Keeping the Fire: Cormac McCarthy's The Road and What It Tells Us as Freemasons

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Phillip Welshans

In Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel, The Road, the main character and his young son are journeying across the ruined remains of what was once the United States, trying to reach the coast where there are rumors of a sanctuary community. Along the way they contend with a wasteland devoid of life and roving bands of marauders and cannibals. Civilization has been destroyed along with the planet and many of the people they encounter along the way have abandoned all hope and act more like animals than human beings. The novel is as much about The Man and Son (we never learn their names) struggling with their internal feelings of desperation, hopelessness, and fear as it is about their survival amidst the ruins of society.

Despite the external horror and darkness, The Man tries to instill in his son a sense for holding onto what makes them human, what ultimately separates them from the barbarism that has taken hold of the world. The Man calls this ineffable essence "the fire" and its preservation, its fragility, and the obligation each of us as humans have to care for it and pass it on, is one of the central messages of McCarthy's novel.

The Son: "Is the fire real? The fire?"

The Man: "Yes it is."

TS: "Where is it? I don't know where it is."

TM: "Yes you do. It's inside you. It always was there. I can see it."

It goes hand in hand with the deep, unconditional love The Man has for his son as the heart of the story. The Man never defines exactly what "the fire" is, but from the story and context we gather that it is, essentially, the precepts of morality, ethics, and mutual affection that emerged from early humans, became codified over countless generations, and eventually served as the cement for human civilization.

As Freemasons, we are both inheritors and caretakers of "the fire" just as The Man and his son are in The Road. We may not be faced with such an apocalyptic world, but the task is no less important. As we learn when we are charged as Entered Apprentices, more excellent rules and useful maxims have never been laid down than are inculcated in the several Masonic lectures. Those maxims are firmly rooted in an intellectual tradition that reaches back to antiquity with the Greeks and before them arguably to the ancient Egyptians. The lessons we learn in the first three degrees of Masonry are part and parcel of that fire that we often hear described within the Craft as "Masonic Light" or just simply light.

Because the fire, or Masonic Light, is internal to each man, its discovery and nurturing are essentially internal, personal efforts. In his book Contemplating Craft Masonry, W. Kirk MacNulty describes the Fellowcraft degree as an interior ascent into higher consciousness, with the soul as the seat of man's consciousness. The Middle Chamber lecture is the symbolic representation of this journey and its difficulty: ascending through the first three degrees of Masonry, acquiring the knowledge symbolized by the five orders of architecture, and finally acquiring the self-knowledge that each of the seven liberal arts and sciences contains for each man's soul and consciousness, ultimately leads to the Middle Chamber, which MacNulty describes as a place of contemplation within a man's soul, a place from where we each can ruminate on the fire we carry, the immutable Truth of human civilization. "The knowledge of truth," MacNulty writes, "is an interior experience that must take place within each individual."

Whether it be the Four Cardinal Virtues or the Tenets of our Profession in the Blue Lodge, or other mysteries communicated in appendant degrees, we are each charged with taking the lessons of ancient wisdom, applying them to our own lives, and passing those lessons on to future generations. That is carrying the fire.


Phillip Welshans is currently serving as the Junior Warden of Palestine Lodge #189 in Catonsville, MD under the Grand Lodge of Maryland A.F. & A.M., and is Senior Warden-elect for the 2023 term. I’m currently going through the process of exemplifying the first three degrees of Masonry in preparation for going into the East in 2024. I am also a member of the Maryland Masonic Lodge of Research #239, and a member of the Hiram Guild of the Maryland Masonic Academy. As a member of the Scottish Right in the Valley of Baltimore, he has completed the Master Craftsman programs and is a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society.

In addition to his officer’s duties, he has been a contributor to the Free State Freemason, the magazine of the Grand Lodge of Maryland. His interests are primarily in Masonic education, particularly the history of the Craft, esoteric topics, and the exploration of the philosophy of Masonry.

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