Patterns in Contemplative Life, Part 5: Contemplation, Virtue, and Light

Just as we previously noted that contemplative practice can lead us to more fully appreciate our lack of complete self-awareness and self-control, it can also lead us to more clearly perceive that the ordinary processes of conscious cognition are not the only things happening in our psyches. These “ordinary processes” include intentionally attending to our sensations, recalling memories, generating words, numbers, and images, and putting different bits together in more or less logical ways. They are certainly important activities that deserve attention and skill development. However, there are times when the light of a new insight or possibility pops into the midst of consciousness, seemingly out of nowhere, obviously not produced simply through step-by-step conscious construction. These events also deserve attention and understanding, especially among contemplatives, whose practices can lead to more frequently witnessing, evoking, and making good use of them. Thus, they are the focus of this part in the series.

Most people, contemplatives or not, know something of what these enigmatic happenings are like. In everyday language, we use certain words to speak of them, such as intuition, inspiration, epiphany, and revelation. We often describe these moments as if having a flash of insight, seeing a vision, hearing a voice, or getting a gut feeling, any of which can be very literal. In fact, occasionally we sense the very beginning of their emergence, and we may then pause to focus inwardly with the expectation that they will unfold into something recognizable. While such phenomena are commonly known, they are the specialty of exceptional innovators in every field of human endeavor, including creative artists, inventive scientists, pioneering physicians and therapists, groundbreaking philosophers, and the true prophets of spirituality. They are also a hallmark of contemplative progress recognized in the Builder’s Art.

In the Masonic tradition, we celebrate these potentials through mythic references to things like Jacob’s dream of the ladder between heaven and earth, and Hiram Abiff’s prayers before drawing designs for the Craft’s labors. Our traditional story of Pythagoras discovering the 47th Problem of Euclid says that immediately afterward he sacrificed a hecatomb. The fact that he offered such a sacrifice indicates that he regarded this discovery as of a divine nature, a gift of revelation and not merely a product of his own conscious thought processes. There are further examples in some of the rites beyond the Craft Lodge.

In short, we are talking about a shift of consciousness that makes way for a different kind of knowing, a non-ordinary kind, hopefully a divine kind. We can also find such a shift alluded to by the ascension of the Winding Staircase beyond the Five Senses and Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. That ascent certainly implies a kind of knowing in which we have passed beyond ordinary cognition, and in some jurisdictions is overtly said to transcend all that can be known by reason alone.

“They represent the progress of an inquiring mind with the toils and labors of intellectual cultivation and study, and the preparatory acquisition of all human science, as a preliminary step to the attainment of divine truth, which it must be remembered is always symbolized in Masonry by the WORD.” (Daniel Sickels, General Ahiman Razon, 1868, emphases added.)

It is no wonder that many esoteric Masons have regarded the letter G as referencing gnosis as appropriately as it does God and Geometry. Indeed, there are two traditional practices at the opening of a lodge that reinforce this view. One is the opening charge that reminds us to seek Divine Wisdom in contemplation, and the other is invoking the aid of Deity at the beginning of our labors. Both of these practices suggest that we open our hearts and minds to divine guidance, something we cannot merely “think up” on our own.

Teachers and devoted practitioners in all the great contemplative and initiatic traditions have observed that there is a relationship between this divine way of knowing and the practice of virtue. The Craft is no exception, as highlighted by this reference from the Third Degree: “The All-Seeing Eye … pervades the inmost recesses of the human heart, and will reward us according to our merits.” In this context, “merits” refers to virtue, which is not merely about following a behavioral code of dos and don’ts. As Aristotle clarified over 2,300 years ago, virtue is about internally discerning and externally enacting the middle way of balance between the extremes of excess and lack. Such discernment is improved through the mental disciplines of contemplation, such as mindfulness, meditation, reflection, and dialogue. In turn, one’s ability to discipline and focus the mind is enhanced by the more peaceful and harmonious life that generally results from the practice of virtuous behaviors and attitudes in the world; there is a reciprocal relationship. Intentionally pursuing both contemplation and virtue is therefore part of a very ancient pattern in which aspirants more freely experience and benefit from divine kinds of knowing, and are thus empowered to have a more beneficial impact on the world.

While it is easy to describe the experience of non-ordinary knowing in very positive terms, it also comes with common challenges. For example, it can be tempting to think that non-ordinary events are simply the outcome of one’s own decisions and actions to enter into different states of consciousness, as if the intentional shift is the cause of such a happening rather than a facilitative factor for it. In effect, the ego takes credit for creating something it actually received from elsewhere. Intersecting with this pattern is another in which one has difficulty distinguishing between the emergence of divine knowing and perception of their own repressed or suppressed thoughts and feelings. Similarly, it can be easy to misinterpret a genuine epiphany as we filter it through the lenses of the psyche. In both of these cases, we find the folly of regarding one’s own wish-fulfilling fantasies as spiritual revelations, or one’s self-serving and biased impulses taken as divine commands.

These pattens of confusion are quite human and everyone following a contemplative path must encounter and work through their own relatively unique challenges with them. I know I have had my share, and I don’t doubt there are more to come. But note that their uniqueness for any individual is qualified as relative, for there is much about the entire process that is common and recognizable to those with greater experience. This is yet another reason to value the role of apprenticeship and openness to instruction and mentoring discussed in Part 4 of this series. We can also again see the great importance of the deliberative discerning element of virtue, the responsibility contemplatives have to carefully and critically examine their non-ordinary experiences in the process of exercising good judgment. A strong temptation to jump to conclusions and rush into action is frequently a red flag that one’s own psyche may be distorting a deeper truth for less noble purposes. The true value of such events is often only clarified through further contemplation across longer periods of time, like days, weeks, and perhaps even years.

Finally, returning to the quote about the Winding Stairs from the Ahiman Rezon, we see that the Word of Masonry, also called the Lost Word, is one title for the kind of revelation we have been considering. This is significant when we recall that there are two traditional short answers to what we seek in Masonry, each expressing the same thing in a different symbolic way – Light and the Lost Word. As we have seen, the highest attainment of this goal cannot be met only through our ordinary ways of thinking. It must also be constantly approached through the practice of virtue and contemplative ascent beyond the typical mental processes we use for other kinds of learning and knowing. If we are fortunate and worthy, Divine Providence will bestow what we seek in some measure. If we are wise, we will accept that gift humbly and respectfully. If we are good and loving, we will put that Light to use not only for our own benefit, but to help better the lives of others and the world.