From antiquity to just a few centuries ago, trade guilds tended to have their own mythologies and initiation rituals. According to Mircea Eliade, the smiths of primitive tribes functioned also as priests or shamans. In the early modern era, we find a number of guilds, with their mythologies, in France, grouped under the name of the Compagnonnage (“Companions”).
The earliest recorded example of a mythology of the stonemasons’ guild in Britain is more than six hundred years old, and the society of Freemasonry emerged from it, almost 300 years ago, in 1717. From the rituals of the stonemasons the fraternity developed its own initiation Ritual, and, after it spread to Europe, not long after, new Rites and rituals were created, often drawing on Hermeticism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and chivalry. Though many of these fizzled out, though many others are still conferred today, especially through the “higher degrees” of the so-called “Scottish” and “York” Rites of Freemasonry.
During the 19th century, a number of the more spiritually- and esoterically-inclined Freemasons founded their own, entirely independent Orders, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis.
Here Phalanx talks with Julian Rees — author of Making Light – a Handbook for Freemasons and The Tracing Boards of the Three Degrees in Craft Freemasonry, among others — about ritual, Freemasonry, and self-knowledge.
Phalanx: What is the importance of ritual in our lives? And what is the importance of the Masonic Ritual for Freemasons? Is there something archetypal about it? Is it ancient or a reflection of something ancient?
Julian Rees: Ritual is more important than we realize. We all engage in rituals in our daily lives – it gives a feeling of security to us in our daily conduct of our affairs – the way we prepare our breakfast, make our bed, the way we leave the house and start the car – these all become ritualized. Rituals also mark stages in our lives – baptism, bar mitzvah, marriage, birthdays, religious festivals, even our own funeral is usually a ritual. Prehistoric man carved images as a means of impressing important subjects on his mind, subjects that he could then focus on, I believe ritually.
In different cultures, of course, it can have different force. The Japanese ritual of preparing tea is a most elaborate affair; a Japanese host can spend many hours preparing his tea ceremony (Chado). In his preparations the place, the implements, even the season are important.
Ritual can, of course, become self-serving – we may repeat certain words or gestures out of mere habit, their meaning having been long lost. But ritual can also serve as a means of implanting in our minds important precepts that can guide us and act as an energizing or stabilizing force.
That is the virtue of masonic ritual, and that is why in many masonic obediences great importance is placed on learning the ritual by heart. Masonic ritual that I have memorized over many years, still comes fresh to me when I read it again – I am always learning new things from well-known words by reading them again.
Yes, Freemasonry is a reflection of something ancient but we need to stop seeing it as a social club – that idea gets in the way of the true masonic pursuit. It is archetypal if properly understood. And you are spot on saying that it is a reflection of something ancient. I am constantly amazed at the way the writers of our rituals have drawn on ancient cultures – Eleusis and Greek philosophers, Egyptian Mythology, even Maya and Inca cultures
Phalanx: Is Freemasonry a spiritual movement, if properly understood?
Julian Rees: I believe it is, although, of course, many masonic obediences do not admit it. All obediences incorporate a spiritual dimension. Many US Grand Lodges, whose ritual contains references to the Supreme Being, would claim that their pursuit is not spiritual. I cannot understand that. The United Grand Lodge of England is on record as saying that Freemasonry does not deal in spirituality, yet its ritual makes mention not only of the words “The Great Architect of The Universe” but of the word “God” itself.
Freemasons say prayers to the Supreme Being, invoking His aid in our masonic undertaking. If one takes the example of the Grand Orient de France, who do not have references to the Supreme Being in their ritual, one still perceives a spiritual dimension in their masonic pursuit.
Some obediences are in denial about this aspect. In this respect, the masonic world is roughly divided into the dogmatic (“regular”) Freemasonry on the one hand, and liberal Freemasonry on the other. But spirituality is open to all Freemasons, whether they believe in God or not. Spirituality is older than any religion. And in masonic ritual, we have a chance to access our own spirituality, what I call the intellect of the heart, not just the mind. I have studied many rituals, and all of them are paths towards an inner work, a work on one’s own spirit. Many rituals make reference to enabling us to reveal a spark of divinity within ourselves.
Phalanx: You’re the author of The Tracing Boards of the Three Degrees in Craft Freemasonry. These are essentially paintings of the symbols of Freemasonry, and are displayed during part of the degree rituals in some countries, such as England. Can you tell us a little more about this?
Julian Rees: Freemasonry deals in symbols, and through symbols, allegory. The definition of allegory is ‘description of a subject under the guise of another having points of correspondence with it’ and ‘a picture in which meaning is symbolic’. So then you ask yourself: ‘Why do I need such a thing, why not just say it straight out?’ And here we have the crux of the matter: Freemasonry uses symbols and allegories to describe those things which cannot be communicated by words. We often speak of ‘the hidden mysteries of nature and science’, meaning my own nature, who I am, and the science of knowing that, ‘gnosis’ as the Greeks call it.
In a recent film of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth and Darcy have made clear their dislike of each other, but it is a dislike based on each one’s prejudice of the other. Secretly, they have a strong mutual attraction. The filmmaker wants us to recognize this, but instead of holding up a placard saying ‘Actually, folks, they are in love!’ he shows a scene where the two of them are in a gathering, on opposite sides of the room. Darcy turns to look at Elizabeth and we see the tender longing in his eyes. At the same moment, she turns to look at him, with the same look on her face. That’s the power of allegory – we don’t need words, indeed words would not be sufficient to describe the emotion. Words can even get in the way of clearer understanding!
With allegory, the interpreter is ourselves. So it is with masonic tracing boards – they are, of course, an aid to instruction, but they also serve to communicate, through allegory, that which cannot be communicated by words. As an example, on the First Degree board, we see the sun and moon, and the blazing star also known as the Glory. But the blazing star is brighter than the sun, although the sun is the brightest known object in our universe. So this allegory is inviting us to regard the spiritual light source as more powerful even than the sun.
But as I have said the tracing boards are also there as instructional aids. Many of the most stunning examples are US tracing boards and lantern slides, and I personally think it’s a shame that they are no longer used in US lodges.
Phalanx: Are the symbols of Freemasonry related to both esoteric and exoteric — spiritual or Gnostic and moral — ways of seeing the world, in your opinion?
Julian Rees: The very earliest examples of tracing boards were simply line drawings of the layout of a lodge room. I believe tracing boards were developed as an attempt to exteriorize the concepts of the written – spoken – ritual. But yes, masonic symbols relate to both esotericism and exotercism in Freemasonry. What sets them apart is that they differ so markedly from other ‘ways of seeing the world’ outside religious iconography.
Phalanx: How is Freemasonry related to the broader Western esoteric movement?
Julian Rees: Freemasonry has much in common with and draws from Neoplatonism, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Kabbalah and, above all, Hermeticism. My study has been centered on masonic spirituality and symbolism, and that’s where my true inclination lies, so I believe that Freemasonry, properly understood, offers a straightforward path to follow, to self-knowledge and to spiritual development and fulfillment.
Phalanx: There seems to be a crisis in masculinity in the modern era. Men are either being shown examples of ultra-masculine and aggressive men or highly feminine and soft individuals. Men are not, it seems to me, encouraged to develop themselves in a holistic manner, in mind, body, and spirit. What do you think Freemasonry can offer such men?
Julian Rees: I know what you are saying, and I believe that, at core, what we need is self-knowledge, and that goes for all humankind, men and women. There is no need to think of yourself as hunter-gatherer or as caring baby-minder – you can be either or both, but only if you know yourself first. Self-knowledge is indispensable. For me, one of the most cogent masonic allegories is also one of the simplest: the point at the center of a circle. Get into that point, get down and serious, be with yourself, discover yourself, know yourself, go to a place you may never have known existed – deep, deep within yourself, and find happiness and peace! That is what Freemasonry can offer.