Masonic Esotericism: The Tyler’s Sword
By Grand Master Shaun Bradshaw
As I’ve traveled throughout the state, many brethren have thanked me for my willingness to speak openly about the esoteric nature of our Craft – bringing it to equal footing with the more frequently discussed fraternal and charitable aspects of the fraternity. On the other hand, I’ve heard that some of my brethren aren’t quite sure what to make of a Grand Master who is a “Masonic Esotericist.” Mostly this seems to stem from a lack of knowledge or a misperception of what Masonic Esotericism is.
Masonic Esotericism is simply the idea that our rituals and symbols hold deeper truths than are readily apparent to the uninitiated. By reflecting on them, we begin to see connections and meanings that may not have resonated with us before. And, as we come to understand and act on the deeper meanings of our symbols, we can begin to transform ourselves to be “better men.”
Let me illustrate this concept with a personal story …
Some years ago, I was at my lodge’s installation of officers, sitting with the other brethren and family members in the audience. As one tends to do in a situation like this, my mind began to wander as the Installing Officer enumerated the duties of each officer in the lodge until he reached the Tyler. At that point, probably because we were nearing the end, my mind snapped back and I began paying close attention to the ceremony as the Marshal placed the Sword in the Tyler’s hands. The Installing Officer explained the practical and symbolic (esoteric) purpose of the sword as follows:
As the sword is placed in the hands of the Tyler to enable him effectually to guard against the approach of cowans and eavesdroppers, and suffer none to pass or repass, but such as are duly qualified. So it should morally serve as a constant admonition to us; to set a guard at the entrance of our thoughts, to place a watch at the door of our lips, to post a sentinel at the avenues of our actions, thereby excluding every unqualified and unworthy thought, word, and deed, and preserving consciences void of offense toward God and man.
As I heard those words, I had a little epiphany. It dawned on me that the symbolism of the Tyler’s Sword aligned with a certain part of the second section of the Master Mason’s degree. I began to visualize the obstructions that are met when the candidate moves from the altar to the South, West and East gates. That led me to think about the working tools and actions that occur at each of those obstructions. With that scene fixed in my mind, I considered the idea that there might be a deeper meaning to those obstructions than I had previously understood. What if those obstructions correspond to the idea that I should “place a watch at the door of [my] lips” (throat), “post a sentinel at the avenues of [my] actions” (heart), and “set a guard at the entrance of [my] thoughts (forehead)? Suddenly these correspondences resonated with me. That is, I really began to think about how I should be careful about my thoughts, words, and deeds. It was, as I said, an epiphany for me.
The other thing that struck me was how many times I had heard the explanation of the Tyler’s Sword, but the lesson had never really stuck until I came to my own realization.
Now, you may think about those same symbols and that same part of the ritual and come to a very different conclusion – and that’s OK! The beauty of symbolism is it speaks to each of us in a way that aligns with our own needs and abilities to understand them. As you learn more about yourself and contemplate the rituals on a more regular basis, you’ll begin to notice that these little epiphanies occur more frequently and will often be more profound to you.
So that’s Esoteric Masonry – to me at least. Taking time to contemplate the rituals and symbols, finding internal and external correspondences and then using those realizations to affect a change in our future behavior.
Here’s another thing – I believe our ritual is clear that esoteric discussions, contemplation, and reflection should be a regular part of our lodge experience. In the First Degree we are taught the Principle Tenets of a Mason’s profession are Brotherly Love, Relief AND TRUTH.
Truth in the context of our rituals is not fact vs. fiction or honesty vs. dishonesty. Rather, Truth in the Masonic sense is explained as the “divine attribute and the foundation of every virtue.” Further, our ritual admonishes us to “contemplate” truth “and by its dictates endeavor to regulate our conduct.”
When we understand Truth at this deeper level, we come to realize as important as fraternalism and charity are to our beloved Craft, Truth must be an equal part of our fraternal experience. Truth reveals the root of our nature and our connection to Deity. It allows us to recognize how much of what we say, what we do, and what we think, is driven by our ego, our false self, rather than by who Deity created us to be. And by understanding that connection with Deity we can be transformed into men who are viewed by society as something beyond our ego-driven selves.
So for those of you who may be a bit wary of Masonic Esotericism, do me a favor - take a few minutes out of your day to quietly reflect on a particular symbol, think about what the ritual says, how it makes you feel, and how you might use your understanding of it to improve some aspect of yourself.
Or perhaps you can engage with the brethren in your lodge and ask them what they think about a symbol and what it means to them.
Personally, I’ve found these types of discussions to be enormously helpful in my own study of the ritual. After you’ve done this a few times, or if Masonic contemplation is something you already do on a regular basis, tell me about your revelations, your contemplations, your connections. What symbols speak to you and what do they say? What have you changed about yourself as a result of one of these little epiphanies?
I’m interested in hearing your story – just email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you prefer, send me a letter to the Grand Lodge. They’ll get it to me.
Brethren, keep the light and tell your story!