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The Third Degree of Masonry
Whence Did It Come? What Does It Mean? An Interpretation

by Bro. W. H. Denier Van Der Gon, Holland
The Master Mason - July-August 1924

The following article, as it stands, is really the joint work of the editor of this journal and Brother Dr. van der Gon, with whom it is an honor to be associated in any capacity. It has been recast and rewritten, at his request, owing to his difficulties in dealing with our English language, and also because brethren in Europe write of Masonry more openly than we are accustomed to do in America. It has been retouched here and there, additions and subtractions made, in the hope of clarifying what we have long held to be the true meaning of the noblest degree of Masonry. Our ritual and lectures leave the Degree a riddle, and we have no desire to impose the present interpretation upon the Craft; but we do desire to help Masons to discover something of the profound teaching in this the oldest, if not the greatest, drama known among men. 

In trying to set forth the meaning of the Third Degree it is not easy to find a starting point, unless we go back to the rites of antiquity and the initiations of the Middle Ages. In many ages and lands we find a system of three steps or degrees portraying the spiritual growth of man and his progress toward perfection. In some cases we find a larger number of steps, but they can nearly always be reduced to three. 

The first step or degree has to do with the basic morality which underlies manhood, and upon which character rests. The second deals with the culture of the intellect without which man remains a child, as Cicero said, not knowing his own past. These degrees teach nothing that may not be known by a good profane. With the third step or degree it is different: it has to do with the profoundest mystery of humanity, and the most daring adventure of the soul. 

Such a system we find in the ancient Mysteries and in the secret societies of later ages, which formed a higher forum of the general religion. Using the popular religion as "the preceding degree," so to speak, they carried the faith of man further on and higher up toward fulfillment. The same is true, as to its main intent, of our ritual. So in Masonry we find three degrees, in which nearly all the symbols of antiquity reappear. The third step or degree is much the same as of old, though sometimes other names were used. There is always a myth very like our own, albeit differing in detail, but all of them, including our own, are but forms of one universal myth of man conquering death before he dies. 

We must also understand, of course, that the word myth in ancient times had a very different meaning from what it has with us. Indeed, it had exactly the opposite meaning. With us a myth is a romance, a fiction, something more than the truth, or the truth highly colored - something unreal if not untrue. With the ancients a myth was something less than the truth, an effort to set for a truth too great for words, and only to be told in parable, symbol and drama - like the myths of Plato. 

The whole idea of initiation, in three degrees, was to portray the process of the making of a man, his growth from infancy to maturity, his qualification and training for his work in the world, and the faith and principles by which he is to be guided in doing his work. Its object was the training of men, to be loving and enlightened workers for good. Of course, as with us, this object is kept in the background, since if you tell a man that you are about to train him to be good, he will resent it and rebel. It must be done by indirection, by the strategy of seeming to do something else, by the psychology of surprise. 

Few of the ancient rituals of initiation have reached us. In those that have been preserved different names, given either to the initiations or to those initiated, are used. But these make little trouble, since then, are only different descriptions of the same process. The Christian mystics used the following: first degree, purification; second degree, illumination; third degree, unification. Hippolytus used three picturesque names, Bound, Called, Elect, in which the same general plan, process and purpose are recognizable. 

The purification in the first degree is not only moral purity, - which is taken for granted - but, rather, a liberation from the delusion of the senses. Without such liberation it is impossible to climb the mountain of enlightenment; without it man remains hoodwinked - walking in darkness. The Sufis used the beautiful words: "Purification of the heart of all that which is not God." Others speak of it as "discrimination," the power, the insight to discern between the real and the unreal, without which life is a valley of illusions. It is when man follows the unreal that he goes wrong and falls into the pit. In the Bernard Shaw play, Man and Superman, there is a famous scene in hell when Don Juan cries out: "Nothing is real here: that is the horror of damnation." The First Degree of Masonry, then, seeks to lead man out of the unreal life of the senses into his real life as a moral being. 

Turning to the Second Degree, we find in a Dutch ritual of 1820 that the initiate has to climb "five mysterious steps to see from there the splendor of the Blazing Star and the mysterious Letter." It is the same process of illumination that we find in the ancient Mysteries, when the candidate climbs the Mountain of Enlightenment, out of earthly dimness into the spiritual life, nearer to the Light - symbolized in the English ritual by the staircase. In the English ritual we read these words: 

"You were led, in the second degree, to contemplate the intellectual faculty, and to trace it from its development, through paths of heavenly science, even to the throne of God Himself. The secrets of nature and the principles of intellectual truth were then unveiled to your view." 

But intellectual knowledge is not enough. It is valuable as far as it goes, but it is not truth itself. In old Egypt and in modern Masonry, it sees only at a distance through a dividing, though almost transparent veil. If we compare it with the "direct vision" of which Plato speaks, the "eyewitnesses" of the Eleusinian Mysteries, or the words of St. John, "We shall see Him as He is," we begin to see the limits of intellectual truth. It is the difference set forth by St. Paul in his memorable words: "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face;" now we know in part, but then we shall know in full. 

There is, then, a higher truth to be known in a higher way, and this is the truth symbolized in the Third Degree. 

Tauler, in the fourteenth century gave clear names to the three steps in the process: first, turning away from the world; second, retiring into ourselves; third, returning to God. In short, to know the highest truth we must not simply learn something, we must become something. It is a thing of self-experience, after we have been made ready for it. No one can learn this highest truth for another; no one can teach it to his fellow. Hence, as the initiate sets out upon this high adventure, he must pray for himself, and walk a lonely and difficult way wherein, if he proves worthy, he will learn the truth that makes all other truth true and worth while. He must not only master himself, but he must master the shadow that waits for every man, before he is in fact a Master Mason. 

Let us now consider this mystery. Taken in general, the symbolism of death has two opposite meanings. There is, first, the death of the higher self to become the smaller self, the lower self. Second, and after a long struggle in "the grave of the world" there is a death of the lower self, to become again the higher and real Self, which is one with the Eternal. Here lies the great, deep meaning of the Third Degree of Masonry, and no higher truth can be taught or learned anywhere, if we have eyes to see and minds to understand. It is not a physical death, but a spiritual experience with which we have to do, transfiguring everything when we know it. 

Many brethren fail to understand the Third Degree, either because they do not discriminate between these two opposite meanings of the symbolism of death, or because they are thinking in terms of physical death and miss the symbolism altogether. St. Paul can help us here. He speaks, first, of those who are "dead in trespasses and sins," meaning the fall into ignorance whereby a man loses, or seems to lose, his higher self and becomes a small, separate, limited self, living in the earthly life selfishly. He speaks in the second place, of a "death to sin," the death which breaks through separation and limitation into freedom and Eternal Life even here upon earth. 

In some rituals of the Third Degree - the Dutch ritual, for example - the initiate enters the lodge backward - that is, he moves eastward but his face and feet are directed to the west, as if he would turn back to the life of the world; slowly advancing, but looking longingly toward the old life, which still has much of its fascination. It is not so in the other degrees, and it is a revealing touch. For, in reality, there is a profound turning-point in our spiritual evolution as soon as we are able to take the Third Degree in full earnest. If we are capable of grasping its meaning, even in part, it will be of much use to us as far as brotherly love and devotion are concerned. 

Perhaps we ordinary people cannot go much further. But we have to remember that there is nothing which lifts us up so much as the highest ideal which our inner eyes are able a little to see, and that we have to keep before our candidate, and before ourselves, not a partly attainable but the highest ideal that exists for him and us, shining in its divine purity and beauty. Let me try to give such an approximation to the ideal of this great Degree of Masonry as I am able to see in the far future. To a certain degree it will have to be simplified for the candidate, and perhaps for each of us; but I hope I do not make a mistake in believing that I in writing, and the reader in reading, will find in it that which will re-echo in the depths of our hearts. 

There Is, indeed, a turning point in this degree, and it brings us face to face with the noblest truth. There is a death of the small, limited self as a part of resurrection. The small self may be compared to the drawing together of molecules into a drop of water. The forces are directed inward on itself, in selfishness. But this may be necessary so as to produce an individual and a server of men. However, if the larger, truer self is to be revealed, the forces which are directed inward and tie together must move onward. Only self-forgetfulness is able to free the contracting forces. Truly, we must lose our life in order to save it. 

This losing of our life in self-forgetfulness can only follow upon self-surrender to God and the world. Only those two together result in the falling asunder of the lower self and the liberation of the higher. When Odin said, "I dedicate myself to Myself," he meant the surrender of the limited, narrow self so that the Eternal Self may be all. As Maeterlinck exclaimed: "When shall we become that which we are?" When we are willing to let God bring His son to birth in us, over-coming the lower, lesser, restless, selfish self, and making us free indeed. 

One finds this truth everywhere in Christian literature. Jesus became poor with the poor, hungry with the hungry, childlike with the children. As Luther was wont to say: "A Christian is lord of everything and submissive to nobody; a Christian is a servant of everything and submissive to everybody." It is only a Master who is the best servant. It is only the man who knows the great secret who can render the greatest service. When a man has conquered the small self by surrender to the Highest Self, he is ready and eager to return and help those who wander in a labyrinth of ills, who seek to fly the bitter chaos and do not know how to do it. 

How much we need real Master Masons in these days of discord, conflict, and hate in which we live! How many people in all lands, weary of strife and worn by woe, are ready to respond with all their souls to our Fraternity if we speak the redeeming word, which they long to hear. If we Master Masons in name were really Masters in fact - Masters because we have died to our selfish selves and have been resurrected to the true life of self-forgetful service - how great would be our power to lighten the burden of those who are heavy laden, by speaking the word of Eternity that can heal a diseased world and give hope for man and mankind. 

A Master Mason must travel in foreign countries and work; that is, he must give to the world what he has gained for himself. And not only that, but he must also give that which he has become. He has become enlightened, and must go forth into the darkness of the world. He has become free, and he must take upon his shoulders the burden of others who are in slavery. He must be found everywhere where the struggle is most severe, where selfishness, ignorance, hate, doubt, and despair are at their worst. 

Such men the world needs, men who, led by compassion, leave the temple of Masonry with the holy resolution to help the world. In such men distinction and limitation disappear, and the Divine Life passes through them into the life of mankind. It is the work of Masonry to make not only Brothers and Builders, but Masters of the art of self-forgetful service to humanity in its needs. In its Master Degree it portrays the process by which such men are made by obedience to the law of Heavenly Death - the death, that is, of all that is unheavenly, and therefore unreal and unholy in us. 

Alas, many miss the meaning of this Degree because they take it literally, historically, materially. Here is an error. The candidate when raised is not thought of as having left us and gone into the hereafter; he is still in our midst. The ancients used the word immortality in another sense than we use it. They held that the corruptible must put on incorruption, and the mortal immortality, here and now. Mortal, corruptible, inconstant - that is what we are through separation and limitation; and the raising gives us, symbolically, immortality, incorruption, eternal life while we are still on earth. The old, narrow self is taken away and buried, but the true self lives the eternal life in time. My own view is that this discovery of heaven on earth will make heaven after death more beautiful for us; but my point is that the Master Degree has nothing to do with things after death - its teaching is to bring heaven nearer on earth. 

After this manner I have come to interpret the Master Degree. In my paper, "Freemasonry in the Netherlands," THE MASTER MASON, February, 1924, I mentioned a small book, edited some months ago by the board of Grand Officers in Holland to prepare a review of the ritual. Rearranging some words of that paper, we find the Master Degree understood as follows: "The solution of the little self, in the sense of self-surrender, self-dedication, and self-forgetfulness, leads to the final purpose in Masonry and all human beings - that out of multitude Unity is born." 

May every initiation of a candidate give something of what is the true meaning of this Degree, and may we do our utmost, as far as in us lies, to restore and interpret its meaning in our rituals. For, to my mind, nothing is so badly needed in these times of profound darkness as good Master Masons - Masters in truth as well as in title; and not men who are only good profanes, who are blind leaders in a blind world!

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