Trial By Fire
By Brother Mark van Dijk
Presented on 15 June 2017 at Lodge De Goede Verwachting
There are few things as elemental to man’s Earthly experience as the weather. Fire, water and wind shape, in large part, our experiences of the natural world. Since our earliest ancestors first stepped away from the warm fires of the cave, and into the fresh air – and wind, and rain – outside, mankind has looked to control the weather, to overcome the elements: to direct the winds, to harness the flames, and to choose on which fields the rains will fall.
In his seminal work The Golden Bough, anthropologist James George Frazer wrote about a region in France where,
the majority of the peasants still believe that the priest possesses a secret and irresistible power over the elements. By reciting certain prayers which he alone knows and has the right to utter, yet for the utterance of which he must afterwards demand absolution, he can, on an occasion of pressing danger, arrest or reverse for a moment the action of the eternal laws of the physical world. The winds, the storms, the hail, and the rain are at his command and obey his will. The fire also is subject to him, and the flames of a conflagration are extinguished at his word.
This perceived power gave those priest enormous influence over those peasants. Fire can incinerate. Floods can drown. Winds can flatten buildings. The elements can be powerful and frightening. Yet even more powerful, and even more frightening, is the man who has control over those elements. That’s a power you would want to have.
But compare that to the role that the elements played in the ancient mystery schools, and that they play in the initiatory ritual of our Craft.
Zarathustra, or Zoroaster the Iranian prophet, himself survived trial by fire, and subjected his followers to similar ordeals in his ancient mystery school. He prepared his followers, in a very real way, to face their demons by undergoing terrifying initiation ordeals. Records survive which suggest that
after a period of fasting, mortification and mental exercises performed in solitude, the candidate would be forced to swim across water, pass through fire and ice. He would be cast into a snake pit, and cut across the chest by a sword so that blood would flow.
And then, the point of it all: By experiencing the outer limits of fear, the candidate was prepared for the worst that could happen, both in life and after death.
The most Masonic of musical works, Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, depicts similar trials. Here, the hero Tamino must endure trial by silence, trial by water, and trial by fire.
(Silence, in our modern world, is perhaps the hardest trial. I recall the month-long agony I endured after my own initiation, where all I wanted to do was tell my friend about the experience… but I couldn’t because I’d sworn silence, and because he was about to be initiated himself!)
Our First Degree ritual includes a marvellously effective trial by fire (sometimes, if the flamethrower gets it wrong, almost too effective!). This is followed by the echoes of a trial by water – or by rain and thunder.
The lesson of this is often lost in the special effects. This, in a real sense, is a trial by fire and a trial by water, where the candidate is lead in darkness to confront his basest fears: fear of the burning fire, of the roaring thunder, and of the cold driving rain.
The nature of our ritual is such that the Candidate will often focus on what’s happening around his feet, without paying due attention to what’s happening around his head. That’s a lesson missed, because as we confront our most primitive fears of the elements – of fire, of wind and of water – we understand our place among them, and our place in the natural world.
And in that moment, we learn that the greatest gift is not to gain power over the elements; rather, through overcoming and understanding those elements, it is to gain power over oneself.