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SPIRITUALITY IN FREEMASONRY
What follows this evening may turn out to be a small act of worship. I am not a scholarly person. I have no great depths of learning and a relatively shallow fund of knowledge. I write as I feel. And you, the audience, may be scholarly and widely-read, or you may be interested in the subject at some other level. I do not know. So let me start by saying that I speak from personal experience and observation.
I was born the son of an Anglican Clergyman of high-church persuasion. My church-going habits from an early age were extreme, to say the least. It was no unusual occurrence for us as children to go to mass once a day, five or more days a week. My spiritual imprint, for want of a better word, was therefore deep and well-defined. Those who have experienced the panoply and majesty of an Anglo-Catholic Mass in all its splendour will know that a near trance-like state can be induced by the time it has come to its magnificent and dramatic end. But after High Mass on Sundays, it was my father’s custom, like many priests, to hurry to the back of the church to say a few words to the congregation as they left, and I have an abiding memory of him exchanging pleasantries with them, sometimes laughing and joking about this and that.
In my artless, childlike innocence, I found this disturbing, sensing that such flippant and trivial social behaviour interrupted the spiritual flow, the depth and richness of the spiritual experience to which I had, even as a small child, just been subjected. Did I say even as a small child? Perhaps I should say especially as a small child, since we are, as children, far better able to imbibe these things than we are as prejudiced or jaundiced adults.
Many years later, with my christian faith lying more or less in tatters, I was initiated into freemasonry in which, I had been led to believe, I could achieve some measure of spiritual fulfilment in a pantheistic way, within the bounds of a universal brotherhood but without the constraints of dogma and institutionalism. My initiation was conferred on me by my proposer who was Master of the lodge at the time, who was already a close friend, and it was a uniquely wonderful experience. At the end of the charge after initiation (a little boring, but not so boring as to mar the initiation itself), the deacon plonked me down in a seat next to a very well-meaning chap who introduced himself to me and I settled down. The next item on the summons was to approve the lodge accounts for the year, a contrast so brutal and banal, I nearly wept, and I was instantly reminded of the brutal contrast between the Sunday mass and the light banter at the church door afterwards.
As a freemason, I was quickly to discover how widespread was the flippancy and triviality with which the words of the ritual were treated. I was quickly to discover that freemasonry was treated by its members in ways that were far removed from the spiritual. True, there were great and good bonds of friendship in place, and I do not wish in any way to belittle these. I had ample evidence of a deep and real caring spirit that no other mutual benefit association could rival. But intermingled with it were other less worthy aspirations - the striving for higher rank, the political in-fighting, the banal sense of humour that sometimes surrounded speeches at the dinners, and the devotion to administrative matters which took precedence over the central truths; truth was sometimes nowhere to be seen.
I have persevered, through more than thirty years, because I have been able, almost unaided, to extract from freemasonry some elements which I have used for my own spiritual nourishment. Of the brethren who came into the lodge since my initiaton and who have ‘fallen off’, I could read in their faces the disillusionment of those who had given up for want of a spiritual content.
Yet, as I point out in my article Man, Know Thyself in the current issue of Freemasonry Today, our craft contains many elements of spirituality which we seem almost wilfully intent on ignoring. Actually I take the title of this article from the German Schröder second-degree ritual, which I would like to share with you. The Entered Apprentices, who are usually passed to the second degree in pairs in Schröder, emphasizing the importance of companionship, are admitted to the lodge and are treated to a monologue by the Master about the importance of proceeding with the building of their own inner temple, ending with the following words:
The entered apprentices are then turned to face the west where stands an object concealed by a cloth. The Deacon unveils the object which is revealed as a mirror over which are inscribed the words Mensch Erkenne Dich, Man Know Thyself. Self-knowledge is, they are then told in a little lecture, the beginning and the end of all human wisdom.
Paradoxically perhaps, German society, which we have come to regard as overly materialistic, recognizes (at least their freemasons do) the need to ‘penetrate the mystery of human nature’ to discover themselves. When we talk in FM about ‘the hidden mysteries of nature and science’ I would wager that most FM’s reading that would define nature in terms of flowers, trees, changes in the seasons, the structure of our small galaxy perhaps, and so on, not realizing that we attempt to plumb the depths of our own nature, of who I am, where I come from, the purpose of my existence.
If I may digress for a moment, I once knew a priest who often greeted you with the words ‘Where are you?’ (not, please note, ‘how are you?’). I asked him why, and he reminded me that in Genesis, God looked for Adam, hiding in the Garden of Eden, with the words ‘where are you?’. The interesting thing for me was that he asked ‘where are you?’ whereas most of us, reading the bible aloud, would have said ‘where are you?’. He might instead have said ‘who are you?’ Do we know our true nature? Do we sometimes need to hide our true nature, and why?
The ancient mysteries, on which I am convinced the true principles of freemasonry are founded, were a way of seeing the world in a quite different way from that of scientific materialism. For the ancients, the world in which we lived was composed of all the material elements of which we are aware with our senses, but contained in addition, and for them more importantly, non-material realms which were not accessible to ordinary perception. I may be forgiven for quoting W. Kirk MacNulty:-
And I might add, we all suspend our disbelief every time we read a novel, watch Midsummer Night’s Dream on the stage, or watch Star Trek on television.
How does modern English freemasonry stack up against the concept of a non-material domain? Well, Mr Pat Streams, alias Bro Leo Zanelli, has written an article recently in which he says:
Then again, a brother recently gave a talk in a lodge room in Gt. Queen Street, to which we were invited to bring our partners and wives. It was entitled Masonic Symbolism so he then talked about the organisation of Grand Lodge, the role of the officers in the lodge and the difference between the regalia of a grand officer and that of a provincial grand officer and that of an ordinary Non-Commissioned Officer. When at the end he was asked by one of the wives why we had a rough and a perfect ashlar in the lodge, and what was the symbolism of that, there were mutterings from the East that ‘we don’t really have time for all that’.
At my raising I was invited to ‘lift my eyes to that bright morning star, whose rising brings peace and salvation to the faithful and obedient of the human race’. I ask you to tell me, what more potently promising invitation could have been made? It is overwhelming, even without its christian overtones. Let me ask you another question; why is it that we very seldom hear the first degree tracing board lecture worked in regular lodges? Could it be that it is simply too rich in spirituality, is unsettling, that we are afraid of it? Some of the passages it contains may illustrate the point;
I believe we have strayed too far from this, the true eighteenth century principles of freemasonry and we have little or no chance of returning within the structure of our present organisation. We do seem sometimes to offer the outer form, but without the content. I gladly acknowledge that there are exceptions to this in England - I have visited lodges who understood the importance of self-knowledge, but they themselves would agree that they are exceptions. My own two craft lodges are full of wonderful chaps who do understand these things, but outside them the only horizon consistently offered to me was a horizon filled with the prospect of climbing a ladder of office without knowing what those offices meant, the horizon of a dark blue collar and a lot of gongs.
But let me give you this thought - people often join organizations because of the companionship it offers. It follows that freemasonry, for instance, will attract those who may be in need of companionship. Sometimes, the need for companionship reveals a sense of loneliness or a lack in their lives, and (I tread carefully here) this may be engendered by low self-esteem. They may be seeking approbation, love even. A need to be loved may be present because they do not properly know themselves, know their own self-worth, their own uniqueness as God’s special creation. Classical mysticism distinguished between the once-born and the twice-born; once born into the material world we only know ourselves as a material being in a material world, but if we have the good fortune to be twice-born we will know our own nature beyond the material, we will be spiritually awakened, we will know, esteem, and love ourselves, not in any narcisisstic or egotistical way, but know ourselves as a part of the whole, thereby enabling us to love others, and to love God, in ourselves. I do not believe it is fanciful to say that FM can enable us in that endeavour, indeed I believe that freemasonry is uniquely placed to deliver on such a promise. I will end with a quote from a letter I received from an acquaintance in Germany who had just returned from a visit to the Grand Temple in London, who wrote to me :
In my view, by accident or design, she had discovered herself, answered the question in the third degree, knew her true being, was at peace. I believe we all need to follow her example.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014