Is Freemasonry Esoteric?

Lon Milo Duquette
August 29, 2022
8 min read
Masonry is a progressive moral science, divided into different degrees; and, as its principles and mystic ceremonies are regularly developed and illustrated, it is intended and hoped that they will make a deep and lasting impression upon your mind.

~ From The Fellow Craft Degree Free & Accepted Masons 1

It’s 4:00 A.M. I creep quietly past the rooms of my sleeping Brothers and out to the darkened hallway that leads to the staircase to the Atrium. The Atrium is a cavernous space, nearly two hundred feet long and over fifty feet wide, built in the style of the Roman Empire. The marble floor is adorned with Masonic symbols inlay in brass and stone of contrasting colors. The Doric and Ionic columns that flank the great hall and support second story walkways and chambers are dwarfed by towering Corinthian columns that buttress the vaulted ceiling, three stories high, whose centerpiece stained glass skylight now bathes the room in soft iridescent moonlight.

for artistic representation only

There are five statues here whose bronze presences I am moved to honor. Four are the goddess figures of the Cardinal Virtues, Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice. They are positioned at the corners of the room which I slowly circumambulate as I move from pedestal to pedestal. The fifth goddess stands in the very center of the hall and bears no inscription or emblem. She simply holds her forefinger to her lips as if to hush the universe. It is here at the feet of silence I sit down on the cool floor and close my eyes. Only a moment, it seems, passes before I hear the warm ring of a temple bowl. The others are awake, and we are being called to dawn meditation.

I slip off my shoes outside the door of the lodge room and tiptoe inside and take my seat. The room is dark save for a single candle on the central altar. After a few quiet words of introduction and instruction we close our eyes and enter our inner temples. Forty minutes later the sun rose. We open our eyes and see the room brilliantly illuminated by three large Italian stained glass panels that now form the entire southern wall of the lodge room. Each window dramatically depicts one of the three ages of man – youth, manhood, and old age. My eyes linger on each scene in turn as I weigh the well-lived episodes of my life against those of time misspent.

After breakfast we gather beneath chandeliers of Czechoslovakian crystal in the spacious reception room and for the first time see who has come this year. I immediately recognize some of the brightest stars in the firmament of modern Masonry. I also see friends and colleagues from years passed, writers, scholars, teachers and students. As always, there are several Brothers who have been invited for the first time to present papers and lecture.

We are met for three days of presentations and discussions of issues and subjects relating to esoteric aspects of the Craft of Freemasonry. We have gathered secretly and informally under no official warrant, charter or auspices, to explore the Craft as a self-transformational art and science – gathered to labor and strategize how best to proceed to protect, preserve and advance the esoteric soul of Freemasonry.

Appropriately, the venue for this gathering is one of the largest and most architecturally magnificent Masonic edifices in the world, unexplainably abandoned by its usual team of custodial stewards for the duration of our meetings. The building itself is intoxicating. We are all humbled by its beauty and perfect proportions. One cannot resist being tangibly elevated as we each intuitively attempt to adjust our inner imperfections to reflect the outer perfections of the sacred geometry around us. As we walk the sacred labyrinth, or sit quietly studying in the gothic library, or muse about alchemy at the feet of Assyrian sphinxes, we find ourselves pausing and asking each other, “Is this really happening?”

Yes. It really happens; and this is how I always dreamed Masonry would be.

This, however, is not what all Masons think the Craft should be. As a matter of fact, there are a great many who now feel that the esoteric roots of our ancient institution are an embarrassment – queer and unwholesome links to paganism, the occult, and perhaps even Satanism. You might be surprised to learn that there is a concerted effort now taking place within Masonry to once and for all divorce the Craft from its esoteric heritage, and make it an organization open only to men professing certain specific religious convictions. Even though Masonic tradition dictates that a candidate need only profess a belief in a Supreme Being and a form of afterlife, today there are jurisdictions and lodges around the world that will not consider the application of a man if they believe his religion to be not ”mainstream” enough, or his interest in the esoteric nature of the craft suspiciously intense.

This is why, sadly, I cannot tell you in what country our gathering takes place. Neither can I tell you the names of the participants, or the circumstances that bring us together, or the details of our activities and goals. By necessity Masonry has for us again become a secret society.

What makes this anti-esoteric movement so ill-timed and suicidal is the fact that Masonry’s membership numbers are plunging precipitously. Lodges are closing or merging with other lodges for lack of members. Freemasonry, as we’ve known it for the last three hundred years will be dead in just a few years if something isn’t done. Ironically (and much to the terror of the anti-esoterics) the only demographic group that is applying for membership in significant numbers is composed of young men who are passionately interested in the esoteric mysteries of the Craft.

Fortunately, at least for the time being, exoteric Masonry is still for the most part a very big tent. Even in the most conservative quarters leadership still pays lip service to the concept that Masonry opens her doors to upstanding men  of all races, religions, political persuasions and social and economic circumstances. Aside from the obligatory duties required to advance through the degrees, the individual Mason is free to be as interested or as disinterested as he likes in matters that concern the history, rituals, traditions, and mysteries of the Craft. As it is (and much to the relief of the anti-esoterics), most Masons, once they are raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason (and if they so choose, go on to complete the degrees in one or more concordant rites) are happy to put the quaint and curious stuff behind them and simply enjoy being part of one of the most active and generous service organizations in the world.

This is as it should be, and please don’t think that I am denigrating the contributions and efforts of a Brother who wishes to participate at any level. The world needs a generous service organization to sponsor hospitals and clinics and scholarships. Some men need a relatively wholesome place to meet socially once or twice a month with other relatively wholesome men. Add to this the possibility that some men might actually have a psychological need to put on clown make-up and drive tiny cars in parades.

Without men like this Masonry would not be (for the time being at least) the largest and wealthiest fraternal organization in the world. These are good men who are made better by their involvement in Craft. But there are also those among them who would like to be spiritually transformed by Masonry’s deeper secrets; and currently these are the only men applying in any significant numbers. (Still, I’d wager that even some of the clowns in the tiny cars, if properly educated, might be fascinated by the esoteric side of things.)

The sad fact is most Masons are never adequately exposed to knowledgeable Brothers or material that might excite their curiosity beyond wondering, “What’s for Stated Meeting dinner?” It’s not that the information is not available. Plenty of fine books have been written over the centuries, some of which might be found in the libraries of local lodges all around the world. But many of these books were written in the 1800s at a time when interest in esoteric Masonry was at its zenith and when even a high school diploma meant a familiarity with Greek and Latin and a smattering of philosophy, world religions, and history. Anyone who has ever started to read Albert Pike’s, Morals and Dogma,  will know exactly what I’m talking about.

For nearly 200 years, however,  the Craft has endured in an often-hostile world not because of our provocative revolutionary scientific, philosophical, and spiritually progressive lessons to mankind, but by an almost Darwinian act of camouflage.

Masonry IS a big tent, and that is good. Masonry DOES make good men better, and that is good… the world needs better men! The Craft must always be blessed and enriched by the involvement, participation and work of good men who are willing to work on themselves, but who might not yet be inclined to labor too strenuously in the laboratories of the philosophical and soul-sciences.

But for those few of us that are so inclined, Masonry’s tent is infinitely big.

[1] From the California Cipher, Grand Lodge of California, F. & A.M. (Richmond: Allen Publishing Company, 1990).

[2] Although there are several organizations such as “Co-Masonry” that accepts both men and woman, and other rites that are exclusive to women, “Regular” Masonry remains for the present amen’s fraternity.

[3] Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.Washington D.C.: The Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction.

[4] from the California Cipher, Grand Lodge of California, F. & A.M. (Richmond: Allen Publishing Company, 1990).

May the blessing of Heaven rest upon us and all regular Masons! May Brotherly Love Prevail, and every moral and social virtue cement us! Amen.

~ The Master’s Closing Prayer Free & Accepted Masons[1]

Lon Milo Duquette
32° Author of The Key to Solomon’s Key: Secrets of Magic and Masonry