Memento mori

With a focus on Memento Mori, explore the deep symbolism of the first and third degrees in freemasonry. Gain a unique insight into the reflections upon death and how they are intertwined with the teachings of the craft as Gabriel Anghelescu takes you on an intriguing journey of mystery and enlightenment.

Man is constantly troubled by the imminence of death and seeks methods to defy it.

Not because matter does not have its limitations and life is something to be desired for eternity, but because of the fear of the unknown.

Initiation has played and still plays an important role in overcoming this fear. 

Freemasonry, like any other modern initiatory societies or ancient Mystery Schools, in its multiple Rites and Degrees confronts the Neophyte with a seemingly harsh reality for those who do not understand it and who do not want to accept it: death.

Within the Symbolic (Craft) Degrees of the Memphis, Memphis-Misraim, AASR Rites, as well as within others where the tradition of the Chamber of Reflection has been preserved, the theme of death is present in both the First and Third Degree, unlike other Rites in which the Neophyte experiences only one death: that of the Master Mason’s Degree.

The initiatory role of the two deaths is an extremely important one and cannot be understood by those Freemasons who have not had the experience of the Chamber of Reflection and who do not understand their philosophical and esoteric substratum.

In the following paragraphs I will try to explain from my own perspective why the Neophyte must pass through two deaths and not one, in order for the initiation to really produce its desired effect. 


Memento mori freemasonry

In the First Degree Ceremony the symbolism represents a “physical” death. The tomb is represented by the chamber into which the candidate is placed and left to meditate upon his ephemerality.

Then the candidate leaves the chamber, like the spirit leaving the body placed in the tomb. He is carried on a journey through darkness and purified through the elements until finally the blindfold that covers his eyes is removed and he receives the Light. 

In some Rites, such as the Egyptian ones, it is expressly stated that the whole journey is that of the spirit crossing unknown regions and of the worldly passions breaking away from the body of the one who once was a human being – with difficulty, then more and more easily.

Where this mention does not appear expressly, the interpretation can be deduced from the position of the Square and the Compass in the Apprentice Degree – the Square, or matter, dominates the Compass or spirit. 

We are dealing, then, with an alchemy of the flesh, and it can be said that the grave in which the body is placed is the athanor that purifies it in order to prepare the release of the divine essence from matter and its transition to higher planes until the stage where it merges with the Light or the Unity from which it was emanated. 

The Third Degree, or that of Master Mason, proposes another kind of death, and gives other meanings to Light.

Now within the works, the Compass or spirit dominates the Square. So we are dealing with an alchemy of the spirit – with the Neophyte falling into a symbolic grave. It is no longer a question of a physical death but of the state of the fallen Man.

Freemasons who come from a Judeo-Christian background can draw a parallel between the Third Degree the fall from the biblical Genesis, followed by the coming of Christ to the Christians or the Messiah that the Jews are waiting for, the one who comes to offer them salvation or to restore the primordial order. 

The tomb is the very body of the Neophyte, into which the divine essence fell and its “exploitation” must take place through a secret lost with the death of Hiram Abiff. The athanor is an inner one.

The esoterically-minded Freemason quickly understands that the symbolism of the Third Degree leads the Neophyte to the creation of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, without having to go through any “higher” degrees of Freemasonry, in the often convoluted and useless search for other meanings. 

Having experienced the death of the First Degree and that of the Third Degree, the Neophyte who understands that all the “complex” symbolism of Freemasonry is actually an alchemical play of polarities, as simple as possible but told in several ways, is put before a choice: that of defeating death by experiencing it at some point and that of defeating death by life. Both are valid options. 

Only one question remains: what is the best method to defeat death, and most importantly, the fear that comes with the awareness of death, when one notices that its shadows surround him in every moment of life?

Preparing for physical death by annihilating the Ego or inflating the Ego by creating a “Philosopher’s Stone” that can prolong life, the only purpose of life subsequently becoming survival? 

The answer may be found by returning to the Chamber of Reflection. So let’s reflect on the two fundamental problems of existence: life and death. 

As you read these lines, imagine that you are inside the Chamber of Reflection. In a dark room on the walls of which are a multitude of alchemical symbols. You sit in front of a table on which are placed a human skull, a candle, and an hourglass whose sand is rapidly draining, and you write your philosophical testament or your last thoughts before leaving the world. The following questions arise, to which your own conscience gives you answers: 

Is it possible to make the sand in that hourglass
stop in a way other than reaching the bottom?

Maybe, but at a cost. Perhaps the “recipe” is to be found in the Volume of the Sacred Law that lays right on the Altar of the Lodge, regardless of how it is called in your religion.

But you have to study it carefully and understand that everything you read there is allegorical.

The Mystery behind its allegories cannot be perceived by atheists or by the ultra-religious and it is certainly not accepted by modern science. 

Is it desirable that the sand in the hourglass
should stop flowing in such a way?

Maybe not. Thinking about this case, a different kind of initiation should be “invented” in order to help man overcome the fear of living.

The beauty, the blessing and the joy of life lies precisely in the fact that at some point you know it will end.

This is the only way you can enjoy every moment you live, find a meaning for why you are here and become a better version of yourself in order to fulfil your duties towards humanity. 

But I’m afraid of death,
how can I overcome this fear more easily?

By knowing yourself. The true mark of an Initiate or Adept is not the exploitation of some “mystery” of nature, but his ability to look death in the face, whenever it comes for him, without showing the slightest sign of cowardice.

He knows that death does not really exist and that he cannot really be destroyed. 

The Masonic Temple you are in is a reflection of the Universe, a greater Temple designed by an Eternal Author of all that was, is and will be. 

You are a star fallen into flesh. You are the Microcosm and you can understand yourself better by analogy with the Macrocosm. The material stars have their own end eventually, but the death of a star is the birth of another. 

Now imagine coming out of the Chamber of Reflection and retracing the steps of your initiation all the way through. You will understand that the darkness that follows death is not eternal and will eventually be succeeded by Light. Do you understand what “initiation” or “ab initio” (from the beginning) means now? Do you now look upon your tomb as a Tomb or as a Womb? 

Further, I may not be in a position to give initiatory or life advice, but if I were to address new Apprentices or newly raised Master Masons I would tell them that everything is much simpler than it seems.

They should not hurry to seek deeper meanings of the Masonic symbolism, like the child who looks with sparkling eyes at the teenager and the teenager who wants to become an adult as quickly as possible, because they will find out that some things are not as beautiful as they seem in this process and they should let life flow naturally because that is the only way they will encounter true miracles.

If they dig as deep as they can into Masonic symbolism, they may discover a Treasure, but not necessarily the one they were looking for. 

Memento mori | ‘remember you must die’

And last but not least, they should remain upright and firm, without kneeling before any religious authority nor before any temple, because sooner or later they will realise where the true Temple in which the Grand Architect dwells on Earth is located and that death can never defeat Him. 

Article by: Gabriel Anghelescu

Gabriel Anghelescu is a Romanian Freemason interested in the spiritual and esoteric aspects of the Fraternity.

His passion for esotericism and Freemasonry began at an early age. His first contact with initiatory societies was the International Order of DeMolay, a para-Masonic organization for boys aged 12 to 21. He was initiated in Jacques de Molay Chapter, in Bucharest, where he later served a mandate as the Master Councillor of his Chapter.

He received the Masonic initiation in a French Rite Lodge bearing the distinctive name of Apolodor din Damasc (Apollodorus of Damascus), working under the Grand Orient of Romania and years later he joined L'Athénée des Etrangers Lodge, which works under the auspices of the United Europe Regular Grand Lodge (Marea Lojă Regulară Europa Unită), in the Orient of Bucharest.

He is now the Grand Spokesman of the United Europe Regular Grand Lodge (Romania), a Past Master of L'Athénée des Etrangers Lodge and a member of the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Memphis 1815 (Romania).


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