I’ve been thinking about the Royal Arch degree and its several other “capitular” degrees (capitular being Latin for “chapter” which is what a RAM group is called instead of a “lodge”). Since I am still working on reading and writing about Craft Masonry and the Speculative Art, my involvement in the Royal Arch Chapter has been nil after taking the degrees. I’ve read up on it some, read the rituals, gone through them in a way that was not very well-performed. There is a lot of potential for good theater and dramatic ritual, but it is not often realized. I know there are well-done RAM degrees out there and for me, even a degree read to me can allow me to use my imagining to fill in the theater.
One reason I was not able to attend the chapter I joined was that my lodge has its officer’s meetings the same night. I know how to bi-locate, of course, but it is a bit confusing and tends to frighten people. So, the long and short is that I never got into the habit of attending and, over the years of doing research into the Craft, I came to be of the opinion that all the extraneous “dependent bodies” Masons have invented since the 18th century are predicated on the idea that three degrees is not enough. I think three degrees are exactly enough, if you actually understand them and apply them. What’s more, I know there are many brothers who agree. This is not intended as a put-down to dependent bodies. I know some fine brothers who are way into the York Rite. The Knights Templar of Masonry were once a really big deal and still are on the national level. And all these very interesting degrees are worthy of attention. It’s the premise I disagree with, the premise that says the Craft Lodge is just a doorway into higher degree Masonry.
I feel that the whole idea of “higher degree” Masonry is based on a misunderstanding of the mystery school and the structure of three degrees. There is a reason for three and only three. This error along with a misunderstanding of the meaning of “the Lost Word.” Masons have been searching for a long time for that Word from some external source, or speculating on what it ought to be in their own opinion. These degrees have now been handed down for many generations so that they are taken as sacrosanct when in fact they were written by chaps just like us today (only less well informed perhaps). The fact that so many Masons miss the whole Art of thinking symbolically and using symbols to transform themselves is troubling, but it has been the history of the Craft for centuries now. There have been Masons interested in other esoteric schools, such as Jewish Kabbalah and Hermeticism, and there is likely a connection. However, Masonry is not either of those things. It is a different approach that uses geometrical ideas and symbolic workman’s tools to accomplish the same goal as these far more difficult esoteric schools. Learning Kabbalah can blow your mind if you aren’t careful, and learning alchemy is mind-bogglingly difficult because its symbolism is so complex and bizarre.
Yet, Masonry is like Alchemy in this respect: it takes a physical and material activity and uses it spiritually through active imagination. Alchemy uses chemistry (mostly medieval chemistry) as a symbolic system for aspects of the spirit. It intersects with astrology, which uses the observation of the stars and planets symbolically. These ancient symbolic systems are designed for personal transformation, and that includes changing the world too, because one of the big “secrets” is that there is no separation between imagination and material reality and there is no separation between mortal human beings and the gods or immortal spirits. We already exist in Eternity. We just have to shift our consciousness, as the poet Blake observed and expressed in his own complicated symbolic system. It’s poetry. Practical poetry. Ritual has one purpose and that is to change one’s consciousness into a different state from one’s ordinary day-to-day existence. That mundane life comes with the convenient illusion that it is all there is. It’s a good survival belief. Mystics have a hard time holding down a regular job.
However, the true secret of all these esoteric schools is that the mysteries lie within us and we only need to knock on the doors of our imagination and they will be opened.
The Royal Arch degree is the one Mozart used as inspiration for The Magic Flute and the candidate’s ordeal of the elements. Yet, it also draws upon the Bible in ways that are rather different than the Craft degrees. It must have been written by men who thought there were not enough Bible stories in Masonry. It certainly thought that the story of the building of the temple of Solomon and its subsequent destruction and reconstruction were a necessary allegory to complete one’s thinking about one’s spiritual “temple.” Nothing wrong with that as such, unless it be that its pretty Judeo-Christian. If you aren’t of that persuasion and familiar with the Book of Kings and the Prophets, it is hard to imagine that the meaning of the allegory will be easy to grasp. I could be wrong, of course.
It reminds me of the York Mystery Plays. Every four years in York, the old medieval mystery plays are still put on. Each play told a Bible story and was put on by one of the guilds in the city. Each guild competed for the best performance and though there is no evidence to this effect, the story of King Solomon’s temple and its subsequent iterations would certainly have been an appropriate subject for the Stonemasons and their play. There is no direct evidence of Mystery plays being the inspiration for Masonic ritual drama, but the similarity is hard to miss. Especially in the York Rite. The same stories were put together for degrees in the Scottish Rite too, and thus the two dependent bodies have been rivals in American Masonry.
While resisting the idea that “taking more degrees” is what “doing Masonry” means, I am nevertheless intrigued by the history of these degrees (and there are many more than those in either York or Scottish Rite). The whole kit and kaboodle uses stories from the Bible that were once well known by everyone who was Christian or Jew, which was pretty much everyone until the last half of the 20th century. So, even for the Christian Mason of the 19th century, the enactment of a sort of Biblical drama of this sort, easily touched memories and understanding from Bible reading and sermons in church. The dramas are ritualized, adapted to some of the patterns seen in the Craft degrees. For example, lines are repeated three times in ways that are reminiscent of the three-fold repetitions used in a Craft lodge. However, in my opinion, the Royal Arch rituals take this to a ridiculous extreme so that the elegant symbolism of three degenerates into long-winded repetition of long passages. If you are a Mason, you will recall the long-winded Polonius-like speech of the First Craftsman reporting to King Solomon.
The writers of the Royal Arch degrees imitated this repetition as part of the way Masonry was supposedly taught — necessary because no one could ever read it. Until recently the rituals were closely guarded and the only way to experience it was to participate in it. The Scottish Rite degree scripts are even more closely kept. Such secrecy is not merely for its own sake; nor is it merely to prevent spoilers for candidates. The content of some of the degrees could easily be misconstrued (as anti-Masons have always done) and keeping them secret within the brotherhood was one way to avoid being attacked as “pagans.” The Scottish Rite includes material that is critical of priesthoods who are lazy and more concerned with luxury than spirit; it includes material from non-Judeo-Christian religions to encourage thought about the universality of fundamental principles.
None of this is intended to be theology. Nor is it supposed to be a re-interpretation of the Bible superior to what is done in the pulpits of the world. It is using the stories as allegories and parables to teach moral principles dramatically. That is one of the great appeals to the “higher degrees.” One of the motivations for creating them, one has to think, was the desire for more drama like that in the Master Mason degree. In an age before radio or television, amateur and professional theatrics were the main enjoyment of society. Consider how much time we spend today watching shows on TV or computer, or in movie theaters and then devote all that time to live theater instead. Operas and plays were the entertainment of the time, and for the Masons to realize that the same theatrical techniques could be used for moral dramas was brilliant. Making them private plays for members only was probably also a very good selling point for membership.
However, while not intended to be a substitute theology, in the case of the Royal Arch the rituals make it fairly clear that the creators of it felt there was too little Christianity in Masonry. The Craft degrees assumed the craftsman to be a member of the dominant religion, but in the 17th and 18th centuries Europe was still recovering from bloody religious wars between Catholic and Protestant factions. The English Civil War had been one such. So, the “religious” references in Craft Masonry are very light and are made non-sectarian for a reason. The creator of the Royal Arch degree and the various other degrees which attempted to dramatize more of the story of the Temple at Jerusalem, took on a very different focus.
Where the Craft Lodge degrees instruct a man to take control of himself and his life and work to do good and to be good, the Royal Arch degree focuses on having faith in God and to realize that He is the source of all good things. That idea is assumed in the Craft Lodge, but the emphasis is placed upon discovering the divine spark within oneself that can aid us in becoming better men, better fathers, husbands, sons, and workers. The basis of the Royal Arch degree is not individualistic. It expounds the theological idea that the individual must trust in God to raise him up. In fact, that message is already in the third degree, symbolically, but if one misses the symbolic purport of the Master of the Lodge, one could easily miss the Divine aspect of what is going on. It is not interpreted literally or openly for a reason: to require each Master Mason to figure it out and pay attention. If he cannot think symbolically, he cannot do the work of enlightenment. Whether this is the best way to teach is arguable, and that very argument seems to me to be the thing that generated the Royal Arch degree.
To site one example, without giving away the details of the ritual, the symbol of the point within the circle is re-interpreted. In the Craft Lodge it is given as a symbol of the individual at the center of his moral compass. The circle, drawn by the spiritual tool, the compasses, has ancient geometric symbolism. The same symbol was used for the Sun in astrology and for Gold in alchemy, each of which referred to the same deep inner force and fire of life and personality. Purified character, one might say, or the True Self that must be refined from the dross of our ordinary habits and roles. In the Royal Arch, the symbol is re-interpreted for the candidate explicitly. In stead of giving him the symbols to figure out under guidance from his elder brothers, the Arch gives him doctrine. One might say that the Craft degrees offer questions and clues, while the Arch offers answers, just like a religion does.
For a Christian who is a believer, there would be nothing wrong with making a Christian interpretation of Masonic ritual explicit. That, for the believer, is the reality to which Masonry must allude. Everything had to come back to the Bible, for the orthodox mind of the 17th and 18th centuries. Even in the 19th century, when the rise of sciences and geological theories about the age of the earth were undermining the belief that the Bible was infallible historical reportage, there was a reaction that clung even more tightly to simple faith and piety. Assailed suddenly by other ways of thinking about the past and about religion, many Christians of the 19th century did respond by clinging all the more tightly to what they had been raised to believe. Fundamentalism only became necessary then. Prior to that shift in knowledge and science, everyone was a fundamentalist, whether Catholic or Protestant. So, for the writers of the Royal Arch degree, such an interpretation must have seemed perfectly natural and obvious. The idea that the Lost Word was an actual word resonated with the Biblical story of how the disruption of the Jewish priesthood in Jerusalem during the Babylonian conquest, caused the name of God to be lost (or its proper pronunciation anyway). So, the difficult concept presented to Masons in the Craft degrees the task of seeking the meaning of “the Word” was transformed from a quest to simply a lesson when the whole thing gets explained in quasi-Biblical terms in the Royal Arch.
It was this aspect of the degree that caused Royal Arch Masons to think that your Masonic journey to light was not completed until you took the Arch degree. You did not having the answers to the questions, and for the dogmatic mindset, it was obviously necessary to give the student the answers. In church or in schools, in the 18th century the whole idea of education was that the teacher knew the answers to the questions and taught the students to recite them, usually through tedious repitition. Is it any wonder then, that the same attitudes and methods should seem necessary to some Masons? They might in fact have been the most intellectual and well-educated Masons of the time and so had this way of thinking about truth drummed into them thoroughly.
What is wrong with this point of view is that it is fundamentally authoritarian. A Royal Arch chapter uses the patriarchal authoritarian world as a given when its officers are titled King and High Priest and the world of the Bible offered up as the exemplary world of the past. The authoritarian standpoint supports priesthoods, ecclesiastical hierarchies, kings and the class system. Not perhaps wittingly, but the very symbols partake of such a worldview. And this is, to my mind, very much the opposite of the world view presented in the Craft Lodge. The Master is the leader of a lodge, but is first among equals. He is not a king or dictator. Each worthy man in a lodge can serve as Master in his turn. That is a very different (and indeed especially American and Revolutionary) idea. Masons meet on the level, without class or wealth distinctions, dressed alike as workmen ready to do symbolic work together — that is real symbolic work, the work of imagination and transformation.
It is very hard to get across what this kind of work is. The Old World may have taken symbols as a way to reality, but symbols were pretty well always interpreted in Christian terms because the premise that the Biblical reality was the only reality was taken as a given. When the modern age opened minds to other ways of thinking, symbols became something that were just fake. The term “symbolic work” in the context of our dominant culture today could be translated as “not-real work,” which comes out as not “work” at all in the scientific materialist sense. For the modern literalism, in which the materialism of science is assumed as the premise of reality (in place of the Bible), the same thing happens as in the Old World view. Symbols are only useful if they refer to mathematical or chemical realities, and symbol-systems that refer to spirit and soul are suspect. Only if “psychology” can be reduced to material science can such symbols work in the materialist view of reality. This is essentially the same failure of imagination as in the Biblical interpretation. That is, says the priest: symbols must be interpreted in terms of Biblical religion; and the scientific materialist says, symbols must be interpreted in relationship to a non-spiritual and non-poetic reality of mass and energy.
The very term “work” takes on the meaning of “moving a mass over a distance.” It is the actual work of the actual stonemasons. They moved the massive stones over distances, lifting and setting them. That, in the modern sense, was “real work.” But Masons aren’t asked to move mass. They are asked to fashion their minds and consciences as “living stones” to place perfectly into a structure called simply “that house not made with hands.” This “House” is not the literal Temple of Solomon. It is the figurative temple of the soul, mind, and actions of a man — his life, in other words. It is a “house” only metaphorically. It does not refer to “mansions in heaven” (except to the extent that those are also symbols of something spiritual). One’s Self is a Temple, as the Christian Master said.
While a lot of Christian or Jewish religious teaching and symbolism can certainly be applied to Masonic symbolism, and much of it does refer to the same spiritual and moral Universe, the questions and the clues of the three degrees of Masonry are given as such for a reason. Any attempt to create further “degrees” that offer “explanations” assumes that the student needs to be given the “correct” answer. I would argue just the reverse. The student needs to be raised to a level of consciousness at which he can interpret for himself in relation to his own beliefs and in openness to the beliefs of others. Masonry is anti-dogmatic and therefore cannot be interpreted in the symbol system of Christianity, Judaism, or even Kabbalah. Its similarities to those schools and to ancient mystery schools are incidental. Masonry’s symbols are based purely on geometry and its allegorical interpretation, not on any theological ideas (except that of Divine Unity, which is to say simply, God is like a circle. The Universe is like a circle. A man is like a point within a circle, but he is also like a circle.) A man, when he becomes a Symbolic Mason takes on the obligation to try his hardest to change himself from a dimensionless point into a line with direction, a superficies of two directions, and a solid with depth, as well as breadth and width.
Again, I will warn that this is my opinion and no official Masonic line. That said, I think that the symbolism of the Bible on the altar, opened, but with a square and compasses on top of it tells a central story. Namely, it admonishes us to read sacred texts and indeed any books or authorities through the tools of the square of virtue and the compasses that inscribe wholeness and place limits on our moral behavior. The Square is Earthly reason: virtue in the body. The Compasses are Celestial Reason: restraint within the due bounds of reason in our thoughts and passions as well as in our actions. We do move mass over distance, but they are the masses that are the parts of our soul and mind, the building blocks of reason and intelligence so dear to the Enlightenment era when Symbolic Masonry was evolved and formed. Geometry is the rule and guide, a set of ideas about number and space that is entirely neutral with regard to religion. The missing Word is not the name of God pronounced by priests and potentates. It is the Word of each Man, that is his truth, his honesty, his integrity, his spiritual life. This is what has been “Lost” in our culture and what each Master Mason seeks to find.
We travel away from Jerusalem in the East towards the West geographically speaking, but geometrically speaking, we travel from Jerusalem toward the East where our journey of self-discovery must begin with the Dawn, with enlightenment.