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Freemasonry and Initiation

I am made whole by initiation

Clement of Alexandria 




The concept of what constitutes a man is time honored and tested. The traditional role of men has been essential to the development and maintenance of society. Learning to think for ourselves, to form our own judgments, to trust our decisions, to comprehend, to expand our knowledge, to choose this course of action over that, to decide between good and bad, have through the millennia been recognized as the attributes that define a man.

And throughout the ages, in every society, an essential part of the process of making men from boys has historically been achieved through initiation. Good things resulted from turning boys into responsible men through initiation. The individual, his family, and society at large all benefited. Boys entering manhood were not left to find their own way, to select their role in society or to pick their role models. They were crafted and molded into maturity, into manhood. To the ancients “.man is made – he does not make himself all by himself.”[1] For this reason initiation has played an indispensable role in civilization and in civilizing men.

 The Death of Initiation

Men need ritual, as does society. Families dining together, sharing holiday traditions, attending church have all been ritualistic practices that have served to bind the family. Ritual has existed elsewhere in our society to similar good ends. A special form of ritual is initiation. Though in a broad sense initiation can denote any ceremony which receives someone into a group, let us define it as ritual intended to admit a candidate into a society possessing secret knowledge, and calculated to produce a life altering transformation.

Ritual and ceremony are not the same thing, though closely related. For those participating as opposed to observing, ceremonies provide an external expression to an internal process. If that internal act doesn’t exist then the ceremony will not achieve the desired effect. Ritual is intended to be more than mere ceremony, far more than simply external expression. But unless the candidate desires change and incorporates the experience internally then acts on it in a positive way, nothing of significance will change in his nature or in his life.

Consider a wedding as both ceremony and ritual. For those attending and observing it is a ceremony filled with tradition and nearly always a joyous occasion. It is a set of acts performed on a special occasion much like a play. But for the couple it is a ritual that unites two adults into one, a rite that redefines the relationship between their families and forms a bond intended to be life-long; a bond that will survive and flourish through all adversities and unanticipated success. For the couple the wedding ritual is a life altering event.

So it should be with initiation. It should lift us from the mundane, allowing us to put behind our failings, and look to a present and future with hope and optimism. We now see life anew as a spiritual journey and death not as a cruel end but as desirable transition back to God. Brother W. L.Wilmshurst tells us that true initiation creates an expansion of consciousness from the human to the divine level.[2] Brother Albert Pike says much the same thing when he writes, “To the ancients, earth was not the soul’s home but rather a place of exile. Initiation returned the initiate to the Divine.”[3]

At one time the traditional Western religions were home to initiatory rites. They were considered essential and those in society who were denied them or who had not participated in them were considered outside the fold and dealt with accordingly. Just as the church has largely abandoned its role as protector of morality and truth in society, it has likewise yielded its role in initiatory rites. While some initiatory themes persist in Christianity they are no longer regarded as being initiatory.[4] Truncated forms of baptism, marriage and funeral rites, to name a few, remain but lack the substance and the consequence they once possessed.

Though you would not know it from the popular culture, men need more than recognition, social status, power and wealth.[5] They require a bond with other men. This is in part to alleviate the feelings of loneliness and isolation they experience in the world. Brother Robert G. Davis points out that men lack reliable mentorship and cannot trust their role models. They find themselves unable to attach to men of leadership and vision.[6] One tragic consequence is that we remain strangers in an increasingly isolated time.

But this is not new. As our own Joseph Fort Newton wrote:

Here lies the tragedy of our race:

Not that men are poor;

All men know something of poverty.

Not that men are wicked;

Who can claim to be good?

Not that men are ignorant;

Who can boast that he is wise?

But that men are strangers!

Men instinctively desire to live to a code; living up or down to expectations is an ingrained masculine attribute. Of every transition over a lifetime the single greatest is acquiring the approval of men we respect. There is a need in men to be initiated by other men and to view them as father figures.[7] Promises made in the presence of men we honor hold us with a special and profound power. We are inspired by our joining and by our obligations then assumed. Throughout history men have chosen to die rather than renounce them.

Men intuitively believe that the future depends on them, on their work, their resources, their judgment, their actions. There is as well within them the need to sire or mentor great men who will accomplish great works, be heroes to their generation.[8]

Despite this, the media and the popular social direction of the West are dominated by an anti-male bias. As Brother Davis writes, “Women are socially and politically far better organized than men. Women’s activist groups are more clearly focused than men on causes which impact them. There are no national organizations which reflect the interests of men.” He continues, “Yet, the man and his craftsmanship is still the vehicle for a healthy culture. . He alone serves as the seed to a renaissance in learning the real meaning and value of things.”[9]

Such male organizations have existed, in fact still exist, though in dramatically declining numbers and with far less emphasis on initiation. They have served an essential role in our society. These various fraternal organizations have given men “a sense of worth and identity with other men” whom they might “otherwise never meet, or associate with in any other setting.”[10] As Brother James Anderson wrote in his Book of Constitutions in 1723, Masonry should be “.the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.”

For some 300 years we Masons have played a major role in bringing men from diverse backgrounds into communion. During the time of the American War for Independence and indeed until approximately 100 years ago “.Freemasonry was the center of male bonding and social activity.” in America.[11]

This is clearly no longer the case.

The Need for Initiation

And yet the need for initiation and the existence of initiatory themes remain within modern man’s unconscious as it has throughout our existence. They are fundamental to our nature. We are drawn to initiatory rites, and if we fail to find them within a fraternal organization, we instinctively seek them out in abridged and maladapted forms. Thus we see aspects of them in the antics of fraternities, military hazings, even in the ritualistic beatings of street and prison gangs to new members. Wherever true initiation has faded elements of it emerge from our own inner need and assume misguided attempts to alter our lives, leaving men frustrated and unfulfilled. Indeed, it can be said that behind every death caused by a young man lurks the desire within him to find an authentic life through a symbolic death.[12]

The end of the last century and the beginning of the new have brought about radical changes in our society, changes men find deeply troubling. It is as if we have been cast adrift, cut off from our past, from what truly matters. Michael Meade writes in the Forward to Mircea Eliade’s Rites and Symbols of Initiation, that our time has become in effect,

“.an extended funeral that we can consciously attend or try to deny. At some level, we each know that huge shifts in nature and culture are affecting us daily. But without some spiritual vision and ritual structure, we lose the capacity to handle death and embrace life fully. Instead, we build walls of denial to hold off terror and confusion and try to cover our helplessness with displays of force and greed. Denial arises as a primary symptom of the age because of the scope of changes already underway and as a defense against the losses and endings.  . [T]he momentum of loss increases because a death unmourned becomes a lingering ghost that haunts the living until it receives its allotment of attention and tears.”[13]

The fading of initiation from our society has occurred at a time when how we become a mature man has changed, at a time that the line between female and male has blurred. Today the period of childhood and adolescence has been extended well into the twenties. Our failure to ensure the continuance of initiation is one for which we pay and will continue to pay an enormous price.

For as Mircea Eliade puts it,

“.initiation lies at the core of any genuine human life. And this is true for two reasons: the first is that any genuine human life implies profound crises, ordeals, suffering, loss and reconquest of self, ‘death and resurrection’; the second is that, whatever degree of fulfillment life may have brought us, at a certain moment everyone sees life as a failure. This vision . [arises] from an obscure feeling that one has missed one’s vocation; that one has betrayed the best that was in oneself. In such moments of total crisis, only one hope seems to offer any issue – the hope of beginning life over again. .[A]nyone undergoing such a crisis dreams of new, regenerated life, fully realized and significant. .The hope and dream of these moments of total crises are to obtain a definite and total renovatio, a renewal capable of transmuting life.[14] 

Initiation reveals a new perception of the world to the candidate, one that is more spiritual, even sacred. The ritual is meant to place the candidate within that new world. During the process the candidate gains access to traditional teachings and nearly all initiations also include a ritual death followed by rebirth. “On the ground of initiation,” Meade tells us, “death is the opposite of birth, not the opposite of life.”[15]This is the momentous occasion when the candidate undergoes a symbolic death followed by his return to his brothers among the living. The intended effect says Brother Albert Pike is to “purify the soul of its passions, to weaken the empire of the body over the divine portion of man” so he can experience happiness here in anticipation of the joy to be enjoyed in the life to come.[16]

Meade writes, “For any transformation to be meaningful it must be thorough, and to be thorough requires both the ache of loss and a spirit of restoration.” He adds, “More than an empty tomb, death becomes also the womb of change. In dreams and dramas of initiation, death represents change for the entire psyche and life of a person.”[17] So profound is the intended consequence of initiation that Eliade considers it indispensable for the beginning of spiritual life.[18] This is because it is only in initiation that death is given a positive value.[19]

Because of this, initiation is far more than merely acquiring new knowledge.[20] If that were all that was needed for transformation then the formal education provided by universities would create an initiated man when clearly they do not.

Initiation as Experience

Aristotle wrote that it is the experience, not the knowledge imparted, that permits the initiate to understand the secret meaning of the mysteries.[21] It is the state of being that comes about through a ritualistic experience that strikes at a man’s core. It creates not merely a reexamination of life, but an abandonment of his former life as the new man becomes more self-aware by experiencing a spiritual awakening. The initiate sees himself as a different and better man. He entered as one person, he emerges as another. Ideally, he is now set on a course of action which will enhance that new perception and alter for the good his treatment of others and of himself – for nothing is now the same.

Meade writes:

“Initiation includes death and rebirth, radical altering of a person’s ‘mode of being’; a shattering and shaking all the way to the ground of the soul. The initiate becomes as another person: more fully in life emotionally and more spiritually aware. Loss of identity and even feeling betrayal of one’s self are essential to rites of passage. In that sense, every initiation causes a funeral and a birth; a mourning appropriate to death and a joyous celebration for the restoration of full life. Without conscious rituals of loss and renewal, individuals and societies lose the capacity to experience the sorrows and joys that are essential for feeling fully human. Without them life flattens out, and meaning drains from both living and dying. Soon there is a death of meaning and an increase in meaningless deaths.”[22]

As Brother Andre Salmon tells us, “The ultimate objective of Masonic initiation is the Mason’s spiritual ascent back to his divine original source in order to alleviate the suffering resulting from the fear of death and the contradiction between human clinging and universal impermanence.”[23]

Brother Julian Rees puts it another way. “We need, in the Christian description, to ‘die to ourselves’, to contemplate our inevitable destiny, in order to guide us to that most interesting of all human studies. The holy confidence referred to is that in ourselves we can be perfect: we can in ourselves defeat defeatisms, defeat pain, defeat suffering, defeat low self-esteem, defeat insecurity, defeat inner chaos and outer hostility, and lift our eyes to a brighter horizon.”[24]

At one time in America a number of fraternal organizations provided the initiatory experience. Nearly every man of social standing belonged to one or more of them. To be publicly identified as a member was to enhance one’s public stature. The centerpiece of these lodges, councils, castles and chapters was “.the journey offered through its ritual form. The initiations were almost always transformative ceremonies where the initiate goes on a journey in search of something lost. .He has to overcome these challenges before he can prove his worthiness.”[25]

Though with declining numbers, Freemasonry alone survives to offer a significant initiatory experience to tens of thousands of men every year in America. Eliade writes of us, “The only secret movement that exhibits a certain ideological consistency, already has a history, and enjoys social and political prestige is Freemasonry. The other self-styled initiatory organizations are, for the most part, recent and hybrid improvisations.”

The Mysteries and Initiation

We do not know with certainty the origin or authors of our ritual. The three degrees of the Blue lodge have much in common with what is known of the Mysteries of ancient times but whether those similarities were grafted onto the simpler ritual of operative Freemasonry or have come down the centuries through them is subject to disagreement. In either case our degrees have all the components of ancient initiation.

The mystery religions, or simply the Mysteries, were ancient cults reserved to initiates. They are best known for the secrecy associated with their initiation and practices. Many, perhaps most, of the notable adepts of antiquity were initiated into one or more of the Mysteries. They disappeared during the 4th century A.D. when Emperor Theodosius I ordered their suppression. The details of these religious practices are generally unknown, although credible sources allow deductions as to their general content and initiatory practice.

The most comprehensive examination of the Mysterious in the context of modern Freemasonry was written by Brother George Oliver and published in the mid-19th century. Oliver sought to provide the history and practice of the major mystery cults from India, to Persia, to Greece, Britain and America. In so doing, he described them in considerable detail. Though interesting, it is impossible to know what to trust in his work. Brother Albert G. Mackey in his Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry notes that “the great error of Dr. Oliver, as a Masonic teacher, was a too easy credulity or a too great warmth of imagination, which led him to accept without hesitation the crude theories of previous writers.”[26]

Oliver’s work, and that of many other Masonic scholars since then, is motivated in large part by a desire to establish a direct connection between the Mysteries and modern Freemasonry. That connection has yet to be made, though it remains an aspiration for many Masons. Because our origins are unknown and because our ritual asserts an ancient history we are regularly drawn to the past to seek our roots. In a general sense this is very similar to the process the raised Master Mason experiences when he begins his inward journey in search of his true nature and its origin. It is only to be expected that he would then extend that desire for understanding to the fraternity that made this possible.

In both the Mysteries and Freemasonry the candidate is determined to be a good man before he is considered for membership. During the ritual he is deprived of his usual faculties as he is admitted into a secret organization where he is taught ancient knowledge. He obligates himself in the presence of his new brothers, invoking God or the gods. He then undergoes trials, usually associated with a great mythical figure, and ultimately emerges as a spiritual man in union with this new society of brothers.

Rebirth through Masonic Initiation

In our ritual we suggest that initiation takes place with the First Degree when the Senior Deacon later says that the brother has been “initiated an Entered Apprentice Mason.” Brother Mackey, however, points out that while initiation “. is sometimes specially applied to a reception in the First Degree, but he who has been made an Entered Apprentice is more correctly said to be Entered.”

“Freemasonry,” Brother W. Kirk MacNulty writes, “conceives of the complete human being as having a body, a psyche/soul, a spirit and a contract with his Divine Source.”[27] He describes our ritual in this way. “When the Candidate is admitted into Freemasonry the Ceremony of Initiation is conducted in an Entered Apprentice’s Lodge which is held, figuratively, on the Ground Floor of King Solomon’s Temple.” This represents the individual consciousness. The Middle Chamber in the Second Degree represents the soul, while the Master Mason’s lodge represents collective unconsciousness, that part of the psyche which is in intimate contact with the Divine. “Participation in the ceremony of a Degree. is a powerful experience through which the Mason can come to understand himself in ways which cannot be communicated by words.”[28]

Brother MacNulty continues:

“In participating in the ceremony of the First Degree the Candidate receives, symbolically, a look into the nature of his own psyche. If he gives serious attention to the work of his lodge. there will come [sooner or later] a moment when ‘it all comes together’ and he sees his interior being as it is represented by the symbolism. When he has had such a look in fact, when he has had a real [not symbolic] experience which indicates that he is an individual, which proves to him that the thoughts he thinks and the decisions he takes have a real tangible, usually immediate, effect on his life and on the lives of others; when he has once had even a glimpse into the workings of his psyche, he can never forget it. He cannot ‘unsee’ what he has seen; he can never put aside what that glimpse of his interior has taught him.”[29]

In short, initiation is designed to be life altering. Ideally this transformation occurs in every case but in truth our ritual does not always accomplish initiation. Not every candidate is capable; some never are, others take much longer. This is not new.

 Many are the candidates seeking initiation,

But few are the perfected intiates.


 Because Masonic ritual is intended to be transformative it must be done by the lodge to that end. Its desired outcome is so profound it compels that we do it well. It is not so much the delivery of the spoken words or even the precision with which a degree is executed that matters; rather it is the impact it has on the candidate. It must disrupt him, make him uncomfortable, it must be done in such a way as to open the candidate’s eyes to a new world. 

Yet some, perhaps many brothers, have as yet to be truly initiated. There are many reasons why a candidate can emerge from initiation uninitiated. He might have entered Masonry for the wrong reasons or with the misguided expectations. He might be resistant to the process, holding a portion of himself back, participating more as a spectator. Or he might overly intellectualize the experience, hanging on every word, constantly seeking to analyze during the rite when in truth, like a warm shower or bracing roll in the snow, he should simply take in the experience because “.a state of consciousness cannot be described – it must be experienced.”[30]

Masonic Initiation

If what the candidate is taught during the ritual is less important than what he experiences, the lesson for us is that particular care should be taken in how well our ritual is done. While typically much emphasis is placed on wording the most important aspects of the ritual are the physical. To be a true initiation the candidate must be made unsure of himself and of his surroundings such that he no longer intuitively trusts the physical world about him, the heretofore reliable evidence of his senses. The objective is to refocus him away from the physical allure of the world, redirecting him into the world of his interior, towards the mysteries of his own consciousness.

As the candidate must be made to be uncomfortable the manner of his reception at the preparation room door is important. Though we should certainly stop short of drawing blood the candidate should experience pain and be shocked. He is hoodwinked to encourage his disorientation and emphasize his dependence on his guide, who until now has likely been a stranger. Therefore the Senior Deacon should not speak words of assurance or comfort during the circumambulation. The candidate is meant to be disoriented. The raps should be unexpected, loud and disruptive.

Care should be taken when placing the candidate in position to take upon himself the obligation. Attention should be given to the position of his feet as he is assuming the ancient tau, he stands erect and will soon be told he “there stand[s], a just and upright Entered Apprentice Mason”. While hoodwinked and in darkness he is faced to the East, the source of light, of truth and knowledge.

All of this positioning is essential to the degree and when the Senior Warden has finished he pronounces the candidate, not “ready” but rather “in order”, that is, in order with the Divine, now prepared to take upon himself the solemn obligation that will make him a Mason. None of this should be done casually or in a way meant to make it easy for the candidate. Quite the contrary is the case. And so it is throughout each degree.

The reality for many is that often the transformation of initiation occurs only after repeated exposure to the initiatory ritual or after a period of time has passed, a time in which the unconscious has reflected and assimilated the lessons. Brother Dennis Chornenky writes that it is up to the initiate to ensure that he is constantly transforming into someone better than he was before.[31]

This is at least one reason why the Blue lodge consists of three degrees, why lodges primarily make Masons one at a time and why making Masons is the primary function of the lodge. It is to expose the brothers to the ritual repeatedly so that the lessons will be reinforced, or in some cases, perceived for the first time.

For as Brother Julian Rees writes, “As Freemasons we have a unique chance, using symbols and allegory, to free ourselves form the limitations of scientific materialism and to own up to the otherness in ourselves without which a complete knowledge of ourselves is not possible.”[32]

Indeed, the Masonic initiation is so profound, so meaningful, its consequences should form the centerpiece of a brother’s future Masonic journey. Brother Rees asserts that, “.[A]t our initiation we are launched on a quest for self-knowledge, a quest so important, that all other activities in Freemasonry, however laudable they may be, whether social, charitable or ritual, must take second place.”[33]

Freemasonry is at its core an initiatory experience. Its primary purpose is to provide initiation through ritual then to give mentoring to all Master Masons. Indeed, mentoring is an essential component to becoming a fully realized Mason. Sadly, too many lodges fail to appreciate their true role in providing initiation and far more do not recognize their obligation to assist brothers in their continuing journey.

Brother Davis lists mentoring as the seventh pillar of success in manhood. As men, and as Master Masons, we are driven to fulfill our inherent desire to serve both as a role model and mentor to others. “There is no single characteristic of masculinity more significant than that of mentoring and setting the right example for others,” he writes. It is a characteristic of a longer, healthier and more meaningful life. It is as well “.a fundamental commission of manhood.”

While the Mason being mentored benefits as he transitions to become more mature and spiritual, the mentor also keeps alive his own hopes and values. Besides the joy that comes from sharing what he has learned it also serves to help him face the inevitability of his own mortality. As Davis writes, “A good role model and mentor is the best vehicle men have to firmly establish in the minds and souls of those who follow them that they too belong. They are welcome. They have the magic of manhood. There is a place by the fire for them. . As men working together in support of each other, we build an awakened, lasting, ongoing community of men. We discover the sacred and essential relationship we have to other men and to all life. Mentoring is very much a love relationship between men.”[34]

Through the three degrees of the Blue lodge the candidate has been exposed to our teachings, observed our symbols, taken upon himself solemn obligations, laid to rest his former profane self and set upon a new, more spiritual life. He emerges after the Third Degree with the knowledge and experience he needs but he is not as yet a fully developed Master Mason. That is a personal journey to which he alone must commit. But he must not be abandoned and left to his own devices.

Freemasonry remains dedicated to this great tradition of initiation and mentoring, essentially alone in the 21st century. It offers initiation to all good men and provides the brotherhood, rich literary tradition and educational resources necessary for the new Master Mason to, as we say, improve himself in Masonry. We are heirs to an ancient tradition and should justifiably be proud of our heritage.

As our numbers continue to fall from their record, as lodges close or merge, as attendance suffers in too many lodges too often, there is a tendency to bemoan our future. But the need for initiation will continue in men; it is a natural part of us.

So long as Freemasonry continues to offer meaningful initiation into true manhood, and then surrounds the new brother with an encouraging society of brothers, we are not in peril. But we must preserve and improve our ritual and provide the means for the new Master Mason to continue his journey into light.

 We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

 ~Reuben Abel



 Chornenky, Dennis., Initiation, Mystery and Salvation: The Way of Rebirth, a paper from Pietre Stones website, undated

 Davis, Robert G., Understanding Manhood in America, Anchor Communications LLC, Lancaster, VA USA, 2005

 Eliade, Mircea., Rites and Symbols of Initiation, Spring Publications, Putnum, Conn. 1994

 Mackey, Albert G., Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, The Masonic History Company, New York, 1927

 MacNulty, W. Kirk., Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, Thames & Hudson, New York, 2005

 Oliver, George., The History of Initiation of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Secret and Mysterious Institutions of the Ancient World, Kessenger, Whitefish, MT, 2005, originally published 1840  

 Pike, Albert., Morals and Dogma, Supreme Council, So. Jurisdiction of the U.S., Washington D. C., 1962

 Rees, Julian, Freemasonry: A Spiritual Quest, a paper from Pietre Stones website, undated

 Salmon, Andre, Initiation: The Big Picture, a paper, Grand Lodge of Arizona, 2010

 Wilmshurst, W. L., The Masonic Initiation, San Francisco, 2007



[1]  Eliade, Mircea., Rites and Symbols of Initiation, Spring Publications, Putnum, Conn. 1994, p. 23

[2] Wilmshurst, W. L., The Masonic Initiation, San Francisco, 2007, p. 15

[3]  Pike, Albert., Morals and Dogma, Supreme Council, So. Jurisdiction of the U.S., Washington D. C., 1962, p. 520

[4]  Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, p. 200

[5]  Davis, Robert G., Understanding Manhood in America, Anchor Communications LLC, Lancaster, VA USA, 2005,             p. 126

[6]  Ibid., p 106

[7]  Ibid., p. 127

[8]  Ibid., p. 7

[9]  Ibid., p. 126

[12] Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, p. 11

[15] Ibid., from the Forward by Michael J. Meade, p. 7

[16] Pike, Morals and Dogma, p. 520

[17] Davis, Understanding Manhood in America, p. 7

[18] Eliade, Rites and Symbols Of Initiation, p. 22

[20] Salmon, Andre, Initiation: The Big Picture, a paper, Grand Lodge of Arizona, 2010

[22] Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, p. 8

[23] Salmon, Initiation: The Big Picture

[25] Davis, Understanding Manhood in America, p. 48

[26] Mackey, Albert G., Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, The Masonic History Company, New York, 1927, vol 2, p. 35

[27] MacNulty, W. Kirk., Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, Thames & Hudson, New York, 2005, p.            16

[31] Salmon, Initiation: The Big Picture

[32] Rees, Julian, Freemasonry: A Spiritual Quest

[34] Davis, Understanding Manhood in America, p. 128