CHAMBER OF REFLECTION
“Let your heart therefore be perfect with the
Lord our God, to walk in his statutes and
to keep His commandments…”
1 Kings 8:61
According to Jewish literature and traditions, great care was taken of the personal condition of every Israelite who entered the Temple for Divine worship. The Talmud dictated the following requirements: “No man shall go into the Temple with his staff or with his shoes on his feet, or with his outer garment, or with money tied up in his purse.” Masonry has adopted portions of this ancient Jewish custom regarding the preparation of the candidate for entry into a lodge.
Although not Jewish in its origin, the Chamber of Reflection, which has been incorporated into a candidate’s preparation in some American lodges, is an updated version of the ancient cave of initiation. Nevertheless, it similarly serves to prepare the candidate for entry into holy ground. Generally, the chamber is a small room lit only by a candle that casts feeble light on a number of ornaments, including a human skull, human bones, a lump of bread, a flask of water, an hourglass, a saucer containing salt and another containing sulphur. The candidate is seated inside by himself to silently contemplate the holy significance of his intended Masonic journey.
Seated at a table, the candidate must write a philosophical will that will later be read aloud in lodge. In order to compose that will, the candidate must search his soul for his true feelings about life, death and the transformation of the self from its material nature to its spiritual destiny. It should come as no surprise that the symbols situated within the chamber derive primarily from alchemy – the science and philosophy of metamorphosis.
Alchemists believed that salt which is extracted from sea water by the process of evaporation constitutes the element of fire delivered by water. Sulphur is to the human body what the Sun is to the earth. The coupling of salt and sulphur symbolizes life and death, or light and darkness nourishing one another. Thus, while the general candidate for Masonic degrees is not entirely knowledgeable about either alchemy, or the symbols it employs, it is intended that he meditate upon such esoteric matters as the evolution and continuity of all life, as well as the fact that the transformation from material life to spiritual existence is a matter of personal experience. Each and every human being will live, die and live again, but nobody can fully appreciate how that will feel until it actually happens.
For Masons, the time passed in the Chamber of Reflection symbolizes the trials of life. The first lesson to be learned is that nothing is intrinsically good or bad. People are responsible for making matters better or worse depending upon how they conduct themselves. Thus, the first lesson relates to the importance of accepting responsibility for one’s own actions.
The hourglass asks the candidate to reflect upon the irreversibility of the passage of time. Material life is on a continuing progression toward decay and there is precious little time available to participate in the development of the spirit. The bread denotes the transformation from the raw to the fully cooked – from raw wheat to the bread which is fit for human consumption. A Mason is not valuable to the world in which he lives simply because he has been initiated into the Order. Rather, he must prepare himself by study and the application of the knowledge that he acquires, if he is ever to benefit society and mankind. The flask of water represents fertility, or regeneration, of which lustration, or baptism is also a symbol. The regeneration explained in this symbolism is not that of the resurrection of the spirit and soul, but of the resurrection to moral and virtuous living of the material body. Regeneration of the spirit and soul benefits the individual, while renewal of the resolve to live will benefits others. Most religions teach that unless a man renews his material life to the doing of good works, he will not fully prepare himself for eternal life.
It is essential for the candidate to understand that Masonry does not teach that good works achieves salvation of the spirit and soul. Rather, religions variously teach that lesson. Freemasonry instructs upon how a life should be lived – how the “works” of one human life actually reflect upon the “faith” that one holds. Therefore, the journey for which the Chamber of Reflection prepares the candidate is the journey toward better living, not salvation which can only come by the grace of God – never by man’s own works and deeds.
The human skull that is placed in the chamber is intended to remind the candidate that death is the great leveler. No man may escape its grasp and no man can truly know how it feels to be dead until he himself has experienced death. The skull is also intended to teach the candidate that death is also a source of life. As vegetable and animal life dies to be consumed by human life, the truth that death contributes to life is profoundly illustrated. As a good man dies, his deeds remain and contribute to the welfare of those who continue to live. The converse is true of a bad man. While his bad deeds die with him, the effect of those deeds may live long after he has passed away. The lessons acquired in Masonry enable the member to make it more likely that his own dying will be a source of life to others – not a source of grief and torment.
The symbols arranged in the Chamber of Reflection are also intended to inculcate in the mind of the novitiate the importance of distinguishing between that which is real and that which is fantasy. When man attaches to that which is real, he frees himself from the phantoms that so quickly set light and darkness into opposition. More often than not, evil conduct is the consequence of a confused imagination. In Hitler’s twisted fantasy, the Jew was responsible for the ills of his society. A serial murderer frequently fantasizes that taking life viciously and violently brings pleasure.
Energy is the fruit of contradictory forces which resist each other. It either becomes positive energy, or negative energy depending upon whether or not the dark side of life becomes too excessive. Light does not always shine in a man’s soul any more than it always illuminates the earth. For approximately twelve out of every twenty-four hours in each day, darkness prevails. In man’s life he does not always enjoy good health – for at least a few days, his body is ill. It is not a question of how to remove darkness, for that is contrary to the laws of Nature. Rather, it is a matter of what to do when surrounded by the dark that dictates whether or not positive energy will eventually prevail.
In preparation for the Masonic journey, whether or not that journey commences with a period of private contemplation in the Chamber of Reflection, a candidate should be led to reflect upon where he is in his own life, where he wishes to be when his life on earth ends and how he should best accomplish the journey between those two points. Many lodges in America have stopped teaching this valuable lesson at the outset of a candidate’s Masonic career. Candidates are most often merely “prepared” by the manner of their attire, which is eventually explained after the journey has begun. Little if anything is said about what it means to pursue Masonry, or why that pursuit is meaningful to man and society until after one or more degrees are conferred upon the candidate.
Is it possible that by re-instituting the important symbolism of the Chamber of Reflection into the workings of every Masonic lodge that some who leave the Craft after a very short journey would continue their pursuit? Is it important to teach a candidate what is expected of him before he receives Masonic degrees? Symbolism is a way of showing how words create images and how those images become elements of myths, imaginary tales which have the ring of truth because they run along winding paths that lead from desires to ideas to actions. Because Masonry communicates its wise and serious truths by the symbols that have been selected throughout time, it is quite likely very important that a candidate for degrees appreciate the meditation required of him before he ever embarks upon his Masonic journey.
For many Masons, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is a continuing process of study, application, review of what has previously been studied and further application of new lessons learned. This process is consistent with the exhortation frequently uttered in Masonic lodges – “gather what has been scattered and reconcile what appears to be contradictory.” Each of us has experience the need to both conform and to be different. We have also experienced believing and disbelief; certainty and doubt; and order and chaos. Those of us who are able to read this writing have yet to experience the difference between what we know as life and death, and whether or not there is any difference at all.
If in your Masonic career you were not permitted the opportunity to contemplate within a Chamber of Reflection before you received your degrees, you may do so now by bowing your head and offering a prayer to the Great Architect for understanding about where you are in your life, how you got there and how you shall journey to the end of your life. As in all Masonic matters, the choice is yours to make. As is also true in all Masonic matters, no man should ever enter upon any great or important undertaking without first invoking the blessing of God.
Source by John R. Heisner