Antoine Faivre and Christine Rhone (2010) develop a general taxonomy of Western esotericism in their short text Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Their designations are extremely helpful for the new student seeking to understand the ideas, concepts and challenges presented in the study of esotericism, for the very reasons Faivre and Rhone point out. Because the term Western Esotericism means so many things to so many people, it can be challenging to a new learner interested in the subjects contained therein.
They note, for example, the five distinct meanings of esotericism (2010, pp. 1-5) including topics from the search for the mystical inherent in all things (Faivre and Rhone, 2010, p. 2) to the search for a “perennial philosophy” or “primordial tradition” (p. 3). Bogdan (2007) supplements this definition of Western esotericism with an encompassing characterization, noting that “esotericism [is] a Western form of spirituality” which emphasizes “the individual effort to gain spiritual knowledge” and the recognition of the divine nature of the universe (p. 5). The purpose of an exploration into esotericism is a two-fold development where people are “a microcosm of the macrocosm, the divine universe” and where “increased knowledge of the individual self” makes possible the acquisition of “corresponding knowledge about nature, and thereby about God” (Bogdan, 2007, p. 5). This correspondence mirrors the famous esoteric adage attributed to Hermes Trismegistus “as above, so below” where knowledge of the self relates to knowledge of the divine.
This brief introduction serves as a positioning tool to consider the multiple ways new students, and in particular, new Freemasons, approach the development and construction of “esoteric lodges.” The consideration of multiple definitions and perspectives on esotericism can help Brethren determine what esotericism means to them, and to consider the degree to which its study and implementation might be followed within the lodge. From the multiple definitions of “esoteric” we can begin to formulate an agenda for the purpose of the lodge. The selection of definitions to guide the lodge supports the practice of ritual, the purpose for research and writing, and the development of learning and knowledge of the Brethren. Referring again to Faivre and Rhone, the forming esoteric lodge might begin its journey by examining collectively the various notions of esotericism, and decide to develop, explicitly, an historic focus, exploring topics with empirical, historical data relating to these topics. For example, the topic of alchemy might only be explored as historic practice, and the processes of cataloging it among other practices. Conversely, a lodge might be deeply interested in the merits of alchemy itself as a practice and might consider exploring the work of practicing alchemists, and its implications for Freemasonic history, ritual development and practice.
The term journey is used explicitly here, as it is essential to consider that the one major aspect of the development of esoteric lodges is the significance of the connections built between members. Undertaking the task of studying esoteric topics, either as historical phenomena or as operating principals for action, values and practices in the world is one that is only as successful as its members make it. The commitment to practice and development of research, scholarship, and the sharing of learning has to be an intentional, deliberate process. And the brothers involved must agree to commit to the process. We must agree to travel, perhaps by circuitous route, together to further knowledge and learning.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the multiple meanings of the term “esoteric” as it applies to Freemasonry, to serve as a potential avenue for the lodge education and development. A return to the yearly York Rite Retreat at a camp in Wisconsin illustrates some of these points for consideration. Two major themes regarding esotericism were visible at the retreat, in relation to study of esoteric topics, to ritual practice, and process. The topics were illustrated in useful, meaningful ways and offered an opportunity for development of powerful “Esoteric Lodges.”
Esoteric Lodge – Ritual Practice and Lodge Culture
In the opening for our retreat, three things occurred which are essential for the development of a community in general, and for brothers of an esoteric lodge in particular. We introduced ourselves to each other and connected our presence at the retreat to an object of spiritual significance. For some, this was a piece of Masonic regalia; for others, it was a photo of an important person. For each of us, we connected to each other through our introductions and our connection to our spiritual objects. Through the dual acknowledgement — first in the recognition and appreciation of our presence together, and then in our connections through spiritual objects — the purpose of our gathering became clear. That is, a mutual support of the development of our spiritual experience and understanding in the world, facilitated through the medium of Freemasonry.
For the Freemasonic lodge, there are many ways to enliven the spirit of the members, and thus the lodge. An aspect of the discussions at the retreat included the ways that ritual could be enacted to enhance the experience for the candidate, with music, with scents, with sights, all forms of activity of “imagination and mediation” which uses symbols “for gnostic ends, to penetrate Nature’s hieroglyphs” (Faivre, 1992, p. xvii) for the purpose of understanding the divine world.
Esoteric Topics – Research, Writing and Educational Development
Along with fraternal conversations helping to enhance friendships and brotherhood, the retreat was a space for the examination of esoteric research, writing and knowledge development, as evidenced by presentations in ritual and craft history. At the same time, topics connected to the so-called esoteric cannon, such as Hermeticism, alchemy, Gnosticism among others were the topics of focus for the retreat. Along with enhancing the body of knowledge in and of Freemasonry was the enjoyment of learning present in the presentations and sessions. From the stance of the Freemason who “came here to learn,” the objects of study in esotericism are vast and almost endless.
Reading, thinking and discussing the origins of Freemasonry, the interpretations of ritual, the notion of Hermetic, alchemical, Kabbalistic or Rosicrucian influence in the development of degree work are all spaces for investigation, writing and presentation in the lodge. These topics might pertain explicitly to Freemasonry, may be of interest simply as points of comparison, or may just be interesting, period. The objective of the esoteric lodge is to determine its goals for educational development and work to form that path forward.
Bogdan, H. (2007). Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.augsburg.edu
Faivre, A. (2010). Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.augsburg.edu
Faivre, A. and Needleman, J. (Eds.) (1992). Modern Esoteric Spirituality. Crossroad Publishing Company: New York.