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.

There is a sort of hiatus in Freemasonry.  A void.  I wonder if you can guess what I am talking about?  It is just this.  We have a tendency to forget that our ritual is full of mentions of God, and of our part with Him in the universe. We say prayers to God. We invoke His aid and we put our trust in Him.  We speak of light which is from above.  And at our initiation we are launched on a quest for self-knowledge, a quest so important, that all other activities in Freemasonry, however laudable they may be, whether social, charitable or ritual, must take second place.

An initiate coming into our Order, if he stops and feels the words of our ritual, he may be in for a surprise.  He has just humbly solicited to be admitted to mysteries and privileges.  Humbly?  Mysteries?  Privileges?  These are not words which are heard too often in post-modern 21st century conversation!  And how does he hope to obtain these?  By the help of no less a being than God Himself.  So, a mere fourteen lines or ninety-two words into the first degree ritual, we are already invoking God, and we are about to invoke His blessing to enable the candidate to unfold the beauties of true godliness, in other words the divinity resident in his own person.  Our candidate affirms that God it is on whom he relies in cases of difficulty and danger, not the insurance salesman who also promises him indemnity against the difficulties and dangers of this life.  No, it is God  How serious are we about God?

            I was speaking to my daughter recently.  She knows quite a lot about Freemasonry, having a masonic Dad.  She said how good it was that Freemasons of different religions could meet together in spite of their religious differences.  I said that we meet together to celebrate our religious differences.  She said how sad it was that this could only happen in a masonic context, but I have to say to you what a happy thing it is that we do so, and what a marvellous example Freemasons thereby set to the world at large.  It was not always so.  Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, Freemasonry’s ritual was Christian in concept and content.  This sat uneasily with the Brotherhood of Man, and at some time the ritual was secularised.  But in the 18th century moves to de-christianise the Craft, the baby, I believe, was thrown out with the bathwater; spirituality was sacrificed along with Christian doctrine.

If we are to stay true, at least to the teaching of moral lessons and self-knowledge, we might perhaps want to regain that dimension to our Craft that has been lost, the dimension giving us access to that knowledge of our self, to our spirit, to that ‘otherness’ in ourselves.  What do we mean by that?

 We mean that attention to our physical wellbeing is not enough.  Knowing ourselves does not involve understanding our bodies and how they work, valuable though such knowledge is.  It means understanding the non-material, non-physical side of ourselves, even acknowledging that we possess a non-material existence, understanding our heart, our mind, our psyche, our soul.  It  means knowing our true selves, understanding that greater spiritual matrix of which we are a part.  It means being with ourselves, owning ourselves, getting to know ourselves, having a balanced appreciation of our talents and our failings, so that we need not try so hard to prove ourselves before others.  Then we are approaching that ‘otherness’ that is such a precious part of our own existence.  We are, after all, ‘speculative’ Freemasons in this pursuit, from the latin specula, a watchtower.  We are looking outside of our material existence.

The fact is, conditioned as we are by the materialist world we live in, any perception of our ‘otherness’ will seem bizarre, to others if not to ourselves, until we pass what I call the ‘reality’ barrier, and interpret the symbols for what they communicate, rather than taking those symbols at face value.  As Freemasons, we have a unique chance, using symbols and allegory, to free ourselves from the  limitations of scientific materialism and to own up to the otherness in ourselves without which a complete knowledge of ourselves is not possible.

Religion uses the oldest devices for this – myth, ritual, devotion and social action – as ways of coping with the fundamental human desire to come to terms with the mystery of our own existence.  But spirituality pre-dates the great world religions.  Since time began, man has needed to know that life makes sense.  We need to know our part in it.  In short each one of us, as a unique part of the creation, needs validation.  While following the doctrines of the religion which we follow, our spirituality, though it may owe something to the faith we practise, does not belong to that faith – it is ours alone.  And if we practise no faith at all, then all the more important it is for us to explore and validate our own spirit, to turn the key to open the mystery that is ourselves.

In Freemasonry we have a comprehensive allegory of birth, moral awakening, life, pursuit of knowledge, experience, through to ultimate wisdom and the knowledge of ourselves, right up to the importance of the death of our old self to attain re-birth and perfection.  And is our spiritual path rooted only in intellectual, academic or rational concepts?  Not at all.  The prominent Catholic theologian Hans Küng reminds us that faith would be only half a thing were it to address only our understanding and reason and not the whole person, including our hearts.

We need, in the Christian description, to ‘die to ourselves’, to contemplate our inevitable destiny, in order to guide us to that most interesting of all human studies.  The holy confidence referred to is that in ourselves we can be perfect;  we can in ourselves defeat defeatism, defeat pain, defeat suffering, defeat low self-esteem, defeat insecurity, defeat inner chaos and outer hostility, and lift our eyes to a brighter horizon.

To be aware of God’s existence may depend on us opening our hearts.  In my youth, like many people, I had a closed heart.  I went through an atheistic phase.  People used to tell me ‘God is everywhere – God is in you’  and finally ‘You are God.’  That didn’t make sense at the time.  I only paid attention to it much later, and in a slow dawning I began to see what it could mean.  When I became a Freemason, I  wondered in particular what was meant by the following : 

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. 

I suddenly realised that I was being made a promise.  A promise that, assisted by the secrets of masonry, real secrets of meaning, not passwords and signs, I could set out on a path of understanding, or science, of the divinity, not some abstract divinity removed from my proper understanding, but the divinity already resident in myself.  This is true empowerment:  acknowledging, by meditation, the divinity that is mine, and owning it, being at the centre bounded by the equidistant parts of the circle, at a point where, as a Mason, I cannot err, I am truly myself.

The overall effect of how we treat a new candidate must be to make him so unsure of himself and his surroundings that he no longer unthinkingly trusts the material world around him, the evidence of his senses.  In each degree he advances through this state of insecurity, expanding his consciousness to embrace a new level in the Temple of the psyche.  Initiation may properly occur not during the ceremony itself, but as a consequence of it –  the ceremony plants a seed and the actual raising of his level of consciousness follows.  When this is achieved, when the initiate’s heart is open, then he is truly an Entered Apprentice.  His initiation takes place on the ground floor of his psyche, that part related to the physical world but separate from it.  The candidate has agreed to be deprived, symbolically, of worldly riches.  His clothing is half-undone, a metaphor much more striking in the elaborate dress of an 18thC gentleman perhaps than it is today.  He has allowed a noose to be placed around his neck, a powerful image of submission.  And, most importantly, he has agreed to be deprived of light, to be led around in darkness.

If we have prepared our candidate properly, in mind as well as physically, he ought by now to feel humbled, submissive, and blind to more than just material light, for how long he does not know.  He is going on a journey in darkness and deprived of so much in his everyday life that allows him to feel secure.  We are focusing his mind away from the sensuality of the world into his own being, his own consciousness.  He comes a step closer to shedding his materialist outer garment.  He will almost certainly feel threatened by sharp objects.  His future in this new way of life is far from sure.  He is advised against rashness, impetuously rushing forward, and also advised against retreat, reticence.  But note that these risks are so constructed that to avoid the risk of one is to increase the risk of the other.  He can be neither impetuous, or he will be stabbed, nor can he hold back, or he will strangle himself, and by this means he is taught resolute but cautious perserverance.

One of the principal attitudes required of an Entered Apprentice is fidelity to secrets.  I believe the concept of masonic secrets is one of the most misunderstood.  We surely do not mean signs, tokens and words, still less the form and content of our degree ceremonies.  These have been so extensively published they can in no circumstances be regarded any more as worth hiding from the profane world.  No, we are talking about quite different secrets to these.  Freemasonry, viewed as it should be, is not a physical organisation but rather an activity in pursuit of divinity, of greater light.  Our secrets are those things we hold dear, secrets of our own creation and creativity, which we are therefore reluctant to expose, much as a novelist or an artist is reluctant to show his work to others until it is finished.  These are also secrets because to disclose them would negate the good effect they would have on future initiates.

The Entered Apprentice is represented by the Rough Ashlar.  Kirk MacNulty, in The Way of the Craftsman puts this very well in reminding us that while the rock remains in the quarry, it is part of the mass and experiences what the mass experiences.  The candidate in the Entered Apprentice degree is about to separate himself out, to become free, to become a Free Mason, and to undertake to live his life as an individual, to be a separate stone.  It is a step which only he can take; and he can take it only for himself.  When he has done it, when he has recognised himself to be an individual, like the rough ashlar which will never again be part of the bedrock, the Entered Apprentice can never go back.  To put it another way, when he has had an insight into his nature, when he has a glimpse of the fact that he really is, inside, at the core of his being  the ‘Image of God’, he can never unknow that.

In the first degree we are in darkness, in submission and near slavery. We are presented with Jacob’s ladder, an image of the ascent to God. In the second degree we are presented with the image of a winding staircase, another allegory of a possible ascent toapproach divinity. In the third degree, it is a veil that separates us from our true nature, and to pierce it we must trample the king of terrors beneath our feet. Let’s go. Let’s do it. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. There is no darkness so black that we cannot move towards the light. There is no submission or slavery so great that we cannot set out on the road to freedom. There is no Jacob’s ladder, no winding staircase so steep that we cannot ascend. There is no veil so obscure that we cannot pierce it. And there is no evil so intractable that we cannot tread it beneath our feet, and lift our eyes to a brighter horizon.

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