The Sunday Times - Scotland
Freemasonry rolls up its trousers in public
For the first time, a Mason has written openly about the organisation’s obscure rituals and their impact. Dr Robert Lomas explains why he’s lifted the lid on his experiences
April 17, 2005
Freemasonry has always puzzled and attracted me. Its rituals are weird, its history is obscure and its purpose unclear. I had my first experience of it as I stood in the ladies’ toilet of Eaglescliffe Masonic Hall. Next to me a man wearing a white lambskin apron menaced me with a sword.
“Get your clothes off . . . and put your watch and rings in that tray.”
“Everything?” I asked. “Is this some sort of ritual naked mugging?”
“No,” he said, his expression totally serious. “You can keep your underpants on.”
As I pulled my trousers down, he produced what looked like rough linen pyjamas. “Put these on,” he ordered.
The glow from the single bare light bulb sparkled on his sword as he pointed. I gulped but did as I was told.
Not until much later did I begin to understand what was done to me that night; at the time I felt confused and even a little let down. I donned the pyjamas, then the swordsman opened my jacket to expose parts of my body and rolled up my sleeves and trouser legs. I could see no rhyme or reason for his actions, but he continued to fiddle with my flimsy rags until he was satisfied.
“Wait here,” he said, closing the door as he went out — as if I were likely to run out into the street and risk frostbite or arrest for indecent exposure. “Why did I get myself into this?” I thought at the time.
In the 406 years of Freemasonry’s recorded existence (the earliest minuted masonic meetings took place in Edinburgh in 1599) there have been hundreds of exposés of its ritual secrets. One of the first was a book called Three Distinct Knocks, written by Samuel Pritchard in 1760; one of the latest is Stephen Knight’s The Brotherhood, published in paperback in 1990. All have one thing in common: they quote Masonic ritual in order to expose an evil secret at its centre. After so much bad press, I decided, as a Freemason, to set the record straight in my new book, Turning the Hiram Key.
Freemasonry is a highly successful organisation that has been a powerful force in helping to shape our modern scientific and democratic society. Members such as Sir Robert Moray, the founder of the Royal Society, George Washington, the first president of the United States, Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime saviour, Wolfgang Mozart, the composer, and Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, all drew inspiration from its rituals.
What accounts for the wide appeal that Freemasonry has had during the past four centuries and still has today? Why does Masonic ritual inspire its practitioners to become creative, balanced individuals? The traditional answer to this question has always been “it’s a secret”. But why is it a secret? Is it because Freemasons have something to hide? I am much more inclined to believe that most Freemasons simply don’t understand why Masonic ritual inspires and encourages them, and they cover up this ignorance by refusing to talk about the spiritual impact of their Masonry.
I first entered a Masonic temple blindfolded and my confusion remained for some time. Whatever other mysteries there are in Freemasonry, trying to second-guess the form of words the Lodge wants to hear when its Master asks a question is the most puzzling. At least that’s what I thought, until, in that first initiation, I experienced the oddest postural instruction I’d yet known. I heard the instruction . . . but what did they mean? Could I twist my body into such an odd position? Goodness knows what strange endorphins were released into my brain as I struggled to keep my body still, using only the kinetic feedback of my stretched muscles to judge what was happening. But only when this contorted question and answer session to “make me a Mason” was complete would the blindfold be removed.
I waited. I could feel a sense of anticipation building. There was the rustle of movement about the room, as though hidden watchers were readying themselves for some expected event. A voice rang out, in a dramatic crescendo: “Let the boon of light be bestowed.”
As the blindfold was ripped from my eyes, a muffled clap sounded from the watchers. The light in the room was so bright that I found it hard to focus. The single clap, performed by about 40 white-gloved men, sounded surreal.
I blinked and tried to focus. Before me was the Master of the Lodge, surrounded by a bright halo of light. He was wearing an elaborate V-shaped collar of blue and white. Behind him was some sort of ornate carved wooden chair with a triangular headrest. I was struggling to see any detail in the light.
From that day forward, I took great pleasure in attending meetings, but the Order remained largely unknown to me. I had learned how to memorise and recite large chunks of ritual. I exposed various parts of my body to the curious gaze of the Brethren. At each step of this journey, I had been told: “Just do this next bit and all will become clear to you.” But until I decided to research it for myself, it never did.
In my book I set out to achieve three things: first, to explain what had happened, how I felt and how I changed as I was initiated; second, to analyse how ritual, symbols and myth combined to create the uplifting spiritual experiences; and third, to consult the oldest document in Scottish Masonic history and see if its symbols told the same story.
And they did. The Kirkwall Scroll in Orkney is a great cloth, 18ft 6in long and 5ft 6in wide. It was once put on the floor of the Lodge, so that a Masonic candidate could walk through the symbols as he carried out the rituals. The centre section has been radiocarbon-dated to about AD1490. This is a significant period of history, soon after the time when Freemasonry was first established in Scotland by the St Clairs of Roslin.
At the heart of Freemasonry’s influence is the power of symbolism, and its role in feeding our emotional appetites. The enormous success of Dan Brown’s thriller, The Da Vinci Code, shows how he has latched onto a deep spiritual hunger and so managed to attract millions of readers worldwide.
Brown sets the climax of his story in Rosslyn Chapel in Mid-Lothian, celebrating two symbols that are part of that building. He calls them the blade and the chalice. But the same symbols are known to Freemasons as the square and the compasses. And they combine to form the oldest sacred symbol in the world, a diamon shape that archaeologists call a lozenge. It is a symbol found in Africa, in the most ancient art drawn by human hand and in the stones of Skara Brae in Orkney.
When I was commissioned to write Turning the Hiram Key, my publishers pointed out that many clues regarding the identity of the man who inspired Brown’s character, Robert Langdon, lead to me — not least the fact that Langdon is, like me, an internationally known expert on spiritual symbolism and myth based in a university with a world-ranking business school. Langdon, however, seems to lead a more exciting life than I do. If I had to solve murders as well as teach, research and write, I’d never have any spare time.
Brown, who is rumoured to be a Freemason, is certainly aware of the power of myth and symbol. Having noted its current appeal, is that why he is using Freemasonry as the inspiration for his next book, The Solomon Key? He knows that some myths and symbols are popular because they appeal instinctively.
My own research suggests that humans are programmed by evolution to be attracted and soothed by particular symbols and stories. Freemasonry uses this secret knowledge to work its spiritual magic.
So why have I decided to break with 400 years of Masonic obtuseness? I have been fortunate in my publishers, Lewis Masonic, who have been enthusiastic supporters, lending my book a kind of semi-official status, despite the opposition of some within the Grand Lodge of England. It is my belief that Freemasonry is an ancient science that can drive human ambition and achievement. It can offer great insights into the mystery of the inner self — whether you call it soul, spirit or state of consciousness — that do not conflict with modern science. It is a heritage of ancient spiritual teaching held in trust by us to pass on to our sons and daughters. I want others to feel as I did when I experienced the high point of Masonic ritual.
I could see a bright, five-pointed star shining on the eastern wall of the blacked-out Lodge. I gazed, fascinated, at the star, which seemed to hover above the Master’s chair and which, in the surrounding darkness, cast a bright narrow beam of light towards the west. As I looked back at the white shroud covering the Lodge floor, the ray from the rising star illuminated a skull placed above a pair of crossed thigh bones. In the faint light of the star, they looked real. The Master let me gaze for a long moment before speaking.
“Let those symbols of morbidity, which the rising of the Morning Star has illuminated for you, help you to reflect on your ineluctable fate and direct your thoughts towards the most valuable of all studies, the knowledge of yourself.”
Dr Robert Lomas is a lecturer in technological management at Bradford University. Turning the Hiram Key is published by Lewis Masonic