The Perpendicular appears from the beginning of the Entered Apprentice's journey. If the Entered Apprentice's tools are traditionally the mallet and the chisel (sometimes with the 24-inch ruler), the Perpendicular is the symbolic tool of the Junior Warden, who is in charge of the Entered Apprentices. Why did Freemasonry choose the Perpendicular to be some kind of symbol of the Entered Apprentice degree? Could the quest for the Perpendicular become a spiritual way for the Freemason?

Perpendicular or Plumb Line?

Some Masonic rituals speak of Plumb Line rather than of Perpendicular, but it is not quite the same tool. The Plumb Line is larger and is used to measure the verticality of an important structure, such as a wall or a pillar; the Perpendicular, which is smaller,  includes a Plumb Line in a wooden device (usually in the shape of an arch according to the Masonic use) and is used to measure the plumb of a smaller object, such as a cut stone.

But the principle of both remains the same: they both serve to verify verticality, using the Gravity (one of the meanings given to the letter G in some Masonic rituals of the French Rite). In the ancient English Masonic catechisms of the 18th century, the Perpendicular is often mentioned, but always in relation to two other tools, the Level and the Square. These three tools thus delimit the correct three-dimensional space in which the freemason stands: the Square marks on the ground the rectangular base of a volume whose vertical and horizontal straightness is guaranteed by the Perpendicular and the Level. The ancient Masonic rituals also specify that the signs of the Freemasons are made by Square, Perpendicular and Level, which is true: the feet are placed square, the body is straight, according to the Perpendicular, and the Level presides over the movement of the arms.

Verticality in Freemasonry

The verticality indicated by the Perpendicular is not only a technical data necessary in the art of construction, but it takes on another dimension when it is associated with the work that the Entered Apprentices perform under the careful guidance of the Junior Warden. The weight that is attached to the thread of the Perpendicular invariably tends towards the center of the Earth and thus rethe work of introspection which is the first task of the Entered Apprentice (and which of course remains essential for Freemasons of all degrees).

The Perpendicular therefore recalls that before being received a Freemason, the Entered Apprentice descended into the Earth during his time of isolation in the "Cabinet of Reflection" and it materializes the motto V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (Visita interiorem terrae rectificandoque invenies occultum lapidem, Visit the interior of the Earth and by rectifying you will find the Hidden Stone) which is written in this Cabinet in several Masonic Rites. It is to the discovery of himself, in his most mysterious depths, that the freemason is invited to walk, not in an egocentric way, but in order to open himself to the world and to others.

Because the Plum Line of the Perpendicular has two ends: one is dragged towards the center of the Earth by the gravity of the lead, while the other remains suspended in what we could call Heaven. If the Freemason is invited to descend to the heart of the Earth, it is to better go up and reach Heaven. "Know yourself and you will know the universe and the gods" announced the Temple of Delphi as an initiatory program, and the Freemasons were naturally inspired by it.

Chinese tradition as a source of inspiration

The Perpendicular shows us an orientation in space that is sometimes a little neglected in Freemasonry, which especially favors the two-dimensional orientation of the four cardinal points. The evocation of the Zenith and the Nadir, which indicate the vertical dimension, appears of course in the Catechism and sometimes in the opening ritual, but is often not particularly explored or exploited.

By contrast, the Chinese spiritual tradition pay great attention to verticality and could provide Freemasons with the most interesting lines of reflection. If in Chinese tradition, the universe is described in terms of "Ten Directions" (the four cardinal points, the four intermediate points and the vertical axis up and down), a particular emphasis is placed on verticality, understood as the foundation of the number Three.

The ideogram meaning Three represents three horizontal lines, of which the middle one is shorter. The lower line represents the Earth, the upper one Heaven, and the shorter central one symbolizes Man, the place of encounter of Heaven and Earth. Man is thus the link between Heaven and Earth, he is in tension between these two realities and always seeks to align himself, in order to act (or rather "non-act" the Chinese will say) according to the Universal Law. This is why the starting posture of all forms of internal martial arts (such as Taiji Quan) or psycho-corporeal practices (such as Qi Gong) is the perfect verticality, feet joined and rooted in the Earth, the spine extended towards Heaven, the chin slightly retracted, as if an invisible thread were pulling the practitioner from the top of the head. Standing in this way, the Man is in the right place in the universe, and it is from this position that he will be able to deploy his movement which, if it complies with the Universal Law, will be qualified as "non-acting". Because "not acting" does not mean doing nothing, but acting according to the Tao, the Universal Law. On the other hand, any disorderly and ego-based action will be qualified as "acting".

This conception of Man as a link between Heaven and Earth, constantly in search of the perfect alignment leading to "non-action", that is, to correct action, may well inspire us in our Masonic practice. In Masonic terms, we could speak of acting according to Square, Perpendicular and Level, and concretely, our entire person can feel this quest for alignment when coming to order. The next time you will come to order in the Lodge, try to be fully aware of the energy that passes through you and of the serenity that inhabits you when you line up, you will probably be surprised!

October 14, 2023 — Ion Rajalescu