PS Review of Freemasonry

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"We may accidentally stumble across the actual content of Freemasonry and discover truths in it of such poignant beauty and wonder, that we start to ask ourselves why we never realised it before."
by W.Bro. Julian Rees

Julian Rees - INDEX of 'Craft in Spirit' Column

Julian Rees - INDEX of Masonic Papers

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            Masonic rituals the world over are different. It’s the differences that make for diversity, and help to give us ever new and fresher insights. When we start to study the ways in which the lessons of the degrees are transmitted in other jurisdictions, in other obediences, we find that there are points in the ritual of our own mother lodges which we can now view from a refreshing angle.

            In many rituals however, we find surprising gaps, lacunae, places where we feel there ought to be something, but there is not. Take for example the questions, in the Emulation ritual, leading from the first to the second degree:


            Q.  Name the Grand Principles on which the Order is founded.

            A.  Brotherly love, relief and truth.


Yet there is no mention in the first degree ritual of these three being the principles on which Masonry is founded. Our candidate for the second degree may be forgiven for feeling a little confused.

            Then again, in the questions leading from the second to the third degree, we have the following exchange:


            Q.  What are the peculiar objects of research in this degree?

            A.  The hidden mysteries of nature and science.


Yet we may search in vain in the second degree ritual for these exact words. It is true that we receive a very fleeting and incomplete instruction in the differences between the five orders of architecture, and definitions of the liberal arts and sciences. But given the huge importance of the Age of Enlightenment to the development of Masonic practice and philosophy, it is clear that there must have been much more than this in the minds of our eighteenth century forebears, in regard to nature, science, and the mystery of the two.

            In fact, in the early days of organised Freemasonry in England, lodges were places where Brethren gathered to consider matters of moral import, and to improve their minds by studying the liberal arts and sciences as we know them, and indeed much more. The making of a Mason, or his advancement through the degrees, could be accomplished anywhere, and was not necessarily carried out in a formal lodge room or temple. After the ceremony, he was then brought to the lodge and joined in the learning process with the other Brethren. What form that instruction took we can only guess, since written accounts are scarce.

            But a vestige of what went on does survive, in the form of the Emulation lectures, first worked by the Grand Stewards and then adopted generally for use in lodges. One of those lectures in the first degree, in the fifth section, informs us that the interior of a Freemasons’ lodge is composed of ornaments, furniture and jewels. With these three words, we are once again in the area of allegory. And the allegory which reaches out to us here is that of beauty, since art, achieved by ornamentation, is there to consign beauty to the objects around us and, ultimately, to ourselves, the beauty of the soul.

            The ornaments of the first degree lodge are the mosaic pavement, the blazing star and the indented or tesselated border. The mosaic pavement, as we know, is the black and white squared flooring, therefore known also as the square pavement. The word ‘mosaic’ in this context has a double meaning – mosaic is produced by cementing together small pieces of stone or glass of various colours to produce a picture or pattern. But it also refers to Moses, the lawgiver of the ancient Hebrews, hence the term mosaic law. In the case of our lodge flooring, there are only two colours employed – white and black, and hence the allegory is one of stark contrast. The lecture tells us why mosaic work was introduced into Freemasonry:


            As the steps of man are trod in the various and uncertain incidents of life, and

            his days are variegated and chequered by a strange contrariety of events, his

            passage through this existence, though sometimes attended by prosperous

            circumstances, is often beset by a multitude of evils; hence is our lodge

            furnished with mosaic work, to point out the uncertainty of all things here on

            earth. Today we may travel in prosperity; tomorrow we may totter on the

            uneven paths of weakness, temptation and adversity … then, while such

            emblems are before us we are morally instructed … to walk uprightly and with

            humility before God, there being no station in life on which pride can, with

            stability, be founded; for though some are born to more elevated situations

            than others, yet, when in the grave, we are all on the level, death destroying

            all distinctions; and while our feet tread on this mosaic work, let our ideas

            recur to the original whence we copy; let us as good men and as Masons, act

            as the dictates of reason prompt us, to practise charity, maintain harmony,       

            and endeavour to live in unity and brotherly love.


            The second of the ornaments is the blazing star, or glory in the centre of the lodge. On all first degree tracing boards there are three light sources – the sun, the moon and the blazing star. On tracing boards used in England, the blazing star is the brightest of these three, and positioned at or near the top of Jacob’s ladder, indicating that the presence of the Great Architect dispenses a greater light and power than any light source in the universe. John Browne, in his Master Key published in the eighteenth century, says that the blazing star reminds us of


            the omnipresence of the Almighty, overshadowing us with His divine love

            and dispensing His blessings amongst us; and by being placed in the centre

            [of the lodge] it ought to remind us that, wherever or however assembled,

            God, the overseeing eye of providence is always in the midst of us, overseeing

            all our actions and observing the secret intents and movements of our hearts.


            The third ornament is the indented or tesselated border. One explanation is that this feature is allegorical of the planets which


            in their various revolutions form a beautiful border or skirtwork round that

            Grand Luminary, the sun, as the other does round that of a Freemason’s



In fact, this feature may be regarded as a bond, binding together the symbols, as indeed the tesselated border on the tracing board itself does.

            Next we come to the furniture of the lodge. The word furniture, as used in the eighteenth century, refers us to that with which the lodge is furnished, and so encompasses equipment. But where we might have expected a catalogue of material, useful, even constructional objects, we have here three objects near the top of the pyramid of Masonic allegories, the Volume of the Sacred Law, the Compasses and Square. And so the equipment with which we furnish ourselves on our Masonic pilgrimage comprises three pieces of spiritual equipment. But the Volume of the Sacred Law has an import which goes beyond our use of it to acquaint ourselves with sacred writings:


            As the tracing board is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs on, the

            better to enable the Brethren to carry on the intended structure with regularity

            and propriety, so the Volume of the Sacred Law may justly be deemed the

            spiritual tracing board of the Great Architect of the Universe, in which are

            laid down such Divine laws and moral plans, that were we conversant therein

            and adherent to, would bring us to an ethereal mansion not made with hands,

            eternal in the heavens.


            The three items of furniture are of course the same as the three great lights. Their significations in both instances are very similar, but there is one important difference: we are so used to saying ‘square and compasses’ that to reverse their order here, ‘compasses and square’ alerts us to the relative importance of these two. In fact the three items of furniture are given in descending order of splendour – the sacred volume first, that belonging to God, the compasses second, that which indicates for us the wide-ranging brotherhood of man, to ‘keep us in due bounds with all mankind, particularly our Brethren in Freemasonry’, and lastly the square, that universal symbol of rectitude and personal morality, so that through attention to our own moral conduct, we may better understand our fellow-men.

            Now we come to the jewels. In most rituals in the world, the jewels are six in number: three movable and three immovable. The movable jewels are the square, level and plumb rule, called movable because they are worn by the Master and the Wardens, who then pass them on to their successors when they come to the end of their term of office. We know these jewels and their symbolic import from their significations as the working tools in the second degree. Yet as jewels, the qualities and virtues attributed to them here are far more intricate and arresting:


            The Square teaches us … to harmonise our conduct in this life, so as to render

            us acceptable to that Divine Being from whom all goodness springs … the

            Level demonstrates that we are all sprung from the same stock, partakers of

            the same nature, and sharers in the same hope … yet ought no eminence of

            situation make us forget that we are Brothers; for he who is placed on the

            lowest spoke of fortune’s wheel is equally entitled to our regard, as a time will

            come – and the wisest of us knows not how soon – when all distinctions, save

            those of goodness and virtue, shall cease, and death, the grand leveller of all

            human existence, reduce us to the same state.


            But it is the plumb rule which claims our attention as that Masonic emblem most deserving to be studied for the moral advantages it can impart to our lives:


            The infallible plumb rule which, like Jacob’s Ladder, connects heaven and

            earth, is the criterion of rectitude and truth. It teaches us to walk justly and

            uprightly before God and man, neither turning to the right nor left from the

            paths of virtue … To steer the barque of this life over the seas of passion

            without quitting the helm of rectitude, is the highest perfection to which human

            nature can attain. And as the builder raises his column by the level and
            perpendicular, so ought every Mason to conduct himself towards this world;

            to observe a due medium between avarice and profusion; to hold the scales of

            justice with equal poise … and in all his pursuits to have eternity in view.


            The immovable jewels are the tracing board, the rough and perfect ashlars. We have already seen the close correspondences between the tracing board – the terrestrial, immovable jewel of the Freemason – and the Volume of the Sacred Law, its celestial counterpart. The rough and perfect ashlars, however, are in a class of their own. Imagine for a moment an apprentice, lacking any knowledge of how properly to smooth a rough stone and make a perfect cube of it. Such a man will persevere, knocking his chisel across the surface of the stone in an attempt to produce a flat plane, at right angles to the adjacent plane. He will make several attempts, and possibly fail each time, without the support and instruction from other Brethren who, having secured the skill necesssary to do this, will have insights to impart which will help the apprentice to continue along the right path. In some Masonic jurisdictions in the world, notably the International Order of Co-Freemasonry Le Droit Humain, the craftsman, to demonstrate his skill, must do some operative, physical work on a stone at the Junior Warden’s  pedestal before he can symbolically ascend the winding staircase to then present himself in the middle chamber as worthy to receive his wages.

            The perfect ashlar, the lecture tells us:


            is a stone of a true die or square, fit only to be tried and approved by the

            square and compass. This represents man in the decline of years, after a

            regular, well-spent life in acts of piety and virtue, which can no otherwise be

            tried and approved than by the square of God’s word and the compass of his

            own, self-convincing conscience.


            The furniture and the jewels are common to all three of the craft degrees. Nowadays we have no direct indication as to what might have been the ornaments in the second degree, unless we assume that the mosaic pavement, the blazing star and the indented border are to be applied here also. Indeed, on many second degree tracing boards we see the blazing star or glory in the arch above the doorway to the middle chamber.

            The third degree however is distinguished from the second. Here we are told that


            … the ornaments of a Master Mason’s Lodge are the porch, dormer and

            square pavement. The porch was the entrance to the Sanctum Sanctorum, the

            dormer the window that gave light to the same, and the square pavement for

            the High Priest to walk on.


So here the porch gives us access to God’s abode; the dormer allows the light of God’s Grace to flood in, finally illuminating the space we have attained to; the square pavement, an ornament common to all three degrees, is for the High Priest to walk on, and since we have passed ‘that last and greatest trial’, we too are allowed to tread this sacred flooring, we too have attained the rank of High Priest, and in this sacred space we may stand, face to face with the Almighty, and truly understand our own place in eternity.

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