I recently returned from a very interesting presentation by Bro. Arturo de Hoyos at the October 2013 meeting of the Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic Knowledge. Bro. de Hoyos was to present on Masonic ritual, but being that it was so close to Halloween, he informed us he would take the angle of the use of the skull in our Masonic ritual. Boy, was this an eye opener.
Anyone looking for information on Freemasonry, no doubt, has come across illustrations of the skull and crossbones. To many, this is an ominous item that we tend to shy away from today. It is seen by some as morbid, evil, scary, and even Satanic by some. It has been shoved to the corner of society with things we associate with being dark, negative, and unpleasant.
I am no different. I have seen this symbol. I realize it symbolizes death. I understand that it was used early on more than it is used today, and I see why, by today’s standards, this symbol could be seen as sinister by many of the profane.
After watching this presentation and reflecting on what Bro. de Hoyos spoke about, I began to think that my definition and feelings on Freemasonry may be a little off.
When asked what Freemasonry is, I tend to repeat one of the first passages we all hear each month at lodge. Found in the opening charge is the phrase “useful knowledge is the great object of our desire.” This is simple. It is much easier than the “system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols” definition that is standardly thrown around.
When someone asks, “What is the point of Freemasonry?” I have to go no further than the first few words of our opening charge. The purpose is to gain useful knowledge. This knowledge is used to make us better people. We use this knowledge to refine our characters and live better lives.
When I step back and look at the way I explain it to people, I realize that there is more. The next question I ask myself is, “Why live a better life?” On the surface it seems simple. If you live a better life, you will be a better person. You will improve all that is around you. Things will go better and be better if you live a better life. Still, there is more to living than what is here in now. At the end of life is death. Death is A LOT longer.
While it is true that being a good person can make your life better, I realized the purpose of living a better life is to achieve admission to a better afterlife. In a nice life, we are on this Earth for 90 years, 100 if we are lucky. 100 years is a long time to a living human, but it’s just a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things. If the lifestyle lived as a Freemason is giving me knowledge to polish my rough edges, the end goal will be to get into Heaven. (or whatever you call your spiritual afterlife) The end point of life is death. This makes the purpose of Freemasonry simply to learn how to die.
Society seems to have taken the unpleasant images of the world and not just pushed them aside, but downright vilified them. Anymore it seems as though displaying a skull and crossbones is downright creepy. And really, in today’s day and age, it is.
This symbol has gone the way of the swastika in many regards. Of course the about-face that the swastika took is an extreme example of symbol bastardization. In today’s world it would be hard for most people to think a home flying a large swastika flag in the front yard is the best place to send your girl scouts to sell cookies. The skull has taken a similar seat in society.
Why should we care about the skull? Well, for starters we need to focus on what it actually symbolizes. The skull is a symbol of death and mortality. Pushing aside all profane and otherwise misuses of the skull, I think it’s time the Freemason starts to focus on the skull. It might not even be a bad idea to display it in a place where he sees it every day. For other peoples ignorance sake, I wouldn’t recommend displaying this on a 3×6 flag in your front yard, or even on a badge on the back of your car, but for the purpose of self-awareness it could be displayed inside your home, on a key ring, maybe even as an accompanying symbol on your masonic ring. You are doing this for your own good, no one else.
If you do this, of course, you need to also be educated enough to be able to defend yourself when the questions inevitably start coming. I realize there are many reasons we don’t use this symbol as much as we once did in regular craft Freemasonry, but I think it would benefit us all to be reminded daily why we live by the working tools. Death is just around the corner. We have no idea when it is coming, and we have no idea how old we’ll be when it happens.
As we strive to live by the working tools, we need to keep in mind the reason for doing so. Knowing what the working tools mean won’t make you a better person if you aren’t executing their direction. Understanding Masonic Philosophy won’t help you if you don’t use it as a tool for improvement. All the knowledge in the world won’t transform you into the fine ashlar for use in that spiritual temple unless you are actually polishing your rough edges.
So, is Freemasonry about acquiring useful knowledge to live a better life? Yes. However, in light of my most recent experience, I think Freemasonry could be more about preparing you to die. The skull is no more sinister than the swastika if you look at its original symbolic purpose. The skull is merely a reminder that you will die. Shouldn’t we be privately using this more as just another daily Masonic symbol? I know I will be.
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