Brother John Amador
(Lodge of the Nine Muses No. 9, Grand Lodge of Louisiana, F. & A. M., Initiated 2010)
Tossed about amid the storms of life and cast adrift in darkness, we fixed our gaze on a beacon of light in the distance and set our course for its source. Weary from striving against the currents of falsehood and ignorance, our travails bring us to the door of the lighthouse of Masonry. Stripped of all pretense, we press onward and meet our own limits. Knocking on the door, we ask admittance to the Light of Truth. Pricked by conscience, our feet are placed upon the path to self-knowledge. Discovering the center of ourselves in God, our faith delivers us from darkness. Initiated to the labors to virtue, we withdraw the veil.1 At the onset of our Masonic travels, we are reminded of the limits of our own finitude. As the proverb goes, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not to thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.”2 Masonry works to bring its craftsmen to the apprehension of the divine truth by teaching in degrees. In each degree, masonry aims to reveal the transcendent using symbolism that seems to point to what is beyond it. This symbolic method is apophatic in nature, since it attempts to describe the ineffable by recognizing what cannot be said about it.
By its very essence, the totality of truth transcends the finite range of human expression. The frequency of miscommunication between people in everyday affairs demonstrates the insufficiency of discourse itself. This miscommunication attests to a dependence on neither discourse nor what is able to be incorporated into discourse. Thus, the normal language of human discourse proves inadequate to circumscribing even the mundane. Human expression itself, being limited by language, necessitates the adoption of a unique methodology of “showing” or leading the mind to the apprehension of the infinite through negation. The infinite cannot be apprehended in any other way.3 Philosophers and theologians have traditionally leaned toward the language of the poetic and the symbolic to point to truth. According to John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth-century theologian, our inability to describe the divine stems from the realization that we “do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” Only by meeting with the resistance of the limits of logic and reason and circumscribing the periphery of perception can the unbounded be discerned.
Negative or apophatic theology aims to understand religious experience and language about the divine through discerning what God is not, rather than what he is. Through this methodology theological revelation has produced representations most efficacious for pointing beyond representation.4 Thomas Carlson, in his book Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God, gives a clear example of negative theology when he writes,
the unsayability of the Names of God, which is enshrined in religious traditions and eminently in the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton (JHWH), a name for the Unnameable, stands for the impossibility of encompassing God’s infinity within any finite structure of human language or consciousness.5
The human state of being itself gives witness to language serving as merely the objective means of pointing to what is beyond verbalization.6
The contemporary apophatic philosopher William Franke wrote an expansive treatise about negative theology and philosophy, and speaks of the limits of understanding the divine in terms of language, experience, logic, and faith. Concerning language, he refers to the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, writing,
to say the whole truth, or anything wholly true, is arguably quite impossible for a finite human being. Nevertheless, precisely this impasse to articulation suggests that there is an indistinct conception of something inconceivably and unsayably ‘whole’ and ‘indivisible’, ‘simple’ and ‘total’, that preempts our always only fragmentary and finite possibilities of stating.7
Concerning experience, Franke writes that, “Human experience, in its unfolding in language and desire, opens—at their limits—into the undelimited and ungraspable.”8 He later refers to the writings of John Milbank, the Anglican Theologian, writing that “what things are is fully disclosed only in the light of Being itself, and there is no true being but God’s.”9 Concerning the limits of logic, he refers to the writings of Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish theologian, writing that “logic applies only to the world of objects and not to...the indefinable, inarticulable dimensions from which the experienceable world emerges and toward which it evolves.”10 Concerning knowledge, he refers to Milbank also, writing that “our knowledge is rather always analogical—situated between the finite phenomena that we know in part and an Infinite that ‘creates’ them but cannot itself as such become directly an object of our knowledge, which is always finite.”11 Franke continues, “True knowledge can be attained only on the basis of theology, which is the ‘science’ of the one true Being from which beings in all domains derive.”12 Concerning faith, he quotes Jean Luc Nancy, the French philosopher: “Faith is belief in what cannot be known or represented but is apprehended rather in the collapse of knowledge and representation. Faith requires holding oneself in the suspense of knowledge and representation.”13
Apophatic discourses testify to there being some dimension of experience that cannot be spoken in words, which points not only to the limits of being human, but also to what may open up beyond these limits.14 According to Franke, the tendency in postmodern apophasis is understanding that “the breaking and shattering of all meanings as that which opens language to intimations of what lies beyond its intimations of what lies beyond its possibilities of saying.”15
Two of the common approaches to apophasis are through language and through being. Franke writes that the two are complementary sides of a common silence.16 He writes when talking about the language of testimony,
Only this language, which negates itself as language, enables the otherwise inaudible silence to resonate and so become perceptible. In this way, language is simultaneously devalorized and absolutized. Its supreme significance reposes in the silence that envelopes and evacuates it.17
Indeed, Franke writes, “only withdrawal from representation and even from possibility of presentation can be allowed to characterize what cannot be said.”18
To find evidence of the apophatic in the symbolic language of Masonry, one need look no further than the system of Masonic education. The Louisiana Monitor repeats one of the most common definitions of Freemasonry: “Freemasonry is a beautiful and profound system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”19 Masonic education is “accomplished by means of a series of moral instructions taught, according to ancient usage, by types, symbols, allegorical figures and lectures.”20 The symbolic alphabet of Freemasonry is comprised of its allegories, archetypes (allegorical figures and officers), emblems (furniture, ornaments, and working tools), floor work, lodge room, moralities, and trestle-boards (or masonic carpets).
In the introduction to his book, Masonic Initiation, W. L. Wilmshurst wrote, “A ‘morality’ is a literary or dramatic way of expressing spiritual truth, putting it forward allegorically and in accordance with certain well-settled principles and methods (mores).”21 Morality, which Freemasonry teaches, is therefore a means of understanding divine truth without direct describing it.
Albert Mackey expands the definition of Freemasonry: “Freemasonry is a science of morality, developed and taught by the ancient method of symbolism.”22 Symbolic instruction was the primary means through which ancient peoples were educated. It was only the advent of writing, a systemized system of symbols itself, in conjunction with the invention of the printing press that brought about its decline. Mackey quotes R. W. Mackay (1803–1882): “The earliest instruments of education were symbols, the most universal symbols of the multitudinously present Deity, being earth or heaven, or some selected object, such as the sun or moon, a tree or stone, familiarly seen in either of them.”23 The lecture in the second section of the E. A. Degree informs the newly-made apprentice that a “symbol is a visible sign of an idea.”24 Mackey later quotes G. S. Faber (1773–1854): “the language of symbolism, being so purely a language of ideas, is, in one respect, more perfect than any ordinary language can be: it possesses the variegated elegance of synonyms without any of the obscurity, which arises from the use of ambiguous terms.”25
The object of instruction in Freemasonry is to draw aside the veil of allegory and to probe beyond it.26 The second section lecture also defines allegory as “a story told to illustrate or convey some truth.”27 Mackey elaborates further: “allegory itself is nothing else but verbal symbolism; it is the symbol of an idea, or of a series of ideas, not presented to the mind in an objective and visible form, but clothed in language, and exhibited in the form of a narrative.”28
Masonry uses the art of memory. The second-section lecture indicates this: “The principles of knowledge are imprinted on the memory by lively and sensible images well calculated to influence...”29 The art of memory is a largely unwritten set of mnemonic principles used to organize ideas in the memory. Freemasonry teaches using catechetical instruction, all of which is committed to memory. The rationale for the memory work is then taught in the lectures. That is, one learns by rote, and then learns by reason.
The Great Light in Masonry is the seat upon which the mystic Ladder rests, and itself a symbol of the eternal Book of the Will of God, which unfolds the beauties of God’s Eternal Truth.30 To see that which is pointed at by the Great Light Lecture we first must look to the symbolism of the theological ladder rooted in the Kabbalah. Rabbi Chayyim Vital writes this about this light:
When the Will [Divine Mind given direction] arose in the Infinite to create the Worlds, the Infinite withdrew a portion of its Light away from a point at its very center, creating an open space, an empty void within which the finite worlds could be created. Into this void was radiated a single beam of Light, a narrow conduit transmitting a limited amount of Light of the Infinite, enabling the finite worlds to receive and contain it. The emanated Light takes the form of the Ten Sefirot (Etz Chayym: The Tree of Life), finite packets of Divine Energy in a linear configuration that kabbalists equate with the biblical ‘Image of God.’31
Genesis 1:27 identifies man as the microcosmic mirror of God: “And God created the man in His own image; in the Image of God He created him. He created them male and female.” The ladder of Freemasonry is constructed of seven steps. The steps beginning at the lowest are the Cardinal Virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance and Justice, which are surmounted by the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.32 Genesis 28:12 gives an account of this ladder: “And he dreamed. And beheld, a Ladder [Jacob’s ladder] was placed on the earth, its top reaching to the heavens. And behold, the angels of God [Thoughts of God manifest] were going up and down on it.” Thus, Jacobs Ladder symbolizes the descent of Divine Mind into matter, of the Infinite toward the finite; and of the ascension of matter towards Divine Mind, of the finite toward the Infinite.
The Great Light Lecture concludes, “Take its [The Great Light’s] Divine Light into your very soul and you will be thereby enabled to mount from the humble estate of your earthly nature to the Glorious heights of God’s eternal Truth.”33 This effectively teaches that it is by Masonic Labor that a Mason engages in the constructing of a spiritual temple in his heart, which is to be made so pure that it might become the dwelling-place of Him who is all purity.34
In the second-section lecture of the Fellow Craft Degree, attention is given to the two pillars. 1 Kings 7:16 describes them: “And he formed the two pillars of bronze; eighteen cubits the height of one pillar, and a line of twelve cubits went around the second pillar. And he made two capitals to put on the tops of the pillars, cast in bronze; five cubits was the height of the one capital, and five cubits was the height of the second capital.” The lecture explains this in a Masonic context:
The Masonic symbolism of these two pillars may be taken as twofold. ...they are symbols of the Strength and Stability of the institution; and...they are symbolic of our dependence on God through all His creations, by which alone Strength and Stability are secured. ... Contemplating these bodies [The Terrestrial and Celestial Spheres comprising the capitals], we are inspired with due reverence for the Deity and His works, and are induced to encourage the studies of Astronomy, Geography, and Navigation, and the arts dependent on them, by which society has been so much benefited.35
The steps of the winding staircase commence at the porch of King Solomon’s Temple. The Temple represents the world purified by the Shekinah (The Divine Presence). Without its sacred walls is the profane world and within them is the initiated world. It is at the threshold of this portal that the candidate having purified himself begins his ascent intellectual education by way of discipline and instruction.36 The lecture continues:
This flight of stairs is a grand philosophical legend, whose rugged steps are symbols of the stages of instruction; and our laborious ascent symbolizes the struggles to reach the summit of knowledge, where alone the craftsman can receive his reward, the Divine Word, the Truth. These principle divisions symbolize the necessary preparation for our life work, indicating the grades or divisions of education; namely, elementary, preparatory, and collegiate.37
Through the toilsome work of discipline and education, the development of all his intellectual faculties, the moral and spiritual elevation of his character is attained.38 The human senses as the windows of perception constitute the sources of our knowledge, and taken together are a symbol of intellectual cultivation. The seven liberal arts and sciences, comprised of the two branches—the trivium, which encompasses the cognitive modes of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium, which encircles those of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. He whose mastery encompassed these seven heads was classically thought to have obtained dominion of the secrets laws of nature and to hold the key to universal knowledge.39 Echoing this idea, Aryeh Kaplan identifies ten steps in approaching the Ruach Ha-Kodesh (The Holy Breath): study, carefulness, diligence, cleanliness, abstention, purity, piety, humility, fear of sin and holiness.40 In a Mason’s state of unfoldment, Wilmshurst identifies three principal degrees of progress: the physical of the sense-body, the desire or emotion that is a result of his physical senses as perceived by the physical mind, and the mentality that forms the link between his physical nature and his spiritual being.41 Each division of the winding staircase thus points to what is beyond itself until the presence of God (the Shekinah of Solomon’s Temple) descends into the Mason’s spiritual temple.
According to Mackey, Divine Truth, the object of all a mason’s labors, is symbolized by the Word, for which he can only obtain a substitute. This substitute teaches that knowledge of God and man’s relation to Him (Divine Truth) can never be acquired in this life. Only through the portals of the grave, by which one enters unto a more perfect life, can this knowledge be attained.42
The third-section lecture of the Master Mason Degree says this: “Observe that the light of a Master Mason is darkness visible—a Substitute Word—serving only to direct that gloom which rests on the prospect of futurity. It is that mysterious veil which human wisdom cannot penetrate, unless assisted by the Light from above.”43
Describing the German idealism of Hegel, Franke writes,
Only what has died can be completely and finally comprehended. Totally realized in the finite, the infinite is no longer an open-ended mystery but is an actually articulable whole, concrete and finite. The unsayable is banished; the real in its entirety is fully uttered and therefore rational.44
Johann Reuchlin also speaks of this in his treatise on the Kabbalah, writing that “by means of symbolism, all earthly things are thrown away, and the stuff of matter is cast off; we strip form from form, until we reach the Primal Form, that is both the Form of All Things and yet without form.”45 Franke writes that “Death and God are both totalizations and singularizations—of a whole individual life on one case and of the unique principle of all reality in the other.”46 He continues later, “Totalization and singularization open up a perspective upon what cannot be given within language but is rather the inexpressible...in which language itself originates.”47 Mackey also writes that
when man shall have passed the gates of life and have yielded to the inexorable fiat of death, he shall then be raised, at the omnific word of the Grand Master of the Universe, from time to eternity; from the tomb of corruption to the chambers of hope; from the darkness of death to the celestial beams of life; and that his disembodied spirit shall be conveyed as near to the holy of holies of the divine presence as humanity can ever approach to Deity.48
Freemasonry can lead a Brother to divine truth. First, he is duly prepared and taught to subdue his passions through the practice of morality, which centers the physical body. He is then taught to still the mind through the discipline of the seven virtues. Finally, he is brought near the limits of human experience by confronting death itself. By assuming the archetype of the Tyrian artificer, one can arrive at the threshold of the divine truth symbolized by the Ineffable Name of God, receiving light into the spiritual temple, which has been built through his Masonic labors.
Franke, William. A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.
Huckaby, G. C. Louisiana Masonic Monitor. Alexandria, Louisiana: Fine Print, 1988.
The Interlinear Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
Kaplan, Aryeh. Meditation and Kabbalah. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
Mackey, Albert S. Mackey’s Symbolism of Freemasonry. Chicago, Illinois: The Masonic History Company, 1945.
Reuchlin, Johann. De Arte Cabalistica (On the Art of the Kabbalah), trans. by Martin and Sarah Goodman. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Vital, Chayyim. The Tree of Life: Chayyim Vital’s Introduction to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria, translated by Donald Wilder Menzi and Zwe Padeh. New York: Arizal Publications, 2008.
Wilmshurst, Walter Leslie. The Masonic Initiation. San Francisco: Plumbstone, 2007.