Friday, October 31, 2014

The Desert Fathers and Freemasonry

The Desert Fathers were an early, monastic sect of Christianity which developed what would become the practice of monastic chanting within Christianity. They would memorize the Psalms and repeat them endlessly throughout their labors and worship in a cycle of "constant prayer." The reasons that they did this were many, but I point to a particular phenomenon with which many of us Christian or not, Freemason or not, are familiar. That is the phenomenon of semantic satiation.

This phenomenon is familiar to anyone who has repeated a phrase until it seemed to become nonsense. But there is another aspect of this phenomenon. As a phrase loses its gross semantic meaning it may also gain a more subtle and profound meaning to the person repeating it.

There are three forms of this increased meaning: enjoyment, significance and mantra.

By enjoyment, I mean that word rather literally; it is the increase in the joy that the phrase brings. Many songs, repeated often enough, become more enjoyable as they lose their semantic content and become a pure expression of emotion, for example.

By significance, I mean that successive layers of meaning are stripped away to reveal what lies beneath. This can often occur with poetry where the meter of the poetry induces a sort of context on the verse and emphasizes elements which were not obvious on first reading.

By mantra, I mean that the text becomes entirely non-semantic and takes on a resonance which is neither explicitly emotional nor intellectual. Instead, it allows the mind to wander away from the text into a different specific state and context. The classic image of rooms full of Hindu monks chanting, "Om," is the first thing that might come to mind for some when thinking of a mantra, but any phrase which elicits a change in mental state, not through its meaning or even directly its sound, but through a more profound shift in mental state can behave as a mantra.

So... what has any of this to do with Freemasonry? I assert that the ceremonial initiations of Freemasonry are designed to work on all three levels. This is certainly not true of all of the text of Masonic rituals as their voice and character have changed over the centuries, but there are definitely portions of the text which bear repetition well and some which manage to hit all three of these types of increased meaning.

So, is it the case that Freemasonry should have a monastic component—a cadre of individuals who endlessly repeat the lectures and lessons of the degrees until they achieve whatever goal these phrases were crafted to point us toward? Perhaps, but I'm more inclined to think that Freemasonry should teach these texts, not only as snippets of play or lecture to be repeated only until they "stick," but rather as a form of meditative exercise to be performed together as a group.

This is an idea that I'm exploring intellectually, for now, but might seek to form a small group to explore practically, in the future. I'm not sure if we'd use the modern text (which has the advantage of coinciding with memorization practice) or if we'd seek out ancient versions of the text in order to try to reach back to the rhythms and cadences that were originally intended...