by Juliet Ashley, Ph.D., PGM
The story is often told of the young Japanese Buddhist who, after hearing the penalty of his obligation, asked that the words be repeated. They were. He removed his hands from the Dhammapada upon which he was making his pledge, removed his hoodwink and cabletow, picked up his Holy Bible and marched back to the Preparation Room. He was last seen exiting the Lodge in a hurry leaving the Masons in the Lodge confused and surprised.
All attempts to explain to this young man that the penalties included in the obligations were symbolic, fell of deaf ears. He was not to be persuaded that the words spoken by his mouth could not and would not be enforced. His position very clearly was that if the penalties were not to be enforced, why require anyone to say them?
You may believe these things can only happen in Japan, but you are mistaken. I have no doubt that some metaphysical students, upon reading our rituals, decide to leave Freemasonry well alone because they fear being mutilated by the Masons they sought to join. Fear of mutilation is a very real thing. So is the fear of rejection.
On the surface, all Masonic penalties include not only mutilation but rejection by the Craft. Indeed, I'm sad to say rejection is enforced by Masonic Law in most regular, exclusively-male Masonic institutions. The Fraternity does not like men to become students of the esotericism espoused by their very rituals. The idea is to become a "good man" but not a metaphysician. Worse yet, don't study alchemy, astrology, divination, esoteric things, Kaballah, magic, mantra, meditation, mysticism, or spirituality. It's O.K. to be a good businessperson but not a good metaphysician. The Family Tree is acceptable but the Tree of Life is not.
Rejection is not possible if we truly practice the principles of Freemasonry. Love, Mercy and Justice are not only words we speak with our mouths, they are principles Masons practice with our hearts. We promise to accept everyone, if we accept them, and that's what we say we're going to do, then rejection is not possible.
That brings us back to mutilation which for the same is reasons is also not possible. In the two hundred fifty year history of Freemasonry as we know it, nobody has ever suffered from the administration of a Masonic penalty. So why do we say we will enforce the penalty? Why do we ask candidates for the various degrees to swear they will obey their obligation under penalty of mutilation?
For the shock value.
I can think of no other reason. There's no doubt Masonic penalties do shock us the first time we hear them. But they tend to lose shock value over time. Nobody believes unenforceable off-the-wall threats. Nobody believes anybody is stupid enough to even think about committing these horrendous crimes. The more candidates hear phony threats, the less they believe what they're hearing. There seems to be no reason to keep these penalties in the Masonic obligations.
Unless the penalties are symbolic and have nothing to do with physical reality. Unless the penalties are allegorical in nature. Unless the penalties speak of metaphysical losses we suffer whenever we violate the dictates of our own conscience. If this is the case, we're making a promise to ourselves and not to the other members of our Lodge. We're promising not to divulge the secrets of Masonry to anybody not qualified to receive them. We're making this promise to ourselves under penalty of hampering our own spiritual progress. That deserves to be taken a lot more seriously that the threat of physical harm.
Consider the well-known penalties of the Entered Apprentice who vows to keep the secrets of the Entered Apprentice Degree inviolate under penalty of having his or her throat cut across from ear to ear, her or his tongue torn out by it's root and buried in the rough sands of the sea where the tide ebbs and flows twice in the course of a natural day, or the more effective punishment of being branded as a willfully perjured individual, void of all moral worth, and totally unfit to be received into this Lodge, or any other warranted Lodge, or society of people who prize honor and virtue above the external advantages of rank and fortune.
Having my throat cut across from ear to ear alludes to cutting off my mind from the mysteries of my body. Tearing my tongue out by its roots alludes to my inability to communicate in the esoteric worlds beyond this physical reality. Burying my tongue in the rough sands is bound to curb my speaking until I recover my tongue. These penalties are not endured by my body but by my Soul.
Being branded as a willfully perjured person is endured by my Ego. This is the only part of the penalty that can be true for me in this body in this lifetime. I could easily ruin my reputation by sharing the secrets of Freemasonry with people who are not qualified nor ready to receive and understand them. Such people will undoubtedly label me as a Fool or a weirdo at best. When word gets out my Sister and Brother Masons will know I shared things I shouldn't have shared. My embarrassment will know no bounds.
As I peruse the penalties of our Masonic degrees I find most of them operate on two levels. On the one hand my reputation can suffer if I violate my obligation. On the other, my Soul will be affected on a higher non-physical level. So I keep inviolate my vows to protect my reputation as a woman and Mason, and to purify my Soul as much as humanly possible.
This is the message we should be conveying to all Candidates for Masonic degrees. Though the penalties of all Masonic vows speak of mutilation of the body, this is only an allegory. The penalties really and honestly refer to potential damage to our Ego and Soul if we violate our Masonic vows. Those vows are to keep sacrosanct the secrets of Freemasonry. Those secrets are the passwords and secret grips.
It probably comes as no surprise these secrets are already common knowledge. They can be found in almost every public library. All you have to do is know where to look. I know and that's my secret.
[Note: This lecture by Past Grandmaster Dr. Ashley was delivered to the annual convocation in Washington, D.C. on June 21, 1981. It is published here from a handout distributed posthumously to members attending the June, 1986 Convocation.]
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