What the Three Degrees Have Come to Mean to Me
By Bro Andrew M. Bergman
Lodge Mutual #53
on the roll of the Grand Lodge of South Africa
When I look back over my life, which, incidentally, has been disproportionately eventful considering my age, there are three events which stand out in my memory as days wherein my life changed irreversibly and forever.
To attach greater or lesser importance to any one of them would all depend on the perspective of the moment, but surely, the day that I married my wife Johanna must be one of these.
Going back some 20 years, another watershed event was the day, close to my 13th birthday, when I became Bar Mitzvah, and passed symbolically from boyhood into manhood, according to the tradition of The Ancient Faith. On this day, for all spiritual purposes, I became a man, responsible for my actions to myself, to my fellow human beings, and to He who I would one day term The Great Architect of the Universe.
The third event that I will mention, which is certainly the most important from the perspective of this essay, was the day when I passed from the darkness of the Profane, and was initiated and accepted as an Entered Apprentice into the Light of the Brotherhood of Freemasonry.
While it is true that the subsequent ceremonies of my passing and raising also stand out all too distinctly in my memory, and made no less of an impression upon me, they were really a continuation of my journey to from Darkness into Light.
I will therefore expound, and at times meditate, on the significance of each of these Degrees, as I have perceived them.
The First or Apprentice Degree:
From the beginning, I was told that "Freemasonry is a progressive science", so that I never, for a moment questioned the logic behind the existence of Three Degrees in Craft Masonry.
Unlike many other societies, clubs and organisations, there is no mechanism in Freemasonry whereby an aspiring member can, so to speak, "try before he buys".
I have seen, in my Mother Lodge and in other Lodges, that some candidates complete their First Degree, but then find out that Freemasonry does not offer them what they thought it would, and they, sadly, slowly fall by the wayside. Needless to say, the most common reason for this is that the candidate concerned joined the Craft for the wrong reasons.
However many times a candidate for the First Degree might be cautioned not to join out of idle curiosity, or with mercenary motives hoping to improve his business contacts, alas, some still do. The rest is history.
I had no such illusions, but rather took to heart the words of my proposer: "Expect to get out of Freemasonry only as much as you are prepared to put in".
This, as well as many others, has served me well, not only in terms of my Masonic career, but also in my daily life in the Profane.
As I sat in the Chamber of Meditation before my initiation, a sign with the words "Know Thyself" was placed before my eyes.
I do not recall what my initial thoughts were on this as I sat there, but I certainly know what they began to mean once the ceremony of my initiation started, on into my Apprenticeship and through to this day.
Self Knowledge, the theme of the First Degree, is a sound foundation upon which the Temple of a man's Life may be built. He who knows, or seeks to know himself, is far more aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, and I was to find that throughout the Degrees, the lessons taught would refer back to this time and again.
Using myself as a prime example, I have been aware that from a young age, I have been able to work well with words. But as good as I might have been at writing, so dismally poor was I at working with figures. Therefore, while I might expect some degree of success choosing a career in Journalism, I could but expect to fail dismally as an accountant.
But self knowledge runs far more deeply than this. It takes thought and deep meditation before one reaches the realisation that the Creator has measured out to all of us, various skills and strengths, and because we might have a certain strength that someone else does not, it does not make us a better person than he, for he surely, in turn, has skills and abilities which we do not.
In Freemasonry, all are equal. In short, there is a place in the Great Plan for the building of the Temple of Freemasonry for anyone, provided he uses the setting maul, endeavouring to knock off the imperfections from the rough ashlar of his heart.
And the only way he can do that is if he sees them clearly.
And the only way he can see them clearly is if he knows himself.
The Second or Fellow-Craft Degree:
It has often puzzled me why some Masons regard the Second or Fellow-Craft degree as one which somehow has less importance than the First or Third.
In the First Degree, the Apprentice wears his apron with the flap turned inward, as a symbol that his labours will return unto himself. This is equally true in any operative craft. On a building site, for instance, operative masons do not expect that the Apprentice mason will be particularly productive towards the progression of the building. He is, after all, an apprentice, and his labours are dedicated to learning his craft. They therefore largely revert to himself - to the building of his skill. If this is successful, his contribution to the building of the wall will look after itself.
The Fellow-Craft or Journeyman, on the other hand, enjoys no such indulgences. Having served his apprenticeship, and having been passed as a journeyman, his labours pass into the realm of "active duties". He must be able to work, and his labours must be the mainstay of the building.
In Freemasonry, this is similar, albeit symbolic. The Fellow-Craft wears his apron with the flap turned upwards, denoting "the sublime nature of his work".
In reality, before the Apprentice is passed to the Fellow-Craft Degree, he must have learned the self-knowledge of the Apprentice, and become proficient enough to make an active contribution to the building of the symbolic Temple of Freemasonry in general, and his Lodge in particular.
In accordance with his higher degree, great trust is placed in the Brother Fellow-Craft. This is reflected in the poignant "Mirror Charge", where the candidate stands before is own reflection in a mirror, and is told: "There stands your highest judge".
This is one of the important lessons which the Second Degree teaches: Which of us has not said: "I wouldn't be able to do this or that, and then still look at myself in the mirror in the morning"?
To me, one of the most impressive moments in the passage from Apprentice to Fellow-Craft, was the recitation of the Parable of The Sower. The seed is surely sown in the First Degree, but in the Second Degree, it becomes apparent whether that seed has fallen by the wayside, upon stony places, among thorns, or, hopefully, on fertile ground.
On contemplating this point, I was faced with a classic "chicken and egg" dilemma: Do men endeavour to be good, brotherly or upstanding because they are Freemasons, or do men become Freemasons because they endeavour to be good, brotherly and upstanding?
I tend to favour the latter, and therefore, in the Second Degree, the Fellow-Craft affirms his fervent desire to labour alongside like-minded men - those who endeavour to be good, brotherly and upstanding, and as a result, have become Freemasons.
The Third or Master Mason Degree:
The phrase "to give someone the Third Degree" found its way into the English idiom so long ago, that even non-Masons tend to shudder at the though of what this must be.
But as all Master Masons have discovered, there is little or nothing in the ceremony which presents an actual danger to the life and limb of a Candidate.
Rather, the raising of a Candidate to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason is something of a cerebral culture shock.
In most religions, there is some form of belief in a life after death, but whichever religion a candidate might belong to, the teachings of the Third Degree take his former beliefs, turn them upside down, shake them out, and turn them right-side-up again, so that they might superficially look the same, but in reality, they have been changed forever.
The theme of the Third Degree, is that of Immortality. This is communicated in many ways, not the least of which is the illustration of the frailty and impermanence of our earthly frame.
The Apprentice is "born" into the Light of his Mother Lodge. The Fellow-Craft is taught to labour well in his short sojourn upon the earth, but the Master Mason must symbolically die, be laid in the grave of earthly death, and be raised on the Five Points of Fellowship, re-born into Life and Light Eternal.
In this Degree, the Legend of Hiram Abif is central. Many purist researchers question the historical truth of this legend, but for Masonic purposes, its actual truth, or lack thereof, is irrelevant, and therein itself lies the point in question.
How the importance of the earthly historical truth of the Hiramic Legend fades, when compared to the eternal and celestial truths which its lesson undeniably communicates.
In accordance with the Legend, Hiram Abif, the Grand Master in the building of the Temple of King Solomon, is accosted by three Fellow-Crafts, who demand to be given the secrets of the Master's Degree on pain of death.
Hiram, rather than perjure himself, and thereby simply prolonging his earthly life, chose to be murdered, rather than give up the secrets to those who had patently proved themselves unworthy of them.
He therefore took the secrets to the shallow makeshift grave which his murderers laid him in.
The significance of this lesson is illustrated admirably in the Ritual during the Explanation of the Reception. Throughout our life on earth, we are faced with choices where the self knowledge we learned as Apprentices, and the Ability to Labour we gained as Fellow-Crafts allow us to distinguish quite clearly between right and wrong. If a Mason has diligently learned the progressive lessons taught by the First and Second Degrees, he will clearly see the right path which is brightly illuminated by the Most High.
The wrong path might, at the time, seem to be the easier and more pleasant of the two, but the path of the Master Mason should always be that of the right. After all, what good will it do him to, in the words of the ritual, "corrupt his bones" by succumbing to the temptations and self-interest of the flesh?
For the Master Mason, the path is clear. The sensual pleasures of this temporary life on earth fade into insignificance when compared with the sublime nature of Life Eternal.
When meditating on Freemasonry and its origins, I turned to research, and encountered a host of theories, each, in varying degrees, at odds with one another. Ultimately, it was up to me to decide to which school or schools of thought I should wholly or partially subscribe.
Exploring this conundrum within a mystery surrounded by an enigma, I started to question the relevance of knowing the exact point in history where Freemasonry emerged to stand distinct from the Profane.
When I was made an Entered Apprentice, I was asked: Where were you first prepared to become a Freemason?" The answer: "In my Heart," suddenly took on a far more profound meaning than I had ever given it.
One day, way back in that proverbial "time immemorial", some man, however primitive, considered that conflict and hate simply did not make as much sense as harmony and brotherly love. He realised that the path of the good inevitably triumphed over the bad, and that however much evil there might be in the world, there is not enough darkness to quench the Light of one small candle.
I believe that it was on the day that that man came to these realisations that Our Ancient Craft was born, and that in his heart, that man was the first Freemason.
Who that man was, where that man was and how that man came to those conclusions is largely irrelevant.
S\ M\ I\ B\
Andrew M Bergman
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