Freemasonry is simultaneously a psychologically strengthening and disarming process. In truth, the two are always correlated; the stronger the psyche the greater the cognitive flexibility and less need for constant vigilance or a defensive/offensive stance. No, personal disarmament doesn’t have to do with amending the United States Constitution, nor the constitutions of Freemasonry. Perhaps a détente of sorts, this process is not militaristic, though fully about easing interpersonal and intra-psychic tensions.
As we are prepared, we recognize one another to be of equal value thereby being leveled with all others; we are disarmed, psychologically, and choose to make ourselves vulnerable—intentionally. Introduced to a new sense of safety, we find ourselves amongst other men, many of whom we have never before met. At first, this is a symbolic expression of an ideal: when light is revealed, the hoodwink removed, it is confirmed we are fully protected by others who care deeply about our wellbeing and development. We are given the concept through ritual, not so much didactically, as a lecture. As we return to lodge regularly, over time, we come to know one another and the ideal vision is made manifest through a trust we co-construct. Therefore, I understand in the description that no sounds of metal heard at the worksite has to do with the manner in which we address the brethren and ourselves. These, in turn, a training ground for how to be in the larger world.
In the symbolic edict, we could consider both tools and weapons made of iron specifically, but any weapon, generally. With this interpretation, we are told there were no weapons brought to the building of the temple. It would be in keeping with the idea that the building of a spiritual edifice would be wholly a reverent activity, not combative. At very least an expectation that the temple would be built in relative safety, far from the reach of enemies, combat, or the need for arms. This concept is extended in that one leaves weapons at the door of the temple, to be disarmed before the Divine, and others in its presence, to commune. We leave the protection of the lodge to the Tyler.
Consider the following quote:
Every stone which was touched by iron, even though it was not damaged, is disqualified [for use] in building the altar…, as it is stated (Shemot 20:25): "By lifting your sword against it, you will have profaned it." (Hilkhot Bet Ha-Bechira 1:14-15).[i]
When we consider the personal temple being constructed and each man a living stone of the larger societal temple, we could say this interpretation implies we must not take up a weapon against any stone in the construction of the spiritual temple. In this reading, stone could refer to the individual brother or brethren as a collective; and as the purpose of masonry is to shine light into the world, it refers, by extension, to our actions in every-day life. The literal meaning is to not be violent towards your brothers. In the course of coming to lodge with increasing regularity as we progress, we get to know one another more deeply and quite naturally drop our defenses. We speak our minds and bond over food and ritual. At times, we may disagree on matters and agitate one another. Here the call to harmony is literal and interpersonal/psychological: don’t act out, physically, relationally, internally. The craft trains us to be fully ourselves, open, and to work to remain non-reactive to each other when conflict happens.
A slightly more interpersonal reading might suggest we watch our words (tyler and inside sentinel are corollaries to psychic and interpersonal guards). We watch for our weaponized words. We guard against passive-aggressive forays into being “right,” thereby causing disharmony in the lodge building and the building of each inner temple. We could take this construction further still to be careful with our intentions towards our brothers: Do I harbor resentments? Am I secretly angry at a brother? What weapons do I prepare in the silence of my sanctum against him? Can I set my weapons down? Will I have sufficient strength to relent?
I’ve heard said, and have said it myself in the past, until I knew better: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Though one interpretation of the seemingly clever “intentions” quip is that remaining in a planning phase leads to lack of action. However, the quip has the profound negative effect of causing men to devalue their intentionality and not take into account motives and urges we disavow or keep from our conscious selves. By repeating this phrase to self and others, we relinquish our willingness to accept responsibility for the root causes of our actions and all their outcomes, internally and in the world.
The antidote: catechism, our ritual. It is a systematic dialogue with oneself, initially introduced to each man in lodge through ritual. We are taught the procedure in each degree by our officers, who symbolically represent aspects of our psyches in a command relationship with the Divine[ii]. We observe the process with each entry, passage, and raising of a stone. Through personal experience, observation, rehearsal, and performance of the exchanges, the desired outcome is that each man has the opportunity to operationalize this internal procedure to question himself and his intentions, urges, motives in real-time through the tests and trials of daily life.
Not every mason shares this understanding of our work and may choose to not use the education in the intended manner. Some, who are not ready for this level of self-examination, may not engage self in this way because it is mildly to wildly uncomfortable to remain in this level of self-examination for any length of time. Practicing masonry at this depth can evoke a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability, which is natural and expectable. It can feel aversive until we walk the winded stair repeatedly over years. Then, a broader familiarity with self allows for greater foundational stability and decreased reactivity.
Taking this interpretation to the lone builder, working day and night on this personal temple we would inquire as to what weapons does he point at himself to his own detriment? Is he rough (The intra-psychic ruffian) with his own mind and demand too much progress or secrets before he is fully prepared[iii]? Is he caught in a conflict between the psychological officers of his inner lodge? Is he at odds with himself? The iron as symbolic weapon takes the form of verbal and linguistic cruelty, meanness, harsh thoughts directed at his Self. Rather than building, the inner assaults tear down progress made. Instead of strengthening, morale and spirit diminish and the foundation deteriorates.
Do we believe that being harsh, mean, or cruel, towards ourselves, in our own minds makes us stronger? The idea is a lie. Our symbols and ritual have always held the antidotes to the lie in the alchemical blend of beauty (emotion, aesthetics, junior warden, plumb) and strength (rationality, containment, senior warden, level) to produce Wisdom (compassion, mediation, empathic intentionality, master of the lodge, gavel).
The idea that cruelty at self or other is strengthening is a lie on the universal level, because if everything manifest in the world is the divine’s attempt to understand or express itself, when one raises a sword against the stone as self through being cruel, harsh, or mean, one raises that sword at a reflection of the divine and is therefore committing a heinous act against that which one professes to revere most.
Many of us have had this lie installed from before we could talk. It was the air we breathed; handed down over generations or implied by criticism levied against us, often by one or both parents. It is in our collective conscious and unconscious. Like a virus, the lie is adapted to infect humans, and is pernicious in the psyche. It is self-reinforcing and challenging to extract: “If I’m not hard on myself, who will be?” The implication that only through punishment, cruelty, harshness, and aggression are we able to progress. Just because this virus is relatively ubiquitous does not mean it is right. I see it far too often in my practice, far more in men than women. It both communicates and hides a deep level of shame we keep from light. If we bring the light, we will see. If we see, we will feel the shame and its pain. However, in the process of coming to light, we heal the shame and pain.
As Mason’s, we have an opportunity to use the content and methods of the fraternity to increase the probability we might remove and keep the iron from the process of perfection; that on the deepest levels, perfection can only happen without using metal tools in the construction. In our craft, we are encouraged to offer relief and charity to brothers, their families, our communities. The high regard for self is inherent in the architect’s blueprints. We are of no use to others if we hollow out our own structure, psychologically. In the fields of psychotherapy and counseling, Self-compassion training has gained prominence in the past fifteen years for both people being treated and those treating them. Recent research shows that self-compassion training has wide ranging benefits for everyone[iv] [v], men[vi] and veterans[vii].
The lie damages the psyche and Self because harshness and cruelty never evoke enduring strength, resilience, or determination; it pulls for and builds fear, doubt, resentment, and self-hatred. These ineffectual tactics tear down the work of the temple and defile the inner altars constructed to the divine, like foes engaging us using PsyOps[viii] (Psychological Operations, employed by military to influence motivations or break the morale of an opponent). Further still, adept leaders know positively focused constructive criticism and inspiration—bringing spirit to others or self—are the most effective motivational tools.
As one experiences, then witnesses, and eventually performs the ritual, it works upon the psyche to elevate the idea of harmony, charity, and effective construction rather than using violent language in a vain attempt to move toward self-improvement. Moreover, as men progress through the line, becoming increasingly proficient in each officer’s tasks and their psychological corollaries, one has greater capacity to build with efficacy. The education inherent in our ritual and practices allows men to continue their development and move toward the possibility of a more mature masculinity[ix].
Now is the time to test your metaphoric and symbolic metal: leave literal and psychological iron at the door of the temple. Search out the ore of ill intent in heart, mind, and gut. Set down the swords and daggers, the cruelty and mean-spirited reactivity directed at Self and others. As you labor with these ideas, it is my assertion your ability to find and tolerate more exponentially expand. It may bring up a lot of discomfort, even painful memories. This is the sign you are onto something important, you are developing and growing.
As you endure, persist with compassion, and train your psyche not to attack itself, you might find yourself with more energy and ease for the tasks in your life; eventually you may have more patience and tolerance with people with whom you interact towards those you care (though initially, patience may decrease due to the taxing nature of this emotional labor). In what seem like a paradox, your inner officers may also begin to test you more diligently, giving you rougher edges to smooth and, alas, resulting in increased wages. When this task is elusive or challenging to accomplish, talk with your brother builder about it and consult the designs of the Architect.
Brother Erik Marks is a clinical social worker whose usual vocation has been in the field of human services in a wide range of settings since 1990. He was raised in 2017 by his biologically younger Brother and then Worshipful Master in Alpha Lodge in Framingham, MA. You may contact brother Marks by email: erik@StrongGrip.org
[ii] MacNulty, W. Kirk (2017). The way of the Craftsman.
[iii] Nagy, John S. (2009+). Uncommon Masonic Education series.
[iv] Germer, Chris (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions.
[v] Neff, Kristin (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
[vii] Rabon, J.k., Hirsch, Kaniuka, et al. (2019). Self-compassion and suicide risk in veterans: when the going gets tough, do the tough benefit more from self-kindness? Mindfulness. ISSN 1868-8527 [multiple APA research articles produce similar conclusions, citations available upon request]
[viii] US Army (April 2005). FM3-05.301
[ix] Davis, Robert G. (2005). Understanding Manhood in America.