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The Ceremony of Initiation

Analysis and Commentary

W. L. Wilmshurst

P.M., P.A.G.D.C. (England) and P.P.G.W. (West Yorks.)

Published by
J. M. WATKINS, 21 Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road, London, W.C 2.



These notes are intended as a Manual of Instruction for the benefit of Masons who have recently taken their First Degree, and for that of other Brethren wishful to understand the purpose and the meaning of the Initiation Ceremony. The endeavour to indicate the reason for the existence of the Masonic system, to draw aside the veil of allegory and symbolism in which the Initiation Ceremony is clothed, and to reveal its spirit and subsurface significance.

The First Degree Ceremony used on the reception of a Candidate into the Craft is designed to introduce him to the first stage of a system of knowledge and self-discipline which, if faithfully followed up and lived out in his personal life, will clarify and transform his mind from its natural state of darkness to one of Light, i.e., expanded clear-seeing spiritual consciousness raised far beyond and existing independently of the perceptions of the natural senses. It is, therefore called a Ceremony of Initiation from in ire to go inwards, i.e., beyond the merely material surfaces of things), and because it is meant to mark the beginning (initium) of a new order of personal life and consciousness. It might equally well be called one of Regeneration or Rebirth; indeed its parallel in Religion is the sacrament of Baptism, which is the initial incident of the religious life and is performed at the West end of a Church, just as a Masonic Candidate enters the Lodge and begins his Masonic career in the symbolic West. It is a ceremony provided to give an answer to what the Candidate professes to be the predominant wish of his heart — a wish well expressed by probably the oldest prayer in the world, which is still used daily by millions of our fellowmen in the East:—

From the unreal lead me to the Real;

From the darkness lead me to Light;

From the mortal bring me to Immortality!

The presence or absence of this aspiration in a Candidate should be the test of his fitness for Initiation. Any less exalted motive for seeking Initiation falls short of the true intention. The Candidate’s attitude should be one of definite intelligent expectation of spiritual good to come to him, and of positive aspiration and heart-hunger for it; equally definitely it must not be for any material or social advantage, nor a merely negative state of curiosity or uncertainty as to what is to be found in the Craft.


For every Candidate the Initiation Ceremony implies that whatever academic or scientific learning he possesses, whatever philosophical ideas he holds, whatever religious creed he professes, prior to Initiation, there remains something more — indeed something vastly more— for him yet to learn and to which the Craft can help to lead him. This does not mean that he will necessarily discover his previous convictions to be false; on the other hand, so far as they be true he will find abundant confirmation and amplication of them, and so far as they are erroneous or imperfect he will learn to modify them. It means that he must be prepared to find some of his wonted and perhaps even most deeply rooted ideas to be apprehensions of Truth so partial and limited that they operate as obstructions to the wider vision which might be his, and that the more tenaciously he clings to them the more he may be blocking his own light. If, therefore, he is to profit by the Light to which the Craft leads he must be prepared to keep his mind open and fluid and to make such mental self-surrender as occasion warrants. We all tend to feel so certain of ourselves, so wise in our own conceits, and too often are unaware that we have much to unlearn before we can become truly teachable. But from earliest times the Candidate for Initiation has been called a “child” and taught to regard himself as such.

Accordingly the divesting of the Candidate’s person prior to the Ceremony is symbolic of the mental unclothing required of him, whilst his self-abandonment to be taken wherever he is led and to do whatever he is told betokens the meekness and docility with which his mind should follow Truth wherever it may lead. even into apparently perilous places and among ideas not recognised by the conventions and orthodoxies of the world without. For true Initiation involves a spiritual adventure, a voyage of the mind, not into the unknowable but into what the Candidate has never yet known or experienced; and it leads to regions where he travels farthest who carries least burdens, where he acquires most who casts away most of himself, and where the really heart-hungry are increasingly filled with good things from which the intellectually rigid and the rich in conventional knowledge are automatically precluded. To the single-minded. Wisdom has ways of revealing itself which the learned understand not.

Mental self-tripping and readjustment is, of course, not a sudden, but a gradual process. No Candidate is called upon to do undue or too sudden violence to himself, but rather to adapt himself gradually to the new conditions and to become transformed by a slow but steady renewing of his mind and outlook. See how this is evidenced by his progressive unclothing as he passes on from Degree to Degree! In the First only certain parts of his person are bared; in the Second, only certain other and complementary parts. It is not until the Third Degree that the maximum unclothing is called for, by that time he is presumed to be inured to self-surrender and better able to make the larger sacrifice which that sublime Degree involves.


To turn now to the Ceremony itself. Up to about the year 1700, formally compiled Rituals did not exist. The working was transmitted orally. There was no such thing as a memorised form mechanically repeated with such word-perfectness and dignified elocution as may be, but an extempore pronouncement of real power and spiritual efficacy, performed by a Master possessing complete understanding of what he did, and able to adapt or amplify the ceremony in accordance with the culture, intelligence and probable requirements of a properly prepared Candidate. The actual form of words employed was (and still always is) the least important element about the Ceremony. What is of far vaster consequence is the ability of the Initiator, and those co-operating with him, to infuse into such spiritual fervour and emotional momentum that what is done and said over the Candidate shall penetrate his heart and mind, and awaken certain truths in his soul, — a result requiring, as its first condition, that the Candidate be a fit and proper person and properly prepared for it.

Even to-day, the Irish and many Continental Masonic Constitutions work to no set ritual. Certain traditional landmarks and age-old usages are uniformly observed, but for the rest (e.g. The various charges, explanations, and entrustings) the wording of the Ceremony is left to the inspiration and emotion of the moment.

The Ritual which, with slight local variations, has become traditional with us, embodies all these land-marks and usages, and has been compiled with extraordinary and, indeed, inspired skill and wisdom. To treat it superficially, or regard it as a composition to be reeled off one’s memory in a “non-stop” fashion, is to miss the purport and the beauties of a highly complex and comprehensive compilation. Analysis of it shows that it is built up of fourteen distinct “movements” or episodes, in two series of seven each.

The first series is associated with the Candidate’s state of darkness; it is an ascending or crescendo series rising, like an emotional wave, to a climax at the moment of his symbolic restoration to Light. The second series is associated with the state of Light to which he has been lifted up; it is a descending or

diminuendo series dealing with matters consequent upon his attainment of Light; the emotional billow, as it were, dies gradually away, but leaving the Candidate’s being flooded with new perceptions and stimulated by a quickening influence such as he never previously knew and which will probably take him some time to assimilate.

The sequence of these episodes is as follows; and they will indicate what a large range of ideas has been compressed within a short Ceremony :—


1. The Admission to the Lodge.

2. The Prayer of Dedication.

3. The Mystical Journey (or Perambulation).

4. The Declarations of Freedom, Motive, and Perseverance.

5. The Advance from W. to E.

6. The Obligation.

7. The Restoration to Light.


8. The Revelation of the Greater and Lesser Lights.

9. The Entrustment with the Secrets.

10. The Testing by the Wardens.

11. The Investure with the Clothing.

12. The Instruction in the N.E.

13. The Instruction in the Working Tools.

14. The Instruction in the Tracing Board.

Each of these fourteen incidents provides scope for prolonged reflection and comment, but in these notes only brief observations can be made upon each of them in succession.

The separation of the Ceremony into two main sub-divisions, the “state of Darkness” and the “state of Light,” has a far-reaching allusiveness; first to cosmic truth and in relation to human life generally; secondly, historically and in correspondence with the Ancient Mysteries.

Cosmically, all human life begins its quest for Light and Truth in a state of darkness as our nature, our purpose and destiny. We are, as it were, born blind or hoodwinked about them; as the Ancients taught, we have all drunk the cup of Lethe and the water of forgetfulness before descending to birth in the flesh. Our quest, therefore, at the outset of our earthly career must necessarily be a darkened one, a mere hoodwinked fumbling about for we know not what, until the pains, sorrows, and disillusionments of existence awake us to the fact that we are wasting our substance among shadows and futilities, and that there may be something higher and better worth hunting for. This preliminary condition of mind and soul the Initiates likened to being in a place which they called “the Hall of Ignorance” or “the Hall of Truth in Darkness,” in which we grope about for a Light and Wisdom which are at all times around us, but which we cannot find because our faculties are as yet sealed from perceiving them.

Later on, when experience has caused a man to turn away in distaste from outer interests to the quest of better things, he becomes initiated in to the science of them, and was said to have entered the “Hall of Learning” or the “Hall of Truth in Light,” for by this time he is no longer ignorantly groping in the dark, but has become actuated by a definite and enlightened resolve to find the Reality behind the shadows.

It is these two conditions, one of groping ignorantly and with blinded eyes for the Reality behind temporal existence, and one of seeking it intelligently and with the opened eyes of the Initiate, that are reproduced in the two subdivisions of our First Degree Ceremony. There remains a third condition, but for the novice it is as yet a long way off and is, therefore, beyond the purview of our present enquiry; its attainment is described as entering the “Hall of Wisdom,” which is possible only to Master Masons who have passed beyond the two previous “Halls,” and whose search has been rewarded with finding the ultimate secrets of life.

Preceding the actual Ceremony, however, there is implied a preliminary and very necessary routine, — the due Preparation of the Candidate, some remarks upon which must preface our commentary upon the fourteen points of the Ceremony itself

As to the sources of the Ceremony, it (as also the official E.A. Lecture and Tracing Board Explanation provided to interpret it) is a blend of various streams of influence. The chief of these is the traditional method — usually called the “Secret Doctrine” — common to all the Ancient Mysteries and Initiation systems from the dawn of history; a method and doctrine always held in reserve from the knowledge of the masses of the people, constituting stronger “meat” and imparting deeper truths than the more simple instruction, or “milk,” provided for the general public by the current education and religious institutions of a given time or place. As is well known to students of the history of religion, behind the exoteric doctrine of every great Teacher or religious Founder, has always existed an esoteric counterpart of it for advanced disciples.

Combined with elements of this ancient esoteric wisdom are elements from more recent cognate systems, such as Hermeticism, the Hebrew Cabala, and Rosicrucianism, as also survivals from mediaeval Gild Masonry, whilst the Holy Scriptures which have served to nourish the religious life of the West are interfused with all these and act as a unifying and explanatory “great light.”

Accordingly we find our Masonic Ritual, as the offspring of these sources, continually using the language of its parents, speaking now in the terms or symbols of one and now in those of another of them; and it becomes clear that all these sources have been stewards of the same Mysteries, that they proclaim the same truth and mean the same thing, and can be constantly cross-referenced and found to be mutually interpretative.

Take one of a host of possible examples — the Preparation of the Candidate. The Craft requires every Candidate for Initiation to come “properly prepared.” In Religion this paralleled by the Church requiring its neophytes to be “prepared” for Confirmation into fuller realisation of spiritual life. And every ancient and modern Initiation system has required it; indeed the preparation insisted on an antiquity and in more advanced secret Orders than the Craft, was, and still is, of an extremely intensive character. But the point to be stressed here is that, for those who really desire Light, a preliminary orientation of will, heart and mind is indispensable to their desire becoming fulfilled, and “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” is the Biblical confirmation of what the Ancient Mysteries required and what the Craft still inculcates. And when, with us, the Master of the Lodge dispatches his Deacon to prepare the Candidate for his reception, is he not still echoing and giving a personal value to words of impersonal and cosmic application. “Behold, I will send my messenger to prepare the way before me”?


The mental preparation of the Candidate should have been proceeding for a considerable time before the Ceremony is conferred. It can be considerably assisted by his Masonic sponsors upon whom rests the responsibility of vouching for his fitness for Initiation, and who in private converse can adumbrate to him a broad idea of what is involved, and assure themselves of his sympathetic response to it.

As to the symbolic preparation of his external person, much closer attention is paid to this in Continental Lodges than is usual with us. He is taken to a quiet ante-room and there left alone for some time to compose his mind and read some sentences warning him of the solemnity of his project and the desirability of proceeding with it in a spirit of meekness and confidence or of withdrawing from it while there is yet time.

After an interval he is interviewed by the Deacon and asked for his decision. If he desires to proceed he is then asked to write brief replies to some such questions as these :—(1) What is your view of the purpose of human life and the nature of human destiny? (2) What is your object in seeking to be initiated? (3) What may the Craft hope to receive from you in return for what you expect to receive from it? He is left to write his replies, which are then taken into the Lodge and submitted to the Master’s approval, who declares whether they are satisfactory, in which event only the ballot is taken. Upon his election the Deacon is despatched to greet the Candidate with the tidings and to invite him to surrender his metals and money. After which the formal preparation of his person proceeds as with us; this being done with solemnity, the reason for each separate act of preparation being briefly explained by the Deacon.

It were well if the above practice or an approximation of it were always followed. In any event great importance attaches to the due performance of the Deacon’s ministrations so as to create the most favourable mental conditions for the Candidate before he enter the Lodge. (The symbolic value of the Deacon’s work is explained in our Lodge Paper No. 4, and it is in the spirit of that explanation that he should discharge his duties).

If it be essential that the Candidate should enter the Lodge properly prepared, it is equally important that those waiting to receive and initiate him should themselves be prepared in heart and intention to do so. Even the atmosphere of the Temple should be prepared by rendering it peaceful and free of commotion The W.M. can ensure this by enjoying complete silence during the interval preceding the Candidate’s entrance and inviting the Brethren to reflect upon the nature of the work in hand and to unite with him in earnest aspiration that that work may be spiritually effectual.

The unofficiating Brethren present are not meant to be mere spectators of the Ceremony. The whole Lodge, and not only the acting officials of it, should participate in the mystery. Great is the power of united concentrated thought and intention in impressing a Candidate’s mentality and awaking it to new and spiritual perceptions; and to this end the spoken work of the Master and Officers actively concerned can be very greatly assisted by the silent mental co-operation of the unofficiating Brethren.


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