'THE THREE DEGREES'

BY Carlton E. Williams, PAGDC

(Ed. Note: Bro Williams is a Past Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies
and a Past Master of Phoenix Lodge #914.
This Article is published with his permission, for which we thank him.)

FOREWORD

It has always been selfrewarding for me to have read the works of Masonic historians and statements and theories written by brethren who are keen to fill the many gaps in the understanding of our Masonic rites and ceremonies. This document was borne from my own personal simple research, with a view to enhance my interest and education, in the basic aspects of the meaning of Masonry. In attempting to condense the various subject matters , much fascinating details had to be omitted ; and so the following should be considered as a layman's compilation of the standard volumes. authorities and records consulted.

INTRODUCTION

OBSERVING FREEMASONRY

As'we progress in our lives as Freemasons , it becomes more factual that there is much more than meets the eyes and ears beneath the surface of Masonic doctrine and symbols. Brethren are beginning to think for themselves instead of taking things for granted, and as their thoughts develop , facts that previously remained unperceived , assume prominence and significance. They [1] perceive that the system is deeper than the basic morality preached, [2] reflect that the strength of masonry is more than private associations acting out the connection with the operative trade, [3] recognize that there is more to the craft than a costly imitation of our ancient brethren's trade, associated with deep social enjoyments, [4] witness that our system of charity and our social and festive proceedings are not peculiar to the craft , as other societies have similar programs.

WHAT IS FREEMASONRY

Freemasonry is not a society but an association of societies. It has a common purpose and is regulated from the centre, but its units - Lodges or Chapters - run themselves. It is a wide association . and all sorts of men -from Royalty to Workmen - belong. The Lodges and Chapters are all varied, and their demands in terms of time and money ,may also differ widely. As societies, they are not just for socializing -they are much more than dining or lunching clubs, and some are really quite like families. Freemasonry as it is practised under our Grand Lodge is for men. This is for old historical reasons, . When Freemasonry started , in the late 1500-1600s, society was male, and it was natural for Freemasonry to be male, too. We could change our rules, but then Freemasonry would not be the same, and change, for the sake of change is not necessarily a good thing. Freemasonry is a fraternal order of men, bound by oath, deriving from medieval operative Masonry, observing many of their Ancient Charges , Laws , Teachings , Practices , Beliefs, and adhering to certain basic and fundamental principles, three of which are, Ceremony, Charity and Morality, ~ which are accepted unreservedly and wholeheartedly by Masons everywhere , about which there can be no discussion with a view? to any new or varied interpretation of them ; examples of these are;-

  1. Belief in GOD, and immortality, {Freemasonry does not specify which god}
  2. The Holy Bible or Volume of Sacred Law being displayed in the Lodge and used for the obligation of Candidates.
  3. Obligation to Secrecy and Secret Modes of Recognition.
  4. Paying due allegiance to the Sovereign of our native land and paying due obedience to the Laws of the State. [Freemasonry supports the law. It's support for the law is a long-standing practice: Stonemasons were respectable Craftsmen, and law-abiding citizens and we follow their ways.
  5. Observing the principles of brotherly Love. Equality. Charity.

These basic and fundamental principles are but few of the Landmarks of the Order,- they are of great antiquity, they are universal, and they are unchangeable. {Landmarks will be discussed later on} Operative Masonry flourished in Britain from 1150-1550. There would be little extra accommodation for transients in the modest dwellings of those days, so workmen employed in large buildings built themselves a Lodge for living, eating, sleeping and resting, for assemblies of the men for consultation , discussion, and instruction in Craft matters , so secrecy would be most important.

Then later we had territorial Lodges, especially in Scotland; these were situated in towns dealing with trade matters in general.

  1. Keeping a record of the reception and gentry of apprentices
  2. Regulating terms of apprenticeship
  3. Settling of disputes between Master and workmen
  4. Collection of funds both fees and fines for pious uses and for the relief of distress among members
  5. Feasting at the expense of Candidates
  6. And they conferred the Masonic 'WORD' on qualified members

Their ceremonies were very simple originally, later becoming more elaborate. Non-operatives, noble-men, scholars, professional men, all entered, and for various reasons,

  1. Amateur interest in Architecture
  2. Interest in Antiquity
  3. A desire to learn the Secrets, there then being great interest in Alchemy, Astrology, the Bible generally.
  4. A desire for fellowship and conviviality.

As early as 1600, the presence of a non-operative at a Lodge meeting in Scotland was mentioned. Much of what we now do in our Lodges is done because it was done, or we thought was done in the Operative Lodges, and is purely symbolical - in fact, until we realise this, we shall never fully appreciate and understand Freemasonry, - our Ceremonies must not be taken literally, but we are always to look for the symbolical meaning. Some think that the power of Masonry lies in its Secrecy, this is not so . It's real power lies in the Sanctity of it's Truth , the Simplicity of it's Faith, the Sweetness of it's Spirit and it's Service to Mankind, and if all it's Rites were made public today it would still hold the hearts of men.

ENTER LIVE & DIE

THE ENTERED APPRENTICE

In proceeding to understand the Craft , it must be noted that, as every brother is admitted in successive stages , likewise the understanding of the Masonic system and doctrine is by gradual stages of learning. Every member is admitted in a state of darkness as to the meaning and teaching of the order and later on , he is expected to be brought to lieht and knowledge. In other words, he enters symbolicallv as a rough stone, and it is his business to develop both his character and knowledge that ultimately, by stages , he may become a finished stone. The first stage of development is concerned merely with the face value of the doctrine; this is the stage of knowledge in which the craft is regarded as a social, semi-public , semi-private , semi-secret group of men. A group which affords social public advantages, for both beneficial and ulterior purposes. Men whose goals are to perform ritual work with dignity and some degree of pompousness, eventually attaining high offices within the system , and be decorated with a breastful of "medals" . Men who. after discharging their various functions with varying degrees of credit, rush to have the lodge closed as quickly as possible to enjoy the proceedings of the festive board . All these views belong to what may be called the rough-ashlar stages of Freemasonry, and we all may confess to being in that category at one stage, as then we had not known better, and had no one to teach us better.

However, the meaning of Freemasonry is a subject usually unexplained and that remains so to many except the few who make it their private research and study. It is usually taken for granted that, admission into the Order will automatically be the passport to appreciate the full value and meaning of the Craft . The reality is contrary to this belief, since Masonry is veiled and the understanding of it calls for special and informed guidance , on one hand, and a genuine desire for knowledge on the other. We have the experiences of brethren discontinuing their interest, or membership, because they find that Freemasonry means nothing to them in the absence of guidance and explanation.

To explain Freemasonry in a general outline, is not to divulge a subject which is entirely exclusive, but merely to show that Masonry stands in line with other doctrines and systems which inculcate the same principles, but with, no secrecy attached; however Masonry is a highly specialized and effective method of inculcating those principles . The Order is a semi-secret, and. semi-public institution : secret in respect of it's activities, but otherwise open to public observation , with it's doors open to any applicant for admission, who is of known good character and reputation. An applicant's admission is routinely businesslike. The initiation, is an awakening into a life previously unexperienced. Latterly, the membership has little influence upon them than their joining a social club, unless such awakening was ensued from a genuine desires of learning, a sincere wish to be serviceable to ones fellows, and nurtured by the explanation and guidances previously mentioned.

THE CANDIDATE

should not be solicited, strongly, to join, as in this regard of sacred and eventful importance the impulse must originate within himself; the first phase of preparation must be "within" his own heart.

The words CANDIDATE is derived from the 'Latin - Candidus' , white, in the sense of purity, emblematic of the pureness of thought and life. He would have left all money and metals behind him, for the gross things of this world are unnecessary in the "new world" being entered into. In some Masonic lodges the Candidate makes his first entrance to the lodge room amid the sounds of the clash of swords and other svmbols of strife , to remind him that he is leaving the confusion of the outer world, and passing into a Temple where the brethren dwell together in peace , harmony, and truth. Where it is their duty to "withdraw" rather than the harmony . that should characterize the craft be disturbed by their presence.

The INITIATION of a candidate who has little consciousness of what is implied , is derived from the 'Latin-Tnitiunr, which means , "a new beginning", a break-away from an old order of life and the entrance upon a new one of knowledge, understanding and virtue; To devote his life to a divine service that he may the better be enabled to display the true, beauty of godliness..

The admission of every Mason into the order is, as we are taught, "an emblematical representation of the entrance of all men upon this mortal existence". Reflecting upon this, we learn that each of us comes from the mystical "EAST", the throne of the master of all light, the eternal source of light and life, and our life is described as being spent in the "WEST", the place of the disappearing sun, the world of imperfection and darkness. Hence every Candidate upon admission finds himself, in a state of darkness, in the West of the lodge. Thereby, he is symbolically repeating the incident of his actual birth into this world, which he entered, blind and helpless, not knowing where he is going, stumbling with irregular steps, which reflects deviations from the true paths, and after many adversities , he then arrives, purified and somewhat experienced to a new life in the eternal East, Hence, in the 1st degree , we ask, 'whence come you?" , and the EA answers [as one of under-developed knowledge], 'from the West', since he supposes that his life had originated in that world. But in the advanced degree of a MM, the answer is "from the East"', for by this time he should have extended his knowledge to realize that the source of life is not the West, not in this world, which is only a "transitory life", spent in search of the genuine secrets; and as the spirit of man must return to God who gave it, so he is now returning from the 'temporary world of substituted secrets' to the East from which he originally came. We say that Freemasonry is a peculiar system of Morality., veiled in Allegory, and illustrated by Symbols

A PECULIAR SYSTEM Of MORALITY

in the sense that there is none other like it -- it is a way of life » we learn to live with ourselves, with our fellowman. with our God - not by ourselves or for ourselves.

In Freemasonry men of every colour, class and creed, meet on an equal footing to work in harmony and concord for the common good. It stands for all that is good and noble and elevating. It inculcates an unshaken and unshakable belief in the moral law, the golden rule, the brotherhood of man, the Fatherhood of God.

But, remember, it is a society of men, not of saints, - men with the virtues of men. and men with the failings of men - we must appreciate each other* s good qualities but despise no one for his failings, rather we should help him try to overcome them.

VEILED in ALLEGORY

The Candidate must be at a loss to understand what the ceremony of the First D is all about, But he must realise that the preparation and the entry of the candidate and the proceedings up to the enlightening are allegorical, He represents man, poor and penniless, entering into this world, also youth, groping in mental darkness for intellectual light - a man must put off the sword of Power , the Insignia of Rank, the Purse of Wealth, and put on the Emblems of an EA - declaring Secrecy-Fidelity, Obedience, Humility, Sincerity— Sincerity above all. . Confucius said 'I do not see how a man without sincerity can be good for anything.'

His journey at the very outset is beset with difficulty and danger. - he is opposed by the Tyler with his d s, then by the IG, with the P pressed to his NLB- he advances to the Altar by three I sps, as if stumbling in outer darkness in search of L - he is brought to L. His entrance is a new Birth, As the babe is brought to the light of day by his Mother, so is the Candidate brought to L by his Mother Lodge. But from the first moment of Life, Death is ever present. On every hand, at every step, it threatens him. Conscience constantly calls him to faithful obedience. But if the Cord of Conscience controls not his steps the Sword of Law will inevitably pierce his heart. This is the ALLEGORY of the First D.

ILLUSTRATED BY SYMBOLS

A Symbol is an Emblem , an item used to suggest, or represent something else, that which is visible identifying that which is not. e.g. $= dollars, , = pause , . = stop, a candle/lamp = light, knowledge education etc. . Symbolism is usually called the universal language, and it is what some mean by "the universal language of Freemasonry". In Craft Masonry there are approx. 90 Symbols employed, and are classified as Operative and Theoretic Symbols, some examples are as follows. Geometric and Onerative-- —Compasses[and points of compasses]. Gavel, Apron , Level. Rough and Perfect Ashlars , Square , 24-inch Gavel, etc.. Non-operative, Speculative or "Theoretic Symbols"----Bible . Blind-fold . All-seeing eye . Barefoot. Cable tow . Coffin . Corn . Tights , Sun&Moon , N< E< S< W< ; Temple , W-Stcse , etc.

SECRECY

Freemasonry is not secret but "private' There is , in truth, very little that is secret about Freemasonry. We have 'secrets', but they too stem from our history . Masons had a skill -a craft- and were jealous to preserve both it's secrets and standards. A strange stone-mason could prove his qualifications by test work, but a 'word' or 'sign' were quicker as introductions, So with us today - signs and words are used in formal proof of membership but we don't stand around in strange attitudes in public waiting to be recognized. We are however, reluctant to discuss our secrets. Therefore , we keep our 'secrets' in our ceremonies todav. because thev are nart of them, and because they add to their mystery. This we consider, "an inclination to privacy'' . Our old operative brethren were pledged to Secrecy , this was most vital to them, as otherwise, persons without having served a legal apprenticeship would be in a position to compete with them for work and would tend to bring down wages.

Secrecy constitutes the very essence of all Masonic Character. Tt is the safeguard of the Institution, giving to it all its security and perpetuity, if s unity and strength. It has been a Masonic policy or principle from the earliest records of the Craft.

The MASONIC APRON— represents the physical form given to us by the Creator, but which we must divest ourselves of, when leaving the "lodge of life" . This is the real "badge of innocence and bond of friendship". This precious symbol was of pure white lambskin {or other] , an emblem of purity and innocence. Tt was first worn with the flap raised, thus being a 5-cornered badge, indicating the 5 senses, our 5 points of fellowship with the material world: but indicating that the above triangular. together with the quadrangular portion below, which means that the three-sided emblem plus the four-sided emblem, makes seven, the perfect number; and that man's nature is a combination of soul and body, Tt is written in the ancient Hebrew doctrine with which Freemasonry is closely allied "God blessed and loved the number 7. more than all things under his throne''. Also, the lodge has seven principal officers, to be perfect, a lodge requires the presence of 7 brethren.

Next he is to take up his Working Tools - the Gauge as the symbol of time well spent, [2] the Gavel as a symbol to remind us of the duty of divesting our minds, and consciences of all the vices and impurities of life [3] Chisel to symbolise the effects of discipline and education on the human mind.

He adorns himself with The Three Precious Jewels- the Attentive Ear, that gathers in the treasures of Wisdom and experience; the Silent Tongue that preserves peace and commands respect, and the Faithful Heart that loves Truth and lives true.

He is further instructed to work true to the Three Grand Principles of Freemasonry - Brotherly Love , Relief, and Truth.

Reference to the THREE LESSER LIGHTS & THREE GREAT LIGHTS

LIGHT

Light is the first of all the symbols presented visually to the Candidate. Light is everywhere the symbol of knowledge and Truth . and is opposed to darkness which symbolises ignorance and evil. In the ceremonies the Candidate is said to be brought from Darkness to Light - it embraces within itself all the other symbols of the Order, so Freemasons are called Sons of Light.

THREE GREAT LIGHTS

As the Bible gives us Light on our duties to God, and the Square illustrates our duties to our neighbour . so the Compasses give us that additional Light which is to instruct us in the duty we owe to ourselves - the great imperative duty of circumscribing our passions and keeping our desires within due bound.

THREE LESSER LIGHTS

East. West and South : there is no light in the North. The North is therefore masonicallv called a place of darkness. They represent the SUN, the MOON and the MASTER of the Lodge. [Master-E, Moon-W, Sun-S, at its Meridian].

THREE FIXED LIGHTS

In the old rituals - were three windows placed EAST, WEST, and SOUTH , giving Light to the workmen To", "at"', and 'from' their work.

LIGHT

is symbolized in the 'Sun, our spiritual consciousness, the higher aspirations and emotions of the soul: The Moon: denotes our reasoning or intellectual faculties, which, as the moon reflects the light of the sun, should reflect the light coming from the higher spiritual faculty and transmitted into our daily conduct;

The MASTER-IS a conferred symbol denoting the will-power of man, which should enable him to be master of his own life, control his own actions, as the stroke of the Master's gavel controls the lodge and calls the brethren, under his direction, to order.

The initiate is placed in the NE comer, and is intended to see, that on one side of him is the path that leads to the perpetual light of the East, into which he is encouraged to proceed, and on the other is the path of ignorance, into which it is possible for him to remain . The N usually signifies the place of imperfection, the seat of the Initiate is allotted in the N. symbolizing a novice in whom the spiritual light has not vet risen.

References are made in rituals to THE LODGE— This is not meant to be the 'building' in which we meet. The real Lodge referred to. is our own individual personalities . and if we interpret our doctrine in the light of this fact, we shall find that it reveals an entirely new aspect of the purpose of our craft.

The ceremony of the first degree is a comprehensive portrayal of all men into a new physical life and a spiritual life, and as we rejoice when a child is born, we also receive with acclamation the candidate for Freemasonry, who. symbolically is seeking for spiritual re-birth. The first degree is also the degree of preparation of self-discipline and purification.

THE FELLOWCRAFT

After purification comes contemplation and enlightenment. which are the special subjects of the second degree. The candidate for the Mysteries. after discipline and cleansing, may advance to the studies of his more interior faculties. To understand the science of the human soul, and 'trace it from it's development' from the elementary stage until he realizes that the principles of intellectual life gradually unfolds to his view.

The FC degree typifies a long course of personal development, requiring a knowledge of the mental and physical side of our nature. It is in this degree that, the Mason who has attained proficiency is enabled to discover "a sacred symbol", placed in the centre of the building and alluding to the GGOTU.

The development which the second degree symbolizes is typified by the lowering of the triangle flap of the apron. It denotes the ''progress we have made in the science"'; that the trinity of spirit has descended into, and is now permeating his lower nature.

He who attains proficiency, has passed away from the N side of the Lodge. The side of darkness and imperfection and now stands on the SE side in the sunlight of moral illumination, but far removed from the fuller realization of himself and the mysteries of his own nature. This is for the spiritually adept or Master Mason to attain. But. the FC is taught to persist with fortitude, and with prudence and to develop himself with 'fervency and zeal\ Upon entering into that porchway of contemplation. which, like the winding staircase, leads inward to the Holy of Holies within himself, he realizes the difficulties and obstacles which are placed in his way and that Wisdom and Virtue are the necessary means of developing the notential good within him. He sees that difficulty . adversity . and persecution, served beneficient purposes. These are his "wages', which he learns to accept 'without scruple and without diffidence"' , and. from the confidence he has in the integrity of his employer , who sent him to prepare the materials for the building of the heavenlv citv.

So. as the sign, peculiar to the degree suggests, he endeavours to lay bare his heart, to cast away all impurities from it. and stands like Joshua, praying that the light of day may be extended until he has completed the overthrow of his enemies, and every obstacle to his complete development.

THE MASTER MASON

In places where the great mysteries have always been taught, what is now ceremoniallv performed in our third degree, is not merely a symbolical representation, as we do. but an actual, vital experience of a most severe character.

If you follow, closely. the ceremony of raising, although distinct reference to the death of the body is made, such death is obviously intended to be merely symbolical of another kind of death, since the candidate is eventually restored to his former worldly circumstances and material comforts, and his earthly Masonic career is not represented as coming to a close at this stage. All that has happened in the third degree is that he has symbolically passed through a great and vivid change; a rebirth, or regeneration of his whole nature. He has been "sown a incorruptible body and by virtue of the self-discipline and self-development which he has undergone, there has been raised, in him. an 'incorruptible body and the death has been swallowed up in his victory.

What is meant, is that complete self-sacrifice and self-crucifixion are essential before the soul can be raised in glory, from a figurative death to a reunion with the companions of it's former toils5, both here and in the unseen world.

The soul must pass through a state of helplessness from which no earthlv hand can rescue it. and in trying to raise him. the grip of any ordinary human hand will 'prove a slip', until the Divine Help descends from the throne above and with the 'lions grip', of almighty power, raises the soul to a reunion with itself in an embrace of reconciliation .

There is no historical basis for the legendary account of Hiram's death. The entire story is symbolical, and was only invented for the symbolic purpose of our teaching, if you examine it closely, you will perceive how obvious is the correspondence between this story and that of another death related in the Gospels: and so the Mason who realizes the meaning of the latter will understand the former, and the veiled allusion that is implied. Tn one case the Master is crucified between two thieves; in the other he is done between two . called a ruffian and a villain. In one case the penitent and the impenitent thieves are depicted; in the other we have conspirators who made a confession and were forgiven, and others who were found guilty and put to death.

We are told of the FIVE POTNTS OF FELLOWSHIP— on which our Master was raised, these are the five wounds of Christ. The christian Master served three years before his death and these refers to the three degrees of the Craft.

The name HIRAM ABTFF— signifies in Hebrew “the teacher from the father". To typify the advance of the Candidate, the apron is now, more elaborate. It is garnished with a Tight-blue border, and rosettes, indicating that a higher than natural light now permeates his being and now radiates from his person, and that the wilderness of the natural man is now blossoming as the rose; upon either side are seen two columns of light descending from above, and terminating in the seven-fold tassels which represent the spectrum of supernatural light. He is now a true Master Mason; able to govern himself and as he has passed through the three degrees of purifying self-perfecting and squared. leveled, and harmonized his triple nature of body,soul, and spirit. on attaining the mastership, he wears the triple Tau; which comprises the form of a level, but is also the Hebrew form of the Cross; the three crosses on the apron thus represents the three crosses of Calvary.

SYMBOLISMS, LANDMARKS & SUMMATION

We are well acquainted with the "black and white" flooring. THE SQUARE PAVEMENT— of our lodge room. This is a symbolical reminder to us of our chequered existence viz:- Light and darkness - active and passive - positive and negative - good and evil - - yes and no- outside and inside - and so on.

We have heard of the ANCIENT LANDMARKS— and details of this cannot be accommodated in this paper; however a few are here listed to satisfy our basic interest.

Many more Landmarks are listed, and could themselves form the subject of a lecture in it-s-own right.

It is important to emphasize that Masonry is a sacramental system, with its outward side of doctrine, symbols and ceremony which we can see and hear ; and an inward , intellectual and spiritual side which is concealed behind such doctrines, symbols and ceremonies which is available only to the Mason who uses his spiritual imagination and interest to really understand what lies behind the system. There is really no reason for mature men to join a society merely to be taught the symbolic uses of tools, the elementary virtues of truth, honor, charity, and justice. These are already taught in homes, schools and churches. So it becomes our duty to acquaint ourselves with the greater fulfillment and purpose of the science and mysteries to which our system refers : to understand certain truths of human life, and death, instructions of divine things, about human nature and human destiny.

To sum up the import of the teaching of the three decrees, it is clear that from degree to degree, the Candidate is led from an old to an entirely new quality of life. He begins his Masonic career as a natural man; he ends it, by virtue of discipline, a perfect man. To attain this he is taught to first purify and subdue his nature: then to purify and develop his mental nature and finally, by surrendering his old life, he rises from the dead as a Master, a man made perfect. The very essence of Masonic teachings, is that, all men are in search of something in their own nature which they have lost; and that with proper instruction and guidance and by their own patience and industry, such they will hope to find.

Finally, it must be remembered that every member, every Master of a lodge is but a symbol and a substitution, and that, behind them, and behind all the DGL and GL officers and behind all the hierarchy, there stands the GAOTT to whom we must all submit and obey, and humbly adore...

Carlton E. Williams, April 1. 1996. (1st)
August 3 1996 [2nd]