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Symbols, Secrets, and Fidelity

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December 2007
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I have been battling a virus since my return from our Thanksgiving vacation to Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. It was a good trip and I was happy to see my sister, brother in law, niece, nephew, grand-nephew and my mum in the desert lowlands. Then it was equally fun to introduce my daughter to the canyon and the high uplands. It always does my spirit good to see mountains and the canyon of the Colorado River itself is unparalleled in sublimity. I hope some day I can afford to stay there for a week or two and really explore, write, perhaps paint, and to get to know more about the native nations who live there and who were so brutally displaced and mistreated by the first European settlers in that country.

I got very little writing done or editing on my manuscript for Wandlore. A respiratory ailment came over me and I felt weak some of the time. Plane travel disagrees with me and I long for the age of the airship. Packed into a couple hundred people in uncomfortable seats and subjected to hellish noise for three hours has predictable effects on my nervous system and I was exhausted coming and going. Then followed a fortnight with the coughing virus and the wonderful world of sputum as the doctors call it.

Tonight, however, I am hail enough to attend Scottish Rite after missing the last three degrees. I discovered only yesterday that I am the principal candidate for the 30th degree, Knight of Kadosh. I take this as a high honor and am very excited for the evening. Before I take all those vows of secrecy, I wanted to talk about it a bit here. I don’t think that the point of the vows of secrecy in Masonry are really to keep things secret. That may sound daft, but hear me out.

Taking vows of secrecy, to not reveal what goes on in a degree and in particular the secret recognition signs and words, is a way to keep the integrity of the organization and also to keep its initiatory rituals exciting for those going through them. If everyone was as familiar with Masonic degrees the way, say, Lutherans are familiar with the order of service on Sundays, it would not have any impact at all. Indeed, that is one of my beefs with organized religion. It appeals to the sort of person who wants things to stay the same, or who wants the familiar message, the old platitudes, and as little interpretation as possible.

Masonry, like most initiatory societies, works differently. One is presented with a surprise, a drama that is new, something the candidate has never before experienced. The vows of secrecy are there not to keep out the riffraff or cover up devil-worship, or be elitist. All such accusations are codswollop. The secrecy protects the future candidate from having his experience spoiled. If you read a really good novel that takes you by surprise, a “mystery novel” as we say, you don’t run out and tell the whole story to your friends, including the ending. You encourage them to read the book for themselves. No book report can possibly be like reading a good book itself. Especially if the book is something like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, full of history, symbolism, and puzzles. You have to experience such a book in time, unfolding it, savoring it.  It’s like the Grand Canyon.  You have to be there.  That is the reason for the prohibitions against blabbing about the degrees.

But there is another reason too. And that is simply the value to each of us of making and keeping vows. It’s rather like wedding vows. It does you good to curb your tongue or your other passions and keep a promise. Keeping a promise, or fidelity, as they say in Latin, is a virtue and practicing it builds a virtuous character. It isn’t the only virtue, of course, but it is a very important one. It is only through the practice of honesty and fidelity — keeping our word — that we can trust one another or even trust ourselves. Faith in oneself and faith in others is all built upon this ephemeral spiritual quality we call fidelity. And it is upon fidelity that our whole human society is based.

What society can one have if no one can trust others? The Mafia perhaps, but if we are to believe Mario Puzo, even organized crime relies on loyalty and fidelity. It falls apart when people blab secrets or tell lies or renege on agreements. How much moreso a just and peaceful society free of crime and vice? Masonry is structured in such a way that its members are given the opportunity to exercise the virtue of fidelity and to trust their brothers. That aspect of Masonry is very hard to describe to non-masons. It almost seems counter-intuitive. How can taking vows and keeping secrets be a virtue? But it is not the secrets as such that are the value here. They are really quite valueless secrets, and that is the point. It is the act of keeping faith with your brothers that is valuable, not the secrets.

Not even the handshakes or secret passwords are the real value because there are very few people who want to break into a masonic lodge or would get so far as the password if they were strangers. It’s not like sneaking into the back of a big church where you won’t be noticed. The point is not to keep out “outsiders” or the “profane” (even though it is put in those terms sometimes in masonic ritual); the point is really to build strength of character by asking brothers to make a sacrifice, the sacrifice of keeping private things private and honoring the secrets of brothers (apart from obvious crimes). Yes, it is clubby. Sure. And that is a pleasure in itself. But its a pretty benign club, at least in the U.S. Masonry is probably not as powerful as some Ivy League fraternities and sororities are, because it represents a cross-section of all economic classes, not just the ruling elite.

And I’m sure it is true that there are many Freemasons who keep the secrets but don’t grasp the virtue they are supposed to be practicing. Keeping quiet about the degrees and their contents prevents bragging too. If you came home and started describing some of these dramas and the titles that go with them, it would sound pretty pompous. But it isn’t really because all of those titles and costumes and grand language are symbolic. They are there to tell a story and inspire each mason to think for himself. That is why there is precious little interpretation offered either. Even in the voluminous writings of Albert Pike, and all the thousands of other books written by Masons, there are no standard interpretations offered, no orthodoxy. Indeed, one of the points of Freemasonry is to avoid the trap of orthodoxy and dogma. I’m not sure why Albert Pike’s book is called Morals and Dogma except that, as I believe he says himself, he means “dogma” in its original, pure meaning, which is simply “teaching.” Since the 19th century, “dogma” has become a much more negative term for many people, signifying some teaching that a church insists upon and will never question.

Freemasonry encourages its members to ask questions, to seek, to quest, to take on the role of knights, not as “crusaders” in the sense of religious fanatics, but in the model of the legendary Knights Templar who went to Jerusalem seeking ancient wisdom and truth and who came away from their sojourn in the East with some radical ideas about the abuse of power and the need for religious authority to be separated from secular authority. Ironic, in an order that started out uniting the concept of a military order with that of a religious order in the age of chivalry.

I take this all very seriously. Maybe more seriously than is good for me. But Masonry involves the historical study of virtue as it relates to the principal myths of the West found in and around the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its message of tolerance, which originally applied to all of the warring sects of Christians, now has even more power as nearly all Western societies are becoming multi-cultural and one is regularly exposed to people of very different religious beliefs. For someone like me who has always been interested in religions, and since about age 17 in Eastern religions and philosophies, Masonry offers a unique organization in which such interests can be pursued for a lifetime.

It is not like college or university, where one can explore for a few years, but when you get your doctorate or the money runs out, you have to leave. I had hoped to become a professor and thus stick around in academia, but since that didn’t work out, the fraternity of Freemasonry offers me an alternative institution. It is full of structure and honors and friendliness. I’m sure there is also rivalry, jealousy, and backbiting, as in any group, but I haven’t run across much of that at all, and the tenets of Masonry specifically enjoin us against such behavior. Instead, we are admonished to be civil and point out each other’s mistakes gently, and mostly to encourage each other to grow in virtue and self esteem so that we can give generously of our time and talents to help others, brothers and non-brothers alike.

When I was in Phoenix and was trying to explain Masonry to my family, I felt distinctly awkward. It isn’t like converting to another religion but it isn’t like joining a men’s club either. Freemasonry has a reputation. For many it is highly suspect because of its secrecy. For many more it has a mystique that is almost as hard to overcome. I realized that among non-masons, I feel a bit self-conscious about being a Mason simply because it doesn’t mean anything very clear to non-masons. They might have all sorts of associations, vague or personal, or derived from the DaVinci Code and other sorts of conspiracy fiction. None of that has anything to do with the reality of the fraternity.

But, oh, well. I guess I’m used to the difficulty in explaining druidry already, which is similar in many ways because so poorly known to most people. We’ll see if I can get this juvenile fiction series written and then maybe more people will know more about both druids and masonic brothers. Still, writing stories about it will not even convey the reality of the lodge room or the temple. You just have to be there and you have to be initiated for it to make any sense or have any symbolic depth. To a non-initiate a lodge meeting would just look sort of goofy, I suppose. A lot of guys in suits and white aprons. I think Scottish Rite degrees would strike the uninitiated immediately as more interesting because they are more dramatic, more theatrical. But they certainly would not make much sense without the gradual accumulation of understanding of the symbolism and the method of teaching by allegorical legends rather than by the usual school method of factual expositions, chronologies, and formulae.

Well, by Christmas I will be a 32° Mason and proud of it. By next April, I will have completed my first Masonic year. I’ll have to have a party, I think. French Champaigne in honor of Jacques de Molay and Hughes de Payens and a big pooh-pooh on Philip the (Un-)Fair.


/|\ Eques ab Ivsticia et Veritas R . : C . :

P.S. My anam cara and clan mother Chalcedoni still hangs about keeping me company and is never far from my thoughts. May blessed spirits keep us from ever feeling alone.

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