Our age glories in skepticism and high technology. Science explores every corner of the universe, from the infinitesimal level of subatomic particles to that of the millions of galaxies spreading in an ever expanding universe, overwhelming us with an endless flood of new facts, while imagination is banished to the sidelines of fiction, and faith is condemned as irrational. Science attempts to find unifying theories that will make the world simple, but daily experience teaches us the opposite, that the world is in fact complex and variegated.
If such is our current world, why do Freemasons insist in conveying their messages through the medium of symbolism? Why do we continue performing long and complicated ceremonies? Why is Ritual the foundation of masonic teaching? Why, in the structure of Masonry, we have to perform a special symbolic ceremony to advance from one to degree to another?
Anthropologists tell us that even the most primitive societies have their rituals, often very elaborate. And in our present, “civilized” world, we are immersed in ritual, though we may not be aware of it. From nurseries to armed forces, from law courts to tennis courts, we see old and newly-born rituals performed every day.
Ritual is intimately connected with symbolism. The national flag, the logo of a company, and the colors of a traffic light, they are all symbolic.
The physicist, the modern demiurge, creates his invisible particles in a world of infinitely precise measurements, elaborate instruments, powerful computers and mathematical analysis.
However, the human mind does not appear to work following the rules of computer logic; rather, it works on the basis of symbolic networks. Apprehension and abstraction are symbolic in nature. The language we use to think with and to convey information to others is no more than a generally accepted system of symbols. Words do not correspond to measurable physical entities. They are but shadows, images that flash in the mind and evoke associations, memories and expectations. Furthermore, most of the brain’s activity goes on underneath the surface, so to say, below the level of consciousness. This activity, revealed sometimes in dreams and myths, is nothing but symbols and analogies.
Say I hold in my hand the score for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. You see a book, yet in your mind you hear the four stating notes of the music, destiny knocking on the door, or V for Victory, if you remember Churchill. I say this a symphony, but a scientist might claim that it is only an object weighing 400 grams, composed of wood pulp beaten into sheets, partly covered with a mixture of carbon black and glue. Who is closer to the truth? Which truth is closer to us?
I now pick up a plastic disk and say this too is Beethoven’s Fifth. In my mind, they are closely related; the book and the disk are almost twins. More surprising still, they are both somehow representations of another, totally different experience, the actual concert performance of the music. The human mind has this extraordinary ability to abstract these various experiences: attending a concert, listening to a recording, reading a score, and conflating them into a single symbol: Beethoven’s Fifth.
Symbols, then, are tools for thought, ways to grasp reality and to relate it to ourselves. We sometimes forget that all measurements started as proportions of the human body. An inch is a thumb’s length; a palm, a yard (an arm’s length), a foot, a fathom (length of outstretched arms). The scientist has dehumanized his measurements, because his work is not done with tools adapted to the human body, but with instruments adapted to the machine.
In Masonry we look back to our human dimensions. The symbolic tools we use are intended to reveal direct insights about man, the microcosm, and the world about, the macrocosm. Masonry does not teach like in a classroom. We have no professors; rather we all are apprentices, learning through work, through practice, through personal experience.
Masonic teachings are acquired and developed only by personal effort and involvement, by experiencing the ritual ceremonies. Masonic degrees cannot be received by mail or through the Internet, like diplomas after concluding a course of study. Ritual and symbol are dead letter when on the printed page. Only when words and actions come to life, only by personal experience the symbols become reality.
Masons assemble in lodge in order to work. We hold work is such high esteem, because work is essentially a personal experience. Working we must use our hands, minds and heart.
Seeing only the external aspects of ritual, one may be inclined to call it a theatrical game. Indeed, when ritual is performed without proper preparation, as a charade, a series of actions, words and gestures carried out without thinking, ritual becomes a parody.
But ritual can also become the key to unlock a deeper, more immediate understanding of human nature than can be imparted by logical discourse. Ritual incorporates the accumulated experience of wise men who lived in ages before science and the scientific method were dominant, an experience expressed in legends and symbols. When Freemasonry itself is considered as a philosophical institution, that is, an association of free men lovers of knowledge, then, and only then, can we begin to appreciate the value of ritual and symbol in our Masonic work.
Yes, we do play a game in Masonry. It is a very ancient game, ever full of surprises. It is called the game of life. The tools that Masonry puts in our hands allow us to play the game better, with personal enjoyment and for the benefit of others.
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W.Bro. Leon Zeldis 33°
Hon. Asst. Grand Master G.L. of the State of Israel.
P. Sovereign Grand Commander AASR, Israel.