Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Spiritual Development: An Interview With Piers Vaughan

Angel Millar: You’re a well-known lecturer on Masonic and esoteric subjects in the USA, and you’re involved with many Masonic Rites as well as many Western esoteric Orders outside of Freemasonry. Most recently, you published the book Renaissance Man and Mason. Before we talk about Western esotericism more broadly I want to ask what made you join the Masonic fraternity?

Piers Vaughan: It was something I had dreamed of doing from a young age. My grandfather had been a very enthusiastic member, to the extent that he would take his pony and trap and travel the 20-mile journey from his farm in Upper Beeding to Brighton, in England, to attend meetings. Sadly, his enthusiasm did not pass on to his son — my father — but by the age of 16, I was already devouring Pick and Knight’s Pocket History of Freemasonry. In my teens, while maintaining my Christian beliefs — attending a local Anglo-Catholic Church, composing music, playing the organ, singing in choir (which I had done since the age of 7) — I was drawn to explore comparative religious paths, visiting a mosque, synagogue, other Christian places of worship, a Spiritualist church, and even reading and experimenting with Wicca and Rosicrucianism.

Of course in those days there was little in the public domain about Freemasonry, and it could still be described as a ‘secret society’ in that no member wore pins or badges or stuck “2B1Ask1” bumper stickers on their cars. Even Masonic rings were reversible so that the Square & Compasses could be spun around to expose a simple polished agate when not in Lodge. Fortunately, my father knew an old school friend who was a Freemason, who ran a local grocer’s store in my home village of Southwick, in one of the many so-called “King Charles Cottages” where Bonnie Prince Charlie was meant to have hidden while making his escape. I went to talk to him about it. He was very friendly and was happy to talk about just about everything except Freemasonry. I left disappointed, and it was several months before I saw him again. Once more he blew me off. About a year later, on a break from University, I saw him and asked a third time. This time he explained that one had to ask three times before the request would be considered to be in earnest. Then, at the age of 21, the process of applying and being initiated commenced.

I would say the primary reason I was drawn to Freemasonry was definitely not because of the charitable works or the sense of camaraderie, but exclusively the excitement of joining a secret society, which I hoped contained true learning, and a path to reconciling my confused thoughts on religion, philosophy, and spirituality.

Angel: Yes, so you experimented with different spiritual traditions, such as Rosicrucianism… How do you see the relationship of Freemasonry to Western esoteric Orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and movements such as Martinism? Have they influenced each other? Is it easier to understand one Order if you belong to another, for example, in relation to their symbols?

Piers: Well, from a historical point of view there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind about their close association. After all, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded by members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the Rosicrucian study society in English Freemasonry, while Martinism came out of the teachings of Martinez de Pasqually and two of his most avid disciples, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin and Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, both of whom were very active in French Freemasonry. Again, the codification of Martinism into a series of quasi-Masonic grades or degrees was undertaken by Papus, or Dr. Gérard Encausse, who was also a member of Ahathoor Golden Dawn Temple in Paris. Indeed, he saw a place for Martinism within the umbrella of Freemasonry, though he somewhat changed his viewpoint when one recipient of a Charter — the noted American Mason and professional cellist Eduard Blitz — began to expand the three Martinist grades into a comprehensive series of degrees! This apparently did not meet with approval in France, and after ignoring Blitz’ correspondence for some years, Margaret Peeke assumed the role of leader for the United States. This rather proves the close relationship between the differing Freemasonry of England and continental Europe, the Golden Dawn and Martinism.

However, I have never been overly impressed by the desperate need to seek “validation” — an obsession with trying to prove that one’s society comes from some uninterrupted apostolic succession from the distant past. While nice if one has it, Freemasonry stands on much firmer ground if it admits that it is a magpie organization which has been founded on a solid bedrock of guilds and trade organizations, which later grew by adding many different sub-groups, all of which draw their teachings from older symbolism and mystery schools. This is much more likely than being able to prove an unbroken initiatory line back to, say, the priests of Ancient Egypt. And, to my mind, this makes its teachings no less valid. However, just as the founders of the Golden Dawn basically said to themselves: “Enough of reading about this stuff. Time for practical experimentation!” so in a way Freemasonry acts as a pronaos to the so-called “higher mysteries”, in that it gives one the tools — such as a command of ritual, an understanding of history and philosophy, the ability to deliver words in a powerful manner, and a strong grasp of symbolism — to better perform the incantations and ritual required or more magical or mystical systems. It is no surprise that just about all magical or esoteric societies, from Gardnerian Wiccan through modern Druidism to Martinism and Rosicrucian Orders, share a ritual process and verbiage drawn from Freemasonry.

Because of this link, belonging to one Order makes it easier to understand the symbolism and praxis of another, since much of the wording, the way the ritual is laid out, and the use of symbols to mask deeper truths is common to all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. However, it is interesting that each Order in itself may use the same symbols, but use them in slightly different ways — and this is why membership of several can help one’s personal journey considerably, in my opinion. I use the analogy of visiting a museum, where one may enter a large room through the Northern door, and sees an imposing statue in the center of the room. You study it and gain much insight about the statue, the motives of the sculptor, and so forth. But in essence the view is from only one side, and necessarily two-dimensional. Visiting the same museum and entering this time from the Eastern door, one sees the same statue, but this time from another aspect, and immediately links and correspondences form in one’s mind which expand one’s appreciation of this statue. If one has the privilege of seeing this statue from all four cardinal entry-points, a far greater understanding of the whole is achieved.

I am not suggesting that you should join every possible Order you can find, however. We all know people who are professional “joiners,” who flit from experience to experience, and then leave within a short time, either because they don’t understand, think they are above it, or wish to change it and are not allowed. The flibbertigibbet approach to esoteric study is no more successful than the armchair esotericist who believes enlightenment can come solely from reading books and that experience is unnecessary. But neither to do hold to a purist viewpoint that one Order should be enough! Just about every renowned esoteric thinker was a member of several different Orders, from which he or she drew a broader, more holistic understanding of the sublime teachings. In current terminology, there is not much to be gained from being a “spiritual snowflake,” that is, adhering to one school and refusing to contemplate anything which might come from another school — especially if it differs from or even contradicts what you have learned in your first school! It is only by being presented by alternatives and drawing one’s own conclusions that one truly begins to grow on the Path.

Angel: You mention the founding of different esoteric Orders, which have been influenced by others — most notably Freemasonry. In the last few decades, it seems, we have witnessed a virtual explosion of esoteric and occult Orders and societies, focusing on a range of traditions and symbolism from Hermeticism to various forms of European paganism. Or — as in the case of Thee Temple of Psychick Youth — we also find some groups professing a more personal or artistic and experimental gnosis that is outside of such traditions, but that may, to varying degrees, reflect ancient shamanic or tribal traditions.

You are undoubtedly aware of this phenomenon, just as you are of the founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn over a century ago, and of Martinist Orders only a little later on. What makes an Order or spiritual society legitimate? Can they teach anything? Or do anything? Or are there certain basic requirements that must or should be adhered to, regardless of which tradition is being taught or developed?

Piers: That’s a very comprehensive question. To your first point, I find it interesting that nearly every Western esoteric tradition over the past 150 years appears to have bene largely guided by Freemasons. There are obviously exceptions to this, but whether the protagonist was male or female, most came initially from a Masonic background. Whether one is a devotee of Cagliostro, McGregor Mathers, Dion Fortune, Papus, Aleister Crowley or Dr. Plummer, just about all appear to have begun their esoteric careers in some form of Masonic activity, be it Free & Accepted, Scottish Rectified, Masonic Rosicrucian or O.T.O. Similarly, isn’t it curious that nearly all the so-called independent churches were founded by Masons? By this I mean those churches founded away

Similarly, isn’t it curious that nearly all the so-called independent churches were founded by Masons? By this I mean those churches founded away form the mainstream, on Catholic or Gnostic roots. We had Charles Leadbeater and others founding the Liberal Catholic Church; Doinel and the leaders of early Martinism establishing the neo-Gnostic Church in France; Richard Duc de Palatine founding the Pre-Nicene Church and the Order of the Pleroma in England; and Crowley’s Thelemic Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. Of course, Gerald Garner, the so-called ‘father’ of Wiccan, was a Freemason, and although he resigned after a short time, its influences are very clear. There are indeed other Orders which lean more towards older religions and shamanistic legacies: but these tend to be small and localized according to the regional tradition; as opposed to the broader membership and international reach of more ‘general’ Orders.

There are other Orders which lean more towards older religions and shamanistic legacies: but these tend to be small and localized according to the regional tradition; as opposed to the broader membership and international reach of more ‘general’ Orders.

I believe the take-away from this is that for most practicing magicians and theurgists, there is a very close connection between the earthly and the divine, and much of magical activity is focused either on influencing the higher forces — be they divinities or their intermediaries — to bring about change on earth; or on working upon oneself to accomplish reunion with or reintegration into the divine essence. It is not surprising that the prevailing zeitgeist of these Orders is Christian or Gnostic (both are a form of worship based on the idea of the Christos, whether in human or spiritual form), since that is the system with which most non-Jewish people — Moslems and Christians, etc.  — are familiar. Another reason, perhaps that Christianity-Gnosticism integrates with esoteric bodies so well is the fact that the Mass, as Leadbeater and many others have pointed out, is the magical ceremony par excellence; and we should remember that our magical traditions draw on many activities, including telesmatic images, which some other religions would consider blasphemous.

This is not to deny that there have been a number of attempts to create systems which are wholly devoid of a mystical element or belief in a high being, and rely on invoking one’s own power to accomplish supernatural outcomes. You cite Thee Temple ov Psychic Youth as an example of this. However, to me this is an exception rather than the rule. It is a little like the Masonic requirement for a belief in a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul: what would induce us to improve ourselves unless there was hope for future reward? Yes, I know there are a number of Humanistic Lodges and Grand Orients out there which do not require such beliefs. They must indeed be very strong in their altruistic tenets to believe in aiding their fellow man with ‘no hope of fee or reward’. Sadly, I am led to the sorrowful conclusion that we have proof positive that altruism and concern for one’s neighbor are most clearly not innate characteristics of the majority of humankind.

Perhaps another element of this which we should not forget is that the idea of looking at esoteric systems through any lens other than religious one is a relatively modern phenomenon. Reading Israel Regardie, for example, one might lose sight of the fact that his Jungian interpretations of magic and its effects did not exist for the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Their understanding of the forces they were invoking was far more literal in the 1880s.

There clearly were atheists in Victorian England, but I doubt that foremost in their mind was an urgent need to found a mystical or esoteric Order (though I would be happy to be corrected on that)! Indeed, the founding of the Oxford Movement in 1833, resulting in the Anglo-Catholic or High Anglican tradition, and the founding of the Liberal Catholic Church in 1913 by prominent Theosophists showed the need felt by many practicing mystical and theurgical paths for a sufficiently broad religion which embraced the numinous and the miraculous. If we move on to the question of the legitimacy of an Order or Spiritual Society, I have come to the conclusion that there are three elements necessary, to a greater or lesser extent. These are: history, acceptance and system. What do I mean by these?

History refers to some kind of link to antiquity, whether it be through apostolic succession, reference to former mystery schools or early teachings. We seem to be wired to believe that the past was better (at least educationally — I am not referring to disease, short life, no baths, and lice). So we seek what we assume to be tried and proven systems from the past. If someone comes to us and says: “I am in a group which practices rituals and teachings from ancient X (insert country of choice)”, I am far more likely to want to join than if the person comes us and says: “I just made up a new group last week.”

The second requirement for legitimacy is really an oxymoron. The system needs to be accepted by people. Otherwise they won’t join. If they think it is too arduous or has next to no likelihood of providing success in what it offers, the chances are, people won’t want to join. If people don’t want to join, the Order or Society will not survive.

The final requirement for me is system. We are all taught from an early stage that education is graded. This is as true for the Pythagoreans as it is for us today. There is a reason they don’t teach brain surgery in First Grade. School in all ages has consisted of progressing through Grades, taking examinations and proving proficiency in order to achieve the next Grade. It is the same in the military, in church, in Freemasonry and in esoteric societies. Indeed, we are so conditioned to this approach we find it difficult to function in an environment which doesn’t progressively give us pieces of information, tests us on it, then pats us on the head with a certificate before moving to the next set of instructions. A comment often made by Marc Jones, head of the Ordre Martiniste S.I. (a little unfairly I feel, as I often pointed out to him at dinner in Luxembourg), was that Anglo-Saxons — i.e. Brits and Americans — simply didn’t have the mindset to handle Martinism, which tends to be far more mystical, and shies away from syllabi in favor or open-ended philosophical debate.

So for me, in order to be relevant, an Order or Society must be able to show it has roots in tradition or the past; that it has valuable information to share by means of a graded syllabus, and can offer a real sense of progress if followed, either through enlightenment or ability; and it must be put together in a package which is interesting enough to attract members who stay. Legitimacy, in other words, does not come from some third party’s approbation, but from its being perceived as genuinely useful to its members.

Finally, we must remember that Freemasonry is an odd fish in some respects. The motives for joining are by no means uniform. However, most people joining esoteric societies from the HOGD and OTO, to Martinism and the Rose Croix d’Orient do so in order to study and learn the theory and practice of a means to accomplish a goal outside of daily life, be it to heal the sick by unconventional means, or to seek a better understanding of God, or to reunite with the ultimate Source.

Therefore all Orders or Spiritual Societies must offer teachings we do not already have or practice. Since their purpose is to raise our consciousness in the metaphysical sciences, they must show us how to do this, through meditation, theurgy, yoga, or whatever. And finally, they must transmit this is a way we can understand, which, given all the baggage we accrue in growing up, mean that this must be done in a manner with which we are familiar.

Angel: Is there anything someone should do prior to initiation or as part of the ongoing process outside of formal initiation? You mentioned Israel Regardie, and I believe he recommended counseling prior to initiation. Rudolf Steiner suggested that we each take three moral steps for every spiritual step we take.

However we might interpret that, both Steiner and Regardie seem to be saying that initiation and spiritual unfolding is supported by things outside of formal esoteric systems. But this is perhaps only true in the modern West. Islam, for example, encompasses everything from how to pray to what is permissible and prohibited to eat, and even how men and women — married and single — are to relate to each other, etc. Hinduism, likewise, has much to say about diet, sexual relations, and so on. Within Christendom, during the medieval period, diet was also a matter of metaphysics, being influenced by Galen’s theory of the humors and the four elements. Why do we see this fragmentation in the West? And what sort of thing, outside of formal spiritual systems, should practitioners be doing, do you think?

Piers: It is interesting to observe that the Western world at least has become so used to thinking in short sound bytes and ‘alternative truths’ that the capacity of discernment has all but disappeared. Even before the current round of ‘fake news’ I remember the two of us laughing about the worst of the New Age, where we joked about someone to request the ‘Secrets of the Life, Universe & Everything’ in Cliff Notes format – and they would be prepared to pay the overnight Fedex fee to get it faster.

In a way, that is the challenge of the Western world in the 21st Century. Things move too fast. We are surrounded by noise. Everyone seems to be on a cell phone at the supermarket asking someone what brand of cereal to buy, or on the bus yelling meaningless sound bites at some anonymous person on the other end; or sitting in a restaurant discussing the terms of their divorce with no concern for whose dinner as adjacent tables is being ruined. Even the followers of Eastern traditions, just like most intellectual Left Wing protestors, are very willing to support their cause from 9-5, before disappearing into their comfortable middle-class apartment, and leave the cause or esoteric pursuit behind.

We have to face the fact that, in our modern society we are faced perhaps with two issues.

Firstly, all these diets, sexual abstinence and prescriptions for hardship have always been largely symbolic. One the one hand, changing one’s diet may show a commitment to the path chosen, but in reality it would take at least many months of a vegetarian diet to remove all traces of extraneous meat enzymes and DNA from the body. Even strict Catholic diets would only forbid the eating of meat on Fridays or cutting down during seasons of penance. However, abstinence from drugs or alcohol can have a marked reduction in the body in only a few short hours and, therefore, make rather more sense. I do like the more positive modern Catholic injunction that Lent is more about taking up an activity which you would not normally do, rather than sentimentally give something up and try to save the money which would otherwise have been spent in an act of charitable giving.

Secondly, we confront the problem of focus. Regardless of how we try to cleanse our bodies through diet or prayer, beating the ‘sound bite’ age — to give time to let the still small voice to speak to us — becomes ever more difficult, as we are surrounded during the day by endless stimulation. Even in the sanctuary of home it is becoming harder to create that sacred space for contemplation or meditation.

As an example, take the regimen of the Elus Cohen. While we may be able to focus on carnal abstinence (both sexual and dietary) for a few days prior to an Operation, the requirements for lengthy prayer several times a day would only be available to monks or nuns, completely separated from the pressures and needs of daily life. In my case, I put together a much shorter process of prayer using those familiar enough to most people to be performed over a few minutes on a bus or public places, thereby focusing on the intent rather than the process of prayer.

So my advice to someone setting out on this Path would be to not to become too bogged down in the process, but to understand this symbolism of setting aside time and effort to be committed. Our world is very different to those who initiated these regimes (which in French literally means ‘diet’). It is important to perform some act or acts which used to be called  ‘mortification’, in order remind ourselves that our Path is a serious commitment, and not just a temporary fad or the latest fashion. But we need to select a regime which we can follow: otherwise it is a pointless exercise, and we will quickly fall by the wayside.

I would recommend setting aside a regular time for prayer or personal ritual, at least twice a day. If possible, I’d recommend setting up an oratory or corner of one’s one room apartment set aside for meditation, where one can at least light a candle, if no incense (due, perhaps, to smoke detectors). If this is not available, never forget you can always meditate or pray in — gasp! — a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque! As for diet, yes if it works for you, and perhaps take up a regular act of self-improvement like exercise, or a regular selfless act of charity. The important thing is bringing change to your life, which reminds you of your new direction. The important thing is to be, not to follow yet another set of rules.

Piers A. Vaughan is a well-known writer, lecturer, and translator, working in the field of Freemasonry and esotericism. He has traveled extensively across the USA and other countries giving lectures on a range of topics, from history to the symbolism and spirituality. Vaughan also has an MA in Psychology and an MA in Divinity, and is a bishop in the Independent Catholic tradition. A member of the Societas Rosicruciana In Civitatibus Fœderatis (SRICF) and a 33rd Degree in the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in the U.S.A., Vaughan is, likewise, involved with a number of esoteric Orders descended from European lineages. He is also the founder of the Rose Circle Foundation, an organization, which regularly organizes talks and symposia in the New York area, and publishes monographs under Rose Circle Publications. His most recent book is “Renaissance Man and Mason,” and his website is at rosecirclebooks.com.

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