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From a Superficies to a Solid

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February 2012
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Henry Wilson Coil’s Comprehensive View of Freemasonry (1952) is a well-reasoned and historical account of the Craft.  The author is  cautious when interpreting the rituals of Masonry.  He notes that the many attempts have been made to decode the rituals and their symbols are mutually contradictory.  No single interpretation can lay claim to being the “right” one, except to the extent that it satisfies the individual Master Mason. Yet, Bro. Coil wrote a concise history of the development and adoption of the degrees and lectures in Britain, Europe, and America.  The details of this history are themselves a part of Masonic knowledge that no brother ought to neglect.

The historical development of the Craft must be taken into consideration when attempting to discover the “hidden mysteries of Masonry,” because our rituals and even the number of degrees confered in early lodges varied considerably.  Prior to the creation of the first Grand Lodge in England in the year 1717, we cannot doubt that the variety of practice was even more diverse than afterwared.  Yet, even after that date, the whole 18th Century is a tale of rival versions of the ritual, attempted improvements to the degrees, and no small amount of sheer confusion in the Temple.

A History of Masonic Rituals

If one wishes to find the true, original Masonic mysteries, one has to search for a starting point in history.  As with all such historical study, one is limited by the documentary evidence that exists.  With Masonry, the earliest documents are sketchy.  It would seem that Speculative Freemasonry took over the symbols and rituals of the operative stonemasons, then elaborating their symbolism.  Bro. Coil reiterates the earlier work of Knoop and Jones when he explains that Freemasonry was never a medieval guild (or gild), as such.  Indeed, it was conspicuously absent from the lists of city guilds.  Each burgh or town in the Middle Ages had its own guilds, the purpose of which was to enforce municipal laws regarding the practice of their various crafts.  The Free Masons were not included in such lists because their work migrated from job site to job site, and many of these were outside the jurisdiction of any town.  The building of castles and monasteries was a matter under direct royal, noble, or religious authority.  Lodges of operative stonemasons stayed in one place sometimes for centuries, as it took that long to build some of these great structures, especially the great Gothic cathedrals.

A Mason’s lodge therefore might be his home for the full extent of his life.  In the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation (and even after it for the most part) no man was anything but a Christian. It is possible that stonemasons honored the Christian God as not only God the Father, but also as the Grand Architect, thus expressing a view of the cosmos through architectural imagery. It is also quite possible that Masons took up the ideal of religious tolerance during the troubles between Protestant and Catholic in Britain, recognizing that within the Lodge it was skill and not religious beliefs that mattered and of foremost importance was the harmony of their brotherhood.

As Bro. Coil also notes, the one exception to the rule is the fellowship of Masons of London, who in 1376 were incorporated as a true city guild under the name of the “Company of ffree Masons.”  Nearly one hundred years later, in 1473 King Edward IV granted the guild its own coat of arms under the name “The Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons” and employing as its motto “The Lord is All Our Trust”  Old records indicate that sometime prior to 1620 some members of the guild were considered a distinct group called “The Accepcion” (or Acception, as we would spell it today).  These “accepted” masons seem to have constituted a particular lodge under the financial control of the Company and it is to this lodge in London that Elias Ashmole was summoned in 1682, as one of our first named example of a non-operative “mason” or accepted mason.  This terminology was carried on to the present day in the designation “Free and Accepted Masons.”

It appears, as Bro. Coil says, that the lodges in general were not subject to the regulation of the London Company and maintained their freedom, each working under the “paternalism” of its Master and his Warden.  The oldest lodge records preserved were in Scotland.  Aitchison’s Haven Lodge can be documented back to 1598.  Bro. Coil notes that after the heyday of Gothic architecture, the lodges seem to have become entirely social organizations, the men of the old operative lodges, wishing, understandably to preserve and continue their close-knit society of fellow workers and friends both for the fraternal bond and for mutual aid and assistance in times of trouble.

In England the oldest minutes preserved are those of Alnwick Lodge (1701) and York Lodge (1712).  As Bro. Coil writes: “For information as to the existence and character of English lodges in the 17th century, we are forced to rely solely on extraneous references of which there are half a dozen.  These all come from men of superior attainments, that is ‘gentlemen,’ and none from those following the stonemasons’ trade.  The first of these was Elias Ashmole…” (58)  Ashmole was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a dabbler in all sorts of knowledge, ancient and modern.  It is said, but not proven, that he was interested in Rosicrucianism, but Bro. Coil cautions that this is insufficient evidence to claim that Freemasons generally derived from Rosicrucians, as some say, or that Ashmole brought Rosicrucianism into the Craft.  It is only possible, unsupported speculation.  Yet, even today, writers continue to assert this connection, along with the even more ancient connection to the Knights Templar.

The assertion of ancient roots came from the very beginning of Freemasons’ lodges.  According to Coil, the idea that Ashmole was a great influence on the Craft in the 17th century is not supported by any evidence, and that tiny bits of evidence we can glean from his diary.  Ashmole notes on March 10, 1682 that he was summoned to appear at a Lodge to be held the next day at “Mason’s Hall” London.  He himself also remarks that it was 35 years since he had been accepted into the Lodge at Warrington in Lancashire.  His diary evidently does not record any other Masonic activity.  To argue that the lack of entries is due to his keeping secret the meetings of his lodge, is to argue from negative evidence.  However, it is pleasant to think of the great man as an active creator of modern Freemasonry.

The development of the Craft in the period following 1717 is clearer.  From the outset, the Craft was divided.  The newly formed Grand Lodge was denouced as well as imitated.  It attempted to extend its jurisdiction over all England prompting the independent lodge at York to hail itself in 1725 as the “Grand Lodge of All England.”  Whether this was an attempt to rival the London Grand Lodge or merely ridicule of their pretentions remains an open question.  In addition to rival Grand Lodges, most particularly in Scotland and Ireland, there were other groups “more or less Masonic” that imitated Freemasonry.  Among those we read of in occational newspaper comments are the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Apolloni; the Apollonian Masons, which may be an abbreviation of the first; the Antediluvian Masons; Real Masons; Honorary Masons; Modern Masons; and Scald Miserable Masons (Coil 78).

It may be worth noting, for the benefit of the American reader, that in this period Great Britain (consisting of England and Wales) was not yet completely united into the United Kingdom.  Scotland and Ireland insisted on their independence even though they had been militarily conquered by the English.   They still do.  This is the reason that the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland were two powerful rivals of the Grand Lodge of England.  Each of these Grand Lodges chartered (warranted) lodges within and outside their respective countries.  In America this was especially the case.  Bro. Coil asserts that the first lodge warranted in a foreign country, for which we have records is a lodge at Madrid, Spain (1728), followed by one in Bengal, India in 1730.  Within the next thirty-three years, Freemasonry had spread to nearly every country in the Northern Hemisphere, from Russia to Pennsylvania.


The Three Degrees of Masonry

With this history in mind, we may turn to the actual rituals.  My current research interest is not in the history as such, but in the historical development of the Masonic degrees.  The evidence for the three degrees is complex.  Various writers have used different sets of evidence to make their cases.  Did the Grand Lodge of England begin with two degrees, or one, or three?  Ashmole, in the previous century only alludes to one initiation, the Acception.  Yet, we know that the operative lodges observed the three ranks observed by other medieval guilds – namely, that of Apprentice, Fellow or Journeyman, and Master.  A Fellow of the Craft was apparently the highest rank, fully capable of independent work and contracting in a lodge, and it may be that the “Masters” were distinctly those Fellowcraftsmen who took on indentured apprentices to teach them the Craft. Or it may be that the Masters were Masters of Lodges.  The use of rituals among the operatives  that were connected with these ranks is not attested but inferred from the later rituals once they emerge into print in the Speculative Craft.

The Constitutions of 1723 make it clear that the Fellow Craft was the highest rank, “being qualified to become Master of a lodge or even Grand Master” (Coil 94). The evolution of the third degree appears to have occurred sometime between 1725 and 1738.  In 1725 a Master’s Degree is mentioned in the minutes of the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Apolloni (The Apollonian Society of Lovers of Music and Architecture).  This was a society confining its membership to Freemasons but was not a lodge as such.  In 1738 Dr. Anderson amended the Constitutions, changing many instances of “Fellow Craft” to “Master Mason.”  From this evidence it can be inferred that by this time the third degree had become accepted generally.  Some Masons maintained disdain for the new degree since it confered a title that hitherto had required years of service to a lodge as its Master.

Bro. Coil points out that the Master’s Degree during the first half the the 18th century was a “side degree.”  He says, “Its uncertain status, so prolonged, undoubtedly furnished an incentive and some justification for the fabrication of other side or higher degrees which broke out about 1738-1740.  Among these side degrees was the Royal Arch Degree, which we find reportedly used at York for some years prior to 1744.  That degree and the Royal Order of Scotland are, says Coil, possibly the same class of degrees as those many others that emerged in France at this period.  These were generally termed “Hauts Grades” or High Degrees.

The tendency of Scotland to ally itself with France whenever the latter country was at war with England may explain why “Eccosais” degrees were so called.  In addition to the political link and the wish to distinguish the high degrees from English Masonry, there was also the general love-affair with Scotland as celebrated by Romantic poets.  Scotland and the ancient order of Druids became the object of poetic speculation in the latter half of the 18th century.  Two notable events can illustrate this interest.  The first is the 1761 publication of James Macpherson’s epic poems about the mythical hero Fingal, which were called the “Ossian poems” because Macpherson presented them as if they had been written by that other mythical Gaelic poet and traveler to the Fairy Realm.  These poems became all the rage across Europe and Scotland was catipulted into a place of ancient mysteries and lore.

The Romantic Scotland of Macpherson  also fed the desire of antiquaries to discover an antediluvian religion, the pure religion of the God of Adam, as distinct from the one passed down through Jewish tradition.  That there was a certain anti-Semitism in this desire cannot be questioned, but there was a growing anti-clerical sentiment at work among those who saw the Church as a corrupt institution that wished to keep men in ignorance and control entirely what people held to be “Truth.”  For the Romantic, and the Revolutionary in France, Scotland was a touchstone for the preservation of the pure ancient religion, untainted by popes and patriarchs, and Jews.  The Druids became a symbol of this conjectural Adamic religion.

Which brings me to the second event to consider: the posthumous publication in 1810 of Thomas Paine’s short work, “The Origins of Freemasonry.”  Paine’s low opinion of established Christian churches and for the Jews is apparent, but what is more to our point is that he attributes the origins of Freemasonry not to the Temple of Solomon and the Jewish race, but to the Tyrian Phoenicians and the Druids, who spread the ancient mysteries of Egypt into England.  While residing in Paris, Paine was close to Nicolas de Bonneville and Charles François Dupuis, “whose writings are replete with masonic speculations.” (see: Secular Web)  The Romantics positive view of the ancient Celtic Bards and Druids as wise sages was mixed up with Freemasonry in several ways.  Paine himself cites an Irish lodge called Druid’s Lodge.  The antiquarians who first studied the stone circles and other remains of prehistoric peoples in Britain attributed them to Druids and thus to the remarkable stone builders whose skill was evidence in Stonehenge.  By the 19th century, some Masons had started to call themselves “Druids” as a nod to Welsh nationalism and the indigenous wisdom tradition of the British Isles.  Scotsmen such as Macpherson and Robert Burns, who was himself a Mason, hinted that the ancient bards possessed that universal original system of beliefs decended from Adam through Noah.  It may be seen by these examples why the French may have named their High Degrees “Scottish,” an appelation conjuring ideas of great antiquity predating the English.  Those “Scottish” degrees were to become the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.

All of which I raise mainly to explain the cultural and political motivations which created and proliferated the side degrees that were the foundation the the Scottish Rite.  Coil describes how these degrees were offered for sale by itinerant lecturers in post-revolutionary America.  George Washington was raised a Master Mason in 1753, demonstrating that the Master’s Degree was by that time in general use.  Fredericksburg Lodge in Virginia, where Washington was raised, had been chartered by the Grand Lodge of Scotland.  It also offered the Royal Arch degree.


Creating the Modern Ritual Degrees

We may still wonder what the degrees were actually like in 1753 or in 1818, for that matter.  A younger British contemporary of Washington was William Preston, made a Mason in 1762 at age twenty, the same age at which Washington joined the Craft.  Bro. Coil in his Comprehensive View suggests that the degrees of Masonry were performed in very different forms in different places.  It was Preston who tried to “embellish and unify the rituals and to fix them in permanent form,” with the thought that they should be delivered without variation.  He presented a system of lectures degree lectures in 1774 at the Mitre Tavern, which were later published as Illustrations of Masonry.  It took some decades and was hampered no doubt by the chaotic conditions during the American Revolution, but the Prestonian work was taken up in North America sometime before 1797 by Thomas Smith Webb.  Webb was among the Masonic lecturers who traveled over the new States visiting lodges  to teach them the work.  Webb’s Freemason’s Monitor (1797) was the published version of his abbreviated and rearranged version of Preston’s work.

There are variations of the ritual from among the State jurisditions of the American Grand Lodges.  In England, even though there was by 1813 a United Grand Lodge of England, there still persisted eight forms of degree work:  Emulation, Stability, Oxford, West End, Logic, Bristol, Universal, and North London (Coil 106).  Therefore, Masons cannot think of their degrees as set in stone, or indeed as more ancient than the late 18th century in their present form.  Some elements are older, but the main impetus for the degrees and lectures written as they are now came from Preston, who studied the variants and re-wrote them in the 1770s into a coherent system in well-crafted language.  Preston presented his work to the Grand Lodge of England (the premier lodge, not the “Antients”) just before the outbreak of the American Revolution.

When George Washington became a Freemason in the middle of that century the Craft existed as

a complex aggregate of ceremonies, themes, and doctrine, and its government was beginning to be dissipated among several widely separted, independent, authorities.  It did not mean the same thing on the continent as it did in the British Isles, and the Grand Lodge of England, never a strong administrator, was losing contnrol and, in many instances, influence with lodges abroad” (Coil 112).

Washington’s own lodge at Fredericksburg, Virginia had been chartered as an “Antients” lodge by the rival Grand Lodge.  This rival to the premier Grand Lodge in London, we now believe, came about when a group of Irishmen arrived in the old city  of York in the north of England. There they established themselves as a Grand Lodge promoting the Irish work.  This piece of Masonic invasion is a curiosity of the history of the Craft and one may wonder if it was a little payback from the Irish and the Grand Lodge of Ireland.  Ireland had long been a conquered nation, bullied and despised by the English.  Englishmen in many cases bore such prejudiced ideas about the Irish that they were considered as barbarians on the same order, perhaps, as the people of more recent colonial conquest such as the people of India.  For some, Americans were little better.

In any case, it is probably the Scottish and Irish colonists of Virginia that made the rival grand lodges so prominent.  However, this situation was not by any means unusual.  At the time, the whole idea of grand lodges and their authority was still new – a thing established within living memory – and there was nothing like the system of territorial jurisdictions we enjoy today in the United States.  The result was that Preston’s revisions of the work offered a much-needed attempt to establish a unified and universal Masonic ritual. The idea was eagerly taken up in America by Thomas Smith Webb, a young Mason who, in 1797, published The Freemason’s Monitor, or Illustrations of Masonry.

This monitor became very influential over American Masonry, which was what we now call the York Rite, partly because of the strong influence of the Antients version of ritual in North America.  Webb was only a small boy when Preston published his own Illustrations of Masonry.  It is worth noting that both of these men entered the Craft at age 21, as Washington did, and both were printers.  If we may take Preston and Webb as examples, the young Masons of that day were notably active in the reformation of the Craft and were motivated to improve it and to restore it to an imagined dignity that had been lost.

It is instructive for us today to read that in the 1770s William Preston saw Masonry as having fallen from its higher purposes through the admission of men who were not “duly and truly prepared” to take on serious spiritual self-improvement.  He complained that Masons had urged their friends to join and established a body of Masons who were only interested in the festive board and the morality of the Craft in the form of common platitudes. His desire to restore the dignity and beauty of the rituals has much of the same flavor as the Observance movement today which offers much the same complaints about the dedication of the members of the Order. The desire to reform Masonry to be more dignified and serious and for its members to be more deeply dedicated to applying those lectures and rituals has been a perennial desire from nearly the beginning of the speculative Craft.


Too Many Masons?

There may have been no Golden Age of Masonry at all.  Or it may be that Masonry prior to the founding of the first grand lodge, before it became popular socially, had been taken more seriously.  The ritual secrecy certainly would suggest that Masons began by taking the work of the lodge as something for which they would risk their lives.  By the Age of Enlightenment, the fear of persecution by the Church was largely lifted, even though some Church leaders continued to denounce and condemn the Order.  Masons continued to be criticized and even villified by some people, but for the most part men joining the Craft in this period were not risking their lives to do so.  On the contrary, in England and her colonies the fraternity was becoming so popular that Masons such as Preston felt that too many candidates for the degrees were being admitted only because they were friends of members.

The upshot of this history lesson is that what we are doing today, in attempting to reform Masonry by pointing out what it actually tells us to do, has been done before.  In a different way, it may be that the creation of the Royal Arch, Cryptic Degrees, Templars, and Scottish Rite were also attempts to make Masonry more serious.  At least for some Masons, the reaction to the dilluted respect for the Craft degrees was to add more degrees, to make it increasingly harder to progress to the “top” or the “end” of Masonry.  Grade inflation.

Unfortunately, that approach was predicated on the idea that Masonic “work” consisted mostly in going through ceremonies of initiation.  The initiation was neither earned by any sort of spiritual or moral progress within the previous degree, nor did it obligate the initiate to any actual new work.  The high degrees became nothing more than a way for Masons to compete with their brothers for laurels and fancy titles.  Titles, moreover, that were not earned so much as simply purchased or given to famous people as an honor.  In America this effect took on a new dimension.  The young United States of America had banned all knighoods, titles of nobility, and such honors as had formed the European aristocracy.  Masonic knighthoods filled a desire to keep those things and even the white lambskin apron may have been seen as simply another of this sort of honor – even a hereditary honor as the sons of Masons joined the fraternity.  The the first degree ritual says that the white lambskin apron is a higher honor than any knighthood or chivalric order given by “king, prince, or potentate.”  For American ears, this could be read in just the opposite way it was intended, to mean that the badge of a Mason was an honor like those knighthoods, a whole new aristocracy no more actually based upon merit than the old one.

So, we find ourselves today.  A man may be made a Mason because his friends believe him to be a good man with a desire to improve himself.  Alternatively, they may simply believe him to be clubbable and decent enough to be worthy of joining an elite society of men who congratulate each other on their virtues.  Neither motive is bad, but they are to some extent mutually exclusive.  The serioius supplicant seeking true enlightenment and wishing to be instructed in a system of self-actualization, one who is actually seeking the Mysteries, will be sadly disappointed at a lodge that is full of brothers who, however jolly, do not understand the Work beyond its mere verbatim repetition.

I have witnessed a degree so full of errors and sloppiness that I was embarassed for the candidate.  The brethren were not on their best form with the exception of the Worshipful Master and the Past Master who delivered the long Sr. Deacon’s lecture.  The Master made a few mistakes yet carried them off with dignity, except for one flub that caused him to laugh nervously as he corrected himself.  Such a tiny thing as a nervous laugh or a “sorry” preceding a correction may seem forgivable, but it nevertheless shatters the seriousness and dignity of the ceremony – especially for the candidtate.

We become so used to the performance of these ceremonies that we are only concerned with whether the actors get their lines right.  It is a focus upon the surface of the ritual – the words and actions – rather than maintaining the necessary calm and serious focus upon the initiation itself.  What I mean by that is the emotional engagement with the ritual that causes transformation in the soul of the candidate.  Compare it to a play in the theater.  If the actors flubbed their lines and apologized to the audience, the spell of the drama would be broken.  It is one of the first rules of acting that you must carry on as if nothing had happened – stay in character.

Even more disappointing than the flubbed lines, are the interjections from the sidelines at every mistake.  No one should ever, ever, ever interrupt the a ritual with corrections, no matter how serious may be the error, unless the actor speaking looks to them for a prompt.  In such cases prompts must be given in a low voice only by one person, and the actor continue as if nothing had happened.  To have two or three past masters correcting the actors in the ritual of initiation is not only disruptive but disrespectful.  Such interjections are disrespectful to the candidate and also to the Craft itself.  For the Craft is more than a lot of words.  The Craft is a profound spiritual awakening for the candidate and every brother present must be focussed on the candidate’s needs.  That is the whole purpose of the ritual – the awakening of the candidate spiritually and his dedication to a serious commitment to his own soul-work.

Which brings me to another observation, a conundrum for me and for other brothers no doubt.  We have so much respect for past masters and those who have preceded us in Masonry that we are afraid to correct them for their behavior.  How does a Mason of five years tell a Mason of twenty years that he is making an egregious mistake.  That politeness and perhaps fear of the past masters must somehow be overcome if we are ever to reform the Craft.

Historically, what has happened is that the Craft degrees have come to be treated as nothing more than words without understanding the psychology of ritual and its power to change a person’s life.  Because of this, they are not satisfactory to new brothers.  In each cycle of initiations (of which there are far too many), the whole process is treated mechanically.  We are nothing but a “degree mill” and it is hardly surprising that 90% of our members choose to never attend their blue lodge again.

Were it not for the requirement that one be in good standing in one’s Craft Lodge to maintain membership in the Scottish Rite, the Templars, and the Shrine, I doubt very much if that 90% would continue paying their dues.  Only those few brothers who derive some pleasure from the perpetuation of the rituals, bother to continue as active lodge members.  Yet, the same attrition occurs in the “higher” degrees also and for much the same reasons.  Men whose souls are not fed by an organization, will drop out.  Even if they maintain a polite respect for the institution and continue paying their dues, they see no reason to come to lodge.

The result is that the only forces left to motivate a Mason to continue in the Craft at all is the love of the friends they have made or the love of perpetuating rituals from generation to generation for their own sake.  This leaves the active membership of Freemasonry in the hands of a curious group of brothers who enjoy camraderie and getting the words right, thus passing on the rituals intact through the centuries.  The camraderie is all well and good, as is the giving money to charity that has come to preoccupy Masons.

No doubt writing a check to a charity has some small effect on one’s soul.  But the initiations and the work of the three degrees is forgotten.  There is a word for this kind of behavior: superstition.  Ritual words and actions are practiced because one believes they have some magical efficacy in themselves, but the real purpose of the rituals and the concentration of thoughts and emotions that is required to actually make them effective is forgotten.  So also seems to be the simple comprehension of instructions to act.  Worse still, lost is the ability to teach new brothers in the Craft.

We as speculative Masons do not teach the art of building in stone, but that absence of teaching stonemasonry seems to have extended also to teaching speculative Masonry.  It is as if Masons believe that merely listening to the rituals of initiation, repeating words and actions in a ritualistic manner, is all the teaching that is required.  Lectures have been memorized but those lectures are couched in symbolic language.  When we hear, for example, in one of the lectures why the candidate is dressed in curious clothes, part of the explanation says that the reason for being “neither barefoot nor shod” (i.e., one shoe off, the other bare) is an allusion to “an ancient Israelitish custom” in which a man would pluck off one of his shoes and give it to another as a symbol of the pledge of fidelity he made.  The sense is that when borrowing money from another, the single shoe was given as collateral, to be returned when the debt was paid.

Quaint custom.  I bet there is more to the symbolism even in the original example, but I am certain there is more to the symbolism in Masonry.  For in the second degree the candidate is again prepared with one shoe on and one off, but it is the other shoe – the right instead of the left.  How does the Biblical story explain this fact?  No, the initial explanation offered to the candidate merely gives a superficial meaning.  The candidate himself is expected to search for its deep meaning, and to be aided in that search by the Masters.  Master’s teach apprentices – not in one single lesson, but every day, helping them to improve their practice of the craft.  A lecture that gives superficial answers and is then followed by no further instruction, is a blind.  The apprentice who accepts the superficial answer and looks no further is still in darkness.

The shoe episode hints that Masonic shoelessness indicates obligation. The obligation which the apprentice takes to observe the craft and keep is sacred.  He does, literally get his shoe back when he has taken his entered apprentice obligation at the altar of Masonry.  But that seems a bit silly if that is all it was for.  No, we must look deeper. Consider that “neither barefoot nor shod” is part of a whole costume that also includes “neither naked nor clad.”  The initiatic clothing and its arrangement is symbolic, not silly.  If done aright, the candidate should have his left arm and breast exposed by having his left arm pulled out of his shirtsleeve.  His left knee is exposed by having that trouser leg either rolled up or removed below the knee.  The nakedness of his hands is also emphasized, and finally there is a rope around his neck.  The last of these symbols can only mean that he has been prepared to die, to be hanged, like a criminal.  It alludes to death symbolically.  He is about to die to his old life and be reborn to a new life as a Mason.

Now if Masonry is only about writing checks to charity and attending pancake breakfast fundraisers, it seems silly to take this “rebirth” so dramatically. The true meaning of what it is to be a Mason has been lost or ignored.  It is, after all, right there is the instructions of the ritual and lectures, so “ignored” seems the more appropriate word.  The rope or “cable tow” as it is called is sometimes likened to the rope used by stonemasons to raise and lower the stones into place, which would suggest that the candidate is symbolically a stone.  Which we are told elsewhere in the ritual.  He is the rough ashlar, unshaped and possibly unworthy.  He must have is rough corners knocked off by the craftsman’s gavel, and be tested for his own structural integrity before he can be passed on to the next stage in building the symbolic temple.  The Masters must judge his integrity. Ultimately the perfection of the “perfect ashlar” means that he has been “fitted for the Builder’s use.”  The Builder is God and the Temple, the spiritual unity and universality of mankind.  But the Builder is also the apprentice himself once he moves up to become a Fellowcraftsman and a Master.

So much for the rope.  What of the half and half manner of dress.  It is symbolic of his being only partially prepared.  He is half-ready to receive instruction.  He is in a place that is neither this nor that, here nor there, on a threshhold of transformation that is symbolized by being half dressed.  In the third degree he is even more undressed, which makes me believe that his clothing is that which conceals the true man.  He is in a state of undress.  In the old days, he would be in his own shirt and drawers, but that state was then a state of unusual intimacy.  No man would appear before his friends in such a state of undress.  Even common working men would wear more than a shirt in the 18th century.  To be so ill-clothed suggested more that status of a slave, or a man extremely destitute.  And tht is the symbolism of it.  Destitute, but at the same time closer to the true inner man, closer to the innocent nakedness of Adam in Eden.  Nakedness, even of hands and knees, symbolizes that one is vulnerable, but also that one is in direct contact with whatever one is doing.  The sense of touch is invoked – a sense that will be discussed more when the apprentice attains the second degree of Masonry.

The emphasis on memorizing the languge of Masonic ritual seems to have had the unintended affect of focusing the attention of the brothers on the superficial aspects of Masonry and not on the depths.  We are taught in the second degree initiation that in geometry a superficies is a figure of two dimensions and that a figure of three dimensions (the mystic number three) is a solid.  We do well as Masons if we heed this seemingly simple fact of geometry and apply it to our spiritual work. If we are only superficial in the recitation and repetition of our liturgies and never deepen our experience to the depths of the soul, we have failed to become solid Masons and the Temple which we are ordered to build is left as nothing more than a flat floorplan.  Masonry is not merely Geometry; it is applied Geometry.  To build we must build in three dimensions and so comprehend the depth of meaning of each and every symbol within our rites.  Our rites are not “worship” as in church; they are instructions meant to be followed.  They are the tools and skills of the speculative Craft.



Works Cited

Coil, Henry Wilson.  A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry. Macoy, 1973 (Originally 1952).

Secular Web editor’s note to Paine’s “Origin of Freemasonry”  extracted postumously from the drafts of the third part of The Age of Reason. First published in 1810 redacted to supress anti-Christian sentiments.  Restored version published in 1818.  Accessed 2/6/2012.

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