Why Masonry Employs Ritual and Symbolism
Repetition is of the essence of ritualism; and since nothing can sooner grow stale or inept than repetition we find that many persons think of ritual as meaningless stage play. To go through the same performance over and over, to say the same words in the same way, and often not even to know the meaning of these actions and these words, is not that rather childish? This question, we take it, has come home to numberless Masons, especially American Masons, for in this country we have so prized originality, novelty, and individuality that we all have a tendency to despise and to fear ceremonial. It may be well for us to reflect a little on ritual, what it is, what it does for us, and why we may all, individualistic as we may be, frankly and intelligently uphold it as having a just right to a major place in the functionings of a Masonic lodge.
Man's being has been shaped by a universe that loves repetition and ceremonial; the inspiration to ritualism is everywhere. Night and day everlastingly succeed each other; the four seasons continue their endless circumambulations, like the candidate about the lodge room: the stars move about in their fixed orbits, the tides rise and fall, moons wax and wane, seed-time and harvest come and go, growth is followed by decay, birth is succeeded by death, and even the comet, once deemed the most capricious of all the major objects of creation, has been found to return upon his own path forever. As man gradually became aware of the tirelessness of these cyclic changes, and as he discovered how his own life was linked thereto, he was filled with awe, and himself learned to form processions, to move in the rhythms of the dance, and to devise solemn religious ceremonials in the hope of discovering the secrets of the universe. Miss Jane Harrison, in her "Ancient Art and Ritual," has given us a lifelike picture of early man in his rude ritualisms and has taught us to see that to ritualise is in man's nature, and that no amount of rationalising will ever eradicate from his soul his penchant for thus expressing his thoughts and his emotions.
Accordingly, the human society in which a man finds himself from his birth on is filled with the elements of ceremony. When the child is born we have a christening; when it enters church it is confirmed; it is taught to kneel when it says its prayers; it is instructed how to comport itself at meals: when the wedding day comes the neighbours are invited for a formal ceremony; and death is sealed by a "service" which must usually be as much like the ceremony in universal use as possible. When we meet or part we shake hands; the gentleman tips his hat to the lady, and we all arise when a guest or a stranger enters the room. Our courts and legislative assemblies have ceremonies of their own, we learn to keep step when we march to war, and the most informal public assembly insists on some semblance of order. All these things are of the essence of ritual, and hard would it be to give a purely rational justification for them. There is something in us that demands them.
Although the social psychologist has not yet explained this penchant there is one advantage of it which lies on the surface where we all can see: ritual floats a man out of himself, and gives him a sense of a larger personality. The boy playing in a band, the soldier marching with his company the youth moving with his athletic team, the adult in a parade — in these, and in numberless similar instances the individual forgets himself, and is swept by emotions which seem to him grander and more worthful than his own habitual petty private feelings. The enlargement of the individual consciousness into a group consciousness, that, if we care to adopt psychological lingo, is the secret of the prevalence of ritualistic ceremonies. If we will apply this fact to the use of ritual in the Masonic lodge we shall be better able to appreciate and to understand its practice there.
By having a ritual as the basis of lodge work the lodge is saved from the caprices of the individual, and from the dictatorship of some masterful leader. Suppose that on each night that a degree is conferred the degree were to consist of a speech by some brother, or by one of the officers, and that this speech would be new for each occasion. For a time this might be refreshing and novel, but after a while the speeches would lose their interest or would become stereotyped, simply because there are so few men that can make a successful speech. The same would hold true of any form of initiation that might dispense with a ritual: the failure of the individual, or the committee, entrusted with the ceremony; or the crankiness of some man determined to have things his own way, or the low quality of it all, would come in time to disgust everybody. Many churches in their present day experience illustrate this, for those religious groups that have wholly depended on the preacher to the exclusion of religious ritual are finding their attendance falling away. The individual soon wears out: but a rich and many-sided ritual, evolved through generations of usage, full of glancing lights, shadows, and mysteries, is never at the mercy of individual caprices or individual failures.
But it must not be supposed that a ritual, at any rate our Masonic ritual, excludes novelty, and the opportunities for the individual to add to the richness of it all, for there is always room for the member of the degree team to improve the work by his better rendition of it, by his vocal interpretation, by masterful gestures, by superiority of costume, and every lodge has opportunities to show its own genius to the full by way of better equipment and furnishings: moreover, for those who are able to give a speech there is usually plenty of opportunity. The repetition of our ritual does not any more destroy individuality than did the constant repetition of "Rip Van Winkle" destroy the winsome personality of Joseph Jefferson.
Also it may be noted that a ritual, at any rate such as ours, is far richer in meaning and power than would be the production of any one man; it has been shaped by many hands; its wisdom has come from many minds, and from ages of experience; the art of it has ripened through time like the tints of a mountainside: there is in it something profounder than any work of one person.
It is by means of the ritual that Freemasonry maintains its own identity. Why have some of our Protestant churches changed out of all recognition since their inception? Because it has been left to each leader to shape things very much to suit himself: a succession of private interpretations has overlaid the original message. It would be so with us were it not for our ritual: that ritual of course has changed, but so little, and so gradually, that to-night the young man who takes his First Degree will say and do things very much as the young men did several hundred years ago. Also, it is a satisfying thing for the young man to-night to feel that what he is doing in a lodge in the United States some other young man is doing across the world, and other young men, here and elsewhere, will do for ages to come. And when that young man is witnessing in his old age the initiation of his favourite grandson it will bring the tears to his eyes to see and hear just what he saw and heard on the night of his own initiation. Thus it is that it is by means of the ritual that the Fraternity keeps its identity and holds fast to its members the whole world over, and is able to escape dissolution by the washings and the attritions of time.
Furthermore we may say, though there is little room to say more on so rich a subject, that the everlasting repetition of the same ritual means that every word becomes associated in the mind of each Mason with varied experiences. The fixed element in the life of the lodge is like a solid rock on which the coral build, or like an old homestead which gathers associations from the generations that have lived in it.
And this ritualistic element, being something that almost any man can learn, excludes no man from participating in the lodge activities. If each lodge meeting meant a speech, or a new programme, or some novelty, only a few gifted men could ever take a part. As it is there is not a member so ungifted that he cannot at least join in the battery of acclamation when a candidate is brought to light.
Were there more space for our thoughts twice as much could be said. It is sufficient to recall to our minds how great a treasure we have in our ritual, composed as it is of riches drawn from all parts of the world and from all ages: and to know that it is the Order's great secret of vitality, undying youth, and — this perhaps has not been sufficiently suggested — of a genuine originality of individual development. For there can be no freedom for a man where there is not also the strictest regulations.
If all the stars were to take to novelty, and move freely about like birds in the air; if all the familiar things about us were suddenly to lust after originality and begin rapidly each to become something else, we should have a great insanity and no Universe at all, and in such an imbroglio freedom, spontaneity, originality, individual liberty would vanish, for where order is not freedom cannot be.
Of Symbolism even more can be said than of Ritualism, for it has been more universally in use and is capable of a much wider application. Symbols were the first speech of man. Before words and letters were devised pictures were drawn to convey thoughts, and arbitrary signs were made to stand for many things. Nearly all primitive language is symbolical language, for "the voice of the sign," as Robert Freke Gould has described it, can be understood by children and savages. And in our own present day society, after the use of words has been refined almost infinitely, symbols remain in use on every hand. The crepe on the door is the sign of death; a ring stands for the engagement of a man and a woman, or for their wedding; the lily signifies Easter and immortality, and the employment of buttons, badges, heraldic devices, flags, and what not, is endless. If one could trace a human life through every detail of its existence from birth to death, he would find that human existence is all covered over with symbols, like the Red Man's teepee.
There is nothing arbitrary or simple-minded in the use of a device so universal, neither is there any difficulty in discovering why it is that symbols are so native to us all.
For one thing, a symbol does not exhaust itself so quickly as words. There is mystery and depth in it, an infinity of suggestiveness, an incitement to new approaches of thought. Suppose, for example, that we should substitute a set speech to convey to a candidate the lesson inculcated by the drama of Hiram Abiff! The mere abstract ideas could be thus expressed but how soon they would lose their power over the man's mind! As it is, no man can witness the symbolical presentation of the tragedy, even for the hundredth time, without finding himself in a new mood, or in the possession of new thoughts. There is something inexhaustible in the symbol, so that it will live long after many languages have died. It keeps saying to us, "You have rightly guessed this meaning, and that; but I have a thousand other meanings you have not yet hit upon."
This suggests another of the best uses of symbolism. We cannot learn the message of a symbol with a merely passive and receptive mind, because it is of the genius of symbolism to hide as well as to reveal. When a thing is conveyed to us in clear simple words, or in plain pictures, such as one sees in the movies, there is no need that one make a great effort of his own mind to comprehend it all; but when a symbol is put before us, and we have a reason for securing its message to us, our own minds must act, for no symbol wears its meaning on its sleeve. Its value for us is like gold hidden away in the mountain — the miner must dig for it. And that in itself is a virtue, because many men are cursed by the refusal to use their own faculties. They go through the whole of their lives parroting other men's thoughts, and such a life is necessarily lacking in the pleasure of making mental discoveries, which is one of life's richest joys.
All the greatest things, love, friendship, death, immortality, religion, patriotism, etc., speak to us through symbols. A flag fluttering at the head of a column of soldiers will stir us as can no oratory: a cross will suggest more about death than any sermon. Perhaps this is because the symbol has so many avenues through which to reach the mind; it partakes of the qualities of the picture, of acts, of sounds, of words, and of ceremony, and because of its wide use and great antiquity there cling about it untold associations.
A symbol, unless it is one invented by some individual in a purely arbitrary way, is usually understood everywhere; it speaks a universal language. A circle to us means "infinity," because it has neither beginning nor end. It means the same thing in India and Japan. It meant the same thing to men who lived before the dawn of history. Freemasonry could never have become a worldwide institution had not its ritual been an assemblage of symbols, had not it learned long ago to teach by means of emblems and symbols. If its teachings were set down in a book that book would have to be translated from language to language, never a satisfactory process; speaking in symbols, its language is "understanded of the people" everywhere.
Also, the symbolical character of the teaching of Freemasonry has tended toward that intellectual tolerance which is one of its glories. There can be no dogmatic and official interpretation of a symbol to compel the unwilling assent of any mind; the symbol's message is, by virtue of its very nature, fluid and free, so that every man has a right to think it out for himself. Of Masonic teachers and scholars there have been many — Oliver, Preston, Pike, Mackey, and others equally as honourable to our history — and these have given us noble interpretations of Masonry, but no Mason is ever compelled to accept them unless he chooses to. In a great Order which teaches by means of the living "voice of the sign" there never can be a pope.
Which reminds us that symbolism in itself is no infallible thing, and not the whole of wisdom. Just as there are good books and bad, and good men and bad, so are there good and bad symbols, and each one must keep toward all symbolisms an active and critical mind. We must always discriminate.
After studying the philosophy of symbolism under the leadership of the foregoing hints it will be well for the student to investigate a further question: What rule shall we go by in trying to interpret Masonic symbols? What was said of each member's right to think out the symbols for himself did not imply, of course, that he ever has a right to interpret a Masonic symbol without thinking, or that he can ever discover a true interpretation without due regard for what others have thought of it. That procedure would be not free thought but an absence of thought. I myself believe in, and have found in practice the soundness of, the historical principle of interpretation. By this is meant that if we undertake to interpret some symbol we must first try to learn what that symbol has always meant to the Fraternity during times past. If we ask ourselves, for example, what is the meaning of the square and compass, we should try to discover when that symbol came into use in the Fraternity; why it thus came into use; what it then meant, and then we should try to learn what the Fraternity has understood by this symbol during the subsequent centuries. This would save us from an interpretation based on ignorance, or arbitrariness, or our own crotchets, and it would also throw new light for us on what Freemasonry as a whole means.