Commentaries on the Opening Ritual

Leon Zeldis

W.M. Gvill Lodge of Research N° 82, Tel Aviv

 

          Masonic rituals must be studied on three levels: first, the plain meaning of the text, which we might designate as the exoteric meaning of the ritual; second, through the symbolic meaning of the terms and objects appearing in the text, and third, the esoteric level, whose understanding requires the previous study of the allegories and allusions to mystical and esoteric traditions that find expression in our rituals.

          As in all studies of symbolism, the interpretations that I shall advance are not canonical. They are my personal opinions, based on my understanding and knowledge, and every brother is free to search and reach his own interpretations, which may not coincide with mine. What follows should be taken as a compass, and not an anchor.

          The Opening Ritual I shall examine is the English Emulation Ritual, which is widely available in print, so no secrecy violation is involved. Other opening rituals being worked by various Grand Lodges may have superficial differences, but their fundamental purpose is always the same. I have included some remarks about other rituals when pertinent. 

          Strictly speaking, the lodge is not opened or closed during its periodic assemblies. What is opened and closed is its work. In other languages, Spanish for instance, this is explicit: “Se abren los trabajos…” (The works are opened).    

          The Opening Ritual, despite being so simple when compared with the rituals of Initiation, Passing and Raising, holds important philosophical teachings, not always fully understood.

          The first question that should be asked, concerning this ritual, is why is it necessary? The meeting, after all, is like the session of a company board, or a panel in a symposium. In such events, the chairman proceeds to open the meeting directly, by his authority, without following any special ritual. The Master of the lodge would certainly be capable of saying “The lodge is open”, strike a blow with the mallet and start with the order of the day.  

          The explanations that follow will prove, I hope, the need for the Opening Ritual, and the difference between a Lodge assembly and any other kind of session. Masons assemble in order to work, and Masonic work is essentially symbolic and philosophic.

          The opening ritual marks the transition from the profane to the consecrated world. This transition is required in order to carry out the Masonic work. The lodge – the college of Masons – works within the lodge room, a place that was consecrated with a special ceremony, that is, it became a sacred environment. The lodge works in this sacred place, and also in sacred time, as we will see later. The entire Opening ceremony is designed to impress on the brethren the fact that they are entering a different place and time, not a continuation of their daily occupations.     

          The first sentence pronounced by the Worshipful Master is “Brethren, assist me to open the lodge”. This is an important point, and here, at the very beginning of the ceremony, we realize that this meeting is different from any other assembly, because the Master cannot act alone, he must receive the assistance of the brethren assembled in order to open the proceedings. Masonic work is a joint operation of all the Masons assembled. Only with their assistance can the Master open the work of the lodge, which will be performed through the interaction of all the brethren present. 

          The first duty of the Masons assembled for work is to make sure that they are secluded, so that no intruders can interfere with their labor. This is not only for the sake of secrecy, to keep confidential the trade secrets of the Masons, or to avoid the ceremony becoming the target of ridicule by ignorant folks, but also for esoteric reasons. All the Masons assembled are “Initiates”, having passed through the Initiation ceremony; this confers on them a special quality, they have been symbolically purified, and by opening their eyes to the light of Masonry they have been freed from the darkness of ignorance prevailing in the profane world. We must isolate ourselves from external influences, so that we may better appreciate the light of Masonry.

          The lodge must be protected from the outside darkness, and this requires the lodge room to be “covered”, i.e. tiled. The word tiled comes from the Latin verb “tego” which means exactly that: to cover, to hide from sight.  We know the legend according to which the Masons assembled in a room under a tiled roof, and the Tyler’s job was to remove a tile to see if any cowan (non-Mason) was approaching, and then replace the tile – tiling the Lodge.

          In French, the Tyler is called “Couvrer”, that is, “Coverer”. To cover is not only to hide, but also to protect, to afford protection and security.

          Since the presence of a possible intruder would spoil the spiritual purity of the assembled Initiates, the second question posed by the Master is to make sure that all present are Masons.

          This is verified not by asking each one of the Brothers if he is a Mason, but by observing his behavior. He must show by signs that he is indeed a Mason.  In another ritual [a], the Senior Warden is asked whether he is a Mason, and his reply is: “My Brethren recognize me as such”. And how is he recognized? By signs, tokens and words, that is, by the way he behaves, how he relates to other men, and the way he speaks. Senior Masons can often recognize each other, even without making any overt sign to identify themselves; there is something in their demeanor, their thoughtful speech that is recognizable by their peers.

          Note that the words used by the Master are “to stand to order”, and this is composed of three elements: the position of the hands, of the feet, and the movement made discharging the sign. Therefore, no such sign is possible when walking or sitting down.

          Making the EA sign at the opening of the lodge reminds all the brethren that, when speaking, reason (the head) and not passion (the heart) must govern their words.

          Masonic signs in general make frequent use of the square. The square and rectitude are symbolically connected. “Square work” is correct work, as exemplified in the Mark Degree.  

          “Order” is an important word in Masonic vocabulary. One of the mottoes of the Scottish Rite is “Ordo ab Chao” – Order out of chaos. In fact, throughout the ladder of Masonic degrees brethren are enjoined to follow a specific order in their actions and words. Ordering our thoughts is how we train our mind to be agile and productive.

          Order, the fact that the world, the universe, has order and laws, and is not in chaos, is a proof of the existence of a guiding hand, which Masons designate as the Great Architect of the Universe. This aspect of the Deity is not a particular Masonic symbol since non-Masonic, ancient illustrations show God holding compasses to measure the earth.

          In some rituals, brethren walk about the lodge following straight lines and turning 90 degrees at the corners. This is known as “squaring the lodge”. This is another expression of keeping order in our actions.

          The Master now conducts a dialog with the Wardens concerning the number of Officers in the lodge, stressing the number three, repeated, to the point of affirming that there are three assistant officers “besides the Tyler”, in other words, they are four, but the sacred triad must be honored. Something similar was adopted by the Grand Lodge of England at the time of the Union (1813), when the Holy Royal Arch had to be included within the Grand Lodge framework. In order to preserve the fiction that Freemasonry consists of only three degrees, the Royal Arch was included as a completion of the third degree.

          It is notable that the seven Officers mentioned in the Ritual are divided into three principal and four assistant ones. This reminds us of the trivium and quadrivium of liberal arts studies in medieval universities. Seven is a deeply symbolic number. An entire chapter could be written about its many aspects. Being the sum of three and four, which symbolically represent the spiritual (three – triangle) and the material (four – square) world, seven represents the entire creation, which explains why God created the universe in seven days. Seven appears in the days of the week, the planets in ancient astronomy (and astrology), muses, virtues, sins, blessings and many other instances.

          The choice of seven for the number of officers is intentional. To keep the number down to seven, other officers of great importance in the operation of the lodge, such as the Secretary, Treasurer, Director of Ceremonies and Chaplain are ignored.  

          A long dialog now describes the position of each of the seven Officers and their duties. Some writers have drawn the floor of the lodge with the location of the officers and have concluded that they can be connected with lines forming a hexagram, or Solomon’s Seal, which is supposed to hold magical powers. 

          The positions of the seven officers are fixed, the same that the planets circle the sun in fixed orbits. In fact, the various officers can be related to the various planets. The lodge’s relation to astronomy is also reflected in the globes on top of the J and B columns. One globe represents the earth and the other represents the heavens, sometimes by an armillary sphere.   

          A final remark on seven: this is the minimum number of Masons who can open a lodge for Masonic work.

          The Master of the lodge represents the source of light, the sun. This finds material expression in some rituals, where the tapers around the altar are lit with fire brought from the Master’s station.

          The Master now proclaims that the lodge is duly formed and invokes the protection of the GAOTU. A three-part final goal, that the work begun in order be continued in peace and closed in harmony, reminds the Brethren that proper respect and tolerance must be maintained throughout the meeting.

          In many rituals, a symbolic pyramid or dome is formed over the head of the officer opening the VSL. This is a symbolic focus for the spiritual force originating from the VSL, which spreads out from this point, assisting the Brothers assembled throughout the lodge meeting. Since no such force can come out of the closed VSL, no pyramid is formed at the end of the work, when closing the lodge.         

          As mentioned above, the meeting is carried out in a symbolic time. In another ritual (see the note below) this is specified: the lodge is opened at midday and closed at midnight.

          Noon is the hour when, in theory, the sun is over the meridian, sunlight falls directly down, creating no shadows. Thus, it is appropriate for Masonic work, in full light, without shadows. Masons are known as “Sons of the Light”. In some rituals the three principal Officers of the lodge (WM, SW and JW) are called the “lights” of the lodge.

Midnight, on the other hand, marks the end of one day and the beginning of the next. Completing the daily work, the Brethren exit the sacred time to reenter the profane world at 0 hours, symbolically beginning a new count of time, a renewal, a kind of rebirth that replays the Initiation ceremony.

          Working from noon to midnight also signifies that Masons are ready to work day and night. You are a Mason at all times of day and night. Once a Mason, always a Mason.

{a]  The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite craft degrees.

 

 

                  

               

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