Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A New Book on the French Rite!

Una mirada sobre los usos de los "Modernos" y los rituales del Rito Francés.
Edited by Victor Guerra García.
Published by Masonica.es

This new addition is a  continuation inspired by an earlier title,  Rito Francés. Historia, Reflexiones y Desarrollo (The French Rite: History, Reflections and Development). In this first text the historical context and reflective stages of the French Rite and developments were discussed and analyzed from the distinct personal perspectives of various Masonic authors including Charles Porset,  J-Ch. Nerh, Roger Dachez, JG Plumet, Ludovic Marcos, Daniel Ligou, JP. Lefevre, Joaquim Villalta and Victor Guerra García who, in addition to including articles, coordinated the subject with the intention that a Spanish-speaking readership had access to a plethora of interesting items that seemed important to be made known as the Masonic literature on such ritual is virtually nonexistent. 

Una mirada sobre los usos de los "Modernos" y los rituales del Rito Francés (The Modern Rite:  A look from the XXI century) takes a more personal approach, that differs from the examination of the French Rite, understood as the result of ritual practices of the GODF to direct the gaze a step further back, from the perspective of the history behind the rite established as the Modern Rite, and as such, several themes are raised throughout the book, trying to situate the reader in the historical setting of these developments, analyzing in turn the unique nature of a ritual practices that had its development in seventeenth-century Insular Europe but which evolved in eighteenth-century France. 

Victor Guerra García
The second part of the book is set in a more contemporary context, addressing the conceptual differences between the Modern and the French Rite and providing materials for the background of related aspects essential to understanding how the Congress of the French Rite of Lisbon and the Modern Rite in Barcelona, and the birth of the Universal Masonic Union of the Modern Rite (UMURM) or establishment in Spain of the General Grand Chapter of Spain (GODF-GLSE) came to pass. 

The book closes with an impressive piece by Jean van Win that describes the false basis of support of certain ritual developments within the Orders of Wisdom in France, and finally a final reflection on what the Modern Rite's future may look like in the twenty-first century. 

The text also contains several reflections by way of introduction and epilogue from various current Masonic scholars including Joan Francesc Pont, Sovereign Commander of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Spain; Eoghan Ballard, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Modern Rite of North America and the Caribbean; and José María Bonachi Batalla, the Supreme Council of the Modern Rite of Brazil and President of the UMURM. 

The book may be purchased in either hard copy or electronic format from Masonica.es:

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.