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The Meaning of Masonry
W. L. Wilmshurst
MASONRY AS A PHILOSOPHY Signs are not wanting that a higher Masonic consciousness is awakening in the Craft. Members of the Order are gradually, and here and there, becoming alive to the fact that much more than meets the eye and ear lies beneath the surface of Masonic doctrine and symbols. They are beginning to think for themselves instead of taking the face-value of things for granted, and, as their thought develops, facts that previously remained unperceived assume prominence and significance. They discern the Masonic system to be something deeper than a code of elementary morality such as all men are expected to observe whether formally Masons of not. They reflect that the phenomenal growth of the Craft is scarcely accountable for upon the supposition that modern speculative Masonry perpetuates nothing more than the private associations that once existed in connection with the operative builders’ trade. They recognize that there can be no peculiar virtue or interest in continuing to imitate the customs of ancient trade-guilds for the mere sake of so doing; or of keeping on foot a costly organization for teaching men the elementary symbolism of a few building tools, supplemented by a considerable amount of social conviviality. Upon a little thought it becomes pretty obvious that our Third Degree and the great central legend that forms the climax of the Craft system cannot have, and can never have had, any direct or practical bearing upon, or connection with, the trade of the operative mason. It may be urged that we have our great charity system and that the social side of our proceedings is a valuable and humanizing asset. Granted, but other people and other societies are philanthropic and social as well as we; and a secret society is not necessary to promote such ends, which are merely supplemental to the original purpose of the Order. The discernment of such facts as these, then, suggests to us that the Craft has not yet entered into the full heritage of understanding its own system and that side-matters connected with Masonry which we have long emphasized so strongly, valuable in their own way as they are, are not after, all the primary and proper work of the Order. The work of the Order is to initiate into certain secrets and mysteries, and obviously if the Order fails to expound its own secrets and mysteries and so to confer real initiations as distinguished from passing candidates through certain formal ceremonies, it is not fulfilling its original purpose whatever other incidental good it may be doing.
Now as these facts are the basis upon which this lecture proceeds, let me at the outset make my first point by stating that as the progress in the Craft of every Brother admitted into its ranks is by gradual, successive stages, in like manner the understanding of the Masonic system and doctrine is also a matter of gradual development. Stated in the simplest terms possible, the theory of Masonic progress is that every Member admitted to the Order enters in a state of darkness and ignorance as to what Masonry teaches, and that later on he is supposed to be brought to light and knowledge. Putting it in other terms, he enters the Craft symbolically as a rough ashlar and it is his business to develop both his character and his understanding that ultimately, in virtue of what he has learn and practised, he may be as a finished and perfect cube.
Now the understanding of the Masonic scheme tends to develop upon precisely similar lines. lts meaning is not discernible all at once, and unless our minds are properly prepared and our understandings carefully trained, they are unlikely ever participate in the real secrets and mysteries Masonry at all, however often we may watch the performance of external ceremonial or however proficient we may be in memorizing the rituals and instruction lectures. The first stage, the first conception of what Masonry involves, is concerned merely with the surface-value of the doctrine; with an acquaintance with the literal side of the imparted knowledge which we all obtain upon entering the Craft. Beyond this stage the vast majority of Masons, it is to be feared, never passes. This is the stage of knowledge in which the Craft is regarded as a social, semi-public, semi-secert; community to which it is agreeable and advantages to belong for sociable or even for ulterior purpose in which the goal of the Mason’s ambition is to attain office and high preferment and to wear a breastful of decorations; in which he takes a literal superficial and historic view of the subject-matter of the doctrine; in which ability to perform the ceremonial work with dignity and effectiveness and to know the instruction catechisms by heart, so that not a syllable is wrongly rendered, is deemed the height of Masonic proficiency; and where, after discharging these functions with a certain degree of credit, his idea is often to have the Lodge closed as speedily as may be and get away to the relaxation of the festive board.
Now all these things belong to what may be called the very rough-ashlar stage of the Masonic conception. I am not, of course, alluding to any individual Mason. I confess frankly to having come within this category myself, and I think we may agree that we have all passed through the phase I have described, for the simple reason that we knew nothing better and had no one able to teach us something better. Let us not complain. If we look back upon the progress of the Craft during the last 150 years we cannot but congratulate ourselves upon the enormous, if gradual, strides made in Masonic progress and decorum even in the rough-ashlar stage of our conception of it. Anyone familiar with the records of old Lodges will have been brought into close touch with times when almost every element of reverence and dignity seems to have been lacking. Lodges were held in the public rooms of taverns. Whatever official furniture decorated these primitive temples, quart-pots and “churchwardens” figured largely among the unauthorized equipment. In one of the great London galleries there hangs a famous picture called “Night” by the great artist and moralist of his age, Hogarth. His purpose was to depict a characteristic night-scene in the streets of London as they appeared in his time. Among the typical specimens of depravity haunting those ill-lit streets, the great artist has held up to the derision of all time the figure of a Freemason staggering home drunk, still wearing his apron and being assisted by the tyler of the Lodge. No true Mason can regard this picture without a burning sense of shame, and without registering a resolution to redeem the Craft from this stigma. We have, I hope, got past such things as these. We have awakened to some sense of dignity and self-reverence. The Craft is well governed by its higher authorities, and individual Lodges take a pride in providing proper temples and in conducting their assemblies with due regard to the solemnity of Masonic doctrine. May the Order never relapse into the primitive and chaotic condition from which it has emerged.
But this improvement in matters of external deportment, great and welcome as it is, is not enough. To prevent the Order settling down into a state of self-satisfaction with its social privileges and the agreeableness of friendly intercourse among its members; to prevent its making its claims to being a system of knowledge and science as perfunctory and little onerous as possible, the improvement I have spoken of must be attended (and I believe is destined to be attended) by an awakening to the deep significance of the Craft’s internal purposes. And since I have referred to what I have termed the “rough—ashlar “conception of that purpose you have the right to ask me now to state that loftier conception which may be regarded, in comparison, as the “perfect cube.” The answer to this enquiry I shall not attempt to state in so many words. I invite you to regard this whole lecture as an indication of what that answer must be. To some extent I endeavoured to formulate that answer upon a previous occasion, but whilst I then entered rather into the details and minutiae of the Craft system and symbols, I shall treat the subject now upon broader lines and deal with Masonry in its wider and more philosophic aspect. I said upon that occasion—and I must repeat it now—that in its broad and more vital doctrine Masonry was essentially a philosophic and religious system expressed in dramatic ceremonial. It is a system intended to supply answers to the three great questions that press so inexorably upon the attention of every thoughtful man and that,,, are the subject around which all religions and all philosophies move : What am I ? Whence come I ?I Whither go I ? It is a truism to say that in our quieter and more serious moments we all feel the need of some reliable answer to these questions. Light upon them is “the predominant wish of our hearts”; and upon such light as we can obtain, whether from Masonry or elsewhere, depends our philosophy of life and the rule of conduct by which we regulate our life. In a larger sense, then, than our conventional limited one, the Masonic candidate is presumed to enter the Order in search of light upon these problems; light that he is presumed not to have succeeded in finding elsewhere. If his candidature is actuated by any motive other than a genuine desire for knowledge upon these problems, which beyond all others are vital to his peace, and by a sincere wish to render himself, by the help of that knowledge, serviceable to his fellow creatures, then his candidature is less than a worthy one. The reason why no man should be solicited to join the Order is that in regard to these matters of sacred and momentous import, the first springs of impulse must originate within the postulant himself; the first place of his preparation must ever be in his own heart, and it is to the cry and knocking of his inward need, and for no less a motive, that-in theory, though scarcely in practice -the door to the Mysteries is opened and the seeker enters in and finds help. At another stage of his symbolical progress the candidate learns from his superior brethren, that they, along with himself, are in search of something that is lost and which they have hopes of finding. And it is here that the great motive of this and of all quests, as well as the clue to the real purpose of Masonry, appears prominently and is stated in emphatic terms. Masonry is the quest after something that has been lost. Now what is it that has been lost? Consider the matter thus. Why should we, or the world at large, require systems of religion and philosophy at all? What is the motive and reason for the existence of a Masonic Order and of many other Orders of Initiation, both of the past and the present? Why should they exist at all? I might reduce the matter to the compass of a small and personal point by asking why have you come to hear this lecture, and why should I have been striving for many years to acquire the information that enables me to give it?—if it be not the fact,—as indeed it is, that every man in his reflective moments realizes the sense of some element of his own being having become lost; that he is conscious, if he be honest with himself, of the sense of moral imperfection, of ignorance, of restricted knowledge about himself and his surroundings; that he is aware, in short, of some radical deficiency in his constitution, which, were it but found and made good, would satisfy this craving for information, for completeness and perfection, would “lead him from darkness to light”, and would put him beyond ignorance and beyond the touch of the many ills that flesh is heir to. The point is too obvious to need pressing further, and the answer to it is to be found by a reference to a great doctrine that forms the philosophic basis of all systems of religion, and all the great systems of the Mysteries and of Initiation of antiquity, viz., that which is popularly known as the Fall of Man. However we may choose to regard this event—and throughout the history of the human race it has been taught in innumerable ways and in all manner of parables, allegories, myths and legends—its sole and single meaning is that humanity as a whole has fallen away from its original parent source and place; that from being imbedded in the eternal centre of life man has become projected to the circumference; and that in this present world of ours he is undergoing a period of restriction, of ignorance, of discipline and experience, that shall ultimately fit him to return to the centre whence he came and to which he properly belongs. “Paradise Lost” is the real theme of Masonry no less than of Milton, as it is also of all the ancient systems of the Mysteries. The Masonic doctrine focuses and emphasizes the fact and the sense of this loss. Beneath a veil of allegory describing the intention to build a certain temple that could not be finished because of an untimely disaster, Masonry implies that Humanity is the real temple whose building became obstructed, and that we, who are both the craftsmen and the building materials of what was intended to be an unparalleled structure, are, owing to a certain unhappy event, living here in this world in conditions where the genuine and full secrets of our nature are, for the time being, lost to us; where the full powers of the soul of man are curtailed by the limitations of physical life; and where, during our apprenticeship of probation and discipline, we have to put up with the substituted knowledge derivable through our limited and very fallible senses.
But, whilst Masonry emphasizes this great truth, it indicates also—and this is its great virtue and real purpose—the method by which we may regain that which is lost to us. It holds out the great promise that, with divine assistance and by our own industry, the genuine realities of which we at present possess but the imperfect shadows shall be restored to us, and that patience and perseverance will eventually entitle every worthy man to a participation in them. This large subject is mirrored in miniature in the Craft ceremonial. The East of the Lodge is the symbolic centre; the source of all light; the place of the throne of the Master of all life. The West, the place of the disappearing sun, is this world of imperfection and darkness from which the divine spiritual light is in large measure withdrawn and only shines by reflection. The ceremonies through which the candidate passes are symbolic of the stages of progress that every man—whether a formal member of the Craft or not—may make by way of self-purification and self-building, until he at length lies dead to his present natural self, and is raised out of a state of imperfection and brought once more into perfect union with the Lord of life and glory into whose image he has thus become shaped and conformed.
It is in this large sense, then, that Masonry may become for us—as indeed it was intended to become by those who instituted our present speculative system—a working philosophy for those brought within its influence. It supplies a need to those who are earnestly enquiring into the purpose and destiny of human life. It is a means of initiating into reliable knowledge those who feel that their knowledge of life and their path of life have hitherto been but a series of irregular steps made at haphazard and under hoodwinked conditions as to whither they are going. Not without good reason does our catechism assert that Masonry contains “many and invaluable secrets.” But these of course are not the formal and symbolic signs, tokens and words communicated ceremonially to candidates; they are rather those secrets which we instinctively keep locked up in the recesses and safe repository of our hearts; secrets of the deep and hidden things of the soul, about which we do not often talk, and which, by a natural instinct, we are not in the habit of communicating to any but such of our brethren and fellows as share with us a common and a sympathetic interest in the deeper problems and mysteries of life.
I have said already that Masonry is a modern perpetuation of great systems of initiation that have existed for the spiritual instruction of men in all parts of the world since the beginning of time. The reason for their existence has been the obvious one, resulting from the cardinal truth already alluded to, that man in his present natural state is inherently and radically imperfect; that sooner or later he becomes conscious of a sense of loss and deprivation and feels an imperative need of learning how to repair that loss. The great world-religions have been ordained to teach in their respective manners the same truths as the Mystery systems have taught. Their teaching has always been twofold. There has always existed an external, elementary, popular doctrine which has served for the instruction of the masses who are insufficiently prepared for deeper teaching; and concurrently therewith there has been an interior, advanced doctrine, a more secret knowledge, which has been reserved for riper minds and into which only proficient and properly prepared candidates, who voluntarily sought to participate in it, were initiated. Whether in ancient India, Egypt, Greece, Italy or Mexico, or among the Druids of Europe, temples of initiation have ever existed for those who felt the inward call to come apart from the multitude and to dedicate themselves to a long discipline of body and mind with a view to acquiring the secret knowledge and developing the spiritual faculties by means of experimental processes of initiation of which our present ceremonies are the faint echo. It is far beyond my present scope to describe any of these great systems or the methods of initiation they employed. But in regard to them I will ask you to accept my statement upon two points : (i) that although these great schools of the Mysteries have long dropped out of the public mind, they, or the doctrine they taught, have never ceased to exist; the enmity of official ecclesiasticism and the tendencies of a materialistic and commercial age have caused them to subside into extreme secrecy and concealment, but their initiates have never been absent from the world; and (2) that it was through the activity and foresight of some of these advanced initiates that our present system of speculative Masonry is due. You must not imply from this that modern Masonry is by any means a full or adequate presentation of these older and larger systems. It is but their pale and elementary shadow. But such as they are, and so far as they do go, our rituals and doctrine are an authentic embodiment of a secret doctrine and a secret process that have always existed for the enlightenment of such aspirants as, putting their trust in God (as our present candidates are made to say), have knocked at the door of certain secret sanctuaries in the confidence that that door would open and that they would find in due course that for which they were seeking. Those who instituted modern speculative Masonry some 250 years ago took certain materials lying ready to hand. They took, that is, the elementary rites and symbols pertaining to mediaval operative guilds of stone-masons and transformed them into a system of religio-philosophic doctrine. Thenceforward, from being related to the trade which deals in stones and bricks, the intention of Masonry was to deal solely and simply with the greater science of soul-building; and, save for retaining certain analogies which the art of the practical stone-mason provided, thenceforward it became dedicated to purposes that are wholly spiritual, religious and philosophic.
Perhaps the chief evidence of the transformation thus effected was the incorporation of the central legend and traditional history comprised in our Third Degree. Obviously that legend can have had no relation to, or practical bearing upon, the operative builders’ trade. I will ask you to reflect that no building of stone, no temple or other edifice capable of being built with hands, has remained unfinished through the death of any professional architect such as Hiram Abiff is popularly supposed to have been. The principles of architecture, the genuine secrets of the building trade, are not and never have been lost; they are thoroughly well known, and the absurdity is manifest of supposing that Masons of any kind are waiting for time or circumstances to restore any lost knowledge as to the manner in which temporal buildings ought to be constructed. We know how to erect buildings to-day quite as well as our Hebrew forefathers did who built the famous temple at Jerusalem, and indeed a well known architect has stated that most of our London churches are, both for size and ornamentation, far larger and more splendid than that temple ever was. Our duty then is to look behind the literal story; to pierce the veil of allegory contained in the great legend and to grasp the significance of its true purport. That which is lost is to be found, we are told, with the Centre. But if we enquire what a Centre is, the average Mason will give you nothing more than the official, enigmatic and not very luminous answer that it is a point within a circle from which every part of the circumference is equidistant. But what circle? And what circumference? For there are no such things as centres or circles in respect of ordinary buildings or architecture. And here the average Mason is at an utter loss to explain. Press him further, “Why with the Centre?” and again he can only give you the elusive and perplexing answer “Because that is a point from which a Master Mason cannot err”, and you are no wiser.
Brethren, it is just this elusiveness, these intentional enigmas, this purposed puzzle-language, that are intended to put us on the scent of something deeper than the words themselves convey, and if we fail to find, to realize and to act upon, the intention of what is veiled behind the letter of the rituals, we can scarcely claim to understand our own doctrine; we can scarcely claim to have been regularly initiated, passed and raised in the higher sense of those expressions, whatever ceremonies we have formally passed through. “The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.” Let us enquire what the spirit of this puzzle-language is.
The method of all great religious and initiatory systems has been to teach their doctrine in the form of myth, legend or allegory. As our first tracing-board lecture says, “The philosophers, unwilling to expose their mysteries to vulgar eyes, concealed their tenets and principles of philosophy under hieroglyphical figures”, and our traditional history is one of these hieroglyphical figures. Now the literally-minded never see behind the letter of the allegory. The truly initiated mind discerns the allegory’s spiritual value. In fact, part of the purpose of all initiation was, and still is, to educate the mind in penetrating the outward shell of all phenomena, and the value of initiation depends upon the way in which the inward truths are allowed to influence our thought and lives and to awaken in us still deeper powers of consciousness.
The legend of the Third Degree, then, in which the essence of Masonic doctrine lies, was brought into our system by some advanced minds who derived their knowledge from other and concealed sources. The legend is an adaptation of a very old one and existed in various forms long before its association with modern Masonry. In the guise of a story about the building of a temple by King Solomon at Jerusalem, they were promulgating the truth which I have alluded to before and which is generally known as the Fall of Man. As our legend runs, upon the literal side of it, it was the purpose of a great king to erect a superb structure. He was assisted in that work by another king who supplied the building materials, by a skilful artificer whose business was to put these together according to a pre-ordained plan, and by large companies of craftsmen and labourers. But in the course of the work an evil conspiracy arose, resulting in the destruction of the chief artificer and preventing the completion of the building, which remains unfinished, therefore, to this day.
Now I will ask you to observe that this legend cannot refer to any historical building built in the old metropolis of Palestine. If we refer to the Bible as an authority you will find that that temple was completed; it was afterwards destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again on more than one occasion. Moreover, the biblical accounts make no reference whatever to the conspiracy, or to the death of Hiram. On the other hand they state expressly that Hiram “made an end of building” the temple; that it was finished and completed in every particular. It is very clear then that we must keep the two subjects entirely separate in our minds; and recognize that the Masonic story deals with something quite distinct from the biblical story. What temple then is referred to? The temple, brethren, that is still incomplete and unfinished is none that can be built with hands. It is that temple of which all material edifices are but the types and symbols; it is the temple of the collective body of humanity itself; of which the great initiate St. Paul said “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?” A perfect humanity was the great Temple which, in the counsels of the Most High, was intended to be reared in the mystical Holy City, of which the local Jerusalem was the type. The three great Master-builders, Solomon and the two Hirams, are a triad corresponding after a manner with the Holy Trinity of the Christian religion; Hiram Abiff being the chief architect, he “by whom all things were made” and “in whom (as St. Paul said, using Masonic language) the whole building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord.” The material of this mystical temple was the souls of men, at once the living stones, the fellow craftsmen and collaborators with the divine purpose.
But in the course of the construction of this ideal temple, something happened that wrecked the scheme and delayed the fulfillment indefinitely. This was the Fall of Man; the conspiracy of the craftsmen. Turn to the book of Genesis, you will find the same subject related in the allegory of Adam and Eve. They were intended, as you know, for perfection and happiness, but their Creator’s project became nullified by their disobedience to certain conditions imposed upon them. I will ask you to observe that their offense was precisely that committed by our Masonic conspirators. They had ,been forbidden to eat of the Tree of Knowledge; or, in Masonic language, they were under obligation “not to attempt to extort the secrets of a superior degree” which they had not attained. Now the Hebrew word Hiram means Guru, teacher of “supreme knowledge”, divine light and wisdom, and the liberty that comes therewith. But this knowledge is only for the perfected man. It is that knowledge that Hiram said was “known to but three in the world”, i.e., known only in the counsels of the Divine Trinity, but it is knowledge that with patience and perseverance every Mason, every child of the Creator, “may in due time become entitled to a participation in”. But just as Adam and Eve’s attempt to obtain illicit knowledge caused their expulsion from Eden and defeated the divine purpose until they and their posterity should regain the Paradise they had lost, so also the completion of the great mystical Temple was prevented for the time being by the conspirators’ attempt to extort from Hiram the Master’s secrets, and its construction is delayed until time and circumstances-God’s time, and the circumstances we create for ourselves-restore to us the lost and genuine secrets of our nature and of the divine purpose in us.
The tragedy of Hiram Abiff, then, is not the record of any vulgar, brutal murder of an individual man. It is a parable of cosmic and universal loss; an allegory of the breakdown of a divine scheme. We are dealing with no calamity that occurred during the erection of a building in an eastern city, but with a moral disaster to universal humanity. Hiram is slain; in other words, the faculty of enlightened wisdom has been cut off from us. Owing to that disaster mankind is here to-day in this world of imperfect knowledge, of limited faculties, of chequered happiness, of perpetual toil, of death and frequent bitterness and pain; our life here is (to use a poet’s words) :
”An ever-moaning battle in the mist,
Death in all life and lying in all love;
The meanest having power upon the highest,
And the high purpose broken by the worm.”
The temple of human nature is unfinished and we know not how to complete it. The want of plans and designs to regulate the disorders of individual and social life indicates to us all that some heavy calamity has befallen us as a race. The absence of a clear and guiding principle in the world’s life reminds us of the utter confusion into which the absence of that Supreme Wisdom, which is personified as Hiram, has thrown us all, and causes every reflective mind to attribute to some fatal catastrophe his mysterious disappearance. We all long for that light and wisdom which have become lost to us. Like the craftsmen in search of the body, we go our different ways in search of what is lost. Many of us make no discovery of importance throughout the length of our days. We seek it in pleasure, in work, in all the varied occupations and diversions of our lives; we seek it in intellectual pursuits, in religion, in Masonry, and those who search farthest and deepest are those who become most conscious of the loss and who are compelled to cry “Machabone! Macbenah! the Master is smitten”, or, as the Christian Scriptures word it, “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him”.
Hiram Abiff is slain. The high light and wisdom ordained to guide and enlighten humanity are wanting to us. The full blaze of light and perfect knowledge that were to be ours are vanished from the race, but in the Divine Providence there still remains to us a glimmering light in the East. In a dark world, from which as it were the sun has disappeared, we have still our five senses and our rational faculties to work with, and these provide us with the substituted secrets that must distinguish us before we regain the genuine ones.
Where is Hiram buried? We are taught that the Wisdom of the Most High-personified as King Solomon-ordered him to be interred in a fitting sepulchre outside the Holy City, “in a grave from the centre 3 feet between N. and S., 3 feet between E. and W., and 5 feet or more perpendicular”. Where, Brethren, do you imagine that grave to be? Can you locate it by following these minute details of its situation? Probably you have never thought of the matter as other than an ordinary burial outside the walls of a geographical Jerusalem. But the grave of Hiram is ourselves. Each of us is the sepulchre in which the smitten Master is interred. If we know it not it is a further sign of our benightedness. At the centre of ourselves, deeper than any dissecting-knife can reach or than any physical investigation can fathom, lies buried the “vital and immortal principle”, the “glimmering ray” that affiliates us to the Divine Centre of all life, and that is never wholly extinguished however evil or imperfect our lives may be. We are the grave of the Master. The lost guiding light is buried at the centre of ourselves. High as your hand may reach upwards or downwards from the centre of your own body—i.e., 3 feet between N. and S. far as it can reach to right or left of the middle of your person—i.e., 3 feet between W. and E.—and 5 feet or more perpendicular—the height of the human body—these are the indications by which our cryptic ritual describes the tomb of Hiram Abiff at the centre of ourselves. He is buried “outside the Holy City”, in the same sense that the posterity of Adam have all been placed outside the walls of Paradise, for, “nothing unclean can enter into the holy place” which elsewhere in our Scriptures is called the Kingdom of Heaven.
What then is this “Centre”, by reviving and using which we may hope to regain the secrets of our lost nature? We may reason from analogies. As the Divine Life and Will is the centre of the whole universe and controls it; as the sun is the centre and life-giver of our solar system and controls and feeds with life the planets circling round it, so at the secret centre of individual human life exists a vital, immortal principle, the spirit and the spiritual will of man. This is the faculty, by using which (when we have found it) we can never err. It is a point within the circle of our own nature and, living as we do in this physical world, the circle of our existence is bounded by two grand parallel lines; “one representing Moses; the other King Solomon”, that is to say, law and wisdom; the divine ordinances regulating the universe on the one hand; the divine “wisdom and mercy that follow us all the days of our life” on the other. Very truly then the Mason who keeps himself thus circumscribed cannot err.
Masonry, then, is a system of religious philosophy in that it provides us with a doctrine of the universe and of our place in it. It indicates whence we are come and whither we may return. It has two purposes. Its first purpose is to show that man has fallen away from a high and holy centre to the circumference or externalized condition in which we now live; to indicate that those who so desire may regain that centre by finding the centre in ourselves, for, since Deity is as a circle whose centre is everywhere, it follows that a divine centre, a “vital and immortal principle”, exists within ourselves by developing which we may hope to regain our lost and primal stature. The second purpose of the Craft doctrine is to declare the way by which that centre may be found within ourselves, and this teaching is embodied in the discipline and ordeals delineated in the three degrees. The Masonic doctrine of the Centre—or, in other words, the Christian axiom that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you”—is nowhere better stated than by the poet Browning
”Truth is within ourselves. It takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe. There is an inmost centre in ourselves Where truth abides in fullness; and to know
Rather consists in finding out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape Than by effecting entrance for a light Supposed to be without.”
Brethren, may we all come to the knowledge how to “open the Lodge upon the centre” of ourselves and so realize in our own conscious experience the finding of the “imprisoned splendour” hidden in the depths of our being, whose rising within ourselves will bring us peace and salvation. How then does the Craft doctrine prescribe for the liberation of this imprisoned centre? Its first injunctions are those of our first degree. There must be purity of thought and purpose. I need scarcely remind you that the word candidate derives from the Latin candidus, white (in the sense of purity), or that our postulants before entering the Lodge leave behind them in the precincts the garments that belong to the fashion of the outer world whose ideals they are desirous of relinquishing, and enter the Lodge clad in white as emblematic of the blamelessness of their thought and the purification of their lives. As this symbolic white clothing is worn during each of the three degrees, it is as though the seeker after the high light of the Centre must always come uttering the triple ascription, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as the token of the threefold purity of body, soul and spirit, which is essential to the achievement of his quest. He has left all money and metals behind him, for the gross things of this world are superfluous in the world that lies within; whilst if any dross of thought or imperfections of character remain in him, he will find the impossibility of attaining to the consciousness of his highest self; he will learn that he must renounce them and begin again, and that his attempt at real initiation must be repeated.
He must be animated by a spirit of universal sympathy. Financial doles and practical relief to the pecuniary poor and distressed are admirable practices as far as they go, but they by no means exhaust the meaning of the term charity as Masonry intends it. The payment of a few guineas to philanthropic institutions is scarcely a fulfillment of St. Paul’s great definition of charity so often read in our Lodges, by exercising which we are wont to say that a Mason “attains the summit of his profession”.
There is a far larger sense of Brotherhood than the limited conventional one obtaining among those who are members of a common association. There is that deep sense in which a man feels himself not only in fraternity with his fellow-men, whether Masonically his brethren or not, but realizes himself brother to all that is, part of the universal life that thrills through all things. A great illuminate, St. Francis of Assisi, expressed what I refer to when he wrote in his famous canticle, of his brothers the sun and the wind; his sisters the moon and the sea; his brethren the animals and the birds; as being all parts of a common life, all constituents in the scheme of the Great Architect for the restoration of the Temple of Creation and its dedication to His service, and as all worthy of a common love upon our part, even as they are the subject of a common solicitude upon His.
And passing from these primary qualifications we proceed to what is signified by our second degree, wherein is inculcated the analysis and cultivation of the mental and rational faculties; the study of the secrets of the marvelous, complex, psychical nature of man; the relation of these with the still higher and spiritual part of him which, in turn, he may learn to trace “even to the throne of God Himself” with which he is affiliated at the root essence of his being. These studies, brethren, so lightly touched upon in our passing-ceremony, so glibly referred to as we recite our ritual, when undertaken with the seriousness that attached to them in the old mystery-systems are not without just reason described in our own words as “serious, solemn and awful”. The depths of human nature and self knowledge, the hidden mysteries of the soul of man are not, as real initiates well know, probed into with impunity except by the “properly prepared”. The man who does so has, as it were, a cable-tow around his neck; because when once stirred by a genuine desire for the higher knowledge that real initiation is intended to confer, he can never turn back on what he learns thereof without committing moral suicide; he can never be again the same man he was before he gained a glimpse of the hidden mysteries of life. And as the Angel stood with a flaming sword at the entrance of Eden to guard the way to the Tree of Life, so will the man whose initiation is not a conventional one find himself threatened at the door of the higher knowledge by opposing invisible forces if he rashly rushes forward in a state of moral unfitness into the deep secrets of the Centre. Better remain ignorant than embark upon this unknown sea unwisely and without being properly prepared and in possession of the proper passports.
And eventually the aspirant, after these preliminary disciplines, has to learn the great truth embodied in the third degree; that he who would be raised to perfection and regain what he has long realized has been lost to himself, may do so only by utter self-abnegation, by a dying to all that to the eyes and the reason of the uninitiated outer world is precious and desirable. The third degree, Brethren, is an exposition in dramatic ceremonial of the text “Whoso would save his life must lose it”. Beneath the allegory of the death of the Master—and remember that it is allegory—is expressed the universal truth that mystical death must precede mystical rebirth. “Know ye not that ye must be born again?” “Unless a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; if it die it bringeth forth much fruit”. And it is only thus that all Master-Masons can be raised from a figurative (not a physical) death to a regenerated state and to the full stature of human nature.
The path of true initiation into fullness of life by way of a figurative death to one’s lower self is the path called in the Scriptures the narrow way, of which it is also said that few there be who find it. It is the narrow path between the Pillars, for Boaz and Jachin stand impliedly at the entrance of every Masonic Temple and between them we pass each time we enter the Lodge. Very great prominence is accorded these pillars in the ritual, but very little explanation of their import is given, and it is desirable to know something of their great significance. To deal with them at all fully would require an entire lecture upon this one subject, and even then there would have to remain unsaid in regard to these great symbols much that is unsuited to treatment in a general lecture.
The pillars form, and have always formed, a prominent feature in the temples of all great systems of religion and initiation, whether Masonic or not. They have been incorporated into Christian architecture. If you recall the construction of York Minster or Westminster Abbey, you will recognize the pillars in the two great towers flanking the main entrance to those cathedrals at the west end of the structure. Non-Masons, therefore, enter these temples, as we do, between the pillars in the West; they look through them along the straight path that leads to the high altar, just as the Mason’s symbolic passage is also from the West to the throne in the East. That path is, as it were, the straight path of life, beginning in this outer world and terminating at the throne, or altar, in the East. Many centuries before our Bible was written or the temple of Solomon described in the Books of Kings and Chronicles was thought of, the two pillars were used in the great temples of the Mysteries in Egypt, and one of the great annual public festivals was that of the setting up of the pillars. What, then, did they signify? I can deal with the subject but very superficially here. In one of their aspects they stand for what is known in Eastern philosophy as the “pairs of opposites”. Everything in nature is dual and can only be known in contrast with its opposite, whilst the two in combination produce a metaphysical third which is their synthesis and perfect balance. Thus we have good and evil; light and darkness (and one of the pillars was always white and the other black); active and passive; positive and negative; yes and no; outside and inside; man and woman. Neither of these is complete without the other; taken together they form stability. Morning and evening unite to form the complete day. Man is proverbially imperfect without his “better half”, woman; the two marry to impart strength to each other and to establish their common house. Physical science shows all matter to be composed of positive and negative electric forces in perfect balance and that things would disintegrate and disappear if they did not stand firm in perfect union. Every drop of healthy blood in our bodies is a combination of red and white corpuscles, by the due balance of which we are established in strength and health, whilst lack of balance is attended by disease. The pillars therefore typify, in one of their aspects, perfect integrity of body and soul such as are essential to achieving spiritual perfection. In the terms of ancient philosophy all created things are composed of fire and water; fire being their spiritual and water their material element, and so the pillars represented also these universal properties. In one of the Apocryphal Scriptures (2 Esdras, 7; 7-8), the path to true wisdom and life is spoken of as an entrance between a fire on the right hand and a deep water on the left, and so narrow and painful that only one man may go through it at once. This is in allusion to the narrow and painful path of real initiation of which our entrance into the Lodge between the pillars is a symbol.
Now all great symbols are shadowed forth in the person of man himself. The human organism is the true Lodge that must be opened and wherein(‘ the great Mysteries are to be found, and our Lodge- rooms are so built and furnished as to typify the human organism. The lower and physical part of us is animal and earthy, and rests, like the base of Jacob’s ladder, upon the earth; whilst our higher portion is spiritual and reaches to the heavens. These two portions of ourselves are in perpetual conflict, the spiritual and the carnal ever warring against one another; and he alone is the wise man who has learned to effect a perfect balance between them and to establish himself in strength so that his own inward house stands firm against all weakness and temptation. And in still another sense the two pillars may be seen exemplified in the human body. There are our two legs, upon both of which we must stand firm to acquire a perfect physical balance. An having discerned this simple truth, and having seen that the path of true initiation, which is one of spiritual rebirth, is an arduous and painful progress to him who undertakes it, let me ask you to consider in all sacredness another physical phenomenon, the great mystery of which we perhaps think little of by reason of its frequency and of our familiarity with it. I refer to the incident—the great mystery I might say—of child-birth. Brethren, every child born into this world, coming into this life as into a great house of initiation, trial and discipline passes, amid pain and travail, through a strait and narrow way and between the two pillars that support the temple of its mother’s body. And thus in the commonplaces of life, in which for those who have clean hearts there is nothing common or unclear but everything is sacred and symbolic, the act of physical birth is an image and a foreshadowing of that mystical rebirth and of that passing through strait gate and a narrow way in a deeper sense without which it is written that a man shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The regenerated man, the man who not merely, in ceremonial form but in vital experience, has passed through the phases of which the Masonic degrees are the faint symbol, is alone worthy of the title of Master-Mason in the building of the Temple that is not made with hands but that is being built invisibly out of the souls of just men made perfect Not only in this world is this temple being built; only the foundations of the intended structure are perceptible here. The Craft contemplates other and loftier planes of life, other storeys of the vast structure than this we live and work in. Just as our Craft organization has its higher assemblies and councils in the form of the Provincial and the Grand Lodges that regulate and minister to the need of the Lodges of common craftsmen, so in the mighty system of the universal structure there are grades of higher life, hierarchies of celestial beings working and ministering in the loftier portions of the building, beyond our present ken. And as here at the head of our limited and temporal brotherhood there rules a Grand Master, so too over the cosmic system there presides the Great Architect and Most Worshipful Grand Master of all, whose officers are holy Angels; and the recognition of this truth may tend to consecrate us in the discharge of the little symbolic part we severally perform in the system which is the image of the great scheme.
The world at large, Brethren, is as it were, but one great Lodge and place of initiation, of which our Masonic Lodges are the little mirrors. Mother Earth is also the Mother-Lodge of us all. As its vast work goes on, souls are ever descending into it and souls are being called out of it at the knocks of some great unseen Warden of life and death, who calls them here to labour and summons them hence for refreshment. After the Lodge, the festive board; after the labour of this world, the repast and refreshment of the heavenly places. And thus, although our after-proceedings have no formal place in the Masonic system, any more than the after-life is in formal connection with us whilst our sphere of activity is in this present world, still it plays a striking and appropriate part calculated to awaken us to the deep significance of our customary conviviality. Upon such occasions we are wont to drink the toast of “the King and the Craft”, remembering as loyal subjects and loving brethren our earthly sovereign and our Masonic comrades throughout the world. But here again I would ask every Master who gives and every brother who drinks this toast, to lift his thoughts to a greater King and to a larger craft than our limited and symbolic fraternity. I would remind you how in the Christian Mysteries there was another Master whom unconsciously we imitate, who also after supper took the cup and when he had given thanks to the King of kings, pledged himself, as it were, to that larger Craft which is co-extensive, with humanity itself; directing them in this manner to show forth symbolically a certain great mystery until his coming again. But this, Brethren, is none other than what is implied in our own Masonic words when we also are directed to use certain substituted secrets until time and circumstances shall restore to us the genuine ones.
In submitting, then, these thoughts to you, it may be claimed that Masonry offers to those capable of appreciating it a working philosophy and a practical rule of life. It discloses to us the scheme of the universe—a scheme once shattered and arrested, but left in the hands of humanity to restore. It indicates our place, our purpose and our destiny in that universe. It is as a great house of instruction and initiation into the Mysteries of a larger and fuller life than the unenlightened worldling is as yet ripe for appreciating. Let us, therefore, value and endeavour fully to appreciate its mysteries. Let us also be careful not to cheapen the Order by failing to realize its meaning and by admitting to its ranks those who are unready or unfitted to understand its import. I said at the outset of this lecture that some Masons are beginning to awake to a larger consciousness of the true meaning and purport of our Craft. I say now at the end, Brethren! Lift up your hearts; throw wide open the shutters of your minds and imaginations. Learn to see in Masonry something more than a parochial system enjoining elementary morality, performing perfunctory and meaningless rites, and serving as an agreeable accessory to social life. But look to find in it a living philosophy, a vital guide upon those matters which of all others are the most sacred and the most urgent to our ultimate well-being. Realize that its secrets which are “many and invaluable” are not upon the surface; that they are not those of the tongue, but of the heart; and that its mysteries are those eternal ones that treat of the spirit rather than of the body of man. And with this knowledge clothe yourselves and enter the Lodge—not merely the Lodge-room of our symbolic Craft, but the larger Lodge of life, wherein, silently and without the sound of metal tool, is proceeding the perpetual work of rebuilding the unfinished and invisible Temple of which the mystical stones and timber are the souls of men. In that rebuilding, men and women are taking part who, whilst formally not members of our Craft, are still unconsciously Masons in the best of senses. For whosoever is carefully and deliberately “squaring his stone” is fitting himself for his place in the “intended structure” which gradually is being “put together with exact nicety” and which, though erected by ourselves, one day will become manifest to our clearer vision and will appear “more like the work of the Great Architect of the Universe than that of human hands”. Upon us Masons therefore, who have the advantage of a regular and organized system which provides and inculcates for us an outline of the great truths that we have been considering and that always in the world have been regarded as secret, as sacred, and as vital, there rests the responsibility attaching to our privilege, and it must be our aim to endeavour to enter into the full heritage of understanding and practising the system to which we belong.
The Possibilities of the Masonic Order | The Deeper Symbolism of Masonry | Masonry as a Philosophy | Further Notes on Craft Symbolism | The Holy Royal Arch | The Relation of Masonry to the Ancient Mysteries
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