I attended a Masonic conference where the use of what some Masonic presenters termed “hazing” was illustrated from European rituals and from the Masonic rituals of old manuscripts. There was a question as to what the reason was for having activities resembling “hazing” in Masonic ritual, and why were they so prevalent in the past, and still more popular outside the USA? These Masonic presenters, who are the top Masonic scholars in American Masonry (I shall not name them, as they were simply doing their job as good scholars: speculating on things, that is), seemed themselves puzzled over the inclusion of the “hazing” elements of the ritual. They spoke at length about how these kinds of activities had been abused in the past, how certain Masons had not the good sense to exercise their restraint and good judgement when performing these parts of the ritual.
That is true: Masons have certainly committed a host of terrible blunders. Masons in the past who did not understand these components of the ritual, or perhaps felt mean-spirited, turned such elements of our beautiful and meticulously designed Masonic ritual into just that—hazing. Those sorts of practices absolutely must go, and they have caused much confusion surrounding these aspects of the ritual. Hazing has no place in Masonic ritual, and the term itself should be extirpated from the lexicon of Freemasonry.
Back where I used to live, where I entered into Freemasonry, there was such a clamor over the use of the Chamber of Reflection particularly for this reason. Luckily I was a member of a Traditional Observance lodge and still got to experience the Chamber, albeit after being raised. This is absurd actually, since the Chamber has and will always be an integral part of Freemasonry—especially prior to the first degree. It is a real shame that so many American Masons have been denied this experience.
At the Masonic conference I attended, these scholars began to take a little more of an esoteric look into why elements which might resemble “hazing” are included in Masonic ritual. I say “a little more of an esoteric look” because it wasn’t much of one.
They came up with the idea that by doing these things, the ritual “really made a lasting impression on the candidate.” They came to this conclusion several times. That is all very good, and I fully agree. Then one of the scholars went a step further in the direction of the esoteric by suggesting such experiences are intended to cause a moment of crisis, a simulated experience of conflict and trauma for the candidate to undergo.
This would be done for two reasons, he postulated: 1) so that the candidate could be considered “worthy,” having now served on the battlefield so to speak; and 2) so that the candidate could learn to trust his guide. That also is well and good, and I agree with these ideas. However, at this point the Masonic scholars had to catch a plane to Pasadena and the discussion was necessarily cut short.
If we are going to call ourselves esotericists in Freemasonry and throw that word around, which we are doing a lot lately, we must learn not only to act like esotericists, but how to think like them. The word esoteric was first used in the early eighteenth century in France, and since then it has been used a great deal in the mystical, occult, and theosophical groups from that time to the present—including within Masonry (though it’s popularity dropped off in the twentieth century; it now seems, thankfully, that the word’s usage is on the rise in Masonic circles, which is terrific).
The word esoteric, of course, means inner, though it is used in a particular way by esotericists. A good description is offered by Arthur M. Melzer in his book Philosophy Between the Lines:
In common parlance, “esoteric” is often used
synonymously with “recondite” or “abstruse,”
simply to denote any kind of knowledge that,
by virtue of its inherent difficulty, profundity, or specialized focus,
surpasses the understanding of most people—like quantum mechanics.
But in a stricter sense—and the one intended here—it is something
difficult to understand because hidden or secret.
The term derives from the Greek esoterikos,
meaning inner or internal. (p 1)
My point is that the meaning behind the so-called “hazing” elements of Masonic ritual is esoteric. It is secret, internal, hidden—even from Freemasons, it seems. If these Masonic scholars I’m discussing took their ideas further, into the realm of the esoteric, they might have been able to come to a conclusion that resonated spiritually.
Let us look into these elements of Masonic ritual esoterically.
This first thing to keep in mind is that we, as human beings, are more than just are physical bodes. That is, we are composed of multiple levels of being: physical, mind, emotional, etc. In the esoteric world, these are known as different subtle bodies, meaning that primarily, save the physical, they are composed of a material that is more subtle than physical matter. There are three basic bodies in this case, with a capstone fourth body. They are: the physical body, the etheric body, the astral body, and the “I” or ego. The use of the word ego here is not meant in the sense of psychology, but rather as the most autonomous and individualistic part of the human psyche, that part made in the image of God.
Yes, subtle bodies are often referenced in the many woo-woo books of the New Age movement, but this idea is not as hokey or obscure as we might think. The idea of multiple bodies comes from the East, and it is absolutely normal to the religious doctrine of the Hindus. These bodies are called sariras, and they are known as the causal, subtle, and gross bodies, and they are thought to be covering over our atman or divine self-body, which in this case we have called the human “I” or ego in order to westernize the concept.
This idea was imported into Theravada Buddhism, as well. Buddhists also speak about the Trikāya doctrine or three higher bodies or kāyas of the Buddha, which are the Dharmakāya or Truth body, the Sambhogakāya or body of mutual enjoyment, and the Nirmāṇakāya or created body. These are higher subtle bodies that the Buddha was able to awaken within himself. They possess higher faculties of spiritual perception. All human beings are thought to possess these higher bodies slumbering within them, which over long periods of time will slowly be awakened, through the cycle of death and rebirth. The point here is to illustrate that having three or four subtle bodies in the East is not only not weird, but fundamentally part of their mainstream religions.
Let us return from East to West and the so-called “hazing” ingredients in Freemasonry. The Mystery of Baptism is a good place to investigate.
When a person is baptized in a full-immersion baptism and held down to the point of slight loss of breath, the idea here is that the person under the water is brought to the threshold of death; for it is at this threshold that Man comes closest to the spiritual world. When the person being baptized in this way comes close to the threshold of death, his three main subtle bodies actually loosen up, becoming somewhat disconnected, so that he or she will feel disoriented high, spacey. This happens when people take psychedelic drugs like LSD. It also happens every night when we go to sleep, which is how we dream. Through this act of seeming violence—in this case, thrusting someone in the water as though to drown them—the subtle bodies are loosened and the person actually draws near to the spiritual world.
This fact is extremely important for the next part of the baptism, which is the spiritual rebirth. When the baptismal candidate emerges from the water, they have already been taken as close as possible toward the spiritual world by having their subtle bodies loosened, which really means that a part of them is in the spiritual world. Therefore when they come out of the water they really do have a spiritual experience, which makes an indelible imprint on their soul. Baptism was, by the way, very common in early as well as some now-defunct Masonic rituals. It’s still important for some modern ones, thankfully. For Masonic purposes, Mackey referrers to this as Masonic Lustration. Take out your Mackey encyclopedias now and look up Masonic Lustration please…
The “hazing” elements in early Masonic rituals were not mere tomfoolery or done at random for the lodge’s own amusement at the candidate’s expense. They had, and still have, a crucial and specific purpose. By frightening the candidate and by causing him to experience fear or danger, particularly fear of death, the process loosens the candidate’s subtle bodies during the degrees. This means that the obligation and so forth are done when the candidate has been brought closer to the spiritual world—closer to God. This occurs in the third degree, of course, and some of the higher degrees still, but really it should be happening in every degree, but particularly the first one. The Chamber of Reflection is one part of the ritual that assists in this process. These things being done in the ritual are by no means “hazing,” nor should they ever be referred to as such. That is damaging. These practices have vital spiritual and esoteric purposes for being in the ritual. We should not tamper with that which we do not fully understand.
There is so much to say on this subject. However this is only a blog post after all and not a full paper, so I won’t go on and on. But I do hope this brief description helps to illustrate to you how we, as human beings, have been taught—really have been brainwashed—to look only on the surface of things, the stuff that is perceptible to our five senses. We are incapable of looking at things esoterically without training ourselves to do so. It is a practice that must be understood and then developed, or else we end up looking only at the exoteric or outer side, as was the case with these Masonic scholars at the conference. angelIf we as Masons are going to call ourselves esoteric and use this word in our writings and our speeches, which we absolutely must do, then we need to educate ourselves about what exactly “understanding something esoterically” truly means. We could not find better material for developing this ability within ourselves than our own Masonic ritual.
Think deeply, my brothers.
Think below the surface.
Jedediah French, 32º, is a member of Templum Rosae U∴ D∴, F&AM of California. He is a member of the Sacramento York Rite bodies and a 32nd Degree in the Sacramento Scottish Rite. His writings have appeared in Philalethes, The Plumbline, The Square, and Living Stone Magazine. Visit his blog “Esoteric Freemasonry and the Western Mystery Tradition” to read more of his work.