Masonic Articles and Essays
The Great Work of Speculative Freemasonry - Part II
Dr. George Oliver
In the concluding portion of Dr. George Oliver's profound essay, we examine in depth the relationship between Freemasonry, Alchemy and the Hermetic Lore of the Rosicrucians.
In the light of the foregoing, it will be seen that Freemasonry depends for its life and strength on the Ancient Wisdom teaching which is enshrined in it; a Teaching designed to answer those eternal questions as to the why, the whence, and the whither of all human existence. These, indeed, are the deepest problems of life, and ultimately we are concerned only with their solution, for sooner or later we are forced to enquire-why live at all, why exert ourselves in any personal or social endeavour, if we know not whither it all leads? The problems of the why and whither of human life are those which have ever occupied thinking men ; they are at the bottom of every philosophic system, and the systems themselves are but an attempt to answer them. And yet no words can ever fully answer these problems, for no language can express the Reality of Life; this can only be experienced by the living soul of Man. As Emerson truly says: "The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after." It is in the experience of Life that the answers are found, and only the man who has lived deeply is really wise. The wisdom of the sage is the sum-total of his human experience, but even he cannot impart his knowledge to others; they, in their turn, must first experience the realities of Life, for only by such means do they attain to a wider consciousness. How, then, is it possible that anything so profound and intimate as what Freemasonry calls "the Centre" in Man, can be held fast as a permanent force acting in the world of phenomena? It is possible, in virtue of the special power represented by tradition. A spiritual tradition is never objective knowledge, nor practice which has become mechanical, but a living continuance of the living impulse which created it.
Every great Initiation system, so long as its progress is guided by enlightened minds, distinguishes clearly between its Ritual and oral tradition. It is on the oral tradition that the main stress is laid; tradition alone can teach how the text of the Ritual ought to be understood, which in the end is the only thing that matters. Whosoever claims that he can extract the original meaning from the text of the Ritual without the help of tradition, is really only reading his own meaning in to it ; and it is only if the two minds are specially congenial, or the one has a special gift for entering into the mind of another, that the new meaning in any measure coincides with the old. What is true of comprehension is even more generally true of being, for comprehension too is handed on as a state of being. Here the universally valid law is manifest, that everywhere like works upon like ; hence the eternal validity of the relation of Master and disciple, and the traditional reference in our Masonic Lectures "To seek for a Master and from him to gain instruction" (First Section, First Lecture).
The widening of consciousness gained by direct experience is so great that, as shown in the traditional Ceremony of admission into the Craft, it is called an Initiation-" a new beginning." A new life does indeed begin for him who has been "regularly initiated" into the Mysteries; an actual change has taken place in him, and needless to add no words could ever accomplish as much. The candidate for Initiation in the Schools of the Ancient Mysteries, therefore, did not attain merely by hearing and repeating words, but always by undergoing the process conferred upon him by already initiated Masters or experts, an experience which resulted in an expansion of his consciousness. St. Clement of Alexandria testifies to this when he writes:-
"But the Mysteries are delivered mystically, that which is spoken may be in the mouth of the speaker; not in his voice, but rather in his understanding. The writing of these memoranda of mine, I well know, is weak when compared with that spirit, full of grace, which I was privileged to hear. But it will be an image to recall the archetype to him who was struck by the Thyrsus."
(Stromateis: Bk. 1. ch. 28.)
Such an experience was of necessity always reserved for the few, but notwithstanding some shadow of it was also within reach of those who, although not fully qualified to become Initiates, were none the less genuine seekers for knowledge. For them there were the Lesser Mysteries, in which the actual change in consciousness did not take place, but something of its meaning was conveyed to the candidate by his participation in a series of rites in which the chief events of the Greater Mysteries were presented to him in dramatised form.
We can now proceed to judge of what supreme importance the influence of the Rosy Cross was to Speculative Freemasonry. The mysteries of the Rosy Cross were the Greater Mysteries, as we know from the testimony of those who were admitted to them, and the contact of the Rosicrucians with Freemasonry undoubtedly resulted in the gradual importation into Masonic Lodges of teaching derived from more hidden and exalted sources. Many students of the Craft system are unaware of the great value of literary works attributed to Rosicrucian authorship. These works call for our serious study because their contents are directly related to that body of science and doctrine concerning human nature and its perfectibility, which the concealed Founders of the Craft system, subtly and under deep veils of phrasing, planted in the soil of Masonic ritual. The Hermetic Lore, as the body of the Rosicrucian teaching is often called, comprehends both a spiritual and a physical science ; a Science of the Spirit, and a Science of Nature. Both of these elements of the Rosicrucian wisdom are also to be understood by the use of the term " Great Work "; and while it is true that the goal of the Hermetic philosopher included such knowledge as would enable him to transmute base metals, there was the higher or spiritual aspect in which the laboratory was Man himself, the base metals his own lower nature, and the transmutation, that change by which through mystic death ("putrefactio"), a Rebirth ("regeneratio") took place. Modern scholarship, of course, still leaves unsolved the question of the correct classification of Rosicrucian alchemical treatises as mystical, magical, or simply primitively chemical. The most reasonable view, however, is surely that which is prepounded in the treatises themselves, namely that the physical problem of the transmutation of base metals into gold is, in essence, the same as that of Man's physical regeneration. Michael Sendivogius alludes to this conception of the work in his treatise appropriately entitied " New Chemical Light," as follows:-
"The Sages have been taught of God that this natural world is only an image and material copy of a heavenly and spiritual pattern; that the very existence of this world is based upon the reality of its celestial archetype; and that God has created it in imitation of the spiritual and invisible Universe, in order that men might be better enabled to comprehend His heavenly teaching, and the wonder of His absolute and ineffable power and wisdom. Thus the Sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror; and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the Knowledge which it reveals; he jealously conceals it from the sinner and the scornful, lest the mysteries of heaven should be laid bare to the vulgar gaze."
("New Chemical Light," Part 11, Concerning Sulphur.)
The work for which the Craft was designed is described in the language of Alchemy as the "ERGON"-primary work; the work of natural science and the making of physical gold is but the "PARERGON"-secondary work. In the sense of the primary work Gold is the attribute of divinity and is closely connected with Fire as a spiritual emblem:-
"But he knoweth the way that I take; when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold."
(Job 23, verse 10).
"Every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is."
(1 Corinthians 3, verse 13).
The doctrine of Freemasonry in relation to the Rosicrucian mystery-teachings can best be appreciated after a preliminary statement of some of the basic principles on which, it is affirmed, rests all progress in the Royal Art. There is, however, independent evidence of the Rosicrucian influence on the genesis of the Craft system. Historical research indicates that the originators of Speculative Freemasonry, the members of the so-called " Invisible Society," simultaneously with launching the Craft, arranged for the formation of the Royal Society, which became chartered in 1662 for the advancement of scientific knowledge. Strictly in accordance with the Hermetic wisdom, therefore, the "Invisibles" projected two systems; one (the Craft) intended to be devoted to mystical studies and personal spiritual development; the other (the Royal Society) aiming at the promotion of natural science upon occult principles and under the guidance of qualified experts.
Science, in the popular mind, represents nothing more than the body of those beliefs, conclusions, or generalizations, which individual scientists at various times put forth in a tentative way as landmarks, so to speak, in their endless search for increasingly valid formulations of Reality. It is to these conclusions, often called "facts," that we allude when we state that "science teaches" this or that. But strictly speaking science does not "teach" anything at all. It is a method rather than a body of conclusions, and it is scientific method in Speculative Freemasonry with which we are here concerned. Let us illustrate by a few specific examples. We live in a world which the ordinary man accepts as a reality, existing quite independently of himself. To him it is supremely real, and to doubt this fact would seem to be sheer madness. Yet he cannot fathom his own relation to this world, and he cannot adequately explain how he actually perceives it. Is it by means of the senses? If so, how does the sense impression affect consciousness? When we "see" an object, all we can be sure of is that something outside us has affected our eyes by means of vibrations of a definite rate; that our optic nerves convey the impression to the brain-cells; that a chemical change takes place there, and then-we "see" the object; we are aware of a certain shape, various colours and textures. What mystery has taken place by means of which the chemical change in the grey matter of the brain has created in our consciousness the image of the object? And, having "seen," as we say; what do we, after all, really know about the object? Similarly, in the attempt to formulate a philosophical exposition of the world and life experience, almost any first statement we may make can be seized upon and criticized as one-sided, and therefore untrue. The world is a unity; the world is pluralistic.
Time is continuous; time is composed of irreducible atomic elements. The world comes to the individual from without; the world of the individual is a world of inner experience. Each of these premises is admitted to be true in one respect or another. But how are they true? In what sense are they true? In what general point of view can be set up in accordance with which the apparent conflicts are resolved? Is this world a dream world-daily existence, friends, work-is it all a fantastic illusion. Yes and no. This is a paradox the world in which we live is Real and yet Unreal; the mystery of its relation to us and its measure of reality can only be disclosed in the depths of our own consciousness. Plato compares ordinary men to prisoners bound in a cave, of which they can see only the back wall. On this wall fall shadows cast by those who pass the mouth of the cave. The play of shadows is the prisoner's world; it is reality to them; but whenever one of them succeeds in freeing himself, and sees the entrance, sees the Light and the real beings moving in it, then he realizes that he has lived in a world of illusion, that he has been "in a state of darkness," and that his eyes have been "hoodwinked." We must know ourselves in order to know the world. The man, therefore, who becomes proficient in "that most interesting of all human studies, the knowledge of himself," renounces the popular world; and he gradually attains consciousness in a world described as "not to be touched by hand or to be seen by eye," but otherwise supremely real. Withdrawal from this world of illusion, however, involves a transition from the ordinary natural state and standard of living towards what is an as the regenerate state, with its correspondingly higher standard. A word now upon the faculty to be employed in the apprehension of interior truth.
It is often remarked that a natural timidity affects those to whom is suggested a transition from old and familiar roads of study, comfortably charted and lit with the bright lamps of convention, to a new and unknown path of research striking away into the darkness of obscurity beyond the official boundaries of orthodox systems of knowledge. The earnest seeker after Truth, however, fortified by the imperative will to know, soon learns that the outer darkness on investigation reveals rare lights of its own, and is in fact but "darkness visible," although light of a quality hitherto undiscerned. In this difficult study, knowing depends entirely upon doing; comprehension is conditional upon and the corollary of action " He that will do the will shall know of the doctrine " for the doing automatically liberates an inward faculty capable of directly cognizing self-evident truth. We know not how to describe a faculty which when awakened, exists and functions in complete independence of the physical organism. In our Masonic symbolism, as in other treatises of arcane psychology, it is described, in analogy with the natural luminary, as "the Sun, to rule the day," whilst the logical understanding is "the Moon, to govern the night" and direct the merely temporal affairs of life. This latter, embracing as it does the reasoning faculty and tie lower or objective mind, is appointed to serve as a light in the natural world, but, the gift notwithstanding, it forms a cloud of darkness as regards light from the spiritual element that is both within and without us, and indeed, may obscure all spiritual vision. Not until a man has learned to relegate this "lesser light" to its appropriate use in the natural world, can he, walking in darkness, hope to see the great luminary, which, invisible to the physical sense, but present in the central depths of his nature, lightens every man coming into the world, and which, to those who having clean hands and pure hearts, are fitted to evoke it, manifests in mental illumination and expanded consciousness.
We turn now from the psychologic to the metaphysical aspect of the Great Work. The entire object of the Royal Art of the Rosicrucians and spiritual Alchemists is said to be the uncovering of the inner faculty of insight and wisdom, alluded to above, and the removal of the veils intervening between the mind and dividing it from its hidden divine root. Not only does this science envisage an individual in whom the several constituents of consciousness are united, but it aspires towards the development of an integrated and free man who is likewise building up in the present life what is known in the technical language of mysticism as the "resurrection" or "arch-natural" body. This is also the profound idea which governs our symbolic craft of Masonry; the "raising of a superstructure, perfect in all its parts and honourable to the builder." As to the metaphysical material of which these structures are to be reared, the Hermetic and Alchemical schools adopted the mystical terms of Scripture and called it a "stone," the "philosopher's stone." It is, indeed, the "white stone" which is given "to him that overcometh" the lower nature, as that Apostle did who thereupon received the name that implies "a stone"; for it is only then that the individual aspirant becomes a "foundation," a "rock" upon which may be erected a "temple," a personal sanctuary of the Spirit whose abode is the souls of men rather than temples made with hands. The teaching of the Alchemists demonstrates how this "stone" must be "confected," worked up in the individual by a "manual art" (like our Masonic "art" not to be understood in the literal sense) from chaos to perfection. They describe the work as undergoing three stages: the black, the white, and the red, which are the Alchemical equivalents of the three Degrees of Speculative Freemasonry. Thus as, psychologically, regeneration involves the three traditional stages of purgation, illumination, and union, so, metaphysically, there are three corresponding stages of corporeal development. To each of these may be added a fourth, although unlikely of achievement in this life; the attainment of divine union in permanence, which during physical life can only be temporary and partial; and the corresponding perfecting and consolidation of the arch-natural vesture perfect holiness belongs only to the Lord."
The first stage in Alchemy "the stone at the black in Freemasonry a poor candidate in a state of darkness"; is intended to typify the benighted mind and unclarified state of the soul's vesture at the outset of the Great Work. At this stage the physical nature must be accounted an integral factor in the "work," and is to be dedicated and employed accordingly. It is the vessel or crucible in which the alchemic change is to be wrought, but the regimen enjoined is "the renewing of your mind," not the maceration of the body; for, in a deeper than the familiar sense, "corpus sanum" will ensue surely enough upon "mens sana."
The second stage ; in Alchemy " the stone at the white"; in Freemasonry "clothed in White Apron and gloves as emblems of innocence"; signifies that the clouded mind and the soul's black vesture of "earth" have been cleansed by the baptism of "a fall of water"-the Alchemical remedy of "the Elixir of Life." The third stage in Alchemy "the stone at the red"; in Freemasonry the sublime Degree"; symbolises entrance into the sanctuary and denotes the aspirant whose purified soul enters the experience of the divine union. Following the Alchemical precedent Freemasonry recognizes that the third stage involves two "operations," known in Alchemy as the refining of silver and gold, and accordingly the three Degrees of Freemasonry also "include the Holy Royal Arch of Jerusalem" as their climax. The clothing, therefore, worn in the Master Mason Degree is distinguished by silver, the first of the "noble" or "precious" metals; whereas in the Royal Arch Degree, "the completion of the Master Mason Degree," it is adorned with gold. The transmutation has now been effected ; in the Holy Royal Arch the soul is "all glorious within" and the clothing is of wrought gold ; " wrought," since gold indicates that holy ultimate substance, which, although always latent in each one of us, like gold-dust in common soil, needs mining, refining, and working up by skilful craftsmanship before becoming a "jewel" for the King's Treasury. Lastly, the "gold must be tried in fire"; the growing celestial body must be perfected and fixated until capable of eternal endurance in the burning heat of the Divine "penetralia." This perfecting is scarcely to be looked for in the present life, but its achievement, as the state attained by those who become "king and priests unto God," is symbolically attested in Speculative Freemasonry by the robes worn by those who are called to corresponding rank in the outer Chapter; the prince prelates of the Grand Sanhedrin, represented " in the persons of the three Principals."
Our thought in this Paper has reached high ground, but we have laboured to be lucid in speaking of things exacting unwonted claims upon the normal understanding and that, although the subject of an abundant literature, have ever been expressed in terms of great restraint and concealment. The understanding of these things will be assisted by realising physical things to be in faithful correspondence with metaphysical, and that, as we advance from the one to the other, we employ in turn the self-blinded eye of sense, the closed eye of faith, and the opened eye of the soul. At the beginning of the Quest the aspirant is conscious only of things of the physical order. Let him, however, commit himself, with bandaged eyes, to his instinct in the possibility of a great self-transfiguration, believing that "My covenant is with your flesh," and at the end of it, as with John, the spiritual seer, the hoodwink is removed and faith passes into sight. His eyes "see" the salvation prepared before the face of all people, but hidden from them by a passing blindness, and he can testify that in very deed "the tabernacle of God is with men," and not elsewhere. We will conclude with a quotation from Plotinus which may serve to illustrate the position of this Study Circle in relation to our Brethren of the Craft:-
"If we speak and write, it is but as guides to those who long to see: we send them to the place itself, bidding them from words to the Vision: the teaching is of the Path and the Plan, seeing is the work of each Soul for itself."
(Plotinus-Ennead VI, 9.4. tr. Stephen McKenna.)
SO MOTE IT BE.
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