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.

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)

 

Brotherly Love: The Heart of a Mason’s Work

Brotherly Love: The Heart of a Mason’s Work

Whether the subject of heart is mulled over by the philosopher or analyzed by the scientist, one thing is for certain — the heart is one of life’s most important mysteries.

Freemasonry reflects this idea, when it instructs that every mason is made ready first in his heart, and at the close of our Masonic quest, it is the purified heart which we consecrate to serving Humanity. Among all the masonic teachings, none is more important than brotherly love, relief, and truth.

It is a familiar aphorism of Vincent van Gogh, and I think a true one, that which undertaken for the cause of love is well accomplished. Van Gogh wrote:

It is good to love many things, for therein, lies the true strength. Whosoever loves much, performs much, and can accomplish much….What is done, in love, is well done.

Unfortunately, in the world today, it seems like the practice of brotherly love falls short of the ideal. Peace and harmony do not rule the day. There is conflict here and around the world. Our very home, this tiny little planet, is in real crisis. The disconnect between the ideal and the reality bewilders and baffles me. As a humanity, we are just not very good at the practice of brotherly love. Perhaps it is because we don’t really know what it is.

Are we all just looking for love in all the wrong places?

W.L. Wilmshurst in Meaning of Masonry tells us:

The very essence of the Masonic doctrine is that all men in this world are in search of something in their own nature which they have lost, but that with proper instruction and by their own patience and industry they may hope to find.

Could this “something” be love? BIG LOVE? I have always felt that love is an elusive516664c4a9229fc49ad64039ebb378e1.jpeg subject. We know that it is often driven by a range of factors. To feel love is one thing but to define it is quite another. Brotherly love is not a thing that one can hold in the hand or see with the eye.

Many masonic writers define Brotherly Love as Tolerance. Although, tolerance is admirable among virtues, I have always felt that it not a very lofty concept. Sure, if we compare it with outright bigotry, tolerance is indeed a virtue. But dig a little deeper, and behind tolerance is a concept a few steps removed from our loftiest ideals. “I tolerate you” is a far cry from “I love you.” 

What is the loftiest expression of brotherly love? If not tolerance, what? How do we find it?

Pantajali’s Raincloud of Knowable Things

Perhaps we need a nice metaphor to get us thinking at a higher elevation. How about a magical raincloud? Maybe it rains millions of lofty ideas from heaven. No one gets wet.

An old Hindu seer named Pantajali was the first to brand the metaphor of the “raincloud of knowable things,” which he said stands for a reservoir of divine Ideas. These “knowable things” or thoughts of the creator can “rain” into the mind of a man’s nature. Patanjali wrote about the process of tapping the “raincloud” in his famous Yoga Sutras 3638958116_125c024a31_zwhich were his working tools that he claimed lead a student to wisdom. This cloud hovers over humanity, ready to precipitate the wonders which deity holds in store for mankind.

We would all agree that clouds, even the ones in the web, get attention as metaphors because they are literally shape-shifters. Clouds as metaphors adorn our language; a cloud is on the horizon, he’s on cloud nine, every cloud has a silver lining, it’s cloudy in the east, etc. Clouds are meaningful symbols on the tracing boards of freemasonry.

In the mind of the Great Architect of the Universe, there are ideas and concepts that are group ideas; they are greater than our individual raincloud.

Pantajali says:

When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties, and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be.

The point that Pantajali makes is that we can synchronize our labors on earth with those patterns laid in the heavens by mere contemplation. For every upward striving of our thoughts, we become better caretakers of this beautiful planet earth. Better Freemasons.

Building the Holy Temple in Freemasonry

I have always felt that Freemasonry was developed for a great purpose, one that is of pure heart and of great import. But many times, I find myself at a loss for words to describe this purpose in an integrated, comprehensive fashion.

In the book Spirit of Masonry, Foster Bailey writes about the eternal purpose of theHeart image mason’s task of building the holy temple. He says this temple is not just a pile of bricks but it can also represent the unseen holy temple, the symbolic inner temple inside of each brother.

He describes one of the key pillars of this holy temple as the Law of Love. While assembled for labor, the lodge assumes the ideal of this eternal purpose. The Law of Love is expressed as a living ethic of fellowship, brotherly understanding, mutual assistance, charity, and morality.

In Foster Bailey’s words:

Love is the cement that holds the entire divine structure together, and which cements the stones of the temple, producing coherence, support and strength.

To cement the stones of the temple takes an inner attitude of mind and a subjective orientation of heart. The vision he writes about is that someday the symbolic relationship in lodge will be reflected in the world outside the lodge. The ancient practice of the mystic chain, holding hands in a circle, is perhaps the most striking symbol to me of the eternal bonds of brotherhood that unite.

I marvel in this moment at the possibilities of a world built on the tenets of brotherly love. The magnificence of the glory outside. The vastness of the glory inside the human.

May we mark well! May Brotherly Love Prevail!