Editorial Note: This is a speech I gave a few years ago at TheosoFEST, an annual esoteric festival held on the grounds of the North American headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Wheaton, Illinois.
Good afternoon, everyone. I hope that you’ve been enjoying yourselves at TheosoFEST thus far and I’m delighted that you’ve decided to spend the next 45 minutes with me, whether you’re sitting here in this classroom in the lovely and historic Olcott Center building, or whether you’re one of the seekers of the Lost Word out there in the magical corridors of cyberspace.
Hopefully, by the end of our time together, you’ll have a clearer understanding of Freemasonry from a Co-Masonic perspective than you did before, but I want to make it clear at the outset that in no way should this talk that I’m about to give be construed as a recruiting effort for Co-Masonry. I hate proselytizing, don’t appreciate it when it’s being thrown in my face (especially by arrogant monotheists). Thus I’m not some Co-Masonic Pied Piper looking to lure folks into Lodge. I honestly don’t think Co-Masonry, or Freemasonry in general, is for everyone: It’s a path that requires vast reserves of self-discipline, mental exertion, and unwavering adherence to an exacting, time-honored ritual format.
Let me also say that this is so exhaustive a subject that we can’t possibly hope to cover all that there is to say about Freemasonry in this short time together; if you have a curiosity, hopefully what you hear today will whet your appetite to learn more and take things from there.
So. I’ve got an ambitious agenda planned with many related topics to cover; I would appreciate it if you could refrain from asking questions until the end. The following are some of the features of the mystical terrain that we’ll be traversing today:
We begin with a clarification of terms: What is Freemasonry? Co-Masonry? Why am I distinguishing between the two? From what did they develop, and what is their purpose—esoterically? What is the relationship of Freemasonry to religion—is it one or not? Do the ancient Mystery religions of the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity have any relevance? Lastly, what are the Three Degrees of Craft Masonry? As metaphysical stages, what do they represent?
While doing my best to answer these questions, I’ll be weaving in observations and reflections from my own spiritual journey as a Master Mason actively involved in Sirius Lodge, No. 20, my Mother Lodge, which meets here in Wheaton and is chartered under the auspices of the Supreme Council of the North American administration of the Eastern Order of International Co-Freemasonry.
For the attendees in this classroom, I’ll be distributing a handout that features a bibliography of my references. It’s broken down by audience—Masons and Cowans, if you will—because unless you’re already a Mason, several of these books that I’ve used as research for my speech simply won’t make sense to any of you.
With that being said, let’s begin. Okay: By a show of hands, how many of you—my Co-Masonic brethren excepted—are Freemasons? How many of you come from families where a relative was or is a Mason?
Thank you for sharing. It’s interesting: our Anglo-American culture is informed by Freemasonry, whether we’re aware of it or not. Think of the colloquial expressions we use on a daily basis: We may “give someone the Third Degree” when questioning her or sincerely swear that we’re dealing with people “fair and square.” Those expressions and others like them are informed by Freemasonry. So what is it?
According to contemporary Masonic author Mark Stavish, it may not be appropriate to speak of “Freemasonry” as a monolithic entity—as with Christianity, there are so many variations, it might be more worthwhile to break the construct down into pluralities. As an entity, it’s as diverse as the people who comprise it. Mr. Stavish says, “As a Fraternity, it both shapes and is shaped by its members.” Like all philosophies, it should be an organically evolving system, responsive to the needs of the people who seek it out. The late Theosophist, Co-Mason, and clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson referred to Freemasonry not just as “a living thing,” but as a “yoga.” And that association will become clearer when we look at Masonry’s relationship to religion, but first let’s try to pin down a definition.
I personally define Freemasonry as a philosophical system of European origin that uses a particular group ritual format, which derives its inspiration from classical Pagan and Judeo-Christian stories and symbols, to guide its members along of path of moral and spiritual evolution and service—in the hopes of building better individuals, family members, and citizens of the world. Building is the precise term because the operative guilds of stonemasons from the past—whether we’re talking about the builders of the great Egyptian pyramids, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, or the magnificent cathedrals of medieval Europe—inspired the techniques and teachings that bubbled into the cauldron of Freemasonry, or speculative as opposed to operative Masonry. To quote Mark Stavish:
Freemasonry…derives its system of initiation of three degrees from the techniques and methods of the stonemasons’ trade, or those Operative Masons who actually worked with stone, as well as biblical accounts of the construction of the Temple of Solomon. From these two relatively simple ideas, a complex structure of ritual, symbolism, philanthropy, and philosophy has arisen. (3-4)
Ritual. Symbolism. Philanthropy. Philosophy.
For non-Masons, the concept of philanthropy is probably a strong association that comes to mind at the thought of Freemasonry. Masonic bodies are known the world over for performing commendable services for the public good—the Shriners and their hospitals for children are one notable example. Or perhaps some non-Masons think Masonry is nothing more than a social organization—a secular Fraternity whose members successfully leverage their contacts with higher-ranking members in the hopes of somehow advancing materialistically…a Good Ol’ Boys Club where, to borrow the words of a popular advertising slogan for a credit card, “membership has its privileges.”
That’s an unfortunate and misleading view, as the appeal to join the Brotherhood—and yes, in Co-Masonry, it’s still a “Brotherhood,” which makes me a “Brother” even though I’m a woman; folks, this is archaic language and tradition and we like it, and I’m speaking to you as a woman with feminist sensibilities—doesn’t come from external promptings of worldly glory but an internal prompting more closely aligned with the way of the mystic. As the great 20th-century English Masonic orator, Walter Leslie Wilmshurst, explains in his outstanding collection of essays entitled The Meaning of Masonry:
It proclaims the fact that there exists a higher and more secret path of life than that which we normally tread, and that when the outer world and its pursuits and rewards lose their attractiveness for us and prove insufficient to our deeper needs, as sooner or later they will, we are compelled to turn back upon ourselves, to seek and knock at the door of a world within; and it is upon this inner world, and the path to and through it, that Masonry promises light, charts the way, and indicates the qualifications and conditions of progress. This is the sole aim and intention of Masonry (13).
If this sounds to you like we’re treading spiritual currents here, you are correct. But I will hasten to add that Freemasonry is not a religion—it espouses no creed, offers no sacraments or promises of salvation. However, if we look at the word “religion,” which comes from re-ligare, meaning “to bind back,” we see that Freemasonry does share the purpose of religion, which is to bind human consciousness to Divinity. Remember when author Geoffrey Hodson called Freemasonry “a yoga?” That’s it—yoga, to yoke or unite. Man and God. The microcosm and the macrocosm. As the great Theosophical author and 32nd degree Co-Mason, the Very Illustrious Brother Charles Leadbeater, explains in his book Ancient Mystic Rites, “Masonry is indeed the heart of all religions, and should be bound definitely to none; although every Mason is at liberty to profess whatever faith may be most congenial to him, since they are all facets of the truth.”
The fact is, you cannot become a Mason if you’re an atheist. You have to believe in some kind of Higher Power in order to be considered for admittance into the Order. I remember how fun it was speaking to the Co-Mason assigned to interview me in the summer of 2007 when my application for admittance into Sirius Lodge No. 20 was being evaluated. It was one of the most wonderful and life-affirming phone conversations I’d ever had, and very much humor-laden as well, for when my interviewer, a Master Mason in the Lodge, asked me, “Anna, do you believe in a Supreme Being?” I remember giddily exclaiming in my reply, “A Supreme Being?! Why stop at one! In my worldview, it’s not so much a Cosmic CEO as a Board of Directors,” and I merrily began to expound upon my personal theological views as a hardcore polytheistic Pagan! Again, the point is that you have to profess belief in some kind of Universal Guiding Intelligence, Ultimate Reality, or “God” in order to become a Mason.
The points I’ve addressed thus far have been applicable to all varieties of Freemasonry, but now I’d like to speak to how Co-Masonry is distinguished from its “masculine Mason” cousin in the family of Freemasonry. In my opinion, there are three basic differentiating factors that uniquely position Co-Masonry: First, there’s the admission of women on equal footing; second, the insistence that a member prove his or her ability to advance to the next degree—there are no automatic conferrals of degrees without a member having earned that privilege through intense study and demonstration of competency; and third, Co-Masonry has an exclusively esoteric orientation.
Let’s look at these differentiating factors more closely.
As its name implies, “Co-Masonry” is called just that because, unlike the more widely known “masculine” Lodges of all-male members, Co-Masonry admits women and men on equal footing. If I can draw your attention to the handout—this photo taken after a Lodge meeting last winter shows me with my Brethren—all Master Masons—from Sirius Lodge as well as visiting Brethren from Atlanta and Ontario, Canada. As you can see, we’re of all ages and skin colors—and in this particular shot, you see that female faces are more prevalent than male ones. According to Leadbeater, Co-Masonry admits women for two reasons: 1) Because Co-Masonry sees itself as restoring the essence of the ancient Mystery religions to modern times, and it was commonly known in the ancient world that, with the exception of the cult of Mithras, women and men partook of the Mystery faiths equally; and 2) Co-Masonry admits women because it is, to borrow Leadbeater’s words, “logical and fair.”
We need to bear in mind that Co-Masonry arose in that fertile period of burgeoning ideas and sweeping social change that marked the latter quarter of the 19th century, where, in Europe and here in the U.S., both the suffragette movement for women’s rights and an explosion of interest in the occult—resulting in the founding of the Theosophical Society itself—were taking place. Interestingly, both movements of women’s rights and the development of Theosophy—and Co-Masonry—were exemplified in the remarkable life’s work of Very Illustrious Brother Annie Besant, 33rd degree. She was an embodiment of these revolutionary currents herself and helped to direct their course.
So the admission of women on equal footing with men is one obvious difference Co-Masonry has with the more socially visible “masculine” Masons. The second differentiating factor is a far more subtle one than wearing a skirt versus wearing slacks: In Co-Masonry, before you can advance to the next degree, you have to provide proof of your ability to advance to the next degree in question. This sharply differs from the practice that has been known to occur in masculine Lodges where all Three Degrees of Craft Masonry, which are known as Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason, respectively, are bestowed upon groups of men in a single day! I have it on good authority that that practice is called “Blue Lightning,” because the three Craft degrees of Blue Lodge are involved and the process, evidently, is as fast as lightning!
From the Co-Masonic perspective, such a practice is absolutely inconceivable, not to mention morally hazardous, as I’ll explain later. Co-Masonry prescribes spans of time that must be allotted for each of the Three Degrees—you cannot advance until you’ve done your time, so to speak, and you’ve proven, by demonstrating your understanding of the respective degree’s teachings, that you’re ready to move upwards. No exceptions.
But perhaps the greatest differentiating factor between Co-Masonry and its masculine Mason counterpart is its unequivocally esoteric orientation. What motivates us is, to quote Leadbeater’s Hidden Life of Freemasonry, “the desire to be a useful agent of the divine Power.” When convening for our meetings, the “Lodge” that we set up has a tripartite nature: There’s the actual physical space that we construct with all of the necessary ritual implements, furniture, etc.; there’s the Lodge being set up vibrationally as a sort of etheric overlay to the physical space, which becomes charged with the energy of our collective focus; and then, concurrently, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the Lodge that we’re building within ourselves, centered in our hearts. Individually, we can answer in the affirmative to St. Paul’s question: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). YES!
When we’re engaged in the activity of building the Lodge of the heart, we keep service at the forefront of our consciousness. It’s imperative that we achieve an effective group mind state—united, if you will, as the fingers of one hand—with everyone’s energies harmonizing well and being fully attuned to the work at hand of opening the Lodge, and the energy currents we’re deliberately creating with our thoughts, words, and deeds. As Leadbeater explains in The Hidden Life of Freemasonry:
The floor has now rushing across it magnetic currents or lines of force like the warp and woof of a piece of cloth, and this forms the foundation upon which we build the great thought-form which is one of the objects of our Masonic meeting. In view of the enormous value of the thought-form made on the floor of the Lodge, we can see how important it is that none should disturb or confuse the currents by walking in the wrong direction, or by bringing into the Lodge thoughts of ordinary business—the cares and worries and conflicts of the world of daily life. We go to the Lodge to do a definite piece of work for humanity, and we must devote our entire attention to it during the whole time of the meeting (111).
Since so much of our focus rests upon more subtle planes of reality, it should come as no surprise that our notion of charity is largely informed by inner workings. To be sure, we are philanthropically active with material resources that we donate to local charities, just like our masculine Lodge counterparts do. But, as I’m sure many of you here can agree with, there’s much to be said about the power of sending out vibrational currents to others, especially in the contexts of sending healing and light, whether to troubled individuals or to a troubled and imbalanced planet. Turning to Leadbeater again, this concept of inner charity is succinctly and elegantly expounded upon:
Unfortunately, modern Masons have altogether lost sight of what might be called the inner charity—their power on the higher planes. They would scarcely understand if one should say to them: ‘You ought to be sending out streams of thought-power; that should be one of your forms of charity.’ It is a pity that inner work should be so much overlooked, for it is a tremendous agency for good, and one in which every Brother can take part. External charity depends upon the private wealth of the few; but any Mason, however poor, can give his thought (224).
The energy currents perceptibly felt in open Lodge vary, depending upon which of the Three Degrees we’re working in a given meeting. Obviously, there are Higher Bodies that Co-Masonry offers in its degree workings, but I’ll be confining my discussion to the Three Craft Degrees. As said earlier, are the First degree of Entered Apprentice; the Second Degree of Fellow Craft; and the Third Degree of Master Mason. An individual’s journey through these three degrees is a definite spiritual pilgrimage; in the Co-Masonic Order, each degree awakens specific latent powers or energy currents and it’s up to the individual Brother to fully awaken them. Otherwise, the conferral of energies is wasted.
If we think about the ancient Greek ideal of a perfected human—a person who fully embodies the concept of arêtē, or excellence—we can see a possible correlation to the Three Degrees of Craft Masonry. To the Greeks, you had to have a healthy body, ruled by a healthy mind, which is anchored in a healthy spirit. And so, according to the popular and prolific mainstream Masonic author Robert Lomas’ Secret Science of Masonic Initiation, “Body, mind, spirit—these are the three storeys of our building, the three degrees of our being, and each has its own secrets and mysteries” (44). He goes on to explain that the Entered Apprentice degree is the stage of Purification, wherein the initiate learns to better control the body; the Fellow Craft degree, he tells us, is the stage of Illumination, wherein the study of the arts and sciences help refine one’s thoughts; and lastly, the Sublime Degree of Master Mason is the degree of Perfection, wherein a Mason is raised to the state of Spiritual Adepthood. Master Masons take to heart the exhortation from the Gospel of Matthew: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (5:43).
As I’m sure you all know, the world’s great spiritual traditions advocate, in some form or another, a renunciation or death of the ego or lower self in order to tread the path of spiritual awakening and reach a state of illumination, or the discovery of the Kingdom of Heaven within. Co-Masonry certainly advocates this also. To quote Leadbeater, “The work is a preparation for death, and for what follows it.” An ancient Roman phrase declares, Mors janua vitae: “Death to self is the portal to true life.”
It is with initiation, first and foremost, that this process begins. The word “initiation” itself comes from initium, or “a beginning.” In the raising ceremony for the Master Mason degree in particular, suffused as it is with richly textured layers of allegory, the twin themes of death and rebirth alert us to the fact that Co-Masonry is firmly cemented in the traditional teachings and ritual practices of the Mystery religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, and it is to these that I would now like to turn our attention for a moment.
Whether we’re looking at cult centers in North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece, Southern Italy, or ancient Palestine, and whether the deities venerated were Isis and Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus, Dionysos, Mithras, or Tammuz, to name a few, the Mystery faiths of classical antiquity, which extended well past the Constantinian-sanctioned Christianity of the 4th century Common Era Roman Empire, offered their sincere, pious believers the certainty—the inner gnosis or knowing—of personal immortality. After death, these believers would be rewarded with sharing in the company of their victorious, resurrected gods; therefore, the end of one’s physical life on earth was no longer an event to fear.
The textual evidence from the period is abundant and very clear in these matters. The second century Roman writer Apuleius, recounts, in his Metamorphoses, how he became a devotee of the goddess Isis, whom he praises as “the most holy and everlasting Redeemer of the human race.” He has a beatific vision of her, once initiated into her Mysteries, where she tells him, “You shall live blessed. You shall live glorious under my guidance; and when you have traveled your full length of time and you go down into death, there also, on that hidden side of earth, you shall dwell in the Elysian Fields and frequently adore me for my favors. For you will see me shining on amid the darkness of Acheron and reigning in the Stygian depths” (XI, 6).
But one couldn’t merely profess belief in the redemptive deity to have been offered assurance of eternal life: it was initiation that made the difference, determining the saved from the unsaved, if you will. In the Hymn to Demeter, the great Greek goddess of the grain asserts: “Happy is he of men on earth who has seen those Mysteries; but the uninitiated who has no part in these holy things, cannot, when dead and down in the murky gloom, have like portion of such blessings” (lines 480-2). Echoing that, the Eleusinian hierophant Glaucon, in an inscription found at the great cult center of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, states: “Beautiful indeed is the Mystery given us by the blessed gods: death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing.”
According to the Edwardian English religious scholar Samuel Angus, the Mystery religions had three stages: 1) Katharsis, wherein a prospective candidate was readied for admittance; 2) Muesis, initiation and reception into the religious brotherhood; and 3) Epopteia, a state of apotheosis or mystic identification with one’s tutelary deity.
I would argue that those stages are alive and well in Co-Masonry. In the Katharsis stage, you ritually remove your uncleanliness, expiate your wrongs. Fasting, the taking of ceremonial baths, observing chastity, offering sacrifice—all documented in ancient literature and still valid methods of purification today. I was initiated into the Entered Apprentice degree of Sirius Lodge No. 20 on August 27, 2007, and while I didn’t exactly slaughter a ram beforehand in honor of Hermes, I did consciously sacrifice much of my understanding of my self at that time. I fasted. I prayed for guidance. And I spent a good deal of time in a chamber of reflection, surrounded by symbols of mortality, meditating on death, for I was going through a major death at the time with my divorce of my first marriage nearing its finalization. The world as I had known it was crumbling around me. At first I worried that these massive upheavals would detract from my spiritual growth; of course, though, they spurred it on instead. As my Very Illustrious Brother, John Algeo, 33rd degree, who served as our Lodge’s Director of Ceremonies at the time, asked me in private before the ceremony that day began, “Well, Anna, you did ask for an initiation, didn’t you?”
That’s the second stage of the Mysteries—Initiation, Muesis. What’s remarkable is how well the ancient initiates, called mystae in the plural, kept their oaths of secrecy concerning what was said and transacted in their initiation ceremonies. Not one account in the past three millennia have the secrets of the holy of holies ever been recorded or published to gratify historians. Not one account. To this day, the details of the ceremonial transactions, enactments of cult drama, interpretations of the dramas’ meaning, guarded passwords, taboos—and who knows how much else—remain outside the realm of our knowing. In Co-Masonry, of course, the Brethren have to similarly swear oaths to never reveal the secrets and mysteries of what’s imparted to them to the uninitiated.
The last stage of the Mysteries, Epopteia, granted ancient worshippers communion between the human and the divine. In the Mithraic mysteries, it literally was a communal meal of bread and wine between the newly initiated and the head of the order, whose rank was known as Pater or “Father.” Those of you who come from a Christian, especially Catholic, background: Does any of this sound familiar? As a quick aside, nascent Christianity in the 4th century was most “threatened” by the twin cults, in the Roman Empire, of Mithras and Isis. What the fledgling Church couldn’t eradicate, of course, it absorbed. Isis obviously was adopted into the iconography and miracle-working powers of the Virgin Mary. As for Mithras, well, let’s see, he was a savior god depicted as a man no older than his early thirties, whose birth on December 25th—of all dates—was announced by supernatural beings to a group of shepherds…gosh, I wonder which Christian figure he got grafted onto!
Anyway, when it comes to the concept of apotheosis, Clement of Alexandria used language that would have been comfortable to Pagan and Christian alike when he wrote: “If anyone knows himself, he shall know God; and by knowing God, he shall be made like unto Him.” In modern Co-Masonry, we’re given the tools to deepen our self-knowledge and our connection with the Most High. That connection is made most powerfully, as I’ve experienced it so far, in the raising ceremony for the Third Degree, which makes one a Master Mason. For Walter Wilmshurst, Robert Lomas, and other Masonic authors, this is the degree of mysteries and where your real initiation begins. To them, the initiation into the Entered Apprentice degree and the passing into the Fellow Craft degree are merely preparatory stages for this great work. “To sum up,” Wilmshurst says, “the import of the teaching of the three degrees,
It is clear, therefore, that from grade to grade the candidate is being led from an old to an entirely new quality of life. He begins his Masonic career as the natural man; he ends it by becoming through its discipline, a regenerated perfected man. To attain this transmutation, this metamorphosis of himself, he is taught first to purify and subdue his sensual nature; then to purify and develop his mental nature; and finally, by utter surrender of his old life and losing his soul to save it; he rises from the dead a Master, a just man made perfect, with larger consciousness and faculties, an efficient instrument for use by the Great Architect in His plan of rebuilding the Temple of fallen humanity, and capable of initiating and advancing other men to a participation in the same great work. This—the evolution of man into superman—was always the purpose of the ancient Mysteries, and the real purpose of modern Masonry is, not the social and charitable purposes to which so much attention is paid, but the expediting of the spiritual evolution of those who aspire to perfect their own nature and transform it into a more god-like quality. And this is a definite science, a royal art, which it is possible for each of us to put into practice; whilst to join the Craft for any other purpose than to study and pursue this science is to misunderstand its meaning. (The Meaning of Masonry, 46-47)
By way of closing, I’d like to walk you through the beautiful closing ceremony of any given Co-Masonic meeting. After contributing towards our Widow’s Trunk fund—the money is raised for local charities—we receive greetings from our international Brethren and any visiting Brethren, meditate on a passage recited by the Orator from one of our Volumes of Sacred Lore, and then a powerful distribution of the energies that we’ve raised occurs—it is ritualistically dispersed to unleash its good upon the world. We leave Lodge as we entered it: singing in unity, and mostly in harmony, one of the several hymns employed in the course of a meeting. When we ceremonially recess, I’m brought to mind of the words of Pagan priestess and author Jennifer Reif: “In sacred moments of ritual, love of the Infinite fills the chalice of our heart.”
That’s a beautiful image, and Beauty, along with Wisdom and Strength, are the core pillars that support our Order. We build the Lodge within with the stone and mortar of a time-honored, beautiful ceremony. “A ceremony,” Leadbeater informs us,
Which has survived, practically unchanged in its essential parts, from an antiquity so remote that history has forgotten it. Misunderstood, only half-appreciated, maimed in many cases of the glorious and dignified rites which are its true expression, it is nevertheless still doing its appointed work in an ungrateful and uncomprehending world. Founded many thousands, perhaps millions, of years ago, by order of the Spiritual King of the World, it still remains one of the mightiest weapons in His hands, one of the most efficient channels of His blessing. Some of us have the wisdom to grasp this, the good karma to be employed in this department of His service; may we never forget how great is our privilege;may we never fail to take the fullest advantage of this opportunity which He has given us! (The Hidden Life of Freemasonry, 358-59)
And to that, I will simply add a hearty “SO MOTE IT BE!”
Hodson, Geoffrey. At the Sign of the Square and Compasses. Adyar, India. The Indian Administration, Eastern Order of International Co-Freemasonry, 1976.
Leadbeater, C.W. Ancient Mystic Rites. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1986.
—–. The Hidden Life of Freemasonry. Chennai, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 2001.
Lomas, Robert. The Secret Science of Masonic Initiation. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2010.
Reif, Jennifer. Mysteries of Demeter: Rebirth of the Pagan Way. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 1999.
Stavish, Mark. Freemasonry: Rituals, Symbols & History of the Secret Society. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Books, 2007.
Wilmshurst, W.L. The Meaning of Masonry. Orig. 1922. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1999.