BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

OK ...

One might think that W.L. Wilmshurst's The Meaning of Masonry is one of those books that's been filling up my "to be read" boxes for decades, but it's really just something that looked interesting and was cheap to add to an Amazon order to get it over the magic $25 (free shipping) level.

Frankly, there is a certain voyeurism involved here, as the book starts out with the rather plain statement that "The papers here collected are written solely for the members of the Masonic Order ..." which I am not (although my father-in-law is a 33rd degree and "all the males" in my Mom's family were for generations). As such, while not coming to the material cold (having read and seen various "Masonic" things over the years), I don't really have the functional familiarity with the ritual/societal aspects which would give this a more solid grounding. The book, however, is aimed at Masons who wish to go beyond the "surface" elements (assuming they are in lodges that don't have a particularly good "theoretical" base), so I suppose that I can assume that I'm hitting this as might a somewhat dense initiate in a rather "surface level" lodge.

Unlike many other "tell all" books, this does appear to be at least a semi-official publication, being a 1980 reprint of the 1927 (5th edition) original, which appears to have been initially written as free-standing essays over time (somewhat past the turn of the century), and features a forward by some then-current (in 1980) Masonic official. The book is in five chapters (plus an introduction), which deal with "The Deeper Symbolism of Masonry", "Masonry as a Philosophy", "Further Notes on Craft Symbolism", "The Holy Royal Arch", and "The Relation of Masonry to the Ancient Mysteries".

Perhaps as an artifact of the time it was written, the book really does try very hard to pull Masonic symbolism into a Biblical mode ... while at the same time taking it into very "non-Christian" zones. Certainly other religions, cultures, and mythic traditions have become much more generally known since this was written, and so there seems to be quite a lot of "skirting around the issue" where things clearly digress from vanilla Christianity. There is, however, some quite substantial material here. Frankly, I was very tempted to quote at length from the "Form of the Lodge" section of the "Further Notes" chapter, but I'm settling for just this bit:
        The four sides of the Lodge have further significance. The East of the Lodge represents man's spirituality, his highest and most spiritual mode of consciousness, which in most men is very little developed, if at all, but is still latent and slumbering and becomes active only in moments of stress or deep emotion. The West (or polar opposite of the East) represents his normal rational understanding, the consciousness he employs in temporal every-day affairs, his material-mindedness or, as we might say, his "common sense". Midway between these East and West extremes is the South, the halfway house and meeting-place of the spiritual intuition and the rational understanding; the point denoting abstract intellectuality and our intellectual power develops to its highest, just as the sun attains its meridian splendour in the South. The antipodes of this is the North, the sphere of benightedness and ignorance, referable to merely sense-reactions and impressions received by that lowest and least reliable mode of perception, our physical sense-nature.
        Thus the four sides of the Lodge point to four different, yet progressive, modes of consciousness available to us. Sense-impression (North), reason (West), intellectual ideation (South), and spiritual intuition (East); making up our four possible ways of knowledge. Of these the ordinary man employs only the first two or perhaps three, in accordance with his development and education, and his outlook on life and knowledge of truth are correspondingly restricted and imperfect. Full and perfect knowledge is possible only when the deep-seeing vision and consciousness of man's spiritual principle have been awakened and superadded to his other cognitive faculties. ...
This brief bit is amazing, as it brings to mind native "medicine wheel" teachings, Gurdjieffian concepts of consciousness and awakening, and even Theravada Buddhism! When The Meaning of Masonry is working on this level, it is gripping reading. Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of the book spent "spinning" Biblical twaddle so that it can be successfully used to represent symbolic structures for spiritual growth, ala:
... To understand the significance of the two Scribes Ezra and Nehemiah it is necessary to recall that, in the Biblical account of the return from Babylonian captivity, these two were leading men. Transposing this historicized narrative into its spiritual implication, Ezra and Nehemiah personify two distinct stages of the mystical progress made by the candidate who essays to renounce the Babel of his lower nature and, by reorganizing himself, regain his native spiritual home and condition. ...
What a pity that serious Masons like Wilmshurst can't simply throw out the Judeo/Christian Biblical mumbo-jumbo and focus in on what is evidently a very strong and clear tradition/system of human development! I must admit, there was enough enticing bits here that it made me think of possibly investigating my "Masonic roots" further, although my timing is not good for that, having had a major HQ for the Scottish Rite just recently moved out of my neighborhood!

If you are interested in taking a look at the theoretical underpinnings of Masonry, I would certainly recommend The Meaning of Masonry (with the aforementioned caveats). It appears to still be in print, with the hardcover having the remarkably low price of $5.99 retail, which makes it a better deal as a throw-in on an Amazon order (how I got mine) rather than racking up the $3.99 shipping from the new/used vendors (and you can get a "new" copy from there for as little as $2 ... making the price a wash).

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Tags: book review
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