Reflections of a Master Mason
Written by Bro. H. W. Dowling, MM,
Presented as a lecture at the February 2002 meeting of
Hawkes Bay Research Lodge No. 305 by WBro D. G. Ellmers,
The original address was first published in the Transactions
of the Hawkes Bay Research Lodge No. 305 in Vol. 74
dated 5th. May 1958.
I am a Master Mason only. I hold no office in my Lodge
and, consequently, I feel a certain lack of confidence in
presenting a lecture in the presence of those Brethren who
have given many years to the study and practice of the Masonic
It is true, however, that Freemasonry does not present
itself in exactly the same manner to any two Mason, however
learned they are. Our symbols and formulas are aids to speculation
on the inner meanings of the ritualistic acts we perform
in Lodge, which are themselves aids to a better understanding
and knowledge of our duties in our inevitable journey from
the cradle to the grave.
Each Mason has probably a slightly different idea of what
our Craft is generally and what it means; in particular
to him. To one, the outer aspect is the most prominent and
the most important-the Lodge and its activities taking the
first place in his regard. To another, it is the inner meaning
of Freemasonry, the spirit that underlies all the outward
forms and ceremonies, which appeals most strongly. To yet
another, it is Masonry's symbolism which is the most attractive.
It is the spirit of fraternity and equality which undoubtedly
draws us together, but each one, according to his inclination,
is thereafter free to indulge his individual taste as to
the particular aspect of our observances to which he gives
the greatest attention.
Upon my initiation I was impressed by the ceremony and
the verbal beauty of the Charges delivered to me. I had
no understanding, at that time, of their hidden meaning.
While I was charged with the duty of making a daily advancement
in Masonic knowledge - no opportunity was afforded me of
study in preparation for my passing. The test questions
of the First Degree were learnt but little understood and,
at the time, they appeared to be a somewhat empty form of
words. Whereas, closer study reveals certain profound truths
which may never become apparent unless the meaning is carefully
sought in the literature of the Craft.
In the South-East Charge of the Second Degree, the Fellowcraft
is exhorted to extend his researches into the hidden mysteries
of nature and science. In my view, Brethren, the words "hidden
mysteries" have a particular significance.
As our numbers are drawn from all walks of life, with different
trades, callings and professions and with different standards
of education and opportunity for study and the acquisition
of material knowledge, it seems to me that this charge cannot
mean that scientific principles and natural laws should
be investigated as a prerequisite for admission to the Third
Degree. Science and nature contain innumerable mysteries
hidden forever from the understanding of all but the most
In operative Masonry the hidden mysteries of nature and
science could well relate to the Fellowcraft's obligation
to study and become familiar with the principles of construction
and design of the mighty edifices upon which he and the
members of his Lodge were engaged and thus, by practical
work and active instruction, the Apprentice or Fellowcraft
would acquire the skill and knowledge qualifying him to
become a Journeyman or Master at his trade or occupation.
In speculative Masonry, is this not an injunction to so
study the hidden mysteries of the Craft that they become
understood and accepted and used to construct a life, richer,
fuller and more in conformity with the design of the G.A.O.T.U.
It is my sincere conviction, Brethren, that candidates
are frequently raised to the Degree of a Master Mason without
any course of study whatever or without the acquisition
of any knowledge other than that obtained from a series
of attendances at the working of the first two degrees.
And so I come to the underlying purpose of this lecture
- to appeal to all the Brethren, placed as I am myself,
actively to accept their responsibility not only to follow
a formula of words, actions and signs, but, as opportunity
affords, make a real attempt to acquire some understanding
of the hidden meanings to be found in what otherwise might
appear, on the surface, to be a meaningless routine, obscure
in origin and somewhat ridiculous in performance unless
What then is the real meaning of the Ritual of the Order?
What do we stand for and what is the symbolic teaching of
the three Degrees, in its simplest form? The answer to these
questions may well be a source of interest and instruction
for all newly raised Brethren for whom this lecture has
primarily been prepared.
Freemasonry stands for many things besides the grand principles
upon which the Order is founded - namely, brotherly love,
relief and truth. It stands for Patriotism - the love of
one's native land and a devotion to its interests and welfare.
Tolerance - for the opinions and views of others; a mutual
respect for each other's feelings; a mutual regard for each
others rights; a mutual desire for each other's welfare.
Equality - between the Brethren in their Masonic life; friendship
for all mankind of whatever race or colour, who upon examination,
or enquiry, are found to be good men and true, obedient
to the moral law and observance of the golden rule.
It claims civil and religious liberty for all men. It stands
for a true brotherhood - not only among individuals but
also among nations. It demands we act upon the square in
all our dealings, not only with our Brethren but also with
all men and all nations. It teaches systematic benevolence.
It exemplifies the dignity of labour. The aprons we wear
are the outward symbol and expression of our faith in work,
either of the hands or of the mind. For idleness has no
place in the Masonic creed.
It stands for the exercise of Faith, Hope and Charity;
for the Brother, faith in himself, in his fellows and in
the G.A.O.T.U. With faith there comes hope for a better
world and a better life and a greater understanding. With
charity, not so much of money but of mind, we reach that
compassion for the misfortunes of others, that teaches us
our duty towards the trials and sufferings of all humanity.
These and other teachings are enshrined in the three Degrees
and may be found by those who actively and conscientiously
study the hidden mysteries awaiting the understanding of
the enquiring mind. This enquiry, as I have pointed out,
is enjoined in the Second Degree, for the symbolism of that
Degree is in essence that of the progress of the worthy
Brother through life, from the initial state of ignorance
at birth, to a state of mind, through the acquisition of
moral knowledge, in which he can truly say that for him
"death has no terrors" and he is mentally prepared
for the final test, the third and sublime degree in which
we put off the restraints of life and become, in truth,
In this degree we pass from death to a new life, clothed
for the first time with our master masons' aprons as a symbol
that our labours are completed and that we are qualified
to join the Brethren who have preceded us to the Grand Lodge
Above. Translated into the experiences of life, the First
Degree symbolises the period of birth with all its concomitants,
restriction, pain, discomfort, and helplessness.
The candidate is introduced in a state of restraint and
of darkness in a lighted room. All but he are in the realm
of light - he alone is standing about in a slipshod state
within the temple. He is assisted step by step in a state
of helpless bewilderment. Masonically he is as inert and
unintelligent as a newborn babe - he is a ridiculous, helpless
and indigent figure.
If he has the means of buying assistance, in aid of his
moral progress, he must again be thrust into the outer darkness
from whence he came and be re-introduced into the company
of virtuous co-equal men - he must be "born again".
In short, this Degree symbolises the entry of a human life
upon a new world, where material advantages of wealth and
fortune find no place. Where moral standards alone predominate,
where there is no colour line, no rival sects or creeds,
but, where humanity, perfectly co-equal, stands proud. Based
upon the fact of its equality, it rests upon its essential
mutual quality and finds a broad avenue of common opportunity
for advancement along which the neophyte may make a daily
progress towards the perfection of Masonic knowledge.
The working tools of this Degree imply a state of rebirth
- part of our life henceforth is to be spent in prayer and
service; conscience is to be our guide and we are reminded
by the Chisel that our re-education has begun.
Proceeding onwards and still guiding his progress by the
principles of moral truth the initiate is led in the Second
Degree to contemplate the intellectual faculty. The Great
Architect as the planner and the Creator, now becomes the
geometrician; symbolic not of creation but of orderly progress
and development. It is the Degree of experience, of a life
planned, regulated and well ordered from the first acquisition
of knowledge, each span of life, through progressive moral
conduct, bringing us closer to the attainment of the ideal
realisation of moral perfection. This Degree symbolises
man's upward struggle from his lowly origin, to a well-ordered
life and rational comprehension. It recognises that the
path of complete moral and intellectual rectitude is full
of pitfalls, is winding and tortuous and that progress is
slow and difficult.
The candidate approaches the East, symbolic of the apex
of a well ordered and well comprehended universe, by steps
taking him in a quarter of a circle - or 90 degrees, the
angle of the square - as though ascending a winding staircase.
By itself this is a somewhat ridiculous performance unless
it is recognised for what it is, a representation of the
tortuous but ever upward struggle of the moral man to attain
to a state of perfection enabling him when life is over
to be accepted as a worthy brother in the Grand Lodge Above.
In short, this is the degree of education in the conduct
of a moral life, that long-drawn-out process by which man
is led to a realisation of his better self and, by successfully
surmounting the vicissitudes and temptations of life, he
is led to the throne of God Himself.
This rebirth and education in the moral arts seems to be
the meaning and explanation of the first two Degrees of
Some students reject wholly the Hebrais history and fables
with which our ceremonies are interwoven and maintain that
the real basis of our practices lies in the ancient Greek
mysteries of Eleusis, upon which have been superimposed
certain Jewish allegories with no historic foundation whatsoever.
Such Brethren dismiss entirely the references to King Solomon
and particularly the stories associated with Hiram Abiff
and go so far as to suggest that the explanation of the
Tracing Board, so far as it is Judaic, is pure nonsense.
I confess myself to having a similar feeling and it may
be found interesting at a later date to endeavour to trace
the many similarities between our ritual and that of the
rich Eleusinian mysteries where initiates were taught how
to achieve union with the Gods by rising above the fear
Our final passing to the end of the Second Degree brings
us to the point in mortal life where we have progressed
as far as the boundaries laid for us by the Grand Geometrician
and we are preparing to cross to the unknown state beyond
death. The symbolism of the Third Degree is the plainest
of all and we are left in no doubt that its object is to
teach us how to die. We are reminding ourselves that to
the just and virtuous man death has no terrors.
The candidate advances with both breasts open to the world
with courage and fortitude. He steps over the open grave
in recognition that the soul under the protection of the
Divine Being does not descend to the nether regions but
continues on beyond the grave. And the candidate thenceforth
proceeds with courage, with bold and marching steps, assured,
as he is, of a happy re-union with the former companions
of his toil. In symbol we have passed from death to a renewed,
more free and happier life.
In conclusion, I do not think I can do better than quote
Bro. W. L. Wilmshurst in The Meaning of Masonry, where he
says of this degree: "I sometimes fear that the too
conspicuous display of the emblems of mortality in our Lodges
is apt to create the false impression that the death to
which the Third Degree alludes is the mere physical change
that awaits all men. But a far deeper meaning is intended.
The Mason who knows his science, knows that the death of
the body is only a natural transition of which he need have
no dread whatever; all that he fears is that when the time
comes he may not be free from those "stains of falsehood
and dishonour", those imperfections of his own nature
that may delay his after progress. No, the death to which
Masonry alludes, using the analogy of bodily death-in-life,
is to man's own lower self, to which St. Paul referred when
he protested "I die daily". It is over the grave,
not of one's dead body, but of one's lower self, that the
aspirant must walk before attaining to the heights. The
soul must voluntarily and consciously pass through a state
of utter helplessness, from which no earthly hand can rescue
it, and in trying to raise him from which, the grip of any
succouring human hand will prove a slip; until at length
the Divine Help Itself descends from the Throne above and
with the Lion's Grip of Almighty Power, raises the faithful
and regenerated soul to union with itself in an embrace
of reconciliation and atonement.
This, Brethren, is the greatest of the hidden mysteries
of the Sublime Degree.