Thursday, October 9, 2014

Esoteric Freemasonry, Research, and Playing in the Water

Freemasonry has always been associated with esotercism. The 18th century expansion of Freemasonry demonstrated the continued the interest that earlier Freemasons had in spiritual studies, including hermetic principles and alchemy, and developed it further, adding the newer Rosicrucian elements that had begun to become popular in the previous century. This aspect of Masonic practice continued despite the resistance of first the Christian hierarchies, and in the 19th century of a growing faction within the Masonic institutional establishment to homogenize and manipulate Freemasonry to advance their desire for numeric growth and political control within the institution. Such forces, which are still present in what remains of the “Masonic empire” of the later 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, which is sometimes euphemistically referred to as a golden age for the fraternity, deemed that they needed to eliminate or minimize within the institution elements that might not be comfortable for a membership that was demographically more mainstream and popularist. 18th Century Freemasonry appealed too much to intellectuals and those in search of a more profound spiritual vision, and while it became obvious both that such interest could not be completely eliminated, and that erasing the mystery within Freemasonry, with nothing similarly compelling to replace it would be a fatal mistake, they tried their best. The fact that the 19th century produced Masonic writer with strong esoteric  interests such as Albert Pike, W.L. Wilmhurst, A.E. Waite, and William Wynn Westcott, amply demonstrates that the rug could not be pulled out from Freemasonry's earlier esoteric focii. Sanitized revisionist histories were not compelling enough to erase the memory of those “secrets” hidden in plain view.

It may be possible to argue that those efforts contributed to Freemasonry's current dilemma. The institutional leadership travelled the same path over the last two centuries that the mainstream denominations of Christianity have, that of an increasingly desacrilized approach to the sacred. The institutional leadership, as with those at the top of most complex hierarchies, don't appear to have their fingers on the pulse of the rank and file. If we conclude, as is at least possible, that the older generation of Freemasons agree with the model we have just described, since the 1960s, the fraternity has been unable to find an approach which would stem the attrition, and attract new initiates. I suspect that failure is more do to an unwillingness to give up the by now old, albeit not the original model, than due to the disinterest of potential new blood. Such a conclusion is in keeping with the decision of the UGLE recently to declare in its mission statement for the 21st century that Freemasonry is nothing more than a Gentleman's social club. 
The problem in a nutshell is this; society has changed radically since the 1960s. The great unwashed masses no longer are interested in joining clubs. Mainstream religion is suffering from the same decline in membership that afflicts Freemasonry. There's a link between those sets of statistics. It is no accident that mainstream religions which have desacrilized the sacred are in decline, while those which are growing are those that offer a strong connection to divinity. The religious fields which have grown since the 1960s on the right have been evangelical Christian sects, and among those with more intellectual tastes turn to Eastern, African and a variety of new religions, including those newly coined religions based upon European paganism and myth. In among those has been a steady stream of new students for the various streams of Western Esoteric traditions. Today, the lion's share of these a represented by late Victorian revivals, such as the Golden Dawn, and Crowley's OTO. 

Elsewhere I have, as have others, offered my views as to what Masonry's future could look like. My only comment concerning that today is that it is predicated upon institutional Freemasonry acquiring a radical dose of visionary inspiration. If I were a betting man, I would be fairly pessimistic. I'm neither, though. While that's allowed me to avoid years of costly therapy, I've been wrong more than once in my life.

What I'm interested in discussing here is the subject of remnants of esoteric teachings and practices in Freemasonry, but with a twist.

Many have offered their views on the influence of Hermeticism, Egyptian Religion, and those which apparently have fallen out of favor since the late 19th century, Mithraism and the Culdee of Gaelic speaking societies. While they will no doubt be the subject of future entries, with the possible excepton of a cameo appearance by Gaelic monks, these subjects are not the topic of this blog entry.

In recent years, scholars have begun examining subjects that previously have not been considered, for a variety of reasons. One of those subjects is Freemasonry, and scolars, not limited by the narrowest of guidelines, those which makes many of even current Masonic historians less than successful in producing historical documentation on a par with modern academic research, have come up with some unexpected sources. Information gleaned from the confluence of modern science with more traditional disciplines uncovered that the plant acacia, so central to Masonic teaching, possesses halluconogenic properties which opens a wide range of speculative possibilities. While such knowledge appears unknown among speculative Freemasons, it is quite possible that in earlier times, before our modern neurosis concerning altered states of consciousness, this information had practical applications.

While comparison has frequently been used sometimes to excess in earlier Masonic historiography, caparative cultural analysis today looks more deeply than at mere surface similarities. Comparative methodology may look at social spaces, issues of cultural processies and the role of social institutions in relation to subaltern communities. 

One such examination, by Hugh B. Urban, in Numen (Vol. 44, Jan. 1997) compares two of the world's most sophisticated esoteric traditions - the Srividya school of South Indian Tantra, the school associated with the 18th century south Indian Brahman, Bhaskararaya, and the Rectified Scottish Rite of French Freemasonry founded in Lyons in the 1770s.  As he points out, his selection of these two esoteric schools was due in part at least, to the (relatively) extensive reliable primary and secondary documentation on both of them.  Although, there may be no direct connections between these two esoteric schools of study, Urban suggests that they utilized a very similar strategy of creating social space within their respective organizations. On the one hand, Tantra, which admitted both men and women, with no regard to gender or caste, and at least while within their ritual activities, they were all viewed as egalitarian, and on the other, 18th century speculative lodges which incorporated magical and occult symbolism from Kabbalah, Hermeticism, Templar lore, alchemy and Rosicrucianism.  Rather interestingly, Urban argues that esotericism, which many consider to be counter-cultural and subversive is actually quite frequently an elitist phenomenon,

“the province of highly educated, affluent and powerful intellectuals, who do not wish to overthrow the existing religious and political structures but rather, either to reinforce or else to bend and reshape them to suit their own private interests.”

This of course, describes 18th century Freemasonry closely, but also provides a clear explanation for the  increased distancing of Freemasonry from esoteric ideologies as it became less elite and welcomed a broader range of social classes. It may similarly offer a rationale for the resistance of modern Freemasonry now to innovation, which had previously been its hallmark. While work such as that of Urban focuses on the function of Freemasonry as an institution, and the social relations and impact that the institution had, the work of some other scholars choose to look at practices within Freemasonry and its ritual forms. 

Alan Nowell, has written in Archaeology Ireland (Vol. 24, No. 1 2010) concerning the origins and distribution of a particular dance which he documents through early illustrations in early Irish monastic art, and up to modern times in public media and interestingly, in the survivals of Morris dancing, tying folk custom with ritual tradition. When considering Masonic origins and history, perhaps the first thing to remember is that in spite of attempts to deny connections between Freemasonry and various esoteric traditions, including the Culdees, Cabbala, Mythraism, Hermeticism, Alchemy, the Egyptian mysteries, and even the Templars we have to acknowledge that at least some of these connections are legitimate. The literal and narrow perspective which took hold among Masons who sought to write Masonic history, and epitomized by the Quartro Coronati, while attempting, perhaps sincerely, to counteract what was seen as ungrounded speculation went far beyond what was needed. It also served as a tool to discredit voices, views, and histories that the leadership wished to supress. 

This same literal approach fails to consider that human institutions rarely exist as a dynastic lineage of unbroken inheritance. Nor is it necessary to discover, in the absence of that dynastic inheritance, a book that reveals all the secrets to the reader. That is the stuff of storytellers, and reiterated in our day through Hollywood, the modern version of the storyteller sitting by the fire. We are dealing with esoteric approaches to understanding, and that most esoteric of them all – the passage of ideas and ideals across time. Humans create a receptacle, a vessel within which to manifest systems of understanding, and when the old instution has been eradicated, due to shifting power bases, conquest, or simply the passing of time and the evolution of human societies, cultures, and languages, ideas and human knowledge systems, especially esoteric systems of understanding have a way of sprouting anew, like the seed left from a piece of fruit eaten last summer. 

Freemasonry is one of those vessels, and it is the survival of the old mystery schools, of the Egyptian mystery traditions, and even of Templarism, not because the secret was held and passed down in some literal fashion, but rather because, when the need for these ideas in the human imagination arose, and with it the opportunity, the old traditions sprouted anew. They didn't sprout out of thin air, though. The Renaissance uncovered what materials survived and ultimately this gave rise to what we call the Enlightenment, and in the midst of that, Freemasonry was found to be a convenient space within which to incubate the new child of the old aeon.

However esoteric the ideas and philosophies with which 18th century Freemasons were dabbling, this process I am mentioning is not a chimera. There is plenty of documentation that such investigation was going on in lodges of every description, and if the French were at the forefront, their brethren in insular Europe were no strangers to such speculation.

If you find a keyhole in a door and look through it, you will not see nearly as much as you do when you simply open the door and walk through it to the other side. Since the late 1800s, Masonic historians have spent endless hours staring with trepidation through a little hole. Scholars recently have found the keychain and have opened the door. Being scholars, they have begun to research, which is the word used in academia for play. Whether a particular theory or avenue of research bears fruit or not, such examples suggest that there are many secrets in the history of Freemasonry that have yet to be discovered, even by Freemasons. 
All I wish to do is poke my head back through the door to say that the sun is out, the beach is just outside the door and the water is fine. Come play.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again

Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation is a Scottish folk song whose lyrics are taken from a Robert Burns poem of of the same name, dated 1791. It condemns those members of the Parliament of Scotland who signed the Act of Union with England in 1707, contrasting their treachery toward the nation with the tradition of martial valor and resistance commonly associated with national heroes such as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. It has continued to be associated with Scottish nationalism.

Burns’s spirited denunciation of the rogues who sold Scotland for English gold refers to the Scottish commissioners who voted for the immoral Act of Union of 1707, some of whom were bribed.  It should be remembered that Burns was one of Scotland's most famous and celebrated Freemason.

The melody and lyrics were published in volume 1 ofJames Hogg's Jacobite Reliques of 1819 (no. 36).

Fareweel to a' our  Scottish fame
Fareweel our ancient glory
Fareweel e'en to our  Scottish name
Sae fam'd in martial story
Now Sark rins o'er the Solway sands
And Tweed rins tae the Ocean.
To mark where England's province stands
Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation.

What  force or guile could  not  subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward  few
For hireling traitors wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour's station.
But English gold has been our bane
Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation.

I would, ere I had seen the day
When treason thus could sell us
My auld grey head had lain in clay
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace
But pith and power ‘till my last hour
I’ll mak' this declaration.
We were bought and sold for English gold
Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Ghosts of Freemasonry: Haunted Lodges

As with many other aspects of life, the belief in spirits, and by extension, ghostly haunting, is subjective and highly personal. Two common popular responses attempt to establish the idea of spirit contact as either a frivolous idea suitable for entertainment, or gullible naïveté. For most, the search for understanding ceases there. For many who have been habituated to skepticism or disbelief, it's nonsense. For many who do believe, it's a matter of faith alone. There is another group of course, who straddle the world of the organic or natural view of the world, and the materialism that has so infested cartesian science.

As a trained folklorist (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 2005) who spent a large part of my graduate career examining belief studies, I learnt early on that despite the public discourse which attempts to dismiss belief in disincarnate intelligence as superstition and a part of our past as a species, even in the United States according to various polls, more than half of the population believes in life after death, and a significant minority, nearly half, believe that ghosts or spirits can have contact with the living. Many also maintain that they, or members of their families, or friends, have had such contact. 

Wherever you may stand on the issue, in the absence of measurable proof, science, according to its own precepts, cannot offer an opinion on the matter. This is despite the claims made by materialists with axes to grind on the subject. Lack of evidence does not equate to a determination that something does not exist; it merely indicates that science has not been able to provide evidence. Further, despite science's presumption that all things will eventually be uncovered or measured, there's no proof to support that belief. 

None of that is a claim that ghosts or spirits do exist, or that we can have contact with them. Vast amounts of anecdotal accounts exist, and you can collect many from your own friends and relatives when you approach the matter in a way that puts them at ease. People who tend to deny having certain beliefs or experiences when they feel they may be subject to ridicule are often quite forthcoming when they feel they have a sympathetic ear. 

I cannot state to a material scientist's satisfaction that spiritual entities exist, and I am not interested in convincing other individuals to believe any particular perspective. This is one of those things we need to decide for ourselves, and if we are intelligent - or perhaps rather confident, we will not need to try to change other people's minds. The only reason anyone tries to convert another, whether in religion or in opinion, is due to insecurity. 

What I will note is that those who believe in the reality of spiritual entities or ghosts often do so as a result of the rational conclusions they draw from other beliefs they hold, but those who are certain of their existence do so as a result of personal experiences - either their own or those of people whose judgements they trust. More often it is from personal experience. There's an amazing amount of personal experience out there, as anyone who has studied the subject can attest.

All of this rambling commentary serves as an introduction to a fascinating subject - the haunting of Masonic lodges. You may approach this as a fascinating peek at paranormal science or as a piece of entertaining fluff. If you enjoy the entry, I frankly don't mind which view you entertain.  For a long time, it was taboo among academics in the social sciences to admit that they accepted spiritual realities as, well, reality. With the discussion of personal metaphysical experiences in the course of cultural research by no less a figure in Anthropology than Edith Turner, and the subsequent founding of the anthropology of experience, this should no longer be an issue. Scholars have written about their personal experience of phenomenon such as possession without putting their credentials at risk. I am no exception. However, it remains, until such time as the obsessive cartesians can figure out how to materially quantify an essentially immaterial phenomenon (they never stop trying except when they want to deny it's possible), a matter of personal belief. I leave that to each of you to decide. 

In the meantime, I wish to offer a sampling of reports in the media and online concerning haunted Masonic lodges. This is by no means a scientific study. I have done no academic study of the subject, nor should my mention of any one of these stories or sites be taken to infer a viewpoint about their authenticity, nor approval of whatever techniques or approach used by any individuals in any of these cases.  In fact, the majority of references we find online, after weeding out announcements of "Masonic Haunted Houses" being organized for Hallowe'en, fall into three general categories. The first is reports concerning "hauntings" including in the majority variations of the traditional "ghost story." The second category is one which is on the rise. These consist of reports relating to "ghost hunters" who purport to use electronic equipment and recording devices - sound, video, and still cameras, to document and "prove" hauntings. These have mushroomed after the genre became popular on cable television. The third and by far the least common are performances of or in haunted Masonic lodges. Some are dramatic, some are staged by entertainers and stage magicians. 

It would appear that the "Haunted Masonic Lodge" is itself something of a trope, a literary or rhetorical device or figurative scheme of thought which may be constitutive of our experience. The idea of a haunted Masonic lodge seems to be a coming together of a number of standardly held stereotypes. Masons are mysterious and secretive; Masons delve into the metaphysical; Masons are dangerous; and of course, large old buildings, especially deserted ones, are subject to hauntings.

So, as you might have expected, or been hoping, if you've read this far, you will now be treated to some brief reports of ghostly encounters in haunted Masonic lodges. 

We start with Boston's abandoned Masonic Hall. Of this site, we find that the old temple was recently bought by photographer Liam Carleton, 36, who told the UK's Daily Mail that ‘We've heard things and seen a few things, there have been a few cases of footsteps running around the building. There's also been a female form shown up in the hallway, that's only happened twice in the time I've been here and on both occasions it was during sunset.’ Mr Carleton, who is currently renovating the building, has been told he should try and do something about the hauntings, although he doesn't agree. ‘If it isn't trying to hurt me, I won't mess with it, I'll just let it be.’ 

The old Davenport Lodge No. 37, in Davenport, Iowa, was donated in 1996 to Palmer College. It now houses a museum and lecture halls. Many types of haunting phenomenon at all hours of the day have been reported by the college's security staff. These involve moving objects, items winding up in odd places, furniture rearrangement, foot steps, weird moving lights, the aroma of cigars, cold spots, cool breezes not coming from the air conditioning or natural wind source, odd noises, disembodied voices in discussion, or the calling out of names, individuals being touched by an unseen presence, having the feeling of being watched, and actual visual sightings of apparitions. It is claimed that security cameras have provided clear evidence of an entity or entities unknown, still enjoying their good times as Masons.

It appears that Detroit's awesome Masonic Temple, said to be the largest in the world, is haunted by more than economic woes. Built in 1912 by George D. Mason, the Detroit Masonic Temple has over 1,000 rooms, several secret staircases, concealed passages, and hidden compartments in the floors. Br. Mason went slightly overboard when financing the construction of
the building, and eventually went bankrupt, resulting in his wife leaving him. Overwhelmingly depressed about his financial and personal circumstances, Mason jumped to his death from the roof of the temple. Security guards claim to see his ghost to this day, ascending the steps to the roof. The temple, abundant with cold spots, inexplicable shadows, and slamming doors, is known to intimidate visitors with the eerie feeling of being watched. The financial woes associated with this building have remained with it and continue to haunt the Masons of Detroit much like the man who built it does.

Over the years, Lodge members and visitors alike have reported many strange and ghostly happenings at the Morrison Lodge in Elizabethtown, Ky., including apparitions of what appear to be Civil War era soldiers; door alarms that ring even when no one leaves or enters the building; phantom footsteps; objects that move around on their own; strange knocking sounds; ghostly figures; and even helpful ghosts (possibly former Lodge members) who once saved a Lodge member from unconsciousness when he fell ill and passed out while alone in the building. Past investigations in the building have collected photos, EVPs and first­ hand accounts of the hauntings. The Masons in Elizabethtown at least from time to time offer ghostly tours as well.

Lastly, although I have no details of the purported ghostly activity at this lodge, we have to make mention of this lodge in the Indianapolis area. The reason? It is named Irvington Lodge, No. 666.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rough Ashlar No. 17: The Brave New World of Freemasonry

Recently, an exchange I had with a couple of brothers has given me pause to contemplate the difference between critique and hostility.

Having spent a large part of my adult life in close proximity to academia, I have come to take it for granted that adults will have developed an appreciation for critical thinking. It doesn't naturally occur to me that being critical of any aspect of the world would be construed as being inherently hostile toward it.

Since Freemasons are, at least by me, assumed to be involved on some level with self-examination as a means to self-improvement if not self-perfection, I have always assumed that they of all people would appreciate this. Animosity, even toward those with whom I disagree, has never been a part of my critique whether public or private.

It appears that at least in the case of some, I have been mistaken. For that, I am sorry, but I am more bemused. I will never likely change in this regard. I believe criticism of what we perceive as wrong, when combined with critical judgement, represents a valid means of communicating with others. I certainly will not retract those criticisms I have made concerning the flaws I see in the human institution of Freemasonry, whether they represent institutional flaws or errors in attitudes among individual members of our fraternity.

Since it is possible, even probable, that some Freemasons will view me as hostile to what is commonly referred to in North America as "mainstream" Freemasonry, allow me to assert that nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that I am a Liberal Freemason. Just as I understand that all religions hold kernels of universal truth, but not all the truth, so it is with Freemasonry.

My only hope is that we can increase communication and learn that working on ourselves and our institutions is in the greater good. I believe in Universal Freemasonry, regardless of the artificial and political boundaries we have created within our institutions. Believe it or not, we are all in this together.

I do not have delusions concerning the potential impact of my observations. I hope that in some small ways my efforts will open a few minds and instigate a little more communication. It's a big hope for a modest impact.  I hope this will serve as an olive branch for those who have misconstrued my intentions. For the rest, let it be a branch of acacia. Mainstream Freemasonry does not need to listen to my critiques. It would be wise however, to engage in more self-critique and introspection, not because I think it should, but because doing so will help it respond to change and strengthen.

After all of the above, I have come to my point, finally.

Freemasonry has, admittedly without intending to, entered a brave new world. It was inevitable. The internet was created and like it or not, it has changed the entire world. It is also changing Freemasonry. No, I do not envision a Freemasonry which exists only online. Nor do I think that the traditional structures of Freemasonry will morph into something radically different, although they are likely to diversify.

What I do know is that thanks to the internet, the cat is out of the bag. We have entered a world where the Masonic powers no longer control access to information. It was once sufficient to call another form of Freemasonry or those who were members of other forms of Freemasonry "apostate" or in Masonic parlance, "irregular" and ban communication with them. That worked for those masons who didn't think for themselves, and to an extent it appears to still work, although those days are numbered.

Today Freemasons encounter far more masons online in a week than only a few decades ago most would encounter in a lifetime. Without even meeting masons of other obediences, Freemasons with internet connections are going to be exposed to a wider range of information and ideas concerning Freemasonry than ever before. This combined with greater access to early documents and academic scrutiny, are pealing away layers of myths that were constructed over the past two centuries to present and maintain a monolithic view of Masonic history.

It may, given the resistance of Masonic institutions to change, take years for some of them to recognize that the world around them has changed. Some others may already realize that this will be, in fact already is, a game changer. How they respond will affect them more than it will others.

Adaptation is going to take more than clever public relations campaigns. Minds will absorb what they are exposed to, even masonic minds. The days of being able to control the flow of information has ended. It's a brave new world. The cat will not be put back in the bag.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A View Behind the Curtain: A Look at Our Stats

This may really not be of interest to anyone but me, but from time to time I enjoy looking at the stats that blogspot gives me. If I were less numerically challenged, they might actually reveal more to me than they do. I admit to an abiding suspicion that if the truth were to be told, statistics say whatever you want them to say.

That being said, I find the fact that on a given day more than 200 people have read what I've written here, and that I clock up what is to me at least an amazing figure of over 9,000 hits in a single month is surprising. That as of the moment I am writing this, my blog has been viewed an all time total of 130,322 times is humbling, and I hope at least a few of these have found something of value here.

I have no idea how any of this compares to other Masonic blogs, and I may be revealing that I actually have an incredibly small stake in the Masonic Blogosphere. Whatever, that's ok. It still is a great honor to me that so many have chosen to read my thoughts on various topics, mostly on Freemasonry.

What has been even more surprising to me is when I get readers from places such as Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Angola, Moldova, Russia, Sweden, Mauritius, as well as the more expected locations such as Spain, Brazil, France, Ireland, England, Germany, and perhaps not surprisingly, my largest share, which come from the United States.

As I said, I've no idea if any of this is of the remotest interest to all of you out there, but it has fascinated, and I admit, pleased me a little. Mostly, it has been amazing and humbling. So, this is just a note to allow me to draw back the curtain a bit from my end, and to thank all of you who have taken the time to visit my blog. 

In the time since November of 2011 when I first began this blog, I've only received negative comments from two people, which may mean no more than that most don't think it worth criticizing. However, I've also received a fair number of complements, sometimes from some unexpected sources. This pleases me, mostly because it speaks to the courtesy found among Freemasons, even when they come across a brother who doesn't mind speaking his mind more openly than is common in the fraternity.

So, thank you all, and I'll keep going as long as I find I have things to say that people appear interested in reading. I hope most of you have enjoyed the ride as much as I have, and that you'll keep coming back for more. I have learned an amazing amount in the process, which, along with the friendships I have cemented along the way, has made it well worth the effort.