The Making of a Mason

by George Draffen of Newington


In the early and formative years of the Craft in England three names stand out prominently. It is doubtful if any other men had more influence on the development of Freemasonry than James Anderson, William Preston and Laurence Dermott. The first two were Scotsmen, the third was an Irishman. Two of them reached high rank in the Craft. All three wrote books; The Book of Constitutions by Anderson, Illustrations of Masonry by Preston and Ahiman Rezon by Dermott are Masonic classics. Anderson and Dermottt concerned themselves principally with questions of administration and matters of law and order. William Preston was much more concerned with the details of our ceremonies and, in fact, "what the Craft was all about".

The continued appointment of some Brother to give the Prestonian Lecture which it is my privilege to deliver today, is surely evidence that Grand Lodge considers, as did William Preston, that there is much more in the making of a mason that the ritual conferring of our three degrees. William Preston was much interested in the question of ritual and worked hard to bring the standard of ceremonial in our Lodges to that high place which it has so long occupied. He did more, he compiled those Lectures which, alas, are so infrequently, (if ever) heard in our Lodges today, but which were at one time a sine qua non in the working of our ceremonies.

These Lectures form the greater part of the Second Edition of Preston's Illustrations of Masonry. For his material he ranged far and wide. Stephen Jones, his biographer, wrote "wherever instruction could be acquired, thither Preston directed his course, and with the advantage of a retentive memory and an extensive masonic connection, added to a diligent research, he so far succeeded in his purpose as to become a competent master on the subject. To increase the knowledge he had acquired he solicited the company and conversation of the most experienced Masons from foreign countries and in the course of a literary correspondence with the fraternity at home and abroad, made such progress in the Mysteries of the Art as to become very useful in the connections he had formed."

It is interesting to note that William Preston's writings became very popular in the United States of America, where his Illustrations of Masonry formed the basis of the work of Thomas Smith Webb, sometimes referred to as the "Father of American Masonry" and the compiler of the well-known Webb Ritual, which is possibly the most widely used ritual in the United States today.

What purpose had William Preston in mind when he wrote his Lectures? Surely the full education of Entered Apprentices, Fellow Crafts and Master Masons. In the leisurely era in which William Preston lived, our Lodges had ample opportunity for adequately instructing their members. The Lodges met frequently ‘sometimes as often as every fortnight’ and Lodges of Instruction were unknown. What a contrast the present day affords! In London few indeed are the Lodges which meet more often than five times a year. In the Provinces ten meetings a year is more usual, but even that does not permit of really adequate instruction. That our ceremonial work is of such a high standard is largely due to the indefatigable members of our Lodges of Instruction. But let us for a moment consider this whole question of Ritual.

When one uses the word "Ritual" it is essential to have a clear idea of what the term involves. Even among the better works on the subject of ritual and liturgy it is difficult to find clear and concise ideas on the subject. It may, perhaps, be defined as "orientating one's person towards an objective by a prescribed set of movements and form of words". Ritual, both in primitive and elaborate forms has existed for thousands of years. If we refer to the Old Testament we find that, more than three thousand years ago, there was laid down a ritual form of worship for the Jewish people. Every detail of that worship was prescribed: the sacrifices, the priesthood, the vestments, the very buildings.

Man is a curious mixture of matter and spirit, limited yet reaching out for that which is unlimited. The ascent of Man towards the Truth, towards the Great Architect of the Universe, towards God himself, is at once material and spiritual, corporal and psychic, interior and exterior. Man approaches his God in various ways, by signs, by prostrations, by fasting, by wearing special clothing, etc., etc. He makes use of the one faculty denied to the lower creatures – speech. Then, when speech can no longer express his thoughts fully, body gestures take its place.

The protagonists of ritual emphasize the communal aspects – and they are right in so doing, for the fact is that acts of ritual, considered as a whole, have a communal aspect, and demand in consequence that all who participate have a common contact. A common rite is only good when all assisting perform it together. If only a small part of those present give active assistance, there is a deficiency in the rite. Something is lacking if all present do not do their proper part.

For any society, the community is indispensible. The Church, the Synagogue and the Mosque all demand the community of the faithful. The University demands the community of the teachers and students. The Lodge demands the community of all the members.

A rite is the combination of movements, sounds and words, which form a frame in which the communal action can be accomplished. Because ritual is not just the juxtaposition of individual acts, by its very nature it demands a previously arranged structure. To commit oneself to a common action, when one has no idea of what is to be done, is an impossibility. It is, therefore, essential that there be proper preparation, instruction and training. A good ceremony demands that the rubrics be previously thoroughly studied and understood by all those who are to take part, whether they be Priests in a Church or Officers in a Lodge. Ritual includes not only this technical element, an element upon which much of the success or failure of the rite depends, but includes all those other elements which touch directly on any aspect of the rite.

In all ritual acts we find a tendency in man to repeat his acts in order to recapture the sentiments he has previously experienced. He returns to that same act in order to experience once more the same impression and to prolong it. Ritual acts must be repeated if they are to achieve their full effect. From a psychological point of view, ritual tends to produce in a united community the return of certain emotions, and this through the media of appropriate sounds, words and movements. Man needs to be gradually transferred from the materialistic atmosphere of his daily life to a higher milieu. Once there, he must be made to feel at home in his new position. He must abandon his reserve in order to follow the course of the action. He must throw himself into the mood and the movements to discover what the rite has to offer. A rite simply cannot be understood without one's taking part in it.

It is no part of the function of ritual to act as a medium of instruction. The function of ritual is to enshrine the teachings or dogma of the society to which it applies, in such a way as to be recognizable only to the initiated. It provides the neophyte with the background or framework upon which he must build the superstructure.

If you have any doubts upon this point, let me give you a practical illustration. Tomorrow morning, within this city, at eight o'clock, a ritual ceremony will take place. The central part of this ceremony has remained unchanged for nearly 2,000 years, although it has been elaborated and embroidered much during that period. The ceremony has various titles. The Lord's Supper; Holy Communion; The Eucharist; The Mass. For the first three or four hundred years of its existence nobody was allowed to be present at the ceremony until he was fully qualified to be there. The neophytes or catechumens were required to depart from the service when the Mass began. Nowadays there is no restriction on anybody being present, but no persons can take part in that service until they have been initiated into Christianity through the ceremony of baptism and have passed through the ceremony of confirmation. The rituals of all these ceremonies are available to anyone, in the Book of Common Prayer or the Ordinal of the Roman Church, but no one would attempt to regard either of these books of ritual as a media of instruction in the tenets of the Christian faith.

In ritual there seems to come a time when the manner in which it is performed is more important than the words. The whole force of the ritual does not consist in the mere understanding of the ceremonial acts and the accompanying words. If this were true, then one might be expected to understand, for example, every word of one of the Psalms during their choral recitation in Church or Synagogue, a task which is psychologically impossible. Instead, one receives from the words of the Psalms the ideas which permeate them.

There is a certain measure and rhythm which needs to be safeguarded in every rite. An inconsiderate word of direction or explanation can often suddenly break the mood of the entire community caught up in the action of the ritual.

A man who accustoms himself to ritual will end up loving it. He familiarizes himself with the movements, the sounds and the words. Under their influence he becomes elevated. But if, by chance, he comes upon something that is new, and for which he is unprepared, then he finds himself ill at ease. That is why it is undesirable that any radical changes should be made in Lodge ritual.

Nothing so quickly loses its freshness and vitality as an act repeated, and that is especially true of ritual. Modem man has lost the mobility and freedom of expression that primitive man possessed. This lack of freedom and spontaneity in modern man explains why he is not at home in religious rites, and why these rites – and indeed all rites – are seemingly so strange and complicated.

In establishing the proper conditions for ritual working there are serious dangers to be avoided. These dangers account for some defects in ritual. Because ritual is a complex structure of reaction, it has a tendency to establish itself as an absolute master of all feeling. To those who fail to understand the purpose of rubrics, they seem to be tyrannical. Since ritual is a path, it must be regarded as a means and not an end in itself. When rites are regarded as ends in themselves then the whole ritual becomes nothing but a mechanical process.

Ritual always acts in a conservative fashion. It is, par excellence, the guardian of tradition and the principal means by which the historical aspect is safeguarded and perpetuated. This traditional element of ritual brings with it very real dangers of over emphasis and exaggeration. When one fails to distinguish between what is essential and what is accidental, or when one fails to understand rites in their historical and traditional contexts, then one does not understand their correct place and purpose, and overemphasizes rites to the detriment of the essential action. Ritual then dominates the action instead of serving it. When ceremonial gets lost in all sorts of detailed subtleties, then you have ritualism at its worst. The thesis of ritualism is that the technical perfection of the ceremonial action is of the highest importance and that the traditional formulas enjoy, even to the last detail, an absolute authority. Ritualism lacks a sense of proportion and is based on a false idea of the object of ritual.

On the other hand the formalist lacks even this regard for ritual. He reduces the whole idea of ceremonial to a mere mechanical performance of the necessary acts. The prescribed movements, the recitation of the traditional words, are carried out by the formalist with little effect and freshness. He is not in contact with the things that he handles. Formalism is the greatest danger of any ritual acts; the Lodge Officer is not exempt.

Confronted with these two evils of going to excess, how is one to deal with the matter? One might conceive an aversion to the whole idea of ritual and consider it of little importance even superfluous. Such an idea would be wrong because it is based on a wrong theory of spirituality and wrong understanding of the place of ceremonial in man's life. It is a mistake to think of ritual as merely an outward action or ornamental ceremonial. It is an error to think of ritual as a list of prescribed words and actions by which our ancient Craft admits its aspirants.

A greater mistake is to despise traditional ceremonial and to improvise new rituals. Many have tried this, inspired by a zeal that was more ardent than prudent. In this country we have been singularly free from the efforts of the "ritual improver" but his activities in other countries should serve as a warning of the horrible results‑particularly when completely new "degrees" are manufactured. In this modern age, with its great freedom of action in social relationships and its tendency to break free from custom and tradition, there is little danger of falling into excessive ritualism. Were it not for our Lodges of Instruction, the tendency might be towards a too light regard for ritual.

We have dealt with the greatness and the deficiencies of ritual and the question arises – are we wise to depend as much as we do upon the Ritual as a means of instruction to our Candidates?       The position in Scotland and Ireland is neither better nor worse than the position in England. When we go to the Scandinavian Countries and to Holland and Switzerland, however, we find that very much greater emphasis is placed upon the instructing of candidates than is common in Britain. And I do not suggest that their ceremonial work is less well carried out than ours. On the contrary, the standard is at least as high as it is here.

In the countries I have mentioned the period between the conferring of degrees is, at the minimum, one year. During that period the candidates are required to attend classes of Instruction which deal not only with the interpretation of the ritual but also with the philosophy of the Craft. Whether such a procedure would work in Britain is open to doubt, but that it can work is evidenced by the fact that many of the American Grand Lodges have adopted what they are pleased to call "Education Policies"‑and with some success.

William Preston's Lectures as opposed to his ceremonial ritual were written for another age. If we are to instruct our candidates in the tenets of the Craft some other Preston must arise and prepare for us a series of short educational talks which can be delivered either in Lodge or in a Lodge of Instruction. To illustrate what I have in mind let me give you a short homily on the Hiramic Legend.

THE LEGEND OF HIRAM ABIFF - During the ceremony of the Third Degree, which is so well named the Sublime Degree, you can hardly fail to have been deeply impressed by the Tragedy of Hiram Abif. To understand it, and to appreciate to the full its profound richness of meaning, is something that will remain with you as long as you live.

It is first of all important to understand that the Drama of Hiram Abiff is a ritualistic drama. We all know what a drama is. It is a conflict between a man and other men or between a man and other forces, resulting in a crisis in which his fate or fortune lies at stake. The crisis, or problem, is followed by a solution or resolution. If it turns out in favour of the man the drama is a comedy, in the true and original meaning of that word as a happy ending. If it turns against him, and as a result he becomes a victim or a sufferer, it means that the drama is a tragedy. By drama in either sense I do not refer to plays as they are acted on the stage, which are not dramas at all, but representations of dramas. I refer to drama as it occurs in our own lives, to every one of us, and in our daily experience. The only reason for our interest in reading or seeing stage plays is because they mirror the drama in which in real life we ourselves are the actors.

But the ceremony of Hiram Abiff is not only a drama, it is a ritualistic drama, and the major emphasis should be placed on the word `ritualistic'. What is a ritual? It is a set of fixed ceremonies which address themselves to the human spirit solely through the imagination. A play in the theatre may be built round some historical figure or some historical event, as in the case of Shakespeare's plays about the English Kings and about Macbeth or Hamlet. And if the figures and events are not actually historical, they are supposed to be, so that the facts of time, place and individual identity are of some importance to it. A ritualistic drama, on the other hand, does not pay any heed to historical individuals, times or places. It moves wholly in the realms of the spirit, where time, space and particular individuals are ignored. The clash of forces, the crises and fates of the human spirit alone enter into it, and they hold true of all men, everywhere, regardless of who they are, or where and when they are.

Since the Drama of Hiram Abiff is ritualistic, it is a mistake to accept it as history. There was a Hiram Abiff in history, but our Third Degree is not interested in him. Its sole concern is with a Hiram Abiff who is a symbol of the human soul, that is, its own Hiram Abiff. If, therefore, you have been troubled with the thought that some of the events of this Drama could not possibly have ever happened you can cease to be troubled. It is not meant that they ever happened in ancient history, but that they are symbols of what is happening in the life of every man.

For the same reason it is an inexcusable blunder to treat it as a mere mock tragedy. Savage peoples employ initiation ceremonies as an ordeal to test the nerve and courage of their young men, but Free masonry is not savage. Boys in school often employ ragging, which is horse-play caricature of the savage ceremonial ordeals, but Freemasonry is not juvenile. The exemplification of our ritualistic drama is sincere, solemn, and earnest. He who takes it trivially betrays a shallowness of soul which makes him unfit ever to become a Mason.

Hiram Abiff is the acted symbol of the human soul, yours, mine, any man's. The work he was engaged to supervise is the symbol of the work you and I have in the supervision, organization and direction of our lives from birth to death. The enemies he met are none other than the symbols of those lusts and passions which in our own breasts, or in the breasts of others, make war on our characters and our lives. His fate is the same fate that befalls every man who becomes a victim to those enemies, to be interrupted in one's work, to be made outcast from the lordship (or mastership) over one's own self, and, at the end, to become buried under all manner of rubbish which means defeat, disgrace, misery, and scorn. The manner in which he was raised from that dead level to that living perpendicular again is the same manner by which any man, if it happens at all, rises from self defeat to selfmastery. And the Sovereign Great Architect, by the power of whose word Hiram Abiff was raised, is that same God in whose arms we ourselves forever he, and whose mighty help we also need to raise us out of the graves of defeat, or evil, and death itself.

Did you wonder, while taking part in that drama, why you were personally made to participate in it ? Why you were not permitted to sit as a spectator? You were made to participate in order to impress upon you that it was your drama, not another's, there being exemplified. No man can be a mere spectator of that drama, because it takes place in his own soul. Likewise because it was intended that your participation should itself be an experience to prepare you for becoming a Master Mason, by teaching you the secret of a Master Mason, which is, that the soul must rise above its own internal enemies if ever a man is to be a Mason in reality as well as in name. The reality of being a Master Mason is nothing other than to be the Master of one's self.

Did you wonder why it was that the three enemies of Hiram Abiff came from his own circle and not from outside ? It is because the enemies to be most feared by the soul are always from within, and are nothing other than its own ignorance, lust, passions and sins. As the V.S.L. reminds us, it is not that which has power to kill the body that we need most to shun, but that which has power to destroy the spirit.

Did you wonder why it was that, after Hiram Abiff was slain, there was so much confusion in the Temple. It was because the Temple is the symbol of a man's character, and therefore breaks and falls when the soul, its architect, is rendered helpless. Because the Craftsmen are symbols of our powers and faculties and they fall into anarchy when not directed and commanded by the will at the centre of our being.

And did you wonder why the Lodge appeared to neglect to explain this ritualistic drama to you at the end of the Degree ? It was because it is impossible for one man to explain the Tragedy of Hiram Abiff to another. Each must learn it for himself; and the most we can obtain from others is just such hints and scattered suggestions as these I have given you. Print the story of Hiram Abiff indelibly upon your mind; ponder upon it; when you yourself are at grips with your enemies recall it and act accordingly to the light you find in it. By so doing you will find that your inner self will give in the form of first‑hand experience that which the drama gave you in the form of ritual. You will be wiser and stronger for having the guidance and the light the drama can give you." I do not for one moment disparage the work done by our Lodges of Instruction. Indeed, without them, our ceremonies might well deteriorate into a meaningless mumbo-jumbo. If one had asked the late Professor Joad what was meant by a Lodge of Instruction I am pretty certain that he would have replied "It depends what you mean by instruction". As a general rule the word "instruction" has been construed by Lodges of Instruction to mean "instruction in the working of the ceremonies" rather than "instruction in the meaning of the ceremonies". It is in this latter connection that I feel sure we are not only neglecting our duty, but failing to grasp the opportunity offered in a Lodge of Instruction for the proper making of a Mason.



Senior Grand Warden, Grand Lodge of Scotland

P.M., Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076

* At the time the Lecture was delivered the author was Grand Librarian.


This lecture was first listed in the Lodge 76 Website on December 2013

This Article was extracted and transcribed in this format by Bro. J. Stewart Donaldson.


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