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by V. W. Piers A. Vaughan

A Speech given in Washington Lodge No. 21, State of New York, United States of America on Tuesday, 17th September, 2002

Nasrudin used to take his donkey across a frontier every day, loaded with baskets full of straw.  Because he freely confessed to being a smuggler when he came home every night, the frontier guards would search him again and again.  They used to strip him, sift the straw, steep it in water, sometimes even burn it.  Meanwhile, Nasrudin was becoming more and more wealthy.
Then he retired and went to live in another country.  Here one of the frontier guards happened to meet him, years later.
“You can tell me now, Nasrudin,” he said.  “What on earth were you smuggling all that time when we could never catch you out?”
“Donkeys, “ said Nasrudin.

From ‘Perfume of the Desert – Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom,

ed. A. Harvey & E. Hanut, 1999, pub. Quest Books


What is Freemasonry for?  By what measure of success are we judging ourselves?  If the indicators are number of members, sums donated to charity, or speed of advancement to Master Mason, then indeed we are achieving all our goals.  But this can be claimed of almost any society, club, fraternity or Union who has members and collects money for charity.  Ah, we say, but ours is a fraternity with rituals and education, and this is what makes us unique.  If this is so, we have a problem:  if our rituals are so important to us, why do they become a secondary consideration against the desire to attract large numbers of members?  Some have been concerned with quality, and by this they mean the quality of candidates being attracted to the Craft.  Far fewer seem to be concerned about the quality of the experience we offer to these candidates.  The quality of our education will be a topic covered in later talks in this series.

In Europe, every effort is made to ensure that the rituals are special for the candidate, and only one person – two at the most – is advanced through a particular grade at one time.  The focus on education is on the meaning of the rituals and their application to daily life.  The ritual is everything:  it inspires, educates, and binds its members together in fraternity.

Here I have heard reports of Masters – even of Lodges meeting at Grand Lodge – who say that it would be much easier to attract new members if only we got rid of “those boring rituals”.

To put this more bluntly, conversations with a number of new members reveals the following telling comments:  “I joined Freemasonry to learn”; “I can go to business meetings all day at work – I didn’t join Masonry to attend yet more business meetings”;  “I have friends and an active social life – why do I need more dinners?”; “I choose to give to charity, but I didn’t join Freemasonry because of its charities”.  Most tellingly:  “My father joined Freemasonry many years ago in the Caribbean and the whole family saw the transformation it worked in him.  I see nothing of that process here.”

This paper is not an examination of any particular ritual used in Freemasonry.  It will use contemporary anthropological theory to try to better understand the purpose of ritual.  From this understanding it is hoped that ritual will be seen to be key and central to Freemasonry, and that if the fraternity is to have any relevance in modern society, it must accept that this is truly its ‘mission statement’, and that the time spent in organizing mass rallies, charitable donations and filling the evenings with committee meetings and dinners, while worthy, is not central to its purpose and function.

Whatever might be going on in the minds of those who wish to remove rituals from Freemasonry altogether, rituals are far, far more that pretty little plays to be learned by rote and put on for the satisfaction of a group of actors, or an annoyance that gets in the way of charitable works and delicious dinners.

Tom Driver’s Theory (Summary)

Tom Driver, in his book “Liberating Rites”, sees ritual as resulting from the tensions arising from two dimensions.  In the first, a performance must balance the modalities of ritual – where efficaciousness is paramount; and theater – where entertainment is paramount.  This is logical, as seeing a play with no teaching is simply that, an evening’s entertainment.  On the other hand, a ritual which only serves to promote a particular message or state of mind with no eye to keeping the attention through beauty, pageantry or spectacle will soon lose our attention.

The second dimension is that of Confession versus Ethical, or the personal aspect versus the public aspect.  Again, this makes sense, since all ritual is a balance between what we either do in private or within ourselves, and what we carry of what we have learned into public life, be it to improve ourselves, to change the world, or to perform little acts of kindness.

Fig 1 - MODES OF PERFORMANCE (after Tom F. Driver)

This theory, although developed for religion, is applicable to Masonry.  No I am not implying that Masonic ritual is religious.  I am categorically stating that much of religion is ritual, in that it uses symbols, repetitive action, separation of space and time to convey emotional states and teachings.

The Masonic Degrees are an exquisite tension between Ritual, Theatrical, Confessional and Ethical modes.  The allegory of meaning is concealed within a formalized method of delivery which, nevertheless is intended to be communicated in a highly absorbing and entertaining environment.  The wearing of unusual clothing and being divested of anything which might connect one to the outside world through a careless touch or glance is removed, and the neophyte enters a new dimension outside of time and space (this should mean no clocks, no alarms, no cellular phones, and no profane signs of any kind, including the “Fire Exit” signs sadly imposed upon us by overly intrusive regulations.  In truth, this list should include “no artificial candles”, for the symbolism of three ‘natural’ luminaries describing a triangle is very profound and worthy of a paper in itself…).  And yet we do not intend to bore him to death with dry, dull teachings.  We present him with a kaleidoscope of sensations and symbols which he will study with pleasure throughout his Masonic career.  The two opposing modes of Confession and Ethics are also superbly balanced in our inspired Rites.  The ceremony itself balances the things the Candidate must do for himself, including his first spoken words upon entering the Lodge, and his Obligation both to conceal and to study the teachings he will receive; and those actions which this new community – the parts and characters within this symbolic Temple – will do to and for him.

We will consider three aspects of ritual and relate them to the Masonic experience:  ritual as subversive, ritual as teaching, and ritual as transcendence.

Ritual as subversive

History has shown us that kings, presidents and the church alike have been terrified of the power of ritual, and those of Freemasonry in particular.  From the Morgan Affair and the Papal proscriptions of the 18th and 19th Century, through the persecution of Freemasonry under both Fascism and Communism earlier this century, to the present enforced public declarations of membership by judges and policemen in England under the Labor Government, Masons have been singled out for attack.  Why is this?  And why should this be a good thing for Freemasonry?

Ritual takes us away from Society, even if only for a few hours.  It allows us, for a period, to overcome social alienation – in the famous wearing of white gloves – and affords us an opportunity to talk with intelligent, informed people about the state of our nation, without concern that our words might be carried back to inimical forces by spies – our traditional cowans and eavesdroppers.  This might not seem a big thing to us in the United States, but ask a Mason in Spain in the 1930s or occupied France in the 1940s for his opinion, and he will tell you that a poorly chosen Candidate meant more than a disrupted Lodge – it probably meant a firing squad.  What we stand for is contrary to any Society which seeks to control, segregate, repress or persecute its habitants, and sadly that is the state of affairs in a majority of the countries of this world.  Our Masonic meetings allow us to rehearse and debate teachings from an earlier time, and many books have been written about how these deposits of mystical learning were bought at the price of blood, and are a sacred heritage which it is our duty and our joy to preserve and, in succession, to pass to the next generation.

This state of existence beyond the threshold of daily Society has been described as “liminality”, which comes from the Latin “limen” meaning threshold. Arnold Van Gennep described these rites being flanked by ‘pre-liminal’ or separation rites, and ‘post-liminal’ or reincorporation rites.  Having been separated from conventional reality through darkness, enclosure and androgynous clothing, the candidates or “threshold people” are ambiguous entities which float passively through the liminal rites which take place outside of time and space, before being reintegrated by the post-liminal rites to take their place among the new community.  Van Gennep described liminal ritual as being “frequently linked to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness,…to an eclipse of the sun or moon.”  Masons will recognize many of these allusions.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, as Tom Driver suggests: “As the powers of nation-states have grown in modern times, so has the desire on their part to eliminate as much liminality as possible from ritual performance, because liminality can lead to a weakening of state control over people’s ideas, emotions, and behavior.”

He continues: “Much goes on in rituals that would not be tolerated at other times:  hand-clapping,…rhapsodic speech, cross-dressing, speech-song recitations, direct address to invisible beings…public exchanges of affection, mystical union with other participants…The liminality of rituals means that they are informed, on the one hand, by a greater than usual sense of order and, on the other, by a heightened sense of freedom and possibility.”

So ritual – and especially Masonic ritual – is a process which separates the man from normal Society, and places him in a position in which to analyze that Society with the symbolic tools he is given, and, if he finds Society wanting in its stand on charity, fraternity, rights, God and nature, empowers him to go out into that Society in order to change it for the better.  No wonder Masons are seen as subversive.

And here lies the paradox.  According to Driver:  “…Ritual stands in contradiction to society while at the same time being a part of it.”  Our ritual empowers us to live, act and work within society but empowers us with the mission to change it for the better.  This empowerment given through the liminal process of ritual internalizes this drive to a far greater extent than a debating society or business meeting possibly could, for though internalizing the symbols we become those symbols ourselves, symbols of what man can achieve by right thinking, right acting and right saying.  We have only to look to George Washington to see those great Masonic symbols in action…

Ritual as teaching

Our rituals are full of symbolic teachings.  We do not lay out the secrets of our deposit like pearls before swine.  We protect them, even from the ‘casual’ Mason, for only those who are prepared to work at understanding the meaning behind the parables and allegories is truly worthy of that deposit.  Ritual allows the deposit of knowledge to be passed from generation to generation, unchanged, so that if one generation fails to understand the true pearls therein contained, the message is transmitted intact to the next generation, when someone might then discern the wisdom within.  Woe betide the ignorant Keeper of the Work who decides to ‘modernize’, ‘abbreviate’, or ‘amend’ the ritual:  he commits a capital offense in the eyes of the early members who placed this sacred deposit in the cure of our Mystery School!

As an aside, I remember a story – I think a Greek myth –  being told in my early schooling, of an old man who appears before a great king, carrying twelve books.  When the king asks what he has in those books the old man says: “Sire, they contain all the wisdom of mankind”.  “How much will you sell them to me for?” asks the king.  “For half your kingdom”, replies the old man.  The king laughs and says this is a ludicrous price.  The old man then asks for a brazier.  Intrigued, the king has a servant fetch a lit brazier.  The old man solemnly places six of the books into the brazier and burns them, to the horror of the king.  Then the old man asks the king if he would like to buy the remaining six books.  Shrewdly (for he is a wise king) the king asks how much.  “Half your kingdom”, the old man replies.  The king shakes his head.  Solemnly, the old man places another three books in the brazier and they burn to dust…The king promptly purchases the remaining three for half his kingdom!

Let not our great deposit be squandered in like manner, for if a generation destroys some of the great symbolism in the name of ‘progress’ or ‘expediency’, the next generation cannot go back to the dead to ask them what it meant!

There is a second reason we communicate our teachings through the use of symbols.  While allegories and parables tell a story, it is only through the use of symbols that we truly become a universal Brotherhood.  Language divides us, but ritual reassembles.

Roy Rappaport wrote:  “The distinctions of language cut the world into bits – into categories, classes, oppositions, and contrasts.  It is in the nature of language to search out all differences and to turn them into distinctions which then provide bases for boundaries and barriers.”  And further:  ”It is…in the nature of (ritual) to unite, or reunite, the psychic, social, natural and cosmic orders which language and the exigencies of life pull apart.  It is of importance in this regard that representation in ritual are often multi-modal, employing at one and the same time words, music, noise, odors, objects and substances.”

A ritual can act like a mantra or meditational exercise.  It is not to be seen once and forgotten:  it is to be seen again and again, whereby different messages and nuances are perceived and understood.  In Masonry, this effect is enhanced considerably through the possibility of seeing the ritual through the eyes of different participants, as the Brother takes first one then another part in the mysteries as he progress in the Lodge.  This lifetime of learning opens like a rose to reveal the beauty within, to the intelligent and seeking eye.

Sadly, this value breaks down when, as Driver writes, people:  “do not see the necessary correspondence between what they signify and the reality of the …community in the world”.  Religion makes the same complaint.  There is little value in going to pray, then coming back into the world unchanged, and continuing the same negative behavior as before.  To return to Driver’s model, the confessional mode should drive us towards the ethical mode:  charity, right thinking, right acting and right saying.  While these are not primary concerns of Masonry and its rituals, they are a visible and confirming sign that the ritual has achieved success in communicating its lessons; that they have not fallen on stony ground, but indeed have been internalized and have become an unconscious part of the Brother’s daily behavior.  This is when learning transforms us.

Finally, one point which will be a little vexatious in the current American Masonic climate, but one which I feel morally obliged to raise, is that of Mass Initiation.  I cannot believe it is efficacious.  It is critical that the neophyte undergoes the experience of transformation, of liminalization himself.  While the side degrees are often run as theatrical experiences, in which the candidates watch the drama unfold by means of a proxy, or exemplar, the first three Degrees of the Holy Saints John are too important to be conferred en masse. If I might give an extreme example, it is rather like a row of Jewish babies at a bris watching one of them being circumcised on their behalf; or a group of Confirmands watching the diocesan bishop laying his hands on an exemplar for the class.  How about those to be initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis sitting outside the cave and being given a brief summary of what is happening to the one allowed into the cave to undergo the Rites?  Or one which has been seriously debated:  the efficacy of a papal blessing when watched on television?  Ludicrous examples, certainly!  But do they apply to Masonic initiation as well?  I believe so.

Ritual as transformational

Ritual can transform us in two ways:  internally, in the way we learn to think and to perceive things in a new way; and externally, in making us part of a new community.

This external community has been called a number of things.  It is not strictly a ‘club’ or even a ‘Fraternity’, for undergoing a transforming ritual is a far more powerful than going out for a few drinks, or sharing in some community project.  In mystical groups the term often applied is “egregore”, or the collective thoughts and inspiration of previous generations.  If that is a little too esoteric for some, the term used by Driver is “communitas”, which he defines as:  “a spirit of unity and mutual belonging not existing outside ritual”.  In other words, charitable giving, a dinner, business meeting or coach trip do not confer this common bond which transcends Lodge and even continent, for any well-traveled Mason will tell you that the welcome received from those who share this sense of “communitas” is as warm and sincere in a Lodge in New York as in Namibia.  Those who hold out the hand of Brotherhood are not doing so on the strength of a dues card or a common set of passwords and grips:  they are doing it out of a sense of common experience.

This transformation takes place at a number of levels.  There is nothing which can describe the excitement and joy of making that link between symbol and the external world which opens up a whole new area of understanding to the perceptive Mason;  that momentous instant when the interior and exterior worlds link, and the Hermetic axiom “as above, so below” is once more realized.  In turn, this realization or understanding leads the experiencer to enact that part of the ritual with a greater understanding, with the result that those who also understand that particular teaching will immediately realize that this Mason, too, has the key to its interpretation:  while those who still seek its inner meaning will marvel at the depth of feeling and command that Mason brings to his role.

I like to give the reader a means in my papers to experience what I say on a practical level, and this is no exception.  One means of opening up one’s uncritical mind to the power of the symbols which surround us in our ritual is through using what is called ‘creative visualization’.  When the reader next takes part in a Masonic ritual, I would ask him to spend a few moments before the ritual begins sitting quietly in his place or station, preferably with his eyes closed, and imagine himself transported back to the historical time in which the ritual is set.  While any Officer in any body can do this exercise, let us use the example of the Master in this Blue Lodge.  Let him imagine with all his power of concentration that he is indeed King Solomon.  He should feel the crown upon his head (the top hat being magically transformed into its prototype!), the rich red and gold robes enfolding his body, the scepter of power (for us the gavel) lying to his right, the sensation of the opulent throne pressing against his body.  Hear the muffled sound of workmen and their subdued cries all around this great building site (for remember, no sound of metal was to be heard).  Feel the heat of the noon day sun beating down; the acrid, drying sand assaulting the nostrils.  Now the eyes are opened and I guarantee the words uttered by this new King Solomon will thrill the most experienced ritualist in the room.  At the Obligation he will step down from his throne, leaving the triple dais and walking across the great flagstones of the Temple floor, aware of the eyes of all his courtiers upon him.  He walks between the pylons formed by the Senior and Junior Wardens and enters the holy place, to administer the vows to the faithful workmen kneeling in awe and love before him, in the simple white vestments of the Apprentice who has earned the Great Master’s approbation.  See the members of the ‘living temple’ arrayed on either side in the shadows, huge and dread as the great statues of the Gods in the Egyptian Temples from which this Great Temple took its design.  Then the Great King takes his position before the great altar, and opens his mouth to speak…


In order to survive, Freemasonry must be a society which offers more than making as many members as possible, giving more money to charity, and organizing yet more committees, dinners and events which the same dwindling number of stalwarts doggedly support.  To those who say that our society would attract far more members if we didn’t have Degrees, I would ask:  then what do we have left to offer?  Where will we find Candidate who do not seek Light, and who long for long business meetings, relentless collations and endless calls for charitable donations?

We are a mystery school.  Our gentle Craft is a place which imparts important – and relevant – lessons about the nature of our relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth.  As with all mystery schools these lessons are not poured out at the feet of the new student, but are revealed over time to the true seeker of meaning in today’s fast and dangerous world. Our message has never been more relevant.  It is taught through the allegory and symbolism of ritual.

Finally, as I am sure you have realized, in the Sufi parable which began this paper, the straw which occupied the border guards so completely is all the chaff and secondary attributes of Freemasonry – the pomp, the titles, the dinners, the charities, the meetings, the business, the committees; while, buried under all this superficial activity is the true way to wealth of the spirit.  The donkeys, under the very noses of the guards, who failed to appreciate their value, represent the ritual!


Driver, Tom F., 1991, 1998. Liberating Rites. Westview Press.

Rappaport, Roy A., 1979. Ecology, meaning, and religion.  Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books

Van Gennep, Arnold, 1908, 1960. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee.  Chicago, University of Chicago Press

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