The Meaning of Masonry

by Walter Leslie Wilmshurst
Past Provincial Grand Registrar in West Yorkshire
United Grand Lodge of England

A philosophical exposition of the character of the Craft

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

Chapter 1

The Deeper Symbolism Of Freemasonry

A CANDIDATE proposing to enter Freemasonry has seldom formed any definite idea of the nature of what he is engaging in. Even after his admission he usually remains quite at a loss to explain satisfactorily what Masonry is and for what purpose his Order exists. He finds, indeed, that it is "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols," but that explanation, whilst true, is but partial and does not carry him very far.

For many members of the Craft to be a Mason implies merely connection with a body which seems to be something combining the natures of a club and a benefit society. They find, of course, a certain religious element in it, but as they are told that religious discussion, which means, of course, sectarian religious discussion, is forbidden in the Lodge, they infer that Masonry is not a religious institution, and that its teachings are intended to be merely secondary and supplemental to any religious tenets they may happen to hold.

One sometimes hears it remarked that Masonry is "not a religion"; which in a sense is quite true; and sometimes that it is a secondary or supplementary religion, which is quite untrue. Again Masonry is often supposed, even by its own members, to be a system of extreme antiquity, that was practised and that has come down in its present form from Egyptian or at least from early Hebrew sources: a view which again possesses the merest modicum of truth. In brief, the vaguest notions obtain about the origin and history of the Craft, whilst the still more vital subject of its immediate and present purpose, and of its possibilities, remains almost entirely outside the consciousness of many of its own members.

We meet in our Lodges regularly; we perform our ceremonial work and repeat our catechetical instruction lectures night after night with a less or greater degree of intelligence and verbal perfection, and there our work ends, as though the ability to perform this work creditably were the be-all and the end-all of Masonic work. Seldom or never do we employ our Lodge meetings for that purpose for which, quite as much as for ceremonial purposes, they were intended, viz.: for "expatiating on the mysteries of the Craft," and perhaps our neglect to do so is because we have ourselves imperfectly realized what those mysteries are into which our Order was primarily formed to introduce us. Yet, there exists a large number of brethren who would willingly repair this obvious deficiency; brethren to whose natures Masonry, even in their more limited aspect of it, makes a profound appeal, and who feel their membership of the Craft to be a privilege which has brought them into the presence of something greater than they know, and that enshrines a purpose and that could unfold a message deeper than they at present realize.

In a brief address like this it is hopeless to attempt to deal at all adequately with what I have suggested are deficiencies in our knowledge of the system we belong to. The most one can hope to do is to offer a few hints or clues, which those who so desire may develop for themselves in the privacy of their own thought.

For in the last resource no one can communicate the deeper things in Masonry to another. Every man must discover and learn them for himself, although a friend or brother may be able to conduct him a certain distance on the path of understanding. We know that even the elementary and superficial secrets of the Order must not be communicated to unqualified persons, and the reason for this injunction is not so much because those secrets have any special value, but because that silence is intended to be typical of that which applies to the greater, deeper secrets, some of which, for appropriate reasons, must not be communicated, and some of which indeed are not communicable at all, because they transcend the power of communication.

It is well to emphasize then, at the outset, that Masonry is a sacramental system, possessing, like all sacraments, an outward and visible side consisting of its ceremonial, its doctrine and its symbols which we can see and hear, and an inward, intellectual and spiritual side, which is concealed behind the ceremonial, the doctrine and the symbols, and which is available only to the Mason who has learned to use his spiritual imagination and who can appreciate the reality that lies behind the veil of outward symbol. Anyone, of course, can understand the simpler meaning of our symbols, especially with the help of the explanatory lectures; but he may still miss the meaning of the scheme as a vital hole. It is absurd to think that a vast organization like Masonry was ordained merely to teach to grown-up men of the world the symbolical meaning of a few simple builders' tools, or to impress upon us such Masonry elementary virtues as temperance and justice: the children in every village school are taught such things; or to enforce such simple principles of morals as brotherly love, which every church and every religion teaches; or as relief, which is practised quite as much by non-Masons as by us; or of truth, which every infant learns upon its mother's knee. There is surely, too, no need for us to join a secret society to be taught that the volume of the Sacred Law is a fountain of truth and instruction; or to go through the great and elaborate ceremony of the third degree merely to learn that we have each to die.

The Craft whose work we are taught to honour with the name of a "science," a "royal art," has surely some larger end in view than merely inculcating the practice of social virtues common to all the world and by no means the monopoly of Freemasons. Surely, then, it behooves us to acquaint ourselves with what that larger end consists, to enquire why the fulfilment of that purpose is worthy to be called a science, and to ascertain what are those "mysteries" to which our doctrine promises we may ultimately attain if we apply ourselves assiduously enough to understanding what Masonry is capable of teaching us.

Realizing, then, what Masonry cannot be deemed to be, let us ask what it is. But before answering that question, let me put you in possession of certain facts that will enable you the better to appreciate the answer when I formulate it. In all periods of the world's history, and in every part of the globe, secret orders and societies have existed outside the deeper limits of the official churches for the purpose of teaching what are called "the Mysteries": for imparting to suitable and prepared minds certain truths of human life, certain instructions about divine things, about the things that belong to our peace, about human nature and human destiny, which it was undesirable to publish to the multitude who would but profane those teachings and apply the esoteric knowledge that was communicated to perverse and perhaps to disastrous ends.

These Mysteries were formerly taught, we are told, "on the highest hills and in the lowest valleys," which is merely a figure of speech for saying, first, that they have been taught in circumstances of the greatest seclusion and secrecy, and secondly, that they have been taught in both advanced and simple forms according to the understanding of their disciples. It is, of course, common knowledge that great secret systems of the Mysteries (referred to in our lectures as "noble orders of architecture," i.e., of soul-building) existed in the East, in Chaldea, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, amongst the Hebrews, amongst Mahommedans and amongst Christians; even among uncivilized African races they are to be found.

All the great teachers of humanity, Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Moses, Aristotle, Virgil, the author of the Homeric poems, and the great Greek tragedians, along with St. John, St. Paul and innumerable other great names were initiates of the Sacred Mysteries. The form of the teaching communicated has varied considerably from age to age; it has been expressed under different veils; but since the ultimate truth the Mysteries aim at teaching is always one and the same, there has always been taught, and can only be taught, one and the same doctrine.

What that doctrine was, and still is, we will consider presently so far as we are able to speak of it, and so far as Masonry gives expression to it. For the moment let me merely say that behind all the official religious systems of the world, and behind all the great moral movements and developments in the history of humanity, have stood what St. Paul called the keepers or "Stewards of the Mysteries."

From that source Christianity itself came into the world. From them originated the great school of Kabalism, that marvelous system of secret, oral tradition of the Hebrews, a strong element of which has been introduced into our Masonic system. From them, too, also issued many fraternities and orders, such, for instance, as the great orders of Chivalry and of the Rosicrucians, and the school of spiritual alchemy. Lastly, from them too also issued, in the seventeenth century, modern speculative Freemasonry.

To trace the genesis of the movement, which came into activity some 250 years ago (our rituals and ceremonies having been compiled round about the year 1700), is beyond the purpose of my present remarks. It may merely be stated that the movement itself incorporated the slender ritual and the elementary symbolism that, for centuries previously, had been employed in connection with the medieval Building Guilds, but it gave to them a far fuller meaning and a far wider scope. It has always been the custom for Trade Guilds, and even for modern Friendly Societies, to spiritualize their trades, and to make the tools of their trade point some simple moral. No trade, perhaps, lends itself more readily to such treatment than the builder's trade; but wherever a great industry has flourished, there you will find traces of that industry becoming allegorized, and of the allegory being employed for the simple moral instruction of those who were operative members of the industry.

I am acquainted, for instance, with an Egyptian ceremonial system, some 5,000 years old, which taught precisely the same things as Masonry does, but in the terms of shipbuilding instead of in the terms of architecture. But the terms of architecture were employed by those who originated modern Masonry because they were ready to hand; because they were in use among certain trade-guilds then in existence; and lastly, because they are extremely effective and significant from the symbolic point of view.

All that I wish to emphasize at this stage is that our present system is not one coming from remote antiquity: that there is no direct continuity between us and the Egyptians, or even those ancient Hebrews who built, in the reign of King Solomon, a certain Temple at Jerusalem. What is extremely ancient in Freemasonry is the spiritual doctrine concealed within the architectural phraseology; for this doctrine is an elementary form of the doctrine that has been taught in all ages, no matter in what garb it has been expressed.

Our own teaching, for instance, recognizes Pythagoras as having undergone numerous initiations in different parts of the world, and as having attained great eminence in the science. Now it is perfectly certain that Pythagoras was not a Mason at all in our present sense of the word; but it is also perfectly certain that Pythagoras was a very highly advanced master in the knowledge of the secret schools of the Mysteries, of whose doctrine some small portion is enshrined for us in our Masonic system.

What then was the purpose the framers of our Masonic system had in view when they compiled it? To this question you will find no satisfying answer in ordinary Masonic books. Indeed there is nothing more dreary and dismal than Masonic literature and Masonic histories, which are usually devoted to considering merely unessential matters relating to the external development of the Craft and to its antiquarian aspect. They fail entirely to deal with its vital meaning and essence, a failure that, in some cases, may be intentional, but that more often seems due to lack of knowledge and perception, for the true, inner history of Masonry has never yet been given forth even to the Craft itself.

There are members of the Craft to whom it is familiar, and who in due time may feel justified in gradually making public at any rate some portion of what is known in interior circles. But were that time comes, and that the Craft itself may the better appreciate what can be told, it is desirable, nay even necessary, that its own members should make some effort to realize the meaning of their own institution, and should display symptoms of earnest desire to treat it less as a system of archaic and perfunctory rites, and more as a vital reality capable of entering into and dominating their lives; less as a merely pleasant social order, and more as a sacred and serious method of initiation into the profoundest truths of life

It is written that "to him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath"; and it remains with the Craft itself to determine by its own action whether it shall enter into its full heritage, or whether, by failing to realize and to safeguard the value of what it possesses, by suffering its own mysteries to be vulgarized and profaned, its organization will degenerate and pass into disrepute and deserved oblivion, as has been the fate of many secret orders in the past.

There are signs, however, of a well-nigh universal increase of interest, of a genuine desire for knowledge of the spiritual content of our Masonic system, and I am glad to be able to offer to my Brethren some light and imperfect outline of what I conceive to be the true purpose of our work, which may tend to deepen their interest in the work of the Order they belong to, and (what is of more moment still) help to make Masonry for them a vital factor, and a living, serious reality, rather than a mere pleasurable appendage to social life.

To state things briefly, Masonry offers us, in dramatic form and by means of dramatic ceremonial a philosophy of the spiritual life of man and a diagram of the process of regeneration. We shall see presently that philosophy is not only consistent with the doctrine of every religious system taught outside the ranks of the Order, but that it explains, elucidates and more sharply defines, the fundamental doctrines common to every religious system in the world, whether past or present, whether Christian or non-Christian.

The religions of the world, though all aiming at teaching truth, express that truth in different ways, and we are more prone to emphasize the differences than to look for the correspondences in what they teach. In some Masonic Lodges the candidate makes his first entrance to the Lodge room amid the clash of swords and the sounds of strife, to intimate to him that he is leaving the confusion and jarring of the religious sects of the exterior world, and is passing into a Temple wherein the Brethren dwell together in unity of thought in regard to the basal truths of life, truths which can permit of no difference or schism.

Allied with no external religious system itself, Masonry is yet a synthesis, a concordat, for men of every race, of every creed, of every sect, and its foundation principles being common to them all, admit of no variation. "As it was in the beginning, so it is now and ever shall be, into the ages of ages." Hence it is that every Master of a Lodge is called upon to swear that no innovation in the body of Masonry (i.e., in its substantial doctrine) is possible, since it already contains a minimum, and yet a sufficiency, of truth which none may add to nor alter, and from which none may take away; and since the Order accords perfect liberty of opinion to all men, the truths it has to offer are entirely "free to" us according to our capacity to assimilate them, whilst those to whom they do not appeal, those who think they can find a more sufficing philosophy elsewhere, are equally at liberty to be "free from" them, and men of honour will find it their duty to withdraw from the Order rather than suffer the harmony of thought that should characterize the Craft to be disturbed by their presence.

The admission of every Mason into the Order is, we are taught, "an emblematical representation of the entrance of all men upon this mortal existence." Let us reflect a little upon these pregnant words. To those deep persistent questionings which present themselves to every thinking mind, What am I? Whence come I? Whither go I?

Masonry offers emphatic and luminous answers. Each of us, it tells us, has come from that mystical "East," the eternal source of all light and life, and our life here is described as being spent in the "West" (that is, in a world which is the antipodes of our original home, and under conditions of existence as far removed from those we came from and to which we are returning, as is West from East in our ordinary computation of space).

Hence every Candidate upon admission finds himself, in a state of darkness, in the West of the Lodge. Thereby he is repeating symbolically the incident of his actual birth into this world, which he entered as a blind and helpless babe, and through which in his early years, not knowing whither he was going, after many stumbling and irregular steps, after many deviations from the true path and after many tribulations and adversities incident to human life, he may at length ascend, purified and chastened by experience, to larger life in the eternal East.

Hence in the E.A. degree, we ask, "As a Mason, whence come you?" and the answer is "From the West," since he supposes that his life has originated in this world. But, in the advanced degree of M.M. the answer is that he comes "From the East," for by this time the Mason is supposed to have so enlarged his knowledge as to realize that the primal source of life is not in the "West," not in this world; that existence upon this planet is but a transitory sojourn, spent in search of "the genuine secrets," the ultimate realities, of life; and that as the spirit of man must return to God who gave it, so he is now returning from this temporary world of "substituted secrets" to that "East" from which he originally came.

As the admission of every candidate into a Lodge presupposes his prior existence in the world without the Lodge, so our doctrine presupposes that every soul born into this world has lived in, and has come hither from, an anterior state of life. It has lived elsewhere before it entered this world: it will live elsewhere when it passes hence, human life being but a parenthesis in the midst of eternity. But upon entering this world, the soul must assume material form; in other words it takes upon itself a physical body to enable it to enter into relations with the physical world, and to perform the functions appropriate to it in this particular phase of its career.

Need I say that the physical form with which we have all been invested by the Creator upon our entrance into this world, and of which we shall all divest ourselves when we leave the Lodge of this life, is represented among us by our Masonic apron? This, our body of mortality, this veil of flesh and blood clothing the inner soul of us, this is the real "badge of innocence," the common "bond of friendship," with which the Great Architect has been pleased to invest us all: this, the human body, is the badge which is "older and nobler than that of any other Order in existence"; and though it be but a body of humiliation compared with that body of incorruption which is the promised inheritance of him who endures to the end, let us never forget that if we never do anything to disgrace the badge of flesh with which God has endowed each of us, that badge will never disgrace us.

Brethren, I charge you to regard your apron as one of the most precious and speaking symbols our Order has to give you. Remember that when you first wore it was a piece of pure white lambskin; an emblem of that purity and innocence which we always associate with the lamb and with the newborn child. Remember that you first wore it with the flap raised, it being thus a five-cornered badge, indicating the five senses, by means of which we enter into relations with the material world around us (our "five points of fellowship" with the material world), but indicating also by the triangular portion above, in conjunction with the quadrangular portion below, that man's nature is a combination of soul and body; the three-sided emblem at the top added to the four-sided emblem beneath making seven, the perfect number; for, as it is written in an ancient Hebrew doctrine with which Masonry is closely allied, "God blessed and loved the number seven more than all things under His throne," by which is meant that man, the seven-fold being, is of the most cherished of all the Creator's works. And hence also it is that the Lodge has seven principal officers, and that a Lodge, to be perfect, requires the presence of seven brethren; though the deeper meaning of this phrase is that the individual man, in virtue of his seven-fold constitution, in himself constitutes the "perfect Lodge," if he will but know himself and analyse his own nature aright.

To each of us also from our birth have been given three lesser lights, by which the Lodge within ourselves may be illumined. For the "sun" symbolizes our spiritual consciousness, the higher aspirations and emotions of the soul; the "moon" betokens our reasoning or intellectual faculties, which (as the moon reflects the light of the sun) should reflect the light coming from the higher spiritual faculty and transmit it into our daily conduct; whilst "the Master of the Lodge" is a symbolical phrase denoting the willpower of man, which should enable him to be master of his own life, to control his own actions and keep down the impulses of his lower nature, even as the stroke of the Master's gavel controls the Lodge and calls to order and obedience the Brethren under his direction.

By the assistance of these lesser lights within us, a man is enabled to perceive what is, again symbolically, called the "form of the Lodge," i.e., the way in which his own human nature has been composed and constituted, the length, breadth, height and depth of his own being. By their help, too, he will perceive that he himself, his body and his soul, are "holy ground," upon which he should build the altar of his own spiritual life, an altar deeper which he should suffer no "iron tool," no debasing habit of thought or conduct, to defile.

By them, he will perceive how Wisdom, Strength and Beauty have been employed by the Creator, like three grand supporting pillars, in the structure of his own organism. And by these finally he will discern how that there is a mystical "ladder of many rounds or staves," i.e., that there are innumerable paths or methods by means of which men are led upwards to the spiritual Light encircling us all, and in which we live and move and have our being, but that of the three principal methods, the greatest of these, the one that comprehends them all and brings us nearest heaven, is Love, in the full exercise of which God-like virtue a Mason reaches the summit of his profession; that summit being God Himself, whose name is Love.

I cannot too strongly impress upon you, Brethren, the fact that, throughout our rituals and our lectures, the references made to the Lodge are not to the building in which we meet. That building itself is intended to be but a symbol, a veil of allegory concealing something else. "Know ye not" says the great initiate St. Paul, "that ye are the temples of the Most High; and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" The real Lodge referred to throughout our rituals is our own individual personalities, and if we interpret our doctrine in the light of this fact we shall find that it reveals an entirely new aspect of the purpose of our Craft.

It is after investment with the apron that the initiate is placed in the N.E. corner. Thereby he is intended to learn that at his birth into this world the foundation-stone of his spiritual life was duly and truly laid and implanted within himself; and he is charged to develop it; to create a superstructure upon it. Two paths are open to him at this stage, a path of light and a path of darkness; a path of good and a path of evil. The N.E. corner is the symbolical dividing place between the two. In symbolical language, the N. always signifies the place of imperfection and undevelopment; in olden times the bodies of suicides, reprobates and unbaptized children were always buried in the north or sunless side of a churchyard. The seat of the junior members of the Craft is allotted to the north, for, symbolically, it represents the condition of the spiritually unenlightened man; the novice in whom the spiritual light latent within him has not yet risen above the horizon of consciousness and dispersed the clouds of material interests and the impulses of the lower and merely sensual life.

The initiate placed in the N.E. corner is intended to see, then, that on the one side of him is the path that leads to the perpetual light of the East, into which he is encouraged to proceed, and that on the other is that of spiritual obscurity and ignorance into which it is possible for him to remain or relapse. It is a parable of the dual paths of life open to each one of us; on the one hand the path of selfishness, material desires and sensual indulgence, of intellectual blindness and moral stagnation; on the other the path of moral and spiritual progress, in pursuing which one may decorate and adorn the Lodge within him with the ornaments a jewels of grace and with the invaluable furniture of true knowledge, and which he may dedicate, in all his actions, to the service of God and of his fellow men and mark that of those jewels some are said to be moveable and transferable, because when displayed in our own lives and natures their influence becomes transferred and communicated to others and helps to uplift and sweeten the lives of our fellows; whilst some are immoveable because they are permanently fixed and planted in the roots of our own being, and are indeed the raw material which has been entrusted to us to work out of chaos and roughness into due and true form.

The Ceremony of our first degree, then, is a swift and comprehensive portrayal of the entrance of all men into, first, physical life, and second, into spiritual life; and as we extend congratulations when a child is born into the world, so also we receive with acclamation the candidate for Masonry who, symbolically, is seeking for spiritual rebirth; and herein we emulate what is written of the joy that exists among the angels of heaven over every sinner who repents and turns towards the light.

The first degree is also eminently the degree of preparation, of self-discipline and purification. It corresponds with that symbolical cleansing accorded in the sacrament of Baptism, which, in the churches, is, so to speak, the first degree in the religious life; and which is administered, appropriately, at the font, near the entrance of the church, even as the act itself takes place at the entrance of the spiritual career. For to all of us such initial cleansing and purifying is necessary.

As has been beautifully written by a fellow worker in the Craft: "'Tis scarcely true that souls come naked down To take abode up in this earthly town, Or naked pass, of all they wear denied. We enter slipshod and with clothes awry, And we take with us much that by-and-by May prove no easy task to put aside. Cleanse, therefore, that which round about us clings, We pray Thee, Master, ere Thy sacred halls We enter. Strip us of redundant things, And meetly clothe us in pontificals."(_1_)

In the schools of the Mysteries, when aspirants for the higher life were wont to quit the outer world and enter temples or sanctuaries of initiation, prolonged periods were allotted to the practical achievement of what is briefly summarized in our first degree. We are told seven or more years was the normal period, though less sufficed in worthy cases. The most severe tests of discipline, of purity, of self-balance were required before a neophyte was permitted to pass forward, and a reminiscence of these tests of fitness is preserved in our own working by the conducting of the candidate to the two wardens, and submitting him to a merely formal trial of efficiency. For it is impossible today, as it was impossible in ancient times, for a man to reach the heights of moral perfection and spiritual consciousness which were then, and are now, the goal and aim of all the schools of the Mysteries and all the secret orders, without purification and trial.

Complete stainlessness of body, utter purity of mind, are absolute essentials to the attainment of things of great and final moment "Who" says Psalmist (and remember that the Psalms were the sacred hymns used in the Hebrew Mysteries), "Who will go up to the hill of the Lord, and ascend to His holy place? Even he that hath clean hands and a pure heart"; whence it comes that we wear white gloves and aprons as emblems that we have purified our hearts and washed our hands in innocency.

So also our Patron Saint (St. John) teaches, "He who hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He (i.e., the Master whom he is seeking) is pure." For he who is not pure in body and mind: he who is enslaved by passions and desires, or by bondage to the material interests of this world, is, by the very fact of his uncleanness, prevented from passing on. Nothing unclean or that defileth a man, we are told, can enter into the kingdom; and, therefore, our candidates are told that if they have "money or metals about them"; if, that is, they are subject to any physical attraction or mental defilement, their real initiation into the higher things, of which our ceremony is but a dramatic symbol, must be deferred and repeated again and again until they are cleansed and fitted to pass on.

After purification comes contemplation and enlightenment, which are the special subjects of the second degree. Aforetime the candidate for the Mysteries, after protracted discipline and purification enabling his mind to acquire complete control over his passions and his lower physical nature, was advanced, as he may advance himself today, to the study of his more interior faculties, to understand the science of the human soul, and to trace these faculties in their development from their elementary stage until he realizes that they connect with, and terminate in, the Divine itself.

The secrets of his mental nature and the principles of intellectual life became at this stage gradually unfolded to his view. You will thus perceive, Brethren, that the FellowCraft degree, sometimes regarded by us as a somewhat uninteresting one, typifies in reality a long course of personal development requiring the most profound knowledge of the mental and psychical side of our nature. It involves not merely the cleansing and control of the mind, but a full comprehension of our inner constitution, of the more hidden mysteries of our nature and of spiritual psychology.

In this degree it is that our attention is called to the fact that the Mason who has attained proficiency in this grade has been enabled to discover a sacred symbol, placed in the centre of the building, and alluding to the G.G.O.T.U. Doubtless we have often asked ourselves what that phrase and what that symbol imply. Need I repeat that the building alluded to is not the edifice we meet in, but is our own selves, and that the sacred symbol at the centre of the roof and of the floor of this outward temple is but symbolic of that which exists at the centre of ourselves, and which was spoken of by the Christian Master when He proclaimed that "the kingdom of heaven is within you"; that at the depths of our own being, concealed beneath the heavy veils of the sensual, lower nature, there resides that vital and immortal principle, which is said to "allude to" the G.G. because it is nothing other than a spark of God Himself immanent within us.

Over the old temples of the Mysteries was written the injunction "Man, know thyself, and thou shalt know the universe and God." Happy then is the Mason who has so far purified and developed his own nature as to realize in its fullness the meaning of the "sacred symbol" of the second degree, and found God present not outside but within himself. But in order to find the "perfect points of entrance" to this secret (and we are told elsewhere that "straight is the way and narrow the gate, and few there be that find it") emphasis again is laid in our teaching upon the necessity of complete moral rectitude, of utter exactness of thought, word and action, as exemplified by rigid observance of the symbolic principles of the square, level and plumb rule.

Here again the symbolism of our work becomes extremely profound and interesting. He who desires to rise to the heights of his own being must first crush and crucify his own lower nature and inclinations; he must perforce tread what elsewhere is described as the way of the Cross; and that Cross is indicated by the conjunction of those working tools (which when united form a cross); and that "way" is involved in the scrupulous performance of all that we know those working tools signify. By perfecting his conduct, by struggles against his own natural propensities, the candidate is working the rough ashlar of his own nature into the perfect cube, and I would ask you to observe also that the cube itself contains a secret, for unfolded, it itself denotes and takes the form of the cross.

The inward development which the second degree symbolizes is typified by the lowering of the triangular flap of the apron upon the rectangular portion below. This is equivalent to the rite of Confirmation in the Christian Churches. It denotes "the progress we have made in the science," or in other words it indicates that the higher nature of the man, symbolized by the trinity of spirit, has descended into and is now permeating his lower nature. Hitherto, in his state of ignorance and moral blindness, the spiritual part of his nature has, as it were, but hovered above him; he has been unconscious of its presence in his constitution; but now, having realized its existence, the day-spring from on high has visited him, and the nobler part of him descends into his lower nature, illuminating and enriching it.

Now the man who so develops himself, speedily becomes more conscious of the difficulties of his task, more sensitive to the obstacles the life of the outer world places in the way of the spiritual life. But he is taught to persist with fortitude and with prudence, to develop the highest within him with "fervency and zeal." Upon self-scrutiny, too, i.e., upon entering into that "porch way" of contemplation which like a winding staircase leads inward to the Holy of Holies within himself, he realizes that difficulties and obstacles placed in his way are utilised by the Eternal Wisdom as the necessary means of developing the latent and potential good in him, and that as the rough ashlar can only be squared and perfected by chipping and polishing, so he also can be made perfect only by toil and by suffering. He sees that difficulty, adversity and persecution serve a beneficent purpose.

These are his "wages": and he learns to accept them "without scruple and without diffidence, knowing that he is justly entitled to them, and from the confidence he has in the integrity" of that Employer who has sent him into this far-off world to prepare the materials for building the temple of the heavenly city. And so, as the sign peculiar to the degree suggests, he endeavours to examine and lay bare his heart, to cast away all impurity from it, and he stands, like Joshua, praying that the light of day may be extended to him until he has accomplished the overthrow of his own inward enemies and of every obstacle to his complete development.

The aspirant who attains proficiency in the work of self-perfecting to which the FellowCraft grade alludes, has passed away from the N. side of the Lodge, the side of darkness and imperfection; and now stands on the S.E. side in the meridian sunlight of moral illumination (so far as the natural man may possess it), but yet still far removed from that fuller realization of himself and of the mysteries of his own nature which it is possible for the spiritual adept or Master Mason to attain. Before that attainment is reached there remains for him "that last and greatest trial" by which alone he can enter into the great consolations and make acquaintance with the supreme realities of existence.

In the places where the great Mysteries have always been taught, what is ceremonially performed in our third degree is no mere symbolical representation as with us, but an actual, vital experience of a most severe character: one the nature of which can hardly be made intelligible, or even credible, to those unfamiliar with the subject. I refrain, therefore, from more than mere mention of it, observing only that it is one not involving physical death, and in this respect only is our ceremony in accord with the experience symbolized. For if you follow closely the raising ceremony, although distinct reference to the death of the body is made, yet such death is obviously intended to be merely symbolical of another kind of death, since the candidate is eventually restored to his former worldly circumstances and material comforts, and his earthly Masonic career is not represented as coming to a close at this stage.

All that has happened in the third degree is that he has symbolically passed through a great and striking change: a rebirth, or regeneration of his whole nature. He has been "sown a corruptible body"; and in virtue of the self-discipline and self development he has undergone, there has been raised in him "an incorruptible body," and death has been swallowed up in the victory he has attained over himself.

I sometimes fear that the too conspicuous display of the emblems and trappings of mortality in our Lodges is apt to create the false impression that the death to which the third degree alludes is the mere physical change that awaits all men. But a far deeper meaning is intended. The Mason who knows his science knows that the death of the body is only a natural transition of which he need have no dread whatever; he knows also that when the due time for it arrives, that transition will be a welcome respite from the bondage of this world, from his prison-like husk of mortality, and from the daily burdens incident to existence in this lower plane of life. All that he fears is that when the time comes, he may not be free from those "stains of falsehood and dishonour," those imperfections of his own nature, that may delay his after progress. Not the death to which Masonry alludes, using the analogy of bodily death and under the veil of a reference to it, is that death-in-life to a man's own lower self which St. Paul referred to when he protested "I die daily." It is over the grave, not of one's dead body but of one's lower self, that the aspirant must walk before attaining to the heights.

What is meant is that complete self-sacrifice and self-crucifixion which, as all religions teach, are essential before the soul can be raised in glory "from a figurative death to a reunion with the companions of its former toils" both here and in the unseen world. The perfect cube must pass through the metamorphosis of the Cross. The soul must voluntarily and consciously pass through a state of utter helplessness from which no earthly hand can rescue it, and in trying to raise him from which the grip of any succouring human hand will prove but a slip: until at length Divine Help itself descends from the Throne above and, with the "lion's grip" of almighty power, raises the faithful and regenerated soul to union with itself in an embrace of reconciliation and at-one-ment.

In all the schools of the Mysteries, as well as in all the great religions of the world, the attainment of the spiritual goal just described is enacted or taught under the veil of a tragic episode analogous to that of our third degree; and in each there is a Master whose death the aspirant is instructed he must imitate in his own person. In Masonry that prototype is Hiram Abiff: but it must be made clear that there is no historical basis whatever for the legendary account of Hiram's death.

The entire story is symbolical and was purposely invented for the symbolical purposes of our teaching. If you examine it closely you will perceive how obvious the correspondence is between this story and the story of the death of the Christian Master related in the Gospels; and it is needless to say that the Mason who realizes the meaning of the latter will comprehend the former and the veiled allusion that is implied. In the one case the Master is crucified between the two thieves; in the other he is done to death between two villains. In the one case appear the penitent and the impenitent thief; in the other we have the conspirators who make a voluntary confession of their guilt and were pardoned, and the others who were found guilty and put to death; whilst the moral and spiritual lessons deducible from the stories correspond.

As every Christian is taught that in his own life he must imitate the life and death of Christ, so every Mason is "made to represent one of the brightest characters recorded in our annals"; but as the annals of Masonry are contained in the volume of the Sacred Law and not elsewhere, it is easy to see who the character is who is alluded to. As that great authority and initiate of the Mysteries, St. Paul, taught, we can only attain to the Master's resurrection by "being made conformable unto His death," and we must die with Him if we are to be raised like Him"--and it is in virtue of that conformity, in virtue of being individually made to imitate the Grand Master in His death, that we are made worthy of certain" points of fellowship" with Him: for the "five points of fellowship" of the third degree are the five wounds of Christ.

The three years' ministry of the Christian Master ended with His death and, these refer to the three degrees of the Craft which also end in the mystical death of the Masonic candidate and his subsequent raising or resurrection. The name Hiram Abiff signifies in Hebrew "the teacher (Guru, or enlightened one) from the Father"--a fact which may help you still further to recognize the concealed purpose of the teaching. Under the name of Hiram, then, and beneath a veil of allegory, we see an allusion to another Master; and it is this Master, this Elder Brother who is alluded to in our lectures, whose "character we preserve, whether absent or present," i.e., whether He is present to our minds or no, and in regard to whom we "adopt the excellent principle, silence," lest at any time there should be among us trained in some other than the Christian Faith, and to whom on that account the mention of the Christian Master's name might possibly prove an offence or provoke contention.

To typify the advance by the candidate at this stage of his development, the apron here assumes greater elaborateness. It is garnished with a light blue border and rosettes, indicating that a higher than the natural light now permeates his being and radiates from his person, and that the wilderness of the natural man is now blossoming as the rose, in the flowers and graces incident to his regenerated of nature; whilst upon either side of the apron are seen two columns of light descending from above, streaming into the depths of his whole being, and terminating in the seven-fold tassels which typify the seven-fold prismatic spectrum of the supernal Light.

He is now lord of himself; the true Master Mason; able to govern that lodge which is within himself; and as he has passed through the three degrees of purifying and self-perfecting, and squared, leveled, and harmonized his triple nature of body, soul and spirit, he also wears, on attaining Mastership, the triple Tau; which comprises the form of a level, but is also the Hebrew form of the Cross; the three crosses upon the apron thus corresponding with the three crosses of Calvary.

To sum up the import of the teaching of the three degrees, it is clear, therefore, that from grade to grade the candidate is being led from an old to an entirely new quality of life. He begins his Masonic career as the natural man; he ends it by becoming through its discipline, a regenerated perfected man. To attain this transmutation, this metamorphosis of himself, he is taught first to purify and subdue his sensual nature; then to purify and develop his mental nature; and finally, by utter surrender of his old life and losing his soul to save it, he rises from the dead a Master, a just man made perfect, with larger consciousness and faculties, an efficient instrument for use by the Great Architect in His plan of rebuilding the Temple of fallen humanity, and capable of initiating and advancing other men to a participation in the same great work.

This--the evolution of man into superman--was always the purpose of the ancient Mysteries, and the real purpose of modern Masonry is, not the social and charitable purposes to which so much attention is paid, but the expediting of the spiritual evolution of those who aspire to perfect their own nature and transform it into a more god-like quality. And this is a definite science, a royal art, which it is possible for each of us to put into practice; whilst to join the Craft for any other purpose than to study and pursue this science is to misunderstand its meaning.

Hence it is that no one should apply to enter Masonry unless from the deepest promptings of his own heart, as it hungers for light upon the problem of its own nature. We are all imperfect beings, conscious of something lacking to us that would make us what, in our best moments, we fain would be. What is that which is lacking to us? "What is that which is lost?" And the answer is "The genuine secrets of a Master Mason," the true knowledge of ourselves, the conscious realization of our divine potentialities. The very essence of the Masonic doctrine is that all men in this world are in search of something in their own nature which they have lost, but that with proper instruction and by their own patience and industry they may hope to find.

Its philosophy implies that this temporal world is the antipodes of another and more real world from which we originally came and to which we may accelerate our return by such a course of self-knowledge and self-discipline as our teaching inculcates. It implies that this present world is the place where the symbolic stones and timber are being prepared "so far off" from that mystical Jerusalem where one day they will be found put together and, collectively, to constitute that Temple which even now is being built without hands and without the noise or help of metal tools. And this world, therefore, being but a transient temporary one for us, it is necessarily one of shadows, images and merely "substituted secrets," until such time as being raised not merely symbolically but actually, in character and knowledge and consciousness, to the sublime degree of Master Mason, we fit ourselves to learn something of the "genuine secrets," something of the living realities, that lurk and live in concealment behind the outward show of things.

All human life, having originated in the mystical "East" and journeyed into this world which, with us, is the "West," must return again to its source. To quote again the verse of the Brother I have already cited;
"From East to West the soul her journey takes;
At many bitter founts her fever slakes;
Halts at strange taverns by the way to feast,
Resumes her load,
and painful progress makes Back to the East."

Masonry, by means of a series of dramatic representations, is intended to furnish those who care to discover its purport and to take advantage of the hints it throws out in allegorical form, with an example and with instructions by which our return to the "East" may be accelerated. It refers to no architecture of a mundane kind, but to the architecture of the soul's life. It is not in itself a religion; but rather a dramatized and intensified form of religious processes inculcated by every religious system in the world. For there is no religion but teaches the lesson of the necessity of bodily purification of our first degree; none but emphasizes that of the second degree, that mental, moral and spiritual developments are essential and will lead to the discovery of a certain secret centre "where truth abides in fullness," and that centre is a "point within a circle" of our own nature from which no man or Mason can ever err, for it is the divine kingdom latent within us all, into which we have as yet failed to enter.

And there is none but insists upon the supreme lesson of self-sacrifice and mystical death to the things of this world so graphically portrayed in our third degree; none but indicates that in that hour of greatest darkness the light of the primal divine spark within us is never wholly extinguished, and that by loyalty to that light, by patience and by perseverance, time and circumstances will restore to us the "genuine secrets," the ultimate truths and realities of our own nature. We are here, Masonry teaches, as it were in captivity, by the waters of Babylon and in a strange land; and our doctrine truly tells us that the richest harmonies of this life are as nothing in comparison with the songs of Zion; and that, even when we are installed into the highest eminences this world or the Craft may offer, it were better that our right hand should forget its cunning and that we should fling the illusory treasures of this transitory world behind our backs, than in all our doings fail to remember the Jerusalem that lies beyond.

Our teaching is purposely veiled in allegory and symbol and its deeper import does not appear upon the surface of the ritual itself. This is partly in correspondence with human life itself and the world we live in, which ale themselves but allegories and symbols of another life and the veils of another world; and partly intentional also, so that only those who have reverent and understanding minds may penetrate into the more hidden meaning of the doctrine of the Craft.

The deeper secrets in Masonry, like the deeper secrets of life, are heavily veiled; are closely hidden. They exist concealed beneath a great reservation; but who so knows anything of them knows also that they are "many and valuable," and that they are disclosed only to those who act upon the hint given in our lectures,"

Seek and ye shall find; ask and ye shall have; knock and it shall be opened unto you. "The search may be long and difficult, but great things are not acquired without effort and search; but it may be affirmed that to the candidate who is "properly prepared" (in a much fuller sense than we conventionally attach to that expression) there are doors leading from the Craft that, when knocked, will assuredly open and admit him to places and to knowledge he at present recks little of.

For him, too, who would enter upon the greater initiations, the same rule applies as that which was symbolically represented upon his first entrance into the Order, but this time it will no longer be a symbol, but a realistic fact. He will find, I mean, that a drawn sword is always threatening in front of him, and that a cable-tow is still around his neck. Danger, indeed, awaits the candidate who would rush precipitately and in a state of moral unfitness into the deeper mysteries of his being, which are indeed "serious, solemn and awful"; but, on the other hand, for him who has once entered upon the path of light it is moral suicide to turn back.

And now, Brethren, to bring to an end this brief and imperfect survey of the deeper meaning and purposes of our Craft, I pray that what is now spoken may help to prove to some of you a further restoration to that light which is, at all times, the predominant wish of our hearts. It rests with ourselves whether Masonry remains for us what upon its outward and superficial side appears to be merely a series of symbolic rites, or whether we allow those symbols to pass into our lives and become realities therein. Whatever formalities we may have gone through in connection with our admission into the Order, we cannot be said to have been "regularly initiated" into Masonry so long as we regard the Craft as merely an incident of social life and treat its ceremonies as but rites of an archaic and perfunctory nature.

The Craft, as I have already suggested, was given out to the world, from more secret sources still, as a great experiment and means of grace, and as a great opportunity for those who cared to avail themselves of what is little known and little taught outside certain sanctuaries of concealment. It was intended to furnish forth an epitome or synopsis, in dramatic form, of the spiritual regeneration of man; and to throw out hints and suggestions that might lead those capable of discerning its deeper purpose and symbolism into of still deeper initiations than the merely superficial ones enacted in our Lodges. For, as on the external side of the Order we may be called to occupy positions of honour and office in the Provincial Grand Lodge, or may enter other Masonic grades outside the Craft, so also upon its internal side there are eminences to which we may be called that, whilst offering us no social distinction and no visible advancement, are yet really the true prizes, the most valuable attainments, of Masonic desire.

To this goal all may attain who truly seek to do so and who prepare the way for themselves by appropriating the truths lying beneath the superficial allegory and the symbolic veils of the Craft teaching. And since there seems today a genuine and widespread desire on the part of many members of the Order to enter into a fuller understanding of what the Order itself conceals rather than reveals, I feel I should not be discharging my duties as a Master in the Craft did I not take advantage of that position to share with them some measure at least of what I have been able to glean for myself.

But, finally, I must ask you to remember that, in accordance with the general design of our system, every Master of a Lodge is but a symbol and a substitution, and that behind him, and behind all other the grand officers of the Masonic hierarchy, there stands the "Great White Head," the "Great Initiator" and Grand Master of all true Masons throughout the Universe, whether members of our Craft or not. To whom let us all bow in gratitude for the invaluable gift accorded to us in this our The Order; and to whose protection, and to whose Deeper enlightening guidance into its deeper mysteries, I recommend you all.


1. Strange Houses of Sleep by A. E. Waite.

The Meaning of Masonry

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

Share This