Mysticism, Myth and Masonry

Mysticism, Myth and Masonry

by Frank J. MacHovic, MPS

Most Masons would probably agree
that legend, symbols, and ritual are im-
portant parts of the work of a Masonic
Lodge. But it is likely few would see
Freemasonry as one of the world's last
remaining repositories of the mystic
tradition. Coil (1961) referred to Robert
Burns' description of Masons as "dear
brothers of the mystic tie," a reference
that Coil commented "is seldom heard
at the present day" (p. 433). Mysticism
and myth are important parts of Ma-
sonic ritual and teaching but receive little
attention in publications and Lodge ed-
ucation programs. Perhaps it is because
the words suggest magic and supersti-
tion .

Actually, mystic experiences are most
frequently described as being inspiring
or spiritual, transcending, or percep-
tions of the absolute or unseen realities.
It is the "Eureka" experience of the
ancient Greeks, the "Ah hah!" sudden
flash of intuition or insight, what Zen
Buddhists describe as " seeing with a
third eye" or " hearing with a third ear. "
Psychiatrist Carl G. Jung (1965) felt they
come from the unconscious mind and
transcend the ego. Psychologist Abra-
ham Maslow (1971) described them as
"oceanic" or "peak" experiences of
" cosmic consciousness. " Both Jung and
Maslow agreed they are within reach of
everyone in especially moving or mean-
ingful events. The descriptions of many
Masons of their initiation suggest it was
for them a mystic experience.

Contemporary religion has been criti-
cized for a gradual loss of interest in the
mystic tradition. Churches, it is said,
spend more time on social, civic, even
political activism and less on the reflec-
tive, and transcendent. Counseling and
psychotherapy also avoid these subjects
as unscientific or religious. Yet, there is
a need today more than ever for deeper
meaning, for building character as well
as community, "an anchor to wind-
ward." It has been observed that since
World War II there has been a change in
our self concept. Cushman (1990) de-
scribes it as "the empty self," lacking a
spirit of community, tradition, and
shared meaning, of personal conviction
and worth, in a chronic state of
emotional hunger. We try to fill our
empty selves with food and leisure activi-
ties, and work harder and longer to pay
for them.
With religion unconcerned and psychi-
atry and psychology unable or unwilling
to enter the field, Freemasonry remains
a rich reservoir of mystic ideas, spiritual
food for the inner man. As such, it is a
worthy subject for further study. This is
more easily said than done. Even in Ma-
sonry there are formidable obstacles. For
one, there is excessive reliance on what I
term " rote ritual. " By this I mean ritual
recited in a monotone, too quickly or
indistinctly for candidates to fully under-
stand or digest. It does not sound conver-
sational and has little or no impact or
lasting influence. It is dull, dry, and
boring. It speaks more to the occasion, a
busy ceremony, than to the spirit and
deeper meaning of Masonry and the
spiritual self of the candidate. It is not
surprising, then, to overhear social con-
versations from the sidelines that inter-
fere with the meaningfulness of the ritual
and lessen its significance to the candi-
date. If the ritual has lost its meaning to
initiated long-term members, why
should it be of importance to the candi-

In ancient mystery cults and religions,
ritual was the central teaching method,
sacred, special, and treated with great
sensitivity. Hammond and Scullard
(1989) report the "most famous of all
cults" was the Eleusinian, originating in
the Mycenaean age, that included se-
quential degrees, symbols, recited ritual,
and song and music, interpreting the
meaning of life and death (p. 716). It
may well be that a missing ingredient in
Freemasonry today is the attention to
mysticism and myth that great leaders of
the past valued, developed and en-
couraged, in themselves and in others.
Goethe's Faust, a lifelong work, and
Mozart's immortal music are evidence
of profound spiritual power.

What exactly are mysticism and myth?
The Little Oxford Dictionary (1986) defines
mysticism as "seeking union with deity
through contemplation or spiritual ap-
prehension of truth beyond under-
standing" (Swannell, 1986, p. 356). The
American Heritage Dictionary (1985) defines
it as belief in "realities beyond percep-
tual or intellectual apprehension" (p.
826). Webster's New Ninth Collegiate Dic-
tionary (1983) defines it as "belief that
direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth,
or ultimate reality can be attained
through subjective experience" (p. 785).
To Zen Buddhists it is to take " the mystic
leap" that some Zen masters have called
"falling off an imaginary log" and
"seeing with a third eye, hearing with a
third ear. " The old saying "there is more
than meets the eye" is typical of this
approach. As Shakespeare put it in Ham-
let: "There are more things in heaven
and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of
in your philosophy, that is most certain. "

The Christian trinity, eucharist, and
resurrection are mystic ideas because
they are matters more of faith than rea-
son. Three persons in one, transforming
bread and wine to body and blood, and
life after death are beyond reason and
observable fact. In ancient China, the
yin-yang dualism of Taoism portray
good and evil as co-existent. The life of
Buddha demonstrated that adversity
and affluence are equally ineffective in
character development. In Freemasonry,
the tools of the builder are used to teach
values and morals of everyday life. All
these ideas are not contradictory but
complement the mystic tradition.

St. Paul wrote of "the wisdom of God
in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom"
(Corinthians I.2.7). Martin Luther ini-
tially omitted the Book of Revelations from
his Bible because he considered it too
esoteric. In it is this mystic thought: "I
am Alpha and Omega, the beginning
and the end, the first and the last"
(22.13). Christian mystics such as St.
Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine
of Sienna, John of the Cross, Theresa
Avila sought direct union with God
through deep meditation. They empha-
sized intuition over intellect, the unseen
more than the seen. This mystic tradi-
tion flows through all the world's major
religions: Hasidic Jews and the Kabbala;
Gnostic Christians and the Dead Sea
Scrolls; Sufi Moslems; and Zen Budd-
hists (MacHovec, 1989). The plays of
Sophocles and Shakespeare are rich in
myth and mysticism. In 19th century
America, transcendentalists Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau,
Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller
continued this tradition (Smyth, 1978).

In our own time, the late Joseph Camp-
bell has been a major force in restoring
myth and mysticism as vital sources of
truth. A prolific writer who taught my-
thology for 38 years, he can be seen in a
6-hour videotape series entitled The
Power of Myth. He was consultant to the
movie Star Wars, a film with rich mystic
content. " Mythology, " Campbell
wrote, "is the song of the universe, the
music of the spheres, music we dance
even when we cannot name the tune,
calling us to a deeper awareness of the
very act of living itself. " Myths are
"clues to our deepest spiritual potential,
able to lead us to delight, illumination,
even rapture" (Flowers, 1988, xvi).
"The unpardonable sin," Campbell
maintained, "is not being alert, not
being awake" (p. xvii). As to the power
of myth and mysticism, he wrote:
" I here is a point of wisdom beyond the
conflicts of illusion and truth by which
lives can be put back together again. We
are at this moment participating in one
of the very greatest leaps of the human
spirit, to a knowledge not only of outside
nature but also of our own deep inward
mystery" (p. xviii).

Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of
Folklore, Mythology, and Legend ( 1984) de-
tines myths as stories of gods with super-
natural powers or that teach sacred or
deeper truths. Epics are lengthy myths.
They are legends if the hero is human,
tdiry tales or folktales if fictional and to
amuse, and fables to teach (Bridgwater,
1968); Leach & Fried, 1984). The Oxford
Classical Dictionary defines myth as a pre-
scientific, imaginative attempt to explain
something or satisfy concern or be-
wilderment about something (Ham-
mond & Scullard, 1987). Myths usually
deal with ideas and events that are im-
portant to society, such as the meaning of
life and death, good and evil, and what
is appropriate behavior (Aceves & King,

The legend of St. Nicholas and his gifts
to the poor evolved into Santa Claus and
Christmas, combining myth with ritual.
Reverence for departed souls on All
Souls' Day became Halloween. Thanks-
giving is not only a custom but a mystic
tie to the Pilgrims centuries ago. Chris-
tian confirmation and Jewish bar and bas
mitzvah duplicate a rite of passage
shared by many ancient civilizations.
Birth, puberty, marriage, and death are
major life events that are marked with
special ceremonies and rituals. Ritual
brings the myth to life. What would
Christmas be without exchanging gifts,
Thanksgiving without turkey and all the
trimmings, Halloween without cos-

Campbell had much to say about the
importance of ritual. "With respect to
ritual," he wrote, "it must be kept alive.
So much of our ritual is dead" (Flowers,
1988, p. 85). "The rituals of primitive
initiation ceremonies are all mythologi-
cally grounded and have to do with kil-
ling the infantile ego and bringing forth
an adult" (p. 138). Having served in the
Marine Corps, I see parallels to basic
training that also kills the infantile ego
and brings forth a new individual. It is a
rite of passage. Rituals "teach us about
life" because they "deal with stages of
life, the initiation ceremonies as you
move from childhood to adult responsi-
bilities" (p. 11). When myth and mysti-
cism are combined in ritual they "har-
monize mind and body" (p. 70).
"Ritual," Campbell wrote, "is the
enactment of a myth. By participating in
a ritual you are actually experiencing a
mythological life and it is out of that
participation that one can learn to live
spiritually" (p. 182). So mystic ritual
does more than teach new ideas. It facil-
itates the transition from darkness to
light, immaturity to maturity, from sur-
face incidentals to deeper insight, from
old knowledge to new wisdom.

Myth and mysticism are reflected in
four major themes in Freemasonry:
darkness to light; surviving death; re-
birth and responsibility; and the essen-
tial oneness of truth.

Light to symbolize increased knowl-
edge and wisdom is an ancient idea, not
unique to Freemasonry. The Zoroastri-
ans of ancient Persia saw truth and good
as light, error and evil as darkness. The
yin-yang symbol of Taoism in ancient
China described yin as dark and yang as
light. The sun was worshipped as a god
by the ancients in Egypt and Mexico.
According to the Old Testament, God's
first command was: "Let there be light"
(Genesis 1.3). When Moses was born it
is said the room was filled with light.
Psalm 119 tells us " the unfolding of your
words gives light. " Proverbs 6.23 de-
scribed the commandment as "a lamp
and the teaching a light. " The nirvana
of Buddhism is most frequently trans-
lated as enlightenment. The vestal vir-
gins of ancient Rome guarded the eternal
flame, the symbol of light to continually
bless the Roman Empire. Jesus called
himself "the light of the world" (.John
8:12). The Koran of Islam described
Mohammed ' s face as radiating light.
Enlightenment and seeking more light is
an ancient idea. Masonic ritual shares in
this mystic concept, the search for truth
and meaning, the Eternal Flame.

Surviving death is another theme in
many ancient civilizations. The Osiris
death-rebirth myth of ancient Egypt is
typical of this mystic idea (Cotterell,
1988). The Egyptians believed the sun
was a god. They called it Ra or Re.
According to Egyptian mythology, Ra
chose Nuut, goddess of the sky, as his
wife. But she had an affair with Seb, god
of earth, conceived, and gave birth to
Osiris. Isis and Nephythys were his sis-
ters, and Set, god of darkness, desert, and
storms, was his brother. Like Cain and
Abel, the two brothers did not get along.
Set killed Osiris; cut up his body and
scattered the parts. Isis searched and
found them, put them together and as
Mistress of Magic, brought Osiris back
to life. By dying and returning to life
Osiris became the God of the Dead,
guide to the underworld. Isis and Osiris
had a son Horus, avenger of Osiris, god
of the horizons, and helmsman of the
sunboat of Ra that carries the dead
through the Underworld. The legend of
Hiram Abif is consistent with this mystic
tradition .

From these two mystic ideas of enlight-
enment and surviving death comes re-
birth and responsibility. Osiris returned
from the dead to help fulfill the living. To
be raised from the dead is to be given a
second chance to do good in the world.
Being " raised " is to be elevated to a
higher plane where it can be seen that life
is short, time valuable, that it is best to
live each day as if it were the last because
one day it will be so. In this way, the
death-rebirth myth teaches the value of
life and a second chance at it. It is myth
because it cannot be objectively proved
and so it is part of the mystic tradition.

Buddha saw Truth as a diamond. He
taught that like a diamond, truth is pure
and reflects much light. Many who
earnestly seek truth see only one of its
facets. They see truth but only part of it.
The mystic idea is that All is One, every
view a facet of one sacred jewel. Joseph
Campbell quotes an ancient Hindu
teaching: "Truth is one; the wise call it
by many names" (Flowers, 1988, p.
xvii). St. Paul described the search tor
truth as if "we see through a glass,
darkly" (Corinthians I.12). One of the
great strengths of Freemasonry is the
universal application of its teachings
despite differences in age, education, oc-
cupation, social status, political or re-
ligious affiliation. The sacred scripture
on Masonic altars can be of any of the
world's major religions, but the fun-
damental teachings apply to all, in a deep
and mystic bond of brotherhood that
transcend all differences. Freemasonry is
a multifaceted diamond.

The initial darkness that totally sur-
rounds the seed in the ground is as nec-
essary as the sun and fresh air that sur-
rounds it later in its growth. The light
and fresh air of Freemasonry does the
same for the seeds of character. Ritual
based on meaningful symbols and the
myth and mysticism described here is a
powerful combination that exceeds the
sum of these parts. Done well, there is
increased awareness and sensitivity, en-
during values and deeper spirituality, the
" peace beyond all understanding. "
Cold rote ritual, without feeling or

continued on page 23

The Philalethes, April, 1991