As best we know, Lodges did not originally have dedicated spaces. They could be held in taverns (such as the Goose and Gridiron or the Green Dragon), in someone's residence, or even outdoors. The "Lodge" was drawn on the floor or ground, perhaps with chalk, charcoal, or markings upon clay, later to be mopped or wiped away by the newest initiate. We can expect it to have been what eventually became Tracing Boards — collective images of symbolism for each of the degrees. The arrangements are not mere collages, but memorable scenes with each of the symbols in a specific place relative to the others.
For example, the First Degree is depicted with a chequered floor surrounded by three pillars and the sky open to see the sun, the moon, and the all-seeing eye. There are other objects and symbols as well, but the point is that it means nothing to the uninitiated but has vivid meaning to those who pay attention to the lectures.
The Second Degree is depicted of a porch between two pillars, beyond which is a winding staircase of a particular configuration. I think it no coincidence that we use the details of such imagery in what is perhaps the most daunting lecture given in Craft Masonry. Weaving myriad subjects, arts, and sciences into a story, navigating in a symbolic space of imagined form, is arguably the best way to teach and remember such a thing. The journey through the Middle Chamber alone can be said to be in the form of a memory palace, but each of our degrees – and many beyond – use the physical space of our work as a particular imaginary space. Within each place, we find an orientation of objects and lessons.
It was a custom at one time in some places to whip a servant or slave in each of the boundary corners of a property, so that they would have such an indelible recollection of them so as to be expected to bear clear witness regarding any disputes over their location. We do very particular work in very particular places within our Lodge rooms. Is there anyone among us who does not recall the exact part of the room in which we were given a new name, or were lifted by the hand in the Sublime Degree? Does not standing in that place evoke something a profane would not feel?
It seems we have erected and dedicated each Lodge Room as a model of the Memory Palaces of the degree work. The words of ritual of opening and closing, repeated twice at every communication, are clearly intended to orally preserve (memorize) the duties of each station and place. The proclamation of the location of these offices "draw the Lodge" in its orientation and boundaries (as they should be, even if the particular physical room may not allow it). The catechism is the oral preservation (memorization) of the experience of the degree work by use of narratives and ambulations within a structured symbolic space.
Those of us who are aware of the esoteric dimension of Masonry appreciate that symbols give physical form to things that cannot be readily seen, or spoken of, or even known. But what if the entire Lodge Room is a memory-inducing storehouse for it all and not just the creation of Sacred Space? If we had to, using only our memory of our physical Temples, could we recall all the lessons and tools of our Craft sitting in a dark room or under the covers of our bed? I think even those of us who have not put effort into it would recall better than we expect. And perhaps that is all by design.
Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski is a member of West Seneca Lodge No.1111 and recently served as Master of Ken-Ton Lodge No.1186. As webmaster for NYMasons.Org he is on the Communications and Technology Committees for the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He is also a Royal Arch Mason and 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, serving his second term as Sovereign Prince of Palmoni Council in the Valley of Buffalo, NMJ. He also coordinates a Downtown Square Club monthly lunch in Buffalo, NY. He and his wife served as Patron and Matron of Pond Chapter No.853 Order of the Eastern Star and considered himself a “Masonic Feminist”.