Masonry ‘revealed’ - Cryptography
20 October 23
Cryptography - By W Bro Damien Donavan
We are taught to be cautious about how we communicate with other masons and to shield our hearts, the safe and sacred repository of our secrets, from cowans, intruders, and the uninstructed world. We are the custodians of a long legacy of masonic teaching, and it is important that we maintain this caution.
You can now find pretty much anything you want to know about Freemasonry online. We might well wring our hands about the availability of that information now that we live in the modern, information-on-demand, digital age. However, even before the web and the internet, masonic secrets have been publicly available, whether by people who are well-intentioned, ill-informed, or simply malicious. Names like Morgan (1826), Duncan (1866), and Pritchard (1730) might be familiar in this respect.
However, does merely having the information really reveal the secrets? I wonder whether we need be so concerned. I plan to explain why we should not be concerned, by using cryptography and the idea of public and private keys.
What is this cryptography stuff? ...I think of this as the public key of Freemasonry.
Cryptography is the backbone of our modern, internet-connected, hyper-automated, and electronic world. We all use encrypted information at some level on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Most of us bank online; and use shopping sites, mobile phone communications, cable and internet connections. Even our email communications and social media can be made (somewhat) secure from interception or theft using cryptography. But to do so, both parties must have a key to encrypt and decrypt the information.
This next paragraph is a little complicated for those who are terrified of mathematics but stay with me. The current cryptographic standard uses 256-bit encryption – that means it uses a key that has 256 binary places to encode the information (each place consisting of a ‘1’ or ’0’ – because we are talking about computers after all). That means a number that has 2256 possible options, or almost 4.3 billion multiplied by itself eight times – an unfathomably large number. To make it simple, one estimate online suggests that even if we could use a version of hyped-up-all-bells-and-whistles-inter-galactic supercomputing power that titanically overshadows our current computing reality, it would take over 507 billion years to guess any random 256-bit code with a chance of one in 4 billion. You get the idea: if you don’t have the key, you have no practical chance of deciphering the code.
If you didn’t understand that last paragraph, fear not, now is the important part that brings it all back to Freemasonry. One form of encryption uses asymmetric keys, which means two keys, a public and a private key. The public key is a simple (but very long) number that anyone can know, the private key is made of factors – two numbers multiplied together to give the first number (like 4 times 5 gives 20). Without getting into the technicalities of how this works, basically someone sends you the public key (that long string of numbers) which you use to encrypt your communications using an algorithm (a set of rules or actions that tell you how to use the key to manipulate your information). You then send this encrypted information over an unsecure line back to the sender of the public key who also has the private key (the factors of the number they sent you, which no one else knows) which they use to decrypt your communication.
What does this have to do with Freemasonry?
To return to my earlier question, should we be concerned about how much information about our rituals, practices, and secrets is in the public domain? It doesn’t take long for the inquisitive, but critically unguided, mind to stumble across information about Freemasonry. But does access to this raw information mean that our ‘secrets’ are exposed?
Perhaps a little, but I think of this as the public key of Freemasonry: those things that are available to everyone. What is vitally important for understanding and applying this knowledge – to truly examining and relating to this knowledge – is what we as Freemasons have, and that is the private key. The key that deciphers that knowledge.
We are the gate keepers of the metaphorical cipher to understanding Freemasonry. You could read our secrets, you could recite the ritual, but what does it really mean? What does it really get you? Does it mean anything until you’ve been led to deeply interrogate the information presented to you, and to see how others relate to it and apply it, particularly those whom we see as our mentors who have had a long-standing and deep relationship with Freemasonry?
Without the private key of masonic understanding and what Masonry means to each of us as masons one will never fully decode what is offered by the public key; one will never fully decrypt our secrets or discover the full richness of what Freemasonry has to offer. Moreover, those who seek an easy ride to enlightenment will be sorely disappointed by the ‘riches’ delivered to them – for they are not material, but something much less tangible albeit far more valuable.
Even more importantly, until you fully embrace Masonry and embed it in your heart and psyche, you will never be more than a ‘book’ Mason with little substance; though perhaps impressed by our historical and esoteric wondrousness. Others might wonder why what is ‘revealed’ to them seems so mundane.
There is one more aspect: living the life of a Freemason. What that means for you personally I can’t say, nor can any of your brethren, although we can all share a sense of what that means to us personally. We each decrypt Masonry in our own way. In effect, we each have our own personal key. The public key – the words, the symbols – are outwardly the same for everyone, but only the individual can decrypt what Masonry means for him personally. And that takes more than reading the texts. That means living the life of a good man, with a sound spiritual and moral edifice. That means constantly interrogating masonic principles; that means constantly asking what it means for me; that means asking how you can turn this into a communal good; that means seeking further light in Masonry. It does not end with receiving each of the three degrees. It is a constant process of searching.
Perhaps even now we don’t possess our own personal, private key to decrypt the secrets of Masonry. But our constant and abiding wish should be that each one of us will find it, and perhaps also then help others to find theirs. Masonry provides a noble and ennobling path in that search.
If you’re not already a mason, perhaps the first step towards decrypting the secrets of the Craft is to join a lodge and set yourself to learn about the secrets and mysteries of ancient Freemasonry. You will find that it’s much more than words and actions!