learn to respect and tolerate each other. I hope that they will try – please try – not to encroach too much into the opposite sphere. At least not until they are ready to do so harmoniously and fully recognizing that the Brother in the opposite sphere who does not get you and who is not open to your experience is the Brother who makes sure that you do and are.

Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries?

Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries?

When I turned that corner in the Paris Catacombs this past May, having already crossed the stone portal into the massive ossuary and read its famous warning, “ARRÊTE! C’EST İCİ L’EMPİRE DE LA MORT (“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”), I came into first contact with the remains of the estimated 6 and 7 million people stored there. My mind went entirely blank.

My next thought was recollection of a conversation I had with a California male-only Mason years ago when I still was a Fellowcraft. He was a member of a traditional observance lodge – still quite rare in the U.S. – that wanted to restore traditions removed by a grand lodge that no longer wanted to scare anybody. “Karen,” he said. “I want my skulls back.”

I come from a Masonic tradition that never lost its skulls and other emblems of mortality. So it was and has been difficult for me to more than pity his poverty. Masonically, I was like some folks who scribble out a donation to help starving children in far-off lands they themselves never expect to visit.

In the catacombs, I came to better understand that far-off land and to more fully grok what the skulls are for:

20170530_132133_HDR

“Stop traveler and cast an eye,

As you are now so once was I,

Prepare in time make no delay

For youth and time will pass away.”

Many of the more esoteric Masonic writers doubt little at all that Freemasonry is a direct descendant of the ancient mystery schools. It is the same class of writers who will tolerate no challenge, no questions, and no suggestions that they might be mistaken and will dismiss those who bring those challenges, questions, and suggestions as just not being open to the experience. I observe that the majority of their readers are quite satisfied with what light those unchallenged assertions provide.

There are, of course, other writers of sterner academic metal who doubt, with justification, Freemasonry’s direct connection to the ancient mystery schools. These prefer to recognize those ancient mystery schools as metaphysical traditions that were harmonious with other contemporary and so-called “mysteries” but no later than that. Auguste and Alphonse Mariette, wrote in their “Monuments of Upper Egypt“, published in 1890, that ancient Egyptian mystery schools hinted to neophytes their own hidden spark of the divine.

“To the initiated of the sanctuary, no doubt, was reserved the knowledge of the god in the abstract, the god concealed in the unfathomable depths of his own essence. But for the less refined adoration of the people were presented the endless images of deities sculptured on the walls of temples.”

However, even the Mariettes were not fully convinced about that. “Unfortunately, the more one studies the Egyptian religion, the greater becomes the doubt as to the character which must definitely be ascribed to it,” they wrote in the following paragraph on the same page.

Many a neophyte, in as many traditions, have mistaken the symbol for the thing. They as often mistake similarity for proof of connection. Apples and oranges have many points of comparison, being fruits that are roughly round, can be peeled and grow on trees, but they are not genetically connected. Apples and oranges do, however, remain what they are.

Fully understanding the lessons of any mystery school, regardless of its origin, means barriers must be passed. The official website of the Paris catacombs warns that folks with heart or respiratory problems, who suffer from a “nervous disposition” or who are young children, should not make the visit. Clearly, one must be a fit and proper person. Neither the rash nor fearful to apply.

Those who qualify too often face other barriers. Bringing the ancient mystery schools, such as those of Isis and at Eleusis, into full focus can be difficult for those who see everything through Judeo-Christian-Muslim lenses. The mystery school promises nothing about the divine and provides no universal absolutes or pathways to heaven or hell. They tell no one what to believe.

For those who make it past all those barriers, the mystery school does its best to quicken a personal evolution in each individual, to awaken in them a knowledge of themselves, and to prepare them for the more personal lessons will spring up in their everyday lives from places where those lessons had always been; but they’d never noticed before. The mystery school does that, in large part, through symbol and near-dream-imagery ritual to trigger in the neophyte a stark recognition of who they already are, will be and where they were headed.

That’s what the skulls are for.

The idea is that if you know where you’re headed, the end that awaits us all, then you’ll better appreciate and actually live the life you will have and will not be too terrified when it is over. You will have actually lived while you could and will not be plagued in the end by regrets.

The greatest students in those schools become wise through a series of shared experiences but they also recognize in other students a lack of full understanding. It doesn’t seem to matter. Even those who don’t quite get it can still work the same ritual and still pass on the same ideas. It’s quite possible to transmit on wisdom without understanding it.

I’m not convinced that Freemasonry has a direct connection to those ancient mystery schools. However, it is quite clear to me that traditional and orthodox Freemasonry is a mystery school. Among its lessons is the idea, which would have been familiar in those ancient mystery schools, that man is mortal and the more enlightened should, for their own sake, meditate upon their own personal mortality while they still possess the vigor to do so.

Freemasonry does not monolithically teach that. There are those in the Craft who would root out “any form of esotericism” and maintain that Freemasonry “certainly does not deal in spirituality.” And that’s OK, Freemasonry is large enough even for those who don’t want those lessons.

For those who do, the lessons remain, though there may be a struggle to even learn them. My male-only friend and the brothers in his traditional observance lodge did, eventually, get their skulls back after their grand lodge decided it was all part and parcel with “pre-ritual education.” And so it goes.

 

 

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“Memento Creatoris tui in diebus juventulis . . . “