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.

Freemasonry: Is Architecture Frozen Music?

Freemasonry: Is Architecture Frozen Music?

At the end of a recent Scottish Rite workshop, and after one of the most incredible weeks of my life, I felt inspired and nourished with the treasures that only the craft of Freemasonry can offer. I jumped in the car and set off on my long drive home. My thoughts were tuned to philosophy, art, and music. I contemplated how a beautiful masonic temple is a work of art, a finely tuned instrument, a Stradivarius if you like. I had just been a part of something special; freemasonry, philosophy and art teaming up together in my world for the love of beauty.

So far so good.

But then the quote, supposedly of Goethe, crossed my mind, “Architecture is frozen music.”

Now, I like Goethe very much. He was certainly a profound thinker, contrasting the way architecture and music impact our minds. He gives you a sense of what is greater than ourselves, what transcends our lives. I appreciate the philosophical perspective. But, at the time I was thinking with my snobbish musical mind that he got this one terribly wrong.

What about the reverse? If architecture is frozen music, does that mean music is liquid architecture?

Tomar knights templarYou certainly wouldn’t say that musical notes written on a piece of paper is a complete definition of music. Of course not! A written melody is perhaps one of the necessary components for a musical experience. But we also need a musician who can read the notes and have the skill to perform on an instrument. We need an occasion for this music to be played. Don’t forget we need those listeners who can undergo the musical experience. All these factors come together in a synergistic manner to make up what we might call music.

Are you telling me that music is liquid architecture?

I don’t buy it. Music is a complicated affair needing a host of ingredients working merrily together to transport us into a state of musical rapture. Is Goethe telling me that architecture requires all this movement to be frozen still? How could Goethe be so wrong?

What Goethe really said

Well, as it turns out Goethe’s analogy between architecture and music actually extends much further. A little bit of research revealed to me that the popular cliché has become distorted over time.  “Frozen music” might even be the most misleading definition of architecture around.

Goethe definitely said this in Conversations with Eckermann:

“I have found a paper of mine among some others, in which I call architecture ‘petrified music.’ Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music.”

What I think is the most important part of this statement is that Goethe was suggesting that architecture produces the same “tone” or effect in your mind as music.  The point he is making is about the mind.

Let me expand on my interpretation of his philosophy.  If this is an act of arrogance then I apologize, but for all my love of Goethe, my loyalty is to truth and art.

1200px-Music_lesson_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2421Goethe’s idea suggests something about the creative process of the mind and the human need to express something.  What would a building sound like if the architect had been a composer?  He would be using vibrations as the medium of expression instead of lines and shapes. It could be said that the musician “composes” using vibrations, the scientist “invents” with formulas, the painter “paints” with color and design, and so on. A thought-form is created. There is a universal theme of mental expression underscoring all creative disciplines.

It is the special skill of the creative worker and the space in which they create that causes a living architecture.  These factors make the air molecules vibrate in such a way that this soup of pulsating molecules works upon our minds, even after the creative worker has completed his architecture.  We might call it a thought-form, a musical idea, that continues to exist.  

Freemasonry: The Creative Workshop

Freemasons are always looking for connections between music, architecture, geometry, proportion, and how such tools can be used to transform society. Music doesn’t use windows or columns and architecture doesn’t use melodies or notes. For most of us such obvious differences would seem to eliminate any possible similarity between them. But wait! If we use the idea that any artistic expression is a creative process of mind then we get a very different picture. 

St. Thomas Aquinas has said:

“Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.”

finalstairway-to-heaven-chords (3)How can a Freemason achieve that exaltation of the mind? I have a couple thoughts on this. First, there is an acceptance of the possibility of a more evolved world, and second there is an experience of a change in our state of being as we become aware of that better world. 

Temples and buildings of great architecture are designed to build a bridge between this world and that. There is something musical that pulsates and glows inside them, inside the architecture, some dancing molecules that converge as a product of all the thoughtful labor that has been conducted until that point in time.

I should point out that in a masonic temple there are no blurred boundaries between participant and observer. Everyone has an active role in building the edifice. 

Architecture. Music. And the relationship between them is….? I’m not sure, but the obvious thing that springs into my mind is that the experience of a beautiful building might in some ways equate with the experience of a beautiful piece of music. The architecture inside the Lodge inspires the Freemason outside the lodge to become a better Master Craftsman in the mighty workshop of the Lord. 

Each Mason must be a builder; he is a workman under the direction of a Great Architect, who is planning a marvelous edifice, which is the Grand Lodge above, the perfect universe. To the building of this perfect edifice, each Mason must bring his stone, his perfect ashlar, perfect because it has been tested and proved true by the plumb, by the level and by the square.”

~ Brother C. Jinarajadasa, Ideals of Freemasonry

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.