An absolute classic
The immortal masterpiece by W. L. Wilmshurst had a profound effect on me in terms of how eloquently the book elucidated the symbolic significance of the signs, rituals and allegories of Freemasonry and how they relate to man’s spiritual quest. Among the many themes I was able to relate to from my previous esoteric studies were those of comparative religion, the links between religion, philosophy and psychology, and the concept of a “paradise lost”. However, a particular theme I would like to focus on for the purposes of this treatise, and one which resonated deeply with me from my own personal experience, was that of the symbolism surrounding death and resurrection. This is an area of deep personal significance to me as I have recognised the metaphorical process of death and rebirth playing itself out in the course of my own spiritual awakening and have also been struck by how this appears to be part of an archetypal pattern reflected throughout myth, legend and religion as well as in the lives of others who have undergone similar experiences to myself.
The main examples of this phenomena cited in the book are, of course, the death and resurrection of Christ as well as the murder of Hiram Abiff, the allegorical founder of Freemasonry. However, this principle spans all cultures and faiths and can be seen reflected also in the stories of the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Bacchus among others. The death-and-resurrection motif can in fact be seen demonstrated throughout the whole of creation as one of its fundamental underlying principles. For example, the cells of our bodies die and are replaced; crops and vegetation grow, die and rise again in annual cycles, constellations in the night skies die and are “born again” the following night, we lose consciousness in sleep each night and then awaken renewed and refreshed the following morning, seasons follow each other with regular periodicity, the sun “dies” at sunset only to be reborn anew at sunrise the next morning, personal and tribal fortunes wax and wane and so too do human moods.
The concept of birth-death-resurrection has therefore been hardwired into creation and into the collective subconscious of humanity since ancient times. The process refers not only to literal death and resurrection but can also be viewed on a metaphorical level as symbolising the transmutation one goes through in evolving towards the Higher Self. The psychologist Carl Jung saw the dying and rising god as an archetypal process resonating with the collective unconscious through which the resurrected god becomes the greater personality. As Wilmshurst’s book states: “The death to which Masonry alludes, using the analogy of bodily death and under the veil of a reference to it, is that death-in-life to a man’s lower self which St Paul referred to when he protested ‘I die daily’. It is over the grave, not of one’s dead body but of one’s lower self, that the aspirant must walk before attaining to the heights”. The key to this transformation is that new growth can only come about through the death of the old. It is necessary for old and outworn forms to first be broken down in order to make way for the new.
In every aspect of our lives we can see evidence that new growth only comes through destruction. Without the presence of the destructive Mars force to break down the old, we stand still and stagnate. This applies equally to habitual patterns of thinking – old and flawed ways of looking at the world must first be dissolved before we can start to visualise the template for a new and better life. To use an analogy, there is no point in someone repeatedly buying new clothes if their wardrobes are already full. The old, unused clothes must first be cleared out and disposed of in order to create space in the cupboard for new acquisitions. There is an inherent danger in human nature that we tend to cling to the old for the sake of comfort and security – whether that be an old shirt, a job, a habit or a relationship – but sometimes we have to recognise that change is necessary for growth. We must have the courage to let go of the past, to allow the old to “die” in order to clear the space for potentially-exciting new chapters in our lives. We cannot build a new house on a plot of land where a ruin stands without first destroying the ruin.
This is where the concept of sacrifice, symbolised by the deaths of Christ and Hiram Abiff, comes in. From a metaphorical standpoint, this association can be viewed as symbolising the importance of sacrifice as the translation of force from one form to another. All matter is merely energy vibrating at various different frequencies, so when we shed our physical bodies we are merely moving to a higher vibratory state in which the physical body is no longer required. The loss or “sacrifice” of the physical vessel is therefore necessary in order for the energy to be released and “reborn” on another plane or in another form, in much the same way as we burn fuel in order to release the energy it contains to power our machines. The dying-and-rising god archetype is a symbolic representation of this energy transference. However, the same principle applies not just to actual physical death but also to the metaphorical death and rebirth which is an essential part of the process of spiritual awakening.
The concept of regeneration or rebirth is one very close to my heart as I can relate it to the process of personal development and self-discovery I have been undergoing for the past few years. A decade ago I suffered a prolonged period of ill-health due to work-related stress in my former career as a journalist. This resulted in the total collapse of my old life, the loss of a job I had held for 20 years, and a period of great turbulence and uncertainty. However, as traumatic as these events undoubtedly were at the time, they ultimately proved to be the best thing that had ever happened to me. It was in the course of my recovery from illness that I discovered the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and this in turn led to my esoteric studies and a spiritual awakening which has transformed my entire life for the better and launched me upon a new and rewarding career as a therapist. Looking back, I can see how my old life had stagnated. In order for me to move forward, it was necessary for that life to be blown apart so that I could “rise again” according to an archetypal pattern. Christ’s trials upon the cross can be seen as representative of this process in which we must sacrifice the old – an experience often involving great pain and hardship – in order to pave the way for new beginnings and allow ourselves to be reborn like a phoenix from the ashes. The same principle is perfectly illustrated by The Tower card in Tarot which, with its depiction of a seemingly traumatic scene of a tower being struck by lightning, demonstrates the need for a destructive tearing-down of old forms in order for a superior rebuilding to take place.
To quote again from Wilmshurst, “What is meant is that complete self-sacrifice and self-crucifixion which, as all religions teach, are essential before the soul can be raised in glory ‘from a figurative death to a reunion with the companions of its former toils’ both here and in the unseen world. The perfect cube must pass through the metamorphosis of the Cross. The soul must voluntarily and consciously pass through a state of utter helplessness from which no earthly hand can rescue it, and in trying to raise him from which the grip of any succouring human hand will prove but a slip: until at length Divine Help itself descends from the Throne above and, with the ‘lion’s grip’ of almighty power, raises the faithful and regenerated soul to union with itself in an embrace of reconciliation and at-one-ment”.
The paragraph above describes perfectly the process of metaphorical rebirth and regeneration which I have been through. It is no coincidence that I have named my recently-launched business Phoenix Therapies and adopted the image of a phoenix – symbol of regeneration – as my company logo. This was designed to tie into the symbolism of the phoenix as a metaphor for regeneration and alluding not only to my own personal renewal but also to the potential for my clients to undergo a similar process of rebirth by letting go of past psychological baggage. The process of renewal that I have experienced to date has been so liberating, and so utterly life-transforming, that I feel a burning desire to share the knowledge and techniques I have learnt along the way so that others too can derive benefit from my experiences. I want to shine a light for others to follow in order to provide hope to those still struggling in the darkness of anxiety, depression and despair. I see now how it was necessary for me to undergo the sacrifice of my old life in order that the energy be released for a new phase of growth and for me to be reborn like a phoenix from the ashes.
To me, this alchemical transmutation of negative experiences into positive ones lies at the heart of what I consider to be regeneration. The traumatic “death” of the lower self is necessary in order to blow away all the various neuroses, insecurities, prejudices, negative character traits and faulty patterns of thinking which we develop as a result of our life experiences, cultural conditioning, environment and through exposure to society’s perceived norms. The stripping away of all this negative programming eventually exposes the pure, untarnished and brightly polished diamond underneath which is the true or higher self. As such the process is effectively a rebirth, a second chance at life, in which the old self dies to make way for the newly resurrected greater personality. As Wilmshurst states in discussing the mystical death of the Third Degree: “He (the candidate) must lose his life to save it; he must surrender all that he has hitherto felt to be his life in order to find life of an altogether higher order”. I already scarcely recognise the person I was seven years ago, such is the extent to which my own life and outlook have changed. I feel I have gone from living in a nightmare to living instead within a fairytale of bliss and equilibrium. I therefore agree entirely with the book when it states that: “Mors janua vitae – death to self – is the portal to true life. There is no other way. It is the inescapable law and condition of the soul’s progress”.
The rituals of Freemasonry, such as the enactments of the death of Hiram Abiff, are designed to portray this process through a symbolism which resonates with the “inner knowing” within our own subconscious. The ultimate goal is for the ordinary natural man to evolve into a perfected regenerated “superman”. As Wilmshurst states: “from grade to grade the candidate is being led from an old to an entirely new quality of life”. In my previous written assignment for the Priory, I alluded to the importance of allegory as a means of stirring a person’s “inner knowing” through storytelling and symbolism, and the same principle can be seen being applied here in the use of ceremonial enactments of the death-and-resurrection archetype. Just as it is not necessary for the Priory of Sion to prove the historical accuracy of a bloodline descended from Christ, so too is it not essential to believe in the literal physical resurrection of Christ following the crucifixion. This is not to say that the events depicted in the gospels are not historically accurate, merely that it is not necessary to prove their historicity in order to derive benefit from the spiritual truths encoded within the story’s allegories. To quote again from Wilmshurst: “Biblical history is not ordinary history of temporal events but a record of eternally true spiritual facts”. As the book rightly states, the use of mythological storytelling stimulates and illumines the imagination, enabling the mind to interpret facts and adjust them to their proper relation. There is no better example of this than the Greek myths, which conveyed powerful philosophical truths veiled within fables. As the book states, to the Ancient Greeks “Myth-making was a science, not an indulgence in irresponsible fiction, and by exhibiting some of these myths in dramatic form candidates were instructed in various fundamental verities of life”. The same can be said to be true of the parables told by Jesus, the Hindu legends within The Mahabarata, and the legends of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail.
The examples within myth and religion of great souls who have been slain, only to rise again triumphant, are therefore designed to serve as models or prototypes to illustrate the principle of death and rebirth. The metaphor is equally effective, regardless of whether the prototype in question is Christ, Osiris or Hiram Abiff. Wilmshurst states: “It matters nothing whether the prototype be one whose historical actuality can be demonstrated, or whether he can be regarded only as legendary or mythical; the point being not to teach merely a historical fact, but to enforce a spiritual principle”.
I believe this esoteric interpretation of death and resurrection lies at the heart of true initiation and can therefore be regarded as one of the central keys to the mysteries. As Plato said, “The whole study of the philosopher (wisdom-seeker) is nothing else but to die and be dead”.