Recently I had the privilege of being involved with the Leadership Academy of the Grand Lodge of Kansas. In one of the many wonderful conversations of the weekend, Right Worshipful Brother Derik Hockett and I spoke briefly about guarding the west gate and tyling not only as practices for a lodge but also as practices for individual Masons in their own lives. I have continued to ruminate on this parallel, and I want to share with you some of the meaning I have found in it.
Guarding Our Personal West Gates
We typically use this phrase, “guarding the west gate,” to reference the responsibility we each have for ensuring that nobody is made a member of the lodge who is not sufficiently prepared to do the work of Masonry, who is not ready, willing, and able to keep our obligations and make good use of the lessons and charges in our rituals and monitors. This practice protects both the lodge and the individual in question, but our present focus is on the lodge. Guarding the west gate helps us preserve and even enhance the peace, harmony, and unity of the lodge in pursuing the sacred purposes described by our rituals.
Now, let us consider that the lodge is, among other things, symbolic of the self. The self, like a lodge, is an assembly of things brought together according to certain patterns and principles. In Freemasonry, we represent those patterns and principles with symbolic images and allegories taken from operative masonry and especially as it relates to the building of King Solomon’s Temple. We traditionally translate those images and allegories and the patterns and principles they represent into ideas about being virtuous human beings, living our lives in ways that are more conducive to the well-being of ourselves and everyone else. Thus, the different elements of the lodge necessarily relate to different parts of our being – they form a blueprint of the whole self with all its physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social aspects working together in peace, harmony, and unity.
Taking the lodge as a trestleboard of the self, “guarding the west gate” can be understood as exercising good judgment about what we allow to become parts of our lives. Just as with prospective candidates for the lodge, we have a responsibility to carefully examine things, to consider who is recommending them and why, to take note of how they relate to other things, and to discern the effects they generally have on others. We are looking for a favorable report, a reputation for contributing to the good. In more direct terms, when considering a new possibility for ourselves, we carefully consider its potential to help us become wiser, stronger, and more beautiful human beings. If it lacks sufficient potential, then we regard it as an unworthy and unqualified prospect, no matter how pleasing it might otherwise seem, and we say no to it as we continue to welcome and embrace those things that pass the test.
This process can be challenging. In some cases, what is good for others may not be good for oneself, and what is bad for others may indeed have significant positive potentials for oneself. For example, wine contributes to the beauty and joy of life for many people, but to others, it is psychologically and spiritually poisonous. So, it is not enough to simply rely on the experience and opinions of others, we must also deeply know and be very honest with ourselves. Another challenge is that there are some things that seem harmless, even very pleasing in some way, and yet they do little to enhance the quality of our lives but instead squander the time, energy, and other resources that could be better invested. Many things marketed to us in popular culture fall into this category, often made to seem as if they are essential to “the good life,” when in fact they are the psychospiritual equivalent of junk food. These things are among the superfluities referenced in the lesson of the Common Gavel; guarding the west gate of ourselves keeps them from being added to all the stuff we need to chip away.
In the work of our lodges, tyling is meant to protect our sacred space from the intrusion of the “profane,” those in the world around us who have not passed the tests of the west gate and are not duly initiated into our tradition. It also prevents members of lower degrees from admission into meetings, rituals, or ceremonies for which they are not qualified. Referring to the lodge as an analogy for the self, the implications include not only those we have already seen with guarding the west gate, but also recognizing that some things we might recognize as generally worthy parts of our lives are not always fitting to admit within the boundary of specific moments of conscious attention.
The Tyler’s instrument is the sword, which we naturally associate with protection and defense against threats. At a more symbolic level, the sword is often said to represent the power of reason, which can cut through illusions, divide one thing from another, and penetrate toward deeper understandings. There are meaningful connections here with the lesson of the 24-inch Gauge. That instrument teaches us about the need to equitably divide our time – and thus our attention, energy, and other resources – among our usual vocations, the service of God and others, and our own rest and refreshment. In both cases, we are talking about the power of discernment and how it can be used to focus our minds and efforts, and the importance of such focus on being able to make intentional differences in our lives and the lives of others.
Exercising this discernment in the act of self-tyling involves the recognition that certain attitudes and actions are not appropriate during some Masonic activities that would be entirely fitting during other kinds of fellowship. For a specific example, recall that all our proceedings should be free from political and religious debate, even though such discussions can be very meaningful among brethren outside the lodge. The compasses should also come to mind here, for they represent the ability to circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds. As another example, consider that when we are sitting in lodge, profane thoughts include distracting ourselves with matters outside the lodge, such as our jobs and hobbies. So, we self-tyle by setting such thoughts aside and attending as fully as possible to the work for which the lodge has assembled. As a final case, note that the fun and banter that we may enjoy during a festive board is not conducive to the solemn purposes of a degree ritual. Self-tyling in this context includes not only being aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings, such as temptations to get a laugh with a wisecrack or a comedic act, but also internally saying no to such potentials and refocusing oneself in the proper mood and mentality for the work at hand.
Finally, I want to discuss self-tyling in the context of contemplation, those practices of stilling and focusing the mind that our ritual repeatedly recommends in our search for more light. Such practices can include centering consciousness on the image of a Masonic symbol, pondering a part of our ritual, meditating on the challenges of embodying one of our traditional virtues, internally chanting one of our sacred words, or sitting in reverent silent openness to the presence of the Divine. Whatever the case may be, self-tyling in these situations begins with one’s awareness of things that distract from the intention of the moment. Most often, such distractions include sensory perceptions, leftover emotions from a previous experience, or the wandering of our thoughts from one tangent to another. In such cases, self-tyling is the act of recognizing these internal “cowans and eavesdroppers” and then simply letting them go or turning attention away from them to refocus on the intended practice. Despite the symbolic relevance of the sword to this process, it should not be a hostile or violent act, for negativity only makes things worse. Rather, this self-tyling is best accomplished with patience and understanding, and the commitment to gently realign our attention with our intention as often as necessary. It is metaphorically bringing our focus back to the chosen point within the circle of our awareness. In fact, that process of self-redirection is itself a very good practice that over time enhances the other forms of self-tyling and guarding our own west gates, and facilitates the development of more wisdom, strength, and beauty not only internally, but in how we behave with others.
Whether doing the work of Masonry within the physical lodge of our fraternity or the psychospiritual lodge of the self, what happens there is meant to prepare us to be more effective instruments of light, and we should govern ourselves accordingly.
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