Ritual, Experience, and Meaning
Ritual is a dynamic cultural experience that has been central to research in religion and society for at least one hundred and fifty years. Ritual is not just a tool for understanding social occurrences and dramatizations; it is also a window into the human experience. Ritual impacts upon both social cohesion and equilibrium as it contributes directly to understanding through experience. It enables the integration of belief and behavior; tradition and change; the real and the ideal. Ritual is a form of consecrated behavior which, through moods and motivations utilizing symbols, encourages men to formulate an order of existence.
All humans and many animal species engage in ritualistic behavior from how we dress or undress to courting practices, how we greet each other, and, even, how we fight. A great deal of human behavior can be explained and comprehended in terms of ritual because ritual is an essential part of communication, meaning, and understanding. At the same time, all animals are dominated by feeling, especially humans, but human feeling is special. Human feeling embraces conceptual processes which involve symbols, language, and, through them, ritual.
At issue in any consideration of ritual is its role and purpose in society, and its place in our social institutions. Ritual, notes Durkheim, is the method whereby individuals are brought together to “strengthen the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member.” Ritual shapes our perception of both the human and the divine as it serves a socializing function. The very structure of the ritual, notes Taylor, Robertson, Smith, and Frazer, is intrinsic to how the ritual functions in society.  Rituals facilitate the means by which human beings live together in an orderly social relationship by maintaining the unity of the group. Ritual also transmits through generations the basic sentiments of a society thus serving to reduce anxiety, distress, fear, doubt, and, even, sorrow. But Huxley notes that the modern world fails to ritualize effectively which leads to a high propensity toward flawed communication as well as a weakening of personal and social bonds. The question arises, then, how does ritual communicate.
COMMUNICATING INSTRUCTION BY SYMBOLS
Suzanne Langer notes that a symbol enables people to think about, understand, and react to something apart from its immediate presence. A symbol is “an instrumental thought.”  We assign to the symbol meaning which results in an emotional response to the object. However, that meaning and response may differ and, even, change from society to society, age to age, and person to person. The swastika—a cross with four bent arms—is common to many ancient civilizations especially those of the Indus valley where it represents auspiciousness. The word “swastika” is literally translated as “to be good.” Consider how much that changed during the twentieth century when the swastika was appropriated by the Nazi movement in Germany. The assigned meaning of the symbol and our emotional response to it underwent a radical and drastic reversal.
The meaning of symbols is transmitted through discourse with meaning being the complex relationship among symbols, objects, and the person. In discourse, it is not the words alone that create meaning but rather how the words are grouped together through grammatical structure that enables us to learn and transmit meaning. In this sense, language truly makes us human. In order for language to function successfully, there must be some level of shared meaning. We must agree upon what we are talking about. When we use the word dog, the listener creates a mental image of the object. That mental image may vary in detail—a German shepherd in one person’s mind, a poodle in another’s. What is critical to communication is shared meaning: that we agree upon the proposition—dog, a domestic animal with four legs, a tail, a head—not necessarily the details.
A great deal of human behavior meets symbolic needs and symbolic acts (speech for verbal symbolization and action for nonverbal symbolization) result in ritual. Ritual not only enhances the quality of meaning and facilitates our understanding of objects, events, and people; it also serves to generate more penetrating questions about the meanings of the symbols involved.
The foundation of symbolic interaction (communication) is found in the work of George Herbert Mead primarily in his book Mind Self and Society. In order for humans to cooperate, they must first come to an agreed upon understanding of each other’s intentions. Symbol-using interaction serves that function. Humans are biological creatures possessing a brain capable of rational processing who, by mental processes, plan and rehearse their symbolic behavior so as to better prepare themselves for social interaction. And while Kenneth Burke is noted for his explanation of the use of dramatic metaphor in communication, he also distinguished how individuals present themselves to others through ritual and role-playing. Finally, Hugh Duncan stresses the importance of the symbol in transmitting meaning. He also stresses the roles people assume noting that “Social order is created and sustained in social dramas through intensive and frequent communal presentations.”
Symbols function to synthesize the tone, character, and quality of human life by giving it a moral and aesthetic style and mood. They provide a picture of how things should be. Symbols represent sets of acts; establish powerful and long-lasting moods and motivations; formulate conceptions in general; clothe perceptions with an aura of factuality; and establish moods and motivations that seem uniquely realistic.
Symbols are used as vehicles for conception—meaning—and are abstractions fixed in perceptible form with concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgements, longings, and beliefs. They are the key to understanding culture and cultural activity. A symbol is a plan for a house, not the actual house. It is the drawing, not the structure. Symbols provide templates for a process external to themselves but which lead to a definite form. In man, his genes do not speak to his ability to engage in the building trade, that needs a conception of what is to be built and that conception is done in symbolic form. Symbols are blueprints or textbooks not buildings. The proper manipulation of significant symbols gives them graphic power and enables man to attain his destiny.
In Freemasonry, symbols are intertransportable. They mean different things at various times and on various levels. And while they do shape our ritual into a distinctive set of tendencies, capacities, propensities, skills, habits, liabilities, and proneness, they give character to the flow of our activity and the quality of our experience. The legend is learned by heart with the moods the symbols induce ranging from melancholy to joy; from confidence to pity; from exalted to bland. Communication, then, is a complex process that utilizes symbols to transmit meaning and to socialize the individual. A primary form of this transmission and socialization is ritual.
ESOTERICISM IN RITUAL
The practice of the indirect communication of information through symbols is neither unorthodox nor relegated to any one age, civilization, or organization. “The world,” says Sherlock Holmes in chapter three of The Hound of the Baskervilles, “is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Ancient philosophers had double doctrines; one external or exoteric the other internal or esoteric; one vulgar, the other secret. The esoteric was that which was suitable only for those who were serious seekers of knowledge and truth. Esoteric writing served to preserve this knowledge for a select audience with the “wits of such sharpness as can pierce the veil.” Esoteric writing was also employed as a restraint to avoid political and religious persecution with Thomas Aquinas noting in 1258 that “certain things can be explained in private which we should keep silent about in public” and Maimonides, writing about a century later, reiterates Aquinas by stating that “these matters [he is referring to theology] are only for a few solidary individuals of a very special sort.” In the tenth-century Arabic philosopher Abu Nasor al-Farabi comments on Plato that “he followed the practice of using symbols, riddles, obscurity, and difficulty, so that science would not fall into the hands of those who do not deserve it and are deformed, or into the hands of one who does not know its worth or who used it improperly.”
Freemasonry is a complex and, even, contradictory marvel which has stood for different things at different times in different places. Throughout its history there are noted among its members many serious thinkers of each period who were dedicated to the use of the fraternity to advance progressive ideas and to counterbalance the institutions of church and state and, later, universities. Freemasonry was integral to the spread of the Enlightenment and the development of social order out of the chaos of the various revolutions that plagued Europe. In what was to become the United States, a number of the nation’s founders were Freemasons and, according to Reinhart Koselleck, there were two social structures that left a “decisive imprint” on the Age of Enlightenment, “the Republic of Letters and the Masonic Lodge.“ The use of esoteric writing and practice to transmit enlightenment in these lodges is found in the vast literature associated with the organization which used pseudonyms and anonymity as it illuminated the character of modern philosophy. The very creation of our modern open society required many changes in Europe and North America, the success of which also required esoteric secrecy.
Of the four forms of esoteric writing—defensive esotericism, protective esotericism, pedagogical esotericism, and political esotericism—protective esotericism comes closest to describing the Freemasonic motivation to protect its mysteries. It is also the most profound and meets the most resistance. Essentially, it is assumed that some truths may be harmful or dangerous if in the hands of the initiated. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing goes the old adage. Ancient writings are filled with stories which enable the reader to reflect upon how humans have reacted when they came into possession of information they were not prepared to understand or utilize. The Tree of Knowledge, the Tower of Babel, the myth of Prometheus or the Sirens, as well as Plato’s Republic and the Ernst and Faulk dialogues of Lessing dramatize the dangers of the acquisition by the unprepared of certain forms of knowledge. Truth does not always turn out to match our hopes and dreams, nor does reality always conform to the demands of the human heart or psyche. Seeing the truth, suggests some philosophers (and these stories), is often exalted above the capacity of the common man and requires special initiation and instruction.
The Jewish Kabbalistic tradition makes no secret of its use of esotericism. It is open about its secretiveness. The assumption that some knowledge may confuse some people is not rare. The Talmud, the primary text of Judaism after the Torah, requires that certain information be not “expounded” before other than “a Sage,” and Maimonides writes that ancient sages “enjoined us to discuss these subjects privately . . . and then only if he be wise and capable of independent reasoning” finishing the paragraph by stating that “it is left to him to develop the conclusions for himself and to penetrate the depths of that subject.”
Christianity has a similar tradition of protective esotericism or the discipline of the secret. An entire article is devoted to it in the Catholic Encyclopedia. This tradition is molded on the parables and words of Jesus who, in Matthew 13:10-17, states that he would speak plainly to them (the disciples) but in parables to others. Thus Aquinas, commenting on Boethius, supports Paul’s comment in I Corinthians 3: 1-2 that he could not give them the highest wisdom concerning God because it is only for the truly spiritual man to understand. Aquinas then explicitly states that “certain things can be explained to the wise in private which we should keep silent about in public.” Science, profane and divine, is hidden in riddles and parables.
The Masonic Craft has undergone a long, gradual development both in doctrine and ritual, but it is only recently that scholars have become interested in those initiatory societies which utilize esotericism to transmit information and mysteries. Much of Western esotericism has been transmitted through rituals of initiation which are, these scholars suggest, the sum of ancient religious practices. The candidate in these ceremonies is between an old and a new state. The mystery or sacred knowledge is intended to transform the candidate at an internal level into a new person. The candidate usually acts in a passive and humble manner, obeying his conductor and instructor, and fearing no danger. These initiation rituals are intended to develop intense fellowship or comradeship as well as egalitarianism or equality.
Freemasonry is generally described not as a secret society but as a society with secrets, and ritual is the manner in which Freemasonry, and other societies, transmits those secrets from generation to generation. Treating secrecy ritually removes it from the ordinary and implies a spiritual dimension. In Freemasonic ritual, the veil constitutes the message. A ritual (and a symbol) always has more than one meaning—a primary or immediate one, and an allusive or hidden one. The idea that the veil constitutes the message is considered by many ritualists as of utmost importance. Though esoteric rituals do not appear to have entered the world of Freemasonry until the mid-eighteenth century through the high degrees, but the evidence does suggest that early Craft masonry was moral rather than ritualistic in character, the link between ritual, esotericism, and Freemasonry was well established by the 1650s.
RITUAL AND MEANING
For humans, the meanings of symbols are often elusive, vague, and convoluted, but that meaning is capable of being discovered and understood through investigation and explanation. Just as language is constituted of units—phonemes, morphemes, words—so too is ritual constituted of discrete symbolic acts, and the meaning of both the symbols and the ritual are grasped only through cultural transformation or initiation. Yet while ritual may appear to exalt the outward or the contrived, when fully understood, it becomes an inward expression of an external reality.
Humans are cultural animals and prefer to live in societies. From the beginning of the human race, there has been a communal conception of the right way to live and a shared view of morality and the sacred. The basic concept was that we needed to join together. People are, Aquinas wrote in City of God, “bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” The flaw in human reasoning, though, is that while the lowest levels of life described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as physiological and safety (air, water, food, personal security, and health) are self-evident, higher requirements such as love, esteem, and self-actualization, because they are elevated, are less clear and less understood. At these upper levels, there is a weakened sense of certainty and stability, a condition feared by many. In the modern world, communities or societies of common interest serve to ameliorate that concern by bringing into harmony through philosophic interchange questions about higher certainties. Thus, while authority is often rooted in tradition and custom, reason and custom may also provide guidance for human thought and action.
Humans are complex entities with a variety of illusions, beliefs, perceptions, questions, faculties, and desires. Most of the questions humans have about life and the world are practical and not of an academic nature. They do not require an abstract or complex answer. Instinct, habit, custom, laws, traditions, and mores generally suffice to address most of our issues. A crucial element of human interaction is our moral commitment to each other’s welfare as well as that of the community; and while traditional virtues may vary from the austerity of Spartan society to the openness of modern America, their intent is to create cohesiveness within the society or institution.
In Laws, considered Plato’s most political writing, he tells the parable of the Athenian stranger with the stranger saying, “let our race be something that is not lowly, then, if that is what you cherish, but worth of a certain seriousness.” Many, however, using a Platonic metaphor, can only “stare reality in the face [and] the truth is too strong for most eyes.” A natural response to this has been through the use of esotericism and ritual. Ritual, which is natural in form and content, is often highly elaborate and filled with symbolism and allegory. Ritual tends to be celebratory in nature and is experienced at various levels through different senses. It can be a therapeutic and cathartic tool. It can be a formula that enables us to interpret our drives and motivations in terms of brotherly love and respect for tradition and others. It is not necessarily to be understood, however, but to be felt and experienced. Ritual is a celebration of life and its experiences as well as of human striving and motivation. It may well be a higher route to the understanding of the human and the divine.
Originally, ritual referred to the Roman judicial concept of the proven or correct way to perform. It was also considered as that which was normal, natural, and true. Ritual functions by facilitating the human brain’s ability to focus on the question or object in such a way as to lead the individual and the group to a shared meaning that serves the best interest of those involved.
Our ancient brethren worked long and hard to develop and understand their Craft, and to perpetuate its history, knowledge and identity by initiating novices through a system of ever higher levels of knowledge (degrees) imparted through ritual. By the early eighteenth century, Knoop and Jones note, our more recent brethren had expanded their practices (ritual) by assigning to their working tools special moral and spiritual meaning, and by utilizing those symbols in their ritual. This enabled the brethren to conceive of something apart from the immediate or practical nature of the object. The symbols had become instruments of thought that required further study and contemplation to reach a full understanding of their meaning.
Ritual employs shared meanings to transmit to the audience and from generation to generation the concepts of the institution. It comes to us in at least six forms: formalism, traditionalism, invariance, sacred, sacrifice, and performance. It may further be categorized by genre: rites of passage, commemorative rites, rites of communion, rites of affliction, and rites of festival. Above all, ritual enhances meaning and understanding as it furthers learning. We first learn the basic principles—memorize the catechisms and degree work—and then we progress to the utilization of that information in our search for and attainment of higher, more significant knowledge.
In Freemasonry, our rituals or forms and ceremonies perform not only as formal, institutionalized exercises that create an esprit de corps as well as a shared experience and language, but they also serve as the means to transmit our traditions and to establish for the brethren the higher meaning of the signs, symbols, allegories, and landmarks of our craft as well enabling them to grasp those special meanings. The functional aspect of the ritual is important—opening and closing of the Lodge, the conferral of Degrees, the installation of officers, the interment of the dead and should be uniform utilizing an agreed-upon language, symbolization and action—but it is the meaning of the ritual that is paramount.
Ritual enables the participants to order the world that surrounds them in an agreed upon manner. It simplifies the chaos of events and communications by imposing thereon a coherent system that enables us to catalog, categorize, and understand experiences. Not only is seeing believing, doing is believing.
Humans also seek predictability in their lives in a very unpredictable world. When you step on the gas pedal, you have the firm expectation that the vehicle will begin to move and, even, gain speed. When this does not happen, your expectation is not fulfilled—you are frustrated. The same is applicable to the human communication. When we say good morning to another person, we anticipate that we will receive a similar greeting in return. When that does not happen, our expectations are defeated and, again, we become frustrated.
Human life is also a series of choices in an unpredictable world, and the more choices that confront one; the easier it is for that person to become stressed. Ritual fulfills a psychological function for humans as they go through their daily lives by addressing issues of choice. It is predictable and that predictability has a calming effect. It also serves the human psychic by enabling the individual to accurately predict what will happen next and, when it does happen, to feel a certain degree of ego fulfillment and self enhancement by having predicted correctly.
Most our fears can be dealt with through ritual. Young children, for example, engage in certain ritualistic behaviors such as saying certain words, prayers, or stories at bedtime. This fulfills a child's need for routine and structure. A constructive ritual provides the same peace and order to daily routines. The difference between healthy rituals or routines and those that suggest a psychological malady is that a healthy ritual may be interrupted and resumed at pleasure without losing its impact.
Normal routines and rituals have a calming effect on humans by reducing fear. For example, most humans fear loss—of parents, objects, and friends. We overcome this fear through the ritual of collecting be it photographs, rocks, dolls, coins, or baseball cards. A healthy ritual (or hobby) does not interfere with one’s ability to function or take up too much time or space; it is a normal human activity utilized to deal with the uncertainty of existence.
Ritual enhances learning by connecting the inner emotional experience of the presenter to that of the audience through a systematized set of words, gestures, and movements. This is accomplished through an understanding of how humans behave when responding to various emotional and real life situations and transferring those observations to the structure of the ritualistic experience. These ritualistic gestures, movements, and words must not, however, be stereotyped or melodramatic, but rather they should be performed in such a manner as to result in an emotional connectivity between the presenter and the audience.
Ritual also serves the interest of the performer. Humans respond to actions more than they do to words. Telling a child to do as you say, not as you do, is not going to produce the behavior you desire. Behavior (ritual) is a much stronger driving force than is simple verbal communication. In conjunction with this, when actions are coupled with words, the learning experience works faster and with better comprehension and retention.
Ritual further serves learning through observation and imitation. Experience is definitely a great and wonderful teacher, but you cannot experience everything yourself. You can, however, observe the actions of others engaged in a ritualistic experience and through that observation learn and imitate.
Psychologists sometime refer to ritual as a form of repetitive behavior engaged in by persons to neutralize or prevent anxiety and to help the human address that which is new, strange, and different. At the same time, and important to Freemasonry, ritual contains content and centrality. It is both a form of communication and a means for both outward communication and inward reflection. Rituals are to be both performed and contemplated. To perform any ritual at its most impressive and instructional, especially on of a Masonic nature, we should understand the symbolization involved and be able to interpret it utilizing our physical and oral skills. The performance and content of the ritual may vary, as it does between Masonic Jurisdictions and, even, Lodges, but that does not reduce the impact or intensity of the ritualistic experience, the centrality of ritual to our Craft, or the ability of those rituals and symbols to link us together through a common belief system and a shared communication experience.
We perform spiritual ceremonies or rituals because they comfort us; because they possess innate power; because they are engaging; because they are familiar; because they teach; because they illustrate; because they reduce anxiety; because they enhance performance; because they require personal involvement; because they make us part of a community; because we receive physical and psychological benefits; and because they have a direct influence upon what comes after as well as our interpretation of what came before. Ritual provides us with a safe place, free from the worries of daily life. It is an anchor line—a cable’s length. It provides us a link to a sound foundation. For some of us, notes Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, it helps us fix our own broken down emotional system.
Ritual gives shape and order as well as identity and direction to our lives. Much religious ritual is oriented to the calendar and enables us to celebrate and acknowledge the passage of time. Other religious rituals, communion, for example, link us to our past and, since done with other people, make us part of a larger community. The power of ritual is linked to the number of participants and, as with a wedding or funeral, celebrates life events common to all humanity.
Ritual is not meaningless repetition. Each time a ritual is performed, we discover something new. Each time we participate, we hear a new word, discover a new physical movement, or experience a fresh emotional response. Ritual, like a good play or drama is cathartic: it provides us with an emotional release (sometimes strong). But ritual is not, as some describe it, mumbo-Jumbo. It engages us physiologically and psychologically because it enables us to utilize space and time to express ourselves and demonstrate our involvement in the process. It can, however, lose its power if too protracted or too esoteric.
COMFORT, POWER, ENGAGEMENT, FAMILIARITY
Ritual is not easy. It requires dedication, thoughtfulness, and concentration. When engaged in ritual, we are able to shut out the intrusions of daily life and focus on internal rather than external matters. The clear intent is to make us fully aware of the moment and mindful of the situation. Stage fright is a well-documents phenomenon. Even Helen Hayes, the first lady of the theatre, is said to have experienced it. Essentially, however, stage fright or communication apprehension, as it is termed in scholarly circles, is the fear that, for lack of skill or self-control or an accident the actor (ritualist) will show through the part and the aesthetic distance will be lost. The “willing suspension of disbelief” would dissolve. Such fear is overcome, however, through regular practice and review of the ritual and its content as well as its meaning.
A perfectly performed ritual is similar, in emotional response, to a perfectly performed musical composition. The sour note, the misplaced beat, the break in rhythm draws attention away from the intended goal. The perfectly performed composition moves us to transcend the mundane and respond at an emotional and intellectual level. Ritual works in an identical manner: the closer to perfection, the greater the impact of the ceremony.
In some ancient societies, the power of ritual was inherent to its perfection. It was deemed essential to the well-being of the people and the favorable reaction of their gods. In Aztec culture, the exact performance of certain ritual practices, especially that of the drummer, was considered essential to success in warfare. The failure of the drummer to perform exactly led to swift and sure punishment because it was perceived to predict defeat. In a comparable manner, imperfection in the performance of ritual was considered a direct factor when the rains did not come on time or came too forcefully; when the animals necessary to survival disappeared; or when the illness did not abate after treatment by the priest or shaman. Even in the Christian faith, the failure to perform a ritual correctly—a marriage ceremony, for example—is perceived by some as rendering the outcome invalid.
Ritual is most comfortable when we have mastered it. The mastery of ritual is directly related to our personal concept of accomplishment and well-being. We strive for perfection, though we settle for excellence or less. We are not perfect creatures, but when we perform ritual in a proper manner and are fully confident in our performance, our level of comfort increases. This level of comfort is transmitted to other participants as well as to spectators and becomes an expression of the power of the performance. When great actors appear on stage, their confidence in their performance contributes to the willing suspension of disbelief and enables the audience to participate in the dramatic event to the fullest extent. So, it is with ritual, the more confident the ritualist, the more compelling the ritual.
Ritual is familiar, and that familiarity adds to its comfort level. Ritual is predictable whereas the world around us is chaotic. When an individual leaves for work in the morning there is an unpredictable aspect to both the journey and all probable future events which may be discomforting. With ritual, we know what is coming. It is not a surprise. It does not change and, while change may be the one constant in life, it is disconcerting. Through ritual we neutralize anxiety.
ENGAGING, TEACHING, PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT
Ritual requires us to participate either directly as an actor or indirectly as an observer. In both roles, we are engaged in the event. As in sports, both the player and the spectator participate in the game and, in turn, in the win or loss. For both the participant and the observer of ritual, there is a type of mystical inspiration. It is a shared experience. The level of involvement determines the degree to which the observer partakes of the experience.
There are many motives for engaging in ritual: eustress (positive stress), escape, entertainment, group affiliation, self-esteem, and, even, peer pressure as well as family needs. In ancient times, we lived in relatively small groups or tribes. The leaders—performers of ritual—were representative of the people, and the performance of ritual was perceived to be directly related to future events. In the modern world, ritual enables the observer and participant to feel a deep emotional response in a protected, safe environment in which there may be no real-world consequences. It gives us something that we can value without requiring from most of us too much overt physical or mental action.
Ritual serves a distinct teaching function. In Masonry, we learn the signs, symbols, allegories, tokens, and the meaning of the Craft through various degrees and Lodge ritual. This learning is enriched by our physical performance during the ritual. Learning through a single sense—hearing—is possible, but it is enriched when pictures and action are added to the words. As a young surveyor, the author memorized the various geometrical theorems and trigonometric functions. But he did not fully understand them until he went into the field with a survey crew and made practical application of that information. That practical application—the doing—enhanced and completed the learning experience as well as the understanding of the mathematical equations. Ritual functions in a comparable manner.
COMMUNITY AND RENEWAL
Ritual is an organized communication performance within a shared experience. It is repeated on a regular basis. It is familiar and routine. Ritual is important because it provides for a renewal of our shared or common experiences and gives legitimacy to what we are doing. In a very real way, ritual makes us free men while enabling us to interact with others.
Ritual helps us remember, renew, and refresh. Repeated tasks help us do our jobs; engage with family, friends, community, and strangers; and participate more fully in a social setting. Ritual is storytelling at its most sincere, austere, and complete. Consider the rituals of the three degrees of Freemasonry as an example. They tell a complete story—the allegory of the building of King Solomon’s temple and Hiram Abiff. They refresh for us the meaning of power and personal strength as they orient the newcomer to our organization while they reaffirm for all the meaning of their involvement. Further, our ritual introduces and refreshes our sense of group identity as it teaches us the courtesies and obligations of our Craft. It also teaches us the culture of the organization by enabling us to learn the ropes through a series of performances. Although this may be accomplished by direct instruction, engagement in ritual enables us to interpret the event in terms of the organizational perspective—to be part of the group. Ritual, therefore, contributes directly to understanding the cultural meaning of Freemasonry.
Ritual utilizes symbolic acts which involve speech and language as well as various methods of nonverbal symbolization. All of these play a direct part in the human response we call “life”: the better the ritual, the better the response and, in turn, the better the quality of meaning, understanding, and life.
SOLEMNITY OF RITUAL AND DEGREE WORK IN THE LODGE
Joseph Campbell notes that ritual is meant to convey an inner reality, though it is now, for many, merely form. Society without ritual, he suggests, lacks the method to introduce the young into the tribe. Children in order to function rationally in society need to be twice born, notes Campbell. Masonic ritual serves that exact function.
Ritual or degree work in the Lodge is an essential element of Freemasonry. It takes the man from the outside world—the profane—and transforms him into a Brother, a Freemason. Our ritual is designed to impact directly on the inner life of the candidates and brothers. It is not an empty, meaningless ceremony and should not be treated as such. Thus, there is no place for mirth in our ritual. There is evidence in ancient records and charges of some level of frivolity in Masonic Lodges, but by the early 1700s and the establishment of modern Freemasonry, that type of behavior is specifically addressed and prohibited. Tricks, jokes, gestures, even side-line whispering are strongly discouraged. The focal point of all our work is the Holy Bible and, as such, it deserves our respect as it serves to temper our actions.
Along with the issue of frivolity or mirth during ritual arises the issue of applause. Nothing that a Brother does during the ritual merits applause. The candidate has come to us of his own free will and accord and we, in turn, are welcoming him to our fellowship with a specific time assigned at the end of the Communication for more personal expression. The same admonition applies to applause for the ritual and degree team. There is ample opportunity within the Closing for the team to be properly recognized for work well done. To engage in applause during ritual or exemplification destroys the illusion and significantly reduces the impact of the event on all involved, especially those at its focus—the candidates or Brothers. Our degrees are an allegory of good and evil, of life itself. Death is prominent throughout the Third Degree and specifically referenced in the First Degree. Applause in our ritual is no more appropriate than would be applause during a religious service or a funeral. Ritual is intended to speak directly to the inner life of the candidate. All outward incursions impede that intent. Should levity, mirth, or applause interrupt or disturb the fellowship and working of our ritual, its intent is destroyed and those involved “simply miss the point.”
Decorum refers to the proper or appropriate style for a presentation or ritual. It is a proper or right social behavior fitting to the situation. It is a standard of behavior as well as a as an adherence to proper procedure. It includes not only correct or proper behavior but also a certain level of dignity in both speech and dress. Decorum is essential for the proper performance of ritual. In Freemasonry, proper decorum is not something to be determined by the individual Brother according to his own tastes. It manifests itself by showing respect for the Craft, and it is a courtesy to the Brethren. The Regius Manuscript or poem, which dates from the late fourteenth century, as well as succeeding constitutions and charges, required those who were made a Mason to pay due respect to the Craft through their proper behavior and appropriate dress.
How a person dresses is a significant factor in the establishment of first impressions. It is the right of the individual to dress and live as he pleases so long as he does not infringe on the rights of others. Freemasonry, however, is a collective effort and, like a sports team, standards of dress are not inappropriate. Based on the photographic record present in most modern Lodges, Brethren in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries exercised a high standard of dress in the Lodge—Sunday best, if you will. During Masonic ritual, especially degree work, it enhances the overall experience when an elevated standard of dress is maintained. The general rule, outside the United States, is that a dark suit and appropriate tie are required. Attendance at Lodge should be as special as attendance at a wedding or a church service. Why dress differently for Lodge than you would to attend your house of worship? The question a Mason should ask himself is this: “In terms of showing reverence and respect for the Craft, is that my best, and is that what my best should be?”
We should also consider that appropriate dress sets the stage and strengthens the ritualistic experience as it solemnizes and honors the experience. Consider a priest at Mass: would the service have the same impact if he was not wearing liturgical vestments? Military chaplains, even in combat zones, strive to maintain some level of appropriate, liturgical dress to formalize and solemnize the ritual. The author often observed chaplains, Catholic and Episcopal, in chasuble and stole standing on muddy firebases in Vietnam bringing comfort to soldiers. And those same priests always wore a stole, muddy at times, when giving Last Rites during a firefight. Part of the comfort offered came from the soldier recognizing the priest by the clothes (vestments) he wore. Those vestments were what set him slightly outside the profane and the reality of the moment. Appropriate attire, especially for degree teams, can accomplish the same.
Essential to proper decorum in the Lodge is the minimization of whispering or talking on the side lines. The focus should be on the work (ritual) and the degree candidate. Verbal and even non-verbal interjection serve only to disrupt and disturb the intent of the ritual. The same goes for prompting. Even the greatest, most professional theatres have a designated prompter. So should our Lodges. It should be that prompter alone who assists with the ritual and then only upon request prearranged through specific predetermined signals. Extraneous or multiple prompts serve only to reduce the importance and impact of degree work and ritual.
PACING, REPETITION, MEMORIZATION,
PRACTICE, AND FOCUS
Great musical compositions have much in common, but especially rhythm or pacing. It is the rhythm that enhances the emotional response as is suggested in the lecture for the Fellow Craft Degree. Rhythm can impact directly upon human psychology and, through a pattern of regular or irregular beats, make for either a strong or weak response. Rhythm is the pattern of the flow of both sound and action in ritual. The proper use of rhythm serves to enhance the ritualistic experience as it enables the brain to more fully comprehend the situation through a pattern of regular stresses. It also serves to facilitate memorization.
Ritual is by its nature repetitive. Repetition is the most intuitive learning technique and is documented in both Chinese and Egyptian records dating to 3,000 B.C.E. or before. It requires us to do the same thing several times in the same way. In teaching, an ancient maxim is to say and/or do the same thing three times and so it is with our ritual. This repetition not only provides for better retention but it also marks those parts of our work which are to be remembered. Repetition enables us to efficiently store information and guides to action in our memory. Repetition strengthens skill at both the conscious and subconscious level. When a skill has been set through repetition—riding a bike—it is possible to quickly recover that skill at a later date.
The majority of rote learning is based on repetition but repetition alone does not lead directly to understanding, it is the first step. We memorized the letters of the alphabet and then used them to form words and sentences to express our thoughts. We memorized the rules of the road to pass the driving test and then formalized that learning through practice. In the military, one memorizes the functions of his weapon so that, when in combat, he does not have to “think” but is enabled to instinctively lock, load, fire, and reload. Memorization facilitates the human experience by removing the necessity to think about and analyze each individual step or function. Practice makes perfect goes the old saying. It is true. Professional golfers hit thousands of balls each week on the range to perfect their game. Professional football quarterbacks throw thousands of passes, often at moving targets, to strengthen their arms and to hone their delivery. Masonic ritual requires the same type of practice, probably not as intense or extensive, but never-the-less it is essential to the proper performance of ritual and the ritualistic experience.
Finally, focus is essential to successful ritual. A great actor is able to focus his attention on his performance thus shutting out the audience and its responses. Most great actors tell us that, once on the stage, they do not see the audience. The same happens for great athletes, they are able to focus on the game and their performance, thus excluding from their perception distracting, outside events and people. Think about the basketball player who is about to shoot a free throw. He prepares to shoot facing the spectators, some of whom may be hostile to his intent. His successful performance depends upon his ability to focus. Proper performance of Masonic ritual requires no less. We should focus on the ritual, on our work, on the candidate, and on our experience thus shutting out external events.
Ritual is often perceived as incredibly difficult, but it can be taught whether it is the public rituals of church and state, or the private rituals of families and fraternities; and since ritual makes people feel their group solidarity, it is best taught to groups. Yet, ritual must to be taught with a level of mind-body interdependence unusual to most education settings. You cannot teach ritual sitting down nor can you teach ritual from books. Anciently, ritual was exclusively oral and physical and is still very much so.
In ritual, action holds the most prominent place. Details are important with repetition and redundancy essential. Ritual is for the five senses. It is a way of articulating ideas that enables us to connect content and action as it deepens understanding. When ritual is properly taught, it permits the members of the group to pass their traditions to future generations because it requires a significant level of rehearsal of those doctrines which aids memory and understanding as it motivates participation.
A wise ruler of a very large empire erected a magnificent palace of immeasurable dimensions and extraordinary architecture. He gathered around him assistants qualified to produce the work and provided them with the high-quality instruments to pursue their labors. This magnificent structure, though not of ordinary construction, was pleasing to the eye and served its purpose. It was durable and functional—it inculcated the mysteries of the kingdom to its subjects. From outside it was perplexing, but from within it was full of light, knowledge, and coherence.
There were those in the country, especially wise men skilled in architecture, who were offended by its very structure. It had few windows and it was not easy to gain entrance. The doors did not seem well placed, and the gates were guarded. These learned men could not grasp that each apartment received its light, as did the whole, not from without but from above. They could not comprehend that those summoned to the palace went of their own free will and that the entrance provided them with the surest route to their objective.
Accordingly, these wise men explained the words, symbols, and architecture as they saw them according to their preconceived ideas of the plan. They paid no heed to those who worked within the palace and had neither the time nor the inclination to discuss with them the plan, even denouncing those who supported the edifice as despoilers of the palace itself.
One terrible night, the night watchman called “Fire! Fire!” and everyone leapt from their beds scurrying through the darkness squabbling with each other about how best to save the edifice. Each said that they had the proper plan to save the palace based on his experience and expertise. But none sought to find a bucket of water to throw on the reported flames. If there had, in fact, been a fire, the palace would have lain in ruins at dawn, but the watchman was wrong. He had mistaken the northern lights for a conflagration and the flowing interior light confused the experts. What each quibbler failed to acknowledge or accept was that the great and wise ruler had built his magnificent palace on a sound foundation based on ancient plans give him by his ancestors and that it was infused with interior not exterior light.
True Freemasonry strives to promote brotherly love and affection, and it exemplifies these attributes through its ritual. Masonry provides light through rituals which represent the letter and the spirit of the Craft’s ancient beliefs. It ceaselessly strives to promote human brotherhood and is inevitably put at risk when social, political, or religious divisions are permitted to intrude. Freemasonry is not dogmatic and through figurative language endeavors to illustrate and amplify that which is self-evident. Freemasonry has its riddles and paradoxes that often seems to use ellipsis and aposiopesis to deny the casual viewer a definitive statement or definition. Our ritual fills those ellipsis and aposiopesis not with words but through action with meaning.
The Lodge is to Freemasonry what the church edifice is to religion. No conclusions should be drawn from the external prosperity or inner trappings of a church building as to the faith of its members. Sometimes the two do not go together. It is the internal, not the external which has enabled Freemasonry to survive and even prosper for more than 500 years. Ritual is the single most important aspect of our observance of the Craft. Human history has been enriched through the extensive use of ritual by all societies. Ritual appeals to us because it provides us with a window into our shared culture. It is central to both religious and secular society because it generates an emotional response and because it is understandable. It is a physical manifestation of an internal, emotional experience.
Ritual appeals to us because it is experiential and analytical. It engulfs the total person, transporting him into another mode of existence. It has persuasive, even mystical power, and is filled with extraordinary personalities. It enables us to do what we are thinking about, and, at the same time, reflect more fully upon the experience. Masonic ritual enables us to understand our symbols and history. It may be scary to some and misunderstood by others, but proper performance and appreciation of our ritual serves to facilitate full development of the Symbolic Lodge and the Brotherhood. It was our ritual that attracted great and learned men to Freemasonry in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and it serves the same purpose today.
In 1986 and 1987 Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell for the PBS series The Power of Myth. Part of their discussion focused on the Great Seal of the United States. Moyers asked Campbell: “Aren’t a lot of these Masonic Symbols?” Campbell replied: “They are Masonic signs.” What followed is here noted. Moyers: “What explains the relationship between these symbols and the Masons, and the fact that so many of these founding fathers belonged to the Masonic order?” Campbell: “This [Masonry] is a scholarly attempt to reconstruct an order of initiation that would result in spiritual revelation” (emphasis by author). Moyers: “So when these men talked about the eye of God being reason, they were saying that the ground of our being as a society, as a culture, as a people, derives from the fundamental nature of the universe?” Campbell: “That’s what this first pyramid says. This is the pyramid of the world, and this is the pyramid of our society, and they are of the order. This is God’s creation, and this is our society.”
Earlier in the same interview, Campbell states “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without rituals, read the New York Times. . . destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.” Moyers responds, “Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members . . . of the community.” Freemasonry provides ritual and thus a firm foundation for our society as it transmits our values and customs through a succession of ages.
Ultimately, man can adapt himself to anything, but he cannot deal with chaos. Ritual is order and normality. One of the most important assets of Freemasonry is that symbolic ritual which orients our nature on earth by what we do. It reduces chaos and enables us to explain and demonstrate things which cry out for enlightenment. It is the foundation not only of our Craft but also of our very existence.
Steven Lukes. Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study (New York: Penguin, 1977), pp. 471.
Henri Hurbert & Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions , trans. W.D. Hall (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964), pp. 8-9.
Robert Segal. “The Myth-Ritualist Theory of Religion” in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19, No. 2, 1980, pp. 173-185.
Julian. Huxley. “A Discussion on Ritualization of Behavior in Animals and Man” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, series B, 251, 1966, pp. 247-525.
Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942), 26.
Stephen Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication (Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1978), pp. 68-72.
Hugh Duncan, Symbols in Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 60.
Duncan, p. 60.
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geert New York: Basic Books 1973), p. 90.
Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, edited by G.W Kitchin (Philadelphia, Paul Dry Books, 2001), pp. 132-133.
Arthur Melzer, Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Exoteric Writing, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 16.
Reinhart Kossellec, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Oxford, UK: Berg, 1988), p. 62.
Isadore Twersky (ed.), Miishnab Torah, Bkk. 1, in A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1972), p. 47.
Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines, p. 167.
R.W. Dyson (ed.), Augustine: The City of God against the Pagans. (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 960.
Plato, The Laws of Plato, Thomas Pangle (trans.). (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 194.
Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines, p. 190.
Andrew Hammer. Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labor and Observance. (San Francisco, CA: Mindhive Books, 2012), p. 85.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), p. 38.
Campbell, p. 9.