The other morning, I was enjoying my daily shaving ritual. As I lathered the shaving soap with my badger hair brush and spread the rich, white lather over my jaw, I thought about how my morning shave had become a daily routine of renewal and purification. When I took my razor in hand and removed the stubble of the previous 24 hours, I was not only refreshing the appearance of my face, but I was also symbolically divesting myself of the previous day’s imperfections. This allowed me to begin the day anew, with a clean slate and a clean face.
In many ways, this is my personal Rite of Purification.
The Rite of Purification has long been an important part of spiritual ceremonies. For those of us who have grown up in Judeo-Christian religions, this rite was most often manifested in the form of baptism or purification by water. In fact, in the book of Exodus we discover that purification by water was an important part of Jewish custom.
Then the Lord said to Moses ‘Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.’
I found it odd that Masonic tradition dictates that the Tabernacle was a model for King Solomon’s Temple and that this temple was a model for Masonic lodges, and yet I had witnessed no such rite in the craft degrees. In fact, the first time I consciously took part in a Rite of Purification in Masonry was in the 14th Degree of the Scottish Rite where I was required to rinse my hands in a basin filled with water. However, that was certainly not the first time that I had been symbolically purified before taking part in a Masonic ceremony.
If we rid ourselves of the narrow view of purification being accomplished through some sort of baptism with water, we can see that the preparation of the candidates for each degree of Masonry is in fact a Rite of Purification. Wilmhurst says:
Every system of real Initiation, whether of the past or present, is divided into three clear-cut stages; since before anyone can pass from his natural darkness to the Light supernal and discover the Blazing Star or Glory at his own center, there are three distinct tasks to be achieved. They are as follows: first, the turning away from the attractions of the outer world, involving detachment from the allurements of all that is meant by “money and metals,” and the purification and subdual of the bodily and sensual tendencies…This work of detachment and self-purification is our Entered Apprentice work, and to it, as you know, is theoretically allotted the long period of seven years.1
Therefore, divesting ourselves of our outer apparel and removing our possessions of worldly value from our bodies is essentially a Rite of Purification. This symbolically removes the superfluities of the profane world and prepares us to enter the Tabernacle. But as we widen our view of the right of purification, we can see that we are not only purified prior to receiving the degrees. In fact, we take part in a Rite of Purification every time that we step into the place that Exodus terms “the Tent of Meeting.”
The Mason’s apron is a lamb skin or white leather apron, which is described as “an emblem of innocence.” Its color is white, which is the emblem of purity. Every time that we adorn the Mason’s apron we are clothing ourselves with a garment which represents our symbolic purification. However, merely wearing the apron does not complete this action, we must also mentally purify ourselves. Much as the purification through water by the Hebrews before entering the Tabernacle was an admonition to keep one’s thoughts and desires pure in that Holy place, so should the wear of the apron remind us to keep our thoughts and desires pure within our Tabernacle, which is the tiled lodge room.
By doing so, we complete our own Rite of Purification every time that we proceed to enter the quarry and work for the benefit of the craft.
1. Wilmhurst, W.L. Masonic Initiation.