[Square & Compasses]    

Aspects of Gnosis

The Beauties of True Godliness

There are different schools of Gnosticism and many different aspects to Gnosis but there are two aspects of this system of belief that are relevant in the context of this article.

The first one is the definition of Gnosis itself:

The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis “knowledge,” gnostikos, “good at knowing” ), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought. Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were “people who knew,” and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know.
— Catholic Encyclopedia

This definition shows us that Gnostic systems of belief place all the emphasis on knowledge, a knowledge that was accessible at one time but that became occult and out of reach.

The second one, which Gnosis has in common with Buddhism, is the belief that the capacity for Enlightenment is within us. We all have a Divine Spark within which must be accessed in order for us to know God and transcend the boundaries of matter. We are now, according to basic traditional Gnostic belief, trapped in the prison of matter and victims of a false Creator or Demiurge but in truth we are all sharers of the divinity and according to Hermes' Emerald tablet:

“That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, to perform the miracles of the one thing”

In simple terms, Gnosis could be understood as self-knowledge and knowledge of the Divine.

Freemasonry isn't part of the Gnostic tradition, although there are similarities between some Gnostic sects1 and Freemasonry, it is clear the Craft hasn't, from a historical point of view, descended from the Gnostic sects of the II century. However, it is safe to say that Freemasonry has been informed by Gnostic beliefs or that there is an underlying Gnostic component present in Masonic ritual.

If we look at knowledge, at the definition of Gnosis itself, we will notice its presence and mention throughout Masonic ritual: in the First degree, for example, the very preparation of the candidate and his quest for light are emblematic of this search for knowledge. This is a search that starts as a journey of self-discovery, a journey in which Ritual removes us completely from the familiar reality we live in and does so by restricting our senses and immersing us in a radically different world full of strange yet beautiful symbols and archaic eighteen century language.

This journey of self-discovery from the first degree is further defined and shaped by moral virtue in the second degree with the ultimate objective of turning our attention towards the “paths of Heavenly Science”

“Thus the Square teaches morality, the Level equality and the Plumb Rule justness and uprightness of life and actions, so that by Square conduct, Level steps and upright intentions we hope to ascend to those blessed mansions whence all goodness emanates”
— Second degree working tools, Taylor's workings

It could be easy to interpret the last sentence from a traditional, Christian eschatological point of view, i.e. if we follow the rules of morality when we die, we will go to Heaven but I resist this interpretation since it is too simplistic. Couldn't those blessed mansions be our higher self, us reunited with the divine, our divine spark being reignited?

Then again, what is God or the Divinity? Like our very existence, God is another mystery that confronts us and to try and “know” God, we cannot use the medium of science or rational discourse. Why should we immediately anthropomorphize our idea of God? Does God really look like Blake's depiction of the Architect — God in his painting “Ancient of Days”? We shouldn't use the language of science to tackle this important question. In today's world to transcend from our material reality and to accept that we have a spirit to feed as well is a miracle in itself. And spirit cannot be fed with logic and matter.

The third degree has many levels of meaning and lends itself to various interpretations, one could be that death awaits us all as the last unfathomable mystery of our existence and we must confront it and prepare for it. The way to do this is to “know” (to acquire Gnosis) to penetrate that “mysterious veil assisted by that Light which is from above.” In the third degree we are also reminded to continue with our journey of self discovery and self knowledge in very clear terms:

“Let the emblems of mortality which lie before you lead you to contemplate your inevitable destiny and guide your reflections to that most interesting of all human studies, the knowledge of yourself”
— Third degree charge, Taylor's working

I will let the reader to unfold the relationship of the title with the content of my humble piece.

Darren Lorente
Master Mason
St Mary Islington 5451
United Grand Lodge of England

1. The Essenes with their grips and tokens spring to mind, but to read any direct links or connections with Freemasonry is pure fantasy and wishful thinking

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A Page About Freemasonry is http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Masonry/