Symbols. The Rituals of Freemasonry
NOBODY KNOWS MUCH ABOUT the rituals and symbols used by the early masters of the Lodge of Aberdeen, David Menzies, Matthew Wright, and Alexander Stuart, but we do know that they set about studying the power of symbols to affect the way people think. We know this because their early Masonic floor cloth, which shows all the symbols used in Freemasonry, survives to the present day. It has been carbon dated to the 15th century, and its provenance has been traced to Aberdeen. There was no other lodge of Freemasons at the time, so we know they must have created it. But what inspired them to do something so new and innovative in their little workshop alongside the partly built St Nicholas’s Kirk?
To understand their inspiration, we need to remember that some of the early members and masters of the Lodge of Aberdeen had formerly worked on Rosslyn Chapel, farther to the south. There they had been exposed to the thinking of Sir Gilbert Hay, who had studied the use of symbols and buildings as tools of political influence. Hay had been set the task of creating an alternative center of spiritual focus to the Stuart king’s Abbey of the True Cross, or Holyrood.
The Stuart dynasty of Scottish kings had used a holy relic to promote popular belief that their line had a Divine Right to rule. A fragment of the True Cross, they claimed, had protected King David I of Scotland from a rampaging stage. To house the relic, David created the Abbey of the Holyrood, and he encouraged the Scottish people to venerate its role in protecting the Stuart kings. The symbol of the Holyrood is a stag with the True Cross mounted in its antlers.
In the first half of the fifteenth century, when William St Clair, the baron of Roslin, decided to challenge the Stuarts for the crown of Scotland, he set about building a copy of King Solomon’s Temple, the most famous building in the ancient world He intended it to be a spiritual focus for his coup d’état, and Gilbert Hay put a lot of time and effort into creating a building steeped in symbolism. To this day, the building creates a deep impression on anyone who visits. Hay set up a system of quality control for the stone carving and insisted that all symbols were first carved in wood and inspected by him before being cut into stone. The use of symbols impressed the stonemasons who worked for him. When the coup failed, the workforce was disbanded and left to find work elsewhere. The ones who ended up working on St. Nicholas’s Kirk in Aberdeen took up the study of symbols and myths themselves.
These other paths of Freemasonry are available to members once they have completed the three degrees of the Craft. Examples include the Mark Degree, the Holy Royal Arch of Jerusalem, and the Masonic Knights Templar, among many others. Each side-order has its own rituals, which have been created to explain the symbols, but all of the symbols are contained on the first floorcloth. This means that the rituals came after the symbols. The rituals have been developed over a long period of time to help Masons understand the symbols.
They take their name from the white lambskin aprons, bordered with blue ribbon, worn by brethren. From contemporary writings, we know that the first lodge had only two rituals when it was formed: a ritual of entry for new members, known as Initiation; and a ritual to mark the point when an Apprentice had learned enough to become a Craftsman. Later they added a ceremony to mark the election of a new Master of the Lodge each year. Over time, these simple ceremonies grew to become the four Craft degrees in general use today: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, Master Mason, and Installed Master.
Each ceremony teaches individual Masons something about themselves, something about society, and something about the ancient symbols. Even before you can be proposed as a Candidate for Freemasonry, however, you must meet certain ritual requirements.
To begin with, if you want to become a Freemason, you must “ask” to join. This means that you need to visit your local lodge and tell them you are interested in what they do. They are unlikely to ask you, though sometimes a Mason may ask a friend if they are interested. No one should ever be pressured to join the Masons. Anyone who is not interested in what Freemasonry does will not enjoy it and is unlikely to make a good lodge member.
If you do decide to visit your local Masonic Hall and ask about Freemasonry, the members will happily tell you about their lodge. They will encourage you to look around and ask about their activities. Many lodges have what they call “Gavel Nights,” where members of the public are invited to see the lodge rooms and ask any questions they might have about Freemasonry.
Once you have found out a little more, and if you are still interested, you will be asked to come for an interview with a panel of senior members. They will want to determine if you will be a suitable Candidate. You will be asked if you believe in some form of Supreme Being. This is to find out if you think there is some form of basic order to the universe. If you don’t think so, you will not be invited to seek membership. The reason for this is quite simple. The rituals of Freemasonry are designed to help members learn about themselves and the purpose of their lives. If you do not think there is any purpose to life, Freemasonry cannot help you. The panel will not ask if you follow any particular religion or creed, as…
Masonic rituals refer to a supreme source of order in the universe using names that are religiously neutral. Designations such as the Great Architect of the Universe or the Grand Geometrician of Universe are commonly used. Freemasonry does not allow discussion of religion and politics in the lodge. Its rituals bring together the common spiritual lessons of wide-ranging religious and scientific beliefs. To do this, it uses words intended to draw members together rather than force them apart. It seeks to build on the spiritual lessons shared by all faiths rather than dwell on issues of difference and conflict.
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