The Importance of Freedom in Freemasonry
[Editor’s Note: Glad to present another new contributor here – Bro. Mark Patrick – who recently presented this paper during a meeting of Tetragon Lodge #6302, UGLE. It builds upon the work done by Bro. Matthew Davison in his earlier paper, also presented here on this site, and continues the discussion about what it means to be ‘free’, freedom in Freemasonry.]
Today is the first anniversary of my initiation into Freemasonry, and I was exalted into the Holy Royal Arch of Jerusalem just a week ago sufficed to say, it’s been a wild ride. I’ve decided to mark this occasion by presenting my first Masonic Paper in my Mother Lodge.
I intend to discuss a topic which, at first sight puzzled me immensely and, I’m quite sure will have puzzled a few of the other “younger” brethren of the lodge. And that is the necessity of us being free. Question 8 of §1, Lecture 1 asks: ‘What manner of man ought a freemason to be?’ The answer to that being: ‘a free man, born of a free woman, brother to a king, fellow to a prince or beggar, if be a mason and found so worthy.’ But, brethren, why is there this emphasis on “freedom” and why is it critical to the Masonic Experience?
Well, on first reading we could simply rule this explanation out as a product of when it was written. For quite apart from the enslavement of vast numbers of Africans in the sugar and cotton fields of the New World which began in the seventeenth century, the system of serfdom was still fresh in the popular memory (certainly among the early guilds of operative masons from which our order may, or may not have originated).
It may have had a number of practical reasons behind it, such as slaves not having any property, funds, or time that was their own, it all being under their master’s ownership. As unmasonic as it may seem, someone without the freedom, or more simply, time to help a friend or brother in time of need, or make a daily advancement in masonic knowledge, wouldn’t be the best candidate, either for the lodge, or more importantly, for themselves.
But as with all things in masonry, despite what some older masonic compendia may say, we can’t take the freedom requirement at face value. It goes deeper than the requirement of being a “free” man in the physical sense of the word. In the 1st lecture the answer to the question “Why Free?” states that “the minds of slaves are more vitiated and less enlightened than those of the freeborn.” And it is into the mind we must venture for the Slavery referred to is not physical instead, I believe, it is mental.
Manly P. Hall, in his Lost Keys of Freemasonry tackles this theme very early on in the book (which I’ve only dipped into, but would truly “commend to your most serious perusal”) when he says that ‘There comes a time in the growth of every living individual thing when it realizes with dawning consciousness that it is a prisoner’ and this in Hall’s, and my opinion is worse than any form of physical slavery.
He gives us the example of Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon, who paced up and down his cell, frustrated the sights, and sounds, of Lake Geneva outside his cell, and the freedom that represented. Byron encourages us to pity the plight of the prisoner who is being continually taunted by the fleeting glimpse of his lost liberty.
There is only one prisoner according to Hall, whose lot is more pitiable than that of the Prisoner of Chillon is the one that resides within us all. It is our Spirit, Soul, Νοῦς,whatever you choose to call it. The spirit is incarcerated in the dark prison of matter, yearning for the light of liberty and self determination.
Saying we are in a prison of “matter” is all very well, but what does Hall mean when he uses the word “matter”. In truth, he could mean a number of things. One possible explanation is that we are slaves to what Richard Dawkins called, quite aptly, The Selfish Gene, DNA.
The main purpose of DNA is to replicate itself, and this has been the driving force behind three billion years of evolution. On a base, biological level this makes perfect sense as we are in many ways slaves to our bodies and their DNA base code.
One other reading of this is that “matter” is the material world. We are endlessly distracted by the concerns of our earthly existence that we forget to contemplate the divine and are sidetracked from our journey to greater knowledge and the freedom that it grants us.
The material world is quite possibly the most perfect of prisons because we don’t know we’re in one for quite a long time and it’s only when you come to realise that, paraphrasing Rousseau; while man seems free, everywhere he is in chains can you take the first steps to becoming free.
Those of us who us who heard W.Bro Davison’s paper from the previous meeting might also consider one other potential stumbling block to being free: the ego. Bro Davison noted Kirk MacNulty’s lodge-room model where the Inner Guard was representative of the ego which should be subdued by the Self, or Spirit of the Junior Warden.
Manly P. Hall also says something similar when he mentions “lower desires” and a dormant power to overcome them in chapter two of “the lost keys”. Both writers are talking about another facet to the prison which is within ourselves, and only when we can determine our base desires, which are just as much a part of the prison as “external” factors can, we hope to escape.
So, when realising that we are locked in this perfect prison, how are we able to break free, so that we can start our masonic journey? Well, you may be pleased to hear that, almost without knowing it, we’ve started already. As with most things, realising that there is a problem is the first part of the solution. One we have realised we are in bondage to matter (in both its internal and external forms), according to Hall, we yearn to be free of it, and this is why you start on your journey. All of us have felt this yearning, and you would have acted on it when you asked your proposer to allow you to join.
There is a lovely bit of ritual that isn’t heard too often in our lodges which is the preamble to the charge which explains the significance of the three distinct knocks. They allude ‘to an ancient and venerable exhortation “seek and ye shall find, ask and you will receive, knock and the door shall be opened for you”’ You have started seeking when you learnt those little snippets here and there about masonry and wanted to know more.
You then approached your proposer formally and asked to be admitted. You weren’t guilted or compelled to join (or at least shouldn’t have been), you made a conscious decision to do so, and you determined your own direction. Aided by your proposer you then knocked and requested admission, again with a perfect freedom of inclination, the door was then opened to you take your first regular step.
Now that you’re standing at the porchway and staring at the road ahead you must be wondering “what now?” Where do you go? This is where you follow your leader with a firm but humble confidence. In particular to our newly made brother, if you are confused by anything, don’t hesitate for a minute to ask your proposer, your seconder, the lodge mentor, anyone if they know the answer and can help you.
Most, if not all of the time, they will help you. The journey out of the dark prison of the west is one that you must decide to take on your own, but it needn’t be lonely, your more experienced brethren can help lead the way. More experienced brethren are meant to return to give instruction to those behind them on the journey. Yet, they can only take you so far though, for after all they are still on their own journeys as well. To get to greater knowledge, you must do it yourself. That is freedom.
In conclusion, freedom is undeniably critical to Freemasonry. Without it the whole experience is lost to us. When we start our journey we are all slaves, or rather prisoners. The beginning of our journey is the realisation of this fact. We then find a friend and, later, brother and; after some reflection and contemplation; ask him for admission to Freemasonry. With his aid you knock, and are admitted.
All this and what follows is done by you, and aside from help and advice from others, by your will alone. My one piece of advice is to always ask why, be the Elephant’s Child from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, and never give up that satiable curtiousity. For that is the fuel for your quest for knowledge and freedom. Knowledge and Freedom are out there. Be willing to grab them with both hands.