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Ancient Mystic Rites
(Originally published under the title Glimpses of Masonic History)
By C.W. Leadbeater
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1986 Theosophical Publishing House
All rights reserved.
Schools of Masonic Thought
A HISTORY of Freemasonry would be a colossal undertaking, needing encyclopaedic knowledge and many years of research. I have no pretension to the possession of the qualities and the erudition required for the production of such a work; all I can hope to do is to throw a little light upon some of the dark spots in that history, and to bridge over to some extent some of the more obvious gaps between the sections of it which are already well known.
THE ORIGINS OF MASONRY
The actual origins of Freemasonry, as I have said in a previous book, are lost in the mists of antiquity. Masonic writers of the eighteenth century speculated uncritically upon its history, basing their views upon a literal belief in the history and chronology of the Old Testament, and upon the curious legends of the Craft handed down from operative times in the Old Charges. Thus it was put forward in all seriousness by Dr. Anderson in his first Book of Constitutions that "Adam, our first parent, created after the Image of God, the great Architect of the Universe, must have had the Liberal Sciences, particularly Geometry, written on his Heart," while others, less fanciful, have attributed its origin to Abraham, Moses, or Solomon. Dr. Oliver, writing as late as the first part of the nineteenth century, held that Masonry, as we have it to-day, is the only true relic of the faith of the patriarchs before the flood, while the ancient Mysteries of Egypt and other countries, which so closely resembled it, were but human corruptions of the one primitive and pure tradition.
As scientific and historical knowledge progressed in other fields of research, and especially in the criticism of the Scriptures, scientific methods were gradually applied to the study of Masonry, so that today there exists a vast body of fairly accurate and most interesting information upon the history of the Craft. In consequence of this and other lines of investigation there are four main schools or tendencies of Masonic thought, not in any way necessarily defined or organized as schools, but grouped according to their relation to four important departments of knowledge lying primarily outside the Masonic field. Each has its own characteristic approach towards Freemasonry; each has its own canons of interpretation of Masonic symbols and ceremonies, although it is clear that many modern writers are influenced by more than one school.
THE AUTHENTIC SCHOOL
We may consider first what is sometimes called the Authentic School, which arose in the latter half of the nineteenth century in response to the growth of critical knowledge in other fields. The old traditions of the Craft were minutely examined in the light of authentic records within reach of the historian. An enormous amount of research was undertaken into Lodge minutes, documents of all kinds bearing upon Masonry past and present, records of municipalities and boroughs, legal and judicial enactments; in fact, whatever written records were available were consulted and classified. In this field all Masons are greatly indebted to R. F. Gould, the great Masonic historian; W. J. Hughan; G. W. Speth; David Murray-Lyon, the historian of Scottish Masonry; Dr. Chetwode Crawley, whose work upon the early Irish Craft is in its way a classic; and others of the Inner Circle of the famous Lodge Quattuor Coronati, No. 2076, the fascinating Transactions of which are a precious mine of historical and archaeological lore. Two great names in Germany are J. F. Findel, the historian, and Dr. Wilhelm Begemann, who made the most minute and painstaking researches into the Old Charges of the operative Craft. A vast amount of material which will be of permanent value to students of our Craft has become available through the labours of the scholars of the Authentic School.
This school, however, has limitations which are the outcome of its very method of approach. In a society as secret as Masonry there must be much that has never been written down, but only transmitted orally in the Lodges, so that documents and records are but of partial value. The written records of speculative Masonry hardly antedate the revival in 1717, while the earliest extant minutes of any operative Lodge belong to the year 1598. The tendency of this school, therefore, is quite naturally to derive Masonry from the operative Lodges and Guilds of the Middle Ages, and to suppose that speculative elements were later grafted upon the operative stock—this hypothesis being in no way contradicted by existing records. Bro. R. F. Gould affirms that if we can assume the symbolism (or ceremonial) of Masonry to be older than 1717, there is practically no limit whatever to the age that can be assigned to it; but many other writers look for the origin of our Mysteries no further back than the mediaeval builders.
Amongst this school there is a tendency, also very natural when such a theory of origin is held, to deny the validity of the higher degrees, and to declare, in accordance with the Solemn Act of Union between the two Grand Lodges of the Freemasons of England, in December, 1813, that "pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, viz., those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch." All other degrees and rites are, among the more rigid followers of this school, looked upon as Continental innovations and are accordingly rejected as "spurious" Masonry.
As far as interpretation goes, the authentics have ventured but little further than a moralization upon the symbols and ceremonies of Masonry as an adjunct to Anglican Christianity.
THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL SCHOOL
A second school, still only in process of development, is applying the discoveries of anthropology to a study of Masonic history, with remarkable results. A vast amount of information upon the religious and initiatory customs of many peoples, both ancient and modern, has been gathered by anthropologists; and Masonic students in this field have found many of our signs and symbols, both of the Craft and higher degrees, in the wall-paintings, carvings, sculpture and buildings of the principal races of the world. The Anthropological School, therefore, allows a far greater degree of antiquity to Masonry than the Authentics have ever ventured to do, and traces striking analogies with the ancient Mysteries of many nations, which clearly possessed our symbols and signs, and in all probability ceremonies analogous to those worked in Masonic Lodges to-day.
The Anthropologists do not confine their studies to the past alone, but have investigated the initiatory rites of many existing tribes, both in Africa and Australia, and have found them to possess signs and gestures still in use among Masons. Striking analogies to our Masonic rites have also been found among the inhabitants of India and Syria, interwoven with their religious philosophy in a way which renders entirely impossible the idea that they were copied from European sources. Masonic scholars have by no means exhausted the facts which may be discovered in this most interesting field of research, but even with our present knowledge it is clear that rites analogous to those we call Masonic are among the most ancient on earth, and may be found in some form or other in almost all parts of the world. Our signs exist in Egypt and Mexico, in China and India, in Greece and Rome, upon the temples of Burma and the cathedrals of mediaeval Europe; and there are said to be shrines in Southern India where the same secrets are taught under binding pledges as are communicated to us in the Craft and high grades in modern Europe and America.
Among pioneers in this field we should mention Bro. Albert Churchward, the author of several interesting books on the Egyptian origin of Masonry, although it may be that he is not always quite sufficiently critical; Bro. J. S. M. Ward, the author of Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, Who was Hiram Abiff? and a number of other works, who looks to Syria as the source of Masonry, though he has compiled a mass of valuable information from many other lands; and Mr. Bernard H. Springett, author of Secret Sects of Syria and Lebanon, who has collected much material bearing upon Masonic rites among the Arabs.
To the work of the Anthropological School is due a clear revelation of the immense antiquity and diffusion of what we now call Masonic symbolism. It tends, however, to find the origin of the ancient Mysteries in the initiatory customs of savage tribes which, although admittedly of incalculable antiquity, are often neither dignified nor spiritual. Another important work which has been accomplished by its efforts is the justification of many of the higher degrees to be considered "pure Antient Masonry"; for in spite of the pronouncement of the Grand Lodge of England quoted above, there is just as much evidence for the extreme antiquity of Rose-Croix as of Craft and Arch signs and symbols, and the same may be said of the signs of many other degrees as well. It is quite clear from the researches of anthropologists that, whatever may be the precise links in the chain of descent, we in Masonry are the inheritors of a very ancient tradition, which has for countless ages been associated with the most sacred mysteries of religious worship.
THE MYSTICAL SCHOOL
A third school of Masonic thought, which we may call the Mystical, approaches the mysteries of the Craft from another standpoint altogether, seeing in them a plan of man's spiritual awakening and inner development. Thinkers of this school, on the record of their own spiritual experiences, declare that the degrees of the Order are symbolical of certain states of consciousness which must be awakened in the individual initiate if he aspires to win the treasures of the spirit. They give testimony of another and far higher nature upon the validity of our Masonic rites—a testimony that belongs to religion rather than to science. The goal of the mystic is conscious union with God, and to a Mason of this school the Craft is intended to portray the path to that goal, to offer a map, as it were, to guide the feet of the seeker after God.
Such students are often more interested in interpretation than in historical research. They are not primarily concerned in tracing an exact line of descent from the past, but rather in so living the life indicated by the symbols of the Order that they may attain to the spiritual reality of which those symbols are the shadows. They hold, however, that Masonry is at least akin to the ancient Mysteries, which were intended for precisely the same purpose—that of offering to man a path by which he might find God; and they deplore the fact that the majority of our modern Brn. have so far forgotten the glory of their Masonic heritage that they have allowed the ancient rites to become little more than empty forms. One well-known representative of this school is Bro. A. E. Waite, one of the finest Masonic scholars of the day, and an authority upon the history of the higher degrees. Another is Bro. W. L. Wilmshurst, who has given some beautiful and deeply spiritual interpretations of Masonic symbolism. This school is doing much to spiritualize masculine Masonry, and the deeper reverence for our mysteries that is becoming more and more apparent is without doubt one of the marks of its influence.
THE OCCULT SCHOOL
The fourth school of thought is represented by an evergrowing body of students in the Co-Masonic Order, and is gradually attracting adherents in masculine Masonry also. Since one of its chief and distinctive tenets is the sacramental efficacy of Masonic ceremonial when duly and lawfully performed, we may perhaps not improperly term it the sacramental or occult school. The term occultism has been much misunderstood; it may be defined as the study and knowledge of the hidden side of nature by means of powers which exist in all men, but are still unawakened in the majority—powers which may be aroused and trained in the occult student by means of long and careful discipline and meditation.
The goal of the occultist, no less than that of the mystic, is conscious union with God; but the methods of approach are different. The aim of the occultist is to attain that union by means of knowledge and of will, to train the whole nature, physical, emotional and mental, until it becomes a perfect expression of the divine spirit within, and can be employed as an efficient instrument in the great plan which God has made for the evolution of mankind, which is typified in Masonry by the building of the holy temple. The mystic, on the other hand, rather aspires to ecstatic union with that level of the divine consciousness which his stage of evolution permits him to touch.
The way of the occultist lies through a graded series of steps, a pathway of Initiations conferring successive expansions of consciousness and degrees of sacramental power; that of the mystic is often more individual in character, a "flight of the alone to the Alone," as Plotinus so beautifully expressed it. To the occultist the exact observance of a form is of great importance, and through the use of ceremonial magic he creates a vehicle through which the divine light may be drawn down and spread abroad for the helping of the world, calling to his aid the assistance of Angels, nature-spirits and other inhabitants of the invisible worlds. The method of the mystic, on the other hand, is through prayer and orison; he cares nothing for forms and, though by his union therewith he too is a channel of the divine Life, he seems to me to lose the enormous advantage of the collective effort made by the occultist, which is so greatly strengthened by the help of the higher Beings whose presence he invokes. Both these paths lead to God; to some of us the first will appeal irresistibly, to others the second; it is largely a matter of the Ray to which we belong. The one is more outward-turned in service and sacrifice; the other more inward-turned in contemplation and love.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE OCCULTIST
The student of occultism, therefore, learns to awaken and train for scientific use the powers latent within him, and by their means he is able to see far more of the real meaning of life than the man whose vision is limited by the physical senses. He learns that each man is in essence divine, a veritable spark of God's fire, gradually evolving towards a future of glory and splendour culminating in union with God; that the method of his progress is by successive descents into earthly bodies for the sake of experience, and withdrawals into worlds or planes which are invisible to physical eyes. He finds that this progress is governed by a law of eternal justice, which renders to each man the fruit of that which he sows, joy for good and suffering for evil.
He learns, too, that the world is ruled, under the will of T. M. H., by a Brotherhood of Adepts, who have Themselves attained divine union, but remain on earth to guide humanity; that all the great religions of the world were founded by Them, according to the needs of the races for which they were intended, and that within these religions there have been schools of the Mysteries to offer to those who are ready a swifter path of unfoldment, with greater knowledge and opportunities for service; that this Path is divided into steps and degrees: the probationary Path, or the Lower Mysteries, wherein the candidates are prepared for discipleship, and the Path proper, or the Greater Mysteries, in which are conferred within the Great White Lodge itself five great Initiations, which lead the disciple from the life of earth to the life of adeptship in God, to become "a living name," as it is said, "for the lighting of the world." He is taught that God, both in the universe and in man, shows Himself as a Trinity of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty, and that these Three Aspects are represented in the Great White Lodge in the Persons of its three chief Officers, through whom the mighty power of God descends to men.
Excerpted from Ancient Mystic Rites by C.W. Leadbeater. Copyright © 1986 Theosophical Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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