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 messages for the really, really smart." In Maine ritual we contrast esoteric with its opposite concept: exoteric or "intended for the uninitiated." We divide our Master Mason emblems into these two categories and then explain them to the new Master Mason. The lecture fails to make clear, however, that the difference is not born of intellectual capacity but of experience. What makes the symbols exoteric is that their meaning has value whether you have participated in the Master Mason Degree or not. The hourglass is still moving as an emblem of human life and the beehive easily explained and understood regardless of your affiliation, but the sprig of acacia has no meaning unless you have personally participated in the third degree. Only as an initiate of that degree can you understand what is meant by the lecturer as he explains the implications of the sprig of acacia. This principle extends further to other Masonic orders such as the Knights Templar. Many men have asked me about the York Rite and I have always told them that no experience in the Masonic Degrees is as moving as this degree, but I cannot tell them why. It is an esoteric element, not because members of the Commandery are necessarily smarter or wiser but because there are elements of those degrees which must be experienced first hand to fully understand. The Chamber of Contemplation cannot be explained it can only be experienced.
There is more to understand when it comes to esoteric Masonry, however, than simply contrasting it to exoteric Masonry. In the examples above the initiation was based on direct experience, but the initiation can also be rooted in knowledge. As there was in the 1920s there is a movement afoot among Freemasons to focus on "esoteric Masonry." My grasp of this form of esoteric Freemasonry is very limited at this point as I am still unable to read and comprehend the preface to "Long Livers" (see the blogpost "Brother Eugenius Philalethes sendeth greeting") which I have set as my benchmark, but what little knowledge I have gained I will attempt to share. The initiation required to understand this movement is knowledge of Hermeticism, which essentially a specialized branch of philosophy. As with any philosophy a right beginning is at the very heart of right understanding. A good starting point for the novice student of esoteric Freemasonry is Tobias Churton's book "The Golden Builders" which has the advantage of being well researched and written for the general audience. The initiate builds up a new vocabulary of symbols based in the Hermetic arts which help him to see a different internal structure to Freemasonry. It is not necessarily a deeper understanding, just a different one more like the symbolic tier where each word or phrase opens up into a whole world of philosophy.
So, what does this have to do with the title of this posting? The process a student of Masonry goes through to deepen their understanding of the Masonic ritual is the process of gnosis: a deepening of understanding based on knowledge. Like Freemasonry itself Masonic Gnosis is a journey not a destination. That a man is on this journey does not make him better than his fellows as some of the secrets of a better life do not arise from knowledge. Thus it has always been and even the ancients distinguished knowledge from wisdom.
(Yes, it did take me eight days to write this posting...)