So, the posts on esoteric Freemasonry continue. I hope that you have enjoyed reading the previous entries, and as always I’d love to hear people’s opinions on our blog or as comments to the articles themselves. I write these not only to share my thoughts, but hopefully to learn from people’s reactions.
This time around I am going to be examining a concept that lies at the core of the esoteric viewpoint. Particularly when we are discussing the esoteric aspects of Freemasonry, this perspective is key to progressing along the path and not getting too caught up in the ravages and pitfalls that the ego will manifest before you.
This concept is quite a simple one to comprehend, and yet at the same time opens up your work out onto a much larger and expansive field of experience and practice. Indeed, it is so simple at its heart that it can be summed up in a single sentence:
Masonic degree ceremonies are but the imitation of true spiritual initiation.
In a Masonic sense, the workings are initiations (or passings, raisings, exaltations etc.). In an anthropological sense they are initiations, they represent the movement from one social status to another. In an esoteric sense, they are allegorical examples of initiation. Although a simple concept, this still can prove to be a bit difficult to get one’s head around – particularly if you have been approaching the accumulation of degrees as an ipso facto progression along the spiritual path. Unfortunately, this is just not the case.
Don’t get me wrong though, I am not saying that our degree work is pointless nor do I mean to disregard the effect upon the candidate (or, for that matter, those conducting it). It is undeniable that when approached with dedication and sincerity the rituals themselves can help to facilitate an individual’s spiritual progression. But, in the end, they are merely a map – and the map is not the territory.
This will become a bit clearer when I draw some comparisons here between stages of spiritual progress (i.e. true initiation) and the degree work that we do in the Craft and Royal Arch (i.e. allegorical initiation). Remember that I said in my last entry that the Craft and Royal Arch combined represent a complete system of esoteric practice and understanding – well now I will explain more closely just what I mean by that.
In the Western esoteric traditions – particularly those of the esoteric Christian traditions – there are considered to be three stages of mystical initiation:
Katharsis (Via Purgativa, purification)
Theoria (Via Illuminata, illumination)
Theosis (Via Unitiva, divinization)
The correlation between this three-fold distinction and the structure of the core Masonic degrees is obvious, but by exploring them a bit more fully we can see beyond the exoteric allegory and begin to understand the true spiritual message that is being imparted in each degree.
Katharsis refers to the point in which the soul of the individual is cleansed of the shackles that the material world has placed upon it. Only those of purity can progress along the path towards the Divine Light, and before such purity can be achieved we must rectify the state of existence that is commonly referred to in Christian tradition as the Fall.
The state of being before Katharsis is one of darkness and distance from the Light, enveloped in material being and existence the individual cannot even properly conceptualise or consider what may lie beyond. The ravages of daily, ego-based, life cause all of us to lose sight of whence we came and become unaware of where it is possible to return to.
The comparison with this and the Entered Apprentice degree is clear. The workings of this degree directly refer to the state of darkness and the following rectification when the candidate is returned to Light. It is the beginning of the true spiritual path, often only achieved after many years of dedication.
This isn’t just a matter of deciding that you want to be more spiritual, or you want to approach the Divine, it is a state of being where you have been released from all other motivations – where your only goal and purpose is to continue towards eventual unity with the Divine Light. Jacob’s Ladder is symbolic of this purpose, and also of the difficulties and long journey that lie ahead.
Theoria is the next stage of true initiation, and is one of deep contemplation and experience of a vision of the godhead and its beauty. Only with the lucidity that one is granted by being free of the lesser passions can we ever hope to achieve a direct view of the Light.
The contemplative aspect of this stage of initiation can be seen in the form that the Fellow Craft degree takes, with its focus on study and the accumulation of knowledge about creation.
When considered in relation to the Entered Apprentice being returned to Light, this contemplation takes on a much more sacred tone then a merely academic study of subjects and text-books. It is to look anew upon creation in all of its forms, to consider its workings and manifestations from a sacred perspective. Such contemplation, again over many years and through great dedication, can lead to the final and most prized stage of initiation – unity with the divine.
Theosis is this unity. It is the living resurrection where upon that which was lost has now been found and can flow through the initiate, allowing them to become the action of Divine providence. When we consider that the Royal Arch degrees are considered to be the completion of the Master Mason degree we can see them all as one long allegory of this final stage of true initiation.
For the unity to occur the ego must be negated, the corrupted self must be overcome so that it can be resurrected in its complete and original form in complete unity with the Divine aspect that lies within our deepest internal vault. This is the culmination of the mystical path and the ultimate esoteric experience. It is true Sainthood, where one becomes a participant in the life of the Divine.
Through such progress, the initiate can help to repair the fallen material realm and begin to restore it back to the glorious state of existence before the Fall. There is no lust for result, for personal gain, as these have been purified and the individual has turned themselves over completely to the will of the Divine and has achieved salvation. Obviously I have not done any of this real justice.
Volumes upon volumes have been written on this process (consider also now the three stages of the Alchemical traditions; Nigredo, Albedo, and Rubedo), and they will continue to be written throughout the rest of human existence. But to begin to see things in this manner is to begin to understand just what the allegory is pointing to – and although the manner in which I have discussed it here comes from a Judeo-Christian background you will find similar understandings throughout all mystical traditions.
The allegorical ceremonies that we experience can direct us towards this process of true initiation, the symbolism that is present throughout our tradition is there to help us understand and contemplate that which is to a large degree incommunicable. It is vitally important to remember however, that although both allegory and symbolism can impart knowledge of the path, neither of them can walk it for us.