Prepared by W. Bro John Murphy PM May 2009, Hiram & Lebanon Lodge #3, GRPEI
Comment I started my quest for the precise meaning of Masonic Light after reading a paper written by V.W. Bro Norman McEvoy, Publisher of The Educator on “The Light of a Master Mason.”
In his paper he made reference to Albert Mackey’s statement from the Encyclopedia of Masonry.
“The connection of material light with this emblematic mental illumination was prominently exhibited in all the ancient systems of religion & esoteric systems.”
This mental illumination or Light is what I believe to be the very essence of Freemasony the very reason for our Craft’s existence.
I will ask a few rhetorical questions about Masonic Light:
1. Going through the 3 degrees you asked for Light, More Light & Further Light in Masonry & you were brought to that light in the 3 degrees respectively. What exactly was the “light” that you received?
2. What light have you received since you completed your 3 degrees?
3. What then, precisely, is this “Masonic Light”?
I would like to acknowledge a great Mason for providing me with the clues to the answers. The following presentation uses extracts from his work. Bro. Walter Leslie Wilmshurst who died in 1939, was a mystic with a practical knowledge & profound understanding of the religions of the world. His book, The Meaning of Masonry, discloses the real purpose of modern Freemasonry & the esoteric meanings of Masonic ritual. Therein, I believe, is the real key to Masonic light. Wilmshurst states the essence of Freemasonry is not the repetition of the ritual nor the safeguarding of secrets, but the regeneration of the Brethren. (This is subliminally reflected in Freemasonry’s often made claim of making good men better). I call it the Rebirth of the Brethren!
Candidates generally know little about Freemasonry. They usually join because they have relatives or friends who are Masons or believe Masonry to be an institution devoted to high ideals & benevolence. Some may even believe it may be socially desirable to be connected to our group. Their Initiation too often remains a formality, not an actual awakening into an Order & new quality of life. Their membership, unless such an awakening eventually ensues has little, if any, greater influence upon them than would joining a social club.
What does “Initiation” really mean & intend? It means a new beginning – a break-away from an old order of life & the entrance upon a new one of larger self-knowledge, deepened self understanding & intensified virtue. It means the awakening of those dormant higher faculties of the soul which endows their possessor with “Light” in the form of new enhanced consciousness & enlarged perceptive faculty.
Masonry was designed to teach self-knowledge. But self-knowledge is much deeper, vaster & more difficult to obtain than is popularly conceived. It can’t be acquired by the formal passage through 3 degrees in 3 months. It is a knowledge that cannot be achieved fully until a difficult path is strenuously pursued that leads its followers to its attainment. This is the sole aim & intention of Masonry. Behind its more elementary & obvious symbolism, behind its counsels to virtue & conventional morality, there exists the framework of a scheme of initiation into that higher path of life where the secrets & mysteries of our being are to be learned; a scheme that reproduces for us the main features of the Ancient Mysteries that were proscribed 15 centuries ago.
The origin & history of the Craft, & present purpose, and of its possibilities, are not understood by many Masons. We meet in our Lodges regularly; we perform our ceremonial work & repeat our catechetical instruction lectures night after night, and there our work ends, as though the ability to perform this ritual work creditably were the be-all & the end-all of Masonic work.
We seldom or never employ our Lodge meetings for that purpose for which they were intended, that is: for discussing in detail the mysteries of the Craft. Perhaps our neglect to do so is because we have not realized what those mysteries are into which our Order was primarily formed to introduce us. Anyone can understand the simpler meaning of our symbols, especially with the help of the explanatory lectures; but he may still miss the meaning of the plan as a whole. It is absurd to think that a vast organization like Masonry was ordained merely to teach to grown-up men of the world the symbolical meaning of a few simple builders’ tools, or to impress upon us such elementary virtues as temperance & justice (the children in every school are taught such things); or to enforce such simple principles of morals as brotherly love, which every church & every religion teaches; or as relief, which is practised as much by non-Masons as by us; or of truth, which every infant learns upon its mother’s knee. There is surely no need for us to join a secretive society to be taught that the VOSL is a fountain of truth & instruction; or to go through the great & elaborate ceremony of the third degree merely to learn that we have each to die.
Realizing, then, what Masonry cannot be, – what then is it?
But before answering that, I’ll provide some background to enable you to better appreciate the answer. In all periods of the world’s history, & in every part of the globe, secret orders & societies have existed outside limits of the official churches for the purpose of teaching what are called “the Mysteries” for imparting to suitable & prepared minds certain truths of human life, certain instructions about divine things, about human nature & human destiny, which it was considered undesirable to publish to the multitude. These Mysteries were taught in the greatest seclusion & secrecy. It is common knowledge that great secret Systems of the Mysteries existed in the East, in Chaldea, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, amongst the Hebrews, Mohammedans & amongst Christians; & was even found among “uncivilized” African races.
The great teachers of humanity, Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Moses, Aristotle, Virgil (the author of the Homeric poems), & the great Greek tragedians, along with St. John, St. Paul & innumerable other great names – were initiates of the Sacred Mysteries.
The form of the teaching communicated has varied considerably from age to age; it has been expressed under different veils; but the ultimate truth the Mysteries aimed at teaching was always the same doctrine.
What that doctrine was, & still is we will consider presently. Behind all the official religious systems of the world, & behind all the great moral movements & developments in the history of humanity, have stood what St. Paul called the keepers or “stewards of the Mysteries.” From that source Christianity came into the world. From them originated the great school of Kabbalism, that marvellous system of secret, oral tradition of the Hebrews, a strong element of which has been introduced into our Masonic system.
From them also issued many fraternities & orders, such as the great orders of Chivalry & of the Rosicrucians, & the school of spiritual alchemy. Lastly, from them also issued, in the 17th century, modem speculative Freemasonry.
Modern Freemasonry incorporated the ritual & the symbolism that, for centuries previously, had been employed in connection with the medieval Building Guilds, but it gave to them a far fuller meaning & a far wider scope. It has always been the custom for Trade Guilds to spiritualize their trades, & to make the tools of their trade point to some simple moral. No trade lends itself more readily to such treatment than the builder’s trade; but wherever a great industry has flourished, there you will find traces of that industry becoming allegorized, & of the allegory being employed for the simple moral instruction of those who were operative members of the industry. A 5,000 year-old Egyptian ceremonial system taught precisely the same things as Masonry does, but in the terms of ship-building instead of architecture.
The terms of architecture were employed by those who originated modern Masonry because they were ready at hand; because they were in use among certain trade-guilds then in existence; & lastly, because they are extremely effective & significant from the symbolic point of view.
Our present system did not come from remote antiquity; there is no direct continuity between us & the Egyptians, or even to those ancient Hebrews who built King Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem. What is extremely ancient in Freemasonry is the spiritual doctrine concealed within the architectural phraseology of our Ritual. This doctrine is an elementary form of the doctrine that has been taught in all ages.
Freemasonry recognizes Pythagoras as having undergone numerous initiations in different parts of the world, & as having attained great eminence in the science. Pythagoras was not a Mason in our present sense of the word; but he was a very highly advanced master in the knowledge of the secret schools of the Mysteries, of whose doctrine some small portion is enshrined for us in our Masonic system. Masons should make some effort to realize the meaning of their own institution, & should treat it less as a system of archaic & perfunctory rites. Masons should treat it less as a merely pleasant social order, & more as a sacred & serious method of initiation into the profoundest truths of life.
The Lodge referred to throughout our rituals is not the building we meet in but is our own individual personalities, & if we interpret our doctrine in the light of this fact we shall find that it reveals an entirely new aspect of the purpose of our Craft.
To sum up the import of the teaching of the three degrees, it is clear, that from degree to degree the candidate is being led from an old to an entirely new quality of life. He begins his Masonic career as the natural man; he ends it by becoming through its discipline, a regenerated or reborn perfected man. To attain this metamorphosis, he is taught first to purify & subdue his sensual nature; then to purify & develop his mental nature; & finally, by utter surrender of his old life & losing his soul to save it, he rises from the dead a Master, a just man made perfect, with larger consciousness & faculties. He becomes an efficient instrument for use by the GATU in His plan of rebuilding the Temple of fallen humanity, & capable of initiating & advancing other men to a participation in the same great work.
This – the evolution of man into superman – was always the purpose of the ancient Mysteries. The real purpose of modern Masonry is not the social & charitable purposes to which so much attention is paid, but it is the expediting of the spiritual evolution of those who aspire to perfect their own nature & transform it into a more god-like quality.
In all the schools of the Mysteries, as well as in all the great religions of the world, the attainment of the spiritual goal just described is enacted or taught under the veil of a tragic episode analogous to that of our third degree; & in each there is a Master whose death the aspirant is instructed he must imitate.
Freemasonry is a definite science, which it is possible for each of us to put into practice. To join the Craft for any other purpose than to study & pursue this science is to miss its meaning and intent. We are all imperfect beings, conscious of something lacking in us. What is that which is lacking in us? The answer is: the true knowledge of ourselves, the conscious realization of our divine potentialities.
Masonry, by means of a series of dramatic representations, is intended to furnish those who care to discover its hidden implied meaning & to take advantage of the hints it throws out in allegorical form, with an example & with instructions by which our return to the “East” may be accelerated. It does not refer to the architecture of a mundane kind, but to the architecture of the soul’s life. Masonry is not in itself a religion; but rather a dramatized & intensified form of religious process inculcated by every religious system in the world.
There is no religion that teaches the lesson of the necessity of bodily purification of our first degree; none that emphasizes that of the second degree that mental, moral & spiritual developments are essential & will lead to the discovery of the divine kingdom latent within us all into which we have as yet failed to enter. And there is none that insists upon the supreme lesson of self-sacrifice & mystical death to the things of this world so graphically portrayed in our third degree; none that indicates that in that hour of greatest darkness the light of the primal divine spark within us is never wholly extinguished, & that by loyalty to that light, by patience & by perseverance, time & circumstances will restore to us the “genuine secrets,” the ultimate truths & realities of our own nature.
Our teaching is purposely veiled in allegory & symbol and its deeper meaning does not appear upon the surface of the ritual itself. The deeper secrets in Masonry are heavily veiled and closely hidden. They exist concealed beneath a great reservation & that they are disclosed only to those who act upon the hint given in our lectures,
“Seek & ye shall find; ask & ye shall have; knock & it shall be opened unto you.”
And now, Brethren, it rests with each of us whether Masonry remains for us on its outward & superficial side what appears to be merely a series of symbolic rites, or whether we allow those symbols to pass into our lives & become realities therein. We cannot be said to have been “regularly initiated” into Masonry so long as we regard the Craft as merely an incident of social life & treat its ceremonies as but rites of an archaic & perfunctory nature. The Craft was given out as a great opportunity for those who cared to avail themselves of what has been little known & little taught outside certain sanctuaries of concealment.
The meaning of Masonry or light, therefore, is the regeneration of the initiate. He is to cleanse himself of vices & to examine his very soul and ready it for when the returned spark of life, that his soul is, returns to the place whence it came, to the GATU. To have the spirit rest in God, to have sincere & unwavering faith in truth and goodness is the inner secret of a MM.
The lesson is not intended to be simple & complete. In the ancient orders, this soul searching & soul building took a lot of work & dedication. We have now been given a glimpse of that goal, that aim, that light. We each are now encouraged to examine that which is within us to eliminate the weaknesses & the evils therein.
I thank Bro Wilmshurst for his insight and his legacy that he has provided to enable us to become better men by discovering the true meaning of Masonry and pointing us to the Light!
With full credit to Bro W Bro. Walter Leslie Wilmshurst (1867 – 1939) and his book: The Meaning of Masonry.
Very beautifully written and very worth sharing.
Have a wonderful day & God Bless Norm