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COMPASSES ABOVE - THE SPIRITUAL ASPECT OF MASONRY
by Bro Jim Tresner, 33
As symbolized by the Square and Compasses, spirituality and spiritual growth are essential parts of our Masonic heritage and of our purpose as a Fraternity.
Some Masons seem to be becoming uncomfortable with our heritage. Perhaps this is because we have encountered so many religious extremists who obviously confound spirituality with religion and try to insist that Masonry is a cult. Or perhaps this uncertainty is caused by the cynicism and materialism of our age as these forces have begun to affect the Fraternity. It is not easy to concentrate on draining the Slough of Despond when the alligators of the crass are nipping at your ankles! Also, perhaps some Brothers feel that spirituality is hard to discuss or that man’s spiritual nature is somehow less than manly to contemplate. Whatever the reason, many Freemasons seem uncomfortable when confronted with the spiritual aspects of the Craft.
But spirituality and spiritual growth are essential parts of our Masonic heritage and of our purpose as a Fraternity. To deny them would be like a doctor asserting that his task is only to to cure disease and denying the value of preventative medicine. This spiritual aspect of Masonry is indicated most clearly in the Blue Lodge by the movement of the Compasses during the three Degrees. In the Scottish Rite, the use of the Compasses as symbols of spirituality is strongly reenforced.
The Compass is a ... symbol of the Heavens, and of all celestial things and celestial natures.
For the Master, the Compass of Faith is above the Square of Reason; but both rest upon the Holy Scriptures and combine to form the Blazing Star of Truth.
The Compass, therefore, as the Symbol of the Heavens, represents the spiritual, intellectual, and moral portion of the double nature of Humanity; and the Square, as the Symbol of the Earth, its material, sensual, and baser portion.
The Compasses are ancient symbols of spirituality and spiritual creativity. Hundreds of drawings and manuscript illuminations from the Middle Ages, as well as more modern illustrations, show God creating the Universe with Compasses. (See 'Contents' page for examples.)
William Blake, the great mystic poet of the late 1700s, used the image to describe the Creation, and John Milton uses the image in Paradise Lost, in this beautiful passage:
The movement from the Square to the Compasses is so central in Masonic imagery that we simply cannot deny the importance of spiritual development as a goal of the individual Mason. But what do we mean by “spiritual”?
One meaning, obvious from the contexts in Masonry, is “concern for values and ideals rather than things.” It is obvious that material things can be put to spiritual uses. Wealth is material, but the use of wealth in charity is a spiritual act because charity is motivated by love and compassion.
But, with many people, the more wealth they accumulate, the more material and self-centered and less spiritual and charitable they become. The thing becomes more important than the ideal. Masons are reminded that the spiritual must always come first.
Another related meaning of “spiritual” is “focused away from ourselves and our desires.” Lust is not spiritual, love is. Selfishness is not spiritual, selflessness and self-sacrifice are. The desire to dominate is not spiritual, the desire to emancipate is.
Yet another meaning of spiritual is “a desire to experience the beauty and suffering of the world.” It may seem strange to add suffering to beauty, but the great spiritual teachers seem always to have been aware of both. The shortest, and many feel most poignant, verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept.” Mother Theresa is honored by millions, including those not of her faith because she embraced the suffering of those around her, while keeping her eyes fixed ever on the beauty she saw in them. As part of the spiritual journey of the Scottish Rite, we are reminded in Degree after Degree of the suffering of others and of the importance of participating in their suffering, just as we are reminded of the beauty, seen and unseen, of the world.
Finally, spiritual can mean “concerned with the great forces of the universe which operate at a non-physical level.” Pike, along with many other thinkers, believed that there are such forces---that Love and Sympathy and Compassion and Will and Intellect and Expectation are among them.
These forces are like the wind, invisible and detectable only by their effects on persons and things. That may seem strange, at first, and yet most of us have experienced these forces. Certainly it has been shown that students do far better than average when teachers have high expectations of them and when they genuinely care about their students.
Also, most of us would rather have the good wishes than the ill will of the people around us. Many of the most successful programs for working with youth who have drug or discipline problems begin with the determination of those running the program to love the young people.
There are many perfectly practical explanations of how such things may happen (the teacher with high expectations may teach to a higher standard, for example), but the point is that the spiritual orientation makes a difference. We have all heard stories of people, injured and told they will never walk again, who have made the spiritual determination (an act of will) to walk, and who have astonished the doctors by remarkable recoveries.
It is a man’s spirit, not his body, which limits his potential.
Again, it is the position of the Compasses which indicates spiritual growth and progress. It is the task of every Mason to undertake a journey of spiritual growth and development. In one of the most beautiful passages in Morals and Dogma, Pike puts it this way:
Freemasonry is the subjugation of the Human that is in man by the Divine; the Conquest of the Appetites and Passions by the Moral Sense and the Reason; a continual effort, struggle, and warfare of the Spiritual against the Material and Sensual. That victory, when it has been achieved and secured, and the conqueror may rest upon his shield and wear the well-earned laurels, is the true Holy Empire.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014