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THREE CHALLENGING SIMILARITIES:AN EXPLORATION OF MONASTIC AND MASONIC ORDERS

First published here http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/

 

 

1. Introduction

In this paper three dimensions of the similarities between monastic and masonic orders will be explored, concentrating on the Rule of Benedict. But first a word on history of Free-masonry in general. This paper definitely avoids seeking the sources of our Craft, however honourable such an effort might be. One feels duly warned by Daniel Ligou in his “Dictionnaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie”, where he cites the work of Bro. Bernardin in “Précis Historiquedu Grand Orient de France”. Bro. Bernardin has studied 236 authors on the history of Free-Masonry and finds 38 different explanations, ranging from the Tower of Babel and the Flood to ancient India, the Tower of Killwinning or Atlantis with a majority finding for ancient Greece, ancient Rome or the cathedral builders of the roman or renaissance period. It seems best not to add to this list.

In the second place it is advisable, especially for non-english, to be prudent with remarks about origins of the Craft. Being a Dutchman, it can not be my aim to challenge the introductory remarks made by the editors of the Lodge Quatuor Coronati in introducing a translated article in the second issue of the Proceedings by a German Br. Cramer on the sources of Free-masonry as “too visionary and impracticable for Englishmen and possibly for Germans also”.

It is also wise to heed the words in the Introduction of Gould’s History of Free-masonry: “Much of the early history of Free-masonry is so interspersed with fable and romance, that, however anxious we may be to deal tenderly with long-cherished legends and traditions, some at least, of these familiar superstitions – unless we choose to violate every canon of historical criticism – must be allowed to pass quietly into oblivion”. One could not agree more.

The real, underlying, personal reason for undertaking this research is that I am inspired by masonic life as well as by monastic life and the Rule of Benedict, having the privilege to sometimes work with one of the advocates of that Rule, the Dutch professor Dr. Will Derkse. From time to time seeking the tranquillity of a monastery in my Burgundy and on the other hand working in Dutch and French lodges makes me not only nomadic between two countries, but also between two disciplines. The concept of frontiers or boundaries, as a form of curtailment, is therefore growing anathema to me. More and more I seem to perceive frontiers as an invitation for communication.

In the Transactions of the Lodge Quatuor Coronati 1, Br. Woodward reminds us of “the suggestions made at various times of a Knightly, a Benedictine or a Monastic” origin. I tried to find the earlier material on which Br. Woodward could have based this statement but did not succeed.However, I would like to share with you the material which did prove to exist in an accessible way.

This paper deals very briefly and mainly in an introductory sense with monastic orders in general and gives some insights in Benedict and his Rule.Then the three dimensions of the similarities between monastic and masonic orders will be analysed. Firstly the similarities of the Rule and the Ritual will be addressed. Secondly some material will be presented on lodges founded inmonasteries. Thirdly a very modest paragraph will mention sign-language. Trying to prevent the word conclusion, the paper will end with some considerations.

2. Monastic orders

Christian monasticism as we came to know it, was born in Africa and the Middle-East. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the phenomenon came to Europe, from what we now call Egypt and Syria. The first Rule of monasticism we know about is the one of Pacôme written about 320 AD What can be considered the Rule of Augustine dates form 390 AD.

The origins of monasticism lie in the desert and in asceticism. In his introduction to a recent Dutch translation of the Rule of Augustine, Professor Fens reminds us that probably the most strict monastery on earth, La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, is still called the desert.

Monasteries were centres of civilisation, far from peopled by backward monks who were busy burning books and heretics. On the contrary, monasteries were organizing schools, agricultural development, administration of justice (Klosterhaft) and the development of science. The innovation of religion started in monasteries: Erasmus and Luther were monks. It is significant that the Church tolerated the monasteries in such a way that monasticism did not disengage itself from the Church. Escaping from the world to follow, to imitate the strict words of Christ was and still is one of the fundaments of monasticism. It can be considered a protest against the secularisation of Christendom, according to the German theologian Bonhoeffer. Monasticism was not only a protest, it was gradually becoming an alibi for Christianity, because monasteries were keeping the grace alive “on the fringe of the church”. It was the special performance of the few, that enabled the mass (no pun intended), to go on with their daily business.

The more the profane power and economics influenced monasticism, the more religious influence waned, including the erosion of asceticism. The history of monastic orders is littered by examples of the growing worldly power of the monastery going hand in hand with diminishing religious authority. The more influential monasteries became in the worldly sense, the more subject they became to the rules of the worldly power play. Time and time again this called for reform-movements, that wanted to return to the simple, ascetic life: Citeaux in reaction to Cluny, Trappists in reaction to Citeaux.

Monasticism is centred about daily rituals, prescribing the time and content of meals, services to be held, songs to be sung, the hours spent studying or working. To some this seems a monotonous existence. But in essence monotony frees the mind, allowing it to wander and wonder. Monotony is a binding factor in Free-masonry and in monasticism. In Free-masonry it is called ritual, meaning the same thing.

3. Benedict of Nursia

Born in Nursia (present-day Norcia in Italy) he lived from 480 – 550. He was born into a well-to-do family of land-owners. What is known of him comes mostly from one of his monks who later became pope Gregory (590 – 604). Gregory wrote the Dialogues, a book about the lives of Benedict and other Saints.

The life of Benedict was a bit of a paradox. After he set out to lead an ascetic life as a hermit, he was so successful that he gathered a following (which must be a confusing experience for a hermit, by the way). The master attracted apprentices every time. He started a monastery, went away, started again: the famous Monte Cassino which was so horribly destroyed by the Americans during WW II and which was later restored.

His Rule dates from about 530 AD.

If the rule of Benedict is compared with other monastic Rules one cannot fail to notice the simplicity and the ease with which he directs monastic life. Some Rules, for instance the Celtic versions, can be very strict, and are almost a penal code.

The Rule of Benedict was one of the most written and read manuscript in the Middle Ages. His was the most influential rule. That may well be because of the intriguing mélange of strictness and forgiveness. Benedict gives very detailed instructions for the daily rituals, including which Psalms to sing at which days. In Chapter 18 however he states that “if this distribution is displeasing to anyone, he should arrange them otherwise”. A wise acceptance of differences and changing possibilities.

4. The similarities

In this paragraph some examples will be given of the Rule, relating them to our Craft. Bear in mind that it is not primarily the historical or analytical aspects that inspire me but most of al the spiritual wisdom that speaks through these rules.

1. Listening

The first words of the Rule are: “Listen my son, to your masters precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

Some older Free-masons in Holland remember with some melancholy the ancient rules in which E.A. were supposed to refrain from talking in the Lodge. They were supposed to listen to their Master until they were considered to have made sufficient progress to be passed. The term used in the original Latin is Ausculta; ausculta means listening with devotion and concentration. This introduction to the Rule also illustrates the importance of obedience.

2. The vows

The Rule knows three vows: stabilitas, conversio and obedientia. Stabilitas means that you have chosen a monastery and you will remain there. It is a question of loyalty to thecommunity, in our case the lodge. People will grow, we each have that capacity and Benedict is a strong believer in that capacity. But we must grow where we were planted. Faith and being dependable are qualities that flourish in the lodge and that make a lodge flourish.

Conversio means that in entering the order you must be willing to change fundamentally. It is like working in an operating theatre. We cannot do that if it is a bit sterile. Neither can one be a bit pregnant, a bit monk, or a bit Free-mason. We have our mission and that is all-consuming. In Dutch ritual at closing the Lodge, we are commanded by our Master to go West and make ourselves known as Free-masons, meaning of course that we must act as such.Our Master does not invite us to be a Mason a little bit, but to whole-heartedly do our utmost.

The vow of obedientia seems to be the hardest of all, at least to some. Promising obedience to the Master, as we do, is not an obedience to a person. In that sense it is not a matter of leadership, but a form of obedience to the chair, on which one day we ourselves may me sitting. As we obey our Master we do not do what we are told, but we do what is necessary.

3. The ritual

The Rule gives much attention to what we would call the ritual: the day is divided into

various parts on the ground of very specific directions, what when to do, what to sing.

The rhythm in the monastery is determined by the ritual, just as the rhythm of ritual does in our lodge.

4. The Abbot

As in Lodges the Worshipful Master in monasteries the Abbot is the supreme authority. An Abbot is chosen from among his brothers, preferably unanimously.

– He is chosen for his merit of life and wisdom of doctrine.

– His duty is rather to profit the brothers than to preside over them.

– He must be learned in the law, that he may have a treasure of knowledge from which to bring forth new things and old.

– Common sense, prudence and being considerate are considered important qualities.

Choosing your masters to obey them is a form of ‘obedientia’, the obedience to the Rule. The Rule rules also the chosen, they too are subject to the law, as are our W.M..

5. The Cellarer

In monastic life as well as in masonic life the Cellarer is an important functionary. He needs to be a very wise man, sober, not a great eater himself. He is not to vex the brothers with contemptuous refusal. He should be as a father to the community and should not be a miser. Benedict thought of everything, because in Chapter 40 he gives directions for the measure of drink. He states that “wine is by no means a drink for monks but it is impossible to persuade monks of this. At least let us agree to drink sparingly”. In some Lodges this can be sound advice, one would think.

6. The Porter

Monasteries know a functionary who can be compared to our Tyler. In any case between Master and Tyler there is a specific relationship, representing respectively the East and the West. This axis forms one of the fundaments of the way in which the Lodge can be connected to the world, to the West. Worshipful Master and Tyler represent the opening to the East and to the West, respectively. In the initiation of a Candidate the Tyler plays a specific part, checking his credentials, before admitting him to the Lodge. Porters of the monastery have a similar role. They should be somewhat older and wiser brothers, able to receive guests and question them about their credentials.

7. Those who are absent

Brothers who are absent are commemorated always at the last prayer. This is very much like the Tylers’ Toast we know in our ritual in which just before closing the Festive Board, absent brothers are remembered and we wish them a safe return home.

8. Novices

According to the Rule novices are supposed to be silent. Very seldom are they permitted to talk.

In Dutch masonic ritual there is the tradition that before passing and raising, the Candidate presents himself with a speech explaining what he has learned during the period of being an Entered Apprentice or a Fellow Craft. Entered Apprentices especially are expected to comment on the Lodge and its proceedings. This is a peculiar similarity with the Rule because in Chapter 3 it is stated that every time important business needs to be done, the Abbot should call together the whole community and state the matter to be discussed. To these meetings all are invited “because the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best”. The speech of the Entered Apprentice is meant to hold up a mirror to the older brothers. It also confirms the fact that really there are only Apprentices.

9. The good zeal.

The only zeal allowed to monks is the fervour with which they should anticipate one another in honour, endure one another’s infirmities (whether in body or in character), always asking themselves what benefits another. A worthy zeal for any Mason, one would think.

10. Receiving brethren

The ceremony of initiation is reflected in Chapter 58 of the Rule. No one newly come is to be granted an easy entrance. Only if the newcomer persists in knocking on the gate and he is seen to bear patiently the harsh treatment and difficulty of admission for four or five days is he to be admitted as a novice. A senior, the master of novices, is assigned to him to guide him through his novitiate, a functionary like our Junior Warden who is responsible for the Entered Apprentices. Just like in our Lodges the Rule provides for those who, having left, want to be received again.

11. The workshop

The words used by Benedict in this Chapter 4 are the same as are used in our Craft. The French version of the Rule calls the place where the monks work : “l’atelier”, which is exactly the same word as French brothers use in naming the Lodge. In Dutch the name for the Lodge is “werkplaats”, just as it is called in the Rule.

12. Hierarchic structure

The functionaries of both monastic and masonic organisations can be compared very well:

AbottWorshipful Master

CellarerSteward

PorterTyler

Master of novicesJunior Warden

Weekly ReaderOrator

DeansOfficers

NovicesEntered Apprentices

Professed MonksFellow Craft

SeniorsMaster Mason

Differences

In addition to the similarities there are of course differences, some of which are rather interesting, because they may teach us something. For instance in Chapter 68 a guideline is given in case a brother is commanded to do an impossible task. In such cases the brother should accept the burden in obedience. If the burden exceeds his strength he should speak of this with his Superior “in a quiet way and at an opportune time”. If the Superior persists the brother should obey him, out of love for the Superior and trusting in the help of God. In Chapter 69 brothers are forbidden to defend each other on any ground. Breaking this rule calls for the most severe punishment. It seems that Masons could benefit from some of these Rules.

Monastic Lodges

An interesting dimension of the similarities between monastic and masonic orders is the existence of monastic lodges.Some French sources even indicate a more than spiritually shared parenthood between the monastic and the masonic orders. However, that seems to fall short of the warning given in Gould’s “History” or the conclusion of Brodsky who calls masonic history “un domaine où les passions dominent la raison”, a domain where passion rules reason.

In the XVIIIth century various Masonic Lodges were erected in Benedictine monasteries. Now keeping in mind the attitude of official Roman-Catholic Church towards Freemasonry this seems rather interesting.

The well known Ferrer-Benimeli mentions in his “Archives Secrètes” that in the last 40 years of the XVIIIth century an impressive number of Free-Masons were active in the Catholic Church either as monks or as priests. He gives examples from all over Europe, concentrating however on France and almost never mentioning England in this respect. The study of Ferrer-Benimeli is important too because of its impressive lists of sources as well as its lists of clergymen, monks and other functionaries (among whom are to be found bishops, priors etc.).

This paper cites three examples among over a hundred, the sources of which can be found outside Ferrer-Benimeli as well.

* On June 24 1778 a Lodge was founded in Fécamp in the monastery “L’Abbaye Royale de la Très Sainte Trinité”. Out of 29 monks in this monastery 9 got permission of the prieur to join this Lodge. The Lodge itself was built on the grounds of the monastery. The name of the Lodge was “La Triple Unité”. Other founding members of the Lodge included a priest, a taxman, an officer in the army, an engineer and a commissary of the navy. All founding members were Master Masons, implying that they had been Masons rather longer. In the years after the foundation other monks join and some priests.These masonic relations were helpful for the monastery during the French revolution. The city council, one of whom was a Mason as well, refused to execute the laws to prohibit the monasteries in France. This Lodge is tyled (closed) in 1790, refounded in 1811, tyled again in 1828, refounded in 1860 and tyled in de war year of 1940.

* In the monastery at Ferrières-en-Gâtinais the same thing happened. The Lodge “Sainte-Émilie” is created in 1786 and is located in the monastery. Four of the eight monks join the Lodge.

* Even in the famous abbaye of Clairvaux a Lodge called “La Vertu” was erected in “L’An de la Vraie Lumière 5785”, in 1785.

More research is needed here, probably to be done at least in part in Benedictine monasteries in France.

6.Sign language

Most if not all contemplative monastic orders know a rule of silence. The Rule of Benedict Chapter 6 states that “the spirit of silence ought to lead us at times to refrain even from good speech”. There are various statues from the Middle-Ages and later, showing Benedict making the sign for silence, by holding his finger to his closed lips.

There is an exception, namely “that speaking and teaching belong to the master”. One wonders, by the way,if this “master” is the same as the one mentioned in the introduction to the Rule. In any case, this tradition is roughly the same as in the Craft.

The roots of this rule of silence are to be found in the Bible. To mention just a few examples among many: Psalm 141,3; Proverbs X,19; XIII,3; Job IX, 20; Matthews XV, 11.

Rules of silence are known in all old monastic rules, from Pachomius onward. The rule of silence was never intended to totally ban speech as a form of communication. Rijnberk says about the rule of silence: “(..) il est bien sûr qu’elle n’a été absolue nulle part”, stating that it has never been known to be absolute.

The sign language is interesting because of the rich symbolism. For instance after Evensong the rule of silence was applied. The text of Psalm 140 (141) introduced the silence of the night. In the first morning service, singing Psalm 50, permission was granted to speak again, unlocking the mouth, as it were.

The rule of silence was meant for certain moments and certain periods. Sign language was not intended as a means of communication, replacing spoken language. It was simply a means of making one-self understood whenever really necessary.

But for the periods of silence, whether they were at table or during the day in the fields, the need for some form of communication is apparent. So a rather elaborate sign language was developed, with some interesting roots in Mediterranean lay society.

Most of the signs help in daily life, preparing food, working the fields, taking care of the sick, repairing buildings or clothing.

In Chapter 38, On the Weekly Reader, Benedict ordains a total silence at table, no whispering. Only the reader is to be heard. Benedict understood the necessity of communication while at table and concludes: “If anything is needed, however,let it be asked for by means of some audible sign rather than speech”. Sherlock mentions an interesting story about Gerald of Wales who visited Canterbury Cathedral Priory in 1180 AD. The Benedictines of this priory used the sign language of Cluny. Gerald when sitting down at high table, was astonished by the fact that the monks did not talk, but communicated with gestures and thus had a very lifely conversation. He felt “to be seated at a stage play or among actors and jesters”.

Sign language has a logic all of its own. In the sign language documented for the monks of Ely to signify the Rule of Benedict itself, you make the sign for book followed by the sign for Abott. The sign for the Master of Novices (who can be compared to the Junior Warden) one makes the sing for the novice followed by the sign for seeing.

Most of the signs are pretty straightforward, with the obvious signs for drinking eating and sleeping, for instance. Rijnberk therefore calls these signs “optical onomatopoeia”.

Most monasteries had their own lists of signs, but custom differed vastly. In Cluny almost 300 signs were known, whereas in the Portuguese monastery of Alcobaça monks had to make do with 55, and one of the Trappist monasteries in France using over 450 signs. Although the number of signs per monastery could differ, the language was more or less the same. It was universal enough to enable monks from different monasteries to understand one another, even across national borders.

Some of the signs can be the same as in Lodge. Rijnberk for instance mentions the Cistercian sign of the martyr, which is like cutting one’s throat. This sign also means death. Masons all remember being introduced to the sign of the E.A. promising that they would rather have their throat cut than betray the secret of our Craft. Obviously this aspect needs far more research than has been done up to date, but it can prove a challenging route.

Considerations

One cannot but agree wholeheartedly with Reynaud, when he states “Il serai peu conforme à la vérité d’établir une filiation directe entre la Règle de saint Benoît et les anciennes Règles du Métier de Maçonnerie (..). Mais on peut parler d’une évidente parenté spirituelle”, saying something like:it would be little according to truth to establish a direct link between the Rule of Benedict and masonic rules. But one can talk about a shared spiritual parenthood. In essence this statement is the same as a later statement of Neville Barker Cryer when he says “similarities are not sources”.

It behoves us to be prudent in the extreme to avoid unrealistic speculations about our roots. Up to now the research does not allow to draw conclusions, at all. Therefore the word consideration suits better what we can do with the material collected so far. We work on some dimensions i.e. similarities in the rules of monastic and masonic life, the existence of monastic lodges, the similarities in sign-language. These may point in certain directions, but they do not tell us anything about our roots, other than that we may share a common ancestor, a source of inspiration that guides us through life, monastic, masonic or profane.

It is important though that Free-masons can lend their ears to the Benedictines and learn from them. Free-masons can learn from the dedication needed to do a job, working at a better world. Free-masonry today also calls for contemplation, being able to consider yourself and so to learn to know yourself. In the need for a more spiritual Free-masonry the Rule of Benedict can be an important inspiration, most certainly for those who are prepared to incline the ear of their heart.

To me in any case the Rule of Benedict and monastic life as such, both form a fountain of wisdom and inspiration, complementing masonic practice and in that sense, aiding at working my rough Ashlar.

Bibliography

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