What is Freemasonry?
W.˙. Mark Doubleday
Novus Veteris Lodge No. 864
Short Talk – 12/16/2017
Freemasonry has been described as “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
When I first heard freemasonry described in this fashion I was really confused and frustrated. Firstly, because it further obscured the lessons and the message that the degrees of masonry conceal, and secondly it sounded like a dodge and obfuscation to avoid answering the question about what freemasonry is.
My initial response to this rhetorical answer was, “What in the world does that mean?”
That answer is more confusing than helpful, yet we have all probably heard it more than once. So, let’s take this answer apart and try to figure it out.
A “system” is a set of parts or things that are connected, or a set of principals and procedures that are grouped together into a method or scheme.
“Morality” is generally defined as a system of values and principles of conduct held by a group or society, and can be described as beliefs about what is wrong or right behavior in that group or society.
The word “veiled” describes that which is hidden or concealed, or things that are implied or disguised.
And the word “allegory” is a story or parable that uses symbols and emblems to convey a lesson or the verity of a thing. Often a representation of an abstract or spiritual message will be the vehicle used to teach these truths.
These are all pretty straight forward definitions, but it barely scratches the surface when we try to understand the meanings behind them when applied to the degrees of masonry.
In freemasonry we practice a “system” of morality based on Judeo/Christian religious and moral principles. The very cornerstone of this system of “morality” is the idea and belief that all things are created by Deity or God.
This is a defining concept, because our “system” is founded in the belief of an unseen but physically, spiritually and psychically perceived Deific force. This distinction is crucial, because there are “systems” of “morality” that profess different understandings of Deity, while other “systems” of “morality” claim a purely secular foundation based in “rational”, “scientific” and “materialistic” perceptions of reality and claim no Deific foundation or influence.
The primary tenet taught to us in the Blue Lodge consists of three principles; these principles are Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. These principles set a baseline for our conduct with respect to other human beings. Brother Love is expected to be extended to our closet masonic associates. But, whether a man or woman is part of our fraternity we are admonished to treat them with due reverence and respect because of our common stock. We are expected to provide “relief” to those in distress, particularly our brothers in the fraternity, but even those not recognized as brothers, harkening back again to our common humanity. Finally we are reminded that “truth” is the foundation of trust and fellowship and a precursor for good citizenship. A man who cannot be truthful cannot be considered worthy of admittance into the fraternity and in a larger sense cannot be trusted in society.
Other basic tenets of our “system” of “morality” are that a man must be free born, of the “age of majority” and come to the fraternity of his own volition, have good reputation and be without mercenary motives.
A fundamental lesson taught to us in the Blue Lodge degrees is that a man is ultimately responsible for his own spiritual growth and self-discovery through the initiatic degrees he is a participant in. No one can force another to grow and become enlightened. Each person must take personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth, education and enlightenment.
We even remind a brother at the altar in the 3rd degree that “you are about to receive all the light that can be conferred upon you in a lodge of Master Masons”, “and that you are never to lose sight of the use of this valuable instrument, by which we are taught to circumscribe our desires and to keep our passions within due bounds toward all mankind, particularly our brethren in freemasonry”, any growth or enlightenment after that he must take upon himself to discover, if he is so inclined.
The next hurdle in understanding the lessons taught in the degrees is the ability to lift the veil of the allegories used in each of the degrees. These allegories are flush with biblical lessons and references, symbols and emblems. This can be a very big undertaking and many men have spent years peeling back the different stories and symbols that are employed in the degrees to gain a greater understanding of their meaning.
Many of the most educated and insightful minds in western civilization have tried to decipher these symbols, stories and emblems trying to make sense of them. Many arguments and feuds have erupted over the differences of opinions in this regard. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written trying to explain them. But one of the most important lessons of freemasonry is the acceptance and tolerance for those with whom we agree and disagree.
Remember the phrase, “One sacred band, or society of friends and brothers, among whom no contention should ever exist but that noble contention, or rather emulation, of who best can work, and best agree.”
This is the idyllic society and the goal of freemasonry. All of the biblical references and legendary depictions in our degrees ultimately point to this end. But the different “systems” of “morality” that exist in the world can put us at odds with other groups and this can lead to conflict between them and us, because of the different definitions and understanding or misunderstandings of each other’s systems.
A great many discussions and arguments can be made about what is “moral” and what is not “moral”. Depending on the society or group you belong to, the measure or rule of what is considered “moral” can vary in practice and degree.
The foundations upon which a society is built will expose the very nature of that society. What one group or society deems “moral” may have no corollary at all when compared to another group or society. The divergence of different systems of morality, meaning what different societies deem moral and right, has been the root of all conflict throughout the ages.
Until and unless mankind has some sort of epiphany and can come together and agree on a set of “moral” principles and beliefs we are likely to relive old feuds and conflicts. This is the great challenge of our times and every other age that has come before us.
It is my fervent belief that freemasonry’s tenets hold a key to enabling us to overcome these conflicts. But each of us must determine for ourselves how much of the veil we are willing to lift and how deeply we are willing to dive into the allegories to discover the “truths” that will best serve us and our fellow human beings.
Are you content to merely hold the title of Master Mason, or are you willing to look deeply into your own heart and our degrees to find the kernels of truth that will truly provide Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth to your fellow man?
This quest might possibly be the purpose of the rhetorical statement, “Freemasonry is a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
MWD // Tom O’Bedlam