MASONIC INITIATION  by W.L. Wilmshurst

Chapter II

THE LADDER

A most important part of the curriculum of the Ancient Mysteries was
instruction in Cosmology, the science of the Universe.  The intention of
that instruction was to disclose to candidates the physical and
meta-physical constitution of the world and the place and destiny of man in
it.  They were shown how the complex human organism reproduces the great
World and summarizes it in small, so that man may see himself to be a
microcosm or miniature copy of it.  They were enlightened not only upon the
external visible aspect, but also upon the physically unseen and impalpable
aspect, both of the Universe and themselves . They learned truths
concerning the material and the ultramaterial sides of the world and were
taught that corresponding features were present in themselves . They
learned of the continual flux of matter, of the transiency of bodily forms,
and of the abiding permanence of the one Life or Spirit which has descended
and embodied itself in matter, and has there distributed and clothed itself
in an endless but progressive variety of forms from the mineral up to the
human, with the purpose of generating eventually a finished perfected
product as the result of the mighty process . There was demonstrated to
them the dual cosmic method of Involution and Evolution, by which the
universally diffused Life-force involves and circumscribes itself within
material l imitations and physical conditions, and thence evolves and
arises out of them, enriched by the experience. They were taught of the
different levels and graduations of the Universe-some of them material and
some ethereal,-the planes and sub-planes of it, upon which the great scheme
is being carried out ; which levels and planes, all progressively linked
together, constitute as it were one vast ladder of many rounds, staves, or
rungs ; a ladder which Tennyson once well described as

The world's great altar-stairs
Which slope through darkness up to God.

Candidates in the old systems were instructed in these matters before being
admitted to Initiation . The knowledge served to explain to them their own
nature and constitution and their place in the World system. It demonstrated
to them their own evolutionary possibilities and made clear to them why
Initiation-science had been instituted, and how Initiation itself was an
intensive means of accelerating the spiritual evolution of individuals who
were ripe for it, and capable of intelligently co-operating with and
expediting the cosmic process . With this knowledge they were then free
either to proceed to actual Initiation and undertake its obligations,
sacrifices and discipline, or to stand down and go no farther if they found
themselves unwilling, or without the courage, to undertake the arduous task
involved. Freedom of the personal will in this momentous choice was always
essential to admission to Initiation, and the same absence of constraint
still attaches to admission to modem Masonry .

The modem Mason, however, is left entirely without any cosmologic
instruction and to such hazy notions on the subject as he may happen to
hold . It becomes difficult, therefore, in regard to this and many other
matters of Masonic moment, to speak of the disciplina arcani to those who
may be either not interested in it or who would treat the information with
incredulity as something about which nothing certain is known or perhaps
knowable.  Skepticism, freedom and independence of thought about matters of
a more or less occult nature have their undoubted place and value in the
outer ways of the world . But they are foreign to and inconsistent with the
mental attitude appropriate to those who, on entering a hall of Initiation,
are supposed to tyle the door to the outside world and its conceptions,
and, divesting - themselves of all ideas there preacquired, to offer
themselves as humble teachable pupils of a new and authoritative order of
knowledge . Where every one claims to be already possessed of a
sufficiently satisfactory explanation of the Universe and his place in it,
or is content to get along without one, and in either case prefers his
private judgment to any other that may be offered him, the soil for making
Initiates in any real sense is distinctly unfavourable.  For such, however,
these pages are not written. They are offered only to the minority of
Brethren eager to learn what Masonry has to teach them upon matters in
which they earnestly seek knowledge and guidance.

Masonry, then, in exhibiting to them a simple ladder offers them a symbol
the significance of which is calculated to open widely the eyes of their
imagination. It is true that in the Instruction lecture the ladder is
expressly referred to that of Jacob in the familiar biblical episode, and
that that ladder is then given a moral significance and made to suggest the
way by which man may ascend from earth to heaven by climbing its symbolic
rungs, and especially by utilizing its three chief ones representing the
virtues Faith, Hope and Charity. This moral interpretation is warranted and
salutary . But it is far from exhaustive, and conceals rather than reveals
what "Jacob's ladder" was really intended to convey to the perspicuous when
the compilers of our system gave it the prominence they did . We may be
assured they had a much deeper purpose than merely reminding us of the
Pauline triad of theological virtues .

The ladder, then, covertly emphasizes the old cosmological teaching before
referred to . It is a symbol of the Universe and of its succession of
step-like planes reaching from the heights to the the depths. It is written
elsewhere that the Father's House has many mansions ; many levels and
resting places for His creatures in their different conditions and degrees
of progress . It is these levels, these planes and sub-planes, that are
denoted by the rungs and staves of the ladder . And of these there are, for
us in our present state of evolutionary unfoldment, three principal ones ;
the physical plane, the plane of desire and emotion, and the mental plane
or that of the abstract intelligence which links up to the still higher
plane of the spirit . These three levels of the world are reproduced in man
. The first corresponds with his material physique, his sense-body ; the
second with his desire and emotional nature, which is a mixed element
resulting from the interaction of his physical senses and his
ultra-physical mind ; the third with his mentality, which is still farther
removed from his physical nature and forms the link between the latter and
his spiritual being .

The ladder, and its three principal staves, may be seen everywhere in
Nature. It appears in the septenary scale of musical sound with its three
dominants ; in the prismatic scale of light with its three primary colours
; in our seven day scale of weekly time, in the septenary physiological
changes of our bodily organism, and the similar periodicities known to
physics and indeed to every branch of science . The perfect Lodge has seven
members, including three principal Officers . The advancement of the Third
Degree candidate to the East is by seven steps, the first three of which,
it will be remembered, are given special significance.

Thus the Universe and man himself are constructed ladder-wise, in an
orderly organized sequence of steps . The one universal substance composing
the differentiated parts of the Universe "descends" from a state of the
utmost ethereality by successive steps of increasing densification until
gross materialization is reached ; and thence "ascends" through a similarly
ordered gradation of planes to its original place, but enriched by the
experience gained by its activities during the process .

It was this cosmic process which was the subject of the dream or vision of
Jacob and which accounts for "Jacob's ladder" being given prominence in our
symbolism.  What was "dreamed" or beheld by him with supersensual vision,
is equally perceptible to-day by any one whose inner eyes have been opened.
Every real Initiate is one who has attained an expansion of consciousness
and faculty enabling him to behold the ethereal worlds revealed to the
Hebrew patriarch, as easily as the uninitiated man beholds the phenomenal
world with his outer eyes . The Initiate is able to "see the angels of God
ascending and descending"; that is, he can directly behold the great
stairway of the Universe and watch the intricate but orderly mechanism of
involution, differentiation, evolution, and re-synthesis, constituting the
Life-process . He can witness the descent of human essences or souls
through planes of increasing density and decreasing vibratory rate,
gathering around them as they come veils of matter from each, until finally
this lowest level of complete materialization is reached, where the great
struggle for supremacy between the inner and the outer man, between the
spirit and the flesh, between the real self and the unreal selves and veils
built round it, has to be fought out on the chequer-work floor of our
present existence, among the black and white opposites of good and evil,
light and darkness, prosperity and adversity . And he can watch the upward
return of those who conquer - in the strife and, attaining their
regeneration and casting off or transmuting the "worldly possessions"
acquired during their descent, ascend to their Source, pure and unpolluted
from the stains of this imperfect world. But to no man comes such vision as
this unless he too be a Jacob who flees from the clash and hurly of secular
activities into the solitude of his own soul, and in that barren wilderness
interrogates himself and struggles agonizingly to penetrate the mystery of
his existence, to read its purpose, and tear out the last secret of his own
being . So, perchance, he may fall asleep, his head at last quietly
pillowed upon that hard stone, against which hitherto he has been blindly
dashing it . And then by the surrender of his own will and mental
activities, and in the silence and quietude of the senses, his own inmost
great Light may break, and from that new found centre he will see and know
and find the answer to all his needs. For, in the words of an ancient
record of Initiation, "the sleep of the body becomes the awaking of the
soul, and the closing of the eyes true vision, and silence becomes
impregnated with God. This happened to me when I received the supreme
authentic Word . I became God-inspired. I arrived at Truth . Wherefore I
give from my soul and whole strength, blessing to the Father." (Hermes,
Poemandres, I. 30).

Jacob's vision and ladder, therefore, exemplify the attainment of
Initiation, the expansion of consciousness that comes when the Light of the
centre is found, and the cosmic vision that then becomes possible . The
same truth is taught in a little treatise, of great instructiveness to
every Mason, written by the initiate philosopher Porphyry in the third
century and entitled On the Cave of the Nymphs. It is an exposition of a
passage in Homer's Odyssey, which he shows likewise to be a veiled story of
the soul's wanderings, of its crossing the rough seas of life and enduring
the tempests and trials of this world, and finally perfecting itself and
escaping into the haven of peace . The passage describes a certain dark
cave, above which grew an olive-tree, and into which certain nymphs entered
at one end and became busy in weaving purple garments for themselves; and
it was not possible to leave the cave save by a gate at the other end and
after having ceased to be satisfied with the pleasure of inhabiting that
agreeable but benighted place and sought a way of escape. Porphyry thus
explains the allegory : The dark cave is that of the body into which the
soul (a "nymph" or spiritual being) enters and weaves around itself a
garment of flesh and blood, and indulges in sense-gratification alien to
its real nature. The nymph-soul has descended through the planes of the
Cosmos until it has entered this cave by the "gate of man" (i.e ., by
evolving to human status), and it can only leave it by passing out through
the opposite gate, the "gate of the gods" (i.e., by becoming perfected and
divinised) . This it cannot do save with the help . of oil from the olive
planted at the top of the cavern ; the oil of Wisdom which shall initiate
the soul and guide it to the way out to the higher worlds and the regions
of the blessed.

Porphyry's exposition continues thus : "In this cave, therefore, says
Homer, all external worldly possessions must be deposited . Here, naked and
as a suppliant, afflicted, in body, casting aside everything superfluous,
and renouncing all sensual energies, one must sit at the foot of the olive
and consult with Minerva (Wisdom) by what means we may effectually destroy
that hostile rout of passions which lurk insidiously in the secret recesses
of the soul.....It will not be a simple task to become liberated from this
sensible life ; but he who dares to do this must transmute himself, so that
being at length divested of the torn garments, by which his true self is
concealed, he may recover the ruined empire of his soul ."

The Mason who reads this parable will not fail to see in it the allusion to
the preparation of candidates . for initiation, or to recognise that the
cave and the olive-tree growing above it correspond precisely with the
grave of Hiram Abiff and the sprig of acacia planted at its head. Both of
these allude, of course, to the human body in which the true spiritual self
of man lies buried and imprisoned, and from the bondage of which it can
only be freed by cultivating and lighting the oil of wisdom (or,
alternatively, of causing the sprig of acacia to blossom) which will
enlarge his consciousness and reveal to him his path, through the Universe .

We have each descended into this world by the steps of Jacob's ladder ; we
have each to ascend from it by the same steps . In some Masonic diagrams
and tracing boards, upon the ladder is exhibited a small cross in a tilted,
unstable position as if ascending it . That cross represents all who are
engaged in mounting the ladder to the heights, and who

Rise by stepping-stones
From their dead selves to higher things.

Each carries his cross, his own cruciform body, as he ascends; the
material vesture whose tendencies are ever at cross-purposes with the
desire of his spirit and militate against the ascent.  Thus weighted, each
must climb, and climb alone; yet reaching out-as the secret tradition
teaches and the arms of the tilted cross signify-one hand to invisible
helpers above, and the other to assist the ascent of feebler brethren
below. For as the sides acid separate rungs of the ladder constitute a
unity, so all life and all lives are fundamentally one, and none lives to
himself alone.

Indeed Life, and the ladder it climbs, are one and indissociable. The
summit of both reaches to and disappears out of ken into the heavens ; the
base of both rests upon the earth; but these two terminals that of spirit
and that of matter-are but opposite poles of a single reality which cannot
be known as a unity or otherwise than in its differentiated aspects of many
planes, many mansions, many rounds or staves, except by him who has unified
them in himself and become able to ascend and descend upon the ladder at
will. But this is the privilege only of the Initiate skilled in that
science of life which teaches how to mount the Scala Perfectionis, as a
famous classical work of the isth century terms the ladder of initiation,
known to Masons under the glyph of "Jacob's Ladder."

 

 

         

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