Masonic Initiation

Masonic Articles and Essays

Masonic Initiation

Wor... Bro... W.L. Wilmhurst

Date Published: 7/12/2022                        

Taken from the introduction to his masterful work  Masonic Initiation, the following article is a portion of Bro. Wilmhurst's exhaustive study of the ancient initiatic tradition to which Freemasonry is the heir apparent and demonstrates its origins in remote antiquity. 

This book is meant to be a sequel to, and an amplification of, my previous volume, The Meaning of Masonry, first published in 1922--a collection of papers issued diffidently and tentatively on the chance that they might interest some few members of the Craft in the deeper and philosophic aspect of Freemasonry. It at once met, however, with a surprisingly warm welcome from all parts of the world, and already has had to be thrice reprinted. Any personal pleasure at its reception is eclipsed by a greater gratification and thankfulness at the now demonstrated fact that the present large and rapid increase in the number of the Fraternity is being accompanied by a correspondingly wide desire to realize the significance and purpose of the Masonic system to a much fuller degree than till now has been the case. The Masonic Craft seems to be gradually regenerating itself, and, as I previously indicated, such a regeneration must needs make not only for the moral benefit and enlightenment of individuals and Lodges, but ultimately must react favourably upon the framework in which they exist -the whole body of society.  In these circumstances it becomes possible to speak more fully, perhaps also more feelingly, upon a subject which, as a large volume of public and private testimony has revealed to me, is engaging the earnest interest of large numbers of Brethren of the Craft. So, I offer them these further papers, [presenting the same subject-matter as before, but induction different form and expounding more fully matters previously treated but superficially and cursorily.  By "the Masonic Initiation" I mean, of course, not merely the act and rite of reception into the Order, but Speculative Freemasonry-within the limits of the Craft and Arch Degrees-regarded as a system, a specialized method of intellectual guidance and spiritual instruction ; a method which to its willing and attentive devotees offers at once an interpretation of life, a rule of living, and a means of grace, introduction, and even intromission, to life and light of a supra-natural order. 

Masonry being essentially and expressly a quest after supranatural Light, the present papers are schematically arranged in correspondence with the stages of that quest ; they deal first with the transition from darkness to light ; next with the pathway itself and the light to be found thereon ; and, lastly, with light in its fullness of attainment as the result of faithfully pursuing that path to the end. - In a final paper I have re-surveyed the Order's past and indicated its present tendencies and future possibilities. In their zeal to appreciate and make the best of their connection with the Order, some members, one finds, experience difficulty in defining and "placing" Freemasonry . Is it Religion, Philosophy, a system of morals, or what? In view of the deepening interest in the subject, it may be well at the outset to clear up this point. Masonry is not a Religion, though it contains marked religious elements and many religious references. A Brother may legitimately say, if he wishes, -and many do say-"Masonry is my religion," but he is not justified in classifying and holding it out to other people as a Religion. Reference to the Constitutions makes it quite clear that the system is one meant to exist outside and independently of Religion; that all the Order requires of its members is a belief in Deity and personal conformation to the Moral Law, every Brother being free to follow whatsoever form of religion and mode of worship he pleases.  

Neither is Masonry a Philosophy; albeit behind it lies a large philosophical background not appearing in its surface-rituals and doctrine but left for discovery to the research and effort of the Brethren. That philosophical background is a Gnosis or Wisdom-teaching as old as the world, one which has been shared alike by the Vedists of the East, the Egyptian, Chaldean and Orphic Initiation systems, the Pythagorean and Platonist schools, and all the Mystery Temples of both the past and the present, Christian or otherwise. The present renaissance in the Masonic Order is calculated to cause a marked, if gradual, revival of interest in that philosophy, with the probable eventual result that there will come about a general restoration of the Mysteries, inhibited during the last sixteen centuries. But of this more will be said in the final section of this book. The official description of Masonry is that it is a "System of Morality." This is true, but in two senses, one only of which is usually thought of. The term is usually interpreted as meaning a "system of morals." But men need not enter a secret order to learn morals and study ethics; nor is an elaborate duction ceremonial organization needed to teach them. Elementary morals can be, and are, learned in the outside world; and must be learned there if one is to be merely a decent member of society. The possession of "strict morals," as every Mason knows, is a preliminary qualification for entering the Order; a man does not enter it to acquire them after he has entered. It is true he finds the Order insistent on obedience to the Moral Law and emphasising closer cultivation of certain ethical virtues, as is essential to those who propose to enter upon a course of spiritual science; and this is the primary, more obvious sense in which the term "system of morality" is used.  But the word "morality," in its original, and also in its Masonic, connotation, has a further meaning; one carrying the same sense as it does when we speak of a "morality-play." A "morality" is a literary or dramatic way of expressing spiritual truth, putting it forward allegorically and in accordance with certain well-settled principles and methods (mores); it is the equivalent of a usage or "use," as ecclesiastics speak of "the Sarum use" or liturgy.

In the same sense Plutarch's Moralia is largely a series of disquisitions upon the mores of the ancient religious Mystery-schools.  A "system of morality," therefore, means secondarily" a systematized and dramatized method of moral discipline and philosophic instruction, based on ancient usage and long-established practice." The method in question is that of Initiation; the usage and practice is that of allegory and symbol, which it is the Freemason's duty, if he wishes to understand his system, to labour to interpret and put to personal application. If he fails to do so, he still remains and the system deliberately intends that he should in the dark about the Order's real meaning and secrets, although formally a member of it. The Order, the morality-system, merely guarantees its own possession of Truth; it does not undertake to impart it save to those who labour for it. For Truth and its real arcana can never be communicated directly, or save through allegory and symbol, myth and sacrament. The onus of translating these must ever rest with the recipient as part. -of his lifework; until he makes the truth his own he can never know it to be truth; he must do the will before he can know the doctrine. "I know not how it is" (said St. Bernard of Clairvaux of allegory and symbol) "but the more that spiritual realities are clothed with obscuring veils, the more they delight and attract; and nothing so much heightens longing for them as such tender refusal."  Masonry, then, -as a "system of morality" as thus defined-is neither a Religion nor a Philosophy, but at once a Science and an Art, a Theory and a Practice; and this was ever the way in which the Schools of the Ancient Wisdom and Mysteries proceeded. They first exhibited to the intending disciple a picture of the Life-process; they taught him the story of the soul's genesis and descent into this world; they showed him its present imperfect, restricted state and its unfortunate position; they indicated that there was a scientific method by which it might be perfected and regain its original condition. This was the Science-half of their systems, the programme or theory placed in duction advance before disciples, that they might have a thorough intellectual grasp of the purpose of the Mysteries and what admission to them involved. Then followed the other half; the practical work to be done by the disciple upon himself, in purifying himself; controlling his sense-nature; correcting natural undisciplined tendencies; mastering his thought, his mental processes and will, by a rigorous rule of life and art of living. When he showed proficiency in both the theory and the practice, and could withstand certain tests, then but not before he was allowed the privilege of Initiation-a secret process, conferred by already initiated Masters or experts, the details of which were never disclosed outside the process itself. 

Such, in a few words, was the age-old science of the Mysteries, whether in Egypt, Greece or elsewhere, and it is that science which, in very compressed, diluted form, is perpetuated and reproduced in modem Masonry. To emphasizing and demonstrating this fact, both the present and my former volume are devoted ; their purpose being coupled with a hope that, when the true intention of the Order is perceived, the Craft may begin to fulfill its original design and become an instrument of real initiating efficiency instead of, as hitherto, a merely social and charitable institution . Indeed, the place and office of Masonry cannot be adequately appreciated without acquaintance with the Mysteries Masonry of antiquity, for, as a poet (Patmore) wrote who knew and the latter perfectly, Save by the Old Road none attain the new, And from the Ancient Hills alone we catch the view!  Masonry having the above purpose, whilst not a religion, is consistent with and adaptable to any and every religion. But it is capable of going further. For an Order of Initiation (like the monastic Orders within the older Churches) is intended to provide a higher standard of instruction, a larger communication of truth and wisdom, than the elementary ones offered by public popular religion ; and at the same time it requires more rigorous personal discipline and imposes much more exacting claims upon the mind and will of its adherents. 

The popular religious teaching of any people, Christian or not, is as it were for the masses as yet incapable of stronger food and unadapted to rigorous discipline; it is accommodated to the simple understanding of the man in the street, jogtrotting along the road of life. Initiation is meant for the expert, the determined spiritual athlete, ready to face the deeper mysteries of being, and resolute to attain, as soon as may be, the heights to which he knows his own spirit, when awakened, can take him.  Is not the present declension of interest in popular religion and public worship due-far from entirely, yet largely-not to irreligiousness, but to the fact that conventional religious presentation does not satisfy the rational and spiritual needs of a public forced and disciplined by the exigencies of modem existence to insist upon a clear understanding and a firm intellectual foothold in respect of any form of venture duction it is called upon to undertake? Is not the turn-over of so many essentially religiously-minded and earnestly questing people from the Churches to variants of religious expression, including Masonry, due largely to that reason and to the fact that the Churches, whilst inculcating faith, offering hope, proclaiming love, fail entirely in providing what the Mysteries of the past always did-such a clear philosophical explanation of life and the Universe as provided-not proof, which in regard to ultimate verities it is impossible to offer-but an intellectual motive for turning from things of sense to things of spirit ?  Nothing is further from my wish or intention in these pages than to extol Masonry at the expense of any existing Religion or Church, or to suggest competition between institutions which are not and can never be competitors, but complementaries. I am merely asserting the simple obvious facts that popular favour has turned, and will more and more turn, to that market which best supplies its needs, and that for many nowadays the Churches fail to supply those needs, or form at best an inferior or inadequate source of supply. The growing human intelligence has outgrown-not religious truth but presentations of it that sufficed in less exacting social conditions than obtain to-day, and it is calling for more sustaining nutriment.  It may be useful to recall how the position was viewed not long ago by an advanced mind racially detached from the religion and ways of the Western world. 

A Hindu religious Master, an Initiate, who attended the World's Congress of Religions at Chicago as the representative of the Vedantists, made an observational tour of America and Europe with a view to sympathetically understanding and appraising their religious organizations and methods. His conclusions may be summarized thus: "The Western ideal is to be doing (to be active); the Eastern, to be suffering (to be passive). The perfect life would be a wonderful harmony of the two. Western religious organizations (Churches and sects) involve grave disadvantages; for they are always breeding new evils, which are not known to the East with its absence of organization. The perfect condition would come from a true blending of these opposite methods. For the Western soul, it is well for a man to be born in a Church, but terrible for him to die in one; for in religion there must be growth. A young man is to be censured who fails to attend and learn from the Church of his nation; the elderly man is equally to be censured if he does attend; - he ought to have outgrown what that Church offers and to have attained a higher order of religious life and understanding."  The same conclusion was expressed by an eminent and ardent religionist of our own country: “The work of the Church in the world is not to teach the mysteries of life, so much as to persuade the soul to that arduous degree of purity at which Deity Himself becomes her teacher. The work of the Church ends when the knowledge of God begins. “In other words Initiation science (in a real and not merely a ceremonial sense) is needed and commences to be applicable only when elementary spiritual duction tuition has been assimilated and richer nourishment is called for. The same writer, though a zealous member of the Roman Church, affirms frankly and truly that in any age of the world, the real Initiate of the Mysteries, whatever his race or national religion, must needs always stand higher in spiritual wisdom and stature than the non-initiate of the Christian or any other faith.  

Such testimonies as these point to-what many others will feel to be a necessity-the need of some complementary, supplementary aid to popular Religion; some Higher-Grade School, in the greater seclusion and privacy of which can be both studied and practiced lessons in the secrets and mysteries of our being which cannot be exhibited coram populo. Such an aid is provided by a Secret Order, an Initiation system, and is at hand in Freemasonry. It remains to be seen whether the Masonic Craft, in both its own and the larger ulterior interest of society, will avail itself of the opportunity in its hands. There being a tendency in that direction in the Craft to-day, the pages of this and of my former book are offered to encouraging that tendency to a fruition that could not make otherwise than for the general good.  But let those of us who are desirous to farther that tendency, and to see provided an advanced system of spiritual instruction, never entertain a notion of competing with any other community or permit ourselves a single thought of disparagement or contempt towards either those who learn or those who teach in other places. Life involves growth. The hyacinth-bulb in the pot before me will not remain a bulb, whose life and stature are to be restricted to the level of the pot it has been placed in. It will shoot up a foot higher and there burst in flower and fragrance, albeit that its roots remain in the soil. Similarly, each human life is as a bulb providentially planted in some pot, in some Religion, some Church. If it truly fulfils the law and central instincts of its nature it will outgrow that pot, rise high above the pot's surface-level, and ultimately blossom in a consciousness transcending anything it knew whilst in the bulb stage. That consciousness will be one not of the beginner, the student, the neophyte in the Mysteries; it will be that of the full Initiate.  But that perfected life will still be rooted in the soil, and, far from despising it, will be forever grateful for the pot in which its growth became possible. 

Masonry will, therefore, never disparage simpler or less advanced forms of intellectual or spiritual instruction. The Mason, above all men and in a much fuller, deeper sense, will respond to the old ordinance "Honour thy father and mother." In whatever form, under whichsoever of the many names the God-idea presents itself to himself or his fellow-men, he will honour the Universal Father ; and in whatsoever soil of Mother-Earth, or whichsoever section of Mother-Church, he or they have received their infant nurture, he will honour that Mother, even as he is bound also to honour his own Mother Lodge ; seeing in each of these the temporal reflection of still another Mother, the supernal parent described as "the Mother of us all."  Upon one other point I must add a word. A duction writer wishing to help on the understanding of Masonry, as fully as may be, in the interests of Brethren who, as events have shown, are waiting in numbers to receive and ready to turn to account such help as may be given, is put to real anxiety to find a way of so writing that he simultaneously discharges the combined duty of extending that help and of observing his own obligations as to silence.  In my former volume I explained that, in respect of necessary safeguards, all due secrecy should be observed; and the assurance is now repeated in respect of the present one. No non-Mason need look to find in these pages any of the distinctive secrets of the Craft; no Mason, I believe, will trace in them any disloyal word or motive, or recognize in them anything but earnest anxiousness to promote the Craft's interests to the uttermost. Moreover the things I permit myself to say are, I conceive, exempt from silence as regards the Craft, for they are things which justly and lawfully belong to it and properly concern it; and since its members, near and far, in full measure and in many ways have proved themselves worthy of such confidence as I can show them, I feel myself justified in addressing them more intimately than before. 

As regards those outside the Craft, into whose hands a published book cannot be prevented from falling, what I have written consists of things already spoken about at large in other forms of expression in these days of keen search for guidance upon the dark path of human life ; and let me here say that as warm, and almost as many, appreciations of my former volume have reached me from non-Masons as from within the Craft, and that it has attracted to the Order much sympathy and good-will that did not previously exist. Doubtless there are eyes of such strictness that they regard any public mention of the Masonic subject as an impropriety. Even these I would not willingly offend; yet to allow a possible technicality to prevent the giving, to those seeking it, the only gift I can make to the Craft in return for what it has given to myself, seems to me less meritorious Masonic conduct than would be the negative virtue of keeping rigid silence when so much can usefully be said.  So I take comfort from that ancient word of wisdom which proclaims that "He that observes the wind shall not sow, and he that observes the clouds will not reap" And though, whilst writing these pages, a morning desire to sow my seed has often been followed by an evening prompting to withhold my hand, yet the former has prevailed with me . And if of that seed, some falls upon Masonic and some chances upon other ground, who shall know whether shall prosper this or that? but I pray that both shall be alike good. For, continues the same old Sage, "truly Light is sweet, and a precious thing it is for the eyes to behold the Sun”; and to-day there are drawn blinds everywhere waiting to be lifted, to let in a Sunlight that belongs to no close community, but to all men alike.

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