PS Review of Freemasonry

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Editor's Interview: MAKING LIGHT
In this book Making Light - a Handbook for Freemasons Julian Rees shows many largely unknown aspects of the Masonic symbolism. The Editor asked the author: "Isn't esoteric talk of this kind going to put some Freemasons off?"...
A Seeker After the Inner Meaning of Freemasonry


W. Bro. Julian Rees is a PM of Kirby Lodge No. 2818, London
Past Junior Grand Deacon, United Grand Lodge of England.

            Quite often my readers have tried to put the label of ‘academic’ on the things I write. In fact, I’m not an academic, and indeed I try to shy away from the academic label, knowing how it does put off a number of Freemasons. Academic pursuits are so often those which concentrate on learned scholarship and the brain whereas, as those who have read my pieces in Freemasonry Today will know, I prefer to concentrate on those matters pertaining to the heart, the feelings, and the innermost recesses of our innermost selves. I hope to explore here the ways in which Freemasonry goes to the heart of who and what and where we are, and the masonic path which leads us inexorably, if we follow it in truth, to self-knowledge.

            And as academic pursuits may not be the best way to understand Freemasonry, nor I believe, will the history of Freemasonry help us more than superficially. There are as many masonic historians as there are leaves on a tree, many of them telling mutually contradictory stories. As our own Pro Grand Master Lord Northampton said recently, about masonic history, ‘I’m not so interested in where we came from – it’s where we’re going that matters.’

            Freemasonry is a multi-faceted thing. Each one of us may see a different symbol, a different path, in what is, at the end, a common pursuit. We may focus on comradeship, on ritual excellence, on structure and hierarchy, or on charity and philanthropy. We may see fulfilment in masonry as being based on a correct moral code and our upright behaviour in society. Sadly, we may be very bound up in personal ambition and a striving for promotion. With the exception of that last pursuit, all the foregoing pursuits are valid, and serve to make of our ancient craft the glorious edifice that it has become.

            But at the centre of what we do in Freemasonry is the pursuit of self-knowledge. I am supported in this assertion by the little square booklet published by our own Grand Lodge, which tells us that Freemasonry teaches moral lessons and self-knowledge. It is the pursuit of truth, residing in each one of us, which is Freemasonry’s primary concern, its primary objective. So, in embarking on the journey towards self-knowledge, what is the named destination? We start with ill-defined words – words like ‘soul’, ‘psyche’, ‘mind’, and ‘heart’. We have to go back just a short way, to look even if rather briefly, at the rise and development of Freemasonry, so I will, after all, have to apologise for just a little history!

            Freemasonry was, apparently, born in the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, that loosely-defined period in European history between, some say, 1650 and 1800. This was a period that gave rise to a flowering of thought, art, literature and philosophy, a period that gave rise to the scientist-philosopher Isaac Newton, the second Grand Master John Desaguliers, Benjamin Franklin, American Independence, Voltaire, the French Revolution, Samuel Johnson, William Chambers the architect, David Hume the philosopher. It was a period in which men began, as in the Renaissance and Reformation periods two to three hundred years before, to question authority, authority in the form of religion, literature, science, the arts and philosophy.

            Above all, they began to question the supremacy of institutional religion, and to try to ascertain some absolutes outside religion, concerning the mystery of human existence, the phenomenon of the human race. The great German writer Goethe, who lived at the centre of the Age of Enlightenment, said ‘For man is, by nature, noble, good and philanthropic, and this alone sets him apart from all other living creatures’. Here then was a statement which did not deny God, but reminded men that they had innate qualities of moral virtue and goodness in them, unaided by religion. In the same period, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (who just had to write everything in Latin!) said ‘Aude Sapere!’, which translates as ‘Dare to Think!’. This was a direct challenge to the oppressive diktat of the clergy, who up to that time regarded all wisdom to be vested in Mother Church and in holy writ. To us today, there is nothing remarkable in someone telling us to ‘think for ourselves’ but at that time, the idea that there was a truth inside each and every man, unaided by the medium of pre-eminent and learned churchmen and scholars, a truth we could unveil for ourselves, was quite revolutionary. Kant taught us that we had only to look into our own being to discover Truth.

            We cannot overstate the importance of this period in history, the Age of Enlightenment, in liberating men from imposed ecclesiastical learning, and in furthering their striving to fashion for themselves some moral and intellectual code not based solely on religion. Here it was that Freemasonry came into its own, in a blaze of liberation, a white-hot furnace of longing and of aspiration, of new ideas and new beginnings. Men were hungry to find out for themselves some eternal truth, eternal goodness.

            And at its heart, Freemasonry concentrated on just that – it concentrated on the heart. Apart from the anatomical description of the heart and its function in maintaining life, where does the heart come in relation to our own mind, psyche, soul and intellect? ‘Mind’ may be thought of as immaterial, while ‘brain’ is material. Mind had not always been located in the brain, and in most religious and philosophic traditions there is a current theme associating mind, not with the thinking process, but with the heart, the feeling process, i.e. I think with my brain, but I sense and feel with my heart. A prayer well-known to many of us exhorts God to ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit’, so the heart here is made an instrument, not of the body, but of the spirit. An Islamic scholar says that ‘the heart is the organ which produces true knowledge of the divine mysteries’. Notice, it is the heart, not the mind.

            Freemasonry mirrors this, when it says that the heart is the first place where we are prepared to be made a mason, and at the end of our masonic ritual journey, it is our purified heart which we dedicate to God and to the service of our fellow man, a heart, we are reminded, which is fitted for the reception of truth and wisdom. In ancient symbolism the moon was taken to represent the brain, and the sun, the heart. Thus while the moon represents change and uncertainty, the sun, representing the heart, defines the point within a circle, true balance, certainty, and truth itself. As Shakespeare reminds us 

            This above all, to thine own self be true.

            And so it follows as the night the day,

            Thou canst not then be false to any man 

            The opening of the heart is the mystic tie, binding all men, especially Freemasons, into one brotherhood.

            I want to give you some concrete instances where the heart, the centre, is, like the infallible plumb rule, the point from which we cannot err. Some years ago, in the United States, the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploded on take-off with the loss of the lives of all those on board. At the enquiry afterwards, it was established that some flexible ring-seals, which had been subjected to very low sub-zero temperatures, had lost their integrity, causing the craft to disintegrate. It then transpired that, prior to the launch, some of the engineers had expressed reservations about the seals’ ability to stand up to such low temperatures. Their views were not only disregarded, they were ridiculed, it being pointed out that computer models showed such anxiety not to be well-founded. But these engineers said that, despite all the scientific evidence, they had a ‘gut-feeling’ that something was wrong. In that sort of scientific community, if somebody says ‘I can prove that’ so-and so, he is listened to with respect, but if he says ‘This thing has a wrong feeling about it’ he is ridiculed. Now that gut-feeling that something was wrong manifested itself to those engineers because they were at the centre, and knew to trust their instinct, their intellect, their feelings, and therefore their heart, against all the apparently incontrovertible evidence.

            Let me give you another. Who can forget the image of Jonny Wilkinson in the Rugby World Cup? When I watched the first match of the series I was first of all mesmerised by Jonny’s eyes. If you get the chance, look at any one of the many photos there are of him just before taking a goal-kick. To look into those eyes is to look into the soul, the heart of the man. There is total commitment, but also a kind of peace that comes from being with yourself. But there is more. Look at the whole posture, the position of the clasped hands especially. Listen to this quote from the man himself. ‘The hands,’ he says, ‘are like a barrier erected against the outside world, helping me to cut out the tens of thousands of opposing fans who are likely to attempt to disturb my concentration. I looked at focusing from the inside, slowing down the breathing, relaxation, centring, which is a way of channeling my power and energy from my core.’ Here then is a man who has found his way to the point within the circle, a point from which he seldom errs.

            Unfortunately we do not have far to look for examples of what happens when the heart or the point within the circle, is not the focus for us. I am thinking of the site of the World Trade Centre in New York, that deeply painful scar that has come to be known as Ground Zero. I see in the press that Ground Zero ‘has caught up many of the world’s leading architects. It has served to illuminate the darkest corners of the architectural subconscious, with all the petty ambitions, jealousies and paranoias that lie just below the superficial platitudes about culture and cooperation’. One architect said that he would not be taking part in the Ground Zero competition because the $40,000 that the finalists would be paid was ‘demeaning’. Another described the project as ‘self-pity on a Stalinist scale’. An architect called Daniel Libeskind finally won the competition after a campaign that ‘had less to do with the drawings and models submitted and more to do with power politics’. His chief rival described Libeskind’s design as ‘the wailing wall’, while Libeskind responded that his rival’s designs were ‘skeletons in the sky’. Libeskind quickly discovered that he was going to have to accommodate the developer of the site, who was in line to collect the biggest insurance claim in history.

            I won’t go on, Brethren; this is profoundly depressing. In an arena where more should have been learned about the negative effects of hatred and jealousy, where something was needed to pay homage to the memory of those innocent people who lost their lives, we had nothing. Nothing but self-interest, power, jealousy, greed and the ‘Me-Too’ culture which seems to hold sway in so many areas of our lives. If Libeskind and the rest of the circus at Ground Zero had had the chance to find their centre, to be true to their best instincts, to understand the near-sacred mission of what they were doing with that near-sacred spot, perhaps the jealousy and bitterness, the self-interest and greed, the naked ambition and the squalor of their feelings might have been avoided, for their own good, yes, but also for the good of all those who come in contact with them, and for the more seemly creation of a building, something to remind us that hatred and jealousy must never win, and that the noise going on in the circle must never take precedence over the still small point at its centre. This is where any circle begins and ends – in masonic terms, its true humanity, its heart.

            I want now to ask you to concentrate on what many consider to be the central part of the beginning of the masonic journey undertaken by the aspiring Freemason. I refer to the prayer over the aspirant at the start of the initiation process. ‘Grant that this candidate for Freemasonry may so dedicate and devote his life to Thy service as to become a true and faithful Brother among us. Endue him with a competency of Thy divine wisdom that, assisted by the secrets of our masonic art, he may the better be enabled to unfold the beauties of true godliness, to the honour and glory of Thy holy name.’ Here, we are praying that Freemasonry may help the aspirant to unfold, reveal, or display godliness, or in other words, to own that divinity for himself. Note that the ritual does not charge him to go out and seek the beauties of true godliness. And why? Because that godliness already resides within him, in his heart, and needs only to be unfolded, or displayed by the opening of his heart in the brotherhood of which he is becoming a member, but our application of the ritual will gradually teach him that.

            I submit, Brethren, that it is this unfolding, this opening of the heart, that is the essence of our ancient Craft. Were it not so, our mention of ‘godliness’, and therefore of divinity, would be meaningless. Our aspirant is about to discover, to unfold and to bring forth some fragment of the eternal divinity within himself. This is the start of his journey on the masonic path, and along the way he learns his responsibility to this our contrasting material world. There is no room for doubt about what Freemasonry is doing here. It will no longer be enough for us to concentrate on the form of the ritual, the mere words, while ignoring the content. We cannot, as some do, claim that there is no deeper meaning, and that as long as we gain promotion to a higher rank in Freemasonry, then that’s all there is to it. 

            Remember Shakespeare. It does bear repeating. 

            This above all, to thine own self be true.

            And so it follows, as the night the day,

            Thou canst not then be false to any man 

            But the important thing is that we have to find our own truth or plumb rule before endeavouring to be on the level with our fellow men. In finding our own centre, our own nature, where our best and most enlightened feelings and instincts lie, we will then be able to relate to, and empathise with, the sometimes errant feelings of our Brother, and by example, if by no other means, to illuminate for him a path that he will himself benefit from and find fruitful. This I feel must be the core of moral awareness, and the fruits of our own search for self-knowledge.

            So, brethren, next time you hear these words, I want to ask you to listen to them carefully and reverently: ‘Endue him with a competency of Thy divine wisdom that, assisted by the secrets of our masonic art, he may the better be enabled to unfold the beauties of true godliness, to the honour and glory of Thy holy name.’

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