Vol. XVIII No. 4 — April 1940

The “Why” of Initiation

Every Mason is familiar with the process of making a man a Mason; even if he attends lodge seldom or never, he usually has a vivid memory of the ceremonies in which he played a leading part when he received the three degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry.

But many thinking men ask, at least of themselves; why is Masonic initiation? Why has it the form it has and not some other form? Why are the ceremonies so long and so detailed? Why do we use and reverence ritual? Why would our ceremonies not be as effective if a man were, merely obligated, and then told “you are a Mason?”

There are deep psychological and scientific reasons for initiatory forms and ceremonies, and much more than tradition and ancient custom as reasons for our degrees being what they are and not something else.

From the very beginning of thought, man has devised ceremonies of initiation for his organizations; the Men’s House of the Indians had it; primitive tribes bring their young men officially to manhood by rites which are sometimes rather terrible functions; ancient religions admitted to the temple only those who could qualify by successfully completing a course of initiation; many modern churches — especially those denominated “high” — have set forms for religious worship; crafts and guilds of all kinds in all ages have had certain preparatory rites.

Certain essentials are the same in many of these. As initiation signifies a beginning, a new way, a new life, a new idea (the very word comes from the Latin initium, a beginning) many initiations begin with the temporary blindfolding of the candidate. This is not, as many think, to make certain that a candidate see nothing which is secret until he is obligated and therefore “one of us.” What secret is there to be seen in a lodge room? The builders who made it saw it; the char women who clean it see it. The decorators, painters, upholsters who furnish it know what it looks like. The fact that an altar is arranged in a certain way cannot be a secret from anyone who will take the trouble to read a Code, a Masonic manual, a Masonic encyclopedia.

Blindfolding a candidate, either in Masonry or in any other order, or in a religious rite, is not for practical but for spiritual reasons. The temporary blinding is a symbol of present darkness, which will be displaced by light when and if the initiate succeeds in penetrating the mysteries before him.

All successful initiations use ritual. It is true that the statements “twice two is four,” “two added to two make four,” “two and two are four” and “two multiplied by two produce four” all present the same fact, process and result. A teacher of mathematics cares not at all in which phrase the student responds to the question as to what happens when two is added to two. But ritual is not a matter of the mere presentation of a fact. Were that so, all that initiation would require would be a manuscript which the initiate might read for himself.

Initiation presents certain truths (facts) in a certain way, that way being predicated on knowledge that man absorbs certain truths best when most impressed. Ritual is not only a conveying of facts, but an impressing of those facts on mind and spirit. In “twice two is four” the only essential is the fact. In a Masonic degree the facts presented and the spiritual impression they make on the candidate are equally important.

Hence, good ritual is a vital necessity. Officers of lodge who are halting in ritual, careless in delivery, slovenly in Masonic work, actually defraud the candidate of that to which he has a moral right the right of receiving the light for which he has asked, of getting the privilege accorded him by his brethren-to-be, in a manner which will make him appreciate the truths he learns, and desire to make them a part of himself.

A further reason for ritual is found in the knowledge that the human mind is prone to think for itself it desires to “improve” and change. Doubtless this arises from that egoism, self-conceit, belief in himself which, properly directed, differentiates man from the beasts of the field. It is our innate belief that we really are more able than some others which is at the foundation of all human progress. Without it there would be no invention, discovery, labor for others. If we cannot believe that our ideas are worthwhile, and might, if put in practice, make a better world, we are stultified, make no progress, get nowhere. Hence we are prone to think “our way” is the best way. But it seldom is; the “best way” is the product of years of experience, expressed in ritual.

The truths of religion — and the truths of Freemasonry — are expressed in ritual seldom subject to change without deterioration. When we alter the old forms in which these ageless truths are expressed, no matter with what good motives, we usually change for the worse. Hence it is that a set ritual which becomes sacrosanct in human belief, tends to stabilize and keep our truths uncontaminated by “modern” ideas. Many a man has thought he could “improve” the ritual of Freemasonry. Some, alas, have had their way! None have succeeded in making better that which was already “best,” since its content was and is a living, breathing, sentient truth, conveyed in words, actions and symbols which by their very antiquity prove that they are “best” for the purpose.

Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, great and beloved teacher of the spiritual aspects of Freemasonry, has beautifully written:

Ritual is the dramatization of belief, hope and spiritual dream. It assists imagination by giving form to what otherwise would remain formless, presenting vivid mental images which lend a reality-feeling to what is often abstract and unreal. It is picture philosophy, truth visualized, at once expressing and confirming the faiths and visions of the mind.

Ritual is not the only tool which the Masons use to impress the initiate. There are other conditions which must be satisfied if initiation is to be wholly effective.

The place in which initiation occurs is important. Masonic lodges meet in apartments which have been consecrated and dedicated to the uses of Freemasonry. The dedication and consecration are solemn ceremonies, religious in nature, beautiful in conception, dignified in execution, in which and by means of which, the place becomes “a place apart” — a sanctum, a haven of refuge, a holy place. It is because of this that grand lodges frown on even temporary use of other than consecrated rooms for lodge use, and it is one of the reasons given by those who object to outdoor ceremonies for Masonic purposes.

The candidate may not know, at the time he is initiated, that the lodge room is a dedicated and consecrated place, but the members know, and he will learn. Doubtless a man can worship his Maker as well on the street as in a Cathedral, but the everyday fact remains — he doesn’t! The feeling of sacredness which is to be had in any Church of God, the feeling of privacy and seclusion which should be in the atmosphere of every lodge room — these are important parts of the ceremonies of worship and initiation.

Many solemn ceremonies of initiation have used fire as a part of the rites. The early fire on the altar came from sun worship — man worshipped the fire on his stone altar as a bit of his God come down from heaven to be with him in his devotions. Then came lights about the altar, which survive to this day in many churches, and in Masonic initiation. Lucky the lodge which still uses candles with naked flames! Far too many have compromised symbolism with convenience and place three electric lights about the altar. Thereby they lose a touch with antiquity worth keeping, for that which consumes itself to give heat and light, that which cannot be confined and live, is a symbol of man and his truths; he consumes himself to live his truths and truth cannot be confined and still be truth.

Initiation takes place at a stated time; it is not left haphazardly to chance. Early lodges met at time of full moon. Some believe that this was done to permit those who came to lodge to have the advantage of illumination on lonely roads, not easily traveled in the dark. But a broader view associates initiation with the full of the moon for symbolic reasons; when the moon shines most brilliantly in the sky, so may light shine brightest in the heart; when the moon is at her best, so may man’s efforts be. Indeed, in many rituals is the statement (true only in a symbolic sense) that “the moon governs the night.”

The clock and the calendar have altered our ideas of time and what to do with it. But lodges still meet in “stated communications.” If initiations are conducted at “special” times, due notice must be given both to candidates and brethren. It is, perhaps, a long way from a set time for initiation, as it was in the days of “full moon” meetings, but at least we still keep some of the form, if not the substance of a time as well as a place set apart for rites of initiation. It hardly needs to be said that all churches have a stated day for worship.

Satisfactory initiation takes place only in the presence of a substantial number of those who have already been initiated. This is so much a truism in Freemasonry that it may seem surprising that it is even mentioned: “Why, of course you can’t initiate in the presence of profanes!” But there have been orders and fraternities which, in a blind worship of the idea of complete democracy, have made their initiations public, and conduct the ceremonies publicly. It is to be noted that none have lived long or been impressive to initiates.

Costume has always been a help in ritualistic performance. What the costume is, is less important than that all costumes be of the same character. The officers of a lodge who put on evening clothes for initiatory ceremonies dress alike, to impress each other, impress the spectators, and impress the candidate. That which men who perform ceremonies value highly enough to honor with formal dress, is apt to be highly valued by those who see. Some lodges stage at least the master’s degree in costumes supposedly of the period of King Solomon. Whatever maybe the opinion as to the value or importance of “robing a degree” at least all will agree that if one participant robes, all should robe; in other words, that uniformity in dress is also conformity to the idea of dignity in initiation.

Highly important in any successful initiation — and an initiation is successful only when it markedly impresses the initiate with the importance and value of that which he is taught — is the attitude of the initiate.

In Freemasonry much is done in preliminaries to impress the men who will become a Mason. He must ask for Freemasonry of his own free will and accord. He is not sought.

He must go through a preliminary time of waiting, during which his character is investigated. He is required to be at a certain place, at a certain time; it is not his convenience but that of the lodge which is impressed upon him as important. He is prepared in away surprising to many and impressive to all; not as a mere seeker is he admitted into the lodge, but a seeker especially made ready in a curious and unusual manner.

All these fail if they have been belittled or made the subject of jest by those friends to whom he has gone to ask if he might be a Mason. How much harm has been done Freemasonry by the “Masonic goat” can only be guessed. How much damage is done to the reverence with which all should approach the mysteries of the order by careless and joking comment can never be estimated. The attempt to “have fun with” the candidate prior to initiation is of course innocent in intent but innocence excuses none from the result of folly. An ignorant man may pick up a fallen high tension wire in all innocence but the current kills him just the same as if he were wise! “Innocent” joking with a prospective candidate on the goats and tortures and terrors of the ceremonies may send him to the door of a lodge fearful, instead of receptive; anxious, instead of open-hearted; timid, instead of glad that he approaches a mystery as one comes to a happy experience of life.

The atmosphere of the preparation room should be that of the lodge; quiet, dignified, reserved. The stewards who prepare should indicate by their words and actions that this preparation is a serious and solemn matter; a making ready for a solemn and serious ceremony. So prepared, a candidate may come to the West Gate eagerly, happily, wholly receptive — and do his part to make the ceremony of initiation a real turning point in his life, a real bringing to light from a state of ignorant darkness.

Such, in brief, are some of the reasons for our ceremonies of initiation. That we express formally what is too great for any less dignified expression is at once the glory and the hopelessness of our attempts to tell the unreliable, to say to the candidate what, in the last analysis, only his own heart and God successfully can tell him.

Let no man who has Freemasonry in his heart do ought, ever, to change, to shorten, to hasten, to modernize the Masonic form of initiation, sacred with age, and vital in its deep relationship to the inner longings of the human heart.

The Masonic Service Association of North America