Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Past And Future Of The Masonic Order

The first recorded reception of a nonoperative Mason to an operative Lodge occurred at Edinburgh in 1600. The Operative Lodges were then becoming obsolete and defunct and by 1620. Operative Masonry had become entirely superseded in London by Speculative, the members of the former working no longer in guilds but striving still to keep alive their old form of fellowship. The first traceable initiation, on English soil, of a non operative Mason occurred at Newcastle in 1641 and the second that of Elias Ashmole, already a student of arcane science at Warrington in 1646. Accretions to the ranks of the Craft proceeded to be made, but were at first few and gradual, owing to disturbed political conditions. The Charter of the Royal Society, dated 1663, as drawn up by Dr. (afterwards Sir) Christopher Wren, seems to have been prepared with a view to giving official sanction not to science as at present secularly understood and pursued, but to science of a more occult character such as Masonry as before defined deals with, for the preamble of that document refers to private meetings of certain men devoted to the investigation of the "hidden causes of things" in the public interest.

In 1717 four old London Lodges combined to constitute a new nucleus . From them the first Grand Lodge was formed and thus Modem Masonry was born, at an inn, the Apple Tree Tavern, in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

In 1721 Dr. Anderson was entrusted with the drawing up of the Constitutions of the new community. The conditions of the Craft in that year may be deduced from a statement of the eminent antiquary Dr. Stukeley, who writes, "I was the first person made a Freemason for many years. We had great difficulty to find members enough to perform the ceremony. Immediately after that it took a run and ran itself out of breath through the folly of its members".

Abuses supervened from the admission of all and sundry without due qualifications. In 1724, a Brother protested in a public journal that, "the late prostitution of our Order is in some measure the betraying of it. The weak heads of vintners, drawers, wigmakers, weavers, etc., admitted into our Freemasonry, have not only brought contempt upon the Institution, but do very much endanger it". In the same year was established "for poor brethren" the first benevolent fund, which since has developed into the great Charity organisations now connected with the Craft.

In the course of the next fifty years the numbers of the Craft so increased that central headquarters were found advisable and on May day of 1775, the foundation stone of the present Freemasons' Hall in London was laid with great ceremony. Despite the fact that men were being admitted to the Order who were little qualified to appreciate the science of Masonry and that consequently the understanding of that science was becoming increasingly debased, elements of the original intention still remained and echoes of it can be caught in some of the recorded incidents of the occasion. In the Foundation stone itself was inserted a plate perpetuating the event and the names of the then Grand Master, his deputy and the Grand Wardens and stating that Masonry was of heavenly origin, "descendit e ccelo" and concluding with the maxim of Solon in Greek characters, "Know thyself." At the religious service performed upon the occasion was sung an anthem of praise to the Great Architect,

"Who deign'd the human soul to raise
By mystic secrets sprung from heaven "

whilst a specially composed ode affirmed of the new Aula Latomorum that,

"Religion, untainted, here dwells,

Here the morals of Athens are taught,
Great Hiram's tradition here tells

How the world out of chaos was brought"

From these extracts it is clear that, at least to its leading minds, Masonry was a secret science of soul building and that the great central legend and mythos expressed in the Traditional History in the Craft's Third Degree referred to no events in earthly time or history, but to Cosmic events of a metaphysical and mystical character. Further, from the preface to the Constitutions of 1784, it is made clear that the practical builder's art is to be considered only as the substratum of Speculative Masonry, that the history of the Operative side is negligible, for when Speculative Masons became a separate body of men the science had no further concern with practical building and that the Speculative work is a personal mystical one, rising like a pyramid "tending regularly up to a summit of attainments, ever concealed by intervening clouds from the promiscuous multitudes of common observers below"

Freemasons' Hall being completed, it was, on 23rd May 1776, triply dedicated, again with great ceremony firstly to Masonry, a second time to Virtue, and a third time to Universal Charity and Benevolence. The last named of the three purposes came in course of time to dominate completely at least the first of them. The Craft became a great money raising institution for relieving its own needy members and their relatives, and as a charitable society does excellent work which commands the devoted interest of many good Brethren who know nothing and seek to know nothing, of Masonry itself in its only proper and primary aspect of spiritual science and who regard it merely as a luxurious item of social life and maintain their connection with it solely from philanthropic motives.

From the facts thus roughly outlined it is clear that the pre 1717 Brethren were men of a very different calibre and held a vastly higher conception of Masonry, from those who subsequently came to constitute the Craft and have expanded it to its present great dimensions. Of the latter class, whatever their merits, virtues and good works in other respects, they cannot be said to have been either theoretic or practical 'mystics or to have cultivated the knowledge of Masonry as that science must be primarily understood. They cannot say of themselves as their predecessors truly could and did, “We have the Mason Word and second sight”, for growth in the life of the spirit and the enhanced faculty and inward vision that come therewith have not been within the ambit of their desire. As one of the most deeply learned and understanding writers upon the subject affirms, (the authoress of A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery) "The outward form (or present practice) of Masonry is too absurd to be perpetuated were it not for a certain secret response of common sense to the original mystery. The Initiated moved one another on by words of power. The Masons ape this but have lost the magic key to open the door into the Hermetic garden. They want the words, which are only to be found by seeking them in the subjective fundamental life, from which they are as far out as the tools they use. The true tools also may be found on the way in, they will be given one after another as they are wanted ." Another learned author, who had every motive to speak well of the Craft the late Brother John Yarker was constrained to write in 1872, in his able and most instructive Notes on the Scientific and Religious Mysteries that, "As the Masonic fraternity is now governed, the Craft is fast becoming the paradise of the bon vivant, of the charitable hypocrite, who forgets the version of St . Paul and adorns his breast with the ‘charity jewel' (having by this judicious expenditure obtained the purple, he metes out judgment to other brethren of greater ability and morality but less means), the manufacturer of paltry masonic tinsel, etc. No other institution is so intrinsically valuable as Craft Masonry, or capable of such superhuman things. As now governed, few societies perform less. None profess such great objects, few accomplish so very little real and substantial good. May reformation be speedy and effective "

Such facts are not pleasant to contemplate, nor would they be proclaimed here without good purpose and a constructive motive. But it is well to face them before proceeding further, since what remains to be said will not only deal with a happier aspect of the subject, but is based upon the premise that the otherwise deplorable perversion and materialisation of the true Masonic intention has been both an inevitable and a necessary prelude to a spiritual efflorescence which in due course will manifest itself and of which the beginnings are already perceptible.

In no censorious or reproachful spirit, therefore, are such observations as the foregoing recorded. They might indeed be extensively amplified, if to do so would serve any useful purpose, but no one with intimate experience of the Craft will fail to recognise either their truth or the cogency of their reproach. It is undeniable that, through ignorance of the true principles of Masonry, the Craft has suffered itself to become debased and overrun with members lacking alike the intellectuality, the temperament, and the desire, to appreciate those principles . To day's newspaper, for example, contains the advertisement of a turf bookmaker who proclaims himself to be "on the square," and on the strength of that qualification seeks to engage the services of a betting tout. It is well known that commercial houses to day find it advantageous, for business purposes, to insist upon their more important employees being members of the Order. In the Order itself advancement is notoriously connected with social position and the extent of a member's contributions to the Charities. Honours, and even medals, are bestowed for money payments to this or that subscription list. Any man with a title, from a mayor to a prince, needs only to be a Mason a matter of months to find himself elevated to some figurehead position in the Craft, without the least merit of a purely Masonic kind or any understanding of the science itself. The central ideas and teachings of the Craft are left unexplained, ceremonies are discharged quite perfunctorily and with the majority are of entirely subservient importance to the indissociable feasting and wearisome rounds of speechmaking that follow and the general ignorance of Masonic truth provides ample scope for the self assertion of men, whose ideas of moral grandeur and Masonic virtue are evidenced by an ambition to attain office in the Craft and to adorn their persons with as much purple and jewellery as they can acquire. It is all woefully wrong and misconceived. Of course worthier traits exist. The heart of English Masonry is sound, if its head be obtuse and muddled and the work of its hands not of the character it might and ought to be.

When the worst has been said that can be charged against the methods of modern Masonry, it amounts merely to an exhibition of venial human weakness, vanity and sycophancy, the growth of which, whilst obscuring and falsifying Masonic principles, has been due to failure to grasp what those principles imply and entail. Many tares have sprung up among the corn, but good corn has not failed to grow and that the two can grow together in the same field is a tribute to the richness of the soil from which both spring and the nourishing power of the Masonic intention, which, like sunlight, shines impartially upon both and quickens whatever seed is sown within its field, whether tares or wheat .

There are few received into the Craft to whom Masonry does not bring, if but dimly and momentarily, some measure of new vision, some impulse towards its ideals, few who do not feel it to contain something far greater than they know or than appears upon its surface presentation. Moreover, in the deep heart of every man exists a responsiveness to ultimate truth and a fondness, amounting sometimes to a passion, for it when expressed in ceremonial grandeur and impressiveness, a sub conscious reminiscence, as Plato would explain, of truth and glories it has once known and must one day know again, and which Masonic ritual does something to revive, as was of course the intention of all the Initiation systems of the past and is still the intention of our present Order. And how often one finds minds which are denied, or which would repudiate, the use of symbolic ritual in their Church, leap to it with admiration and affection in their Lodge, as though the Protestant rejection, in the religious sphere, of the rich symbolism and sacramentalism wisely once devised for instructing eye, ear and mind and exalting the imagination towards spiritual verities, had starved them of their rightful nourishment. It is not surprising that to many such minds Masonry becomes, as they themselves say, a religion, or at all events a precious fact to which their souls respond however inarticulately, and that for them the door of the Lodge is, as was once said of the Altar rails, "the thin barrier dividing the world of sense from the world of spirit".

W.Bro.Walter Lelie Wilmshurst