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To Always Hele and Ever Conceal

There are at a few points in our Minnesota Masonic ritual where I cock and eyebrow and think, “That has to be a mistake.”  There is so much archaic language and usage in Masonic ritual that one can easily forgive the 21st century brother from not understanding every word.  Fortunately, the authors of our ritual often use two words together than seem to have almost the same meaning.  This repetition gives emphasis and cadence to some of the most important parts of the ritual, especially the obligations of each degree.  I say they have almost the same meaning.  Words such as “violate” and “transgress” paired together draw attention to the likelihood that they were not intended simply as synonyms.  In fact, presented separately, as I have just done, they would not necessarily be thought of as synonyms.  The word “violate” is still in common usage.  One violates the law for example.  Lawyers, like Masons, have preserved many usages that might otherwise have fallen out of favor; for when not dealing with lawyers, we are inclined to just say “he broke the law.’ 

This is a fine example of how English retains a Latin-based word and a Anglo-Saxon-based word which are about synonymous but, of course, have different etymologies; that is, different histories of usage and meaning and different roots.  In the case above “violate” is from a Latin root, while “break” is from an Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) root.  Old English belongs to the family of Germanic languages, related to German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.  Our Latinate words in modern English entered the vocabulary when the French invaded Britain and took over after the Norman Conquest in 1066.  French is in the family of Romance languages, which means they came from Rome, or from Latin.  French, Spanish, Italian are the principal languages that descended from provincial Latin and share certain characteristics.  Because French was the court language among the Norman conquerors and English remained the language of the conquered people, what we call English today is full of French words.  Because in the Middle Ages, Latin was the official language of the Church and of international diplomatic and scholarly discourse, we also have many words derived more directly from Latin.

Very well then, but in the above example of “violate and transgress” the pair is actually made of two Latinate words.  There are subtle differences of meaning, however.  “Violate” means “break” essentially, but it has been used quite widely in English as a euphemism for rape — e.g., “violating a woman’s chastity.”  The word “transgress” on the other hand means something more like “to cross over”  The prefix “trans-” means between, as in for example “transport.”  The “gress” part of the word derives from the same root as “egress” and even “aggression” meaning in its Latin roots, to attack.  “Aggression” comes from Latin aggredi and “transgress” comes from transgredi, meaning to step across.  The shared root in Latin is gred, meaning step.  We use the image “to step across the line” for someone who has broken a rule or gone too far past the limit of social mores.

So, “violate and transgress” refer to two different actions.  The first to “breaking” one’s promise, and the second to “crossing over the line” which in Masonry alludes to the circle.  The circle is drawn by the compasses, one of the most important symbolic tools of Speculative Masonry.  A Freemason is to control himself, keep his actions (behavior) “within due bounds.”  That is, the Mason stands at the center of the circle and draws a line of limitation around himself, which corresponds to the moral code of his culture.  Beyond this line he will not suffer himself to go.

Hele and Conceal

A more problematic pair is formed by these two words, “hele” and “conceal.”  The first has disappeared from English completely and so it is commonly misconstrued as a funny medieval spelling for “hail” as in greeting.  Good guess, but not right.  There are two clues to the meaning and pronunciation of this word. First is that if it were pronounced with the usual English rules it would rhyme with “heal” which also neatly rhymes with its mate “conceal.”  Hele is related to “heal” in as much as it has been used to refer to good health.  in this sense it is probably closely related to “hale” as in “hale and hardy.”  From Chaucer (who wrote in Middle English) we have: “In joy and perfyt hele” meaning perfect health.

“Hele” has the following cousins and ancestors: Anglo-Saxon helan, from Danish helen, German hehlen, all of which might actually have entered the Germanic language group from Latin celere, which is the end part of the word “conceal.”  The prefix “con” in Latin means something like “jointly with” — a conspiracy, for instance, from Latin spiro, breath, so “to breath together.”  So, there is an element of togetherness in “conceal.”  That is, “to hide something together.”  The Germanic helen or hele, came to mean “to cover or roof over.”  Now think about it.  What are you shown to do when you are given the grip of a Mason?  You are not supposed to hold it out for everyone to see; you are supposed to close your left hand over your brother’s hand so that the grip is concealed and covered.  And that is what “hele” means in Masonic ritual: to cover.

When the words are said, they should rhyme: “to always hele and ever conceal” rhymes nicely and it is, of course, as you brother know, coupled with a third word: reveal in “and never reveal.”  That “reveal is the opposite of conceal is pretty obvious. The three words rhyme together and I need not remind you that three is the number of completeness in Masonry. It is a number that signifies integrity of the spirit, soul, and ego.  Wholeness relates us back to the root of “health” which means exactly that: wholeness.  The roofing definition of “hele” probably was meant to signify that the house was “complete” when roofed, as well as contained and protected from above.

So, we promise, to keep the secret signs of recognition and all other “secret mysteries of Masonry” covered and concealed from all non-Masons for it is the mark of belonging to the Craft.  If a stranger were to walk up and in shaking your hand give you a Masonic grip, the proper response would not be to return it, but to follow the dialogue in its presentation.  He should say to you “I hele” and you then respond “I conceal” and put you left hand over your and his right.  Then ask “what is that?”  To which he will give an appropriate answer depending on which grip he used.  Masons do not usually give the secret handshake when they just greet each other and shake hands.  That American custom of handshaking may have derived from Freemasonry, but unless in a situation where you need to secretly identify yourself as a Mason to a stranger, the grip should not be employed.

And that is your weekly lesson in philology, the poetry of ritual, and Masonic etiquette.




What it Means to be a Lodge Line Officer

I have heard a few of my Lodge Brothers say that traveling through the chairs of the lodge officers line is like an education in itself — a course in leadership and public speaking.  It’s an interesting observation and true in many cases.  However, that is not the main virtue of the journey through the officer’s line; nor is it the way Masons achieve More Light.  It is certainly one way, but obviously in large lodges not everyone will take their turn at being a line officers.  That is one argument for smaller lodges.  If one new brother was taken in each year, he could then be made Marshal or Jr. Steward (whichever office is considered the starting point of the line).  But lodges work to have more candidates per year than that.  With four, eight, twelve new brothers a year, it is not possible for all of them to become officers.

The result is that if “going through the chairs” is promoted as a necessary part of being a Mason, that attitude leaves most Masons out of luck.  In reality, though, a lodge may have to bring in twelve new brothers each year to find just one willing to serve as an officer.  So, the problem is double-edged:  One wants every brother to share in the leadership of the lodge and eventually become Master of the Lodge, but at the same time, not every new brother thinks he is capable or devoting the time and energy to it.  He may also think that he is not capable of memorizing so many lines and so much ritual work to do it creditably.  Brothers are given a mixed message — they are made to think that being an officer of the Lodge is an option (just as it is in most clubs) and at the same time they are told that going through the line is the only way to really experience all Masonry has to offer.

The Line is certainly an important experience for a Mason, and I would like to see new brothers taught that they will serve as officers and should just plan on it.  Whether they are elected wardens or Master is a different matter.  The three principal officers are elected on merit, after having had several years to show what they can do in the junior officer positions.  There are four junior officers — Junior and Senior Steward, Junior and Senior Deacon.  All play important roles in the ceremonies of initiation, passing, and raising for the three Masonic degrees.  If everyone in the line stays put and no one drops out, each brother gets four years as a junior officer to hone his memorization and ritual skills.  By the time he is Sr. Deacon, he is actually in charge of the ritual and floorwork of each degree, conducting the candidate.

One problem with the system is that, as with all of Masonry, there is little if any instruction in the officer’s roles and ritual work.  They are corrected and admonished by past masters if they get their lines or their blocking wrong, but this correction is often given during the communication itself — that is during the ritual.  One would not expect that in the midst of a church or temple service of any organized religion for the participants in the ritual to be openly and audibly corrected during the service.  Yet, in Masonic lodges it is practically constant.  This can only result from a combination of failings:

  1. The officer does not take his role seriously enough to memorize his lines and blocking.
  2. The Master does not take the ritual serious enough to instruct the junior officer in his lines and blocking and in the importance of what he is doing.
  3. The past masters of the lodge do not take the ritual serious enough to offer their help in rehearsing and preparing the junior officers so that mistakes are rare.  Worse still, they laugh when mistakes are made.

Why is Masonic ritual not taken seriously by Masons?  For with talking during ritual, lack of instruction, and sloppy performance, no one can claim that they do take it seriously.  True, there are lodges where the ritual is taken very seriously and performed very well, but they are the exceptions in my experience.  Taking pride in well-done ritual is a part of the team spirit needed to make it effective and serious, but so often the “audience” on the sidelines fails to understand its role in the drama.  They are not a theater audience.  They do not have the right to whisper or talk or shout out prompts.  Their role is to remain silent and attentive, to rise and sit, pray and participate where directed by the Master.  Otherwise, the sidelines must demonstrate their serious engagement in the ritual with their silence and decorum.  Even if the mistakes made are funny, no laughter should disrupt the ritual of the lodge.

Laughter is fun.  No question of that.  But when it is allowed during Masonic ritual it suggests that the Lodge as a whole is not taking their work really seriously.  The audience, not realizing that they are “in character” as watchers, drop out of character and introduce a lack of decorum that can completely break the spell of the work.  While the degree rituals are taken more seriously, the opening and closing of the lodge are often treated as if they were just perfunctory and mistakes made are treated as the source of mirth.  This comes not only from the audience but from the Master and his officers as well, laughing at their own mistakes.  I hate to be a damper on the fun, but Masonic rituals won’t work if they are performed in such a slipshod way.  For any ritual to be effective in a spiritual sense, it must be taken seriously and taken in an attitude of belief.

I wonder what answer my brothers would give if I asked, “Do you Believe in Masonry?”  The question is based on my own belief that rituals are meant to have an effect on the participants.  in the case of initiatory rituals, such as the Masonic degrees, there is a special need of seriousness and belief so that it will work on the candidate.  The candidate in any initiation is in a position of ignorance.  He cannot believe in what he is about to experience because he has never been exposed to it before.  In the first degree, the candidate might not have any expectations at all.  He might justifiably be afraid.  Is laughter appropriate in such a situation?  Not unless it is intended to be cruel.  Attention, focus, and participation are what a loving brother should bring.  Alas, too often the brothers of a lodge have not met the candidate at all, or too little, prior to his initiation as an Entered Apprentice, and so their attitude is not one of love.  In the theater, an actor does not usually know the people in the audience, and in Masonic ritual the candidate is really the audience.  The sideliners play an audience of brothers examining their new petitioner.  But they are not the audience.  I suspect too often sideliners — especially past masters — forget this fact.  They think the new officers are performing the ritual for them, so they can criticize or praise.  But they actually are not the real audience in this drama.  It is all being performed for the candidate.  For him it is all new.

The sideliners of the Lodge have a very important role, however.  Even if they only fill the seats it is important, because when the candidate is brought to light, he sees a room crowded with brothers who are prepared to adopt him into their family.  If, on the other hand, he sees a lot of empty chairs and just a few scattered brothers on the sidelines, he might be justifiably disappointed, especially if the lodge has hundreds of members.  Where are they all?  Don’t they care who is adopted into their family?  What sort of brotherly love is that?  A candidate may be excused for asking such questions of the empty lodgeroom chairs.

If the sideliners are important, the officers are also crucial.  They take the most active part and if they have not memorized their lines and blocking, the candidate will feel slighted.  Does this brother not care enough to have learned his part?  At the very least, the ritual is spoiled by mistakes, for it is written very intricately in language that needs to be conveyed precisely as written.  If a Master, speaking the obligation of the degree, skips a part, then the candidate has not been correctly obligated and in reality (if one believed in Masonry) one would consider the initiation irregular and void.  As the initiate in each degree is subsequently asked to memorize part of the degree to demonstrate his “proficiency,” having it given incorrectly in the first instance is confusing as well as sloppy.

From the standpoint of serious regard for Masonic ritual and its language, each officer must memorize his lines perfectly.  The attitude that “coming close” or “getting the gist” is good enough is wrong.  Just as wrong as it is in a theatrical production of Hamlet or Macbeth.  The playwright wrote the words and it is not the play if the actors just improvise carelessly.  Moreover, the matter is not merely a technical one.  Getting the words right shows respect for the ritual, but it also is necessary for the actors to understand what they are saying.  Respect for “the Word” is at the very center of Masonry, and this has to be understood on one level as a respect for language.  The “Word” is not a password.  It is the Word of a Master Mason, as when we say, “He gave me his word of honor.”  It is the embodiment and symbol of the Master Mason’s dependability, his truth.  A good man and true, we say.  Giving the Master’s Word is the true part.  We generally delight in the idea that men were once able to do business simply with a handshake and a promise.  It was a world before lawyers, when the laws of morality and right conduct were all that men needed to do the right thing and to trust one another.  This centrality of the concept of the Word, our Logos, the reasoning and reasonable part of our minds, is so important to Masonry that it should be reflected in every utterance.  If you, as an officer, get your lines wrong during ritual, you are without truth.  You have offered untrue words.


Further still, each line officer in a Lodge bears a symbolic import.  The three principal officers (the Master and two Wardens) are symbolic roles.  They act in the third degree as members of King Solomon’s court, but this is merely an extension of the more basic symbolism that is presented in the first degree.  The Master of the Lodge, the Sun, and the Moon are the three “lesser lights” represented by burning tapers.  But sun and moon also allude to the Wardens.  The Sr. Warden may be taken to represent the sun and daylight for his column is raised and he is in charge during the working hours of the day.  The Jr. Warden may be taken to represent the moon because he is in charge when the workers are at refreshment, which is to day, eating their midday meal, and after they have finished work in the evening. As the moon rules the night, so the Jr. Warden rules the hours of darkness and rest.  On the other hand, there is another way to look at the three lesser lights.  in astrological and alchemical symbolism the sun was the emblem of the Self, the conscious mind and center of the universe for each Man.  The Moon symbolized the soul and the unconscious, emotional parts of a Man.  From the sun derived his personality and outer form; from the moon his character and inner life. And the Master? The third part of the spiritual being of Man is often called Spirit. Distinguished from the soul, which takes its being from the imbodied Man, the spirit his that higher part of his being that goes beyond the body.

These three aspects — spirit, self , and soul  — correspond to the three great pillars said to support the Lodge: Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty.  if the Ego be associated with the conscious, active part of a Man, it may be associated with Strength.  That is, both strength of body and of character and mind.  Strength meaning Ability to perform particular actions.  This is the Sr. Warden.  He is “self” and he is consciousness, the Man working and acting in the cosmos.

The Moon is the soul, and is sometimes referred to metaphorically as the Heart.  The Jr. Warden is this unconscious part of a Man, his larger psyche that embraces not only consciousness but unconsciousness.  The latter in terms of sleep and repose, but also reverie, and Beauty.  For Beauty like Strength has several meanings in Masonry.  It is the beauty of harmony and proportion; it is a lack of excess, and a perfection of number and ratio.  It is the Golden Ratio and the Golden Rule.  The latter, is empathy, compassion, and these are qualities we associate with the silver light of the Moon.  Part of a Man’s unconscious psyche is actually his body.  Not in the sense of muscular strength or action, but in the sense of the autonomic nervous system and the Mind reflecting upon life as the Moon reflects the light of the Sun.

In the degrees of Freemasonry, the candidate enters as as an apprentice, symbolically in the realm of the Moon, yet mostly unconscious and without Ability.  When he becomes a Fellowcraft, he has acquired the skills of the Craft and falls under the realm of the Sun and the Sr. Warden.  But the truly great message of Freemasonry is that this is not all there is to life or Man.  He takes a third step and discovers that within his own nature is also the Master, that higher Self or Spirit that is connected to God.  The Spirit, represented by the Master, who rises and governs his lodge like the rising sun, is that part of a Man which underlies his whole being.  It is not his conscious mind but his super-conscious mind.  Freud gave this part of the mind the name Super-Ego because it is a voice within that one derives from one’s parents and from one’s understanding of the Divine.  It is a voice that regulates a man in all his actions according to conscience and ideals of goodness.  It is the Mastery of Self, sometimes called by mystics the mastery of the “lower self.”  For every man has this “lower self” which is fundamentally ruled by his bodily impulses and his animal nature.  That self produces violence, selfishness, and the survival instinct; it runs after food and sex and physical thrills and pleasures.  It is the “sinful” self from a moral point of view because it desires gluttony, lust, pride, wrath, avarice, and all the other sins.  It only wants to get its own way and sees nothing wrong with lies to get there.  Its love for others is self-love, a desire to possess others, to enslave them to one’s own will.

That “lower self” is what a candidate for Masonry is asked to leave outside the lodge.  When he discards his ordinary clothes and leaves behind “anything of a metallic nature,” he leaves behind that Earthbound ego of the animal-man.  He enters the lodge to be led toward higher understanding of his Heart, his Mind, and his Spirit.  He enters to improve himself in Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty.  Taht is, to grow in knowledge of what is right and harmonious and his own ability to take right action.  This world of right action is symbolized by the “house not made with hands.”  It is Solomon’s temple.  It is the New Jerusalem.  All of which are symbols for the perfection of wisdom, ability, and beauty.

Some Masons might like to say that the Master and the Wardens symbolize Mind, Body, and Spirit, so that the Master is Mind (seat of wisdom), the Sr. Warden is the body (seat of strength and action) and the Jr. Warden is Spirit, because it is the Spirit which is actually the Moon, the Heart, the seat of love.  For to appreciate beauty in art or nature, we must have love.  Animals do not appreciate beauty, so far as we can tell.  Nor do they distinguish what is beautiful from what is ugly, what is good from what is offensive.  In this reading of the officers, the “Lights” make Spirit the seat of that Knowledge of Good and Evil which was acquired through the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.  Eating of the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gives humans the ability to distinguish what is right from what is wrong, what is beautiful from what is ugly, harmony from discord.

Such a reading is also good.  It further illustrates that Masonic symbols do not need to be interpreted in one single way.  There is not a single right answer.  The symbols support the same message in multiple ways.  What is most important is how the wardens and the Master think about their roles during ritual.  They represent the three pillars and they represent the growth in understanding sought by Masons as they have the three degrees conferred upon them.  The Entered Apprentice must learn to circumscribe his actions, to control his passions; to act rationally and with empathy.  This is the sphere of the Moon.  The Fellowcraft builds upon the stability of a life lived without passions running away.  He grows in knowledge and reason in order to look from the vantage point of consciousness into his unconscious self.  The Master Mason builds upon the Fellowcraft’s accumulation of knowledge and ability (represented by the seven liberal arts) and adds to such abilities the wisdom to apply them rightly, according to the square of virtue.  A Master Mason, if the ritual has been done right, and if he has been taught well, should understand himself to be more than Mind and Heart, but also Spirit in the Divine sense, one with that Holy Spirit of Creation and Wise living.  He has died to his lower nature and been raised up to his Higher Self, a state of consciousness that incorporates awareness of all the lower aspects of his being, and so Masters them.  A state of consciousness that also becomes fully aware that he is not separated from Divinity, but an extension of it.  So long as his will is wise and in harmony with the Mind of the Cosmos, which is the Great Architect behind all Order, Truth, and Beauty.

From such a position of Divine awareness, the Master Mason sees that he is one with all people and so is a brother to everyone.  Even more than a brother, he is the Other, and so may give relief and brotherly love unstintingly from that infinite source to which all are connected.

The journey through the officers line re-enacts the journey of the three degrees of Masonry.  It plays out over seven years, the growing awareness of each part of the psyche as the three degrees are meant to play out the same revelation over three years (though today few lodges give it more than three months).  The officers line journey is not necessary to the learning of Masonry, but it certainly can help.  Yet, only if it is understood as a mirror and complement to the degrees.  The junior officers serve the senior officers.  The stewards serve the Jr. Warden (Beauty, the Moon).  The Deacons serve the Sr. Warden and the Master, respectively, and so is born out on their jewels, in which the Sr. Deacon carries the Sun from East to West with orders from the Master (the Mind or Higher Self), and the Jr. Deacon carries messages from West to South, bearing the light of the Moon.  Service as junior officers offers lessons in the nature of the three principal officers, and so, prepares the brother to be elected to those offices if he learns his lessons and demonstrates his ability.  In ritual, beauty is doing it right and smoothly, with harmony; strength is doing it with ability and power, projecting one’s energy into one’s lines and actions.  Wisdom, finally, is understanding the roles, words, and  movements of the ritual.

A serious lodge practicing serious Masonry will demand proof of learning and ablity from any brother before he is elected a warden or Master of the Lodge.  If this were always done, the past masters would all understand the ritual in this way, and would never think to whisper or prompt, but would make certain that every man knew his lines and part perfectly, for the sake of that real audience: the candidates.

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