A Daily Advancement in Masonic Knowledge
An Address Given By WBro Roy Evans, PGS,
At his Installation as Master
7 August 2006
Consider the following statement I came across recently, purporting to set out the aims of Freemasonry. Freemasons belong to an organisation, which ought to be dedicated to self-knowledge, the nature of being, tolerance, the brotherhood of man and liberty of conscience, and perhaps on the way, a brush with the Deity.
Is this, in fact, what we are, or have we become bogged down in the mechanics of the system, more concerned with promotion to higher rank, with endless discussions about procedures, and the parroting, without meaning, of what, in itself, is a very meaningful ritual?
Are we indeed, supposed to use the word Ritual?
Where is the spirituality, the attempt at self-improvement, the journeys into symbolism, the journeys, come to that, into the unexplained, both within and without? Praiseworthy though it may be in itself, are we so engaged in initiating more men into the craft, that they shall, in their turn be appointed to office so that they can do the same to other men, under the justification of “A daily advancement in Masonic knowledge”?
These, brethren, are not just rhetorical questions, because to some of these brethren, something has happened – freemasonry has shaped their lives, even if only in a small way. They may indeed have grown, without knowing it. They have almost certainly learned something, even if it is only some ritual learned by default. But for many, I suspect, the continual conferring of degrees very soon becomes an end in itself.
It is easy to forget that in the eighteenth century Freemasonry was a radical movement, often taking a stand against abuses of power on the part of the Establishment. Its development and growth were a vital part of the Age of Enlightenment. It was, for many, the path to knowledge denied to them by an oppressive religious or political system.
The history of ritual development provides some intriguing insights – and here I digress to trace exceedingly briefly, something of the history of Freemasonry in England in the eighteenth century.
In 1717, at the time of the constitution of the first Grand Lodge in England, Freemasonry consisted of only two degrees, both of which were strongly Christian in content. In the 1720’s a third degree was added, or more correctly, the second degree was split in two to form the second and third degrees, and the de-Christianising of the ritual took place. In 1751, the establishment of a rival Grand Lodge called the “Antients”, who wanted to re-instate those elements in the ritual, which they perceive to have been abandoned, challenged the authority of this first English Grand Lodge.
In 1813 the two rival Grand Lodges buried the hatchet and devised a ritual acceptable to both, which was approved by the new United Grand Lodge in 1816. It is generally accepted that this compromise resulted in the loss of much of the previous focus on the spirituality of the ritual. For, as Colin Dyer points out in his book Emulation – A Ritual to Remember (take note of the title brethren - A Ritual to Remember), the proper means of instructing new masons is not by endless repetition of degree ceremonies, but by the various systems of Masonic lectures.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Lodges of Instruction did not teach degree ceremonies, they were much more engaged in moral and philosophical debate. Masons were often “made” outside the Lodge altogether, and then brought into the Lodge where their real work started, in moral, intellectual and spiritual pursuits. The ceremonial and procedure, the attention to dress and to precedence and seniority were to come much later, and were seemingly inherited by Lodges formed in the British colonies.
Degree ceremonies, by contrast, are only the means, however ornate they have become, of making masons and advancing them to other degrees once they have learned something. Degrees of what? Surely, you have first to study, to learn, to gain proficiency. This is the principle of any academic pursuit – so why should the requirements of Freemasonry be any less?
I wonder what the reaction would be if someone asked if it would be possible to include talks on historical or philosophical matters as a regular feature of Lodge proceedings, for such things are commonplace in many, especially European, Lodges. The perfunctory questions and answers we now submit our candidates to before advancement are merely the last vestige of an intricate system of morality lectures, which in the eighteenth century had to be imparted verbally (for nothing was written down) and learned by heart, before a candidate could advance to a higher degree. Nowadays, even the small amount left from these does not constitute a real test at all, since any amount of prompting by the Deacon at his side is allowable.
There is an example of a French Lodge where a candidate for Initiation was not admitted until after months of searching questions about his moral and philosophical attitude. Yet, if we examine the ritual forms we have inherited, we find that much of the spiritual content remains. We discover that all through our ceremonies we are encouraged to research our inner selves. Wherever we look in Masonic ritual, the overriding theme is one of knowing who and where we are and knowing our true relationship with our fellow man and to the universe, which I inhabit. A quest, which we can perhaps trace back to the Mysteries of the Ancient World, and which is the subject of a lecture in itself.
So, what is our Daily Advancement of Masonic Knowledge, and how do we go about this business of self-knowledge and inner growth? Or is it all just empty words?
To sum up, we are equipped with a very beautiful, very strong ritual system as a means of advancing towards self-knowledge. Our candidate is already imbued with divine knowledge and wisdom, which needs only to be revealed. He is on a journey to discover his own spiritual links.
His progress may be hindered if we pay attention only to the form of our craft and not the content, or if we are distracted by ideas of advancement, or if we seek the wrong things in our craft.
It seems to me also that we need to search, not only in the degree ceremonies themselves for the spirituality in Freemasonry, but also by other means to increase the awareness, particularly of the Master Mason, of the real meaning and inner spirituality and beauty of our Masonic ritual.