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

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            Why tracing boards? Well, we can find rich justification for them from within the Masonic ritual itself. We find also, from earliest recorded Masonic history, accounts of our forebears tracing symbols on the floor of the lodge room, a practice that became codified and then embellished later to produce some examples of truly outstanding artistic achievement. And art, after all, is one of the glories which adorns the Masonic vocation; the second Emulation lecture speaks of painting and sculpture decorating ‘the buildings fair science had raised, while the curious hand designed the furniture and tapestry, beautifying and adorning them …’

            But why draw at all? Why trace anything? What does man achieve by recording in this way visual images of his surroundings, of his relationship to the world around him, visual images of the human condition? To understand this, we might want to go back to the earliest endeavours of man to depict images of his surroundings, images of his world and the objects in it, images of his own situation in his world. The earliest examples of art, those left to us by prehistoric man on the walls of caves, were a striving to fix transitory images in a way that he could then relate to. Once he had depicted, say, a bison in a static image on the wall of his cave, his companions may have been truly astonished to see in the image an embodiment of a material object normally found outside on the hunting fields, may indeed have been frightened by it, assuming the image to have the same qualities as the real object.

            Later still, man learned to make manifest in such images some insights into non-material aspects of his existence, learned to portray emotions such as fear and love, greed, evil or kindness, joy and suffering. He learned the value of tracing out for himself a picture of some project, to communicate his ideas in pictorial language to his companions, and to plan some design, a plan for a battle, a settlement, or the draft sketch for a building.

            On a spiritual level also, man learned to render, in a form comprehensible to his fellow men, images in both sculpture and painting, images that would assist him in devotion to the deity. He created striking and poignant images of holy men and women, in all religions, images of holy persons, of saints, of God Himself, and to portray these images in a way that allowed him to focus his devotion and thereby assist him to gain access to celestial realms, and ultimately access to divinity in himself. These are evidenced by the statues and icons of christianity, and in the mandalas of the hindu and buddhist religions. All of these may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation. According to Prof. David Fontana, expert in parapsychology, the symbolic nature of statues and icons can help ‘to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises.’

            When our Masonic forebears decided to adapt the plans of a concrete object such as a building, and to make of the building allegory a plan for moral, intellectual and spiritual development, the possibilities became boundless. A pillar became something that could support not only a planned building, but also a support for moral, social and spiritual endeavours. The covering or ceiling became a canvas on which to depict the heavens. It  became possible to depict a carved stone as representing a stage in man’s own inner development. And the placing of one stone on another became an allegory for the construction of more than a physical temple: it became the allegory by which a man was able to trace the building of his own character and through that, the building of a temple to humanity, a temple of humanity.

            In most English Lodges, the Master’s pedestal is synonymous with the Altar. In most Lodges in the world which are not descended from the United Grand Lodge of England, there is a separate Altar, standing more or less in the centre of the Lodge, where the Volume of the Sacred Law is placed, and as we can see on the board, the VSL supports Jacob’s ladder.

            In the fourth section of the first Emulation lecture we read the legend of Jacob’s ladder, of how Jacob, fleeing the wrath of his brother, went into the desert, and when he lay down to sleep he had a dream. In this dream he saw a ladder, the top of which reached to the heavens, and the angels of the Lord ascending, taking petitions from humankind to the Almighty, and other angels descending, dispensing God’s blessing to humankind. This is why the blazing star, the presence of God at the gateway to celestial realms, is shown at the top of the ladder. In Masonic lore three figures have been added to the ladder which are, in ascending order, those of faith, hope and charity.

            Jacob’s Ladder rests on the Volume of the Sacred Law, which itself is in contact with the top of the circle on the front of the altar. The first-degree tracing board lecture tells us that


            … in going round this circle, we must necessarily touch on both those parallel lines,

            likewise on the Sacred Volume, and while a Mason keeps himself thus circuscribed,

            he cannot err.


and the ladder rests on the Volume of the Sacred Law because


            … by the doctrines contained in that Holy Book, we are taught to believe in the

            dispensations of divine providence, which belief strengthens our faith …


Faith is defined in the lecture as ‘the foundation of justice, the bond of amity and the chief support of civil society’. Hope is ‘an anchor of the soul both sure and steadfast, and enters into that within the veil’. Charity is ‘the brightest ornament which can adorn our Masonic profession. It is the best test and surest proof of the sincerity of our religion’. The Mason who is possessed of this virtue


            … may justly be deemed to have attained the summit of his profession … an ethereal

            mansion, veiled from mortal eyes by the starry firmament, emblematically depicted in

            our Lodges by seven stars, which have an allusion to as many regularly-made

            Masons, without which no Lodge is perfect …


and these seven stars are now shown surrounding the image of the moon in the top right corner of the board.

            This is only one example of how the Emulation lectures, one for each degree, can instruct us in the content and function of tracing boards, instruction that is useful to all Freemasons, even if they do not work Emulation ritual in their own Lodges.

            Here is another example. The fifth section of the first lecture contains the following exchange:


            Q.  Name the immovable jewels.

            A.  The tracing board, the rough and perfect ashlars.

            Q.  Their uses?

            A.  The tracing board is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs on; the rough

                  ashlar for the Entered Apprentice to work, mark and indent on; and the perfect

                  ashlar for the experienced craftsman to try, and adjust, his jewels on.

            Q.  Why are these called immovable jewels?

            A.  Because they lie open and immovable in the Lodge for the Brethren to moralise



            What is more, there is ample evidence that, in the eighteenth century, much instruction was imparted to the candidate, not so much in the course of the conferral of a degree, but afterwards, in the form of education, fitting the candidate for the subsequent degree. Such instruction seems to have fallen by the wayside. This is the only way we can explain why the candidate in the first degree is not instructed that the three grand principles on which the Order is founded are brotherly love, relief and truth – the Entered Apprentice only discovers this important information when he learns the questions leading to the second degree. Similarly, although the peculiar objects of the second degree are the hidden mysteries of nature and science, the Fellow Craft has to wait for this revelation until he studies the questions leading to the third degree. It is clear that we, in the twenty-first century, are missing something.

            Freemasonry is about rendering in symbol and allegory that which words alone cannot render. And a visual image gives us a way of using our own insight to de-code the message. The tracing boards are there to do just that – from their original function of laying out the plan of the building, they have developed into a means for us to lay out the message, and then to profit by it.

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