Worshipful Master and Brethren, I
thank you for according me the honour of delivering the Wendell K Walker
Memorial Lecture for 2003, the more so in view of MWBro Wendell Walker’s
English connections. I note that he
was a graduate of Exeter University in England, and was also from 1982 Grand
Representative of the United Grand Lodge of England at the Grand Lodge of New
York. I would like my visit to you
today to be some recognition of MWBro Wendell Walker’s work in cementing
relations between our two countries and our two masonic jurisdictions.
A paper I wrote some years ago for the English publication Freemasonry
Today reminded the readers that the proper means of instructing young masons
was not by repetition of degree ceremonies but by a system of set lectures.
I made this discovery on reading Colin Dyer’s Emulation – A Ritual
to Remember. In the late 18th
and early 19thC, lodges of instruction did not teach degree ceremonies, so much
more engaged were they in philosophical and moral debate. My
discovery of this fact resonated with my own feelings on the matter, and
was one of the stages in a journey I had undertaken, and still continue to make
today, a journey whose name may be expressed as follows: Are we as Freemasons so
bound up in the form of our craft as to have lost sight of the content
behind the form? Let me put it
another way. A christian priest or
minister may pronounce the words of the Eucharist from beginning to end in the
belief that by speaking the words he thereby fulfils his obligation, without
taking the words into his heart, without feeling them, and without knowing, deep
down, what the words are telling him. I
do not of course suggest that this is true of all priests, merely that it can
happen. And I have, over many years
as a Freemason, come to the conclusion that some Freemasons intone the words of
our beautiful ritual, often with great expressiveness and after having spent
great effort memorising them, but without having a sense of the words, of how
they affect and influence their lives, without, in short, having a sense of the
divine. Many lodges in the world do
not suffer from such myopic attitudes, but sadly the majority do seem to.
It was not always so. In
England the history of ritual development provides some intriguing insights, and
we may here digress for a moment to trace a little of the history of Freemasonry
in England in the 18thC. In 1717,
at the time of the constitution of the first Grand Lodge in England, Freemasonry
consisted of only two degrees, both of which were very strongly christian in
content. In the 1720s the third
degree was added, or more correctly the second degree was split into two to form
the second and third degrees, and at this time the de-christianizing of the
ritual had begun. Our sensitivity
to the mystical was in question; the Royal Arch degree was removed from its
proper place at the heart of craft Freemasonry.
The experience of the English in their empire-building in India and other
parts of the world meant that the influence of religions other than the
christian were brought into play, and in your own country there were instances
of amerindians, who recognised shamanism, embracing Freemasonry.
In 1751 the authority of this first English Grand Lodge was challenged by
the establishment of a rival Grand Lodge, dubbed the ‘Antients’, who wanted
to retrieve those elements of our ritual which they perceived to have been
unjustly abandoned. This Grand
Lodge, which also went by the name of the ‘Atholl’ Grand Lodge, was largely
responsible for establishing Freemasonry in the New World so that, incidentally,
some of the ritual forms today practised in the United States are probably older
than those practised in England. In 1813 however the two rival Grand Lodges in England buried
the hatchet and devised ritual forms acceptable to both, which were approved by
the new United Grand Lodge in 1816. At
this time the de-christianizing of the ritual was completed.
It is generally accepted that this de-christianizing resulted in the
jettisoning of much of the focus on spirituality, leaving in a sense just the
husk of the ritual – the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.
Before this union of the two Grand Lodges, an integral part of this
ritual was a system of question-and-answer or catechetical lectures, by means of
which young masons were instructed. These
lectures were split into three distinct degrees, one for each masonic grade.
The proficiency that had to be displayed in them by the aspiring
candidate were the means of his advancement.
At this time, most work in lodges of instruction was dedicated to these
lectures, with only occasional practice of the degree ceremonies themselves.
The catechetical lectures in the ritual practised in the Grand Lodge of
New York are certainly derived from the same source as the English ritual –
the similarities are too marked to suppose otherwise.
All the evidence is that in the eighteenth century the spiritual and
philosophical instruction given was on a much more informal level. The ceremonial and procedure, the attention to dress and to
precedence and seniority were to come much later. Paradoxically, the codifying of these lectures into set
forms, which took place at the start of the 19thC, went a long way to codifying
masonic behaviour as a whole, and led to the rigid patterns we know today in
masonic procedure and ceremonial. Nonetheless
what we have inherited, although lacking in flair and spontaneity, does impart
something of the real hard learning to which a young mason in those days had to
submit. As an example, we may
consider that section of the first degree lecture of which copies have been
distributed, and which contain much material well known to New York masons.
[fourth section of first lecture]
Today, and since the early 19thC, these lectures are grouped to form
seven sections in the first degree, five in the second and three in the third.
Together with the three degree ceremonies, they are in England today
regulated, under the name ‘Emulation Ritual’, by a body known as the
Emulation Lodge of Improvement, which is the ultimate authority in England in
all matters pertaining to this, the most widely practised ritual.
Yet even in England, the lectures are today known only to a minority, and
the real philosophical and spiritual intent behind them is largely lost.
Yet if we examine the ritual forms which we have inherited, we discover
that much of the spiritual content remains.
We discover that all the way through our ceremonies we are encouraged to
research our inner selves. Wherever
we look in masonic ritual, the constant theme is one of knowing who and where I
am, and knowing my true relationship to my fellow-man and to the universe which
I inhabit. Even a cursory reading
of the degree ceremonies leaves no place at all for the assertion made by some
Freemasons, that our Order is ‘a social and dining club with a few ritual
appendages’, an assertion which betrays a wilful ignorance.
The decline in spiritual awareness and in the following of spiritual
quests is of course nothing new. The
surprise is, that western society does not appear to have noticed how deprived
of spiritual nourishment we have become. We
pretend, through an obsession with technology and science, that the spiritual is
not as important as the air we breathe or the water we drink.
All the major western religions have suffered erosion through the
onslaught of materialism. Humankind
seems intent on satisfying his sensual appetites, to the detriment of the core
of his existence, that spiritual pillar at his centre, whose function is to keep
him upright, and to connect at all times the physical and spiritual worlds, like
In a world where humankind has largely dismissed institutional religions,
man seems to assert that he needs nothing of spiritual values.
Yet against his rational judgement, he still feels the need for a
dimension other than the physical and material.
Social evils and psychological distress are increasingly realized to be
the product of the pursuit of purely material goals.
It may not be true to say that western institutional religions have let
us down, although many perceive this to be the case.
It is certainly true to say that more effort seems to go into maintaining
the institutions than in nurturing the spiritual message.
So, if spirituality today is on the wane, should we perhaps trace human
history back to that point when it was in the ascendant? Certainly spirituality is older than organised religion as we
understand it today, with its administrative apparatus, ornate buildings and
hierarchies. We have only to
consider vestiges of ancient spiritual practice, such as the many clusters of
megalithic stones in various countries of the world, or tens of thousands of
years earlier, burials of neanderthals carried out in a ritualised manner.
These testify to the fact that many centuries before institutional
religion there existed a quest for knowledge about human nature and the purpose
of human existence.
In the western world, these quests came to belong to a general body of
thought referred to as the Mysteries. The
core of the Mysteries rested on one crucial fact – for the Ancients there
existed two parallel worlds, both of which we inhabit at the same time.
There was the physical, material, sensual world –
a world with edges – and there were the vast, limitless, eternal,
non-material realms, not limited by physical phenomena, and not available to
ordinary perception, but which were still a part of our universe.
In these realms, the arenas for the exploits of the gods of mythology,
events occurred which were governed by the same natural laws existing in our
world of ordinary experience, events which had an important influence on the
daily activity of human life. As
Kirk MacNulty points out, the closest of these non-material domains exists in
our own psyche, since every time we dream, we are participants in such
supernatural events, the boundary of the inaccessible part of that domain being
the threshold of our own consciousness, a threshold which we may have created
ourselves, an artefact of assumed cult belief, not a biological reality.
The Mysteries were schools which provided the gateway to those
non-material realms, and to the knowledge of the natural laws operating in them.
They existed for the satisfaction of those who wished to know
more, those who wished to understand divinity, directly, for themselves.
How did they do this? Incorporated
in the practice of the ancient Mysteries was a process of initiation, a process
directly comparable with masonic initiation.
There is no evidence that speculative Freemasonry arose purely as a
social phenomenon. On the contrary
– there is every justification for the view that it arose as a means of
initiating men into a way of moral awareness, responsibility towards society and
self knowledge. We may justifiably
view it as fulfilling the same function in society as the ancient Mysteries, for
whom initiation was a mystical path to enlightenment, where mankind stood within
the holy of holies in the great temple to come face to face with the Great
Now, there is some good news for you, and some bad news. The good news is that in our own masonic system, for those
who have no adherence to an institutional religion – and even for those who
have – we have a clear-cut route, if we choose to follow it, to
self-awareness, self-knowledge and spiritual enlightenment.
The bad news is that Freemasonry has all too often become ossified in the
form of its ritual. It
seems, in some lodges, that the learning of the words and actions has become an
end in itself, and the enormous effort put into this learning and the
concentration necessary to render the words correctly according to the book have
proved so to divert us from the meaning as to obscure it almost completely.
We have forgotten the virtue and the beneficial effects of stillness and
silence, of the attempts to shut out the outer world, so that, for a while at
least, we can be at our own centre, the place from which we cannot err.
We cannot find a better place to study the importance of this aspect than
the prayer we say over a candidate on his admission to the temple for his
initiation. ‘Grant that this candidate for Masonry may dedicate and devote his
life to Thy service and become a true and faithful brother among us. Endue him
with a competency of Thy divine wisdom, that, by the influence of the pure
principles of our Fraternity, he may be better enabled to display the
beauties of holiness, to the honor of Thy Holy Name.’ We are in
effect praying that Freemasonry may help the candidate reveal – ‘display’
– holiness: 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 holiness. And why?
Because that holiness already resides within him and needs only to be
displayed; but the ritual will gradually teach him that.
It is of passing interest here to consider the slight variation in the
English ritual: ‘ . . . that he
may the better be enabled to unfold the beauties of true godliness,
to the honour and glory of Thy Holy Name.’
These are small variations of emphasis, not changing the central
spirituality at all, and serve to allow each of us to see the essence of
our common craft in a different light.
And it is the essence. Were
that not so, our mention of ‘holiness’, of ‘godliness’ and therefore of
divinity would be meaningless. Right
at the start, we are plunged into the real spiritual matrix of our craft.
We are immersed in the spirit, and our candidate is about to discover, to
reveal, 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 responsibilities 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 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.
What are the other clues in our ritual indicating that our candidate for
initiation is embarked on a journey whose meaning and purpose are esoteric ones?
The chief one is that he is blindfolded: he is put into a state of
darkness, symbolising the primeval, unenlightened state of man. This practice
too links our craft to that of the Ancients, who began rituals in exactly the
same manner. Yet we may ask
ourselves whether blindfolding is enough. We
may consider that the candidate needs to be placed in a state of sensory
deprivation, of disorientation, albeit a benign one, to enable him to change the
focus from the outer, material world, with all its sensory distractions, into
his own inner self, to listen to the still small voice, to find himself at the
centre and to start his journey towards the light. We may, with some historical
justification, consider whether a period of prolonged and total silence is
required. Our candidate needs now to meditate, to try to understand his place at
the centre of the universe. For this procedure, we have precedents to follow.
In England today, the candidate is prepared in an ante-room separate
from, but adjacent to the temple, analagous in New York to your room for the
preparation of the candidate, opening directly onto the temple.
But in the 18thC in England these were called ‘Chambers of
Reflection’ and that is their true function.
In Germany even today, the candidate for initiation is shut away in such
a room, surrounded by emblems of transitoriness and mortality – a skull, an
hour-glass, a lit candle and a bell. He
is left on his own, to reflect on his relationship to the world, to society and
to his own destiny, in near darkness and in total silence.
After this, he is blindfolded. In
some present-day French rituals, even more extreme measures are undertaken to
attempt to disorientate the candidate.
Now he enters the temple and his symbolic journey towards the light has
begun. Here we have the golden
opportunity, if we apply the preparation and the ritual carefully, to bring
these symbols to life, not only for the candidate, but also for ourselves. We, who partake in this mystery with the candidate, may
regard ourselves as being there to assist him in transforming a symbolic light
into a real light.
This candidate then is effectively being asked to suspend his disbelief.
We are immersing him in a new world, where the norms in operation in his
other life no longer apply. It is a
world where there is more to discover within than without.
We ask him to own and embrace a divinity to which, up to now, he may have
only paid a half-unbelieving lip-service. We
ask him to consider that the faculty of reason on its own is not enough, and is
certainly not paramount. It deals
only with the phenomenal world, and our reality, as we have seen, is much
greater than that. Reason alone
cannot comprehend the irrational, the metaphysical, the spiritual.
Reason alone cannot penetrate that mysterious veil which shields us all
from the vista of eternity.
From this we can see that initiation, properly understood, is an
intimately, intensely personal journey. It
is, potentially, no less than the candidate’s own personal, spiritual climbing
of Mount Everest. And as we have
implied there are no bystanders in the lodge – by joining together with the
candidate, we can ensure that his journey from darkness to light is a truly
life-changing experience, and we can make of it a collective endeavour.
But it is, and remains, as personal as physical birth.
It must change him. As such,
it is hard to see a justification for initiating more than one candidate at one
time. Many lodges in England, who
up to now practised double initiations in order to ease the flow of candidates,
have re-considered that position in the interests of the proper enlightenment of
the individual aspirant for Freemasonry. Whatever
may be, we certainly cannot become initiates on the masonic path by some
vicarious process involving a sample initiation being conducted in front of us,
in some way conducted on behalf of a group.
It is true that in the First World War there were instances of lodges
initiating four or five candidates at one time, on the eve of their leaving for
the front – even then, these candidates were not initiated together, but one
by one, the ceremonies lasting late into the night; exceptional times in the
lives, and in the deaths, of aspirants for Freemasonry.
To sum up then: we are equipped with a very beautiful, very strong ritual
system as a means of advancing towards self-knowledge. Our candidate is already imbued with divine knowledge and
wisdom, which needs only to be revealed, to be validated. He is on a journey to discover –
to remember – his own spiritual links. His progress may be hindered if
we pay attention only to the form of our craft and not the content, or if we are
distracted by ideas of advancement, or if we seek the wrong things in our craft.
It is possible that we need to search not only in the degree ceremonies
themselves for the spirituality in Freemasonry.
To address this very aspect, an organisation was set up in 1999 in
England called The Cornerstone Society. Its
aims are to increase the awareness, particularly of Master Masons, of the real
meaning and inner spirituality and beauty of our masonic ritual.
The Society seeks to help brethren who are actively interested in
developing the crucial aspects of Freemasonry already mentioned above.
One of the leading founder members is the Pro Grand Master of the United
Grand Lodge of England, MWBro The Marquess of Northampton, and I would like to
quote from a paper he gave at the Cornerstone Society Conference in London last
‘It is important that at the centre [of Freemasonry] there is a core of
brethren who do understand the spiritual message that our rituals contain.
I am sure that like me there are many who joined Freemasonry as earnest
seekers after light and wisdom, only to find that much of the masonry as
practised in the English Constitution, and indeed in many parts of the world,
has forgotten its destiny . . . As a result the learning of ritual has become a
drudge and an understanding of its purpose is almost impossible . . . .
Nevertheless, it has survived for nearly 400 years and possibly more –
and as far as I am concerned carries the torch for what could loosely be
described as the hermetic tradition. It
is my fervent hope that through this Society and other similar initiatives it
will rediscover its spiritual heritage and become an active catalyst for the
transformation of Man’s consciousness.’
Wor. Master, Brethren, I thank you for listening to me with such focused
attention. I hope not only
to have evoked a perception of our Craft as a spiritual path to self-knowledge,
which I believe to have been its original purpose, but also to have forged a few
transatlantic bonds in that peculiarly masonic way that bears so much fruit.