Rocky Mountain Mason Vol. 2, Issue 2
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“Esoteric” is, T
he word “esoteric” appears to be undergoing a present day misunderstanding. It’s meaning is changing to something completely alien its etymology.
Such semantic drift occurred before when, in the 1970s, thanks to the popular “occult revival” and movies like Lucifer Rising and the Devil Rides Out” the word “occult” became associated with black magic and the “dark” arts. “Occult” actually means something hidden from the eyes (think of an occultation, the word occlude, or even occur – all of similar etymology). The Holy Spirit is, in essence, occult. But nowadays, popular usage – whether correct or not – merely colors the word as a sinister will to power through some sort of pact or libidinous ceremony with fallen angels.
Similarly, there is nothing inherently sinister in the meaning of the word esoteric. Coined from the Greek esoterikos, meaning literally “more within” (as in toward the inside), the term is applied to something that is understood by a few. Not because it is necessarily complex, mind you, or elitist, abstruse, or arcane, but because only a few have undertaken to pursue it. For example, the Bible is inherently esoteric. Think of the Sermon on the Mount, or the first verse of the Gospel
according to John – or the entire book of Revelation. Certainly, in the volumes written about these small pieces of such a large and disquisitive book, it is fair to say that only a few (relative the entire human population) can lay even a remote claim to understand the Bible. And yet none of these books is taken to be sinister. So why is the word esoteric, when applied to Freemasonry, taken to allude to some sort of sinisterly agenda? And why do so many Brothers in the Craft seem to hold this misinference? Somewhere along the way, it seems to me, Brethren have come to interpret the term “esoteric” in the context of an arcane philosophy with which the word is all too commonly applied. It’s the only place they’ve seen the word used, and they assume it’s somehow connected with that philosophy. But such an interpretation is as limited as the word is misapplied. Just because there are books that claim “esoteric teachings” of “esoteric knowledge”, doesn’t mean the word esoteric is exclusive to such “teachings”, any more than the word religion is restricted to any particular creed when we talk about the “Christian” or “Jewish religions”. Clearly, the word is modifying the noun – the noun is not modifying the adjective. In its very nature, according to the literal meaning of the term, Masonry is esoteric. At the time of writing, there are less than 9,300 masons in Colorado. That’s
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now, esoteric! 0.18% of the 5.18 million people who call Colorado home. Masonry in Colorado, then, is certainly “esoteric”, according to the plain meaning of the term. Less than one-fifth of one-percent of the population in Colorado have undergone any Masonic ritual. Moreover, of the 0.18% that have, the majority of the Brethren themselves are most likely ignorant of the ritual in all its forms. Masonry is esoteric, indeed! There is no doubt that many who appropriate the term do it a disservice. They are surely equally to blame for the misunderstanding surrounding it. But it devolves upon all Brothers to see beyond myopic discursions of a particular term, to understand that Freemasonry is, first and foremost, an esoteric doctrine. It is only understood, as it is revealed, through a series of degrees, to a particular candidate who discerns to seek more light in Masonry. And this is as it should be. The opposite of esoteric is, of course, exoteric – meaning more without (as in toward the outside). Understood by a majority. The word exoteric does not mean simplified or streamlined, whitewashed, or somehow diluted for popular consumption, although that is often the case with “exoteric teachings”, because where more people agree to a single interpretation a common denominator is often revealed. Christ Himself gave “milk” to the multitude and “meat” to his disciples. And he taught in parables. Think of it this way, Masons “make
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good men better”. That’s an exoteric statement – many people have likely heard it. But it’s still meaningful. “Masonry is a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols” – that’s a more esoteric statement. Neither is better than the other, and both are correct. By nature of perception, any exoteric statement can be made esoteric by interpretation. This is why the four levels of interpreting any biblical verse, as practiced by the Rabbis, includes esoteric teachings of the same words to which a common understanding is more often applied. The same is certainly true of symbols. The presentation of the working tools in each degree readily springs to mind, where instruments of the operative Craft are given speculative meanings, meanings that continue to layer additionally with each degree. There can be no doubt, then, that Masonry is a journey toward a center. An inner journey. One understood (and undertaken) by a relative few. Masonry necessarily leads us to contemplate, with gratitude and admiration, the sacred source from whence all earthly comforts flow. This is the center of all creation – the sustenance of God Himself. Certainly, then, like the point within a circle between two parallel perpendicular lines, Freemasonry is, then, concerned with an inner circle. And thank God for that.