The lowest level of the Masonic Order is the lodge where the real work of the Masons is done. The Masonic lodge symbolises the Universe with frequent references to the sun. The ritual journey in the lodge follows the path of the sun in the sky; Masonic work begins at midday and finishes at midnight. The “Worshipful Master” stands in the East where the sun rises. The Brethren, according to their degrees, are seated in the lateral bays between the columns, to the North and South, and the entry to the lodge, at the West. BEFORE the Tyler has checked their credentials as the Temple must remain hidden to the outside world.
The Worshipful Master directs the lodge with the assistance of the two Wardens. The walls are covered with symbols: the sun and the moon, the stars and the luminous delta that represents the “Great Architect of the Universe“. The brethren wear aprons, medals and crossbelts. The lodge is a conglomeration of signs whose meaning is sometime lost. Freemasonry is a symbolic system and the meaning of the elements of the lodge is not fixed forever as in any religion. Their meaning is revealed during the work. The brother who is speaking stands by the Chair, his hand on his neck. All signs and gestures are to help the postulant to integrate himself into the lodge or, as it is also said, to become a stone of the Temple. The ritual aims to inform the masons that their work is done on two levels: in the lodge and somewhere else or, in esoteric terms, in the visible and in the invisible. The initiate is faced with a strange world based in part on mythological readings. As a result the Masonic ritual seems ridiculous or theatrical. This implies that “symbolic stimulation” occurs, or that initiation only works if a “creative imagination” takes part. The lodge creates a “state of mind” through its décor and symbols.
The opening and closing rituals of the Masonic meetings seem to come from a handbook of discipline that aim to cut the masons from the profane world and to oblige them to explore the mystery of initiation. After the opening ritual the minutes of the previous meeting are read and news are communicated to the brethren. A brother then speaks about a specific problem that can be profane or symbolic. Apprentices cannot talk yet, but only listen and learn. Freemasonry is also a quest for the “lost speech” and the Apprentices are there to find within them, in silence, where this true speech is born. Masons are searching for the truth that is born within themselves.
The lodge is a hierarchy with Apprentices, FELLOW Crafts, and Masters who are initiated, or raised, to their degrees in particular ceremonies. However there is no military discipline or elitism. It is a symbolic hierarchy of “competence acquired by work and always open to challenge”. Goethe said that initiation was what enabled people to become themselves, and that it was always virtual in the same way as Masons build a Temple that is never completed. The state of being initiated in never completely acquired. The lodge is also the place where a Mason reveals and assumes a part of his intimate nature on which his spiritual freedom is founded, but the lodge is only an instrument.
Freemasonry is a “centre of union” where individuals come to meet each other, where they seek to find points of contact at the human level. However the lodge is not a social club, but a place where the initiates come to find something which was lacking in them. Initiation is the contact point between spirituality and humanism. (6)
The Operative Mason’s lodge was something different, a meeting room built alongside the cathedral. The “trade guilds” associated with the Operative Masons are linked with the construction of the cathedrals, abbeys, temples and palaces of the past. The symbolism practised in their activities and ceremonies can only be explained by the nature of these constructions. Later on, other guilds appeared: guilds of coopers, plasterers, printers, … but the guilds of the cathedral builders were the first ones, and the most important. In these builder guilds, spiritual life was more active, knowledge was handed down, and the invisible was made manifest. Journeymen travelled all over the country looking for jobs and presented themselves at the lodge of each town they visited. Early on these lodges were inns kept by a “father” and a “mother”. The “mother” received the trainees and qualified journeymen -the only two grades known in these fraternities. She repaired their clothes and looked after them when they were sick, providing in this way a kind of family life. The “father” was responsible for the discipline and he was entitled to fine the guilty. A “fixer” was charged to find a job for the newcomers who remained under the authority of the guild. Travellers had to carry with them a “letter of introduction” or “pass”. Travelling, which lasted three to five years, was a professional and psychological training as well as a kind of initiation, allowing the initiate to find himself and see the world. Travelling stopped when the initiate married or settled down in a town.
The guilds conducted reception ceremonies in which the candidate was blindfolded, put into a hole known as “thinking room” and symbolising the “centre of the earth”, where he is allowed to see again. After the ceremony the apprentice took a new name to begin a new life as a journeyman. He also had to make a masterpiece to show his competence. The initiated was told the secret recognition signs, the formal embrace, the farewell ritual, the funeral rites to follow as well as the correct way to organise ceremonies. Finally every journeyman received his own mark to put on the stones he worked. Some of these marks are still visible to day on the stones of the old churches. (6)
Although it is not fully recognised in Masonic Lodges, opening the Lodge in the successive Degrees requires ability to expand, open up, and intensify the consciousness in three stages. Usually the opening and closing ceremonies of the Lodges is regarded as a formality devoid of internal purpose or meaning. However they are very instructive ceremonies and their rites have a very distinctive purpose, not to be lowered by perfunctory performance or without understanding their implications. As a flower unfolding its petals and displaying its centre to the nourishing sun, the opening of a Masonic Lodge is sacramental of opening the human mind and heart to God. There are three degrees, or stages, of opening a lodge. The first is appropriate to the Apprentice stage of development, a call to “lift up your heart!” above the ordinary level of external things. The second is adapted to those who are more advanced in the science and capable of greater things; it is said to be “upon the square” and it involves the use of the psychic and higher intellectual nature described as the Square or water Triangle. The third level is said to be “upon the centre” and it is reserved to the Master Masons. It points to an opening of consciousness to the centre and depth of one’s being.
The degree to which a man is able to open his personal Lodge indicates his position in Masonry; it shows if he is a Master, a Craftsman or an Apprentice or only apparently so. Progress on this ladder requires practise and work. The power, as an initiatory force, of a group of well-initiated men competent to “open their Lodge” as described before is often ignored. An assembly of such people, acting with a common purpose, creates a kind of vortex in the mental and psychical atmosphere into which a newly initiated Mason is drawn. The tension created by their collective energy of thought and will acts and leaves a permanent mark on the earnest and well prepared candidate, inducing a positive mental and spiritual relation between him and his mentors that he wants to emulate. It also stimulates his perceptivity and induces his mentality to reach the level of his teachers. No candidate is allowed to enter into the Lodge without certain assurances, safeguards, and tests and even then the sword of the I.G menaces him. All this is done because there is always a certain danger to the mental and spiritual faculties of unsuitable candidates allowed to go through the Initiation process. As the flaming sword is said to prevent such candidates to approach the Tree of Life, so does the secret law of the Spirit still avenge itself on those who are unprepared to participate in the knowledge of its mysteries.
To “open the Lodge” of one’s own being to the higher truths is far from easy. One must eradicate one’s own habitual way of thinking, preconception, and distrust of what is not sensibly demonstrable since they have no place, or part, in the things of the inward man. Stability of mind, control of emotion and thought, and acquisition of interior stillness and harmony must also be acquired. As the formal opening of the Lodge requires the co-operation of its officers, so the opening of our inner man to God can only be done by the consensus of all our parts and faculties, and if any part fail to participate the whole process stops. The W.M. alone cannot open the Lodge; he can only ask the other officers to help him to do it. The opening of any man Lodge, requested by His spiritual will, requires the participation of all his faculties. Before a Lodge can be open the officers must verify that only Masons are present. Only after seeing that the Lodge is properly formed, the Master invokes the descent of the Divine blessing on the presents and opens the door.