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THE SYMBOLISM OF FREEMASONRY
From Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania
A widely quoted definition of Freemasonry states that it is a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.
The dictionary defines "system" as an assembly of objects united by regular interaction or interdependence, in accordance with some definite method or plan. This conforms to the scheme of Freemasonry for it certainly partakes of the nature of the definition, being orderly in its composition and not merely a heterogeneous collection of maxims, tenets and commandments. One of the foremost characteristics of our Fraternity is that it has a constant and consistent theme running through it from beginning to end, by means of which it can be logically and reasonably explained.
Freemasonry is a system of morality ---- morality used in its broadest sense to portray right and proper conduct in the relationship of man to God and of man to man.
Freemasonry is veiled in allegory. It is the representation of a figurative story of something suggested, but not expressly stated. And Freemasonry is illustrated by symbols. It uses emblems and signs denoting an idea, quality or object with an underlying meaning relating to, but different from, the symbol itself.
We know that there are many symbols in Freemasonry as practiced today, but, for the most part, we are not sure how or when they were placed there. Many of them were employed for the communication of ideas since the dawn of authentic history. A close study of the secret societies of the past, especially the so-called Ancient Mysteries, reveals the use of numerous symbols, which today form a part of the ritualistic work of Freemasonry. The doctrines of these Mysteries, whether they dealt with resurrection, eternal truths or speculative surmises and ideas, were impressed upon their initiates by sign s, numerals and figures of speech. Today in Freemasonry a comparable procedure exists.
The symbolism of this great Order is of two kinds, the apparent and the hidden. The former comprises the use of the tools and terms of the Operative Mason for speculative purposes. This is most beautifully and impressively described in our ritualistic work. However, it is in the hidden or esoteric symbolism that the real underlying purpose of the Craft is so wonderfully revealed.
The one fundamental idea sought to be
inculcated by the several "Blue Lodge Degrees" considered collectively as
a system, is to give a representation of human existence and to portray
the beginning, the struggles, the progress of humanity, individually and
as a race.
In a symbolic sense, the initiate in Freemasonry may be likened to a human embryo about to be born into a new world. The preparation of the candidate and the circumstances in connection with his admittance into the Lodge Room, that is, the world, may well be compared with the condition of a newly-born babe, who has little or no power over his actions, knows nothing of the new life he is entering, and who therefore must necessarily depend upon others for guidance and direction. Likewise, a candidate for Freemasonry must rely upon others with implicit and unquestioning obedience, for without that guidance he cannot advance in those ritualistic ceremonies, which depict the journey of life.
Almost at the beginning of this Masonic journey, the candidate is impressed with the fact that he must have a faith in a Supreme Being, the Great Architect of the Universe, without whose protection man must inevitably fail in the quest for Divine Truth. This symbolically represents the religious training to which every child is entitled.
Then the candidate traverses that road over which all Freemasons have passed, meeting with obstacles here and there. He is symbolizing the journey of each of us through the early stages of childhood, encountering difficulties that can be surmounted only through the aid of a friend. This is symbolic not only of parents, teachers and elders who lend their assistance at such times, but, in a large sense, of an all-wise and all-loving Creator with power to help us in all the troubles that beset us.
On the floor of the Lodge near the center stands the Altar as it did in most ancient temples. In many Lodge Rooms, in other Jurisdictions, the floor about the Altar and to the East is made of tiling to distinguish it from the rest of the flooring. In King Solomon's Temple the space between the Altar and the Holy of Holies was forbidden to all except the High Priest. As the Altar stands in the center of the Masonic Lodge, so does it symbolize that intangible but potent force, that spark of Divinity, which must operate at the center of Masonic life--and of all life, if it is to be worthwhile.
As in most organizations and at the beginning of many enterprises and undertakings, there is an obligation--literally a "binding to." Here in Masonry, it is symbolic of those many and manifold ties and obligations which everywhere and always bind men together, but particularly those which bind men to their Creator.
Soon there comes to the candidate an awareness of his real objective, accompanied by the so-called "shock of enlightenment" or "battery of acclamation," purported to be an imitation of feigned thunder in one of the Ancient Mysteries. As from time immemorial, light has signified knowledge, so in this journey of life as represented by the candidate's Masonic progress, light becomes symbolic of the mental and spiritual enlightenment which comes to the child as his mind, conscience and power of understanding are developed and quickened.
The symbolic significance of the Holy Bible, the square and the compasses is to remind us of man's duty to himself, his neighbor and his God. The Holy Bible is one of the great lights in Freemasonry. In our ritualistic work it is a symbol representing the Divine Will in all its forms. Its purpose is to emphasize the important place and the ever-present effect and influence which the Word of God has in the life of humans and the dependence of all mankind upon the will of the Supreme Architect of the Universe.
Inasmuch as Freemasonry is basically monotheistic it should be noted that, whereas we normally use the Bible as our Volume of the Sacred Law, in certain countries the Talmud of the Hebrew, the Koran of the Mohammedan or the Veda of the Hindu could, with equal propriety, be placed upon the Altar.
Consideration is given to symbols representing the sun, the moon and the Worshipful Master. From the first two of these, operative Masons of old obtained all of the natural light by which they fashioned those great cathedrals whose beauty and symmetry excite our sense of wonder and delight. But all the skill of those operative Masons would speedily have vanished, had not the Masters of the Work communicated to apprentices, from generation to generation, that mental illumination which kept alive the knowledge of architectural technique through the centuries. For the true significance of these symbols, we need only substitute in this analogy the idea of the creation of a house not made by hands, instead of the wondrous cathedrals of timber and stone, and an illumination that is spiritual in place of that which is merely physical or mental.
The symbol of restraint, that typified those various external checks and prohibitions to which the child must submit, is laid aside. This means that, with the attainment of light, which represents the accumulation of knowledge and the development of intelligence, certain restraints are no longer necessary. Hence the youth is now given more liberty and a fuller measure of self-control and responsibility.
In most ancient temples, special significance was attached to the East, that mystical realm of the Orient, which has long been deemed the region of knowledge and enlightenment. This belief presumably resulted from the fact that it is in the East that the great orb of light and life first makes its appearance after the darkness of night. All Masons, representing mankind in the pathway of life, approach the East, source of spiritual light, to gain further knowledge that may be of value and aid in the search for Divine Truth, the real objective of human existence.
With advancement to the point of being entitled to wear the Masonic Apron, should come a realization of its true meaning. It is a symbol of honorable able and conscientious labor devoted to creating and constructing the work of the hand and the brain. But, of greater import, it is symbolic of the labor of the soul; arduous, ceaseless, resistless as mankind struggles forward and upward in its quest for the highest and best in life.
The twenty-four inch gauge was an important tool for ancient builders to divide their work into proper sizes so that each section would properly fit into the whole structure. Likewise we must measure the time of our lives so that the necessary things will properly fill their respective places in order to obtain the highest- objectives.
The common gavel is an appropriate tool for the Entered Apprentice, since it was used only in the preliminary shaping of stones and was not adapted to giving finish or polish. It represents that initial or preliminary training, mental and moral, by means of which the character of the child is properly shaped and developed in its course toward man's estate--that progress of which the First Degree in Freemasonry is truly symbolic.
From ancient times it has been customary to lay, with appropriate ceremony, the cornerstones of many important edifices. Always in the days of old, and now, wherever practicable, this stone is found at the northeast corner of the building. The seating of the candidate in the Northeast, at the termination of the Degree, symbolically marks the completion of the foundation upon which the remainder of the building will be placed. It is the end of childhood and youth upon which will be erected a life of usefulness and beauty.
This then is the underlying idea or plan by which the so-called hidden symbolism of Freemasonry may be partially explained. It attempts to portray the various steps by which each and every member of the human race journeys along the pathway of life.
The symbolism of our Fraternity may be considered as somewhat dual, or two-fold, in nature. It not only represents the course of the individual life, but in a larger sense, the progress of humanity itself. If instead of considering the candidate as an individual, we think of him as symbolic of mankind as a whole, we can readily follow the various steps or stages:
While our symbolism is of two kinds, the apparent and the hidden, it is in the hidden or esoteric symbolism that the primary purpose of the ceremonies of the Craft is revealed. The great, vital, underlying idea inculcated collectively by the several symbolic degrees is to give a representation of human existence, to portray the beginning, the struggles, and the progress of humanity individually and as a race.
As has been explained, initiation is employed as a symbol of birth, and the Entered Apprentice Mason's Degree represents not only birth but also youth and the preparatory or formative stage of life. Following this preparation, the Fellowcraft Mason's Degree is the constructive period of manhood and the prime of life. The reflective phase, including old age, death, resurrection and life eternal, is symbolized by the Third Degree.
The Second Degree is intended to portray the advance from youth to man's estate and the assumption of the duties and responsibilities of maturity.
The square and compasses are important symbols to which we are introduced. From time immemorial, the square has been a symbol of the earth and hence of earthly things, while the compasses, used in describing arcs, has been suggestive of the sky of heaven and of things divine. Therefore, the relative position of these Great Lights in Freemasonry portrays an advance in man, an attainment of knowledge and the cultivation of the mind. The plumb, the level and the square are working tools of an operative Mason and important symbols in Speculative Masonry. They have a deep meaning when considered in connection with our hidden symbolism representing the improvement of. Man as he journeys through life.
The plumb symbolizes the ideal, which suggests that we should strive to excel in all worthwhile efforts in connection with the development of our minds, our souls and our consciences.
The level represents the democratic idealism, which urges I us to join with others in enjoying the precious privilege of assisting and associating with our fellows.
When a perpendicular, such as the
plumb, is joined with a horizontal, such as the level, a right angle is
formed as represented by the' try square of the operative Masons. The
square then, being a combination of the two, stresses the need for a
proper adjustment of valuable qualities which otherwise might oppose each
other. Just as the plumb and level join to form the square, so should man
join the opposites in his nature and adjust their influences in such a
manner as to counter-balance each other in the development of a purposeful
and productive life.
The Hiramic Legend took its place in our Masonic ceremonies about 1725. It is quite probable that for many years prior to that date it had been known as one of the cherished traditions of the Craft.
This legend is part of that system of Masonic symbolism, which in its entirety represents the life of man and the progress of mankind. Although we recognize the fate which each one of us must eventually face, it is comforting to realize that the culmination of the drama can have no other logical purpose than the symbolic portrayal of a resurrection and an entrance into that life for which we hope and pray.
There are numerous interesting and illuminating elements of symbolism in the Master Mason's Degree, which the student of Freemasonry should observe and endeavor to interpret. Probably the most difficult part to understand is the "Word." This has been called the master symbol by means from which all other symbols take their meaning. It is derived from the so-called "Mason Word" which was supposed to have been the principal secret of operative masonry. Symbolically, the "Word" signifies truth, particularly Divine Truth.
Hence the search for the "Word" is the symbolic effort to find abstract truth, the divinity in ourselves and in others. This is a search in which we may come close to truth; we may approach near to it; we may secure part of it, but that Divine Truth is boundless in its scope and limitless in its influence. We should be satisfied to partake of it gradually as it is disclosed to us from time to time.
Finally comes the crowning glory of the Master Mason's Degree. Death comes to every man, as it must. Marking the grave of the Freemason is a sprig of acacia, or evergreen, symbolically representing immortality. The doctrine of Freemasonry is firmly founded on a belief in a Supreme Being and faith in a future life. To the universal and yearning cry of all mankind throughout all ages Freemasonry answers in its sublime symbolism. There is life eternal. There is a Great Architect by whose mercy we live again.
It is through symbolism that the drama and teachings of Freemasonry unfold. Its hidden, or esoteric, symbolism portrays the journey of man along the pathway of life into the darkness of death and thence to the brightness and bliss of eternal dawn. From beginning to end, the Symbolism of our Fraternity exemplifies the fundamental doctrines of Freemasonry: The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man and the Immortality of the Soul.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014