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.

The Symbolism of the Cube: Why is it both Qabalistic and Masonic?

The Symbolism of the Cube: Why is it both Qabalistic and Masonic?

Symbols can often have double or multiple interpretations, ranging from the obvious exoteric meanings to the more esoteric ideas understood by a few. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes can be found the hidden knowledge.  Symbols conceal as much, or more, than they reveal.

Where does the masonic cube fall on this continuum? How did the hidden knowledge of the mystical qabalah influence its use in Freemasonry?

To start with, what is Qabalah? It’s difficult to define with a phrase. Even after a few decades of study I don’t think I can come up with a definition. How can you describe the indescribable?

Perhaps one could say the Qabalah is a mystical symbolic system of looking at the microcosm and macrocosm from the standpoint of the Creator. For a qabalist, there is nothing in life that is not interesting; the speck of dust on the ground, the glowing nebulas in the heavens, and the tiny living cell — all these have their message and tell a story of the Creator.

Can masons relate to this? Of course. That is why most of the early 18th century English ritualists were acquainted with the qabalistic teachings. Since many of them studied the qabalah while the masonic rituals were being written, it was likely a source for many of the signs, symbols and allegories of Freemasonry. Brother Albert Pike 33° indexed over seventy entries to the subject of qabalah in his book Morals and Dogmacabala21

The book indicates that the more you study the hidden meanings (or occult), it becomes clearer and clearer that everywhere in the universe, at every conceivable point in space, there is a Consciousness, which expresses through what is visible and invisible.

Pike tells us that:

“Qabalah is the key of the occult sciences.”

The qabalists used models such as the Tree of Life, The 32 Paths of Wisdom and the Cube of Space to describe the plan and processes of creation. The cube is especially significant to the themes of freemasonry. How, so?

The Qabalist’s Cube of Formation

Perhaps a good place to start is the Book of Formation or Sefer Yetzirah. It is one of the oldest treatises on qabalistic philosophy that concerns itself with the Divine creative process. It describes how the Creator literally thought and spoke everything into existence, and continues to do so. The type of creation that it shows proceeds through manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

I am always in awe of the Sefer Yetzirah whose short verses can easily conceal its depth and complexity. The seeming simplicity is only a taste of its mystery. The premise is that everything in the universe is directed by intelligence. The scheme of life and activity that we call evolution is in accordance with a Plan made by a Master Mind or Great Architect. Final Cube Sepher Yetzirah

Everything is considered to be constructed of the Hebrew letters, or at least the forces they represent. The three Hebrew Mother letters (Aleph, Mem, Shin) corresponded to the three simple letters to form the name Jah (IHV).

From Verse II of The Sepher Yetzirah:

He looked above, and sealed the Height with (IHV)
He looked below and sealed the Depth with (IVH)
He looked forward, and sealed the east with (HIV)
He looked backward, and sealed the west with (HVI)
He looked to the right, and sealed the south with (VIH)
He looked to the left and sealed the north with (VHI)

Brother Paul Foster Case, scholar and Freemason, popularized the Sepher Yetzirah through his concept of the Cube of Space using the verses in Chapters IV and V to add the tarot keys and astrological correspondences. It alludes to defining the boundaries of our perceptions. Quite a remarkable diagram, indeed!

The Divine Mind conceives the archetypal form, and then it exists in the world of ideas. A long process of human evolution has to take place before the ideal can be manifested in form, and the soul in full consciousness can achieve the archetypal form.

Some might look at the diagram and say, “so what!” Why does it matter for a Freemasonblack-background-1468370534d5s_1 (1) work with these archetypal ideas, specifically the cube?

The Freemason’s Perfect Stone 

One possible reason is that archetypal themes underlie many of the masonic rituals. It is no coincidence that the form of a masonic lodge is a symbolic cube.

Freemason Albert G. Mackey writes:

“The lodge or collected assemblage of masons, is adopted as a symbol of the world. The solid contents of the earth below and the expanse of the heavens above give the outlines of the cube, and the whole created universe will be included within the symbolic limits of a mason’s lodge.”

In Revelation Chapter 21, the new Jerusalem is described as a perfect cube: “The plan of the city is perfectly square, its length the same as its breadth.” Also, the room known as the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem was constructed in the shape of a cube. In the center of the room was the Ark of the Covenant that contained the Scroll of the Law.

The candidate in a masonic lodge symbolically represents one of the stones used in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple. The ritual portrays the shaping, testing and laying of that stone. Ultimately, the moral and spiritual preparation that he must undergo is to become a “living stone” in the heavenly temple.

Brother Manly Hall says:

“The perfect cube represents the personality that has had all the unevenness, roughness, and inequality polished away by experience. Such a stone is ready to become a block in the Everlasting House not built by hands but eternal in the heavens.”

If left to our own devices, our evolution and progress would be infinitesimal. But fortunately, we have teachers and perfected individuals of past ages to guide us to be perfect stones. Instead of using the working tools to build a physical structure out of stone and mortar, a speculative mason uses these same tools symbolically for spiritual, moral and intellectual development. finaltumblr_inline_nxatcedBV71riiuei_500_1 (2)

In the end, what does the symbol of the cube offer? I believe it is archetypal concepts that help all of us connect with something larger. Are we not all just sculptors? Writing our own books of creation? “Becoming” perfect cubes?

“A block of marble, deep within the quarry lies. Hidden within it lies likewise a form of beauty rare. The sculptor works, patterning true to that which lies revealed unto the inner sight. He patterns true and beauty comes to life.”

– Brother Alice Bailey

The Masonic Letter G stands for…?

The Masonic Letter G stands for…?

To what does the symbol allude? Doubtless there are many answers to this question. Depending on what country, what masonic group, or what Lodge you’ll get different answers. All are interesting, and some are actually a bit astonishing. It has been said to represent ideas such as God, Geometry, Generation, Gnosis, Great Architect, Gamma, Goodness, Gimel, Goat, and more.

When did the letter G first appear in Freemasonry? It is hard to say for sure. One theory is that the symbol could have been brought in by Rosicrucians and Qabalists who became Masons the last part of the 17th century.

Another theory is that it was introduced some time subsequent to 1717 by the members of the Grand Lodge of England. We are told in the early masonic lectures that G signifies “Geometry, the Root and Foundation of all Sciences.” 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the letter G, was said to have a symbolic meaning of God as synonymous with Geometry. It was sometimes displayed in the center of the Lodge and other times hung in the East. The G represented both “God” as the supreme being and “Geometry” which is imagined as a means of seeing the perfect ordering of the universe. Temple G

Over time, it became identified with many other things. Why? That is exactly the topic of a debate that has been raging for centuries. The Masonic letter G is one of those aspects of masonic history that seems to follow an unpredictable path.

Masonic Scholar Albert G. Mackey goes so far as to say he feels Masonic symbolism has been hurt rather than helped by the adoption of the letter G. He writes:

“It is to be regretted that the letter G. as a symbol, was ever admitted into the Masonic system. The use of it as an initial would necessarily confine it to the English language and to modern times. It wants therefore, as a symbol, the necessary characteristics of both universality and antiquity.”

Is Mackey correct? Does the letter G lack universality? Has it hurt Freemasonry? How Gimel or Camelshould it be dealt with?

G is for Gimel

An interesting justification for the symbol’s importance can be found in a ground- breaking book by Brother Paul Foster Case called the Masonic Letter G. I read this work years ago when I was studying qabalah. Using the Hebrew Gematria as a tool, he defends the G symbol as not only universal but honorable. One of the arguments he gives is that the letter G corresponds to the third letter in the Hebrew alphabet or Gimel. He gives two ways this Hebrew G could be acknowledged as universal:

  1. Hebrew letters are unique in that each one has a name that represents a familiar object. Objects are universally understood, unlike English letters.
  2. The Hebrew letter G or Gimel represents a camel. Camels, to ancient Hebrews, represented journeying to places far off, and the like. The camel symbolizes a mason’s travel in search of light and his quest to learn the hidden secrets of nature.

There is not enough space (or time) here to explain fully the argument which contains a load of Hebrew Gematria and interesting juggling with numbers but I recommend it if you like that sort of thing.

After his proof, Case remarks:

“Were nothing else to be said for it, it seems to us these facts would make the letter G a sufficiently universal, as well as sufficiently ancient, symbol of the Grand Architect.”

He explains in the various degree lessons of the craft that the idea of travel is significant.  By travel, the mason is able to trace nature through her various windings to her most final filosofia medievalconcealed recesses. Precisely the same thought is expressed in what many of the Masonic lectures tell us concerning God as He “Geometrizes.”

What does Geometry have to do with Freemasonry? How does God “Geometrize?”

God as the Geometrician

Geometry is taught to a Freemason, as he progresses in the science. As soon a one enters upon the world of geometry, symbolic and philosophical, the mind is opened to new influences that stimulate and refine it. 

From the standpoint of science, geometry and its offshoots are vital sciences of measurement. Often, nature conforms to simple patterns with symmetry and structure. For example, the pentagon lies behind a five-petaled rose, or a dandelion is a sphere. Honeybees build their hives in hexagons.

Today, the study of fractals can explain some other seemingly chaotic systems in nature. That is why the craft as it relates to geometry is called a progressive science in the broadest sense. In the search for knowledge, there is much that we do not know and discoveries constantly being yudrevealed.

Freemasonry is filled with practices that shift us to new perspectives. The contemplation of the vastness of time. The mysterious inevitability of death. The unlimited bounds of love. The power of symbols. 

For example, a Divine symbol that is both universal and ancient is the Yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It symbolizes that all created things are modifications of the one primal Spirit. It is the masonic “G”, at least according to some authorities. W.L. Wilmshurst writes:

“The Yod is the emblem of the Divine Presence in the Lodge; it is also the emblem of that Presence at the spiritual centre of the individual Mason.”

There’s always more to learn. Another veil to lift. 

Cosmology and all of the associated sciences have not been able to definitely know the source and ultimate purpose of life. This strongly suggests that there must be some hidden purpose in the geometry of creation that is beyond the present scope of human knowledge and comprehension.

In masonic lectures, we read:

“By contemplation of the Divine we may discover his power, wisdom, and goodness and view with amazing delight the beautiful proportions which connect and grace this vast machine.”

And so, it is.

The procession of divine events and patterns which happens in the Divine realms are in Universal Co-Masonrysome manner mysteriously reflected in our human world, if we have eyes to see.

What, finally, is the message of the Masonic letter G? 

Perhaps it is that each of us must ponder the Divine, to be a geometrician, working according to his ability. Beyond the obvious pleasure of contemplating the glorious works of nature – there is delight that comes when beholding the “true” Masonic letter G, whatever symbolic form it takes.

“When the Lodge is opened, the mind and heart of every Brother composing it should be deemed as also being opened to the “G” and all that it implies, to the intent that those implications may eventually become realized facts of experience. When the Lodge is closed, the memory of the “G” symbol and its implications should be the chief one to be retained and pondered over in the repository of the heart.”  

~ W.L. Wilmshurst