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beyond the northeast corner

Our Masonic Ritual What Are We To Believe?


Richard h. sands

The Problem  

THE SOLEMNITY of Masonic ceremonies, we are told, requires a serious deportment, and evidently a Freemason is expected to take his ritual seriously. If he does, he may get the impression that the Grand Lodge of Michigan descends in unbroken line from Biblical times, and that if he were really interested he could find portraits of all the Grand Masters from Solomon, King of Israel, down to the present day. This, alas, is not true. Between then and now there is, as we have seen, an unbridged gap of over 2000 years (see Chapter II). In these circumstances we may perhaps feel that to call the Worshipful Master's situation by the name of "the chair of King Solomon" is at best misleading. But this is by no means the only place in which the Masonic ritual does not seem reliable by objective standards. It clings to an interpretation of the ancient Egyptian writing which has been abandoned in competent circles for a century and a half (see below, page X-15). When it recounts Biblical stories, it regularly adds details which are not attested in the Volume of the Sacred Law, such as various gestures and signs, and certain architectural features associated with the Temple (see below, page XI-9). Some of the details which are thus added are not very plausible. Thus, the Temple of King Solomon no doubt had a flat roof, as buildings in that part of the world regularly have even to this day. But the ritual tells us that it had a dormer window, which implies the existence of a pitched roof.

The Masonic Work also takes minor Biblical characters and magnifies their significance out of all proportion. It turns an unimportant religious functionary into the Assistant High Priest (see below, page XI-8), and an accomplished metal founder into King Solomonís principal architect (see below, page XII-14). It willfully distorts and mistranslates Hebrew words (see for example, page XI-4). It even misquotes the Bible. Thus, while the children of Israel were escaping from their Egyptian bondage, the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). This was a single pillar, which at different times to different people had a different appearance (see Exodus 14:19-20). Masonic ritual makes it into two miraculous pillars, the prototypes of the two great pillars which stood at the porch West or East of King Solomonís Temple.

As a matter of fact the largest collection of such aberrations is associated with the Temple. First let us look at its general description, as contained in the Volume of the Sacred Law (I Kings 6-7; II Chronicles 3-4; Ezekiel 40-42). The religious part of the Temple was about thirty feet wide, and consisted of three main subdivisions. At the front or east was a shallow porch, vestibule, or entrance hall about fifteen feet deep. This is where the two great pillars of hollow bronze stood. Behind the porch and its pillars was the House of the Lord, a long narrow chamber divided into two unequal parts by doors of olive wood, or in later times by a veil or curtain. Towards the front was the larger room, called the "nave" or the "Holy Place". In it stood an altar where the Chief Priest burned sweet incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:7-8). Here also was a table where twelve fresh loaves of bread were set every Sabbath as an offering to the Lord (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-6).

The smaller room, at the back, was called the "oracle", the "Most Holy Place", or the "Holy of Holies" (Latin, sanctum sanctorum). Here was the dwelling place of God; it was completely empty except for the Ark of the Covenant and the Cherubim. No one entered it except the High Priest, nor even he but once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:2). This much of the building was the Lord's House, the religious part of the Temple.

All the way around the building except in front ran a series of sheds called the "galleries" or the "side-chambers". They were divided into three stories or floors, which are called respectively the lowest chamber, the middle chamber, and the third chamber.We read further in the Volume of the Sacred Law, "The door for the middle chamber was in the right side of the house; and they went up with winding stairs into the middle chamber and out of the middle into the third" (I Kings 6:8). Scripture does not tell us what these side-chambers were used for, but they are evidently not part of the Temple proper. There seems to have been no means of access between the galleries and the Temple proper; and the presence of the galleries would obstruct the entrance to the Temple from any direction but the front.

Most of this is familiar from Masonic ritual. But there are two particular points to ponder. In the first place, according to the Volume of the Sacred Law, the Temple had but a single entrance, at the East. In Masonic tradition we are told that at one juncture three individuals severally placed themselves at the West, North, and South Entrances of the Temple. Later in the same account we hear of fifteen trusty Fellowcrafts, who formed themselves into three Fellowcraft lodges, and departed from the entrances of the Temple.

Secondly, according to the Bible, the Winding Stairs began at a side door, not at the main entrance, and led up to the side-chambers, which were not religious in function. The Masonic work on the other hand states that after our ancient brethren had passed the two great pillars at the entrance they ascended a Winding Stair, which led up to the Middle Chamber, where their attention was particularly directed to certain Hebrew characters, of a deeply religious denotation.

Clearly the Volume of the Sacred Law and the Work are at variance. The former is more likely to reflect the historical truth; and indeed it can be shown that the ritual is not independent of the Volume of the Sacred Law, but that it is founded upon it. What are we to make of all these oddities and contradictions? If we pick up a book about The United States, and it tells us that the capital of California is San Francisco, or that that of Michigan is Detroit, we shall judge it harshly and discard it quickly. What shall we say about a society which tells us things about history that disagree with the best evidence? Were those who framed the ritual ignorant? Or incompetent? Or charlatans?

One Solution

The answer is that our ritual makes no presence of reciting history, or of communicating facts. It does claim to provide moral instruction. The ritual is largely founded upon the Holy Scriptures, but occasionally it deviates from what might be expected. Usually this is done because the symbolism is being manipulated to teach a lesson. We permit Shakespeare to tamper with history for his own artistic purposes. Shall we permit any less to Freemasonry?

Let us take an example. We are told that our lodges are situated due east and west. In some Masonic Temples however the lodge rooms are situated nearly due north and south; the direction which we call east is really north. The explanation is that the Masonic east is symbolic, not geographical (see below, pages X-10,11,&16). When we see that the W.M. is placed in the east, this is a constant reminder that he is the source of light and wisdom for his lodge.

There are many symbols in Masonry, but the two fundamental sets cluster around the Temple of Solomon and the three Degrees. It can be shown that Solomon's Temple represents not only the lodge room, and the temple not made with hands eternal in the heavens, but above all the spiritual edifice of the individual Mason. The three Degrees on the other hand represent the three stages of human existence, infancy, maturity and death; they are also closely connected with the three principal officers. From time to time these two sets of symbols come into contact. Some of the contradictions we noted above are caused by their reaction.

Firstly, in order to understand why there are three entrances consider what happens at them. The Grand Master approaches each in turn just as every Mason comes to his three Degrees, and as all men arrive at the three stages of life. Those who station themselves at the three Entrances are represented by the three Rulers of the lodge. The system of recurrent threes has intersected the Temple symbolism, and affected its details. In fact, as the allegory of this degree is now presented, it is impossible for us to visualize the Temple without three entrances.

Secondly, let us look at the Winding Stairs and the Middle Chamber. As we have seen, the religious part of the Temple is divided into three parts: the porch, the nave and the sanctum sanctorum; and the holiness increases as you proceed. So too Craft Masonry is divided into three degrees; and the insight increases as you proceed. From this point of view the nave is the equivalent of the Fellowcraft degree, the midway of Masonry, superior to an Entered Apprentice, but inferior as regards that knowledge which is later communicated. Once the nave is identified with the midway of Masonry, it is natural for it to be called the Middle Chamber, even though that name belongs properly to the side galleries. When the Middle Chamber is transferred by this means into the sacred part of the Temple, it brings its Winding Stairs with it around to the front. Since we are not teaching history, no harm is done. From a symbolic viewpoint, the change is a distinct asset. The explanation of the Winding Stairs emphasizes the notion of progress and ascent from the Entered Apprentice Degree to the Fellowcraft Degree, underlines the more intellectual bias of the Second, and prepares the way for the more esoteric nature of the Master Mason Degree.  This then is one way in which to approach those parts of the Work which seem illogical or incorrect. Much of the symbolical part of our ritual is two hundred years old. The men who composed it were not infallible, but they were good men, wise men, and learned men, and above all they understood the method of teaching by symbol. They bequeathed to us the high tenets and principles of Masonry. As a vehicle for expressing these ideals they left us a rich treasure of symbol and allegory in the Masonic Work. If they diverged from their sources, they did so with a purpose. If we can see what they were trying to do in any given passage, we can usually discover the reason for their divergence.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014