I recently found out that the mother of a very good friend passed away. I hadn’t talked to my friend in some time. We seem to have a love/hate relationship, where we talk for some time, but then ultimately one of us does or says something that causes the other to stop talking to each other. Life takes over and then a year or two, or five passes. While distance may separate us, I always have a love and respect for her. I remember her mother fondly. Her mother, Barb, was a strong woman, having to bury her husband while supporting three children, my friend being the oldest when her father died. She loved her children, and supported them in all of their undertakings. She was everything that a mother should be. My friend may or may not realize how much of Barb’s strength I see in her, even though we don’t get to talk as much as we used to. My friend is now an orphan. While empathizing with her pain, I took the time to reflect upon my parent’s mortality and my own.
Memento Mori roughly translated from Latin as: “Remember that you have to die.” It is a practice of reflection on personal mortality that was very popular in the middle ages. It focuses on considering the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. It is a way of improving one’s character by focusing on living a virtuous life, by turning one’s attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife. The idea also found artistic expression in European Christian art. The most common image of memento mori in art is a skull, or a skeleton. The Danse Macabre with its dancing Grim Reaper carrying off rich and poor alike is another example. The memento mori theme can be found in funeral art, architecture, literature, jewelry, music, and time pieces of this era. A version of the theme in the genre of art known as still life is referred to as Vanitas, Latin for “Vanity”.
My guess is that most of you know what a chamber of reflection is. For those of you that don’t, it is normally a small darkened room adjoining a lodge room in which the candidate for initiation is able to reflect and meditate on the journey he is about to undertake. Many grand lodges have frowned upon or outlawed the practice. There are some that allow it. It has become more popular with the advent of Traditional Observance lodges. If you’re interested in the subject and a Masonic representation of such, I’d recommend reading the article by WB Andrew Hammer on the Masonic Restoration Foundation website:
There is no specific list of contents, but it can contain either literally or representatively such objects as a skull, a scythe, an hourglass, bread and water, sulfur, salt, a cockerel, a candle, a mirror, or the acronym ‘V.I.T.R.I.O.L’. Each item has an exoteric and esoteric meaning. My objective isn’t to discuss these. You can find a pretty good short explanation of their meanings on our own site or a deeper dive at the links at the end of the article. My objective is to discuss why each of us as Freemasons still need to seek solitude and reflect in our daily lives.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”- Blaise Pascal, Pens’ees
While Pascal wasn’t a Freemason, he was a major contributor to natural and applied sciences, mathematics, philosophy and invention. His earliest work made important contributions to the study of fluids, and he clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum. While still a teenager, he started working on calculating machines. After 3 years of trial and error, and over 50 prototypes, he finished 20 machines known as Pascal’s calculators over the next 10 years. Making him one of the earliest inventors of a mechanical calculator. At age 16, he wrote a treatise on the subject of projective geometry, and was influential in developing economics and social science with his correspondences on probability theory. His most famous work, however, is the philosophical treatise: Pens’ees. His work is an exploration of the human condition. He deals with two themes; our state without God being one of misery, and our grandeur with him.
Pascal argues that without God, our spiritual condition is a state of misery characterized by anxiety, alienation, loneliness and ennui. He suggests that if we could sit still and honestly look inside ourselves, we would recognize our despair. We however spend most of our time blocking out or concealing our true condition by using various forms of self-deception. He calls this continual need and addictive tendency to seek out mindless and soul numbing forms of entertainment or amusement divertissement (distraction or diversion). These diversions can be immoral: drunkenness, or sexual promiscuity, but more often take the form of habits that are merely wasteful or self-indulgent, like gaming, sports, even the arts. All of the luxuries, consumer goods and creature comforts that we surround ourselves with are distractions. We use them as a way of concealing our bleak inner reality from ourselves and from one another. They are a way of denying our own mortality and hollowness. Luckily, our state is dual. We have a sense of our intrinsic dignity and worth because we are able to think. Thought is the attribute of our nature that elevates and separates us from the rest of the universe. Our consciousness is a gift from God, and a sign of his grandeur. Pascal was 39 years old at the time of his death. He died in 1662.
What really strikes me about Pascal’s themes are how relevant they are now. We now live in a time where most of us carry around a device of divertissement, which allows us to access the internet where we go to sites like Facebook or Twitter, and argue with strangers about our own philosophies and how superior we are to them. We post photos on Instagram showing selfies, pets, family but they don’t really represent us. We have lost the ability to be social. We interact electronically. We use Email, text message, or various messenger apps from Facebook, Google, or other providers to communicate. I experience it at home, where it seems the only way I can communicate with my children is via text message. We see it at work, in public, at home and at lodge.
Most of us are addicted to this behavior, and most of us are addicted to our phones. Walking around campus at the University of Illinois, you see this first hand. At any given time you will see the mass of zombies shambling across campus, lost in their little divertissement devices, not paying attention to anything around them. They walk into walls, into trees, into bus shelters. Go to any concert and you don’t experience the concert through your own eyes. You hold up your phone and record or photograph the entire thing. I remember bringing my son, Ken, to see Bernie Sanders when he stopped here in 2016 prior to the Illinois primary. There was a young women who was mindlessly trying to walk along the wall of the gym that I was next too during the rally. I wondered what she was doing, as she seemed distraught. I didn’t know if she needed help. She looked like what I imagine a heroin addict looks like while trying to find their next fix. It then dawned on me what her issue was. I noticed that she had her charger cord in her other hand. Her phone was dead. She was looking frantically for an outlet to charge it at.
Our addiction to our devices has led us to have inauthentic connections with the world and each other. We see the world through an electronic eye. We don’t take the time to think in the digital age. We react emotionally or instinctually because the information is coming so quickly we have a hard time processing it. Many of us don’t take the time to see if something they read on Facebook, or the internet in general is actually true. We have lost our ability to think rationally. Most importantly and sadly, we’ve lost the ability to authentically connect with ourselves. We don’t know who we really are anymore. There is no impetus for contemplative thought or meditation, self-discovery, or personal growth. In today’s world, you can go your whole life, live superficially, and not even know it.
Bro. Manly P. Hall saw this danger coming from technology in the 1960’s. In his lecture, “How to Turn Off the TV in One Easy Lesson and Live Happily Ever After”. He states: ‘Nothing happens upstairs in ourselves, nothing is being developed as a factor in the growth of our own thinking. We are not thinking, actually, and if we are thinking, we aren’t doing anything about it because most of the thoughts are non-factual. So here we go, all through an entire lifetime surrounded by all types of information which we accept only through the eyes and ears and when the time comes we do very little to solve our own problems. A person whose mind is being used every day to find new values, accomplish new works, do new things that have not been done, improve the quality of living, solve the personal problems of his life – these are the things that help to exercise the mind, but to drift along from work to television to bed and then up and again the next day is not doing anything to make people, it is only continuing the humdrum which is only one step above animal existence.’
When was the last time that you sat alone quietly lost in contemplative or meditative thought? The working tools of Masonry are meant to help build the spiritual temple within yourself. The ability to contemplate or meditate on one’s existence, one’s purpose, one’s relationship with God, the Universe, Mankind and one’s own mortality are the foundations upon which Masonry is built. It’s only when we reflect that we come to understand the wisdom, strength and beauty not only of Masonry, but of the world around us. We can start to have authentic experiences, thoughts, and actions that are free from the shackles of divertissement.
The world becomes more beautiful, and it becomes more beautiful because of our consciousness of it. In our state of authentic consciousness, we understand the grandeur of God, much like Pascal understood it. The Lost Word in my mind isn’t a word at all. It’s our inability to be conscious of God’s beauty, splendor and influence on this world, and most importantly the inability to understand that we each carry God within ourselves. The ennui we suffer which causes us to seek out distractions is a result of a denial of our unconscious longing to be one with ourselves and with our creator. Our expulsion from Eden is played out again and again every time we pick up our Apple iPhone to distract ourselves from the beauty and grandeur of God within each of us and the world around us. It’s a beauty that can only be found through contemplation of one’s life and death. Our own chamber of reflection, our contemplative thought process, brings us back into a state of oneness with God. This is why I believe a chamber of reflection is relevant more now than ever in Freemasonry.
I’m going to suggest something that you might see as radical. While I know many brothers that have built their own chambers of reflection in their own homes, I don’t think you need to go to that extreme. Start by isolating yourself, either in nature or indoors. Leave your phone in your car, or another room. Get away from all possible distractions. Sit down and begin a mental exercise of contemplation or meditation on your own life and death. Start small, say like 5 minutes. Do this daily. Slowly increase the time you take for contemplation or meditation. See what happens. I’m still only a few days into the process myself. But I can tell you in the short time that I’ve done this, that I’ve discovered truths about myself that were hidden from me. I’ve made decisions that are ones that I wouldn’t have made a week ago. I’m really trying to be more authentic in my relationship with myself, the world around me, and God by remembering that as I live, I also have to die. Memento Mori.
Links regarding the Chamber of Reflection: