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Article # 187
Masonic Symbolism

Author: V.W.Bro.Dr.John Reginald P.G.Chap., P.Dy.R.GM.    Posted on: Wednesday, January 18, 2006
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[This is a paper presented at the Seminar “On the Symbolism of the Second Degree” arranged by the Masonic Research Circle of Sri Brahadeeswara Lodge (No.150).The learned Author is a great Masonic Scholar, whose articles have been posted in several websites. He has in this short paper covered several aspects of the Masonic Symbolism in general and that of the Second Degree in particular. The article merits a serious study. Please read on . . . . . ]

Masonic Symbolism

Paper presented by V.W.Bro.Dr.John Reginald P.G.Chap., P.Dy.R.G.M

I am thankful for the unique opportunity given to me to share with you all, a few of the thoughts that are uppermost in my mind on Symbolism in general and Masonic Symbolism in particular. This Seminar has been arranged under the caption “Symbolism of the Second Degree”. Before, the particular teachings in the F.C degree are considered, it is necessary, to have a complete understanding of the expression, “Masonic Symbolism”. An understanding of the Masonic Symbolism requires in the first instance, as Bro.A.H.Ward has indicated in his “Masonic Symbolism and the Mystic Way”, a knowledge of the theory of Mysticism. He has pointed out that there were the Greater Mysteries and the Lesser Mysteries teaching the secret doctrines of pre-existence and reincarnation, revealing a long pilgrimage through successive and series of births and stressing the rule, that complete perfection can not be achieved, while the physical body and life are imperfect. The Lesser Mysteries taught the stages of evolution by initiatory procedures, helping the initiate to progress by his own individual effort to evolve to higher stages. In Greece, the stages of progress were rather enacted in a dramatic way, like the Mystery Plays. Our Masonic Rituals are analogous of the said symbolic performances. The inner teachings of those Mysteries were couched in symbolic and paradoxical terms, but were understandable only to those, who were in it. The initiate with the guidance of his preceptors and by his constant industry and efforts gets enlightenment and revitalization and experiences the realities of those Mysteries. Those secrets can not be revealed, because those were matters of his individual experiences in evolving to higher levels. Likewise, the evolution in understanding the symbolism, developing the Self as per the deeper Symbolism of the Masonic teachings can only be the individual effort and experience of the concerned brother.

Even at the time, when we beheld the light of Freemasonry for the first time, we have been instructed that Freemasonry is not the usual morality, but is “a peculiar system of Morality, veiled in Allegory and illustrated by Symbols”. Symbols are emblems, which by convention or custom or common understanding represent something else and convey a hidden meaning or purport, which if properly understood teach us moral sense or values and further prevent strangers and uninitiated from understanding the secrets and the meaning conveyed by them. The word Symbol means to compare and it serves to convey an abstract matter and make it understood by comparison with a concrete object. Whenever it becomes necessary to comprehend the truth and the things too great for our minds, a symbol, that which is within our mental grasp is used to impress on our minds the truth and the thing we are unable to comprehend is identical with the truth in relation to the symbol, which we can easily comprehend. This method is used throughout the Masonic teachings. Symbolism is therefore the science of symbols or signs, the philosophy or art of representing abstract truths and ideas by concrete things.

The speculative masons adopted Symbolism to make the brethren contemplate on the various teachings of freemasonry, symbolically using the working tools of operative masons to progress further. I am reminded at this stage of the famous words of Thomas Carlyle in his “Sartor Resartus”. Let me quote the same in extenso.

“By Symbols is man guided and commanded, made happy, made wretched.

He everywhere finds himself encompassed with symbols recognised as such

or not recognized. The Universe is but one vast symbol of God; nay, if thou

wilt have it, what is man himself, but a symbol of God; is not all that he does

symbolical; a revelation to sense of the mystic God-given force that is in him;

a Gospel of Freedom, which he, the Messiah of nature, preaches, as he can,

by word and act? Not a Hut he builds but is the visible embodiment of a

Thought; but bears visible record of invisible things; but is, in the

transcendental sense, symbolical as well as real."

Bro.Joseph Fort Newton urges in his book Builders, that “ Freemasonry is too great an institution to have been made in a day, much less by a few men, but was a slow evolution through a long time, unfolding its beauty as it grew. He has compared Freemasonry to one of its own Cathedrals, upon which one generation of builders wrought and vanished and another followed, until amidst vicissitudes of time and change, of decline and revival, the order itself, became a temple of Freedom and Fraternity.” He has added that its history discloses its innermost soul in the natural process of its transition from actual architecture to its “more noble and glorious purpose”.

Masonic scholars have from time to time affirmed that Freemasons are Builders and we are in the Lodge to build a Spiritual Temple, with our character as basic and raw material, moral principles as our tools and the V.S.L as the book of specifications and standards. In fact, all the three craft degrees guide us step by step to this great task of building the Temple, not with human hands, but eternal in Heaven.

Masonic scholars have indicated, that the First Degree is the stage of preparation, self-discipline and purification and it therefore corresponds with that symbolical cleansing provided in almost all the systems of Spiritual Practice and Progress and in all the Religions. It has been specially formulated for the express purpose of, introducing the initiate to the preliminary stage of a system of self-discipline and enlightenment, which if faithfully followed up, will necessarily involve a transition from the ordinary natural state and standard of living towards, evolution to higher spirituality, which is also known as the regenerate state.

After purification comes contemplation, steady progress and enlightenment and these are the special subjects of the Second Degree. The Second Degree directs the F.Cs to contemplate the intellectual faculty and to trace it from its development to the throne of God Himself. The secrets of Nature and the principles of Intellectual Truth are unveiled to his view. Symbolically, as the F.C has attained proficiency in the work of self perfection, he is removed from the N. of the Lodge, which is symbolic of the state of darkness and imperfection and placed on the S.E. and in the meridian sunlight of moral illumination, but is yet to achieve fuller realisation of himself and of the mysteries of his own nature, which it is for the spiritual adept or Master Mason to attain.

Bro.W.L.Wilmshurst, in his “Meaning of Freemasonry", writes, “The apprentice-work, which relates to the subduing of the sense-nature and its propensities, being achieved, the next stage is the development and control of the intellectual nature; the investigation of the "hidden paths of nature (i.e., the human psychological nature) and science ", the gnosis of self-knowledge, which, pushed to its limit, the candidate is told "leads to the throne of God Himself" and reveals the ultimate secrets of his own nature and the basic principles of intellectual as distinct from moral truth. It should be noted that the candidate is told that he is now "permitted to extend his researches" into these hidden paths. There is peril to the mentality of the candidate, if this work is undertaken before the purification of the Apprentice stage has been accomplished. Hence, the permission is not accorded, until that preliminary task has been done and duly tested.

The work of the Second Degree is accordingly, a purely philosophical work, involving deep psychological self-analysis, experience of unusual phenomena, as the psychic faculties of the soul begin to unfold themselves and the apprehension of abstract Truth (formerly described as mathe­matics). This work is altogether beyond both the mental horizon and the capacity of the average modern Mason, though in the Mysteries of antiquity the Mathesis (or mental discipline) was an outstanding feature and produced the intellectual giants of Greek philosophy. Hence, it is that, nowadays, the Degree is found dull, unpicturesque and unattractive, since psychic experience and intellectual principles cannot be made spectacular and dramatic, but must be individually experienced. The importance and the study of the symbolism of the fellow craft degree do not appear to be bestowed with as much care and devotion it deserves.

The true object of the studies in Masonry is to add to our estate of wisdom and not merely to our knowledge. Masonry being a progressive science, it helps us to march and progress towards light, for which purpose the F.C is permitted to extend his researches into the hidden mysteries of Nature and Science.

He is then presented with the W.Ts of the degree. I do not propose to deal at length with the Symbolism of the W.Ts, the pillars, the Winding Staircase, the numbers 3, 5, and 7 and that of the Five Noble Orders of Architecture, Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Middle Chamber as I find that separate papers are to be presented on those topics. I will confine myself with a few observations on the general pattern of Symbolism in this degree.

Passing through the two great pillars, the F.C enters the porch and the checkered pavement commences for him to moralize upon. It symbolizes the checkered nature of human life. It teaches us that bright days are followed by dark ones and that we must take with equanimity joys and sorrows, successes and failures and the craftsman being in the middle life should adjust his life and complete his allotted work, while it is still day. He has to grasp his spiritual S., L., and the P.R and use them properly to develop his character, piety, devotion and life, so that in due time, he will become a perfect stone to enable the G.G of the U to assign him his proper place in the Temple, eternal in Heaven. The staircase is not straight. It is winding. We have to subdue the Five Senses, symbolized by the Five Noble Orders of Architecture and proceed with the mastery of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences to enable us to reach the Middle Chamber, where our wages would be paid as due to us.

Let me conclude by observing that, while Rituals are the life blood of Masonry, merely reciting them and forget the lessons they convey, will only make us poor Craftsman and let us make an earnest endeavour to assimilate the symbolism in our life and actions, which alone will convert our hearts as temples of Peace, of Purity, of Hope, of Love and of Compassion. I congratulate the Masonic Research Circle for arranging the Seminar, enabling us to ponder over and share our ideas and knowledge of Masonic Symbolism. I thank once again the organizers for providing an opportunity to me to be part of the Seminar and thank you all for the patient hearing.

The learned author is a very busy Consultant Neuro Surgeon of great repute, and Professor of Neuro Surgery, who in spite of many pressing emergencies of his profession, spares ample time for Masonic Research and Education. He was the Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of India till recently. He is at present the President of the Board of General Purposes of the Regional Grand Lodge of Southern India and a Past Deputy Regional Grand Master. He is a great Masonic Scholar, who has delivered several Orations and Lectures and presented several papers at various Masonic Seminars. Many of his Articles have been posted in several Masonic Websites all over the world. We are very thankful to him for presenting the paper at the Seminar “ On the Symbolism of the Second Degree” conducted by us and for his gracious permission to post the article in this website.

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