Dispatches from Maine

Just another person of little note writing about ordinary things. That I reside in Maine is icing on the cake.

22 November 2007

Masonic Gnosis

All of Masonic ritual has three levels of understanding: concrete, symbolic and esoteric. The first layer of understanding are the words themselves together with their meaning in language. All new American Freemasons go through a process of learning the first level when they work on their proficiency examination. Then the line officer experiences the same process as the learn the ritual associated with each chair they occupy. A good officer coach helps these men to understand what they are saying and why along with teaching them the secrets of our ritual's catechetical construction. In Maine, for instance, there are two reasons to present the due guard: requesting permission to speak and responding to an order from the Master. Armed with this rule an officer should never doubt whether to give the due guard. Another classic example of our the roots in catechesis is the exchange of the secret words. With some minor differences for the first and last word, all of the exchanges fit into two formats: demand and request. All of the information necessary to guide the dialog is encoded in the first three words of the exchange. Even learning about the famous "hele" debate is still only a structural level of understanding. There is so much good to the concrete level of Freemasonry that we can make a good man better without ever leaving this level. After all how can a man be unmoved by the tenets and four cardinal virtues?

The second layer uses the language of symbolism to look within the framework of the ritual for the deeper moral lessons. The classic example of this language is our own Working Tools lectures which educate the new Mason about the symbolism of the tools associated with their degree. The tools can differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but here in Maine the symbols are the twenty-four inch gauge and common gavel for the Entered Apprentice, the square, level and plumb for the Fellow Craft and the trowel for the Master Mason. The practical and symbolic meaning of these tools are shared with the candidate during each degree with the hope they will apply them to their own lives. This is only the outer shell of the symbolic layer, however, as the ritual contains a deeper meaning at every turn. If we survey the classical authors performing symbolic analysis of Freemasonry and its ritual we find men like Albert Mackey and Albert Pike. Their efforts worked to understand the symbolic nature of the ritual by exploring its source in ancient religions. In some cases, this exploration finds that we have misinterpreted some of our own symbols. A beautiful example of this is Mackey's discussion of Jacob's ladder in his work "The Symbolism of Freemasonry". Virtually every single Mason becomes, at some level, a student of symbolic Masonry as a common gavel ceases to be a simple masons tool and becomes instead and emblem reminding us to work daily to discard our lesser elements in the hopes of being better men, and fit stones for the use of the Supreme Architect. The student of this layer of ritual sees the ritual not just as words, the exterior of the building, but the interior structure of the edifice. This Mason begins to understand how the building was formed, not just how it appears to be. While this deeper perceptive ability makes a Mason a better student of the Craft it does not make him a better Freemason. The most perceptive can still be the worst of men and the least perceptive can teach us the most important lessons of all. This is one of our core mysteries which defies the understanding of even the most educated Freemason for a man who well understands the use of the common gavel may forget that it was intended not for discussion but for use on himself.

The third and final layer is called esoteric and it is an area deeply misunderstood by almost all, including myself. The word "esoteric" means "designed to be understood by the specially initiated alone" is often misunderstood as "secret message