THE TRACING BOARD OF THE FIRST DEGREE
W. Bro. R. A. L. HARLAND, P.M., Lodge No. 1679
President of the Circle
"A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels. To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Proverbs, chapter 1. verses 5-7.)
The mandate of the mysteries orders that they shall not be divulged to those who are uninitiated. For as that which is divine cannot be unfolded to the multitude, this mandate forbids the attempt to elucidate it to anyone but him who is fortunately able to perceive it." (Plotinus: "ENNEAD". VI, 9. 11.)
The object of this Paper is to interpret the meaning of the Tracing Board exhibited in the First Degree, and to indicate the important part that it is meant to play in the Craft method of instruction. We are counselled on our admission to "make a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge", and it is implicit in this advice that the accomplishment is within the reach of every Brother; in other words, fulfilment is irrespective of academic ability or his social standing. It is, however, essential that each must test and learn those things which are "veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols" for himself. Books, lectures, expositions; any of these may serve to help the aspirant, but they can never be more than secondary, and therefore, unsatisfying evidence of truths that can only be proved by personal experience. Self knowledge, "that most interesting of all human studies", results from healthy perceptions of character which have their source in spiritual growth; the man who "knows himself" is a balanced extrovert, one whose aims and intentions spread outwards to his fellows. Two qualifications are required of the candidate in the First Degree, sincerity and humility, and these being present it will follow that the mechanism of graduated advancement, "by the help of God," is conditioned by the Ceremony of his Initiation. Moreover, his conception of the ideal in Freemasonry, and his estimate of the more relative values of life, is strongly reinforced, both in his personal power of perception, and as the goal of his endeavours. Hence, the candidate is deemed to come "properly prepared", or "a fit and proper person", and his subsequent preferment is presumed as flowing from the passage of time. It is, indeed, the direct consequence of a period of spiritual ripening: "And he shag be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season" (Psalm 1. verse 3). The reverse proposition must also be recognised. Thus, if the capacity for potential spiritual progress is profaned by its possessor, the force it supplies will be translated along the path of regression, of which the outcome is the state wherein the faculty of desire is blunted, dulled, and acts as its own impediment. Hints and clues are provided for the calmest student on the Tracing Board of the First Degree, but it must be emphasised that an Initiate "becomes", he is not as some imagine, "made" by ceremonial drama.
THE GENESIS AND PURPOSE OF TRACING BOARDS
Before discussing the details of the First Degree Tracing Board, something should be said of the origin of the Tracing Boards in general. In earlier days, the Board was not, as it is now, the product of the Masonic furnisher, but it was a diagram which each Brother was taught to draw in the Lodge, so that his hand might be trained in the Craft work. Records disclose that at every Meeting of the Lodge the Board of the Degree about to be worked was drawn from memory with chalk or charcoal on the floor by the Master. The diagram was fully explained to the candidate as an integral part of the Degree, and he was expected to expunge it with mop and pail before he was permitted to retire. There are three valid reason why Tracing Boards are used for instructional purposes. Firstly, as an operative Mason is of little use unless he is able to read plans of the work he is engaged upon, so it is fitting that those who occupy themselves with speculative Freemasonry and spiritual architecture should understand likewise the structural principles of the "House not made with hands", and be able to draw designs of the mystical building upon which they are presumed to labour. Secondly, the basis of the Craft system being the belief that the Great Architect of the Universe has a settled plan for humanity, we may suppose that this has been sufficiently revealed in order that we can know what it is and thereby respond intelligently; the Boards, therefore, serve to illustrate the Divine plan. Thirdly, the various ceremonial steps taken in the Lodge by the candidate when advancing from W. to E. are intended to identify him with the cosmic process to each stage of his progress. During the course of the 18th century the practice of drawing upon the floor of the lodge was first superseded by the use of painted cloths and afterwards by wooden boards resting on trestles. In the year 1846 a special set of Boards, designed by Bro. John Harris, was approved by the Emulation Lodge of Improvement and is now in general use, although certain old Lodges retain earlier designs. There are also more modem examples, but these are of much inferior artistic design, and in some cases leave out essentials.
Historically, the genesis of the Tracing Boards goes still farther back into the mists of antiquity and must be looked for in the great Temples of Initiation of Egypt and Greece, where the ideas we communicate in the Lodge were conveyed by the performance of myths and spectacular ritual plays depicting the story of the human soul in its long pilgrimage towards ultimate perfection. It is, of course, well known that all dramatic art came out of the Ancient Mysteries, and was originally religious and philosophical. Indeed, nowhere was it more clearly taught than in the Mysteries that, to quote from Shakespeare (As you like it), "all the world's a stage"; that men have "their exits and entrances" in the world drama, and that "each man in his time plays many Parts", before he fulfils his destiny by developing his innate potentialities. In the ceremonies of the Craft this method of dramatisation is perpetuated, and the Tracing Board in each Degree provides the chart composed of hieroglyphic figures which testify to the nature of the arcane science imparted to candidates. Such then, briefly, is the origin and meaning of Tracing Boards; they are cryptic prescriptions of a world- old doctrine taught in all ages. A detailed analysis of their emblematic teaching is necessarily difficult because symbols always comprise much more than can be explained verbally, and so few members of the Craft have as yet been educated in the universal language of esoteric symbolism.
THE FIRST DEGREE: THEORETICAL SELF-KNOWLEDGE
It has often been stated that the sole purpose of Freemasonry is Initiation into the mysteries of self- knowledge, "that most interesting of all human studies", and the Tracing Board of the First Degree is a compendium of information to assist us in this task of understanding ourselves. At first sight the Board appears to be no more than a casual collection of emblems found in every Masonic Lodge: but to a trained eye order and design emerge, and it is seen to be a diagram of the material, psychical, and spiritual constitution of man. Among the elementary lessons included in the curriculum of the ancient systems were two maxims, the validity of which it is equally important that modern Freemasons should realise. The first maxim was MAN, KNOW THYSELF, since to know oneself involves a knowledge of everything else, even of God, "who is above all, and through all, and in you all", as St. Paul (Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 6) truly declares. The second maxim was MAN IS A MICROCOSM, being made, or rather in the process of being made, in the Divine image. Moreover, every human is a miniature of the entire Universe; being in himself a summary of all that is; and being one who, although in his present condition is conscious only of the finite and limited, nevertheless germinally contains within him the Infinite, just as within a single acorn is compressed the potentiality of a whole forest of oaks. Embodying these two maxims, the Tracing Board is a picture, not only of man himself, but also of the Universe of which he is a microcosmic manifestation. The ancients, and the Scriptures, describe the threefold constitution of man as the "earth", the intermediate "firmament" or "heavens", and the "spirit" or "star in the East", each of which are present in our individual complex organism. The floor depicted on the Board thus illustrates the plane of physical existence, our lower, or material, nature; our psychical nature is likewise indicated by the sky, with the sun, moon, and stars; while our ultimate spiritual essence is denoted by the "blazing star or glory", which is the central feature of the diagram. Of these three factors it is necessary to speak at some length.
Our "earth" or physical nature, upon which consciousness is normally focused, is the lowest element and is appropriately represented by the chequerwork floor of equal squares of black and white, inasmuch as everything in this phenomenal world is to be found dualised into two opposite aspects. We can think of nothing terrestrial without being compelled to recognise the existence of its complementary opposite. Light and darkness; good and evil; right and left; birth and death; adversity and prosperity; male and female; pain and pleasure - are dualisms inherent in this outer world of which our physical nature is a part. Experience of these opposites is essential to human growth, and character is formed as the result of our reaction to both conditions. Life consists in a perpetual movement, and like chessmen, we are continually moving from a white square to a black and from a black to a white. It is quite beyond our power to keep on the white squares and avoid the black, because in this world every good has the seed of evil in it, and every evil contains the germs of good. We naturally prefer agreeable circumstances, but the Great Law governing life pays no heed to mundane comforts and personal preferences. It is a schoolmaster concerned only with leading us from temporal to eternal values: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster" (Galatians, chapter 3. verse 24), St. Paul writes; and accordingly we find its silent thrust moving us on from one square to another without our will and before we are fully aware of the change. Prosperity that appears permanent just withers away, and poverty rises to sudden wealth; there is no hill that is without its dale, no sweet without its corresponding bitter, and no day without its complemental night. We are to accept the joys and the sorrows, the successes and the failures of this life with equanimity, and when painful or sorrowful conditions prevail they are to be treated as being of the same educative worth as their opposites: "Whatsoever is brought upon thee take cheerfully, and be patient when thou art changed to a low estate" (Ecclesiasticus, chapter 2. verse 4).
So, too, with our standard of conduct, our ethics. We label actions good or bad, but the distinction, although useful and very proper, is quite arbitrary and relative, and a temporary convention. It often happens that the ideal of the previous age becomes a fault in the next. Shakespeare writes with great insight: "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues" (All's Well That Ends Well, IV. 3). Or, as the Scripture has it, we are condemned to "eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis, chapter 3), so long as our consciousness is still adjusted to the merely material existence which is inherently tinctured with an inseparable dualism. Hence the first task of the candidate for Wisdom is to learn to rise above this dualism. He must readjust his consciousness to a level of outlook which sees beyond the opposites; he must strive to become master of his lower nature; and to stand mentally detached from the inevitable fluctuations of fortune. Indeed, there is an allusion to this in the Ritual itself, which says, "the square pavement is for the high priest to walk upon", signifying that every Freemason, being the "high priest" of the temple of his own body, must "walk upon" in the sense of standing superior to, and remain stable amid events that elate or deject those that are in bondage to the transient. He must not select the pleasant way over the white squares only, but with fortitude and fidelity must tread the black squares also; perceiving that all the opposites portrayed by the parti-coloured squares are but alternating aspects of a single process. We observe on the Board that the emblems are surrounded by a skirtwork, which is the symbol of Deity encompassing existence in all its phases, and building all that the chequer work implies into a compact whole. Thus, however diversified is our experience, however far we travel among the lights and shades of existence, not only can we never step right off the map, but as the Tracing Board illustrates, in whichever direction we move, North, South, East or West, our road must eventually bring us to that surrounding Unity in Whom all opposites are resolved and all dualism is transcended. In the words of the Psalmist: "Thou has beset me behind and before; whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend into heaven Thou art there; if I make my bed in hell. Thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall Thy hand lead me" (Psalm 139. verses 5-10). To summarise: By featuring the chequered floor and skirtwork, the symbolic Board teaches that God is the warp and woof of existence, enclosing and impinging upon us at all points of our being. Finally, a rope or cable runs round the indented border breaking into diffused tassels at the four corners. This rope and tassels signify the current of divine Energy circulating hiddenly through the Universe and becoming differentiated into four subsidiary modes. The same idea is expressed in the Mosaic narrative: "And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads " (Genesis, chapter 2. verse 10).
The foregoing explanation brings us to consideration of the first postulate of Initiation science: LIFE IS ONE. This vast conception of the inward realisation of the Oneness of Life, the sense of multiplicity in unity, is obviously impossible to define; it must be intuited, felt, perceived by the inner eye of each individual in his own way. Each of us has in fact to learn to know what he is, but he cannot do so purely through the mind, since the mind is not his complete equipment. Who, then, am I? The discovery of the Self, the real I, is, as the Tracing Board is designed to show, a process like the mounting of a Ladder. On this Ladder the mind is a step, but it must always be used with the full knowledge that it is not the Ladder itself. It is by mounting the first "principal rung", or step, of the Ladder that we attain to that condition spoken of as Faith, which is based upon a sure knowledge and apprehension of the inseparability of all things and all creatures in an eternal communion of being and purpose, and which gives to the possessor an unshakable consciousness of security. Life is a process of becoming, a continuous stream, in which everything must move step by step, stage by stage, and cycle by cycle. Despite appearances to the contrary, there is never any skipping from one phase to another; a bridge there must be, but we are builders of our own bridges; and if we build badly we are forced back by the weakness in our lines of communication to build anew. Only when man has completely outworn or lived through any phase of life can it disappear so far as he is concerned, for it will then have become so absorbed by and into his higher self that it will have no more to teach him. This effort at absorption of the lower by the higher is our life work; we may, of course, temporarily avoid it because to that extent we have free-will, but also because the conflict of opposing forces in ourselves is our own creation we shall, at some time or other, be compelled to shoulder the burden: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians, chapter 6, verse 7). It is a truism that man learns only by experience.
EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL PLANES
We will now pass from the floor of the Board to the firmament, and the subject and the symbolism here are more recondite, since they refer no longer to our physical nature but to our tenuous psychological structure. By the use of the word "firmament" is meant an intermediate region separating two others, and as in the physical Universe the visible heavens intervene between our planet and worlds beyond our ken, so likewise in man, the microcosm, a corresponding firmament is interposed between his temporal physical nature and his ultimate immortal Self. In man the "firmament" is his psychological outfit, which represents his "heavens" as his physical body represents his "earth." It is divided into three distinct parts:-
- (1) The emotional nature; (symbolised in the Tracing Board by the group of seven stars in the S.E. corner).
- (2) The natural reason or lower carnal mind, which man shares in common with the brute creation; (also in the S.E. corner and symbolised by the Moon, which is surrounded by the stars, for the mind and the emotions work in conjunction).
- (3) The higher mind and controlling will; the spiritual intellect which sets man above the animal and which constitutes him "homo sapiens", and a moral being; (symbolised by the Sun in the N.E. corner).
To those students who are not familiar with the psychological symbolism of antiquity, it will perhaps seem strange to be informed that a Sun, a Moon and the stars exist within the person of each of us, as well as in the outer sky, but they are delineated on the Tracing Board for that purpose. There is, of course, a sense in which the external Sun, Moon and the stars are always present in us, since their radiation is, we know scientifically, continually beating down upon us and penetrating our physical bodies; our health and life would swiftly wither if they failed to do so. It is for this reason that the Sun is the universal symbol of Life, and in practically every ancient or modern religious system, its sigil, the Circle. will be found. The centre of our solar system is the Sun, which is indeed our source of terrestrial fife: if it ceased to be, our planet, or bodies, and all other means of physical manifestation would immediately terminate. Moreover, the Sun by heat, fight, and by the opposite darkness, expresses life in subtler planes of our being. We cognise it through emotions, thoughts, and it enters into our very language to furnish accurate descriptions of our various states of being.
We are asked, however, to accept the hypothesis that, in addition to our physical body, we each possess other interior bodies, separate sheaths or capsules of less gross matter than the dense body of flesh, which serve as the vehicles of our emotions and of our lower and higher mentality. Man is a highly composite being, as he must needs be if he is truly an image and summary of the Universe; he therefore wears not one, but many bodies, each having an appropriate function and sphere of action. We may doubt some writers on this subject, but the testimony of St. Paul is regularly quoted in religious services: "There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars" (1st Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 40 and 41). The references in this quotation are to the solar body, the lunar body, and the starry or astral body, each of which differs from the others in its "glory" or form, and each "seed", or distinctive principle, having its own body. And just as our senses, emotions and mental processes, whilst normally blended together and co-active, are nevertheless found separable upon careful analysis, so too their respective bodies or sheaths are ordinarily interpenetrative, but are capable of independent action and investigation. Everyday experience provides evidence of emotional activity going on independently of our physical body, or of physical causation. Passions, worthy or unworthy, surge through us, as it were, spontaneously and quite apart from any physical stimulus. The well attested phenomena of the dream state, somnambulism, telekinesis, and the like, demonstrate that we possess powers of action and motion in which the physical machine plays no part. The explanation is that the emotions have a life of their own constituting an independent field of activity in which our consciousness may at any time be focused. It follows, then, that this emotional life must be regarded as having a body of its own, the starry or astral, denoted in the Tracing Board by the seven planets. The planets, astronomically speaking, are not fixed stars, but as their name implies, they are "wanderers", moving orbitally about the Sun which controls and holds them in check. The planetary stars are, therefore, a true symbol of the gamut of our emotional tendencies, which are also restless "wanderers", never still, and liable to break away from their proper course unless held in check by their governing centre, the will.
Again, we know that our mental faculties function quite independently of either our senses or our emotions. The mind acts while the body sleeps, and many problems have been solved during sleep that have evaded solution in waking hours. Our mental plane, likewise, has a field to itself, with an independent life of its own, and it must be allocated a body, the mental or lunar body, symbolised in the Tracing Board by the Moon. And as in Nature the Moon is a satellite, moving with and illumining the Earth, so in man the reasoning mind is also a satellite moving with and enlightening the body; but, the reasoning mind has no light in itself and shines only by reflection from "that light which is from above", the superior solar luminary. The mental and emotional natures, our "moon and stars", are therefore among the bodies terrestrial, and by them we "govern the night", the term which signifies the field of our rational worldly consciousness, which is necessarily benighted in regard to spiritual things unless assisted by a light from above them. This superior "light which is from above" is illustrated by the Sun, shown in the N.E. corner of the Tracing Board. Of this Light it is more difficult to speak since it is outside the physical and mental order of things, of which everyone has experience, although it is present in each of us as the mainspring and driving power of our personal system, just as the natural Sun is the central control of the solar system. Moreover, in the same sense that the natural Sun is a body far vaster than our planet Earth, and is known to be ethereal and self-radiant, whilst the Earth is dense and also non-luminous, so is the metaphysical Sun denoted by this symbol of the soul or "sol" something far greater and wiser than the personality over which it is appointed to preside and "rule by day", that is from the perpetual light of the spiritual world. In other words, the Sun is our real Ego, our soul or higher self, which is not subject to time and space, but is living in daylight and freedom beyond the dark of the "prison", as it is often called, of the mundane personality, over which it watches and never slumbers nor sleeps. It is the deathless soul; the one permanent incorruptible principle in every human being; it is a "body celestial, or solar body. Our lesser vehicles of flesh, emotion, and mind, our "earth" and "heavens", are "bodies terrestrial", inherently mutable and corruptible. The positioning of this important symbol in the N.E. corner of the Tracing Board is significant. It is in the N.E. corner of the Lodge that the physical person of the newly made Freemason is placed as a figurative "foundation stone", upon which he is enjoined to "raise a superstructure", and this superstructure is the solar body, which is actually built up from the personality in the physical world serving as a foundation, or fulcrum. We are, at every moment, silently building something into our souls, and this fact is illustrated in the Craft legend of the Temple erected at Jerusalem. The various building materials for the Temple, it is narrated, were prepared at a distance from the site, then brought to Jerusalem and assembled, "without sound of axe or hammer", into a perfect edifice of which each part was found to be properly "marked and numbered", and ready to fit with the rest. We must understand that this story is told in the terms of metaphor, and is designed expressly in order to portray the work that the spiritual Craftsman is engaged upon, for in the erection of "that House not made with hands" every "thought, word and deed", contributes new material to the invisible building.
SPIRIT: THE BLAZING STAR OR GLORY IN THE CENTRE
We come now to the "Blazing Star or Glory in the Centre", and the Tracing Board having directed attention to the human "earth" and "firmament" displays something that transcends both these, namely the Spiritual Essence, or "Pneuma", which affiliates man with God. Of this Spirit nothing can be said by way of description; it is beyond the definition of words; it is beyond the comprehension of the reasoning mind; and it has no identifiable form. In the Tracing Board, therefore, it can only be suggested by the formless effulgence suffusing the Board, and outshining the light of the Sun, Moon and the Stars, which are the "lesser lights", or subordinate luminaries, through which the supernal Light is mediated. Masonically, the Spirit is denominated "the Centre" that being a point from which a M.M. cannot err", and also "the vital and immortal principle" residing in "this perishable frame". It alone illumines the darkness of the Lodge in the Third Degree, where it is first perceived as a "glimmering ray", but is subsequently shown as breaking forth in full splendour as "that Bright Morning Star, whose rising brings peace and salvation to the faithful and obedient", who pursue it to the end. Spirit cannot be divided into parts; our spiritual and mental powers are due to the same Light working in each of us; and, in the words of the poet, constitute: "Those mysteries of Being which have made, and shall continue evermore to make, of the whole human race one brotherhood" (Wordsworth, Prelude). We can conceive of the quest for "that which is lost" in two ways; first, as a journey outwards, to seek God beyond the horizon; second, as a journey inwards, to seek Him in the heart. It follows from this premise that the Spirit is in all things as the source of their existence and natural life; and also in us as the Source of our existence and spiritual life. The goal of all mystical attainment, whether in Freemasonry or elsewhere, is the union of the human with the Divine consciousness, and the Tracing Board accordingly exhibits the Blazing Star as the central feature, since it is with that Divine Principle in himself that the aspirant must achieve union, and thereby become one with the Source of his being. Hence, it is written:
"Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul" (Psalm 25, verse 1).
THE FIRST DEGREE: PRACTICAL WORK
The diagrams on the Tracing Board we have spoken of so far are intended to bring to the notice of candidates the more hidden and abstruse paths of human nature. This information will obviously remain theoretical unless it is reduced to investigation and research work. The practical instruction is therefore conveyed to genuine seekers through the medium of the remaining emblems on the Board, comprising: -
- (1) Certain working tools and models distributed upon the floor. The meaning of these is explained at length in the ordinary Lodge teaching and need not here be enlarged upon.
- (2) The diagram illustrating, "a point within a circle bounded by two parallel lines ".
- (3) The emblem of an Altar, upon which rest the "three Great though emblematical Lights in Freemasonry", and from which ascends a Ladder leading to the firmament and thence to Infinity.
- (4) Three pillars with their pedestals on the earth and their capitals in the heavens.
It is a truism to students of esotericism that the characteristics of physical man are a counterpart, or reflection, of his indestructible Self; this is the Hermetic axiom: "As above, so below", and so considered, every attribute of man is a study in itself, and every action has a significance beyond the superficial aspect. Once we get this idea held firmly we are the better enabled to judge that only those who perform the work can really know the profound meaning of the Masonic doctrine.
THE POINT WITHIN A CIRCLE
This is a geometrical symbol of great practical value. The mystics often refer to "seeing God in a Point", and in this sense we are each "a Point within a Circle", that Circle of Infinity, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. We are Infinity compressed to a Point, although from this point it is possible for us to expand infinitely. The temporal self is a separated individualised Point in the Circle of Universal Spirit encompassing it, but by renouncing the personal self we may transcend it, and losing the illusion of separateness, grow into conscious union with the One indivisible Life which comprehends all. The two parallel lines bounding the Circle indicate that the One Life is everywhere characterised by two opposite aspects bound together in perpetual equilibrium. Attraction and Repulsion, Freedom and Necessity, Love and Hate, Justice and Mercy, all these are parallels which permeate the Universe on every plane, but they are held together in eternal balance at one neutral central Point, where opposites blend into unity. In ourselves that Point is "the Centre", to find which we must follow the middle way, turning neither to the left hand nor the right, and in every pursuit "to have eternity in view". Most of the pairs of opposites are the result of our methods of perceiving, feeling and thinking, and so we may say that unitive knowing and transcending the opposites are merely two ways of describing the same process. Transcending the self is also the supreme mode of psychological hygiene, for it terminates inner conflicts; by giving us more emotional poise and serenity it helps toward healthier bodies and longer life; and it gives power, not over others, but with others and over ourselves. Transcending the self is further a transfer and the redirection of energy from something small and limited to something which is very great. This transfer makes possible a release or the acquisition of vastly more energy, but it is possible only to those who exercise discrimination. Whatever man gives freely without looking for reward springs from the principle of Oneness, because he abrogates that ownership. To share possessions with another, then, in however limited a degree, is to manifest, so far as it goes, this principle of Oneness; and such possessions, be they spiritual, mental, moral, or mundane, can be of service if the discrimination which knowledge confers is likewise exercised. Development of the self is, in this way, the development of the self of another, because giving is coincident with receiving. There is, indeed, a direct connection between unitive knowing, a transcending the pairs of opposites, the process of perfecting, and the life eternal. Paradoxically, we can only find ourselves by losing ourselves; for, in the spiritual realm which transcends space and time, separateness, the individual self, cannot exist. Denial of the self does not mean moral or physical suicide; it does, nevertheless, necessitate transformation of the individual in complete abandonment of the self to the One Self: "But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit " (1st Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 17).
The illustration on the Board depicts what is elsewhere described as being "wrought in the form of the altar of incense, a doubled cube", and it is intended to be a representation of the personality of the candidate when made "perfect in all its parts". In other words, it represents the "rough ashlar" the "stone, rough and unhewn as taken from the quarry", after it has been "brought into due form" and is "of true die or square". The six sides of the cubical Altar may be said to correspond with the "six days" of our personal creation. The concealed underside resting on the floor of the design stands for what is below us in consciousness; the hidden submerged depths of "the unconscious". as the psychologist terms it, the primal "unshapen chaos" out of which all life emerges, "without form and void". The four sides of the Altar facing the four quarters of the Board thus signify the human elementary nature wrought into harmonious, four-square physique, as the "foundation stone" for the "intended structure". The exposed upperside, on which rest the "three Great, though emblematical Lights in Freemasonry", represents the natural consciousness "properly prepared", and turned towards the heights in aspiration for union with the Source of all Life and Light. When the Lord of Life comes down at "that last and greatest trial", into union with the aspirant; when the offering of himself is accepted and the Divine Fire descends upon this six-sided altar of his personality, there is an addition to it of "the One": and he then becomes seven, the sacred number of completion. The goal of Initiation has been reached; this is "the hour of high twelve" and he is called "from labour to refreshment". Hence, the Sacred Law ordains: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work" (Exodus, chapter 20, verses 9-10). The symbol of the six- sided Altar is profound; the candidate is not only himself the altar; he is the builder of the altar, the offering upon the altar, the priest who serves the altar; and from him also must ascend that perpetual aspiration for union with God, which is signified on the Board by a "Ladder of many rounds or staves" rising to the heavens. In the literature of the ages this ascent of the human mind and soul has been known by various names. It is described as the "Ladder of Perfection"; the "Journey of the mind into God": the "Ascent of the mystical Mount"; "The Way"; "The Path"; all of which are equivalent terms for the same process. The position of the "three Great, though emblematical Lights" on the Altar points to the Ladder as "that straight and undeviating line of conduct" which charts our Masonic path. Truly the steps of the Ladder are innumerable, for we do not reach the heights by a single bound or a sudden translation, but as the result of persistent effort in which every act and thought of daily life is to be concentrated upon the ultimate goal.
THE THREE PILLARS
It should be remembered that the Tracing Boards now in use are of Hebrew origin, and that their ancient mysteries are comparable to our own. The several features have been gathered together to construct an emblematic picture from which the symbolic teachings are to be interpreted, regarding which it is possible for many and varied meanings to be developed according to the quality of sympathetic imagination possessed by the student, and as advancement has been made in the study of the science. We actually become aware of this "progress in the science" by the dawning within ourselves of the primary attributes of the Light we are seeking. In the same manner that a prism decomposes the white light of the Sun into seven constituent colours, so when the spiritual Light of the Centre falls upon the prism of the human, its sevenfold properties begin to manifest there, and of these the primaries are also three, called in our Masonic system Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty. On the Board these are symbolised by three Pillars rising to the heavens, supporting no visible structure but forming conspicuous emblems, just as the spiritual powers they represent constitute the most prominent features in the soul of him in whom they manifest. We should, however, always reflect that whilst we make the effort towards the Light, our faith is that the Light is likewise seeking us with a reciprocal and intense desire for union. Mercifully, the process is gradual; were this advent of Light sudden and abrupt it would blind rather than enlighten; and, did it come to us in our present unprepared condition, the coming would inevitably confound and sear, rather than bless and sustain. It is written concerning the conditions upon which Wisdom may be attained: "For the very true beginning of her is the desire of discipline" (Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 6. verse 17). Hence, the insistence in the Craft of the candidate undergoing the "well regulated course of discipline", and presenting himself in each Degree "properly prepared" for the next stage of his advancement. In their Hebrew originals, the words translated as Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty have technical meanings, and connote much of significance which can be appreciated fully only by students who are well versed in the Kabbalah, the Hebrew mystical tradition. The word Strength, otherwise Power, is associated with the hidden sources which can be tapped by aspirants, endowing them with extended faculties and an abnormal capacity for work, but if the secrets of Power are not allied with Wisdom they are fraught with moral and spiritual peril. Of the word Beauty it is difficult to speak; derived from Tipareth in the original Hebrew, the Greek equivalent of which is Doxa, it signifies that final form, or Glory, into which the life essences crystallise. We may take as an example Flowers, which are the Glory of plant life, in which the essences of the plants culminate, displaying themselves in geometrical form, colour, and fragrance. Similarly, as the human soul strives for perfection, thereby conforming more to the image of the Divine, it too displays the Beauty, or Glory, in geometrical form; and from being the dull and formless mass, which it is in the spiritually undeveloped, it becomes effulgent, and as our Ritual affirms, "to shine as the stars". Moreover, individual human souls likewise display their own qualities: "For one star differeth from another star in glory" (1st Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 41); just as Flowers differ in shape and colour, but each expresses a partial aspect of that Divine Glory which comprehends them all.
The three Pillars, then, represent an indissociable trinity of Divine attributes. Like the Master and Wardens of a Lodge, who always act in concert, so Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty are also an inseparable triad. It can truly be said of them: "We three do meet and agree"; for, if Wisdom from on high does visit us, Power comes with it, whilst Beauty shapes the structure of our soul into "due form", and it is irradiated with spiritual graces. We do well to recall that to the Temple at Jerusalem there was the gate called Beautiful, and it was at this symbolic gate, the gate of Beauty, that works of Power performed by certain men of Wisdom were wrought, which amazed the crowd assembled in the porch: "And they knew that it was he which sat for alms at be Beautiful gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him" (Acts, chapter 3, verse 10). We might also reflect in this connection that each one of us is "lame from his mother's womb", and is "laid daily" for "forty years", the traditional period of preparation, before this Beautiful gate, the "porchway or entrance" into the new and larger spiritual life. Two other important points must now be noted in regard to the three Pillars, both of which are subjects relevant to the Tracing Board interpretation. The first is that when a candidate submits himself to our Masonic rites, professedly "by the help of God", and to seek Light as "the predominant wish" of his heart, by such act that Supernal Light is solemnly invoked upon him. Thereby he is brought into an organic, special relationship with it spiritually. Not only does he enter the temporal, and visible, aspect of the Craft; he also becomes affiliated with the "over-soul" of the Order, with the invisible hierarchy in the Grand Lodge Above; and, through them, with the Grand Superintendent "in and over" all. He, as it were, "signs-on" as a Craftsman in the Divine Building Scheme, and is properly registered. In a literally true sense he is "made a Mason"; a subtle change is wrought in his soul which makes him different from his former condition; and he is "marked and numbered" from among those who have not been initiated. It matters little whether he, or the Lodge in which the rites are performed for his benefit are aware of this fact; indeed, he may be long in awakening to realisation of it. Nevertheless, he can be assured that the Ceremonies, even when conducted with only an imperfect knowledge of their spiritual value, are not worked in vain. It follows as the result of his initiation that a ray of that Divine Light, whose elements are Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, falls upon his own soul; thereafter, it rests with himself to profit by, or neglect, tills unique spiritual experience.
The second point is one that is seldom recognised, but which may be of interest to students. The terms Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, in their Hebrew significance, are the parallels of what, from the Greek, are elsewhere translated as "the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory." These words will be found in the prayer of David: "Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted above all" (1st Chronicles, chapter 29, verse 11). Moreover, the phrase "the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory", forms part of the language used by Initiates from remote antiquity, and the prominence given in the Craft to the triad of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty is one of the many links which definitely connect modern Freemasonry with the stream of the Ancient Mysteries. There is an old Masonic rhyme which cryptically declares:-
Who would a Master Mason be, Must observe the Rule of Three (The Muses Threnodie, 1638).
This curious "Rule of Three", it needs hardly be stated, is not that learned by schoolboys; nor does it refer only to the numerous triadic combinations found in Freemasonry and cognate systems. The real rule is concerned with the practical teaching embodied in the Craft system, which is intended to bring candidates to a conscious knowledge of what is implied by the realisation of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, or "the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory", but being reserved for private and personal observance this must be left to aspirants themselves to study and unravel. It can, nevertheless, be said here that according to the general tradition which underlies all Initiation systems, the mystical "Bride" of the Initiate is Wisdom (Sophia), that "Veiled Lady" of the Kaballah; she is represented as married to the Initiate himself, who, being designated as a seeker after Truth, is ritually a "philosopher" (a lover of Wisdom); and, of Wisdom, it is therefore proclaimed: "She is more precious than rubies; and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her" (Proverbs. chapter 3, verse 15). In that same tradition, the great Italian poet writes: "Philosophy is a loving use of Wisdom, which especially is in God, because in Him is Supreme Wisdom and Supreme Action and Supreme Love" (Convito, Dante). To transpose this into more modern terms, Love, according to Dante, results from a full intellectual perception of the relation of the individual to the Universal; of man to the Triune Deity; to Supreme Action (or the Father), Supreme Wisdom (or the Son), and Supreme Love (or the Holy Spirit). The philosopher perceives that his own ideas and his own wishes, unchecked by a "loving use of Wisdom", are not safe guides for his advancement, and he consequently develops a yearning for Truth and the eternal verifies. Alteratively, says Dante, we may assert that Love is a form of Philosophy, which Love is manifest in the use of Wisdom, and this use brings with it a wonderful sense of Beauty, that is to say, contentment under any conditions of life. All those great petitions of the Lord's Prayer, which culminates in "the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory" are carried through into action.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The foregoing must suffice to indicate the meaning of the Tracing Board of the First Degree, and the important part that it is designed to play in our Masonic method of education. It discloses to the instructed candidate the mysteries of his own nature; it marks his progress in the practical work which he must undertake to realise the intentions that he professed on entering the Craft; and provides him with the chart of the path which lies ahead waiting to be trodden. The path from West to East is not easy to travel; the stairway to the heights is steep and calls for steadfast purpose; the "glimmering ray" is not kindled to clear flame without "repeated trials". Hence it is that we are first required to learn to know ourselves, our fragility, and our capacity; then to comprehend our situation in the sight of the "Omnipresent God unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid"; and Who knows humanity better than it can ever know itself. When once this situation is thus comprehended, the prayer of the aspirant is not for enlightenment, but for cleansing by the purifying process of the Divine Love: "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name he must put his life in order, submit thought, word and deed to the judgment of Love before he can go further. Hitherto, he has been primarily concerned with the affairs of earthly preparation, now he is to go up to heavenly places, to the alter of sacrifice, bearing his humble gifts. As in the ancient rites candidates carried up to the altar their homely oblations of the Bread and Wine for the Mysteries, so the movement towards God must begin with an act which opposes ingrained possessiveness, and of which we are to bear the cost. Something which we feel to be our own, although we indeed have nothing "having been divested of all monies", must be given of our "free will and accord". Like children in the nursery, we are to be taught generosity by the making of little gifts; and so prepared for that total and mutual gift, in which alone our lives are made complete. The offering is to be made ungrudgingly, and with gladness; it does not represent an impoverishment, but a fulfilment of life; accordingly, the candidate is warned that henceforth he should, "cheerfully embrace the opportunity of practising that virtue you now profess to admire". "The people rejoiced, for that they offered willingly, because with perfect heart they offered willingly to the Lord", writes the Chronicler (1st Chronicles, chapter 29, verse 9), as he narrates the bringing in of the materials which were to build on Mount Zion a Temple for the habitation of God. So too in the building of that interior Sanctuary where spirit and Spirit meet; it is the willing gift which brings the aspirant into the Porch of the Temple, "the entrance to the Sanctum Sanctorum": while this first faint movement of Charity is but an earnest of the subsequent self- surrender which will be required of him. "Lift up your hearts!" It is thus that our "prayers and oblations of praise" are reciprocal: "O Lord our God, all this store that we have prepared to build Thee an House for Thine Holy Name cometh of Thine hand, and all is Thine own", prays king David (1st Chronicles, chapter 29, verse 16), in the magnificent prayer blessing the offerings. The monarch and the people, however, did not go to the altar preoccupied with their own needs and desires: their offerings were made for the service of the House of God; and joy, the temper of Reality, amply rewarded this gesture of love. We likewise are called upon to offer in simplicity what we are, and what we have, to the eternal purposes of God without any attempt to determine their precise value and quality; the attitude of both "heart and mind", the generous and sincere gesture, are the things that matter.
Spiritual fitness, as the Craft system so clearly and correctly teaches, only comes with proper training. In any field special training demands at least three things: self discipline, the giving of priority in time and energy: and association with others who are seeking similar knowledge. The vast majority of us are men of action, and to be fully integrated we must not only feel and think, but also act. Common group action for the common cause enables us to understand one another, and the meaning of situations arising in our quest, as no discussion or verbal instruction can possibly do. We can never be entirely taught by books and lectures on the knowledge of which the Craft treats, for, as the Tracing Board of the First Degree illustrates, Freemasonry is a way, a truth, and a life. To learn that way we must needs walks together in it; to know that truth we must jointly labour for it; and to share that life we must so live that it lives in us. Time set aside each day for meditation on our aims and ideals will conduce to give us detachment, insight, new motives, and a fresh incentive. Meditation is similar to laboratory work in physical science; it is a method by which statements made by others can be checked by personal immediate experience, St. Paul once compared the development of the emotional and spiritual life to the running of a race. We may be sure that we all need to be in training for that race.
- The Volume of the Sacred Law
- W. L. Wilmshurst. The Masonic Initiation
- P. Brunton. The Quest of the Overself
- R. B. Gregg. Self-Transcendence
- M. Nicoll. The Mark
- P. T. Runton. The Key of Masonic Initiation
- R. C. Johnson. The Imprisoned Splendour
- G. Heard. A Preface to Prayer
(The author would here record his personal gratitude to the late W. Bro. W. L. Wilmshurst, and make due acknowledgment to The Lodge of Living Stones, No. 4957.)