The latest release from Masonic author Robert Lomas, Turning the Hiram key, may appear to be a follow-up to his earlier books (with Chris Knight) The Hiram Key and The Book of Hiram, but the similarity in name does not equate to a similarity in content. While his earlier books focused more on historical detective work, most especially uncovering the 'hidden history' of Freemasonry, this new release is a far more personal exploration of Lomas' thoughts on the 'meaning' behind the Craft, rather than its history.
Nowhere is this more evident that in the first half of the book, although it begins in an unexpected way. Lomas tells the story of how he once had a moment of 'cosmic consciousness' during an electrical storm, when lightning struck the Earth nearby. A scientifically-based materialist, he was perplexed by this 'spiritual' moment, although he had certainly read about such experiences in the writings of Masonry - more specifically, in the work of Walter Wilmshurst (author of the seminal 1922 book, The Meaning of Masonry):
From reading Wilmshurst's published and private works, I knew he claimed that Freemasonry teaches a way of experiencing this ultimate state of mind without needing to be struck by a thunderbolt...so I decided to work through all the Masonic teaching about this state of mind and see how Freemasonry thought it could bring it about.
This prologue sets out Lomas' personal quest - to explore the bizarre and allegorical rituals of Freemasonry in order to find some greater meaning. He begins this quest by presenting his own story of initiation into Blue Masonry, and subsequent movement through the degrees towards becoming a Master Mason. This section has been quite controversial, with some Masons (and non-Masons) criticising Lomas for betraying his Masonic pledge of secrecy - although this aspect is no doubt a publicity department's marketing dream. And if the reader buys this book for only that aspect, they won't be disappointed: approximately 140 pages are devoted to a blow-by-blow commentary of the rituals he took part in.
Lomas describes this commentary as "living the rituals": he goes through each degree - the rituals, and other experiences like the 'tracing boards' - and the effect they had upon him. For me though, 140 pages was far too much detail and reading became quite tedious during this section. Despite the apparent 'shock value' of these Masonic secrets, most researchers know that such content has been widely available for some time, such as in Duncan's Masonic Ritual and Monitor (although it must be said that it is a little disconcerting to read Lomas' description of his pledge of secrecy).
Once this narration is finished though, there is a sudden shift in the content. Part Two dives into the question of whether there is any worth to all these bizarre rituals, positions and memory tests. Here, the link to the Prologue becomes explicit - Lomas thinks that Masonic initiation and ritual are tools for experiencing Wilmshurt's 'cosmic consciousness'. In Chapter 8, Lomas explores the idea of 'memes' as presented by Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore, the brain research of Newberg and D'Aquili, and the effects on the mind of body position treatments such as Alexander Therapy.
Chapter 9 then explores the symbols of Masonry, something which Lomas sees as a tool for enhancing the universality of Masonic practice:
The Craft defines the meaning of its symbols by analogy. This means that people of different backgrounds can use them to share ideas...the scientist can talk to the Christian, the Moslem to the Jew, and all can use a common language of spiritual symbolism. At best it is the calculus of the spirit. The symbols are abstract and geometric but carry deep meaning.
In fact, Lomas goes further, implying that some symbols may be the very language of thought. He cites the research of Professor of Art Betty Edwards, who found that symbols of femininity arbitrarily and personally chosen by her students corresponded with the ancient symbols used to denote the goddess principle. Further to this connection, Lomas also tested his own students' subconscious responses to neolithic symbols (via galvanic skin response), with positive results.
Chapter 10 sums up the preceding few chapters, concentrating on the effects ritual and symbols can have on the brain. Lomas turns to Michael Persinger's book, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, and cites Persinger's suggestion that 'god experiences' can be triggered by electromagnetic stimulation of parts of the brain. After picking up Turning the Hiram Key to escape months of personal reading on Persinger's research, I couldn't resist a smile when I ran across his work again in this 'Masonic' book.
In the final section, Lomas applies this new knowledge about the mind back to the 'meaning of Masonry', and the 'cosmic consciousness' which Wilmshurst says is accessible via Masonic ritual. Indeed, Wilmshurt's main thrust appears to be that Freemasonry is a highly evolved system of spiritual arousal, through which initiates "pass from mere manhood and carnal understanding to conscious Godhood whilst we are still in the flesh...it is the realisation of our fundamental unity and identity with the ultimate of ultimates."
In this area I must say I was quite puzzled at Lomas' quest. Throughout the book, he makes it quite clear that he is a materialist, and does not have a belief in 'spiritual realms:
Wilmshurst believed he had found a direct telephone line to god. And, although as a scientist I find this unlikely, it is an issue about which I have no quarrel with him. There is no objective way to say which of us is right.
It's gratifying to see that Lomas leaves others to their own beliefs. However, I'm not sure of the attraction of Masonry to Lomas' eyes in this case - if Wilmshurst saw it as 'spiritual arousal', it is then just 'arousal' for Lomas? In this case, why spend 17 years of practicing Masonic ritual, when five grams of Psilocybin mushrooms from the local cow field would lead him to cosmic consciousness? Certainly, I must admit to not being a materialist, and so I find it difficult to identify with Lomas here - so this may be a result of my own biases, and in the same spirit exhibited by Robert Lomas I can only say "I have no quarrel with him". Perhaps further explanation of how Masonry contributes to the growth of the materialist human being may have been worthwhile in this concluding section though, for all the non-materialists out there...
Placed in the middle of the concluding chapters is a return to the 'Lomas of old', with some historical detective work into the origins of the Kirkwall Scroll, "an early Masonic floorcloth showing the [seven] steps of this spiritual path". Interestingly, the Scroll appears to include the goddess principle through the Norse goddess Freyja - a fact which Lomas interleaves nicely with a truly fascinating quote by Wilmshurst on the origin of the Masonic appelation, the 'Son of the Widow'. He concludes his research over the Hiram series with:
I have developed an hypothesis that modern Freemasonry was created by William St Clair during the building of the Chapel at Roslin. I believe that he drew on various religious traditions, such as Enochian Judaism, Phoenician Goddess worship, Christianity and the Norse mythology of Freyja. ..the path of Freemasonry evolved from a mix of some of the oldest teachings on spiritual growth.
Turning the Hiram Key shows the literary growth of Robert Lomas. His narration is stronger than in previous books, he uses humour to good effect, and scenes are set with descriptive flourishes. As noted, there are also problems - almost one half of the book is devoted to "living the rituals"...unfortunately I was closer to sleeping the rituals. In my opinion, it would have been far more worthwhile to devote some of this space to cross-cultural investigation - reaching beyond Masonry and modern neuroscience, to encompass the various shamanic techniques of ecstasy, the multiple strands of Yoga (the positional techniques of Hatha Yoga would have been very apt), and the rituals of ceremonial magick. Some discussion of the possible 'reality' of these spiritual states also could have been warranted, such as evidence from the NDE of Pam Reynolds.
Nevertheless, I found the second and third parts of the book fascinating, and opened up some new avenues of exploration for myself - despite a few years of research on these topics myself. This book is far from being simply a description of Masonic ceremony; rather it is an excellent introduction into the effects of spiritual techniques and symbols upon the mind and body. However, I think Masons in particular will find Turning the Hiram Key a worthy acquisition, as many would be in the same position as Robert Lomas...interested, but confused as to the purpose of the Craft. With this book, Lomas takes up the legacy of Walter Wilmshurst and - albeit from a different philosophical standpoint - tries to reimbue Masonry with meaning.