Among the Western Initiatic Traditions, Freemasonry is one of the best known. Today, it seems strange to say that this amazing organization was founded in 1777 in an English pub, but it's true! Of course, it was a formalization of groups that preexisted. However, it is from this moment that the legend really begins. At first, simple rituals were used, along with signs and secret words. Progressively, a third degree was added to the two originals, then thirty degrees more, then sixty-five Egyptian degrees more, and so on.
Anyone, aristocrat or not, was able to wear a sword, to become a builder, an architect, a knight, or a Jewish Priest. Everyone wore aprons of legendary builders and eventually, gleaming golden decorations of various kinds. Almost all the secret rituals were published very early. Some of them referred to sacred lost words, others about ancient teachings from the Middle East. It is clear that these groups were talking about establishing a social system more equal, more tolerant, and under less influence from the Church. You don't need to be an historian to understand that such groups could have been suspected of conspiracy against the state and the church. (On the other hand, you could laugh at the idea of the multitudes playing to be knights or high priests—but the Lord does work in mysterious ways.) Eventually, this incredible jumble of symbols and misspelled Hebrew words succeeded and conquered the world.
Today, Freemasonry is regulated by Grand Lodges organized by countries and states; lodges are under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodges. Most of them share the same principles, and are recognized by the Grand Lodge of England. The other Masonic organizations, no matter what ritual they use, are qualified as clandestine and disqualified from the "universal" brotherhood of the "British Masonic Commonwealth."
At this point you may ask why such an organization that is so common is yet considered mysterious. Let's forget the conspiracy theories for the sake of this article and focus on what really exists. Freemasonry was a social and human project. As such, it was linked to the Age of Enlightenment. Several French philosophers became Masons, followed by several founding fathers of the United States. Then, through the years, Freemasonry became more and more institutionalized, losing part of this ideal, prohibiting any conversation about politics, religion, and other topics. One Masonic organization even aims to "eliminate sporadic efforts to resuscitate or perpetuate Rites, Systems, and Orders of Freemasonry in the United States."
It would be logical now to ask why I was initiated in Freemasonry a long time ago, and why I continue to be a Mason. I would welcome this question. My answer would certainly be that the Western spiritual Tradition is fascinating, and Freemasonry is an important part of it. Let's try to unveil a few elements that are not obvious to anyone, Mason or not.
In a sense, you can compare Freemasonry today to a cult. Every spiritual or religious tradition has two sides: exoteric and esoteric. The first, exoteric, is the visible aspect, and the first you will find in your investigation. It contains all aspects related to society and humankind. Contemporary Freemasonry teaches moral standards through symbolic rituals. Initiations are used as rites of passage. The beliefs are simple, but mandatory. The main one is the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, also called the "Great Architect of the Universe," or, simply, "God." The goal is to help men become better, to improve their understanding of fraternity regarding their brothers and humankind. At the same time, Freemasonry is very involved in philanthropy. All these goals are noble and worth following.
The second side, the esoteric, is the invisible aspect of the organization. Like the soul of our being, it brings life and identity. According to this belief, we are human because there is a divine soul that enlightens us. An initiatic organization without this esoteric part is a simple service organization (such as the Rotary International). There is always the risk of Freemasonry losing its soul, its esoteric side. Of course, Freemasonry could keep its ritual and remain a kind of church. However, this is not the way a real Initiatic Order wants to perpetuate its heritage.
The Esoteric Freemasonry has five main aspects (my book, Secrets and Practices of the Freemasons, presents a deep analysis of several of these aspects; my forthcoming book, Freemasonry in Your Daily Life, will provide even more rituals and practices to perform). These five aspects are essential to anyone who wants to understand, or to begin this inner path. I am not talking about an inner circle inside Freemasonry nor another Masonic organization. However, a Mason can begin individually to learn and practice this esoteric side of his Tradition (the "Esoteric Masonic Club"is a very good example of such group).
The first aspect is all about morals. the principles are simple and as universal as Freemasonry. They are not related to a specific faith, even if most of these principles can be found in the most tolerant religions. Practicing these morals is paramount. Three main principles can be quoted here: "Worship God, cherish all humans, and make yourself useful to the homeland" (Universal Code of Morals, J.L. de Biasi, Theurgia Publications). The simple practice of daily introspection helps the practitioner to improve the quality of his life and to know himself better.
The second aspect is the studies, per se. It is essential to know more about the structure in which we are involved. It is important to be able to lift up the veil of the mysteries. A few fields are involved in these traditional studies, including esotericism, theology, and initiatic traditions of the Western Tradition. The first part, esotericism, contains fundamental subjects for the understanding of Freemasonry, such as initiatic Qabalah, symbolism, etc. The second part, theology, is literally "the science of religion, study of God and his relationship to humanity." The third part, initiatic traditions, is the explanation of ancient Western Traditions that have connections to Freemasonry. The sacred Mysteries of Eleusis and the Mithraism are two good examples of such connections.
The third aspect is the study and discussions about Masonic rituals or related topics. This fundamental part was handled differently depending on the time and the country. In Europe, this interest goes back to the earliest years of Freemasonry. Initiates, eager to go deeper in the understanding of esotericism, created several new degrees which were used in small groups of brethren.
Several aspects of the Egyptian and Greek ancient Mysteries were enacted in rituals and initiations; the names "Memphis" and "Misraïm" became famous in this regard. This part of the Masonic Tradition is alive and well today. Disorganized and non-creditable European groups are one of the modern expressions of it, but you can also find honest esotericists eager to learn more about it. I spoke extensively in my previous book about the connections between Egypt and some essential keys of the Masonic rituals. Passwords related to architecture, taught through questions and answers, can be found in several Egyptian books. Masons obviously used them to develop their rituals. Other symbols such as the pyramid, the temple, and the two main symbols of the sun and the moon are all related to Egypt. The famous founding myth of Hiram has more to do with Osiris and Isis than with the Bible. Grasping these truths opens our understanding more than trying to find clues where there aren't any. These esoteric degrees were the manifestation of creative men proud to be the heirs of this rich hidden history.
The fourth aspect is related to an essential side of the esoteric path: individual practices for spiritual enlightenment rooted on the Masonic Tradition. I reveal a few of these individual practices in my aforementioned book. It is important to understand this: a spiritual tradition can succeed to transform someone only if an inner practice is involved. You can go to church if you are a believer, but without any prayer, you will go nowhere. Similarly, a mason can attend lodge meetings, but without Masonic meditation and inner training, he will not progress spiritually. Specific prayers exist. Precise visualizations can be practiced in a gradual way, along with several individual rituals. All these elements constitute a concrete and effective system that remained mostly unknown or rejected by some, but are, in fact, essential tools.
The fifth and final aspect is the realization of the Great Work: helping the world to be better. Don't forget that our humanity is fragile! Everyone who is seeking self-improvement has a duty regarding his neighbors. Do for them what you expect them to do for you! Do the same for the society as a whole. I am not talking here about philanthropy which is carried out by the Masonic Lodges; I am talking about a sacred duty for the esotericists as explained by the philosopher Plato: if you want to improve society, you need to change the minds of those who are politically in charge. This is a political action for the good of Humankind. An Esotericist Mason who has progressed in his spiritual path understands the need to share these morals and ideals.
As you can see, Freemasonry is not limited to conspiracy theories, action movies, or famous novelists. The Tradition can be seen as a place where esotericists learn the use of hidden keys. Such initiation is essential for a real spiritual life, to help humankind progress in the direction of the divine light!