The Use and Purpose of Masonic Symbolism
Freemasonry is a great Tradition which became famous because it helps men to be better men. Today it seems obvious that the main purposes of Freemasonry are moral and philanthropic. Yet, at the same time, since its inception, this fraternity has been using secret rituals for its meetings and initiations. Initiates in the past have introduced valuable elements, symbols and tolls into this tradition.However, in reality, the symbols they use are not secret per se, - anyone can see them. They were published very early in the history of Freemasonry, and sometimes they were partially explained. Therefore, if you want to be objective, there are no secret symbols anymore. It seems that the only subject that matters most of the time is the historical study of Freemasonry. This is generally a safe area of research for investigators. However, I can say (most authoritatively) that there are many things that are unknown and unexplained about Freemasonry. Non-masons untuit that very well, even if their theories are often mixed with phantasm and fear. Masons, on the other hand, are not always aware of the treasurers their tradition.
So what if Freemasons really are the wardens of esoteric secrets?
What if these mysteries are linked to spiritual keys that have been hidden since the origin of the Western Tradition?
What if those symbols, which surround us, are the keys to successfully completing your inner transformation?
Ancient initiates of the Western world wrote that the essential secrets for inner transformation are always situated in the most visible place. However, very few people are able to see them and even fewer know their meaning and their use. Symbols are one of the essential keys that can open the spiritual gates of Freemasonry, but you must understand something: in order to open this door, or to raise the veil, an initiate needs something that Freemasonry cannot provide: a real and innate desire! A deep will is required to unveil the mysteries. You have to remember that the most essential keys are obvious. They are spread throughout the rituals, allegories, and trestleboards, as jewels might be spread on the sand. It is interesting to know that they are mixed with other symbols that are not significant, which are just the result of errors and unfortunate additions.
I am always amazed by what Freemasonry received all throughout history. Every Mason can be proud of this heritage. However, as I just said, the understanding and the use of these keys are not spontaneous and are usually not taught. Of course, Freemasonry is a philanthropic fraternity, but you have to remember that if the Masonic Tradition is limited just to this aspect, there is no difference between it and any other philanthropic association.
Therefore, a study of symbols has to begin with some serious questions about Freemasonry itself.
Even if you can find earlier traces of Freemasonry in the fourteenth century (1390-Manuscript Regius), the official birth still remains as 1717. However, its philosophical root is more ancient. Remember that Freemasonry is sometimes considered as a beautiful system of moral principles, which is illustrated by symbols. This moral aspect is a main component and a primary characteristic of Masonry. This is the axis of everything. I am not talking about religion, but about a philosophical dimension that is common to every human being. This is why freemasonry can be found all over the world, no matter the culture, the religion or the ethnic origin.
When you look far in the past to find a connection between masonry, architecture and philosophy, you have to consider the roman architect called Vitruvius. He was the first to associate moral requirements with properly fulfilling the work of an architect. To properly draw or plan buildings must require a proper moral commitment. He was someone who was eager to perform an inner work, a real development of the soul. This is not just a physical work.
But a mason is not just an architect.
It is clear that Plotinus is talking about what you are, the essence, origin, and final purpose of your soul. The purpose of initiation is to teach you a method to know yourself, so you can understand the meaning of your life. I am not talking here about a religious revelation, but an inner discovery and understanding that puts you in contact with the most essential part of you: your soul. The result of this awakening is never passive because when you understand and feel your life-purpose you will be eager to find a way to do something. Initiates who are Freemason have to take action in this life and prepare for the afterlife. In order to do that you need keys, real ones. These keys are called symbols. You have to know them and you have to understand how they work and how you can use them in your daily life in order to understand your personal life-purpose.
THE NATURE AND ROLE OF SYMBOLS
The regular practice of rituals causes an inner conviction to grow, a faith to emerge in you, in short something of a higher nature that makes you willing to accept the existence of another reality beyond the material: a spiritual reality. In Freemasonry there are no dogmas per se, but there are presuppositions that are generally accepted as common to every initiate. This is not a real theology as in Christianity, but something closer to ancient western philosophy and Hermeticism. This is not the place to go deeply into all the details of these concepts. Don’t forget that the purpose today is to speak about the essence, the use and the purpose of symbols. So let’s take few essential declarations that are common to all Freemasons. As a Freemason I believe in a Supreme Being sometimes called the Grand Architect of the Universe. If you want to avoid dogmas and religious war, the best way is to avoid naming this Supreme Being or trying to assign it a gender. As a Freemason I believe also in the immortality of my Soul and I cannot agree that my Spirit is reduced to only my body, which will disappear with death. I am not speaking here about a scientific demonstration, but about an inner conviction, a strong inner feeling.
The Masonic practice gradually makes us realize more and more deeply that the symbols of the Temple are also those of a spiritual Inner Temple, analogous to the soul and to the cosmos, behind which we see the divine. What the mystical tradition of the West, from the Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophers to modern theurgists, has always taught is that manifestation, or the first stirrings of the creation of the world, occur in a movement from above to below. Our corporeal body is just a visible aspect of a more subtle reality. And as the soul descends into the body, so does an idea descend into a symbol. This downward movement has nothing to do with a fall from Heaven or from grace: it is about the envelopment of the soul into a body, just like a body envelops itself into some clothes before going outside.
Imagine a moment in the past, maybe the time of the organization of the physical world. All things were organized according to certain invisible principles. It does not matter whether this structure is mathematical, symbolic, or both. It is invisible to your senses. As jewels spread on the sand, invisible symbols were spread in everything all around you. So the first step for the ancient initiates was to understand that there is an invisible reality beyond the visible. The second step was to find this reality. Think about the earliest initiates like an archaeologist going on a dig. He begins by analyzing the space, delimits the area he will work on (the surface) and uses his trowel and sieve to dig in the delimited space. Digging and sieving he may find artifacts. Then he can discern which one is significant, which one is just a conglomerate of mud, and which one is a real artifact. He can sort his discoveries in groups and organize them into a significant system. The earliest initiates did the same and these groups became the initiatic family of today, including Freemasonry, Rose-Cross, Hermeticism, etc… Of course these different Orders have symbols (artifacts) in common, but they also have characteristics which are unique to each family or Order.
However as an artifact, remember that the symbol is often hidden in a conglomerate of sediment. So you have to dig into the symbol, to reveal it.
A Freemason has to work on a strange and very special stone, an inner stone. There is a symbolic sentence composed of seven letters which are: “V.I.T.R.I.O.L.” These letters are the initials of a Latin sentence meaning “Visit the interior of the Earth and you will discover the hidden stone.”
This sentence is a modern adaptation of an ancient philosophical concept coming from the beginning of philosophy and esotericism. According to this ancient teaching, you are like the image of a divine statue that has fallen into a seabed and become covered with encrustations. It is up to you to reveal what lies beneath and to restore the beauty and purity of your original form. As Plotinus of the second century of our era said: "Although you do not see your own beauty yet, (you must) work like the sculptor of a statue who knows that what he is sculpting will be beautiful: he removes this bit, scrapes that part, and cleans another part until he reveals the beautiful face in the statue that was hidden beneath. In like manner, you must also remove all that is superfluous, righting what is oblique, purifying all that is murky. You must continue in this way until you restore its shine, and do not cease carving your own statue until the divine clarity of virtue shines in you. "
Of course you are not the first to work in these initiatic Traditions. Other initiates worked before you and began the Great Work by revealing and organizing symbols. We are lucky to be able to use their research and their knowledge.
So, in reality, a symbol is nothing but the most subtle clothing of an original and unique idea, emanated from the world above. So the natural representation of water and fire for example, is just the most external clothing of the archetypal unity it represents. This change of perspective leads us to a very important truth: that there is a consubstantial and original bond which the symbol establishes between these two dimensions. The symbol becomes the nexus, or meeting point, of the exchanges that take place between the material and divine planes.
So, let us now reconsider for a few moments, the principles which we have just stated. According to Platonic philosophy there is an ideal or spiritual world which contains the root principle, or archetypal ideal, of all that exists around us. As Plato told us in the myth of the cave, we live in an obscure world of darkness and illusions. I am not saying it is a bad world, but it is a deceptive world which could lead us to believe that the greatest pleasures are immediate physical pleasures, and the only satisfactions of the soul are to be found in this world. One of our objectives is to leave the cave and abandon these illusions. In order to understand what we are saying about the spiritual world, which is the place of Ideal Forms and First Causes, let us take a simple example. There are many varieties of trees in this country, such as maples, oaks, pines and birches, but if I say the word “tree” in a conversation, you will immediately grasp my meaning without having to resort to a particular representation of the word. This is because you already have in your mind an idealized concept of what a “tree” means, even if this idea cannot really be represented in details. This same principle applies to our understanding of human beings. Let us not forget what we have just said: there is a generic ideal which predates every created thing and which generates everything that follows. And so the idea of humanity existed on the higher planes before it came to this Earth.
This theory about symbols was very much confirmed by the research of Carl Gustav Jung and his school.
Up to this point I have been speaking about symbols as something external to you, something you can see in a Masonic Temple or in the places of worship of various religions. However, Freemasonry reminds us that the true object of the work is you. As the ancient motto said: "Know yourself and you will know the universe and the Gods", and so must you learn how to know yourself, in order to be able to perfect yourself. This is about polishing your own stone -your body -in order to reveal your inner philosophical stone, which is already perfect: this is your soul.
The Hermetic tradition teaches us that: "that which is above is as that which is below, to achieve the miracles of the one thing." Thus, you are one with the image of the universe. The Temple and its symbols are a dual representation of the universe (macrocosm) and of the human being (microcosm). A Masonic Temple therefore symbolizes each of you and all of the representations which you find in it are present in the ideal world, which is internal to each of you. This implies that any action performed on any external symbol will also act on and have an effect on what the symbol represents inside of you. If we gaze at a burning candle, or look at a sacred book resting in a place of honor, then our subconscious shall respond by acting upon the corresponding internal force or archetype. Thus, the fact of looking intently at a flame will have a real impact on our inner fire-nature.
You must now consider that symbols are not used alone as single symbols. They are combined together in a significant process called a ritual. To understand how symbols interact we will use an example.
Imagine a musical instrument, something like a lyre with three strings. If you pluck a string on one side, the string next to it will also start to vibrate. This is exactly what occurs when you look at any true symbol. As for the “string” on the other side it will also begin to vibrate. The blended sound which rises from the vibration of these two strings will have an impact on the first string which you initially plucked. It is the same in the work with symbols. Each action you take interacts with every other action at various levels. However, although I have just been speaking here about symbols and the effect of looking at symbols, the work in a Masonic Temple is not a motionless contemplation. Masons act through a ritual to transmit this tradition by the intermediary of initiations which develop over several degrees. And so I might say that each particular ritual is a system of symbols which is put into motion in a particular way.
For example, I could discuss the symbolism of a candle, or I could also light the candle. I may analyze the symbolism of the Compass, but I may also open it. Instead of just thinking about the symbolism of the Mallet and the Chisel, I can also use them to strike a stone and so “feel” the symbols. The rituals thereby amplify the resonance phenomenon which I illustrated with the example of the lyre with three strings. The fundamental principle is that I proceed with resonance from a single note (the symbol) to a symphony of sounds (the ritual). And so the impact on my psyche will be that of a symphony instead of just that of a single note…
In this way, you start to understand very well how a false note (or false symbol) destroys the quality of the music, and how a continual succession of false notes make the musical composition completely cacophonous and unable to stir the higher emotions, or have the effect desired by the composer. The ritual is not an entertaining game for grown-ups, but a very serious matter. It has been specifically designed to achieve a precise goal in your deep psyche, and so put to us in relation to the highest spiritual planes. It is for this reason that the ritual cannot be something that you merely improvise. The way the ritual is designed and performed is of the utmost importance.
From the time of the Egyptian Hellenism Mysteries, initiation has used the form of many different ceremonies to alter an individual’s state of consciousness. From a certain point of view, I may say that initiation is a divine play. On the first level, initiation is a method which introduces symbols through ritual movements in order to act on the subconscious mind of the initiate. The ritual use of symbols causes the person to react psychologically. He begins to pay attention to the archetypes present in his subconscious, and this activates the bond which attaches him to the spiritual and divine planes. And so if a properly carried out ritual can make you gain consciousness of your divine inner nature, then it is truly self-sufficient.
However, you cannot allow the process to stop there, because you realize that this method does not work perfectly each time. The candidate is symbolically a "rough stone", and you must accept that some stones will remain rough throughout their entire Masonic course. Indeed, it seems that some stones are not easy to polish. Is this the fault of Masonry and its ritual? Not entirely.
As I have explained earlier, the work is performed in a very beautiful external Temple. You have to remember that, in the Platonic tradition, beauty is consubstantial with goodness and justice. Thus the cultivation of beauty, when associated with the study of philosophy and the practice of virtue, elevates you towards the Divine. But one should not assume that the beauty of this external Temple automatically connects you with the Divine. Indeed such an illusion would lead you to forget the nature of the true inner Temple. Ritual owes its reason for existence to the reality of the inner life, as do all of the elements which surround you. It is appropriate that, just as Hiram, you rebuild your Temple, and so you fashion an Inner Temple from the external Temple, in order to give it a true reality in your heart.
It is from the moment when the symbol comes alive in you, that it becomes possible to give it life in the external world. Thus, you cannot act on the outside world, if you have not first accomplished the necessary work in the inner world. Before you can light a candle outside of you, you must first light the candle inside you… and so if you want to be able to bring light into a Temple, it is essential that you begin by illuminating yourself internally. This means that what makes for a real and effective Masonic initiation - that is, one which has the ability to really affect the candidate - demands a real continuity between the inner work and the external work.