As the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Area of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, I have the distinct pleasure to serve on the Committee for Masonic Education for the Grand Lodge. In order to better serve the membership and also to hopefully give perspective to the Grand Lodge line, I came up with a Masonic Education Survey. I limited the result set to 1000 respondents, which I didn’t think we’d come close to reaching. I am pleased to say that I was wrong.
We were able to reach that number, and the results bore out one main thing to me. When asked: “Of the below topics, select the one that you would be most interested in learning more about:
The History of Freemasonry
The History of Our Ritual
American Masonic History
Self-Improvement (Learning non-Masonic skills to improve our Member’s lives)
Contemplative Masonry (Basic Applications of Mindfulness and Meditation guided by Masonic Ritual)
The History of the Grand Lodge of Illinois
The Deeper Meaning behind our Symbols and Ritual”
The Deeper Meaning behind our Symbols and Ritual garnered 510 responses out of 968 responses (32 responders did not respond to the question).
Personally, when I think about learning the deeper meanings behind our symbols and ritual, one word comes to mind. That word is Esoteric. In and of itself, the definition of Esoteric is: intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest. I pulled this definition directly from Google for anyone who wants to check it.
In his work: Defining Esotericism from a Masonic Perspective, WB Shawn Eyer states that:
“Freemasons have historically used the term in three ways, denoting:
- Any of the elements of the Masonic ritual or lectures which are considered secret (i.e., matters reserved for the confines of a tiled lodge, or material that is not “monitorial,” as American Masons might say).
- Any of the meanings which seem to be implicit, more by design than accident, within the Masonic symbolism, ritual and lectures.
- Any of the subjects generally included under the rubric of “Western Esotericism,” including kabbalah, alchemy, hermeticism and other mystical pursuits which gained in popularity during the Renaissance period.”
However, I have to wonder if I had used Esoteric or Esoteric Studies in the survey if the results would have been similar. I believe that probably would not be the case. In certain Masonic circles, Esoteric or any derivative of the word causes heads to spin faster then Linda Blair’s character:Regan MacNeil in the movie: “The Exorcist”. It might also cause a reaction like Regan’s when she vomits a vile green substance all over poor Father Damien Karras. In any case, I think you get the picture.
The human species seems to generally fear the unknown. The psychological term for this is “Xenophobia”. This is the tendency to be afraid of something you have no information about on any level. In some people, this fear can make them intensely upset or anxious when they encounter an unknown or unfamiliar situation. When this occurs, you are said to have developed a state of mind called “Intolerance of Uncertainity”. When such fears are not managed, they can be manifested into racist, homophobic, or xenophobic (fear or hatred of foreigners) beliefs. It should come then as no surprise that in context with Freemasonry, when the word Esoteric is mentioned, it can cause strong emotions to come forward.
I’ve heard concepts that seem innocuous to me like the Chamber of Reflection (as illustrated above under my name) labelled as “Satanic” by other brethren. The outcry which is normally being put forward is that such ideas have no place in a Masonic Lodge, even though the whole second section of the Third Degree serves the same purpose as the Chamber of Reflection as it is intended to inculcate similar ideas regarding one’s mortality and immortality upon the mind of the candidate. Nevermind that. Many of the same brethren who gnash their teeth, hit their breasts, and tear their hair out over this concept had no problem using one as part of the Knight’s Templar degrees. You know, that Masonic appendant organization that requires an oath to protect and defend the Christian faith of it’s membership. I’d ask those brethren why if it’s “Satanic” in the Blue Lodge, it is okay in the “Christian” Knight’s Templar? One can only imagine what labels these brethren would give the subjects of kabbalah, alchemy, hermeticism, rosicrucianism, etc. all. Could we see their heads explode like Darryl Revok’s head in the movie: “Scanners”?
I’m being facetious of course. The point I’m belaboring is that based upon a limited sample size, over half of the brethren of Illinois that replied to the survey seem to have interest in learning Esoteric concepts as it relates to the second of WB Eyer’s definition of Estoteric above. I can only speak for myself, but when I joined Freemasonry and advanced through the degrees, I wanted to know why things were done. I know I was given explanations but they were to me unsatisfactory. I have always wanted to know the unknown. Instead of fearing it, I wanted to embrace it. I wanted to believe desperately that there was something, some knowledge, or some purpose behind what I just experienced. Thus, my journey into Esoteric studies began.
I have always believed, and the survey bears this out, that there are a lot of brethren that have the same yearning that I had and still have. Many of us want to believe that there is some deeper meaning behind our symbolism, ritual and lectures. I understand that this area of study isn’t for everyone, that there are some brethren that are fine with going through the motions and not questioning why they’re doing what they’re doing and saying what they are saying. There are some that could care less. This is the tight rope over the great abyss that the rest of us walk when we express our desire to learn about esoterics. This is especially true when those that don’t understand why we have this desire to learn hold positions within our Grand Lodge lines.
While esoteric or any derivative of the word might be a dirty word to some, it’s also a lost word to many. Much like King Solomon is forced to introduce a substitute word when the Master’s word was lost, those that have a desire to learn about the esoteric have had to accept a substitute for their Masonic education in the lodge room. The topics of Masonic History, American Masonic History, Grand Lodge History and the like have been substituted for learning about the Masonic Philosophy behind our Symbols, Rituals and Lectures. While there is nothing wrong with this, those of us that are in charge of Masonic Education understand that it is our job as educators to make sure that everyone is educated with topics that they find interesting. In doing so, We find those that find esoteric study interesting are ignored due to the prevailing attitudes I listed above. The irony of this being that the reason for which Hiram Abiff was murdered was his refusal to give up the Secrets and Word of a Master Mason. It was that esoteric knowledge he possessed which was given only to a select few that drove the ruffians to their murderous desire. My have times changed.
It is my hope that armed with the survey data, we (the Masonic Education Committee for the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F. & A.M.) can legitimize esoteric study by introducing a program in Illinois, much like WB Ben Wallace was able to do with the Middle Chamber Masonic Education program in North Carolina. He’s even left everyone a blueprint to follow with his book, A Path to Providence: The Creation of the Middle Chamber Program. Many of us also have the privilege of knowing Ben and have the ability to reach out to him personally for advice along the way.
It is obvious that this program will not be for everyone. It is also quite possible that the only ones that care about Esoteric studies in the Grand Lodge of Illinois are the members that answered that they were interested in learning more about the deeper meaning behind our symbols and ritual. I don’t believe that is true. As I stated earlier in this article, I believe that there are many members that have the same desire that I possess. These members, like myself, believe that there is some deeper meaning behind our symbolism, ritual and lectures. I see no harm in giving our membership what the desire. If our purpose as stated is to take Good Men and make them Better, then the way to do that is through Masonic Education. If there is a subset that wants this education to be “Esoteric”, I see nothing wrong with that. I can only hope that we can convince those members in our Grand Lodge line of the same thing. My hope is that with the survey data, that we can show that there is a place at the table for Esoteric education.
by Midnight Freemasons
WB Darin A. Lahners
WB Darin A. Lahners is our Co-Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the “Meet, Act and Part” podcast. He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Masonic Area. He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s also a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine, and a grade one (Zelator) in the S.C.R.I.F. Prairieland College in Illinois. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.
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