Masonic Ritual

Masonic Ritual Is An Innovation

When the Worshipful Master is asked at his installation if he agrees that it is not in the power of man, or any body of men, to make innovations in the Body of Masonry, it is important to understand that this charge is intended for the preservation of the organizational structure of Freemasonry, and not its ritual ceremonies. More than one Grand Master or Custodian of the Work has attempted to apply this admonition to Masonic ritual itself. Yet a brief review of ritual development and its many forms across the landscape of Masonic jurisdictions will quickly show this question taken from the “Old Charges” has nothing to do with the ritualistic aspects of our fraternity. Our founders never intended that ritual ceremonies remain static. Prohibition to innovation does not apply to Masonic ritual as this is the single basis upon which all Light in Masonry is transmitted and revealed.

Even the insistence by the United Grand Lodge of England that “pure, ancient Freemasonry consists of three degrees only, including the Holy Royal Arch” is historically inaccurate. Grand Lodges have always been entitled to decide for themselves exactly of what their ritual consists.

The only “pure, ancient” Masonic ritual in the world is the ritual that existed in 1717 when the first Grand Lodge was formed. We know what that ritual was because it was widely published in three early Masonic manuscripts in the form of catechisms still extant from the period of 1696 to 1715, all of which came from Scotland. The amazing thing about these exposures is that they found their way to use and adoption by English Lodges. More significantly, we also find in them much of the foundation upon which all later Masonic ritual was erected--the method of placing the feet, mention of the “prentice” and “fellow-craft,” the five points of fellowship; the mention of the square, compasses and Bible in the same context; the porch of King Solomon’s Temple, the basic penal sign; the penalty—there is much to recognize here. It is beyond coincidence that we find these characteristics in common in all of these old catechisms.

And one other point is extraordinary in all these workings: Degrees are not mentioned. When the first Grand Lodge in the world was created, there was only the ceremony of making a Mason—an “Acceptance and the Master’s part.” In fact, we have no evidence of a three degree system, or a third degree, prior to Samuel Pritchard’s famous exposure entitled “Masonry Dissected,” published in 1730.

This makes the Master Mason degree in Masonry an innovation!

Serious historians agree that the third degree was introduced into Masonry around 1725. It became popular over the next two decades primarily because Masons adopted Pritchard’s exposure as an aide to the memory work. His unauthorized work essentially became the first Masonic Monitor; and would be the unofficial ritual book of Freemasons for decades. It is also the first mention we have of the Hiramic Legend.

No one knows where this story came from, but it is surmised that Desaguiliers may have been the author, being Grand Master in 1719 and Deputy Grand Master in 1722 and 1726. This was the period when the third degree was introduced into the ceremonies of the premier Grand Lodge. Logic suggests that Desaguliers and his Masonic friends in the Royal Society could have been responsible. Certainly, nothing could have been introduced without their approval. In fact, the Craft changed dramatically while Desaguliers was on the scene. The Grand Lodge went from an annual feast to an administrative body, complete with minutes and policy direction for lodges, including the structure of its degrees.

Desaguiliers, if he and his friends were indeed the authors of the third degree, turned Freemasonry into a new path. By 1730, the ceremony we know as the Royal Arch had been developed, which was the revival of an ancient Greek story dating to c. 400 AD. By 1735, the Rite of Perfection, consisting of 14 degrees, was introduced, setting a biblical chronology to the structure of Masonic ritual. Both the Royal Arch and Rite of Perfection, innovative as they were, were declared by members as “revivals” of ancient Masonry because they automatically imparted an artificial façade of age on the degree or order. After a few years, even Grand Lodge historians were writing that these added degrees were revivals of an older system. It became fashionable to believe there was nothing innovative to them at all!

Of course, all of the new degrees/orders were adopted on a single premise—what had been lost in the third degree had to be found. For this reason, all of them show an amazing similarity in structure—all show signs of emanating from the same source, with the same regularity of form. Even as additional degrees developed, they retained a “traditional” structure.

This similarity in structure is further evidence that our Masonic degrees, were, in fact, created in a wave of fashion. They all intimate there are great secrets to be found by the dedicated follower. And indeed, there are.

At the same time that degrees and orders were growing by leaps and bounds in both the York Rite and Scottish Rite traditions, Masonic ritualists in the craft lodges continued to add to the language of the first three degrees, adding substance to their form. During the second half of the 18th Century, an extraordinary growth in intellectual meat was added to the bones of the old “pure and ancient” concept of the few simple catechisms of 1717. In fact, ritual development and expansion continued to be fashionable as a means of educating the craft until well into the 1820’s.

We had, in effect, created a school of education which thrived for nearly a century until Grand Lodges, primarily in America, determined there should be only one ritual; one set of words—that which was adopted by them—and everything else didn’t count. The American Grand Lodges established yet another innovation in Masonry—that ritual was fixed in time—their time. They had decided for themselves that pure and ancient Masonry was their Masonry alone. Masonic ritual became a fixed and stagnant thing.

This 19th century innovation may have marked the beginning of the decline in Masonry. It was during this era that Grand Lodges collectively decided there was nothing more to be learned in Masonic ritual. Our words were frozen in time.

I’m now wondering if it is time to create yet another innovation in Masonry; that of educating Masons that ritual use should be a dynamic process, just as learning is dynamic. Of course, we don’t need to adopt more words. But consider how instructive it would be if ritual diversity could be introduced as an added tool for instruction; if alternative ritual systems already adopted in other Jurisdictions across the world could be exemplified at the will of the lodge and sanctioned by Grand Lodge. Imagine how exciting and invigorating it would be if we had ten or twelve different ritual workings available to us in every Grand Jurisdiction!

Perhaps it is time to make Masonry fashionable again, both through the variety of its ritual form and the development of its intellectual form; where lectures, essays, and dialogue are shared regularly in lodge—all focused on enlightening the mind. Maybe the most instructive and informative papers could become a part of the printed monitors of Masonry; not to be memorized, but to be sanctioned and published for the benefit of those who want access to more knowledge in the ways of Masonry--those who know that More Light in Masonry is not the propriety of Grand Lodge, but rather, the individual and his brothers on their collective quest of a lifetime—a seeking for that which has been lost in the words; and their meanings.

In exercises such as these, would we not once again be practicing “pure and ancient” Masonry? It might just be another innovation worthy of our ancient craft.




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What Come You Here to Do?

Photo by: Colin Frankland

Photo by: Colin Frankland

What come you here to do?

My Brothers, this is one of the great questions in all of Freemasonry!

As those of us in the fraternity know, it is actually one of the first questions we ask an Entered Apprentice Mason in his first catechism lecture.

The earliest ritual reference of which we have record is Prichard’s Masonry Dissected, published in 1730. I have read all the early ritual exposures and I can assure you this question and the subsequent answer given to it is not commonly found in the pre-Grand Lodge or early Premier Grand Lodge era ritual workings. In fact the answer appears in no other English ritual exposure from 1696 to 1769. In the single ritual text in which it does appear, the answer is given thus:

Not to do my own proper Will,
But to subdue my passion still;
The Rules of Masonry in hand to take,
And daily Progress therein make.

It is possible this particular catechism was used in early Operative Masonry because it is a didactic memory technique for learning. And this method of learning (using rhyme) dates centuries earlier than even the Regius Poem, (c. 1390),—purported to be the oldest didactic in Masonry. It may have also originated in 18th century continental Masonry, but again, there is no other reference to the question and its follow up answer in any other English ritual exposure from 1696 to 1769.

In a 1738 French translation of Prichard’s exposure, we find it once again. This time the question is worded What do you wish to do here?; and the answer given is; I do not inspire to follow my will, but rather to subdue my passions, while following the precepts of the Masons and making daily advancement in this Profession.

And then there is a 1745 French exposure entitled “The Broken Seal” where we find the questionWhat do you come to do here? With the answer; To conquer my passions, subdue my desires, and to make new progress in Masonry. 

It appears the consistent theme in each of these exposures is that the primary task of an Entered Apprentice is to subdue his passions and then, using the lessons of Masonry, to make progress in his life.

Now, the first thing almost every Mason will notice is that the answer given in the old catechisms is not the answer taught today in the ritual workings of our contemporary lodges. In fact, I would suggest that today’s answer has a much deeper meaning. It was developed during the early 19th century; when Masonry was a far more philosophical than moral undertaking. It commonly goes something like this: What come you here to do?

To learn to subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry.

The interesting question is this: Are there any commas in this sentence? I think that there are. I think if the answer was actually written in most Masonic monitors, it would look like this:

To learn, to subdue my passions, and improve myself; in Masonry.

If I am right, then there was a new admonition added to the task of an Entered Apprentrice as the philosophical integrity of our Craft ritual expanded; namely—that he first learns.

And I think this changes everything!

To learn is to acquire knowledge; to acquire knowledge of a subject or skill as a result of study, of experience, or teaching; to receive instruction; to find out about, or discover; to be informed of, or learn about; to teach or inform a person of something.

We have to learn there is a moral imperative, for instance, before we can subdue our passions; we have to study Masonry before we can understand it. We have to discover there is an allegory before we can interpret it. We have to be informed of its history before we can comprehend its societal relevance. We have to detect its symbolic associations before we can grasp its spiritual nature. We have to contemplate its meanings before we can experience its insights. We have to be informed of its rules and laws before we can act within the due bounds of fraternity. We have to understand the meaning of manhood before we can grasp the unique power of fraternal association. 

We have to learn before we can improve ourselves. And we are taught as Entered Apprentices, we cannot improve ourselves without first subduing our passions--without releasing ourselves from our own ego so that we can feel the brotherhood of man. And we learn as Fellowcrafts that we have to overcome and go beyond the human senses, we have to transcend the logic of human education, we have to journey beyond the paradigms of human awareness, we have to surpass even inspiration and insight, go beyond all the powers and properties, the sciences and senses of man to erect our perfect ashlar; to get in touch with divine truth--which is metaphysical—it surpasses human understanding. Then, as Master Masons, we learn that we have to finally overcome ourselves before we can achieve peace and harmony within ourselves, and in our lives.

The bottom line of Masonic teaching is that, through the journey of our degrees, we learn that Divine truth can’t be understood by the human agencies of education, or dogma, or rationale thought, or by the evidence of the senses—it has to be perceived directly. And, my Brothers, it enters into us by the path of initiation.

All of this is pretty heady stuff. Men come into Masonry to learn to improve themselves. If they are coming here for any other reason, then we are failing to represent with honesty what our organizational purpose is. Men come to us to learn. The lodge is the receptacle, the personal space, the sacred environment that will either facilitate their learning, or prevent it.

To me, this brings up another question for all of us: Which kind of facilitator is our lodge?




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How to Dispose of a Dead Body- Resurrection and Freemasonry


Spoiler Alert- This Piece Involves a Discussion on the Master Mason Degree. While we love all EA's and FC's, this may be one that you need to tab and save for later.

There is a question that Masons have learned to ask themselves. It springs from our Ritual and our common experience. Many a Mason has lay awake at night pondering the question I will pose to you this evening. We have each wondered, If it were required, how would I dispose of a dead body?

Now, this is not one of our more serious questions, but it has entered the thoughts of many a mason, because I have been present at the discussions. I do not wish to imply that the men I associate with are particularly morbid nor more likely to find themselves in possession of a dead body which needs disposing of. Rather, it springs from the example given in the third degree.

First comes the requisite dead body, followed by a short-term solution, that of concealing the body. This has immediate benefits, but a permanent solution must be found - an isolated area in which the body will not later be discovered. When the body is discovered, the gig is up, and yet the problem is then transferred to the other party who again faced with the prospect of how to dispose of a dead body.

In the end, we aren't explicitly given the answer. And so we must ask ourselves: How do I dispose of a dead body?

To be sure, there is a final solution to the problem given in our ritual. The search party gathers around the grave, laments the sad state, sends a plea to the heavens, and finally pokes around at the body like an eight-year-old with a stick and a dead raccoon. They discover - to no one's astonishment - that a body left to rot for several days begins to disintegrate - which means it loses its integrity. Horror befalls the searchers, and so they try various means to overcome this process. We witnesses of the story, however, are pulled from the tale and brought back to reality just at the moment in which a solution is proposed.

It will surprise no one to find that on a dead body, the skin will slip from the flesh, and that the flesh will cleave from the bone. So why did these men attempt to pick up the body? We are told that it was to find more decent interment - but we are never shown that the body was interred afterward. In fact, we are left with the distinct impression that the the body no longer required interment.

The description given is one of Resurrection, or the second rise of the body. Resurrection is a familiar term used in Abrahamic religions, though it is not exclusively used there. Resurrection is commonly misunderstood by those who claim to believe in it.

Some followers of Judaism believe in a collective resurrection of all the faithful. Other ancient Israelites protested, calling death Abaddon, which means “Destruction.”[1] It is also called the “place of silence.”[2] Still others believed that the soul separates from the body at death, and while the unrighteous are abandoned to Sheol, the soul of the righteous is called back to God.[3]

The Koran explains that though every bone but one might decay, Allah will send rain to grow new bones from the one seed bone, which will be used for resurrection.

In Christianity, the term is most commonly applied to its namesake, though it was not universally held to be literal or factual. It was a controversial topic in Christianity's early years, though the belief was preceded in Judaism. In their interaction among the Romans, early Christians earned a reputation for being infatuated with the dead. They were witnessed holding dinners in graveyards and maintaining the graves of the deceased. This was a carryover from early Greek culture, in which tubes were installed into graves so that an animal might be slaughtered, the blood given to the dead, and the meat consumed by the living. Grave reliefs at Sparta show the dead holding a cup into which libations might be poured through these tubes. The covering slab of tombs were often used as meal tables.[4]

As the earliest Christianities often assembled in tombs, their agape meals would be consumed among the dead. Further, there is evidence that early Christians constructed their grave slabs to accommodate meals at the grave, with indentations for bread, cakes, and fish for the living, and wine for the dead. These actions were the result of a common belief in physical resurrection - that the dead body was still associated with the living soul.

Greek philosophy, however, generally argued against physical resurrection. A common grave inscription read, "I was not, I was, I am not, I don't care."[5] Plato argued for the separation of the soul from the body at death, and that the soul was one’s true identity - not the body.[6] In fact, there is no evidence of the Greek concept of a bodiless soul before Plato, who coined the term “a-soma-tos,” or “bodiless, immaterial.” Epicurus maintained therefore that "the soul is a finely-particled body;' and in reference to the disciples of Plato, that "those who say that the soul is incorporeal are speaking nonsense"[7] The Stoics likewise maintained that the soul itself was physical, but not immortal.[8] Greek philosophers would, however, most certainly object to the idea of a resurrected body. One need only view a decayed body to see that it decomposes quickly beyond any use. The best one could hope for was reincarnation into a new body.

Concepts of resurrection continued in Western culture despite the adoption of Greek philosophy. Both Christianity and Judaism have traditions of watching over the dead until burial. The tradition of Judaism is called “sitting Shiva,” where one mourns the loved one and cares for the family for seven days after burial. A watcher, called a “Shomer,” will watch over the body of the deceased and read Psalms until burial, which usually occurs in 24 hours.[9] This evolved from the idea that the soul continued to wait by the body, with the expectation that it might be able to rejoin and continue living. When the body shows its first sign of decomposition after three days, the soul realizes the hopelessness of returning, and goes on to rest until the future resurrection. [10] Loved ones might sometimes continue to visit the grave for those three days with the belief that the soul might also be present.

Ideas of resurrection are common to many religions and philosophies. It is often associated with the idea of an immortal body, as in the glorified body, the light body, the body of bliss, the Soma Athanaton, and the most sacred body.[11] These bodies often are represented as similar to our physical bodies, but with supernatural qualities. They are incorruptible. They are beautiful. They can pass through doors, move faster than wind, and shine brightly.

In the Middle Ages, guilds acted as burial confraternities, in which the guild carried out funeral rites at the death of one of their members.[12] And so, it is natural to assume that those guilds would develop rituals for the care of deceased bodies, pulling from the religious and cultural beliefs common to its members. Since Freemasonry maintains various traditions from these guilds, it has also developed funeral rites. More importantly, as we are all aware, Freemasonry discusses these concepts in the ritual of the third degree.

And so we find ourselves at the grave. It has been discovered to contain the body of our lost brother. Planted nearby is a sprig of acacia, which we are told symbolizes immortality. This is a surprising symbol, considering the sight of the body causes the FC to turn away in horror. The men determine that the indecent burial is not sufficient for such an esteemed brother, and so they endeavor to move the body to a proper grave. Their attempts prove difficult, since they cannot lift the body without destroying it completely.

In this hopeless condition, they find themselves at a loss to remediate the situation. Recall with me the words of Job Chapter 14 in the Hebrew scriptures.

1 Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.

2 He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.

3 And doth thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee?

4 Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.

5 Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass;

6 Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as a hireling, his day.

7 For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.

8 Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;

9 Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.

10 But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

11 As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up:

12 So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.

Here is where our prayer might end. And yet, the verses continue, recalling perhaps one of the earliest concepts of resurrection in the Jewish scriptures.

13 O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!

14 If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.

In this, the FCs find new hope. They reach once more into the grave, and with faith and hope, draw out the body.

And thus the story ends. We are not told of the second burial. The plain fact of the ritual shows the body getting up and walking away, having a seat among the brethren. If our imagination has not failed us, we would see his skin falling off his bones, and limbs dropping around him. It would be a most grisly thought. Instead, the implication is that the problem has been resolved. The brother is whole, and his body gets a second chance. He has been resurrected.

But there is the conflict. The goal of the searchers was to find more decent interment. Have they failed? Or was their goal unnecessary and short-sighted?

I propose the resolution to this conflict is that the body was not reinterred in the ground. Rather, the soul was reinterred into the body.

As most of us generally understand, the initiatic experience is one in which a change is made on the catechumen. We see no physical change, and so the implication is that the change occurs in the psyche or soul of the man. He is hoodwinked and led around, caused to speak the words of others (though within his will), made to experience things without his effort. In this act, we do our best to separate the soul of the catechumen from his body. We move his body for him, and thus his soul is left to tend to itself, and to experience the ritual without the distraction of deciding what to say, where to walk, and how to stand. His eyes are unveiled to see the light of the lodge, but more importantly, the eyes of his heart are opened.

When we have completed our work, the soul, who has stood near the body, observing its death, is left to decide whether it will return to the body or remain at rest. It, too, is filled with horror at the prospect of the darkness in which it had lived for so long within the body, and this soul knows that it will never again tolerate that former darkness. It can only live in light. The body will pass, but the soul is immortal. The soul now sees itself for what it truly is. It finally agrees to the resurrection.

The soul is thus reinterred into the body.

We find ourselves in bodies that are slowly dying. We cannot prevent this deterioration, but we hold hope that we are more than this physical form. As the Greeks taught through the phrase, Soma Sema, the body is a tomb. Our souls are immortal. With that knowledge, we can face our question: How do I dispose of a dead body?

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End Notes:

[1] Psalm 88:11

[2] Psalm 115:17


[4] Gregory;J Riley. Resurrection Reconsidered (p. 46). Kindle Edition; Ante Pacem, Snyder, Grayden F. Ante Pacem (p. 90-92, 170) Online link:

[5] Gregory;J Riley. Resurrection Reconsidered (p. 38). Kindle Edition.

[6] Gregory;J Riley. Resurrection Reconsidered (p. 32). Kindle Edition.

[7] Gregory;J Riley. Resurrection Reconsidered (p. 37). Kindle Edition.

[8] Gregory;J Riley. Resurrection Reconsidered (p. 39). Kindle Edition.





[11] Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, Kriya Yoga, Hermeticism, and Sufism.

[12] “Throughout the Middle Ages the guilds to a very large extent were burial confraternities; at any rate the seemly carrying out of the funeral rites at the death of any of their members together with a provision of Masses for his soul form an almost invariable feature in the constitutions of such guilds.”