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.
The techniques of interiorizing symbols and acting on the symbols with rituals are extremely old and they helped to elaborate some even more ancient initiatic systems, of which Freemasonry was a part. In the ancient world, the orator used to pronounce most of the lectures from memory, and there were special techniques to memorize the work as perfectly as possible. One such technique was to create a mental representation of a place, where the orator would then put the different elements present in the lecture. Such a representation is a physical reality into which it is possible to put specific objects, individuals or particular scenes. At the moment when the orator gave his speech, it was sufficient that he re-visualize the scene and mentally hold that in his mind so that the picture would correspond to his original text. Over time, this mental representation gave rise to increasing constructs which became known, during the Renaissance period, as “the theatre of memory.” Thus, in the 16th century, in a work bearing this same title, Giulio Camillo describes a strong theatrical symbolic system. Camillo said of this place that it is the representation of the soul, of what you cannot see with your carnal eyes. The number seven is omnipresent in that presentation, and is present in the number of columns, doors, lines of steps, and so forth. The columns (for example) are associated with planets, and then with angels and the Sephiroth from the Kabalistic Tree of Life, and so on. This is, at one and the same time, an image of the world and the spirit.
The initiates of this period began to make an ever stronger connection between this internal representation of the symbol and the nature of the symbol which we previously described. The inner Temple gradually became the place where the initiate stood at the center of the symbols he was working on. Later the ritual began to take form in this inner Temple and was gradually elaborated into a conscious transformation of the self, in which the initiate attempted to reconnect with the upper levels of his consciousness through an exaltation of his soul. The symbols that were used in the rituals were created from what we observe and understand of our daily lives. The ritual was conceived internally, on the spiritual level using that symbolic knowledge, but in full consciousness, and according to the genuine principles of transformation. Theurgic rituals, as they are called, are always worked out in this way. It was according to these very principles that later, an interpretation of the operative tools of freemasonry was to be formulated. And it gave life to what you now call speculative Freemasonry. It is clear in the writings of Albert Pike, that the bond with ancient initiations was conscious and intentional and that these techniques were used to conceive our modern system of rites and initiations. One may therefore understand why these principles of inner work are fundamental. Without those principles, we would be doing nothing more than a mere “stage performance”, performed without heart even if our representation was of the highest quality. And this is what “working in the lodge” is truly about.
With the introduction of the inner dimension, you become able to place yourself on the spiritual level and to really act on your own being. But it needs to be emphasized that this is not an automatic by-product. It only comes about by acting upon traditional techniques of visualization (or mental representation), of pronunciation, concentration, moving about in the inner Temple, or, (more succinctly put) this elevation only occurs when we take control of all of the aspects of the ritual, first on an inner level, and then, secondly, on the external level. So truly nothing is without reason in a ritual. This inner work offers you the inspiration to transform a ritual performance in lodge into such a powerful method that you would have nothing to envy to the numerous traditions of the East.
But don’t forget that a ritual performed by someone who knows how to activate symbols will really bring about what it is intended to do, -will accomplish what is contained in the declamations. This is true for an initiatic ritual and this is also true for a public ritual. For many years Freemasonry was not comfortable with the idea of providing ceremonies that would be open to the public. The difficulty of explaining the difference between Masonic rituals and religious rituals was their primary explanation. However Freemasonry recently decided to do something new. It was not the same in all countries for different reasons. Public consecrations of the cornerstone were (and still are) a core activity. I wrote extensively about that in my book “secrets and practices of the Freemasons.” Funerals are another important ritual.
The use of a wedding ritual was exceptional and just offered in few countries.
At the beginning of Freemasonry in Europe (in the 18th and 19th centuries) some Lodges composed special wedding rituals. These rituals are still not widely known. They were generally short documents, and the most ancient fragments were even handwritten. Several countries, including the USA, have never used these texts, because they are difficult to find and to decipher. It was the topic of a long, personal investigation. After searching through ancient Masonic manuscripts and texts, I discovered some very interesting fragments of wedding ceremonies. So I reconstituted a complete and genuine ritual for a Masonic Wedding! Since the rite utilizes the primary symbols of Freemasonry in a clear and meaningful ritual, this Wedding is now a wonderful expression of this honorable Tradition. However, as for any ritual, my goal was not merely confined to an intellectual exercise! It was essential to write a usable ritual, and to enable a Masonic Wedding to be performed. This task is now complete and today, Masons who wish to be married using this unique wedding rite can be married where I live, in Las Vegas. For the very first time anywhere, you can have an authentic Masonic Wedding, and your ceremony will be officially validated by the state of Nevada.
It is important to remember that an initiate who understands the way a ritual works, is able to use it to bring sacred blessings to his marriage, for different purposes and without any confessional requirements. This is the beauty of Freemasonry.
THE INITIATIC DEGREES
For now, I have just considered symbols and rituals together, without any more precise analysis. However, one of the characteristics of the Masonic initiatory system is that it is built upon levels of various degrees. It was the same with the oratory technique, where the speaker mentally envisioned several parts of a building he would walk around. Each part of the building corresponded to a part of the lecture. On the spiritual level, the connection between the material world and the spiritual world is something that is gradually built up over time. These degrees of evolving connections are called emanations in the Neo-platonic tradition. They represent our advance on the upward path, bringing us back towards the source of our soul.
Thus, Freemasonry also developed specific and progressive initiations. Each one has its own representations, symbols, passwords and myths… Each degree offers a particular message, while remaining in relation to the whole. Each degree is associated with a specific and personal inner working which continues to deepen the initiation which has already been received, and this is true both for the first three degrees and the “side degrees”. Each stage brings you closer to the source from whence you come and awakens in you the memory of your celestial origin.
In ancient times, the initiates of the Mysteries of Eleusis gathered together in a room of the mysteries, which was called in Greek the Telesterion. There the divine rites were played-out or ritually performed in front of them on stage. Thereafter, they were supposed to apply more specific individual techniques which would enable them to assimilate these rites and to go through each of these stages in their inner body. Participation in a ritual is not adequate, in and of itself. One needs to continue the work in the privacy of your inner Temple in order to make this process fully operative. Of course, this is possible by using organized teachings of basic techniques and special practices that are specific to each degree.
Unfortunately you cannot easily find lessons that include philosophy, symbolism, and inner spiritual practices. In my book “Secrets and practices of the Freemasons,” published by Llewellyn Publications, I provided explanations about visualization, invocation, and several rituals you can perform at home. This is a first step in something you can call a “Theurgic Freemasonry.” At the beginning of this speech, I was saying that some symbols can be represented by jewels spread on the sand. Now you can understand that a simple intellectual study of symbols or history is not enough to fully use these essential keys. An historian, a philosopher, or even a symbolist is able to explain many things. But even a good and interesting speech is useless if nothing more than the intellectual level of your psyche is involved. You have to understand that philosophy and symbolism have to be associated with the practice of a ritual in a group, as well as your individual practice in the silence of your inner temple. You cannot invent this from scratch. You cannot simply adapt meditation techniques from the East to Western symbols. There are specifics which can be taught and learned. You can find many things in books. I did that and I will continue to do that in my forthcoming books on this topic such as “Masonic Meditation,” “Masonic Allegories and Symbols.” Please note that these books are for masons and non masons, so it is impossible to say everything in details and to deeply develop the different esoteric and spiritual practices. For that a teaching restricted to initiates is required. This is why I (this summer) I will prepare and offer to Masons a special correspondence course containing all these aspects. This course will be available by Internet. You will be able to understand the deep relationships between the Egyptian-Hellenistic Mysteries, Mithraism and Freemasonry. You will be able to use the power and beauty of Freemasonry to really improve your inner being and so enlighten and really change your daily life. If you are interested to receive the information about this course remember to write your name and email in capitals on the page which will circulate during the questions. It is also a good idea to register at my own website in order to receive all my updates.
In conclusion, let me say once again that it is remarkable that Freemasonry, even today, is still the living expression of a very old Western tradition. This tradition comes from classical philosophy, as well as from the ancient schools of the mysteries, and is able to transmit a very rich heritage to you. However, it is necessary to perpetuate and reactive it unceasingly in order to reveal all of its facets. With this essential moral step as your foundation, your initiatic progression can, as the Platonists and Neo-Platonists would say, literally lead you out of the cave, viewed as a representation of the world and your body. The periods of lodge practice, together with individual meditation on the symbols, provide you with a complete system to carry out the true construction of your inner world, something that can elevate you to the highest degrees of consciousness. This is how a participation in both the fraternity and the profane world shall reveal its true meaning: to help this world become a better place for all.