Friday, August 23, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Esoteric Masonry

This is a meditation on the concept of “Esoteric Masonry”. The title is intended to be thought provoking, because I have come to believe Masonry, by its very nature, is “esoteric”.  Therefore, all Masonry is Esoteric Masonry.  The term Esoteric Masonry is redundant.  Let us put forth an initial definition to work from.

Google: "intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest."

Merriam-Webster: "designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone", "requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group", "difficult to understand".  "understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest"

1645–55;  < Greek esōterikós  inner, equivalent to esṓter ( os ) inner + -ikos -ic

And from

esoteric (adj.)

    “1650s, from Greek esoterikos "belonging to an inner circle," from esotero "more within," comparative adverb of eso "within," related to eis "into," en "in" (see en- (2)).   In English, originally of Pythagorean doctrines. According to Lucian, the division of teachings into exoteric and esoteric originated with Aristotle.”

The fact of Freemasonry being an institution relying on initiation, whereby an individual moves from being outside a group of people to inside a group of people, it seems clear that all Masonry is “Esoteric”.  There is no “Exoteric” Masonry (unless you are talking about “2B1Ask1”).  The word Esoteric can be misleading, and carries connotations sometimes unintended, sometimes intended.  I consider it one of the Masonic “spooky words” that Masons like to use to attempt to create some class of knowledge or experience which is somehow different from the knowledge or experience of other Freemasons.  It is an attempt to construct an inner circle that cannot exist in true Freemasonry.

One could say that the encoding of moral philosophy into symbolic language “is” Masonry.  The encoding itself, not the moral philosophy, is what we do.  The moral philosophy itself is not uniquely Masonic, and no Mason can claim it is.  The art or science of encoding and decoding is Masonry.  All encoding and decoding is by nature esoteric.  One can easily learn moral philosophy without Masonic symbolism. The practice of Freemasonry is in part, the practice of symbolic language.  It is the learning of “how” to decode what seems to be hidden in order to derive meaning from the observation.

The image for this meditation is a ribbon of fabric. From afar it appears to be a single layer, but light and proximity reveals multiple layers.  Pulling back one layer may reveal another.  This is the nature of our Craft.  There is no exoteric experience versus an esoteric experience.  All Masonic experience is esoteric.  We need to employ the image of layers in order to understand and communicate this.

The first tangible experience of Freemasonry can be said to be initiation into a lodge. You could say this is the first layer of knowledge a Freemason has revealed to him. After due consideration and meditation upon this experience, almost immediately, the Freemason experiences a revelation that each of the things he has experienced has at least one additional meaning.  Another Freemason may explain some tricky little hook to him, or in listening to a lecture, or considering a symbol placed before him, he may realize that there was some hidden meaning behind the surface knowledge.  This is Masonry.  It is common to all Freemasons, not just some Freemasons. The emblem of the “layer” is offered to illustrate this.

The following framework of five points is offered for consideration.

  1. The layers are interchangeable
  2. There is no upper or lower limit to the layers
  3. There is no “wrong” layer
  4. The layers are not secret
  5. Every layer is Masonic. None of the layers are Masonic.

The layers are interchangeable

There is no correct order, and there is no “top” layer or “bottom” layer. There are only layers that are new to you.  Everyone brings to Freemasonry their existing experience. It could be books they have read, their religion, aspects of their psyche, their dreams, their education, or any combination of experiences.  Contemplating a symbol, an act, a lecture,  a word produces a revelation in each individual which is unique to them. When this occurs, it is the “deepest” that individual has gone.  The layer a Mason has revealed is not “deeper” than the layer another Freemason has just revealed, though both may contemplate the same symbol, act, lecture, or word. Nor is it any less deep.  It is just new to him.  And that is all.

Looking at a symbol such as the Point Within a Circle, or an equilateral triangle, or an angle of 90 degrees, or a rising sun, or a word spelled in Hebrew Letters, or Greek Letters, or any other symbol, a Mason may experience a revelation of a mathematical or geometrical nature, finally understanding what a calculation means.  Another Mason, looking at the same symbol may experience a religious revelation, finally understanding what a scripture means (to him). A third Mason may experience a psychological revelation, finally understanding how he needs to change certain personal behavior. A fourth Mason may experience a philosophical revelation, finally understanding another piece of how the universe functions, and on and on.

At some point in the future, the third Mason may experience the revelation the second Mason has already experienced.  The fourth Mason may have already experienced the revelation of the first Mason before contemplating the symbol at all.  None of these Masons is going in a “correct” order.  None experience a deeper meaning than any of the others.  None of the revelations are deeper than any other.  They are all simply new to each individual.

It is important that Masons not spread the false impression that if an individual has not experienced the revelation they have, that their experience is somehow “less deep”. Your revelations are not my revelations. We may experience completely different revelations.  No one layer is above, below, deep, or shallow. All are completely equal in value.

There is no upper or lower limit to the layers

Having been exposed to a new symbol, an individual may pull back a layer and reveal a completely different meaning to it.  Sometime later, with study and discussion another layer may become exposed, and another; all relating to the same symbol. There can be a single layer.  There can be a million layers. Considering a symbol like the letter “x”, a Mason may interpret it as a letter of the English Alphabet, its number position in that alphabet, the same in the Greek alphabet, as a mathematical symbol, as a religious symbol, as a political symbol, or any number of layers.  If a Mason has only a single interpretation of the symbol, he is not incorrect, nor shallow in his understanding.  If a Mason has a hundred more interpretations, he is not incorrect, nor is he any deeper in his understanding.

There is no wrong layer

Freemasons should not push on other people our revelations in certain specific settings. Political or Religious layers are not “wrong”. They are legitimate.  When a Mason describes an interpretation of a symbol based on his religion, you might tell him not to discuss it in open Lodge.  But it is inaccurate to suggest that his interpretation is in any way wrong.  Likewise, many legitimate interpretations of Masonic ritual point to political philosophy and direct action that should not be discussed in open Lodge.  It is a correct interpretation of Masonic ritual and symbolism, as a competing or alternative interpretation would also be.

The layers are not secret

Some Masons have internalized revelations based on interpretations of symbols. Whatever these layers may be, they are not secret.  That the sun rises in the East is not a Masonic secret. That a man should regulate his behavior in order to benefit society is not a secret. Even that a man may do certain things to establish or re-establish a connection with Deity, is not a Masonic secret. The symbols used to facilitate the personal revelation are not secret. Though a Mason may have an hundred layers of interpretation of an hundred symbols, none of the symbols or his interpretations of those symbols are Masonic secrets. The Square and Compasses are not secret symbols. The interpretations of the meanings of the Square and Compasses are not secrets.

These layers may be impossible to communicate, but not prohibited.  They are impossible to communicate because if they are truly layers of symbolic interpretation, revealed through an initiatic process or meditation, they cannot be communicated through speech, or picture, outright explanation.  You could try.  We simply do not have the words.  Humans do not have the capacity to communicate these things to each other.  If we did, there would be no need for the science of Masonry.  We could simply write everything down in a book, or describe them to each other.  We would not need to dress in aprons and walk in patterns and carry objects, and repeat phrases, and display symbols.  However, it has been shown that the activities of Freemasonry, including but not limited to initiation, meeting as lodges, and performing ritual, are effective means of spreading revelation of layered knowledge. The institution carries with it the impression of secrecy when, in fact, the inability to communicate openly is woven into the science itself.

You could reveal every Masonic secret and explain in plain language every layer of knowledge you considered to be esoteric, and you could not provide the sought knowledge to the seeker.  They would still seek.  We know this, because it has been done.  There are no Masonic secrets that have not been printed and spoken publicly (FYI, this does not mean Freemasons are permitted to do it). Yet the exposure of secrets cannot allow one outside the lodge to understand Masonic knowledge as those inside do.  Yet going through the most basic, rudimentary practices of lodge membership, that of initiation, almost no matter how poorly performed, provides a seeker with building blocks and tools to peel back layers of knowledge he never could have experienced had you simply wrote out the experience on a piece of paper.

Every layer is Masonic.  None of the layers are Masonic.

An intentional enigma. One may legitimately and successfully reveal every layer to oneself through freemasonry or none of them.  All may be revealed outside of freemasonry as well.
There is no invisible line separating Masonic knowledge, or Masonic revelation with non-Masonic.  If a Mason uses skills (working tools) learned within Freemasonry to contemplate symbols, the revelations of layers exposed by this practice is Masonic knowledge.  As said, one may suddenly understand personal behaviors he has to change.  Is that Freemasonry?  Most Freemasons would say yes it is.  However, had the man come to this realization without ever having stepped foot in a Masonic Lodge, would the same revelation have been Freemasonry?  Of course not. Here lieth the enigma.

None of the layers are Masonic. One may gain the same insights, the same personal revelations, the same knowledge by studying Astrology, Alchemy, Religion, Geometry, Mathematics, Music, Psychology, and on and on. One may learn to interpret symbols. The layers of personal revelation themselves are not Masonic. The process the individual used to arrive at, reveal, or expose the layers internally can be Masonic, or it can be some other path.

One of the motivations for this meditation is the consideration of Freemasons who are either getting too much out of Masonry, or aren’t getting enough out of Masonry.  Some have convinced themselves that they need to go to a different system than regular Freemasonry, or a different affiliation, or need to leave Freemasonry.  This ranges from the seeker who has experienced a revelation that is inconsistent with their religion to the seeker who has not experienced the revelation they think they are seeking. He who has experienced something they did not like needs to understand that the layer of revelation itself may not be Freemasonry.  Masonic science simply shows how one may interpret symbols. The interpretation itself is personal, and one Mason’s interpretation may not be another’s. There is no Baphomet in Freemasonry.

He who has not experienced what he is seeking needs to understand that the ability to pull back layers is all one needs and all one will ever get, out of our system or any other.  The fact that one is not accomplishing the personal revelations one sought is likely not a failure of the system.  It is important to be careful not to adopt someone else’s interpretation of symbols as your own.  You will always be seeking confirmation of an understanding which is really just someone else’s interpretation of the same symbolism you are contemplating. Beware of someone talking to you about Baphomet and telling you it is a secret, inner, esoteric “meaning” of a Masonic symbol.  It is not. If you are frustrated that your lodge is not describing the inner meanings behind  “Lucifer”, “Osiris”, “Emerald Tablets”, or whatever, know that it is not a shortcoming of your lodge or of Freemasonry.  As a superior system, Masonry engages in teaching its initiates how to interpret the simplest of symbols to derive deep meaning layer after layer.

If you leave Freemasonry for a religious institution, or for a different initiatic system, or a different affiliation within Freemasonry, you may find a system which resonates better for you, and provides more opportunities to arrive at those revelations described here as layers. We should all try to understand, however, that Masonry as a system is not inferior or flawed, and that another Mason may receive the revelation they seek right where their feet are planted.  We should understand that those revelations or layers you may experience within Freemasonry or outside of Freemasonry are not Freemasonry itself, neither are they a religion, or another initiatic system.  Hopefully, they are “truth”, which you desired to arrive at.  Truth is larger than the religion that reveals it.  It is beyond religion, it is beyond an initiation, it is beyond whatever system is used to reveal it.  You cannot experience more truth, or greater truth than anyone else.  Nor is the truth you find any lesser or weaker than anyone else’s.

This is an attempt to describe another “meaning” of Masonry through the use of an emblematic symbol, that of a ribbon of many layers.  This “meaning”, if it exists, can only manifest by your contemplation of the symbol as described.  If successful, it should produce in the reader new realizations and lead to new considerations.

This is Masonry, which has no need or use for so-called esotericism. Every concept leads to another idea. None of us experience “deeper” meanings than any other.  Not only is there no esoteric Masonry (because all Masonry is esoteric), there is nothing you can learn in Masonry that you could not also learn elsewhere. Likewise, with regard to the moral philosophy you may seek out of Freemasonry, there is nothing you can learn elsewhere, that you cannot also learn within plain ole regular Freemasonry.  It is as esoteric as any other system. So, I am saying goodbye to “Esoteric Freemasonry”, not because I don’t believe in it, but because the concept is unnecessary, and wrongly implies there is some “other” Masonry.  There is not.  There is only what may be new to me.

I continue seeking.

Doug McCollough, Master Mason
St. Mark’s Lodge No. 7, F&AM, PHA
The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio

In the event this post generates some comments or conversation, I hope you will leave comments on my blog, tag me on Twitter (@masonicbookworm), comment on Google+ (+Prince Hall Affiliated Freemasonry), or my Facebook page. I also participate on the Blue-Lite Research and Discussion Yahoo! Group for Freemasons of Prince Hall Affiliation.


@masonicbookworm, @PHAMasons



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