The Temple of Vision — Spiritual Reflections on the Royal Art of Freemasonry
By Peter Paul Fuchs
“But when you pray, go to your room and shut the door and pray to your
Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
— Matthew 6:6 (English Standard Version)
Having had some success in the field of Masonic scholarship, I feel drawn now to turn to personal reflections on the insights of the Royal Art of Freemasonry. As the Gospel quotation indicates, I see the real spiritual benefits of Freemasonry as centered in its special insights on the hiddenness of true religious depth.
Of course, so much of our daily lives is centered on how we relate publicly in the world. So much so that it is often difficult to disentangle for us what really could be ours, and what is the world’s. I have felt since my own initiation into the Craft that there is something special to be learned from it on these very issues.
There is indeed a very pressing feeling, or perceived need to be public in the world, and it is getting stronger all the time, alas. Also, many of us likely come from a religious culture with long traditions of evangelization, which forms a complex background for this. So much so that there is a sort of internal belief in most people that unless some experience is good for spreading, it is basically of no use at all. In other words, if an experience is not something that you can pin-down to communicate effectively, or at least clearly enough so people can “get it”, then it seems basically bogus somehow.
It is oddly akin to something much simpler, as when most people ask how you are doing today. We all know that hardly anyone is actually interested in how you are doing. The question means something else depending on the situation. I remember, for instance, in my work- setting when people would ask me– how are you doing Peter? — what they really wanted was to be assured that I felt well enough to do a competent job for them; not to really get the fine points of my feeling-world on that day. That was OK with me, because it was work. But still, the crucial aspect to glean from the interaction was that the importance of my interior sense for them consisted mostly in how it could be summarized breezily as a public statement.
Of course the whole set-up of these societal interactions discourages anything that is not easily communicable as public summary. Curiously, these kinds of daily trivialities weirdly seem to increasingly limit the underlying possibility of a more serious spiritual encounter .
It is in this odd breach that there is something very profound, and I’d say spiritually savvy even, about Freemasonry. In that it points to a mode of being that somehow circumvents these very obvious daily aspects of the public need to know, which don’t jibe very well with the true hiddenness of spiritual insight. And it does this with ritual and symbol, of course, on- the -level as always, which means it requires some actual honesty about one’s true interior state.
So instead of just asking how you are doing, it ritually lets you know that if someone really needs to tell you something significant and crucial for your life, they will do so “on the square” or whispered “mouth to ear.” It thus immediately and radically takes the whole thing out of the pressure- zone to always be public in the end.
Personally, I take the deepest value of this as just indicating something useful for daily meditative life, and for a deeper mystical contemplation. Of course it also has to do, more prosaically, with the old rejoinder of Masons to the “profane” world that Freemasonry is really a so-called “secret society” without any real secrets.
But the exquisite part is that spiritually this is related, in telling and instructive fashion, to the conundrum of how Freemasonry is filled with religious themes, and yet is not a religion. The cultural reasons for this are complex, and I have discussed them elsewhere, if one is interested. But the spiritual reasons are lot simpler, as I see it.
We often can learn great spiritual insights from things that are not really religions, yet have elements of religion in a way. Take cooking for example. Cooking is filled with rituals, which people follow “religiously”, and they are called recipes. I dare say many chefs follow these rituals more scrupulously than many religious people follow the ceremonies of their faiths. Yet no one thinks to claim that cooking is a religion.
Rather it is really a form of work, or labor. And work done well is one of the things in life that can teach some of the greatest spiritual lessons. The famous Benedictine phrase “Ora et Labora” really makes this clear. So in this sense the fact that Freemasonry is conceived of as a form of “Labor” is very important to what I am saying. The Craft is again and again “called to Labor”, not just “called to Order, ” as some sort of public parliament would be.
Precisely because Labor is something that can be done with great private, meditative insight, and is thus close to something that is very spiritual, even if it is actually not religious in itself. Because as with the Benedictine “Ora et Labora” the two are, and were in the history of monasticism, quite distinct yet inter-related. Since work and prayer are different, and no one would confuse them in the end, if they were spiritually aware. Even though they can go together so profoundly, if properly understood, that is the point.
Yet obviously Freemasonry is not a something trying to be a form of monasticism, even a light version. Its Labor is a part of a very real-world and ordinary-life sense of people getting along in society, yet conducted with the door closed, “tyled”, in private, or “in secret”.
So this is insistently where it has special insight, for here it is so different from our daily world. The Craft is about a realm where people who believe different things and have different stations in in life — which are all very public in normal existence — can somehow support each other in the potent spiritual reality that those public things don’t really matter in an ultimate sense. It does this simply by having a whole ritual scene that says the most central experience will not be public.
Naturally those public things do have meaning in our daily lives, and no one can negate that. But I would like to assert that the very ritual nature of the Lodge and the traditions of the fraternity all point spiritually to a kind of bedrock feeling that those public contradictions do not matter at all, and somehow have missed the deepest point all along. For only the inexpressible and perforce “secret” sense of it makes this really open for experience. Since it is something inexpressible and incomprehensible from the start, and at the end. There is something radical and shocking about this.
Again, there are complex cultural and historical reasons for all this, and I have sought to explain those notions in open public scholarship, as I have limned them elsewhere. Oddly one of the benefits of being clear in scholarship about such things is in clarifying that the inexpressible and incomprehensible aspect of this is not just some little node of esoteric datum.
It is not something, however profound, which can just be passed surreptitiously; but something like the “Cloud of Unknowing, ” as the famous medieval English Christian mystical treatise puts it. Something which requires some sense that the deepest experience of life is ungraspable. The Craft honors that by the very ritual indications it gives. The curious thing is though, like so much of life, the particulars are rather modest hints of an omnipresent experience potentially. One could easily call it esoteric, in some sense, fraught as that adjective may be sometimes; and certainly was in producing misunderstandings in the history of the Craft.
Unfortunately, those misunderstandings would not get at the hiddenness I am suggesting here at the heart of the Craft’s identity. For in the history of spiritual traditions there is often a kind of “see-saw” between dogmas of that faith, and the mystical realms that somehow surround those dogmas for some, which are, in turn, counterbalanced by dogma again for safety. And such dogmas can be public ones held by great religions, or more idiosyncratic ones held by esoteric clusters. The central thing to grasp though, is that regardless they are constrained spiritually by the “see-saw” needing to pivot between two sides.
Interestingly on this point, I will mention something personal and familial here, only because it seems to go with close directness to this very point. I actually had a family relative named Anselm Stolz (the cousin of my paternal grandfather, d. 1942) who was a Benedictine priest, and who wrote a widely-noted Catholic book called The Doctrine of Spiritual Perfection. It could serve as useful example of this very sort of “see-saw” between mysticism and dogma. In careful terms Anselm Stolz describes spiritual depths therein as being primarily useful and authentic only if they reinforce the confirmable, public theological embrace of familiar dogma, as expressed in public sacramental liturgies.
Well, this sort of thing is touching and profound in ways, as it shows great seriousness about matters spiritual in life. But for many it does not go far enough. For I think the Craft appeals to seekers for whom there is something more than that comforting yet limiting “see-saw” experience. Mind you, at the same time Freemasonry is definitely not a form of New Age blah-ness, which tries to say all religious experiences are the same. The whole form of the Craft says otherwise. We meet on the level as people with differences, not sameness. And let me tell you if you have a Facebook page with lots of Freemasons on it, you will quickly discover how little Masons agree on! No, the Craft is teaching a different, and much more penetrating spiritual lesson by its Labor.
This is also not a lesson that is “beyond religion,” because it is held by people who are quite publicly religious often, and do hold different things explicitly. Rather, it is a lesson that is located at the almost excruciating crux of the whole conundrum of public-ness of life itself, as I outlined before. For how could one ever communicate that a peaceful, inexpressible center exists amidst such public contradictions? Such a sense of reality would be publicly incomprehensible, as a form of mutual exclusion. If it were true, it would require not being all-too-conveniently encouraging of a disengagement from the gnawing contradictions of life and belief, with pat, easy answers of transcendence from difference. By the way, precisely what every single guru or wannabe guru seems to do, and wants to sell you.
O yes, every guru is intimating that they are in touch with some other reality, which is incomprehensible by normal means, and naturally they can help you get there, with a donation. But notice, it is always something “beyond, ” or “prior, ” or “underneath” the contradictions, or some clever mélange of all of the above.
By contrast, a more realistic approach would admit that the normal human mind is itself often filled the fractious daily effluvia of life and thought; and that is not even getting into the possibilities when there is stress or dysfunction.
Yet the typical guru is flogging the idea that the contradictions of individual consciousness, based as they are on personal history, experience, and belief, can be transcended as we become “Consciousness” itself. It is never something that is in the tawdry contradictions themselves.
Here I am using “tawdry” not in an aesthetic sense, but to mean the nagging personal ornateness of each individual person’s sense of themselves in life, which forms a natural limit, and which often can seem a tad odd or overwrought to others. And ironically it is ultimately “tawdry” only because other people’s contradictions seem tawdry and pointless to those who claim not to have the same ones! Yet an honest, on-the- level accounting would reveal a veritable grab-bag of other examples of tawdriness in their own lives. Life is funny and humbling that way.
By contrast, I think what Freemasonry’s hiddenness is pointing to is something that is more embracing of normal life, than these attempts at escape from the tawdry self would promise. In this sense the deepest spiritual essence of Freemasonry is similar to the central insight of Mahayana Buddhism, but in a Western Judaeo-Christian context through and through. That Samsara is Nirvana, and Nirvana is Samsara. If you are thus not utterly in the contradictions of your own life, and those of others, you are far from grasping the incomprehensible in life.
But notice that this reality is very likely not something that could ever be expressed publicly. That is, it could likely never be encapsulated in a gist or a summary, or even an insight that could be spread or transmitted.
Perhaps it does not even make sense to say that it can be “experienced, ” if you mean by that a separable sensation. Something that you can later tell someone: “see, I had this experience,” meant as some indication of something you-yourself have acquired or “realized”. That would merely apotheosize it, while also taking it out of the realm of tawdry contradictions ironically, in which difference in experience itself is the bedrock of reality.
For people always disagree with just about anything proximately, so how much more would they disagree about things ultimate? Thus making it oddly again a sort of mere tawdry difference to be held, in the form of an assertion of transcendence, again ironically. Yet somehow still in spiritual history, despite mystical experience being very personal, somehow it still often becomes about describing some sense of transcendence which later can be made public or shared. For it often has to be related again to the public dogma, as it comes full circle, as it were. By contrast, at the heart of the Craft is something that somehow sought to avoid this spiritual dead -end.
What is spiritually refreshing about Freemasonry’s ethos, is that with its rituals it signals a sense that is it just fine to have an experience which cannot be shared in a public sense. And curiously when we consider the sense in which it can be shared, even within the Craft itself , we approach an even more delightful sense of hiddenness to express the ineffable.
I am referring to here the wonderful concept of the “Lost Word” in Freemasonry. For me this is just the most exquisitely apposite notion in relation to all I have discussed here. For indeed mythically, once upon a time, the Lost Word was something that was very profoundly valuable no doubt; yet somehow it was still “lost,” even though it was crucial. There is already something existentially funny about this, and so human, all too human. And of course, in the mythic present, it is to be communicated in the most ritually secret of ways in the Craft.
Yet what is communicated is not the actual lost word, but a substitute! Indeed, the word substituted sounds like an intentional crossing of a high-flown philosophical term and something that the cat dragged -in. This is spiritually wonderful and merciful, given that the daily life of human consciousness is often, honestly, at such cross- purposes, it seems.
For the poignant reality of those contradictions we mentioned, in relation to what- cannot- be -expressed, is something that is always a failure, in a sense. It is always at best a tattered replacement, in the “rag and bone shop of the heart, ” as Yeats so piteously put it. It is always “lost”, just as in dreams, when you can’t quite find things or make things right.
One thinks of psychological theorists and literary critics who have pointed out that the expressed human Unconscious always seems to have some element of the unfinished or mistaken. And this is the stuff of dark comedies and comic absurdities where things don’t quite add up, or of dreams at cross- purposes. Yet one senses that it is far more than just a psychological peculiarity of our species. It speaks rather to the nature of reality itself.
Here the Lost Word in Freemasonry , which in essence stands for all we can ever discursively explain of our experience with the ineffable and incomprehensible, is always mystically artificial, by being a partial answer, a stand-in replacement . Even if we want to be at our most authentic, somewhat ironically, we fail. Just as individual human lives are always, in a sense, failures held against many transcendent ideals we might maintain, in the world with its religious demands and ideals. Calling forth, if we are honest, the great need we all have for love and acceptance by those who love us.
For that sense of failure can blinker the real insight of life, and often does it seems. Here Freemasonry is at its most spiritually profound, for by its very curious framework of ritual and symbol it gestures profoundly, gently, yet even humorously to a solution of this maddening conundrum of human consciousness. It has nothing to give in terms of dogma, and yet by its act of knowing-symbolic- substituting , it hints at something mystically transformative.
If this suggests a somewhat mystically agonistic take on the spiritual life, it is certainly meant to. Because, don’t forget, we are talking about “Labor” here with Freemasonry. I think it also suggests a great peace and contentment, but in a very realist and honestly mundane way.
Going back to the Heraclitean notions of Greek Culture, reality has often been seen as primarily “in flux”. And such things have entertained and obsessed philosophers down through the ages, and inspired Christian divines to mollify and to correct them with the New Covenant, and the Augustinian desire to rest our restless hearts in something beyond the flux. Look, I am not suggesting some new grand theory here to resolve all these matters, because I don’t think Freemasonry works on that level ultimately. But I do say that the quirky, and sometimes funny Masonic notions like the Lost Word, if meditated upon, and experienced as they may be in actual Masonic rituals, can be an inspiration to a personal way forward in relation to it all.
By being forthright about the mystically agonistic nature of this I think we close the door on potential charges of cryptic Gnosticism as a necessary part of this. For there is no recondite knowledge being passed here in the end. Rather it is just a symbolic pointing to the unknowable and inexpressible. Thus, there is nothing in what I am suggesting, to my mind, which would preclude a quite orthodox Christian from experiencing the same thing, since no new plateau of dogma is being put forth. Only that this existentially and spiritually agonistic sense of substituting is crucial to some real resolution. The touching Christian phrase “O Felix Culpa” would seem to invite such a search.
Whatever the case, the spiritual gist and accent here is that it takes some work. And by that I mean personal work, on yourself. Of course, here Masonry is double-ready with a very apt dual symbol in the Rough and Perfect Ashlars. Notice how the whole ethos of Masonry’s symbols is about reminding you that a certain amount of effort, and even effortfulness per se, is fine in a spiritual sense. Contrast this all to the blasé and blah New Age notions, with their watered-down and mangled Buddhistic metaphysics and bastardized takes on Western Hermetic tropes, a “magical thinking” of the all-too-convenient and self-helpy sort. They always tell you will reach some easy plateau, or it will just happen as if by easy accident. Please spare me. The most profound philosophers and mystics have long understood that even if we are alone, in secret, we are still engaged with the world and its flux. This is the heart of morality maturely understood, which also keeps us at a safe distance from scrupulosity.
When Freemasonry encourages us to “work the rough stone” of our lives it is not something apart from the rest of all we have discussed here. We are working our rough natures not just to be good men, or women, in society to make a public show of our worthiness. We are working that rough stone because that is the state you must be poised in — that of working on yourself morally, unceasingly– to find real peace. This is not because you are going to ever complete the project. The presence of the Perfect Ashlar does not do away with the presence of the Rough Ashlar. They are there both as dual symbol.
For as we said, there is a delightful, and existentially disarming, mysterious sense in the central notion of the Lost Word, which suggests something different: we will always be a failure, or a fake. That is because we are always partial, always skewed by our very natures, and can only manage a substitute summary for the whole, which we always know is not quite right or complete.
The point is not to curse the essential inadequacy, but to see that the “salvation”, the resolution is in the reality that cannot be expressed publicly, and cannot be shared. Though the love and good feeling it engenders can and should be shared. Freemasonry enshrines this mystical depth in its whole ritual framework.
It is so brilliant in a sense that one is tempted to think that those who had a hand in creating it must have been geniuses. Some may have been, who knows? But the more likely answer, to me, is that it is an evolution in human spiritual awareness that developed because of very real, and sometimes dangerous impasses in human moral and spiritual life, causing war and mayhem by sectarian strife. A lot in Freemasonry’s cultural history suggests it, and I have tried to contribute to that understanding in my scholarly work. Here I would like mention, only because I think it goes directly to this very issue, my work published by the Philalethes Society that shows that Freemasonry served a crucial “midwife” role to in the development of Religious Freedom itself in the West.
This “midwife” role goes to the core of this secret, inexpressible sense I have discussed spiritually herein, since that hidden role is what allowed for it. A sense that helped literally save the West, and yes heal the world, from the endless religious wars and insanity.
For the need to be public, or spread your views, not only blinkers many insights of true interiority. It has also caused damaging violence for world peace. For while there is real evil in the world, no doubt, there have also been a lot of accusations of “sin” for what is mere difference.
And it is lamentably still going on in many religions. Still, I really have no desire here to argue with the regnant evangelistic notions of Western Culture. They have produced some very good things, and inspired lots of art and music I love personally very much.
Let’s just say that they leave many with something else that is needed, if I can put it obliquely to maintain respect. Yet on a worse level, the public-ness of this all has mixed with technology in the contemporary world, to have produced an almost totalitarian world of public demands on privacy itself, and existential nonsense that threatens even the possibility of an interior life for many. One can hardly lay the blame for that at the feet of the evangelistic spirit however, even if somewhat unintentionally it has played a huge role in its damnable occurrence.
Yet Freemasonry’s spiritual insights are not just conservative in relation to all these matters. That would be putting a ridiculous political spin on the whole matter, and inadequate as an explanation. Rather, Freemasonry’s insights are radical in enshrining a sense of non-public gist about the inexpressible.
And for me the “cherry” on this lovely mystical cake is that in the midst of all these deadly serious matters I have outlined, Freemasonry’s resolution is, well, again and again kind of funny or humorous. I find this a great relief spiritually. For we are dealing with, in a sense, the most serious matters in all of personal existence. And yet the Craft’s insights are to be found within its admittedly sometimes symbolically clunky and playfully garbled take on religious ideation and symbol.
Many have looked at Freemasonry’s fanciful take on Jewish and Christian symbols and notions, and seen only a bizarre word-salad. And, really, who could deny it in a strict sense textually? But, there is so much more there. What is more, is precisely the symbolic space it carves out, and suggests in our lives by humor and ultra-serious hinting: that the greatest resolution in our lives will not be something we can fling into the public world with bright colors, and use as proof that our lives make sense. The whole ethos of the Craft says otherwise. And it quietly and gently teaches that this is fine.
Masonry’s own history is hardly apart from the inherent failures we mentioned, perhaps poignantly. Yet it still has the ability to suggest powerfully that our “salvation” is not dependent on being only a perfected smooth stone. Just as the Craft is not inherently dependent on having the smoothest history to still have a useful meaning. For the rough side in life, symbolically and existentially, never disappears entirely. Even if to have any spiritual insight at all, we must constantly be poised to work, ceaselessly, towards the Perfect Ashlar. While we never quite complete the work.
For what kind of infinite peace would that be, which does not encompass the very Labor that we arealways as human beings– always lost and always giving a partial answer. Yet, still earnest while being necessarily artificial in some sense by dint of being incomplete. And again, it also shows the importance of being appreciative of the love and good-feeling we encounter in life, even if not perfect.
Still, if I imagine what some very religiously orthodox reader might think on reading this, I can well imagine a quizzical response. I would like to face this head on. It goes right to a whole zone of frankly unresolved issues historically in the Craft, and of course in the history of the spiritual traditions themselves, which they often are not eager to admit. Namely, how it is that a realm like Freemasonry has long had many conservative religious figures within it who somehow embrace a field with such acceptance of religious diversity? And how this contrasts with the remaining intolerances, which religions publicly maintain in the world, which quash their own spiritual potential.
Having looked quite a lot at the cultural history of the Craft I can summarize how such people have dealt with this all by simply saying the following: they just sort of existentially swept it “under the rug”, so to speak. However, rather than meditate on that curious tactic, I would like to press on with the spiritual thread here. For I think the way forward it offers is of greater import than the cultural history, interesting as that is.
The deepest contribution the Craft has to this fraught field is as the Royal Art itself. And as so often in life, it takes some art to bridge the gaps in the geography that we have to traverse spiritually, where map and territory become mixed and perhaps confused. All made precarious by being artificial ontologically by the nature of finitude itself, to get explicitly philosophical for the moment. For it all happens in a field where, as we have described, the symbol of the Lost Word hints that every resolution to that loss will be a substitute, or partial response made ultimately artificial or ersatz by being incomplete.
This freedom to dexterously bridge these gaps is something that the Craft may have symbolically borrowed from the actual sense of Royal prerogative in morality that Kings and Queens have always maintained throughout history. Simply put, the King or Queen, or Royalty generally, was seldom held to the same moral code as commoners.
The suggestion here is hardly that they borrowed a sense of being libertines, of course not, quite the opposite. Rather that the symbolic meaning of that freedom in the Royal Art was taken to hint at a freedom in the realm of public dogma, and the consequent mystical opening it allows to finally grasp the nature of the inexpressible itself, interiorly not publicly.
It is difficult to assess such things in our time because privacy itself, or the very space for interiority, is so challenged that privacy per se is now seen as the shadow cast by our public selves. When of course the opposite is true– our public selves are really only a shadowy outline of our deepest natures, which can never be truly displayed to the world. Especially not seen in the carny “Funhouse of Mirrors” that makes up our public world today. (Or perhaps one could call it better a bedraggled and bathetic carny “Haunted House,” promising dark thrill but giving only disappointment.)
If this were not the case I think it would be easier to grasp that the original artistic sense of the Royal Art, which involves a deeper and elegant sense of artifice. So it never could be the same as the silly need for distraction from our ultimate selves that the public world desperately and addictively craves in our times.
For the true recognition of our incompleteness, and how that does not have to blinker our grasp of the inexpressible, is not anything like the void produced by the silly present- public world.
In other words, to grasp the spiritual loss suggested by the Lost Word is nothing like the flippant loss that is felt because nothing is serious ever in the public world writ large, as it seems these days.
By contrast, the deeper spiritual loss is a gentle dawning that our mystical present is always one of tender inadequacy, and is thus never something ready for a garish public show. Yet this inadequacy, this loss, does not separate us from what we are, eternally, since all of it –yes, even the loss itself —is our very selves. For again, what kind of ultimate infinity would it be that is blinkered or stopped by something so humble as the little collections of oddities that each of us is ?
Thus, in sum, the deepest meaning of Freemasonry’s Temple and the rituals therein is as the spiritual space for such inexpressibly gentle contradictions, which are so hard to grasp in a culture with religious traditions of public evangelization, and the now manic need for public show. Yet if we aren’t put- off by our own inadequacy, why would we put -off ultimately by the details of our own religious backgrounds, evangelistic or whatever they are?
But the point is, many are put off. This may mysteriously explain why so many seek religious sustenance in exotic and foreign religious systems, of Asia or elsewhere. It is as if the inherent sense of incompletion is easier to navigate in a system relieved — at least for the time being it is hoped!– of the pressing and odd particularities of dogged religious accretions of our own culture. But, as so often, the more you flee yourself, the more yourself reasserts itself, with the hounds of heaven behind perhaps.
So, in a charming and quirky way Freemasonry effectively circumvents the addiction to the exotic, while enigmatically embracing the exotic at least as possibility in spiritual tolerance. For it hugs the very tradition many have been raised- in, while ritually creating an unexpected space therein for healing of difference.
This Royal Art uniquely assists the healing of a familiar and nagging wound that could never be healed with exotic salves, no matter how lovely the incensed scent, or mysterious the far- off perfection of blissful, but ultimately theatrical, recovery they offer.
It is in this sense, I feel, that Freemasonry has much to teach the larger world in spiritual matters. Though its unique deposit of rituals and symbols might be mostly of interest to Masons themselves, there is a greater possibility. When the underlying mystical sense of them is encountered as the inexpressible itself, rather than as mere esoteric or outré datum, it teaches a lesson more universal than its offbeat and idiomatic symbolic constellation may have suggested in spiritual history.