In the last few entries of this blog I have discussed the basics of just what esoteric Freemasonry is and how one might begin to approach the study of it. Obviously, there are so many facets and avenues to be explored that it’s going to take a while to give even a basic overview of the vast body of knowledge and experience that is esoteric Freemasonry.
Moving on from my last post however, there are some obvious further steps that can be taken – and the most obvious and readily accessible for all brethren is to be found in the many side degrees and appendant orders that exist within Freemasonry, particularly that of the Holy Royal Arch.
To the outsider, the many different orders and degrees that Freemasonry contains can seem confusing and obscure to say the least. Many dismiss such things as pointless past-times, designed to entertain bored middle-aged men with grand regalia and titles. There is, however, a point to these orders; and for the most part that point lies in the exploration of the esoteric aspects of Freemasonry.
Indeed, many of these orders developed out of an exploration for deeper meaning and symbolism within the original Craft rituals. Over time, groups of like-minded Freemasons banded together to explore the mysteries presented to them, and subsequently developed further ceremonial rituals to help illustrate the conclusions they came to. Many of these were deeply esoteric in nature, and are therefore of great interest to the Mason who wishes to delve deeper into Freemasonry.
It must be stressed at this point that joining the various side orders is certainly not a prerequisite to the path of esoteric Freemasonry, but it can certainly help point the way. Particularly for those who have not come into contact with the Western Mystery Tradition in another form, they can prove to be incredibly moving and inspiring works.
One should never underestimate the erudite knowledge of our brethren past, as they have not only been able to retain the beauty and allegorical significance of the Craft degrees; but have, in some instances, even surpassed them. For the record, I have not experienced personally all of the degrees that will be mentioned in this post (I am a member of Mark, Holy Royal Arch, Order of the Secret Monitor, and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia) – however, I have read enough about the orders that I have not experienced to be able to confidently presume their content and focus.
I do believe strongly that it is always an error to read the initiatory rituals of orders you have not yet joined, but one can certainly read about their significance and history without impacting too much on the weight of the ceremony if you should ever experience them in the future. Indeed, it is often by doing so that you are able to know which side orders will appeal to your paritcular interests within Freemasonry. It is in this spirit that I have read about orders that I have not at this point joined, and would recommend that those interested in joining side orders do some basic research before doing so.
The first and most obvious candidate – and included in the title of this post – is the order known as the Holy Royal Arch. Details of the existence of this ritual date back to around the 1730s, and thus it can be seen to have been a very early part of Freemasonry as an organised institution. Within the mythology, and more importantly for our purposes esoteric framework, of Freemasonry it is truly the core as it completes and restores aspects of the Craft rituals whole.
In the previous post on esoteric Freemasonry, I discussed the difference between esoteric knowledge and esoteric experience within Freemasonry. The Holy Royal Arch is the perfect example of esoteric knowledge that can be obtained through participation in the Masonic side orders, and by joining this order you can gain a much more lucid understanding of the Craft rituals and symbolism.
The ceremony is also of a standard that it can help – in the way that all good initiation rituals can – to bring you closer to the esoteric experience that beckons. There is definitely a good reason why the ceremonial exaltation to the Holy Royal Arch is considered to be “the completion of the Master Mason degree”.
There are many aspects of the HRA that deserve to be discussed further, but I shall save them for another time. What I would like to highlight, particularly for those who have joined the HRA in one of the jurisdictions that do not work the “Passing of the Veils” ceremony, is that by combining the totality of the Holy Royal Arch ritual and symbolism with that of the Craft degrees one truly does have a complete system of esoteric symbolic instruction to work with. For the devout and dedicated mind, one does not need to accrue any extra degrees or titles to walk the entirety of the esoteric path within Freemasonry. Everything of an esoteric nature to be found, can be found here…but don’t think it will be easy!
Beyond this there have developed literally dozens of other orders over time, today recognised by the UGLE there is somewhere close to 100 different degrees that can either be worked or conferred on the candidate; and many more have existed in the past. Each of these orders have developed according to particular interests and should be seen as such, it is not a matter of getting every degree but of finding the ones that fit you best.
Some, such as the Order of the Secret Monitor, express the virtues of brotherhood and looking out for the well-being of others. Others, such as the Red Cross of Constantine and the Royal Order of Scotland, explore Freemasonry through a particularly Christian viewpoint. Others still seek to flesh out the allegorical mythology of Freemasonry, filling in chronological gaps and continuing the story and setting of the Craft rituals.
All of them allow the individual to explore the aspects of Freemasonry that they are most drawn to, and all of them – despite what some may say – contain esoteric aspects to them; whether the original founders knew it or not! There are even avenues for the truly dedicated esotericist, such as the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, which although not technically a Masonic body one must be a Master Mason to join. All of these options, when approached with a degree of sacred reverence for their work, can provide the individual with different ways to progress spiritually and approach the ideal of the esoteric Freemason – the completion of the Perfect Ashlar.
What I wanted to get across with this blog entry was basically two things. Firstly, that for anybody dedicated to exploring the esoteric side of Freemasonry the Holy Royal Arch cannot come more highly recommended. But secondly, that having been exalted you do not need to take your participation in side orders any further if you do not wish to.
Esoteric Freemasonry is in many ways an individual path, the side orders can certainly provide you with particular directions to walk; but they cannot deliver any true esoteric experience. There are secrets to be learned that relate to esoteric knowledge, and indeed the ceremonial work can help one progress along the path to esoteric experience – but in the end, like all spiritual paths, the individual must put one foot in front of the other on their own volition.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have some brethren walking along beside you at the same time! In the end, this is the true blessing of many of the side orders; for it is here that you will find like-minded brethren who you can share the long journey with.
Having experienced the Craft degrees and delving into their esoteric aspects, the side orders provide the candidate with further symbolic and allegorical teachings that can help you explore and broaden your spiritual horizons. What they will never do is provide you with the concrete answers that you may, as an esoteric Freemason, be craving.
It really is a cliche, but these answers are truly incommunicable and no body of practitioners will be able to give them to you outright. What they can do is provide you with avenues to explore, paths that have been created through the findings of brethren that have come before you. Even though this may not be the answer you are looking for, do not underestimate the benefit of such knowledge – for it has been accrued over many lifetimes worth of study and spiritual contemplation.
I do realise that I have been a bit obtuse with my discussions on esoteric Freemasonry thus far, but I hope that you can see that there are very valid reasons for doing so. What I will attempt to do with subsequent posts in this blog is to explore some more concrete and definite examples. But, having said that, there is nothing stopping you from doing the same! Once you have started this process, you can already call yourself an esotericist. Be proud of such a distinction, as it is truly the most honourable of pursuits as long as it is done with a pure heart and the best of intentions.