by Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D.
Lodge Education Officer, Lake Harriet Lodge No. 277 A.F.& A.M. of Minnesota
Masonic rituals, from the fundamental three degrees of the Symbolic Lodge to the numerically "higher" degrees of the York Rite and Scottish Rite, draw upon religious ideas and legends removing dogmas and fixed creeds. The authors of Masonic rituals turned to the use of parables and symbols to teach, instead of catechisms and sermons. The Masonic writers followed the example of the Rabbi Yeheshua ben Yoseph who, in the first century of the Common Era, taught in this enigmatic way. Jesus, like many Rabbis, told stories knowing them to be stories because he knew they would do the one most important thing a teacher wants to do: make his students think.
If a few Freemasons made the mistake of taking some of the stories to be literally true, that is their own failing. It happened among the Disciples too. But the firm rule about teaching in parables is that you do not explain them. The listener must work to unravel the story's meaning. The student must exert effort of mind and imagination to understand. The act of mental, and imaginative exertion is crucial to the process.
If all you do as a teacher is recite facts and force your students to memorize them and recite them back, you are not engaged in making your students better and more capable. You are not engaging in liberal education – that is, education to make a student free and independent — liberated. Indeed, the recitation of facts is the worst sort of imprisonment. It closes the mind of the student and can render him or her incapable of breaking through the iron cage the teacher has placed around his reasoning faculties. Memorizing Bible verses or ritual parts can be a powerful aid to the spirit, but it can just as easily shut down the mind and stop the learning process dead. We might say that the Mason who works only in the quarry of facts, making smooth, uniform, stones, is an Operative Mason. That is, he takes Masonic language and drama literally, is satisfied with the surface meaning. He never goes higher than the flight of five steps — his material senses.
The liberation occurs when the surfaces are opened up and the student climbs through the smooth wall of facts, the outward appearance of the parables, and discovers deeper meaning, the meaning of analogy and poetry, of metaphor and the heart. This requires first stepping up beyond the five senses and engaging another part of one's mind.
Freemasonry was devised as a way to convey spiritual ideas without forcing them on the student. Every Freemason is required to receive three lessons. These lessons are called "degrees." The three lessons consist of ritual dramas and lectures, vows, perambulations, and many symbols. But the meaning of these degrees is seldom if ever explained. The reason for this silence is not, as some critics have said, that Freemasons do not understand their own rituals. That is perhaps sometimes the case, but not always.
No, the reason for reticence is more subtle. It is that the lessons of Masonry must be grasped by the effort of the pupil, freely by his own will, not by pressure applied from above by superiors, priests, or professors. There is no "grading" and there are no tests, except for the symbolic "proficiency" exams that are no more than memorization and recitation of part of the ritual.
One might argue that the inclusion of this seemingly pointless memorization and recitation under the name of "proficiency examination" shows that Freemasonry is nothing but a sort of game that doesn't really take itself seriously. That would be the "operative" way to view it. As with all things in the Craft, it only appears so. Any candidate having passed through the degrees and done his proficiency exams can see that he has achieved nothing more than a feat of memorization. However rewarding such a performance may be, it cannot indicate that he has understood his lessons.
This odd incongruence must alert us to the presence of symbolism, double layers of meaning. Where the surface explanation (the "operative" one) sounds illogical or strained, it is more likely than not a clue that one needs to look deeper for the real meaning. If we take a step up to the viewpoint of the "speculative" Mason, we see that the proficiency exam is itself a symbol. It symbolizes exactly the sort of "learning" that Freemasonry does not want. It is not a test of memory; it is a test to see if the newly created brother will realize that more is required of him. It is a test of intelligence and insight. If a brother thinks he is done after passing his final proficiency examination, then he has in fact failed the test. He has gone through the motions of memorizing and reciting. He has obeyed his superiors to the letter without questioning the value of what he is doing. All of which is utter failure to break free from the darkness of Authorities who would teach by such blinkered methods.
Can we blame our brother if he fails the test and takes the proficiency exam and the rituals at face value? Brothers would never blame him. Indeed it may be that the percentage of lodge brothers who do fail this tricky test is quite high. But that is all right. It is part of the system. For it is a system of freedom and you cannot ever force someone to be free, or think for themselves. You can only indicate the way to them and hope that their native intelligence will see what they must do.
Many brothers live a lifetime in the Craft enjoying the ethos of morality, fellowship, and religious tolerance — enjoying the patriotism and charity work, the pancake breakfasts and table lodge banquets. They collect degrees and lapel pins until they get their coveted red white or purple hat in the Scottish Right or their Templar Chapeau, until they are awarded their fifty or sixty year pin. These Masons are really still "operative" — that is, they work to accumulate achievements and the outward signs of those achievements. Many more brothers repose content with the three symbolic lodge degrees and gradually come to understand. The symbols work on them as much as they work on the symbols. The meaning of it all comes through intuitively. These brothers might not be able to explain the meaning of the degrees, but they know in their hearts.
Yet there is a third sort of brother who attends to the degrees and puzzles over them, sifts their words, follows clues, contemplates symbols. All of this, until the light breaks through the darkness, and a deeper understand of the parables emerges, — something that could not be memorized because it was never articulated in words. He has crossed the threshold to become truly "speculative," and sees that even the story of the Operative and Speculative Masons is a parable. I won't tell you what it means.