Thursday, September 1, 2011

Daily Advancement in Masonic Knowledge

Daily Advancement in Masonic Knowledge

The title of this essay is taken from one of the most beautiful charges in the Masonic ritual - the charge after initiation, wherein the newly initiated brother is exhorted among other tasks to make a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge.
Let us examine this significant remark a little further. Firstly let us make note of the fact that he is asked to make this a daily activity. Secondly he is told to acquire Masonic knowledge.
There was once a scientist named Pavlov who was interested in studying how humans learn. He conducted an experiment which made inroads into the understanding of learned behaviors. We all know that ringing a bell cannot make a dog salivate. But this is what he proved was possible. Every day during the time when the dog was fed, he started ringing a bell and then feeding his dog. As usual the dog would salivate when it saw the food. Eventually there reached a point where as soon as the bell was rung he started to salivate as he was used to the habit of receiving food just after the ringing of the bell. This experiment proved that certain responses were natural and we can link those in the mind to certain stimuli in order to get a behavior that we require. This is the basis of learned behavior. For example, when our child receives a favor from someone the first time he may not say thank you as an instant reaction but if we ensure that our child says thank you consistently to such kind acts from a fellow human being, he will make it a habit and it will make him a more pleasant and agreeable person in this world.

Man is a social animal. Therefore there are many learned behaviors that he can acquire. When he has acquired the required behaviors he is considered a fit and proper member of regularly organized society. In all cases good behaviors can only be developed after the mind knows what behavior to exhibit. The mind can know what behaviors to exhibit only after it has been taught. This is known as cultivation of the mind. Such a cultivated mind can only be attained by practicing “learning” until it has become a habit in daily life.
This is also the reason why we are taught to reflect on the rough and perfect ashlars. They teach us that the rough and unformed mind of the man in infancy needs to become the mature and polished mind by education and experience. Here if we look closely at it we see that learning is on two levels, on one level its education or that knowledge that can be acquired by reading and studying books-theoretical knowledge and on the next level we can learn by practicing what we have learnt in the book in real life-practical knowledge.
To sum up so far we have arrived at the conclusion that we need to learn both Masonic theory and practice Freemasonry in real life. Now let us examine the source of Masonic knowledge.
What is this Masonic Knowledge that a mason is to acquire? So where do we get this Masonic knowledge from? Is it the ritual? Is it the administration of the Lodge? Is it points of procedure and protocol? Is it the constitution? Is it Masonic etiquette? Is it religious in nature? Is it the historical in nature?
There is a line of thought that says the Mason's area of operation is from north to south, from east to west, from zenith to nadir, therefore ANY advancement in knowledge is an advancement in Masonic knowledge; And I agree that this is true in a broad sense. In my humble opinion it is anything that makes a man better than he is currently. From a ritualistic point of view anything that prepares him to climb the winding staircase of life that lies ahead of him is Masonic knowledge. But for the sake of regularity of discussion I would like to elucidate a few sources of Masonic knowledge before taking refuge in that line of thinking.

The sources that I wish to explore are:

  1. 1.     The Three Great Lights in Masonry
  2. 2.     The Ritual
  3. 3.     The Book of Constitutions
  4. 4.     The Moral Virtues
  5. 5.     The Liberal Arts and Sciences
  6. 6.     The Higher Degrees

The Three Great Lights in Masonry
1.    The basic foundations of Masonic knowledge for all Freemasons are the three great lights in Masonry viz.

  1. 1.     The Volume of Sacred Law,
    2.     The Square and
    3.     The Compasses 

The Volume of Sacred Law is an unending source of knowledge and we are charged to consider it as the unerring standard of truth and justice to regulate our actions by the divine precepts it contains. (”All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” - 2 Timothy 3:16) We are also told that in it we will learn the important duties we owe to God, our neighbor and our self. It is the volume of sacred law that Freemasonry holds in highest reverence and so should we. Proof of this comes from the “Aims and Relations of the Craft”, first issued by the United Grand Lodge of England, and later agreed to by the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland which states: The first condition of admission into, and membership of, the Order is belief in the Supreme Being; the Bible, the Volume of the Sacred Law, is always open in Lodges.  Every candidate is required to take his obligation on that book or the Volume that is held by his particular creed to impart sanctity to an oath or promise taken upon it. ”. The principles of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man are derivations of what the volume of sacred law teaches us and therefore to advance in this direction we need to make diligent study of the volume of sacred law a part of our daily routine just as we brush our teeth daily.
The Square is one of the most important and significant Symbols in Freemasonry. It is not the carpenter’s square (French freemasons) or a measuring implement (American Freemasons), it is simply the trying square of a stone-mason, and has a plain surface; the sides or legs embracing an angle of ninety degrees, and is intended only to test the accuracy of the sides of a stone, and to see that its edges subtend the same angle. In Freemasonry, the square is a symbol of morality. It is this morality that is the bedrock practical freemasonry and is a pre requisite for becoming a member (ref: Who can become a freemason?). But it has other contextual significations for example:
1.     It presents itself to the Entered Apprentice as one of the Three Great Lights.
2.     To the Fellow Craft as one of his Working-tools.
3.     To the Master Mason as the official emblem of the Master of the Lodge.
The Compasses show us that we must direct our energy and efforts with all mankind, particularly among our brethren in Freemasonry. The knowledge that the compasses teach a mason is so mystical that it is difficult for the mortal mind to fully comprehend (w.r.t the deity) but on a more practical level it teaches man of his  everyday duty of circumscribing his passions, and keeping his desires within due bounds. "Better is he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”-King Solomon (Proverbs 16:32)

The Ritual
After the three great lights in masonry comes the Craft Ritual. This is akin to the Pierian Spring in Greek mythology. 
As the metaphorical source of knowledge of art and science, it was popularized by a line in Alexander Pope's poem "An Essay on Criticism" (1709).
“…A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring…”
Pieria, where the sacred spring was situated, was a region of ancient Macedonia, it was believed to be the home and the seat of worship of Orpheus and the Muses, the deities of the arts and sciences. The spring is believed to be a fountain of knowledge that inspires whoever drinks from it. In Greek mythology, it was believed that drinking from the Pierian Spring would bring you great knowledge and inspiration. Thus, Pope is explaining how if you only learn a little it can "intoxicate" you in such a way that makes you feel as though you know a great deal. However, when "drinking largely" it "sobers" you now that you are wise and have a greater understanding and also "drinking" it "largely sobers" you because you then realize that you may never acquire complete wisdom and understanding. On similar lines the knowledge of the ritual can grow in an individual who is inclined. Initially in may be due to admiration and novelty progressing onwards to devotion and love for it. Finally by personal study and repeated delivery we gain more insight into the meaning and see the effect it has on the candidate. When we attempt to master the ritual naturally we will begin to master the English language; its grammar, pronunciation, intonation and dialogue delivery skills. In addition to this we also start using our grey matter and like all muscles the more we exercise it the stronger it becomes and this helps us in our personal and private avocations too. Thus in each stage of knowledge development as a ritualist we grow and help others grow and come to realize how little we actually know and how much more we can improve as seen in the Pierian Spring analogy.  

The Book of Constitutions
The efficient administration of the lodge which forms the basic unit of freemasonry is governed by the Book of Constitutions. It lays down the rules and regulations based on which we operate. It is therefore vital that a knowledge seeking freemason be well acquainted with it so as to enable him to be most useful in his lodge. Let us keep in mind the words that remind us of the importance we place on the Book of Constitutions “…a strict observance of our laws and regulations, by prompt attention to all signs and summonses, by modest and correct demeanor in the Lodge, by abstaining from every topic of political or religious discussion, by a ready acquiescence in all votes and resolutions duly passed by a majority of the brethren, and by perfect submission to the Master and his Wardens whilst acting in the discharge of their respective offices.”

The Moral Virtues
The very definition of Freemasonry is that “it is a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”, therefore it needs no mention that knowledge of morality is paramount and morality can be practiced through virtuous behavior is what our ritual points out viz. the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice  and above these the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity also known as the three theological virtues that our ritual highlights as the staves on Jacobs ladder making a total of seven virtues.

The Liberal Arts and Sciences
The conferment of degrees is one of the activities that occur in a tyled lodge room, akin to universities that confer the Bachelor or Master’s degrees. Hence it is but natural to wonder about the knowledge that one has to acquire in these fields that qualifies as Masonic knowledge. In Proverbs 9:1 Solomon says, "Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars." The importance of gaining knowledge in these fields are discussed as follows:
1.     Grammar: In Genesis, the first job given to Adam is to name all things. Adam is told to name them and to have dominion over creation. Knowing the name of things gives a man authority to speak and to understand. Grammar teaches us to speak clearly and concisely.
2.     Rhetoric: A synonym for rhetoric is persuasion. To study rhetoric is to study speaking and writing to persuade others. Rhetoric adds force and elegance to our thoughts.
3.     Logic: This teaches us the trains of thought that help us deduce or infer the facts. It trains the mind to think clearly.
4.     Arithmetic: Managing numbers requires attention, skill and intelligence. Hence to be well versed in this science makes man wealthy figuratively and literally.
5.     Geometry: Here we find the foundation of architecture the basis of the craft and in its depth we can sense the genius of the Almighty.
6.     Music: Rhetoric appeals to the intellect which is second only to Music which persuades the heart. In studying this we truly appreciate the importance of timing and perseverance. On a spiritual level we understand the balance and harmony in all of creation through it.
7.     Astronomy: The science that teaches us to look up at the starts and ultimately leads us to contemplate the magnificence and grandeur of the creator and the miniscule yet significant part we are in that great plan.

The Higher Degrees
After one has attained some proficiency in the Craft, some members are drawn to seek further enlightenment in their quest for that which was lost in the Higher or Side degrees. This eventually leads them to be advanced in Mark masonry and exalted in the Holy Royal Arch and elevated in the Royal Ark Mariners Degrees and dubbed in the Chivalric Orders. Although these degrees are optional, they are a treasure trove of further knowledge that will delight the heart and mind of those so predisposed. Many a time they will fill in gaps of knowledge that were hitherto blind spots in the Master Mason’s Lodge
In conclusion, each of these are sources of Masonic knowledge and it is left to the discretion of the brother to choose his area of growth. But like all knowledge it is useless unless it is applied aptly. “For the heart may conceive and the head may devise in vain if the hand be not prompt to execute the design.” Therefore once a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge becomes a habit will serve the new initiate well in his journey through the blue lodge and beyond.