We often encounter problems when words describing ancient concepts are translated by language of today. The choice and definition of words which were popular a few centuries ago in interpreting ideas or rendering meaning to everyday subjects often seem archaic and/or misleading when used in a contemporary sense. A typical example of this problem in the language of Freemasonry applies to the titles of our principal lodge officers.
For instance, a Master Mason is a brother who has been regularly initiated, passed and raised in a legally constituted lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. But, in the 15th century, a Master Mason was a workman who was qualified by training and experience to teach his trade to a younger, inexperienced worker. He was a man of approved learning; a scholar of authority.
The title of Worshipful Master is the term given today to mean the presiding officer of a Masonic lodge. But in the 1500’s such a title meant honorable and reputable; applying to a person who was distinguished in regard to character or rank; entitled to honor and respect. By the 1700’s, to call a man worshipful was an honorific and often temporary designation; applying to persons or bodies of distinguished rank or importance. When the title worshipful became attached to the word master, the two together denoted a man of great honor, integrity and learning who also had control or authority over something or someone. Justices of the peace, aldermen and mayors, governors and rulers; all carried the title of his worship, or worshipful master.
A Passed (or Past) Master is a Master Mason who is no longer the installed Master of a lodge of Freemasons. He has “passed the chair” as the presiding officer of his lodge. But in the 16th century, a Passed Master was one who had been examined and passed as a Master; and was thereafter considered a highly qualified or accomplished Master of a trade, guild, society or corporation.
Today, the Past Masters, Worshipful Masters and Wardens (the traditional gatekeepers or sentinels of the realm, and later the regents who ruled in the King’s absence—now vice presidents of the lodge), in addition to their hierarchical status within the structure of a lodge, also make up the body of the Grand Lodge, or state assembly of Masons, and are given the authority, on behalf of all members of their lodge, to collectively adopt the rules and regulations which govern all lodges in the state. These titled men represent the voice of the Grand Lodge when the Grand Lodge is not in session. This is the reason lodges can operate independently from Grand Lodges. Each lodge is a microcosm of the whole.
This is the hierarchical nature of the fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons, and its authority in regard to the function and leadership of each lodge.
However, titles alone do not address the more important function of these offices in regard to the fraternity’s ceremonies of initiation, passing, and raising. There must also be a transmission of knowledge, wisdom and insight in order for the new Mason to be transformed by his experience. The officers of the lodge are the metaphysical agents for this transmission. Thus, the meanings of the ancient titles are carried forth by the honored men who presently carry these titles to those who are undertaking the process of becoming Masons.
The Entered Apprentice (Initiate) must be bathed in the pure and moral motive of the light; the Fellow of the Craft must be passed into an intellectual understanding of light; and the Master Mason must be raised by that light to an insight of truth which transcends rational intellectualism. This spiritual transmission can only occur through an agent who is capable of knowing and honoring the spiritual sanction and sacred lineage of his office.
Herein is a serious caveat of which we, as Masons, must be always vigilant.
The man who ascends to the East in his lodge, professing to know Masonry; yet knowing only the words of the ritual without any understanding of his role as the Initiator for the lodge, is not capable of transmitting the esoteric and metaphysical attributes of the inner work to the psyche of the Initiate. He has neither qualified himself as a Master, a man of scholarly authority in the mysteries; nor as worshipful, a man distinguished by the singularity of his spiritual understanding.
Having offered the above as only a caution, in the traditional sense, I believe the titles of Worshipful Master and Past Master carry much weight when properly understood. They are, and remain, honorable and not temporal in that those who have the titles are styled “Worshipful;” and are therefore invested with the responsibility of being the teachers of Masonry, and carrying the spiritual lineage of the lodge with them for all time.
Therefore, I think these titles were never intended to be given frivolously, but should be earned by work, study, contemplation, and lasting commitment to the ideal of awakening the consciousness of humankind; the unveiling of the mysteries. This is the reason that only the most qualified and capable of the Master Masons should ever hold these offices.
Likewise, only those who are “duly and truly prepared” should strive to become a part of the elect group. To be initiated, passed and raised, one must first be receptive to receive the transmission offered by a Master or Past Master.
For, without transmitting and receiving this sacred gift of spiritual light; nothing much changes for any of us.