Skip to content

G.3.5 The Holy Royal Arch of Jerusalem

The top level of Freemasonry under the English Constitutions is known as the Order of the Royal Arch of Jerusalem. There are also many other, so-called higher degrees, besides those of the main stem of the Masonic system; they emphasise doctrinal side-points or express the teaching with alternative symbolism. These will not be dealt with here as they are secondary and tend to distract the attention from the central purpose of the Craft. In other words higher degrees can be invented without limit, but it must be clear that the main ones already contain all the necessary doctrine of the Craft. It is also a fallacy to believe that by multiplying the degrees one will discover hidden secrets that are unknown to the main ones. Moreover the really important secrets are those incommunicable ones discovered in the inner consciousness of the seeker who has been able to translate ceremonial representation into facts of spiritual experience.

This is the reason why the authors of the Constitutions of the Order rejected the so-called higher degrees and declared that “Masonry consists of the three Craft Degrees and the Holy Royal Arch and nothing else”. In these the entire process of human regeneration is explained, or at least mentioned. There is nothing new to say after the Royal Arch, but only elaboration of what has already been said. The completeness of regeneration has been reached, in theory, in these four stages or, in other words, it can be said that with the Arch Degree the Mason has achieved the miracle of “squaring the circle”, a metaphorical way to mean regeneration.

The Royal Arch was initially part of the Third Degree, but it has been removed from it to make it clearer as an expansion and completion of the Third degree of Master Mason. The two parts together were also a very long and too complicated rite. It must be clear however that the Royal Arch is the natural conclusion and fulfilment of the Third degree. The third Degree emphasises the necessity, in dramatical form, of the mystical death and revival into a new life whereas the Royal Arch goes a step further by showing the apotheosis of the mason who has gone through it.

The Royal Arch degree expresses the new and intensified life to which the candidate is raised, and the corresponding high level of consciousness that he reaches with it. From being merely conscious, as any man can be, the initiate becomes “exalted” to consciousness in a supernatural and unlimited way, and that is the purpose of Initiation. No higher level is possible above that in which the human merges in the Divine Consciousness and knows as God knows. This is the level of the Order of the Royal Arch; it can be said that Masonry, as a sacramental system, reaches its climax and conclusion in that Order.

To reach that level requires total abnegation, renouncement and renovation of the candidate’s original nature, the surrender of his worldly desires, tendencies, and preconceptions as well as the abandonment of his natural self-will. This requires a strict discipline, self-denial, and the gradual destruction by atrophy of all the human defects. On the other hand, a man can go on with his natural life and refuse to see that a higher quality of life exists and can be reached through hard work. In this case he will get nowhere and only frustrates his spiritual evolution. But if he is willing “to die” (as explained before), if he will re-orients his will, and silence his natural energies and desires so that the Vital and Immortal principle in him can assert itself and supersede them, then, from the ruins of his past, true life will grow in him. And through initiation he will rise from his dead self to a higher level that otherwise he cannot experience.

The necessity of a mystical death-in-life is the basic knowledge required before a man can hope to realise, or even to understand, the mystery of the Royal Arch degree as “death to self is the portal to true life”. Understanding this concept is a condition for the soul’s progress. It is a process involving a difficult trial of fortitude and fidelity, and a battle with oneself that rebuts many people. The Mystery-systems have always been an example for the instruction, encouragement, and emulation for those ready to make the attempt and go through the sacrifices. To encourage them in their tasks, the Initiatory Colleges always shows an example of a person that has taken the same path to emerge victorious after his long walk. The example is not necessarily a well identified historic person, it can also be a legendary or mythical hero, but the important is not to teach a historical fact, but to enforce a spiritual principle. In Egypt it was Osiris who was killed and dismembered by his brother Typhon and who, later on, walked out of his coffin reintegrated and divinised. In Greece the prototype was Bacchus who was torn to pieces by the Titans. Baldur in Scandinavia and Mithra in Graeco-Roman Europe are other similar heroes. In Masonry, the example is Hiram Abif who was killed by a conspiracy of workmen led by three ruffians who wanted to steal the secrets of his trade. In the Christian world the greatest example is Jesus who died killed by a mob headed by three main ruffians: Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate. In Masonry, the mystical death is more dramatic than the following resurrection that is symbolised in the “raising” of the candidate to the rang of Master Mason, and his reunion with his Brethren. This meeting implies the reintegration and resumption of all his former faculties and power in a sublimated state, as Osiris and Jesus Christ did before.

The Royal Arch Degree leads to a new order of life. Being the Supreme degree it is not easy to understand by ordinary people. It requires a high level of thought and instruction, as it was not made for the ordinary intelligence of the philosophically untrained men. To understand its implications the candidate must have gone through a long and difficult period of purification and mental discipline that widen and deepen his understanding. At the same time the high inward light that has led him so far has also induced in him humility and docility; these are useful when he will come to understand that Wisdom that is normally unknown but by the Initiates. This rite of initiation deals with the higher reaches and possibilities of his understanding and consciousness, a theme calling more on disciplined imagination and reverent reflection rather that on reasoned arguments. Certain things are not explained at all while others are only mentioned with diffidence, and at the risk of being misunderstood or rejected by those who do not yet understand that in these matter “the letter kills and the spirit vivifies”, and also “spiritual truths must be spiritually discerned”.

Four features are characteristic of this Supreme Order:

a- No one can be received into a Chapter if he is not yet a Master Mason. It would not be possible for one who has not yet gone personally through mystical death to experiment what goes beyond it.
b- The circular symbol of the Grand Geometrician, which in the Second Degree shone high in the ceiling of the Temple, and in the Third Degree has moved downwards and is seen as a ray in the east to guide the candidate in the direction of peace, has now descended on the checker-board floor. There it rests as the centre and cubical focus of the entire organism, and bears the sacred and ineffable name, as also those of Solomon and of the two Hiram.
c- The constitution of the assembly is no longer one of seven officers, but of nine grouped in three triads about the sacred symbol. These changes in the ceremonial are symbolic of a structural re-arrangement which occurred in the candidate’s own psychical organisation. He has undergone a repolarisation as the result of the descent of that high central light, that at first seemed to be far away in his “heaven”, illuminating the dormer-window of his natural intelligence. This means that the light is now within him, the fontal source of all consciousness has descended in the checker-work material of his transient physical organism, taking root in it on a permanent basis. In theological language, God has become man and man is divinised. In Masonic terms, the Vital and Immortal Principle resident in the candidate has replaced his temporal life-principle, and put him on a new centre of incorruptible life. Now we can understand why the previous purification, discipline, self-crucifixion, and death of all lower nature were so important. The purity of the Divine Essence could no go into the coarse body of a sensualist; the Eternal Wisdom could not unfold its treasures in a mind interested only in material pursuit; the Universal Will could not co-operate with the worldly preferences and desires of the uninitiated. As a result it becomes obvious that a real Master Mason is not anymore an ordinary man. He is now a divinised man, one in whom the personal and the Universal consciousness have come into union. The quality of life and consciousness of such a man are not the same as those of the other ordinary men; his being is geared upon another centre known as the grand Geometrician of man’s personal universe. To the wise ancients, this knowledge was known as Geometry, “earth-measuring or determining the occult potentialities of the human earth or temporal organism under spiritual stresses”. Plato said that “God geometrises with intimate knowledge of the subject”. Many of the Euclidean and Pythagorean theorems are now regarded as mathematical demonstrations, whereas before they were seen as expressions of the esoteric science of soul-building or true Masonry. The squaring of the circle, for example, is an occult expression meaning that Deity, symbolised by the all-containing circle, has attained form and manifestation in a “square” or human soul. It expresses the mystery of the Incarnation, accomplished within the personal soul. The Geometrising Principle is now symbolically integrated within the candidate’s temporal organism and a re-distribution of his component powers has been done. His condition is now symbolised by an equilateral triangle with a point at its centre. Such a triangle, worked in gold, will appear on the sash worn by the Companion of the Order. This triangle means that the tripartite aspects of the person who wears it (the spiritual, psychical and physical) are now equalised and equilibrated around their common Life-Principle at the centre, fitted, and equipped for Its purpose. They are united but they remain philosophically triadic in composition. “Every monad is the parent of a triad,” said the ancients, as does the Hegelian metaphysics: “thesis, antithesis and synthesis are the essential ingredients of a given truth”. As a result, the three aspects of each of the three sides of the equilateral triangle are ceremonially personified by the nine officers of the Chapter: three in the East represent the spiritual side, three in the west represent the soul or psychical side, and three subordinate links connecting the first two groups.
d- The Assembly, regarded as a unity, is not anymore called a Lodge, but a Chapter. The word chapter is derived from “caput” or head, but the change has more important meaning that the fact that the Royal Arch stand at the head or summit of the Craft. As a result of his supremacy over his material nature, this Mason has gone over Craftwork and is governing the Lodge of his lower nature, which is now the instrument and servant of his spiritual self. Now his energies are employed above all on the spiritual plane. The “head” of the material organism of man is his spirit, and this spirit together with the Universal Spirit, is deity’s supreme instrument and vehicle in the temporal world. The physical organism and brain of that man have become sublimated at a level above the average humanity. Physiologically, in that man the brain has been modified in a way unknown to ordinary people. The true Master Mason, as a result of his Mastership, can control the energies released in his brain and they reach their maximum and come to self-consciousness in his head and his intelligence. The Gospels tell us that the Passion of Christ took place “at the place called Golgotha in Hebrew; that is the place of a skull”. This means that he terminated in the head, or seat of intelligence, and in a mystery of the spiritual consciousness. The same truth is revealed when we analyse what happened when a branch of acacia was planted at the head of the tomb of the Masonic Grand Master, Hiram Abif. The grave is the candidate’s soul, the branch of acacia represents a divine germ planted in the soil and waiting to come into life in his intelligence, the “head” of that plane. When the branch of acacia blooms at the head of his soul’s sepulchre, the candidate understand the mystery of Golgotha, the mystery of the death of Hiram, and the meaning of the Royal Arch ceremony of exaltation. It is a mystery of spiritual consciousness, the efflorescence of the mind of God, the opening of the human intelligence in conscious association with the Universal and Omniscient Mind. This explains why the skull is given so much importance in the Master Mason’s Degree.

The Ceremony of Exaltation

The ceremony is again performed in the dark as in the Apprentice stage, however the motivation is different. The Apprentice was an ignorant beginner looking for the light whereas now he is a qualified Master Mason who has found the light. He has learned in the Third Degree that strength can be perfected out of weakness with the help of the Vital and Immortal Principle within him, in whose presence darkness and light are alike. Now his deprivation of light is the darkness of the Third Degree used for this new experience. In it he has to adjust his perception to the new quality of life he is going to enter into, like a new-born baby has to co-ordinate his sight upon coming into the world. For a while the candidate feels himself in darkness, but he is in fact blinded by an excess of light and not by the lack of it.

The candidate is now entering and exploring a new place while keeping in touch with his companions by a lifeline. This symbolism alludes to certain interior process of introspection well known to the contemplative mystics. The place where he enters represents again the material and psychical organism, a layer of material particles coating the interior spirit of man as a shell surround the content of an egg. Once the obstruction is removed the psychical organism becomes detached from the physical, and the mind is free to be introverted and able to explore its own ground to search the content of its own depths. With the energy of the will, the mind can then probe deeper and deeper into itself, removing defects and rubble, but keeping in touch with the outer physical nature by a life-line that prevent entire separation. This is similar to what happens in dreams, except that in dream the will is not fully active, as is the case with a Master Mason who can control all his faculties. This interior work, summarised and symbolically enacted in the Ceremony, requires a lot of training and a strong personality. For this reason the ancients referred to it as the “Twelve labours of Hercules”. During the Ceremony the utmost humility is required of the candidate as the essential qualification to enter this process of self-exploration that leads the central Essence, the holy ground of his being upon which only the humble can walk.

At this stage the introverted mind, groping for its own foundation and centre, reaches the base of its being. In other words, the questing mind, in coming upon the Vital and Immortal Principle animating it, “lays hold on Eternal Life”. It discovers the Lost World, the Divine root of its being, from which it has been dissociated until now. This work of the introverted mind, and the discoveries it makes, are shown as taking place in the dark. It is now necessary to extrovert that knowledge and bring it into brain-consciousness so that, what the mind and soul already know inside, the outer mind can also know exteriorly. Subjective awareness does only becomes knowledge when its goes through the brain and the logical understanding. When this process is completed, and knowledge becomes formalised, a reciprocal and reflex action between the inner and outer nature illuminates the whole. The candidate coming back from the darkness, and rejoining his companions, symbolically shows this extroversion of subjective perception. The mystery is then consummated, the Great Light breaks, the Vital and Immortal Principle comes to self-consciousness in the candidate, and the Glory of the Lord is revealed to and in him, and all his flesh sees it.

This mystery, and its content, is symbolised by the return of the candidate to the light and to a new perception. He is now different, and this is not only due to illumination by the supreme Light, it is rather one of identification with It as they have become one. The primary quest of the Masonic candidates is Light. In the Royal Arch degree the candidate attains self-perception of Light, but this is only possible when his organism is purified and prepared, as is the case in those reaching this degree.

The illuminated candidate reaches the equivalent condition known in Christian theology as Beatific Vision. It is also known as universal or cosmic consciousness, since the candidate has entered the ultimate bliss and peace. He is in conscious sympathy and identity of feeling with all that lives and feels, since he perceives the unity of all in the Being of Deity, and that is the summit of the Mason’s profession. He also sees the universe within as well as without him. He is conscious of being the measure of the universe and that the earth, the heavens, and all their contents are externalisations, projected images of corresponding realities present within himself. As the perfected head of the creation, he knows that he represents all the lower forms of life through which his organism has gone during the process of perfection. The lion, ox, man, and eagle are the ancient symbolic representations of the soul’s evolution as it progresses from the passional wild-beast stage to a still sensuous and animal, but docile and disciplined one, to a stage of human rationality to finally culminates in spirituality. The banners of the twelve Israelite tribes are also representing their prototypes, the twelve zodiacal sections of those heavens, which could not exist or be seen by the outward eye, but only by the inward one. The people under these banners are also representing the “Tribes of God”, the heavenly hierarchies that are a holy royal arch above the visible creation.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, … And God said, Let there be light, and there was light”. The Sacred Script, with its Living Words, began in this way. The candidate that recovers that lost Word, in the sense of being integrated again in it, and who becomes one with its Life and its Light, is able to verify this old creation-story within himself. From a formless and void body, the Light transformed him from chaos and unconsciousness into a perfect and lucid form, making him a vehicle of Divine Wisdom.

The Royal Arch Ceremony is concluded with this symbolic attainment of Beatic Vision at the restoration of light. This is followed by an anti-climax and allegorical dramatic narrative by the three sojourners who describe their release from captivity in Babylon, their return to Jerusalem to participate in the reconstruction of the Temple, and their discovery of an ancient and important archive. This is an allegory of the spiritual process that went on in the candidate. It is he, as it is every human soul, that has been in bondage in Babylon, in captivity to the confusion of mundane existence, subject to the tyranny of material interests and to the chaos of his own nature. It is him who revolted against this situation, sat and wept by the water of Babylon, and “remembered Zion” for its freedom and peace of heart. It is he who discovers that the temple of his own nature is in ruins and who decides to rebuild a new one on the same site. The voice of the inward Lord urges him to leave his captivity and return to his native land to rebuild the Lord’s house. Among the rubble of his old self he will find the plans and the material for the new structure. When the new building is completed, when from natural man he has become a spiritual man, it is he who is able to see the beauty of his constitution, to see his own “earth” and his own “heavens” that are now united.

The constitution of the Chapter, as revealed to the candidate, is a symbol of his perfected organism polarised East and West. The three Principals (his spiritual pole) occupy the East and the three Sojourners (his psychic and materialised pole) occupy the West. Each triad is the reflection of the other, although both have an organic unity of their own. The spirit in man has three aspects (Holiness, Royal Supremacy and Functional Power as mentioned in the Title of the Order: Holy-Royal-Arch) that are represented by the three Principals of a Chapter. These three aspects of the Spirit are personified as Haggai (passive), Joshua (active) and Zerubel, the middle term from which the other two are created and into which they merge. Zerubabel is at the same time silent and withdraw, as well as active and compulsive.

The triad of sojourners represents the unitary human Ego, or personality, in its three aspects. They are the antitypes, or physical reflections, of the unincarnated and all important Spirit. This explains why they are called Sojourners (they are transient pilgrims, impermanent in opposition to the deathless spirit of whom they are only the projection on this world). Human personality is distributed into a passive-negative subconsciousness and an active-positive intelligence linked together by a central co-ordinating principle, the three of them combined being the man’s individuality. My Ego (with its central and directive power of will) is my principal sojourner; my subconsciousness (with its passive intuitional capacity) and my practical intelligence (with its active and connecting powers of thought and understanding) are my assistant sojourners. Like their symbolic representatives they should be clothed in white to be able to react and reflect to their correspondences in the Eastern or spiritual pole of my being.

The connection between man’s spiritual and bodily poles is another triad represented by the two Scribes and the janitor. The most important Scribe is attached to the East pole, and is its emissary towards the West. The other is associated with the Western pole, and its activities are directed Eastward. The Doorkeeper, or Janitor, is the contact point with the world without. They represent the middle term between Spirit and Matter and make the contact between the two possible.

The Royal Arch Ceremony is in some way symbolic of the final stage of regeneration. In the Sacred Writ, as in the teaching of Mysteries, the surface appearances are intended to be transposed into spiritual values, and quasi-historical characters are impersonations of philosophical facts or principles. It is therefore difficult to translate the quasi-historicity of the ceremonial text into its spiritualised interpretation. The Initiatory Rites are there to provide the necessary education and enlightenment required to be able to rise above material facts, and to function into the realm of ideas that materialise into facts and make facts possible. We will see that the Hebrew names of the Chapter’s Officers impersonate ideas rather that impersonate persons.

a- “Zerubabel, prince of the people”. The name means, “a sprouting forth from Babel, or from among the people” since Babel and people are synonymous. Society always constitutes a Babel of confused aims and interests but there are always individuals, intellectually or spiritually in advance on the crowd, to whom the name Zerubabel applies. The individual is also a mob, a chaos, and a multitude of confused desires, thoughts, and passions until they are disciplined. However the ordinary man is aware of a higher spiritual element within him, which he may cultivate or disregard, but that in his best moment rises above his disordered nature, convinces him of his errors and entices him to live on this upper level. This is also described by the word “Zerubabel”, the apex and focus point of his spirituality, the summit of his faculties, the “prince” of his “people”.
b- “Haggai the Prophet”. The spiritual principle has a passive and an active aspect. “Haggai” represents the passive aspect, the blissful, and self-contemplative nature of the spirit. It is called “the prophet” because of the power of insight and omniscience that transcend the sense of time, and because it projects into lower intelligence intuition, foreglimpses, and intimations of a prophetic nature.
c- “Joshua, the son of Josedek, the high priest” personifies the active executive aspect of the spirit. Josuah means the “divine saviour” and Josedek the “divine righteousness” while the “high priest” implies a mediatorial factor between man and deity. Globally it means that the human spirit, or divine principle, in man insures the necessary contact between Deity and Man’s lower nature to promote man’s salvation and perfection. We have seen that a Master Mason must be his high priest and “walk upon” the chequered floor-work of his nature and trample it. The Three Principals, as a result, form a unity representing man’ spiritual pole in its triple aspects. They represent the summit of his being as it lives on the spiritual plane (holy, royal, supreme),
d- Ezra and Nehemiah. In the great Mystery-system of Egypt, long before the Hebrew system, the regenerate candidate who had best conquered his lowest nature was given the title of Osiris, the equivalent of attaining Christhood. We know the nature of the perfectionning process and the rituals. In Hebrew the name Osiris was changed into Azarias, Zeruiah, Esdras and, later on, in Ezra, the senior Scribe of the Royal Arch. In the Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah led the Hebrew home from their Babylonian captivity. By transposition from history into the spiritual field, Ezra and Nehemiah personify two stages of the mystical progress made by the candidate who try to renounce to the Babel of his own lower nature to regain his native spiritual home and condition. “Nehemiah”, who stands in the South West of the Chapter, represents in some ways this process of reorganisation and return; he symbolises the candidate engaged in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and in the work of self-reconstruction. “Ezra”, whose place is in the NorthEast, indicates a much more advanced stage of progress from West to east. In the Bible they are both called “scribes” as they are recorders of, and testifiers to, the experiences encountered in the inner man at different stages of the “great work” of self-integration, and of the journey from Babylon to the spiritual Jerusalem.

The Royal Arch Ceremony deals with a supreme human experience that only those who went through it can fully appreciate. It is the greatest rite in Masonry and one can only admire the knowledge, and the profound insight, of the unknown mystic and initiate who conceived it. It is a pity that most Masons who go through this rite do not really appreciate the full and deep meaning of it, and content themselves with following the ritual that is also beautiful. Here again Masonry is not dealing with the reconstruction of a physical structure but, on the contrary, with the re-erection of the fallen, disordered temple of the human soul. The rite is based on long past events that have no bearing on today’s life, or on any living person. In these conditions it does not seem justified to have a secret Order to perpetuate this knowledge. But those events, and this rite, are the symbol of something deeper and personal, as they deal with truths that are valid at any time and can be realised in those who re-enact them by going through the Ceremony, and this justifies their importance. Moreover, the Royal Arch is the symbolic representation of a supreme experience that can only be lived by the regenerates that have reached the state of sanctity. As a result, the Craft Degrees that lead to it have an even deeper sense that normally recognised since they are the preparation for that regeneration. The Craft work is only considered completed when the Masons reach the Royal Arch level and this is only possible to those who have gone through the discipline, the purification of mind and desire, and the symbolic death of the lower grades. Some people have difficulties to believe that such a high level can be reached by human beings. The Masonic Doctrine postulates that the possession of the material organism is a necessary condition to be able to reach that level, and that physical death ends the work of regeneration. (3)