Most Grand Jurisdictions have adopted what we as Masons know as the “Fundamental Principles” of Freemasonry. These have been republished many times, and represent what we often think of as the “Ancient Masonic Usages,” or foundational rules of our Fraternity.
One of these principles is that Freemasonry must be organized into symbolic degrees, and these degrees must encompass a legend of a temple tragedy. This is a curious statement because it immediately informs us of two things about our Order: (1) that its ritual ceremonies are intended to communicate something to us which was never meant to be real; and, (2) this something is overtly aimed at a tragedy, which implies we are engaged in a dark side of the human experience.
We all know there is nothing factual about the central legend of our degrees—the story of Hiram. It is a myth. The events which unfold in our drama never actually happened.
But without further explanation, this can represent a problem for 21st century men because we live in a world of information. If something is not real, then it has little value to us. And if something we thought was real turns out not to be that way, then it has even less value because we not only no longer believe in it, we also no longer trust it. This is one of the central paradoxes of politics and religion in our time.
Then, in Masonic ritual, we compound this problem of what is not real by adding a tragedy to it. On the surface, one might argue that most men see enough of the shadow side of things in their own life experience. Why should we expect a man to embrace an organization which not only focuses on that which is not real, but then brazenly delivers to him yet another tragedy of life in his experience as a Mason? The answer is that the original authors of Masonic ritual assumed every initiate already knew what a myth was and what it was designed to teach before he was initiated. This means that today, when we become Freemasons, we, too, are already to have a certain adeptship with the world of myth when we enter the fraternity. But most of us don’t. Thus, it wouldn’t hurt if the Masonic educators in our own time would spend a little time helping our new men make this 400 year leap in context while they are experiencing our ritual settings for the first time.
Here’s what we need to know about ritual and myth.
The function of ritual is to give form to human life in a way that transcends all generations and all time. The role of ritual is to imprint into each man’s psyche the same imprintings of the society in which he grows up. Whether experienced in church, a synagogue, a mosque; a legislative hall, or judicial chamber; or even in the rituals played out in a family, the purpose is always the same. The rituals are the means of such imprinting.
Ritualized procedures also depersonalize the protagonists in our life; lift them out of themselves so that their conduct now is not their own but of the species, the society, the caste, or the profession. Hence, for example, the rituals of the investiture of judges, or of officers of state; those so installed are to function in their roles, not as private individuals but as agents of collective principles and laws. Without ritualized rules which reconcile confrontation, no society could exist. The mere shattering of the ritual form is, for humans, a disaster. Ritual is the structuring form of all civilization. We all need to know the rules of the game. This is the justification for the use of ritual in Freemasonry.
Likewise, the myths of our tradition are the mental supports of our Rite; our Rite is the physical enactment of the myth.
Now, the interesting thing about myths is that the teachers in them change over time but the message remains the same. In the earliest period, man’s teachers were the animals and plants illustrating the powers and patterns of nature. Later on, they became the seven heavenly spheres, where the cosmic order became the model of a good society on earth. Of course, we have long since de-mythologized these through our sciences.
The center of mystery is now man himself. It is a curious characteristic of our species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe. In fact, we have lived in a man’s world since the Greek tragedies. And this is where the Hiramic legend comes in. In the ritual myths of Freemasonry, the two great tragic emotions of the Greeks–pity and terror–is laid out. With pity, we unite whatever is grave and constant in human suffering with the sufferer. With terror, we unite whatever is grave and constant in human suffering with the secret cause.
And the secret cause of all suffering is, of course, mortality itself. It is the pre-condition of life. It cannot be denied if life is to be affirmed. Yet, along with the affirmation of this precondition, there is pity for the human sufferer, who is actually a counterpart of oneself. Our myth empowers us to reconcile our own mortality so that we may overcome ourselves and the fear of our own end.
The story of Hiram Abif and the three Ruffians plays out the great mythic image of pity and terror as expressed by the Greek Tragedies. The human sufferer is wiped out by our ceremonies, yet everything is done to point out the value of the sufferer. The terrorists who cause the suffering also suffer the same grave and constant reality of life.
This is the secret. In the process, the virtues and vices, the ignorance and knowledge, the darkness and the light of all humanity is rediscovered within each man, and these characteristics collectively emerge as the essential character of the latent hero in all of us. It is the Lost Word, that is, it is all the potentialities of life, found; but revealed only to the initiate who understands the form and substance of the journey he makes for himself.