Freemasonry is a journey of initiation and that remains the basic reason for its being. But what inspires anyone to seek initiation? The answer is put by the Sufi poet, Rumi: "Jars of spring-water are not enough anymore. Take us down to the river".
And we must swim in this river. To be initiated, we need to be part of the process itself, for initiatory ritual needs our involvement. The ancients knew this path very well, Seneca wrote of:
"…initiatory rites, by means of which are revealed, not the mysteries of a municipal temple, but of the world itself, the vast temple of all the gods."1
So, let us be clear: initiation involves an encounter with the sacred. And here we touch upon something which is integral with our very humanness.
Deliberate burials of early Homo sapiens, date to 120,000 years ago. From around 70,000 years ago, Neanderthal burials are found. This practice then, existed across species and across cultures and remained consistent from that time on. Furthermore, a number of the Neanderthal graves reveal ritualistic associations, one, for example, has animal horns arranged beside the interred corpse. Such a respect for the dead indicates that ancient peoples knew of the simultaneous existence of two worlds; that physical world of existence where we are born and die; and that non-physical world into which death leads us. With these burials they marked the transition from one to the other.
Tens of thousands of years later, writing developed. By the 3rd millenium BC a complex language had evolved. And with this new means of expression what stories were told of humanity and its destiny? That of Gilgamesh who travelled from this world into the next.
Gilgamesh was a king of ancient Uruk. But, gripped by a fear of death, he wished to find the secret of eternal life. He abandoned his throne and began a life of wandering, seeking entrance into the other world, in order, he said, to "Let my eyes see the sun and be sated with light".2 Entering this world, he journeyed through the vast regions of darkness to the garden of light. But, by failing to stay awake, he was not granted immortality and was required to return to this world; he had the vision, but afterwards had to return to his earthly task until death should finally call him. Gilgamesh was, by any definition, an initiate.
Initiation was, and is, the entrance into direct knowledge of that eternal other world, one suffused by omnipresent Divinity, perceived, to this very day, in the form of an endless clear and living light. Research currently progressing at the University of Wales has revealed – contrary to the endless sceptical arguments of philosophers of religion – the existence of a "common core" to religious experiences which cuts across the differences of faith and culture. 1000 members of Christianity, Islam and Judaism have all described having religious experiences of "intense light and a sense of encompassing love". The researchers suggest that humans "share a common spirituality regardless of religious affiliations".
We are not here speaking symbolically; we are speaking literally. The Divine world exists, of this, there is no doubt, however much we may be forced, by the limitations of language, to express it symbolically. Furthermore, it is possible for us to cross over to this other world, to glimpse – like Gilgamesh - its splendour, before returning to our allotted tasks here. This is initiation – standing for a moment, on the threshold of this eternal world. It can never go away; it can only be forgotten, the maps to its entrance mislaid. And here lies the importance of ritual: for part of the process involves being reminded where that door is and what lies beyond.
Initiation takes place in the eternal here and now; it is a spiritual transformation aided by ritual which raises one’s consciousness so that profound, rather than mundane, events might be given the chance to occur. But first the foundations of personality and social conditioning must be shaken, even shattered, for the candidate must move beyond the safety and comfort of his ordinary world. For this, he must have courage.
This knowledge can be found embedded in our rituals: it is this upon which Freemasonry is built, the journey towards knowledge of the Divine world. And along the way, we learn our responsibilities to this world.
The Third Degree speaks of the grave and of knowledge of yourself. The Second Degree speaks of the hidden mysteries of nature and science. The First Degree speaks of the initial step which becomes the foundation stone both of Freemasonry itself and of that inner temple which each man must laboriously construct.
At the very beginning of the First Degree ceremony, the candidate for initiation is blindfolded, put into a state of darkness, symbolising the unenlightened state of man. A masonic ritual from 1751 explains that the blindfold and the subsequent perambulation around the Lodge is to remind the candidate, "that a man, who is in darkness, should advance towards the light and seek it."3
The candidate is led, blindfolded, to the east, where, upon a sacred book, he takes his obligation. Only then is he restored to light. With this, he comes to the end of his first journey in Freemasonry; yet, it immediately proves to be the beginning of another. And this is the way of Freemasonry. Each apparent ending stands one upon the threshold of another journey.
Ritual is at the heart of Freemasonry; the festive board is the later celebration of its fruits. Without the ritual, there would be nothing to celebrate. Ritual is a sharing in the timeless; its unchanging form helps free it from mundane time. There are moments when a stillness and a silence precipitates out of the words and the movement. And, sitting in the lodge, one is aware of the soft embrace of the eternal.
Freemasonry will always remain a journey: from ignorance to knowledge; from selfishness to compassion and charity. When we enter masonry, with our first words to the Master of the lodge, we attest to our freedom. It is that freedom which allows us to move ahead on our own journey from darkness to light; from sipping at the jars of spring-water to drinking from the great river itself.
1 Epistulae Morales, xc, 29.
2 The Epic of Gilgamesh, A George, London, 1999, p.71.
3 Le Maçon Dèmasqué, in The Early French Exposures, H. Carr, London, 1971, p.427.