Last evening I attended a meeting with my lodge brothers who are forming a team to do investigations of men who have petitioned the lodge for the degrees of Masonry. An “investigation” is essentially an interview of a prospect by three brothers meeting with him at three separate times. The man petitioning a lodge must get two members of the lodge to sign his petition before this can happen. He pays a fee and is informed on the petition of the fees for each degree — Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. — and also the amount of the annual dues.
This petition process is intended to make men think seriously about what they are doing. They are committing to paying several hundred dollars at the outset and dues for every year of their life after that (and amount which varies from lodge to lodge but is typically around $100 these days). The Financial commitment alone, you would think, should eliminate men who are simply curious about Freemasons, but do not really know about the spiritual work of the Craft. It does not, however, seem to eliminate men who know that the fraternity is full of great guys, admirable, thoughtful, and with high standards of conduct and morality. They may know Masons they admire, or have fathers, uncles, or grandfathers who they have talked to about Masonry. It is good if they have had this kind of contact.
The problem that remains is that however much they have heard about brotherly love, relief, and truth as the ideals of Masons, they have almost certainly not heard about the content or intention of the three initiation rituals, or degrees. Masons don’t talk about the degrees because it is generally considered secret, and the main reason for this is so that the drama and beauty of the experience will not be spoiled. That’s good, but it also leaves candidates sometimes overwhelmed by the rituals. It it is done badly it might just seem like cheesy, old-fashioned ritual for ritual’s sake. If it is done well, the degree work may be so powerful it is too much for the candidate’s mind to absorb.
Well, to some extent it is supposed to be like that. The flood of parables, allusions, symbols, symbolic roles, and symbolic actions to which the candidate is subjected is intentionally more than anyone can absorb. The purpose of this method of initiation is really quite interesting, and unique in my experience. It is hardly exaggerating to say that Masonry presents the entire contents of its teachings and its methods for self-enlightenment in three sittings at the very beginning of the Mason’s career. It’s as if chemistry professor presented the entire contents of his course to the class on the very first day of the semester and left them to figure it out for themselves.
Any academic dean would frown on that professor’s teaching methods, but I wonder if there is not method in the madness. Teaching spiritual growth and a way of looking at the world through symbols, parables, and metaphors is already masked. The “secrets” of Masonry are “secreted” inside these symbols, parables, and metaphors. Everything the candidate is exposed to is strange to him, and on top of that everything has at least two layers of meaning.
Take the officers of the lodge as just one example. The candidate goes through part of the ritual blindfolded – or “hoodwinked” as Masons say in their quaint 18th century jargon. As a dramatic climax of the initiation, he is allowed to see and when he does he sees (probably for the first time) what the lodge room looks like, and he encounters the officers all sitting in magnificent thrones wearing their full regalia. He is then introduced to these officers in the course of the ritual and its closing ceremony in which the titles, places, and duties of all the officers are recited. This level of meaning is difficult enough to understand and remember. The candidate at this point is trying to figure out what the difference is between a steward and the deacons, or what the wardens do, other than repeat everything the Master orders. This layer of meaning we could call the functional.
Underneath this functional layer of sense is a symbolic layer. The ritual hints at it broadly when, for example, it says such things as “As the sun at its meridian height is the glory and beauty of the day, so stands the Junior Warden in the South, the better to observe the time, to call the craft from labor to refreshment, and to see that they do not turn refreshment into intemperance and excess; to call them on again in due season, that the craft may profit and the Worshipful Master have pleasure thereby.”
First of all, almost anyone today is going to be bowled over mentally by the length of this sentence and its use of language. Nobody today refers to the sun at noon being “at its meridian height” or uses expressions like “the glory and beauty of the day” and “in due season.” Today, only poets talk like that. Moreover, on first hearing this line, the newly made Apprentice has no idea what the specifically Masonic usages of some words mean. For example, “the craft” or “refreshment.” Words such as “intemperance” he has heard before but maybe never spoken or written in his life. That word alludes to one of the seven cardinal virtues and actually means much, much more than the surface meaning here. The Junior Warden means that he is in charge of the brothers when they are “at refreshment” which may be dinner or may be a break in the meeting when the brothers step out into the dining room for a drink (or bathroom run) or a smoke. The brothers as a whole group are referred to as “the craft.” But in reality lodges seldom call that craft “from labor to refreshment” except at the end of the meeting. So, the role of the Junior Warden as overseer of the workers when they are on break or at dinner is largely symbolic.
The newly entered Apprentice (and here even “entered” is being used in a special sense), won’t understand any of this. He may be charmed by the beauty of the Junior Warden’s speech, at his ability to have such a long and poetic sentence committed to memory, but he won’t understand what it means – not even on the literal level. The symbolic meaning of the speech is hidden – that is, “secret.” Let us pause to look at the hidden inner meaning of the word “secret.” It is a noun that comes into English from Latin adjective secretus, meaning “separated,” which in turn is compounded of the prefix se- meaning “apart” and cernere, a verb meaning “to sift.” When we sift through a text or a set of clues to discover their meaning, we unwittingly allude to the etymology of “secret.”
The analogy of clues in a mystery is a good one. Freemasonry is a “mystery school” – a modern (well, early modern in the 18th century) adaptation of the ancient idea of teaching spiritual seekers by means of ritual dramas, symbols, and parables. Think of the way Jesus taught in parables. It seems like a sort of frustrating way of teaching, but in reality it is the most effective way to get the student to think for himself. The outer mysteries, as they were called, present simple moral teachings – things like “Stop killing each other” or “Don’t take your neighbor’s stuff, and that includes his wife,” or “respect your elders” or “clean up your mess.” It is the sort of thing we try to inculcate in preschool and kindergarten today. But in the ancient world these ideas were new and spiritual teachers found that they had to keep reiterating the same lessons over and over again because people kept forgetting and every new generation needed to be taught all over again. Humans have very little instinct for compassion and fairness. It has to be taught to each generation.
The “mystery school” thus teaches in this parabolic and layered fashion. A builder’s square may be used as a symbol for “acting fairly” or “on the square.” Our language gives us convenient parallels between a “right angle” and “doing the right thing.” We talk about walking the straight and narrow road and a builder’s ruler or yardstick can serve as a symbol of this. Mason’s refer to the “twenty-four inch gauge” which sounds peculiar and foreign to our ears because we usually deal only in feet and yards. And, where there is strange terminology, we almost always find that there is a symbolic meaning. The symbolic meaning of the twenty-four inch gauge is actually explained in the Apprentice initiation ritual. But squaring our actions or dividing our time in service to others as well as ourselves are themselves symbolic expressions that allude to much deeper spiritual processes. The apprentice Mason can learn that the square teaches him to “square his actions with God and all mankind,” but he isn’t going to get very far as an apprentice if he does not immediately ask one of the Master Masons how to do this and what it exactly means. To return to my chemistry teacher analogy, if the professor gave a big long lecture full of information you didn’t quite understand and then told you to go test a solution using thin layer chromatography, would you just sit in your chair?
Well, maybe you would. But the smart student would raise a hand and say, “How do we do that, professor?” In a mystery school, you have to ask to receive the answer. You are presented with many clues to the answer, but no one says you have to work them out all by yourself. Indeed, you are joining a brotherhood in which every brother of your lodge (and of every other lodge in the world) promises you love, relief, and truth. That means your lodge brothers will be happy to help you learn what it all means.
I started this Owl talking about a meeting in which we discussed how to better interview prospective candidates who have petitioned the lodge for the degrees. Traditionally, the “investigations” and reports tell the Master of the Lodge and the Secretary whether the three investigators concur with the brothers who signed the petition. Is this man worth, well-qualified, and is he duly and truly prepared to embark on the labor of a Masonic life. The petition form asks serious questions of the petitioner. “Are you aware of any moral, mental, or physical reason which would prevent acceptance of this petition?” That is a yes or no question, but its purpose is not to elicit a yes or no answer on the page. Its purpose is to force the petitioner to think hard about the commitment he is planning to make.
Why the emphasis on a petitioner being “moral”? What sort of “mental” impediment could there be? What kind of “physical” reason could there be? Well, if the petitioner is sharp, he will notice that he is being subjected to his first bit of symbolic language. The question has alluded to the Masonic concern with the soul, the mind, and the body. If a man is already destitute and out of a job when he knocks on the lodge door, he cannot possibly provide relief to anyone else. He cannot contribute to charitable causes with any money donations, though he could still donate his time and work. But what if he hasn’t enough time in his life to give any away to others? This is a physical reason why a petition should not be accepted. If a man simply does not have enough time amid his other obligations or recreations to be present at lodge meetings, to support new brothers joining after him, to work at fund-raisers for charity, or attend the funerals of brothers who have passed away – he can contribute nothing to the building of the temple, to the work of the Masonic lodge.
Moral reasons are sometimes reduced to extreme cases, such as “Do you have a criminal record?” or “Are you faithful and loyal to your wife?” “Are you a good father to your children” and so forth. But the moral soul-searching for which the petition asks includes the deeper question, “Are you prepared to face your shadow and take time to work on your own soul, to make yourself a better man morally?” That is a tough, hard question. If the man submitting a petition for degrees has not thought about that question hard, he is not “duly and truly prepared” for initiation.
What “mental” reasons could there be to reject a petition? Again, this isn’t about the lodge brothers judging the petitioner. The question on the petition is about the petitioner himself judging himself. “Know Thyself” was written over the door to the ancient mysteries and it is written over the Lodge door too. The mental preparation necessary for a candidate to approach the altar of Masonry involves being self-aware. It means you must have enough self-consciousness, self-knowledge, to see yourself as you are. You must look at yourself without illusions, and you must decide in your heart and mind that you will commit to a lifelong path of self-examination and self-improvement. That means, are you ready and capable of learning, and in large measure taking the initiative to learn, because no one is going to force you to learn in Masonry. Indeed, it is impossible to force anyone to learn. It is an inborn mental attitude of openness, curiosity, and desire.
All of which may be summed up: “Are you prepared in your heart, mind, and body to dedicate yourself to understanding yourself and improving your ability to help others and treat everyone with respect?” I would add to this: “Are you ready to examine your own thoughts and feelings and strive to understand who you are as a spiritual being?”
To my mind, that task is the reason we want all candidates to say sincerely that they put their trust in God. Not because we want them all to be “god-fearing” and church-going men. Rather because to benefit from Freemasonry, the candidate must be open to the reality of God as that other place of knowing from which we can distance ourselves from our own ego and look deep into our own soul. If you are only going to examine yourself through the lens of your ego – that is your conscious mind – then you will only get so far. An atheist might be able to delve into his soul, but it is simply not a wise idea to do this without someone to help. If you believe in God (in whatever form) you always have that someone with you, someone who you can trust to rescue you (give you relief) should your ego lose its grip on reality and teeter over the precipice that leads to self-deception, hallucination, or paranoia. For an atheist to do this alone is risky. Better to have a qualified pychoanalyst at your side. For those who believe humans have a spiritual dimension, that role may be filled by a spiritual mentor.
And that is the purpose of Freemasonry. It gives men a safe place, a sacred space, and a brotherhood of loving friends who can support him in his self-analysis and in his self-building. The metaphor of building “the temple not made with hands” refers to this central process and work of the Mason. A man becomes a Mason in order to be a builder. He builds the network of supportive brothers and becomes one of them. But he also builds himself, chiseling himself from a rough stone in the quarry of life, to the perfect, square and smooth stone of the builder. No one in the fraternity expects you to become “perfect” in the sense of being flawless and mathematically exact in your angles and planes. Becoming perfect is a process that leads toward a goal that is infinite in its possibilities. So then, what does the Mason work toward?
The perfect Mason is a man who is kind, generous, tolerant of others’ beliefs and opinions, strong, self-confident, able to lead others firmly and earn their trust, a man focused on giving other people pleasure and thereby giving himself pleasure and profit. He is a man with a sterling reputation who never hates, never lies, never puts down others in order to make himself look superior. He never takes advantage of other people, and in the present age we may not that he is a steward of the land and all the resources of his community and his family. Nor is he a sycophant, an ideologue, or a demigog. He will not willfully mislead others or believe anything with out careful, open-minded examination of the facts and interpretations of the facts.
The perfect Mason is a man of moral courage who does not hesitate to stand up and fight if necessary for what is true and good. He is not afraid of anything, including death. He is a man’s man and a lady’s man because he knows that part of being a mature male human being is to have good, healthy relationships with women and with male friends. Not that all his relationships will be positive, but as a strong and self-aware man, he can see clearly when a relationship is negative and he is courageous enough to do what he can to heal the wounds or discord that have caused the negative turn. The perfect Mason is a problem-solver. He may be a mechanic, engineer, business administrator, intellectual, writer, teacher, salesman, or chairman of the board, but whatever his calling in life, he dedicates himself to it, to continuous improvement in his work, his mission.
And finally, the perfect Mason has a sense of humor. He enjoys life, enjoys other people, and has fun. He smiles and meets your eye directly and if you keep eye contact with him, he will probably offer his hand to you and give you a warm, firm, and sincere handshake. No Mason who lets himself fall into despair, pessimism, irritability, or misanthropy can rightly claim to be doing the work he vowed to do before the altar. This work of self-improvement and self-transformation is the work for which he requested a petition from a brother Mason.
We are very concerned with improving the mentoring in our lodge. We want to make it clear that if you sign a man’s petition you are making a commitment to be his mentor. A mentor is not a teacher, but a brother who has walked the path for some years longer than the newly made Mason. He is a brother who “gets it” and who can help the new brother find the keys to the clues in the degree rituals. He will always be there ready to talk about the work of Masonry whenever a question arises. A good mentor may even introduce key questions into a conversation in order to prompt his new brother to look in the right direction.
Very few Master Masons are masters of Masonry. One is given the title “master mason” in order to convey that one is fully capable of achieving mastery. The system is almost counter-intuitive. But the title Master Mason means that you have now heard everything necessary to do the work. You may need years to understand everything you have heard in your three initiations, but you have all the clues. Initiation is like turning the key in a car’s ignition. The act of initiation is a symbolic act and as such it lights a fire in a man’s soul, a fire which may be unconscious but which will start a process under the surface. The more the newly raised brother can examine his soul and those subconscious processes, the faster his engine will run.
I want to suggest to my lodge that we present new candidates with a clear understanding of the commitments they must make to receive the three degrees of Craft Masonry. They need to commit to joining a committee or an event team to immediately start donating their time and talents to others. The act of donating time to the lodge, especially for a charitable fund-raiser, is an easy first step. The new brother will make friends, get to know his lodge brothers by name, and develop the warm feeling of brotherly love. He will also practice his skill at volunteering so that he can go out into the world at large and volunteer – at hospitals, homeless shelters, food shelves, as a big brother, or any of a hundred sorts of charitable work. Our society depends on having men and women who do charitable work, who volunteer. It is part of our economy. Volunteering is just as large and important a part of our economy as for-profit business. I heard a talk by an economist once who described our economy as having three parts – the government, the private sector (meaning businesses operating for profit), and the non-profit sector that is dependant upon volunteers. Everyone who works in our society works in one of those sectors of the economy, and no one of the three is more important than the other.
If you want smaller government and think that the Federal government should get out of the business of providing social services, go volunteer your own time and talents providing social services. That is, go help others, asking no compensation other than the good feeling it will give you to be generous. That is a major part of what Freemasonry is about – getting us to cultivate the habit of volunteering and the courage to do it.
But I said there were two commitments that a new lodge brother must make. The commitment to donate his time to the governance and work of the lodge is one. The other is a commitment to attend lodge meetings regularly for at least a year. This commitment is needed because new brothers will never see the importance of the degree rituals if they do not watch them from the sidelines. Later on, they should be encouraged to take a role in the rituals, even just a small part at first. After that, the new brother can be encouraged to join the officers line or accept an appointed office. The Master of the Lodge has to be on the lookout for new brothers who show the potential to be good leaders. The Master appoints a new junior steward each year, who he hopes will proceed up the line until he sits in the Master’s chair. The process of “moving through the chairs” should take seven years. In those years, the lodge officer is learning the heart of Masonic symbolism – the stations, duties, and symbolic role of the officers, and the symbolism of the lodge room and its furniture.
I often wonder why any past masters of a lodge would stop attending it. Going through the chairs should be such an enlightening experience that each past master ought to come out of it with a greatly deepened understanding of how Masonic ritual works – not only on a practical level, but also on a spiritual level – how that key is turned in the ignition of each candidate. All of the officers have seven years in which to perfect their leadership skills and their skill at mentoring. They are best positioned (along with past masters) to answer the new brother’s questions or direct him to someone else who can. The mentor’s duty is to support and lead by example, to offer encouragement and praise. He is a mentor in the mysteries of Masonry and that is different than being a spiritual mentor within the context of a religion. The Masonic mentor is not there to tell the newly made Mason what to believe or what to think. His duty is to help a brother figure it out and wrestle with the big questions himself. I look forward to the challenge of being a mentor and being part of the investigation team conducting the preliminary interviews. Those roles give me the perfect opportunity to get to know some of the most interesting and admirable men around.
Brother, Know Thyself.