How Holy is Holy Ground?

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Exodus 3:5

In the Grand Jurisdiction of New Jersey, it is almost considered a mortal sin to walk across Holy Ground. Sometimes called Sacred Ground, it is the area of the lodge directly in-between the Worshipful Master and the Bible. [1]

New Jersey Masons are forbidden from passing through this area while the lodge is at labor, a custom which can be better understood by examining our ritual.

 

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Worshipful Master is—without question—the man in charge. He runs the meetings, spreads Masonic light and knowledge, and governs the lodge to the best of his abilities.

Some of his duties are spelled out in New Jersey’s Opening/Closing Ceremonies, the Entered Apprentice Degree, the Worshipful Master’s oath of office, and his charge at the Ceremony of Installation:

“As the sun rises in the East to open and govern the day, so rises the Worshipful Master in the East, to open and govern the lodge, to set the craft at labor and give them good and wholesome instruction”, [2]

“as the sun rules the day and the moon governs the night, so should the Worshipful Master with equal regularity endeavor to rule and govern the lodge”, [3]

“I will dispense Masonic light and knowledge to the brethren…”, [4]

“As a pattern for imitation, consider the great luminary of nature, which, arising in the east, regularly diffuses light and luster to all within the circle. In like manner, it is your province to spread and communicate light and instruction to the brethren of your Lodge.” [5]

 

Sun Rising, Salomon Trismosin
IMAGE LINKED:  wellcome collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

While performing his duties the Worshipful Master is supposed to draw inspiration from the Holy Bible, as indicated by New Jersey’s Entered Apprentice Degree, the Ceremony of Installation, and his charge at the Ceremony of Installation:

“the Holy Bible, the inestimable gift of God to man, is given to us as the rule and guide for our faith and practice…”, [6]

“The Holy Bible, the Great Light in Masonry, which guides us to all truth, directs our path to the temple of happiness, and points out the whole duty of man”, [7]

“and above all, the Holy Scriptures, which are given as the rule and guide for your faith and practice…” [8]

Therefore, based on his duties and out of respect for sacred law, the Worshipful Master must have an unobstructed view of the Holy Bible at all times, the source of his inspiration. This is why the Grand Jurisdiction of New Jersey disallows anyone from passing in-between the Worshipful Master and the altar while the lodge is at labor. The exception being degree work. 

Based on this custom it seems logical that Holy Ground is not stationary and follows the Worshipful Master.

For example, if the Master walked from the east end of the lodge to the north end, Holy Ground would shift from the altar to the north, allowing anyone to pass through the east.

Holy Ground is not the area between the Worshipful Master’s chair and the altar but the area in-between the Worshipful Master and the altar.

The vast majority of the time the Worshipful Master sits in his chair in the East but if he needed to leave the East, Holy Ground would follow him.

While the lodge is at labor the brethren remain seated and listen to the evening’s program. If needed, they may move about the lodge at their own volition. However, when crossing west of the altar from south to north or from north to south, New Jersey Masons follow the custom of saluting the Worshipful Master without stopping.

This is done out of respect for his office and out of reverence towards the three great lights.

In New Jersey, when the Worshipful Maser places the lodge on refreshment, which can be done at his will and pleasure, he relinquishes control to the Junior Warden in the South. Even though the Worshipful Maser relinquishes control, he does not relinquish his authority, and the Junior Warden does NOT assume all of the powers of the Worshipful Master.

On the contrary, the Worshipful Maser retains his gavel, his head remains covered, and he can sound his gavel at any time taking the lodge off of refreshment and back on to labor.

While on refreshment the brethren may informally enter or retire from the lodge at their discretion.

The protocol is as follows: If a brother wishes to retire from the lodge he presents himself west of the altar facing the Junior Warden in the South.

He goes on the appropriate step, gives the appropriate due guard (which is returned by the Junior Warden) and sign (which is also returned) and informally retires from the lodge.

If a brother wishes to enter the lodge during refreshment he presents himself west of the altar facing the Junior Warden in the South, goes on the appropriate step, gives the appropriate due guard (which is returned by the Junior Warden) and sign (which is also returned) and informally finds a place to sit.

When the lodge is placed on refreshment the Worshipful Master is no longer dispensing light and knowledge, nor is he usually to be found in the East. Therefore, he does not need an unobstructed view of the Bible.

Holy Ground does not exist when the lodge is placed on refreshment. A brother can walk around the altar in a complete circle, or anywhere else in the lodge and he is not required to give any signs or salutes.

The only exception is if he enters or retires from the lodge through the Junior Warden.

Overindulging in drink has always been a huge concern in Masonry. It is cautioned against in the 6th Ancient Charge and again in New Jersey’s Entered Apprentice Lecture:

“You may enjoy yourself with innocent Mirth, treating one another according to Ability, but avoiding all Excess, or forcing any Brother to eat or drink beyond his Inclination…”, [9]

“Temperance is that due restraint upon the affections and passions which renders the body tame and governable, and guards the mind against the allurements of vice. This virtue should be the constant practice of every Mason, as he is thereby taught to avoid excess and every licentious or vicious habit, the indulgence of which might lead him to disclose some of those valuable secrets which he has promised to conceal and never reveal; and consequently subject him to the contempt and detestation of all good Masons as well as to the penalty of his obligation, which alludes to the Guttural or third perfect point of entrance.” [10]

Traditionally, in New Jersey the Junior Warden was mostly concerned with the behavior of the brethren while on refreshment. His duties are spelled out in New Jersey’s Opening/Closing Ceremonies and in the Ceremony of Installation:

 

“so stands the Junior Warden in the south, the better to observe the time; to call the craft from labor to refreshment, superintend them during the hours thereof, and call them on again in due season, that the Worshipful Master may have honor, and the craft profit and pleasure thereby.” [11]

“To you is committed the superintendence of the Craft during the hours of refreshment.” [12]

This age-old tradition echoes back to the time when most lodges met in upper stories of taverns, “for the security which such places afford.” [13]

While on refreshment the brethren might go downstairs for some libations and come back up inebriated.

It was the Junior Warden’s job to make sure the craft did not overindulge. It is not his duty to dispense Masonic light and knowledge, nor does he need to draw inspiration from the Holy Bible, therefore, in New Jersey, there is no Holy Ground while the lodge is on refreshment.

Some brethren incorrectly conclude that when the lodge is placed on refreshment the Junior Warden assumes all the powers of the Worshipful Master. It seems logical and consistent with the 5th Ancient Charge and the Charge to the Wardens at New Jersey’s Ceremony Installation:

 

“When a Fellow-Craftsman is chosen Warden of the Work under the Master, he shall be true both to Master and Fellows, shall carefully oversee the Work in the Master’s Absence to the Lord’s profit; and his Brethren shall obey him.” [14]

“You are assiduously to assist the Master in the discharge of his trust, diffusing light and imparting knowledge to all whom he shall place under your care. In the absence of the Master, you will succeed to higher duties.”  [15]

They further conclude that since the Junior Warden is now the acting Master, Holy Ground must now exist between the Junior Warden and the altar.

As it has been previously explained, there is no Holy Ground when the lodge is placed on refreshment, not between the East and the altar, nor between the South and the altar.

However, as a courtesy to the Junior Warden New Jersey Masons try not to congregate in-between the two Stewards’ chairs to allow him to see those brethren standing next to the altar waiting to salute in and out of the lodge.

This is not done because the Junior Warden needs to have an unobstructed view of the Bible. The Stewards’ chairs are located in front of the Junior Warden.

Footnotes
References

Notes:

[1] In New Jersey the altar is always found in the center of the lodge with the Bible, square, and compasses arranged on top.

[2] The Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons for the State of New Jersey Ritual Cipher (1967 edition, 2006 reprint), pages 6 and 179.

[3] Ritual Cipher (1967 edition, 2006 reprint), page 27.

[4] A Manual For the Use of the Lodges Under the Jurisdiction of The Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons for the State of New Jersey (1973), page 83.

[5] A Manual For the Use of the Lodges (1973), page 101.

[6] Ritual Cipher (1967 edition, 2006 reprint), page 27.

[7] A Manual For the Use of the Lodges (1973), page 89.

[8] A Manual For the Use of the Lodges (1973), page 102.

[9] THE CHARGES OF A FREE-MASON, 1723.

[10] Ritual Cipher (1967 edition, 2006 reprint), page 48.

[11] Ritual Cipher (1967 edition, 2006 reprint), pages 5 and 179.

[12] A Manual For the Use of the Lodges (1973), page 93.

[13] Ritual Cipher (1967 edition, 2006 reprint), page 40.

[14] THE CHARGES OF A FREE-MASON, 1723.

[15] A Manual For the Use of the Lodges (1973), page 102.

Article by: Matthew A. Leilich

Matthew A. Leilich, is a PM, Distinguished Lecturer, Gothic-Fraternal Lodge #270, Hamilton Square, NJ, U.S.A.

 

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