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 Perfection of Humanity: A Work in Progress

The Perfection of Humanity: A Work in Progress

What if perfection isn’t what you think it is? It is a term that every Freemason can relate to as part of their understanding. The zeal to achieve perfection is a core value of the masonic practice. Many instances of the word turn up in masonic language.

In the Scottish Rite, the combined degrees of 4 to 14 are called the “Lodge of Perfection.” In the Egyptian Rite, we find the “Rite of Perfect Initiates.” When we think of perfection, the idea has positive connotations. Achievement, completeness, evolution, excellence, fulfillment, integrity, and so on. People sometimes wear the title of perfection as a badge of honor.

What does perfection mean, really?

When I was younger and taking piano lessons, my music teacher’s studio wall was framed with a picture that said: “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” That was a tall order! Later, I discovered the view is very different. The merit of perfectionism is called seriously into question outside the music studio. For example, in the book Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Fritz Perls writes that if you are “cursed with perfectionism, you are absolutely sunk.”

This contrast of views can be quite perplexing, since there appears to be truth on both sides of the equation. Perfectionism can apparently be a destructive trait or a good trait. The danger with using the word perfect is that it seems to imply completeness. One of the meanings of the word perfect is “absolute and unequivocal.” There’s a certain arrogance built into the word.

IMG00025-20100812-1145Trying to be perfect assumes that you know what perfect would be.

What if perfection is more like a verb? Is perfection a means to an end or the end itself? How is the idea of perfection portrayed in Freemasonry?

The Seed of Perfection

Man has always been fascinated by the mysterious perception of life and its purpose. As the hunt for the truth advances, more individuals are starting to focus on perfection of mind, body, and soul.

Manly Hall writes:

All humans have within them the seed of their own perfection. It is not bestowed; it is revealed. Man is a god in the making, and as in the mystic myths of Egypt, on the potter’s wheel he is being molded.

Manly Hall suggests that the perfection of potential is within us. We, of ourselves, are not that perfect, but there’s something within us that is. The true seeker on his journey ever strives for that hidden secret lost within — that seed of perfection.

The Buddha named Six Perfections to work on before illumination will manifest through us: 1) magnanimity, 2) selflessness, 3) patience, 4) fiery striving, 5) meditative quiescence, and 6) wisdom. The perfection of wisdom arises when the first five perfections have been attained. The masonic teaching focuses on the development of character and virtue as part of the training. Attention is given to “building in” certain patterns of right living, thinking and conduct. The Greeks, Persians, and Indians all had narratives of how to perfect the individual. These are ancient paths — tried, tested and proven.

statue-1593706_960_720Therefore, it appears that the divine plan for man can be both perfect and imperfect. The divine impulse that moves us all on the great Way through life, might be considered a perfect process. However, the product of this perfect system is yet to be fully manifested. It is truly a “work in progress.” It is a piece of labor that we must work on continually.

Annie Besant in her book Outer Court calls the process “spiritual alchemy.” She says:

Imagine the spiritual alchemist as taking all these forces of his nature, recognizing them as forces, and therefore as useful and necessary, but deliberately changing, purifying, and refining them.

It is so interesting to reflect on what it might mean to purify each of our faculties. What would it mean to guide others through this process of spiritual alchemy; to educate, to nurture, to listen and not always get the last word in? I walk with you, my friend, on this path of love and light back to the divine.

When the service for the divine spills over into assisting the perfection of humanity, it could be so uniquely lovely.

Service: The Highest Ideal

What is service? The word service is somehow elusive to me because it evokes different personal ideas in each of us. But anyone involved in a true service activity knows it is far from personal. It is about others and the grand design. It is not about “what’s in it for me” or the separate self. When we see everything in relation to ourselves, so will our spiritual vision be limited, isolated, and narrow.

Service is when our heart begins to beat in unison with the heartbeat of the divine plan, the divine tracing board, not our separatist mind.the_rough_ashlar_2

I ponder these obligations every time I think about the allegory of King Solomon’s Temple. I recently read a wonderful article about the legend here. The symbolism suggests that true perfection can never end with physical perfection. It is only the means to the end which is spiritual perfection.

The Temple must not only be built, but it must also be spiritualized, often described as “a Temple not made with hands.”

Albert Mackey tells us:

The speculative mason is engaged in the construction of a spiritual temple in his heart, pure and spotless, fit for the dwelling-place of Him who is the author of purity.

When we look at each other through this glance, we hear an echo of a heavenly realm. All here and now. I wonder about what it would be like to build and live in such a sacred community.

Too often the outer court, with its distractions and fleeting pleasures, demands our attention in ways that leave us enthralled within the walls of ourselves, and the veils of the mundane, forgetting our true perfect master. A call, if not responded to, a knock if ignored, causes the doors of inner perception to close, at least for a time.

What would it be like to see the deepest jewel in one another’s soul? What would it mean for divine faculties to come and take over, replacing all that is egotistic with all that is eternal? Will the perfection of humanity always be a work in progress?

A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with an idea of a cathedral in mind.   

—   Antoine De Saint-Exupery