Transcending Yesod-The Third Degree of Freemasonry

The following is an adjusted version of the introduction for a new book I’ve been working on, The Master Mason. This work is the culmination of nearly a decade of consideration and contemplation over the complexities of what it means to become a master in the masonic system of initiation. It is not the complete work and serves as an introduction to the broader themes explored in its subsequent pages. In a nut-shell, the work is an exploration of Freemasonry and how it relates to the Hermetic tradition, the Kabbalah and other esoteric systems that have at various intersections crossed paths with what we know as Freemasonry today.

You can read more on the release of The Master Mason, at: Between the Sun and Moon, A Master Mason is Born

So, with that in mind, I present to you,

Transcending Yesod — The Third Degree of Freemasonry

Third Degree Masonic Tracing Board

“To be or not to be” are the immortal words written by the eminent bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. His question appears in the story of Hamlet made by a lost son striving to find answers to what would, by most, be an unfathomable question which is the essence of the third degree. “To be” is perhaps the oldest of the New Age paradigms stirring echoes across theologies of all cultures said best in the application of the Golden Rule as to do unto others which is Being itself. Like the Golden Rule, in order to do unto others, we must first understand ourselves, the innerness of our being such that we can Be in the first place. This lesson is not something that is wholesale unique to the fraternity of Freemasonry, or this degree, as we find the idea of the Golden Rule transcribed across millennia and within every theological system. So too do we find the testament as a personal gospel of finding our truth. For most, truth is mythology whose philosophical lessons are lost in the dogmas of its authority – its commentaries on the philosophies become more valuable than the philosophies themselves and the value of what was said is lost to the dominion of those who hold authority over them. We must interpret the truths for ourselves so as to find their resonance within us. This is the entirety of the lesson of the third degree, the marrow in the bones of antiquity within which the truth spans all landscapes if the seeker looks deeply enough into its composition. But, as with any concept, truth is itself mutable as generations add or redact its communication creating ever fluctuating permutations and confluences of its principle concepts. Truth is truth, no matter how others dictate its interpretation. It is our own internal mechanisms that decide it for ourselves. For the Mason reading, we, as Hiram, perish in custody of our virtue which in turn is the vehicle of our metaphoric resurrection in being made perpendicular again, a zenith we find in the number three as the union between one and two, duality itself made whole. By reading the degree, whether in the Scottish or York Rite telling, the overtones are distinctly Christian but like the Christian Church itself, the tradition existed well before the consummation of the Gospels and illustrate the depth of antiquity for what they kabbalah, Cabbalah, tree of life, Hermetic Qabalahseek to convey. As with every symbolic story, we must look at it with filters and adjudge the entirety by the description of the pieces to achieve a level of perspective over the totality within which it exists. Freemasonry is, if anything else, a conglomerate of ideas, culled together from a variety of sources. So then, to understand its summation we need to look at the Kabalistic connections of this degree as it relates to our Tree of Life progression (see The Apprentice and Fellow of the Craft) as the degree of the Master Mason resides within the Sephirot of Yesod on the pillar of mercy giving several meanings and parallels. So too will we do well in finding its corresponding relations in the Tarot as Yesod relates to the card of the Four Nines, which is also a source of its symbolic origin. But, our greatest understanding will come as we look at the degree itself to try and make sense of why the master mason is arranged the way it is, given its discordant portrayal when compared with the two that preceded it in both presentation and tone. No longer is the degree about simply the teaching of ideas and social principles, nor is it an indoctrination meant to introduce foreign concepts to the newcomer. No, this degree is about the inner journey, the making of the “transcendent transparent” which it does by introducing, in its present-day conduct, an aspect of itself that strives to teach its lesson through theatrics so as to convey its lesson in a manner reminiscent of a morality play with antecedent’s common at the time of its ritual organization. “To be…or not to be,” that is the challenge that faces each of us as we confront our own inner Hiram. And is the question which will open the door of the future of Masonry in the pursuit of the higher degrees. The esoteric writer Eliphas Lévi says, in his book The History of Magic, “Ordeal is the great word of life, and life itself is a serpent which brings forth and devours unceasingly.” Man, is born into chaos to seek light from that which he was created which, the great tradition of Hermetica tells us, is but merely a reflection, as the moon reflects the light of the sun — an aspect of this tradition we find in the parallel with Yesod. So then, we need a place to begin our study and where best to begin than with the number of the degree itself so as to construct an understanding of the significance of the number three and its relationship to many other traditions as the unifying force of division.

Be All You Can Be in Occult America

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz

I just had the pleasure of finishing Mitch Horowitz’s book Occult America and am a bit surprised at the story it tells, and some of what it doesn’t.

Only recently did I come across the 2010 Bantum Books edition, (the first edition published in hardback in 2009) and it was the sub headline of the books title Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation, that grabbed me, making an interesting premise to open the cover and start reading the book.

Once started, it delivers – developing a body of ideas creating an evolution of thought influenced in an era before the Catholic witch trials of Cagliostro and began in the new world with the voyage of the Quaking Shaker Ann Lee (later to re-dubbed Mother Ann) who traveled from Manchester in 1774 to New York with a cohort of 8 followers who together cobbled resources to form a small religious colony in Niskayuna near Albany.

Horowitz takes on a daunting task, the challenge of not sounding encyclopedic and pulling a variety of disparate pieces of Americana together to tease this occult history out from the facts.  In some ways, the telling of Occult America mirrors the troubled story of Mother Ann that Horowitz introduces us to in the opening of the book, inauspiciously to the unintentional spread of ideas everywhere.

So as not to ruin the fun of discovering the secret history for yourself Occult America links together a progression of thought, in an age not known for its wide degree of communication, that at its present day apex has shaped the widest segment of religious and spiritual thought to such a degree that, Horowitz suggests, shaped the 1980 to 2001 “Be all you can be” slogan of the U.S. Army as a mantra of sorts to the ultimate of New Thought self development.  His suggestion is that many aspects of the New Age philosophy (what was at first called “New Thought”) have become integral to much (if not most) of out day to day life.

Sydney Omarr, son of a grocer and housewife, was at one time dubed by Time magazne Astrology’s “most skillful and sober public protagonist.” In Occult America, Horowitz explores how Omarr went from magic shop cruiser and Atlantic City fortune teller to the grandfather of modern newspaper astrology still published in newspapers today.

How so, you might be wondering?

Just a few of the ideas that were at one point considered occult include the evolution of human consciousness, the connection of the mind-body-spirit health, and the ever growing trend of people moving (which data supports) away from organized religion to pursue instead a spirituality.  All of these various aspects, he says, have a root in the developments of the past 200 years through this subculture of Americana.  For those who may not remember, even the Scottish Rite Journal was titled the New Age for many years and represented a fraternal flag ship to the movement.

In some respects, you could bookend Occult America with Jeff Sharlet’s The Family because as the Family chronicles the rise of the Fundamentalist religious right, Horowitz traces a line through the various sub culture movements that transmitted one idea to the next movement and so on.  As a Masonic reader you will be interested to know that at points he acknowledges the presence of Freemasonry as well as other esoteric/occult groups as major players to the dissemination of ideas.

What the book doesn’t do, which might be a product of necessitating many more pages, is chronicle the earlier presence of occult ideas that at the time were a regular part of the American landscape.  For instance, it’s impossible to look at the early American development without seeing Freemasonry (Washington was inaugurated on a Masonic bible which speaks to its presence) as a major contributor in many earlier instances.  Horowitz does touch on this earlier history, but he starts his telling with the founding of Mother Ann’s religious Shaker colony and its promulgation of ideas forward.

Ouija Board, talking board

One of the more entertaining chapters that I enjoyed was the lineage of the Ouija Board, started in the age of séances and the selling of spiritualism.  He makes a very good case for how the rapping tables and automatic-writers of the burgeoning psychic era moved from formalized sitting room sessions to game boards made by Hasbro (now Glow in the Dark) to sit between two kanoodling lovers knees playing slide the planchette.

(I did stumble across a cool glass topped octagonal Tree Of Life Ouija board that’s worth looking at here.)

You can almost sum up the history of the Occult in America in the story of the Ouija Board, from the home spun to the highly processed and manufactured message, but to do so would omit so much of the rich history that the Occult has traced through America, and Horowitz has really captured in an album of snapshots of our esoteric landscape starting with Mother Ann, who was at the time called by her followers “Christ returned in female form.”

I definitely recommend Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation as a fun and light read into the heavy and often deeply woven history of the New Thought/New Age America we live in today.

Freemasonry and the Great Depression

This was originally published in January of 2009 on the Masonic Traveler blog.

Freemasonry moves through periods of ups and downs. Like the stock market, there are periods of increases and periods of decreases. Peaks and valleys, plateaus, and depressions, which is normal for any system, especially as nothing remains static, motion is a constant.

Even as Masonry exists in the dimming embers of the post World War II correction period of post war fraternal enthusiasm, I started to ponder another phenomenon that ‘may’ be looming on the horizon, and something completely outside of the corporate body of fraternal control.

It’s no surprise that we are in the midst of an economic downturn. Not quite a depression, at least not to every talking head on the television, but the word has been thrown around, and even our most recent unemployment numbers are inching close to that era of saving your money in your mattress and leaping businessmen from corporate towers.  Given the re-visitation to the matter today I’d now consider the state of things as an economic depression for many given the wavering unemployment figures anywhere from 9 to 25%.

In ’09, as today, I stopped to reconsider what this state of things means, from a personal level and from a broader perspective of what it may mean to the fraternity.  What I consulted were the numbers from the MSANA, to see what some of the trends were in the last near 100 years. In particular, I was curious to see was what the effects of the Great Depression were in relationship to membership levels in America.

In that period, between 1929 and 1939 (the period of the depression, the membership loss amounted to almost 1 million members from 3,295,125 down to 2,482,291 – a total of 821,834.

How that number came about is difficult to assume.  What is obvious is that 1929 and 1930 were relatively stable years.  but 1931 onward began a domino effect decrease that lasted for a decade.  There could be any number of variables in that equation, large attrition from earlier member bubbles (say 50 years earlier +/-), a loss due to changes in society with the post World War I boom, or you could extrapolate that it was the economic hardship with the Great Depression that caused the loss.

Important to add, in no period, prior to or after, was there a similar decrease in numbers, until you reach the 1959 water mark, and then the whole of American Freemasonry enters the spiral of decrease where it remains today.  But between 1929 and 1939, with ten years of economic disaster, increasingly fewer jobs, much lower income, and escalating costs – each of these factors in the Depression had toUS Masonic membership have some net effect. As mentioned it wasn’t until 1941 that numbers started to tick back up, slowly which you can see it in the graph of American Masonry from the MSANA numbers (1925-2007). There is a definite drop off that takes place that turns around as, conceivably, the economy turns around.

I found an interesting commentary about this period from the Texas State Historic Society as it related to Texas Freemasonry.

As after most wars, Masonic membership showed a dramatic increase after World War I; in Texas it climbed from 94,000 in 1920 to more than 134,000 in 1929. The Great Depression brought an equally dramatic decline, to a low of 95,000 in 1937. A number of local lodges lost their temples, constructed during the prosperous 1920s, and their membership declined by as much as 60 percent. The waning of the depression and the onset of World War II produced the reinstatement of many former members, and after 1945 thousands of new members joined the lodge. Postwar membership reached 245,000 in 1961

The silver lining in this story is that at some point there was a turn around, that the numbers lost were regained, but nearly 25 years later. In fact, in that same article, it says that the loss was only after a significant increase in membership following the end of W. W. II, and the period of gain-loss-gain netted an almost even amount of members. The only real obstacle was the time in which it happened.

But, the numbers in reflection seem to be missing certain aspects of what the numbers reflect today. That difference was in the eras in which the economic crisis took place. In 1929, national membership was at a healthy 3.25 million members. When you start to factor in a 24% loss from the drop in the economy (a Depression), on top of an already steady loss of 20% per decade for the last 4 decades, it means that Freemasonry stands to potentially lose 44% in the next ten years, and which translates into a loss of 652, 717 members. (44% of 1,483,449 members as of 2007).

This would leave North American Masonry with roughly 830,732 members by 2019. Not devastating, but dramatic, but potentially more dramatic if there is a larger drop due to greater attrition (deaths/demits), and if you consider a possible snowball effect: fewer members leading to fewer meetings which leads to fewer lodges which repeats the cycle fewer members and so on…  The numbers of loss could continue and grow. And, if the trend since 1959 holds up that there will still be a decrease of roughly 20%, meaning the memberships will continue in a downward trend.

What this all means is open to lots of speculation. The change will start becoming more and more evident as more and more lodges close shop as interest in a particular community wanes or is not nurtured. It seems an inevitable reality to the situation at hand, especially when we start to adjust the lens of its perspective as we read the great debate that just recently took place between the Masonic Line‘s Palmetto Bug and the Beehives Fred Milliken. Does a lodge have dominion over its own building, or is the lodge an instrument of the broader Grand Lodge? The discussion has been relevant in recent judicial decisions regarding break away churches and their mother church, with lower courts ruing with the congregations and upper courts with the denominational organization.

Even the debate over this being a corrective period of membership negates the value of those rank swelling members whose past efforts and dues made it possible for the very lodges we reside in today.  Running lean is less a product of managerial ingenuity and more a byproduct of lost marketplace interest.  Running lean can work in manufacturing, but in member  associations?

Will the numbers (and fraternity) trend the way they did in the 1930’s? Does it necessitate the management our own lodges or to give them over to the parent corporation to manage? What will this economic challenge look like by way of the fraternity?  What if it applied a Six Sigma methodology to membership to create a product that meets and exceeds expectations.  This is a business measure, but the mystic tie needs to be quantitative in some fashion, right?

Hidden Wisdom – Not So Hidden Anymore.

If Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings had a companion book, I think that Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney’s Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions would be it.

Hidden Wisdom, Western Mystery TraditionEvery bit as dense as Hall’s Secret Teachings but much more down to earth and embedded in the “real” rather than the idealized reality – which is saying a lot. For most who take the journey of exploring the esoteric side of life, its can very fast become a confused mess of who’s who and what group is doing what. And, while Hall’s book looked at the big picture ideas of the Traditions, Smoley and Kinney’s gets to the heart of the matter, like a topographical map leading the curious reader through the forest of ambiguous trees of mystery traditions, esoteric groups, magical workings, and alien abductees. Literally, the book covers in some grounded aspect topics ranging from Hiram Abiff to Zoroastrianism.

Originally published in 1999, the work links many a missing connection in my own mind to things that I had only started to consider as connected and delved into areas of the Western Tradition that I had disassociated all together, including the workings of Gurdjieff or the more contemporary mix and matching of the New Age spirituality movement. Both of these are modern day examples to a Tradition that the authors trace all over the planet for the contributions of our present tense here and now.

Why do we overlay the Kabbalah with the ideas of Yogananda? And just how influential was Gnosticism to other Christian Mysticism or the Rosicrucian’s? How is the growing Neopagan movement allied to the conscious egotism of the Church of Satanism’s Anton LaVey? And it explores the disconnection between Islam and Sufism, two traditions born from the same peoples with radical differences.

What the Hidden Wisdom does not do, perhaps for good reason, is attempt broader connections between these disparate ideas as doing so would make it a commentary of opinion rather than a guide book to the esoteric traditions. Quite literally the work takes the reader step by step through the pantheon of what is considered the Western Mystery Tradition without validating or invalidating their ideas.

I think if given the opportunity, each of the chapters could themselves be evolved into books unto themselves, as the material they cover is rich and full of depth. It’s because of that depth that the Hidden Wisdom takes on the attributes of an Encyclopedia though written in the very easy to read language as that of an interesting history professor. The work is truly that intelligent and engrossing. And, if the written material isn’t enough to satisfy the curiosity, the books offers nearly 20 pages of Bibliographical reference for further inquiry.

In finishing this book my only wish about it was that I had come across it years ago when I first set foot upon this path of discovery. I would highly recommend the work to anyone just starting out or years into their discovery as it lays out the connections and origins so often glossed over in the source material of many of western traditions themselves. I can say, it will sit right besides Hall’s Secret Teachings as the go to source check in grounding the ethereal with the material origins.

You can find the book Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions – Revised Edition in booksellers and at Amazon – ISBN-13: 978-0835608442.