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.

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)

 

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.