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Pit of Deception or Holy Grail?
by Jim Tresner, 33°, Grand Cross
Speculation, the attempt to develop insight, is the real benefit of Masonry.
You will find it throughout the ritual.
"Masonry is a speculative and moral science and philosophy founded on an operative art." "By Speculative Masonry we learn to subdue the passions, act upon the square, keep a tongue of good report, maintain secrecy and practice charity.... It leads the contemplative to view with reverence and admiration the glorious works of the creation and inspires him with the most exalted ideas of the perfection of his Divine Creator." "I learned the difference between operative and speculative Masonry."
Speculation is a simple word. The dictionary says it derives from the word for "spy out" or "examine," which in turn derives from the word for "watchtower," which derives from "look." And it says that speculation means to meditate on or ponder a subject, to reflect.
The ritual seems to suggest that speculation is important to Masonry—some have gone so far to say that it is the duty of a Mason. Others suggest that it is, at best, a waste of time.
To some Masonic thinkers, speculation is a pit of deception, an excuse for sloppy thinking, at best a somewhat disreputable excursion into self-indulgence. To others, it is a Holy Grail—not only a positive good in itself but also a source of even greater benefits.
I'm firmly in the "Holy Grail" camp.
Speculation seems to me to be one of primary ways in which Masonry does its work. It is important to have the solid information, the knowledge of history including the history of the ritual and the history of the symbols. Those are the "working tools." But the real reward and purpose of Masonry, for me at least, is what happens then, when the mind takes those symbols and plays with them. The conclusions have validity, if any, only for the individual speculator. That's why the warning is repeated over and over again that each person must interpret the symbols of Freemasonry for himself. But it is the speculation, and the attempt to develop insight, the "ah-HA!" experience, which is the real benefit.
I think the ritual supports that point of view. To me, one of the most astonishing, mind-rocking statements ever written in English is found in the stair lecture of the Fellowcraft Degree. Think about what these words are really saying: "You have this evening, my Brother, pressed beneath your feet, transmounted and transcended, all the powers and passions, the senses and sciences of man." Wow!
A Mason is supposed, that says, to go above and beyond everything that science can teach him, beyond in fact everything which his senses can tell him. He is supposed to be able to operate with insight, inspiration, and intuition. I've a long way to go, but what a goal, what a wonderful, ego-shattering, spirit-soaring goal!
But why is speculation important? And why is it more important, I believe,
than just historical research and accuracy alone?
Science discovers fact, not truth. Fact is generally verifiable by observation, direct or indirect. If I assert the fact that, under a given set of circumstances, water freezes at 32° Fahrenheit, you can check the statement with a thermometer. It is the essence of science/fact that it is observable and repeatable, and that it works regardless of the personality of the individual making the observation. King Solomon or Groucho Marx would have had the same results with a thermometer as you do. If I have any argument with science, it is that.
Truth is not verifiable in the same way. If I say it is better to be honest than dishonest, there is no thermometer by which you can measure the truth of the statement. You have to speculate. You have to compare that statement to other things you believe to be true, and see if it fits or contradicts. You have to ponder the concept of honesty and see where those reflections take you. If you are lucky, the reflections may lead you in the direction of an additional truth, or even a greater truth. That is to say, if you are lucky (or perhaps skillful), you may develop an insight, you may operate by intuition, you might even receive inspiration.
Masonry "works" by truth, not fact. The symbols and allegories are designed to help you discover the truths of human nature and spirit, not history or biography. Both history and biography are important, of course. They provide the context and are worthy and significant in their own right. But there are far better sources for learning about Jerusalem in the time of Solomon than the ritual of the Lodge. If you try to add an anchor to a beehive, you will get nothing but wet bees. But if you add the symbolic meaning of the beehive to the symbolic meaning of the anchor, then you can speculate on the results of a steadfast faith united with or expressing itself through hard work and cooperative industry. Are all speculations equally valid? Of course not. Can we make mistakes? Certainly. But that, too, is part of the process. Perhaps the most eloquent statement I have ever seen of the importance of this process of speculation comes from Symbols of Freemasonry by Daniel Béresniak.
"The act of becoming is a metamorphosis. This concept underscores Masonic thought. A metamorphosis takes place during a journey through different landscapes, among forms and colors, during which each of us is transformed.... Those who undertake this adventure come out of it with varying rewards, depending on the landscape they visit, their approach, what they make of it and how much of it they see. A journey of initiation is not a package tour. There are no signposts. The risk of becoming lost, of sliding back when attempting to go forwards, is what gives life to the unexpected. The intertwining of danger and promise creates the possibility of understanding and allows the idea of freedom to be considered a moral value.
"The way in which Freemasonry uses symbolism gives us an insight into the word itself. Masonic symbolism is based on the notion of building: building, becoming, making. 'To make' is understood as 'to make something of oneself.' This approach forges a relationship between the physical roads we walk along in the city on our way home and the spiritual paths which in each of us lead between our desires and our thoughts. Freemasons delve into myths in order to understand how the human mind works, with a view to becoming free people, which is to say people who act rather than react."
Speculation is a fuzzy process, no doubt of that. But it is also much more a Holy Grail than a pit of deception. And it is one of the most rewarding challenges of man.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014