The Initiatic Experience

W. B. Robert Herd, P. M. Tejon Lodge No. 104, Past Grand Orator

Presented to Enlightenment Traditional Observance Club – October 2006


I’ll begin with a simple definition of “initiation” from the Columbia Encyclopedia as it would relate to our subject:

Coming from the Latin, initiation implies a beginning. The related verb initiates means to begin or start a particular action, event, circumstance, or happening.

The initiatic process is often compared to a simultaneous death and rebirth, because as well as being a beginning, it also implies an ending of existence as one level drops away leading to ascension of the next.

From time immemorial, initiations have been performed by many–maybe even most–cultures, races, religions and philosophical orders. The purpose may be as simple as initiating a boy into manhood, or as complex as initiating priests into priesthood. Mankind has carried out this practice throughout all of time to assist in answering those eternal questions.

Where does it all come from, this quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries, where the simplest of questions can never be answered? Why are we here? What is the soul?

Many different initiatic orders have been formed to assist in the quest to search for more light. They are too numerous to name all; however, I would like to list a few that are of great importance in understanding the origins of Freemasonry and its philosophies toward the initiatic process. It is not possible or practical for me to elaborate on them to any depth in this paper, but hopefully this will challenge the reader to take it upon themselves to further their knowledge by studying these concepts in depth, and finding their own ties to our fraternity.

 Egyptian Priesthoods: There were many different orders of priesthoods in ancient Egypt, teaching practical sciences as well as religious, spiritual and philosophical ones.

Hermeticism: Hermeticism is a magical and religious movement stemming from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. It consists of some of the most ancient and most widely adopted philosophies.

Alchemy: Alchemy is a system of esoterica, initiation, and spiritual development. It is one of the few initiatic systems that put equal emphasis on the outer, physical work of the world as well as the inner, spiritual work of the soul.

Rosicrucianism: The Rosicrucian Order, devoted to the study of ancient mystical, philosophical, and religious doctrines, was concerned with the application of these doctrines to modern life.

Pythagoreanism: This order held that reality, at its deepest level, is mathematical; that philosophy can be used for spiritual purification; that the soul can rise to union with the divine; and that certain symbols have mystical significance.

Gnosticism: The doctrines of certain pre-Christian, Jewish, and early Christian sects that valued the revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and end of the human race as a means of attaining spiritual redemption.

These are but a few examples of other initiatic orders with ties to Freemasonry via a system of initiatic processes and a passing down and mixing of philosophies. This brings us to the very important question…

What is or what should be the Initiatic Experience in the context of Freemasonry?

I emphasize that the following are my personal opinions and beliefs. I firmly believe that no one man can speak for all of Freemasonry. I offer this to you as the product of only my own thoughts and study and will keep this general so as not to violate the basic principles of my obligations or expose any of our work to anyone who may not be a Freemason.

The brethren conducting the initiation, who are in possession of a certain knowledge and state of being in respect to each of the degrees, transfer this knowledge or state to the candidate being initiated.

The energy of this transmission, it is important to note, is as important as the knowledge itself.

Think of it in terms of how solemn our degrees are to the initiate when they are done by brethren who truly know and understand the work, and are not just transmitting words, but feelings or “energy” to the candidate as well. This is a portion of the initiatic energy I’m speaking of. The transfer of this “energy”, via the initiatic experience, is intended to cause a fundamental process of change within the candidate, be that physical, mental, spiritual or a combination thereof.

Modern Freemasonry deals with this tripartite nature of man (physical, mental, spiritual) in that order by means of the three degrees.

We first teach the initiate about the physical portions of his environment in the lodge and of the necessary control of his physical outward actions in the first degree. Then we touch on the mental state and encourage him to study and improve his mind and further his knowledge by educating him with a base knowledge of the sciences to gain intellect in the second degree. Lastly, in the third degree, we expound on the spiritual side of man and convey to the candidate those contemplations of the eternal cycle of man’s spirit.

Birth, life, death, rebirth.

Recognizing the tripartite nature of man is essential to understanding what I will call the Mystery, because the Mystery is that which
cannot be distinguished by the physical being through the senses, or by the mental being through the intellect, but rather is perceived directly by the spirit…that element of man’s being that is one with what some call the Grand Architect of the Universe, Universal Truth or simply stated our unconscious connection to the Divine. My definition of Mystery rests upon the premise that there is a reality beyond the material plane.

Freemasonry consists of many men with many diverse beliefs, but with one common understanding and belief in a greater Creator.

However, it would be unreasonable to expect a reader who does not view himself as sharing that belief in a non-physical reality to accept this premise without question.

Instead, I ask any reader not a brother to consider what this message refers to as the “spiritual” or “non-material” existence, as that which he himself believes is incomprehensible to the senses, but nevertheless a reality that transcends his mere self.

To one man, this may be a Deity; to another, the vital essence that animates all living creatures; and to yet another, this may be a simple mysterious force of electricity, which is present throughout the universe.

My belief is that it is a form of connection between us and Deity.

Yet, how do we explain what is not physical, or mental; how do we explain, much less communicate to an initiate this concept? For this I will ask you to remember back to the “energy” I wrote of earlier–energy that we as Initiators are trying to convey or transfer to the candidate in our Initiatic Order, carrying out our goal of providing a complete Initiatic Experience for the candidate.

Any number of experiences may cause man to consider the existence of an unseen reality. It may be that he is suddenly controlled by the mysterious and powerful emotion of Love; he may be moved by an overwhelming spirit of Brotherhood; he may feel the penetrating presence of the All Seeing Eye while searching his soul in a chamber of reflection; or perhaps he feels his spirit affected by an inspiring work of music. Whatever the circumstance, such exalted experiences result in an awakening of consciousness. This is the goal of the Initiatic Experience within Freemasonry, my brethren, this awakening of an individual to his connection to the spiritual plane. The individual is no longer blissfully ignorant of a non-material existence and begins to thirst for direct communion with the spiritual reality that he senses. In essence, a part of him has stopped existing, and a new part has started a journey, fulfilling the basic definition of initiation given previously.

To quench his desire to explore this higher consciousness, he may now delve into music, poetry, philosophy, and other intangible arts that inspire this feeling beyond the limitations of the body and the mind.

The Greek figure Orpheus, a poet and musician, represented this idea that the transcendent Mystery can be expressed through the arts.

Since ancient times, art and music have been the two primary means through which man achieved this Mysterious illumination. The second degree, I believe, is what best lays this out for the initiate. He has been through his first initiation and learned to control his vices, the better to open his mind to the teachings of the liberal arts and sciences, music of course being one of them that I will use as an example.

Entrapped in his “tomb of flesh,” man still struggles to express himself through this spiritual language, and he attempts to communicate it to others. Inspired by music, he sings or plays with such passion that he may awaken his own spirit and the spirit of others to a form of recognition of the Mystery. Thus, music and the other arts and sciences, as modes of human expression, are not merely incidental to human civilization, but are intrinsic and essential to it. Plato taught that through music, a definite purification takes place within the soul, and man’s regeneration is thereby advanced.

Love and Brotherhood are other examples of this intangible force.

When the Initiate is awakened to the mysterious power of these “energies”, the whole ethical and moral tone of his life is advanced. Because he now understands that there is a universal Mystery of which he and every other human being is a part, he no longer perceives himself as an individual, but rather as an element of one great consciousness. He no longer identifies himself with the body or mind, which emphasizes his individuality, but instead with the spirit, which affirms his universality. With this heightened consciousness comes the understanding that “Fraternity” refers not only to Freemasonry, but to the brotherhood of Man. It is experienced in the informal social gatherings as well as felt in the lodge room. It is encountered in the degree work and taught in the lectures.

A powerful example of the Mystery of brotherhood and fraternity makes itself known through the grip, one of the secrets of the order. Our veins have tingled as the handshake of a stranger has become a brother’s grip.

There is, in truth, mysticism in fraternity.

We cannot comprehend or explain it in entirety; it cannot be counted, weighed, or shown. We can only feel it in our spirit. These words impart the message that the Mystery is no less real than that which we perceive through the physical senses or through the intellect. It is a clear lesson on faith, and the acceptance as reality of that which one cannot see, leading us to that sublime degree which exemplifies the virtues and benefits of faith.

These are the energies I believe we seek to transfer during the Initiatic Experience of our candidates.

Without proper attention to details, study, practice and a solemn regard for the rituals, this transferal cannot be obtained or yet worse an opposite energy can be transferred. Think of the times in our lodges where uneducated brethren have given poor lectures or sloppy work. Not only were there not a strong positive energies communicated to that candidate, but likely a strong negative one. Instilling disinterest in him for the craft or for the work, a pity for the brother who gave the poor work, a distraction from what was to be communicated by him resulting in an incomplete presentation sending the candidate down a path possibly not desired. In using the analogy of music again, it’s as if a musician were playing him a beautifully written piece of music on a piano out of tune…the discord and disharmony felt by his spirit could be almost physically painful.

In closing let me say I am excited about the Enlightenment Club concept and its goal of bringing Freemasonry back to a plane of practicing and conferring knowledge regarding man’s spiritual transcendence. Practicing this new concept gives me the feeling of being initiated into a new order, in that we are in effect beginning a new path, a new quest. I know that through continued education and attention to conferring a complete, positive and sublime Initiatic Experience, we can transfer positive, inspiring energy and allow ourselves and our candidates that communion with the Divine by opening them up to the Mystery within them…which I believe has always truly been the purpose of the Initiatic Experience of Freemasonry.