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Observing the Craft

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I am currently reading a book by Bro. Andrew Hammer titled Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance (Mindhive Books, 2010).  Too bad I did not find this book two years ago!  It is the most lucid presentation of what Masons ought to be doing in their lodges that I have yet read.  Bro. Hammer’s assessment of Freemasonry and the thick encrustation of appendant, concordant and adoptive rites is forthright, honest, and a challenge to all Masons.  He makes the very important point that all of these additional organizations have been added on for their own purposes and are not, in fact, Freemasonry.  The “Scottish” Rite, the American “York” Rite, and so forth were invented by Masons, and require members to be Masons, but they are not in themselves Masonry.  Only the degrees and work of the Craft Lodge, the Symbolic Lodge is Freemasonry.

Distracting from the Craft

Having grasped that point, one naturally wonders, why were all these other organizations created?  One thing is certain: none of them help the newly made Master Mason to understand the work of the Craft Lodge.  The Scottish Rite calls itself the “university” of Freemasonry, as if the Craft Lodge degrees are only High School (or worse, Elementary School).  While the 29 degrees offered by the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite are fascinating in themselves, they are not Freemasonry.  They are an independent order that Freemasons may join.  The “university” terminology applied to a system of “degrees” is almost bound to be misundestood.  It implies that the 29 S.R. degrees are in some way a progression to greater knowledge or accomplishment.

If the degrees were (like the three Craft degrees in the Scottish Rite system) performed with only one candidate at a time, and if each degree expected its initiates to attend a lodge of that degree and actually do Masonic work in those lodges, then the Scottish Rite could be considered a sort of Masonry.  But it would take many years to reach the 32nd degree, and one might end up obligated to attend 30 different lodge meetings every month. One a day.  Unquestionably such a system of Masonry would be a huge commitment and would consume a brothers time completely.

This is perhaps why the Scottish Rite evolved differently.  As Bro. Hammer observes, the history of the “Scottish” Rite started in France and spread to North America.  There is actually nothing Scottish about it.   It began with the degree mania of French Freemasons.  A fad emerged in the 18th century for some brothers to create new degrees and sell them to other brothers for a price.  In the early days a Master Mason might take the eighteenth degree without ever having taken any degrees numbered four to seventeen.  The acquisition of French “higher” degrees was haphazard.  Initially, they were simply a commodity and there were hundreds of them.  This sort of Masonry was what Bro. Hammer rightly calls “the world’s first degree mill.”

When the Scottish Rite was reorganized in America by Bro. Albert Pike,  this degree mill was brought under control and institutionalized under a central controlling Supreme Council.  Pike was trying to fix a serious problem in Masonic circles.  The obsession with acquiring higher numbers of degrees in numerical order could not but give Masons the impression that they were being offered a continuation of their path to enlightenment.  But those brothers more often than not, I am afraid, were seeking “higher” degrees because they never paid proper attention to the first three.  If they did not grasp the reality of Craft work and spend time honing their skills as observant Masons, then they would certainly not find the answers by listening to the degrees of the Scottish Rite.  For, those degrees were not communicated to individual initates; they were presented like theater with an audience of candidates passively watching the drama.  I like the Scottish rite degrees.  Some are spectacular.  But I have come to realize that it is a distraction from the real mysteries.

Knocking on the Door

Craft Freemasonry is a mystic order into which men are initiated after they have sought out the lodge on their own.  These men have come to the lodge door because they believe they will receive teachings that will help them toward self-improvement and toward becoming not merely a good man but an excellent one.  If the petitioner at the door of Freemasonry is judged by the members of a lodge to bee seeking entry without mental preparation to be initiated into a lifelong commitment to hard work in and out of the lodge, then the brethren should not admit him.  If, for example, a man is considered a good fellow of conventional morality and he knocks on the door of the lodge thinking that he is going to be “initiated” into something like a college fraterity or men’s social club, then he is not “duly and truly prepared.”

Craft lodges seem to have lost the understanding of that phrase.  Some brothers genuinely believe that the meaning of “duly and truly prepared” means that the candidate has been dressed properly in the peculiar costume used for Masonic degree rituals.  He has, they think, been properly (duly) prepared by the brothers assigned to dress him in the “preparation room.”  The ante-chamber in which the candiate is placed before being admitted to the lodge room itself should not be called a “preparation room” for this very reason.  It obscures the real meaning of being prepared to become a Mason.

Let us say, by analogy, that you were a member of a monastic order, or a medieval order of chivalry.  Would you say that a candidate was “duly and truly prepared” to become a monk or a knight simply because he had asked to join and been dressed as a monk or as a knight?  Certainly not.  You would expect him to have considerable experience with religious devotion, on the one hand, or with riding and fighting from horseback, on the other.  If he had no conception what work was expected of him in either holy orders or chivalric orders, he would not be a suitable candidate.  Clothes do not, in fact, make the man.

The author of Observing the Craft argues passionately and logically that Freemasonry requires that its candidates be men capable of spiritual discipline, men who not only desire to seek the mystic art of soulwork, but who are mentally and emotionally prepared to do the work.  Masonry was never intented to be for everyone.  It was created to be an exclusive order of men pursuing serious spiritual work. After experienceing the three Craft degrees a brother is left with a feeling that there is something more.  He is left (quite purposely) feeling that he has not learned the whole business of Masonry.  He is not supposed to go on taking further degrees and going though further rituals to find the power and meaning of Masonic Observance.  He is supposed to look to himself and study the rituals he has already experienced. To be told, “The Scottish Rite rituals will deepen your experience and understanding” distracts the newly raised Master Mason from the very serious and difficult work the three degrees of the lodge have obligated him to perform.

More is not Better

Organizations such as the Scottish Rite seem to have been founded by men who  apparently failed to understand what the three degrees of Craft Masonry were asking them to do.  So, they became bored with their Craft lodge and moved on to something they thought was more exciting and “higher.”  At the same time, the loss of basic understanding of the Craft ritual and lodge work led to lodges being seen as something that a Mason moved on from, and not as an end in itself.  The lodge began to be seen as incomplete.  And indeed it had become incomplete because fewer and fewer lodges understood how to carry on.  Seeing nothing more in the Craft rituals, they presumed that the itchy feeling they had that there was something they were supposed to do meant that they were supposed to acquire additional degrees.

This goes against the ancient constitutions of Freemasonry and goes against the assertion one will still hear piously repeated that “there is no higher degree than the third degree.”  Those who say this seldom can explain why that should be the case.  In America we have not only the Scottish Rite competing with Craft Masonry, but we also have the so-called “York” Rite, another separate system of degrees that were accumulated because Masons failed to see that the Craft degrees were already a complete system.  They need no additions, and in fact such additions are a damaging distraction from the intended work of the Craft lodge.

The separation of the Royal Arch degree from the third degree was a purely political aberration caused by the schism between “Antients” and “Moderns.”  To resolve the differences between these groups of Masons, the Royal Arch was turned into a degree by itself. Originally it had been a degree given only to Master Masons who had served as the Master of their Lodge.  To get around this stipulation, American York Rite Masons added several other degrees to their chapters.  Among these was the degree of “Virtual Past Master.”  I have been through these degrees and have come to the conclusion that they are utterly superfluous.  For myself, I think that if a lodge is not going to perform the story of the Royal Arch as the final part of the third degree, it can quite well be left out. (Of course this would make the 3rd degree last all afternoon and into the evening.)  To add a fourth degree, as in the Scottish Rite, distracts the Master Mason from what he is supposed to be doing in his lodge.  It begins the damaging attitude that one has to climb a ladder of degrees to arrive at the “top.”

Templarists

The Royal Arch chapter, the Cryptic degrees, and the Templar degrees in the American York Rite have nothing to do with the English city of York, nor do they have anything to do with Freemasonry.  As Bro. Hammer observes, the Templar order was created by Masons who wanted an exclusively Christian Masonic body.  One can only think that these Templars believed themselves to be above other Masons and that they took pride in imagining that the real secret of Freemasonry was that it was the heir to the medieval order of Knights Templar.

Despite many books exploring the possibility that the medieval Knights Templar may have been behind the creation of speculative Masonry, no one has ever come up with evidence that would stand the scrutiny of a professional historian.  The story is mostly inference and manipulation of data in order to arrived at a pre-conceived conclusion.  Now, I have nothing against an organization that wishes to believe they have a connection to the secrets of Templarism. What is damaging is that the Templar story and its supposed secrets have been substituted for the actual mysteries of Freemasonry.  Again, those who pursue these higher degrees very likely have failed to grap what the work of the Symbolic Lodge really entailes.  If they had grasped it, they would not desire anything to take up their time and distract them from their Masonic work.

Such remarks may seem insulting to some brothers who have bonded their egos to Templarism or the Scottish Rite or the Royal Arch chapter.  Such men probably joined those organizations sincerely thinking that they were part of Freemasonry.  Step away and look at the history and it becomes clear that they are not.  They are completely separate organizations each with its own agenda and purpose, founded by Masons who evidently did not think the work of the lodge was enough.

And why did they not? Most probably because the brothers of their lodge were not actually doing the work.  The communication of the three degrees had been become nothing more than the communication of the “higher degrees” – that is, the performance of rote rituals preceded by very little rehearsal and  followed by no further study or action.  No one examined and studied “higher” rituals and lectures.  No one was asked to do so.  Or if the degree did ask the candidate to study it was in such an offhand way that a modern brother would just scratch his head.

For example, one degree tells the candidate to go study Kabbalah.  Well, that’s like telling someone to go study quantum physics.  “Go study Kabbalah and then you will understand all this.”  Does anyone do so?  Maybe one in a hundred.  Do they stick with that study for years in order to truly understand it and know the work of the Kabbalist?  On in ten thousand, I’ll wager.  And, oops, guess what?   You have been spending your time studying Kabbalah instead of studying the Craft.   After a generation of this kind of confusion and obfuscation, a lodge would have given itself collective amnesia; no one would know what they were supposed to be doing and would simply bumble along, repeating rituals they never stopped to study.  Since they never stopped to study and pay attention to what the degree rituals were instructing them to do, they passed on to the next generation only an empty shell.

The Lost Word

Because the Masonry of the Craft (or Blue) Lodge had become an empty shell, the process fed itself.  Brothers moved on from the lodge as fast as they could for the other organizations that claimed to offer further and higher insight into the secrets of Masonry.  The Scottish Rite is a series of degrees that repeatedly promises to reveal the “true Word,” the word that was Lost on the death of the Master Hiram.  The degrees give several different words but none are at all satisfactory and the candidate for the degrees arrives at the 32nd degree just as confused as he was when he walked out of his Craft Lodge.  That metaphor of the “Lost Word” is central to Freemasonry and it is ironic and tragic that the meaning of this symbol has been actually lost within the brotherhood.

The Templars offered an answer that interpreted the Craft degrees (the third degree especially) as nothing more than an allegory for Christ.  With the death and raising of Hiram interpreted to be merely a veiled retelling of the Gospel story, the third degree could be dismissed as fully “understood.”  It would seem that these Masons decided that the “secret mysteries of Masonry” referred simply to this “hidden” Christian meaning.    That this should have happened among Masons is truly astonishing, for the very foundations of Freemasonry insist that it is not a Christian organization, that it accords no supremacy to any single religion and that its aim is Universality.  The Templars merely co-opted Masonry for Christianity.

Shriners

I should mention the Shrine also.  For a long time, the Shrine required its members to be either Knights Templar in the York Rite or 32° in the Scottish Rite.  This strategic move made the Shrine the most elite of organizations for Freemasons.  But the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine had been created as a joke.   It was created by Masons who thought that Freemasonry had become too much addicted to solem, serious, even pompous and ponderous rituals.  Shriners could get together and just have a few laughs.  The degree of the Shrine has its own pomp and ceremony, and would seem to suggest that Christians ought to reconcile themselves to their Muslim brothers.  Yet, it coud also be that the ritual was intended to merely ape oriental pomp and poke a little fun at the Ottoman Empire and its red fezzes.

The Shrine was not originally a philanthropic organization.  It became so after it had grown to such proportions that it has gained a reputation for intemperance and excess (that is, druken parties).  Then came Prohibition.  The Shrine was in a pickle.  Unable to indulge in alcohol without breaking the law, Shrines had to come up with another raison d’etre.  So was born the Shrine Hospitals for Children.  Wonderful institutions in themselves, these hospitals became the centerpiece of what it meant to support the Shrine.  Bro. Hammer suggests that it would make a good deal of sense for the Shrine today to cut its ties with Freemasonry altogether and open its membership to any man sufficiently philanthropic who wished to support the Shrine Hospitals.  The repeal of Prohibition permitted Shriners to take up drinking  booze again as a central part of being a Shriner.   No criticism is intended.  Americans have always made alcohol the centerpiece of having fun.

Eventually, the boozing became a problem again for the reputation of the organization and Shrine Temples began to organize themselves in to “units.”  These units were groups of Shriners with shared interests:  putting on the Shrine circuses, putting on the ceremonials, collecting antique cars, fishing, hunting, guns, motorcycles, flying, sailing, and so on.  Shrine clubs were formed so that Shriners who lived far from their Temple could get together in their home town.  And then there were the parades.  I suspect that Shriners started parading to complete with the Knights Templar.  Since being a  Knight Templar was one ticket to get into the Shrine, many of its members already had experience with parading and military drill.

Parades, circuses, conventions, fezzes, fun and philanthropy – that is the Shrine.  It is a good organization.  I am a Shriner and proud of it.  But it has nothing to do with Freemasonry, except the fact that it was started by Masons and membership was limited to Masons.  The destructive side of that fact was that Masons in America began to think of Freemasonry as a “family” of organizations.  Beyond those mentioned there were organizations for the female relatives and wives of Masons, also with their “degrees” and philanthropic projects.  Trying to catch up with the Shrine’s popularity, the Scottish Rite created its own RiteCare Clinics to have a philanthropic project they could call their own.

The problem is that however good and worthy supporting hospitals or cancer research or whatever philanthropic project one may choose, philanthropy is not Freemasonry.  The adoption of such projects as central to the appendant and concordant orders was a response to having lost any sense that going through degree rituals meant anything.  When the “higher” degrees were not studied and did not obligate their initiates to any sort of spiritual practice, these organiztions started to feel unfulfilling.  So, giving money to charities (as we say today) became the accepted interpretation of “brotherly love” and “relief” in the Craft rituals.  The lessons about the importance of “charity” as a vitue were lost partly because the useage of the word had changed in society.  Religious organizations also promoted the support of “charities,” and the word “charity” as refering to a spiritual virtue practically disappeared in the English language.  What the original Latin word “caritas” meant (and the creators of Freemasonry knew Latin) was “the love of God” or “Divine Love.”  It was used to translate the Greek word “agape” when the Gospels were translated from Greek into Latin.

A Numbers Game

So, another misconception turned Craft Masonry itself into a philanthropic organization.  Grand Lodges launched campaigns to give millions of dollars to cancer research and the organization named Masonic Charities emerged to claim the attention of Freemasons.  Solicitation of charitable donations became a regular feature of lodge meetings.  The state of affairs by the mid 20th century was this:  Craft lodges performed degrees as rote memorization for the sole purpose of bringing new members into their membership rolls.

Moreover, their “stated” or “regular” communications – those meetings that were supposed to be the main gathering in lodge to do Masonic work – became nothing more than business meetings.  Members voted on mundane matters such as the upkeep of their building, upcoming fundraisers for charitable projects and solicitations from others for donations.  In the tradition of every other social organization, the stated meetings of the lodges involved reading minutes, approving treasurer’s reports, reading correspondence, and tallying both new members and those who had passed away.  Very few men actually enjoy such meetings, so fewer and fewer lodge members attended them.  A small clique of brothers were left to run the organization while most of the members went off and joined a dozen appendant bodies and acquired rings, medals, colored hats, uniforms, and degrees with a larger numeral attached to them.

In fact, numbers consumed Masonry.  Lodges were no longer concerned with the quality of the men admitted to the Craft, much less whether they were fitted for hard spiritual labor in a group setting.  Because the main purpose of every “Masonic” organization had become philanthropy, increasing membership and income from dues became the primary concern of those Masons left running the Craft lodges.  Masons created the appendant organizations and made all brothers accept them as if they were just as much a part of Masonry as the Blue Lodge.  Philanthropy had become the raison d’etre for each of these organizations, so mazimizing membership became the sole preoccupation.  If we do not have a lot of members, we cannot support our hospitals and other charities.

In answer to this new sort of Freemasonry and its concerns about numbers and money, emerged a generation of men who had served in the second world war.  For whatever reasons (and it would be interesting to research), this huge wave of men joined Masonic lodges in the 1940s and 50’s.  What they found upon entering as apprentices was some elaborate and sometimes disturbing rituals that they had to get through to become members.  This fact made Masonry hard to get, so natuarally everyone wanted in.  If you want more members in your organization just make sure everyone knows that it is hard to get in.

The reality was just the opposite, however.  It was easy to get into Masonry and nothing was required of you exept that you show up for social functions and give money to philanthropic causes.  Because wives, sons, and daughters all now had “Masonic” organizations they could join, the Craft was further diminished and turned into nothing but a big family social club.  The actual mysteries of Craft Masonry had been completely forgotton.

One has to admire the men who created the rituals of the Craft.  It almost seems that they foresaw a time when the Word would be lost and they structured their rituals in such a way that every man who went through them solemnly swore to pass them on verbatim and only within a tyled Craft Lodge.  So, even though the “hidden mysteries of Masons in Masonry” had been forgotten, the words were passed on, and eventually it would come to pass that brothers such as Andrew Hammer and the many others behind the Traditional Observance movement rediscoverd it.

A Change of Culture and a Change in Demographics

What happened to Masonry from the end of the second World War and today?  Two major phases can be identified.  The boom in membership was followed by a sudden radical change in American culture during the 1960s.  In that decade, and to some extent in the decade which followed, we became a youth culture, and the young men in America turned away from all that was established, old-fashioned and conservative.  Everyone wanted to be “modern,” even futuristic, optimistically looking forward to colonies on the moon and navies sailing to the stars.

At the same time, the Hippies and the teenagers who emulated them saw mainstream American culture – business suits and ties, working for rich men who owned the means of production, and caring more about making money and social status than simple human pleasures like music and sex, love and beauty.  Drugs entered our culture which were stronger than the drugs of the business culture (caffiene and alcohol), and Americans began to search for self-transformation with Eastern gurus, rock music, modern art, and consciousness-altering experiences.  The New Age movement ushered in a new interest in magic, mystical states of consciousness, spirituality beyond religion, and a human potential movement that saw men and women as perfectable, saw the human species as evolving to higher, even godlike, powers of the mind.

Had Craft Masonry been still practicing real Masonry, it would have been able to offer at least the men among such seekers a method to develop themselves spiritually, outside of religion, and to see the potential of men and women to become better than they are, to stretch beyond the mundane concerns of making a living, toward actually living a life.  One wonders whether the explosion of interest in spirituality and such disciplines and yoga and meditation did not happen because Freemasonry had pushed all of its mysteries into the collective unconscious.  When lodges stopped carrying the mystic current of spirit they were designed to conduct and amplify, all of that potential was pushed underground, only to erupt somewhere else, outside the lodge.

Since the 1960s countless new organizations blossomed – all manner of “occult” organizations:  druid groves, witches’ covens, magical lodges devoted to ceremonial magic, and many others centered around charismatic motivational speakers.  If one researches the history of druid orders, magical orders, and Wicca as a modern form of “witchcraft,” one finds that the founders all of these organizations were Freemasons or had some knowledge of Masonry’s rituals.  Most of those new seekers in the last two decates of the Twentieth Century  were seeking exactly the sort of experience and rituals Freemasonry had offered two hundred years earlier.  But they would not think of becoming Masons because it was old-fashioned and to all appearances was just a social and dining club that the older generation belonged to.

The gap in membership is the second of the two phases I mentioned.  Cultural change made Masonry seem hopelessly old-fashioned to a generation that wanted to be modern.  Dressing in suits and ties or tuxedoes was laughable to the blue jeans generation.  The emotional thrills offered by rock concerts and LP vinyl records, made everything else pale.  Drugs made it easy for seekers to get a feeling of mystical union with something or other, and atheism made them feel superior to their parents and their conventional religions.  By the end of the 1980s however, all those men who had joined a lodge in the World War II and post-war era were getting old.  Freemasonry became associated with old men.

If a man had joined his lodge in at age thirty in 1945, by 1985 he was in his seventies, retired, and playing golf (if he was still alive at all).  This is why since 1990 the Craft has seen a massive die-off and fall in membership.  The Masons who were still young enough to be active, scrambled to find new ways to increase membership in their lodges and in all the appendant organizations.  Masonry went into crisis mode.  Some brothers woke up and realized that unless they met the needs of the young seekers who were intrigued by a Masonic book they had found, their lodges would fold up.  Among some brothers there was a feeling that ritual was not being performed well enough and no longer had the power it should have.

Sadly, there was also a lurch in the opposite direction.  Instead of making the new apprentice’s experience of initiation better and more dramatic, and returning to actually studying what the rituals say, another faction of Masons created One-Day classes.  Now, in fact, historically this sort of quickie Masonry had always been a problem.  As soon as Masons became respected members of society, there was someone willing to sell the degrees for a profit.  As I mentioned, the French higher degrees started out that way.  Whoever it was who gave Grand Masters the power to “make a Mason on sight” really gummed up the works.  The One-Day-to-Masonry classes we see today do not transmit Masonry to the poor candidates unfortunate enough to go through such a whirlwind.  It was really an idea that came out of the method of the Scottish Rite, which gahered huge “classes” of brothers to sit in auditoriums and watch the degrees performed.  No one who actually understands Initiation could possibly accept such a system as true Initiation.  It turned Masonry into a parody of itself.

Yet, the majority of brothers let it happen.  Why?  Because they had come to believe that Masonry desperately needed more members.  Far from understanding that an initiatory order is intended to be small, they were thinking of the Craft as a social and philanthropic club.  Obviously it needed more members to meet rising costs of operation and the more the merrier.  They were thinking of the Craft as something like a political party:  whoever has the most card-carrying members wins.

De-Sacralizing the Craft

Which brings us to the present state of affairs.  Bro. Andrew Hammer and his book, Observing the Craft, lays it out succinctly and clearly.  He and others in the Traditonal Observance movement understand the real power of ritual done with deep reverence and concentration.  Every movement, every word is a part of the whole, and each officiant in the ritual supports and magnifies the spirit of the others if all are serious and understand equally what they are all doing  in the lodge room.  The rituals of opening and closing the lodge are clearly rituals designed to create sacred space and a mood of solemn reverence.  If the opening ritual is done in a slovenly manner, if the officers speed through their lines as fast as they can, or someone from the sidelines laughs at a mistake in the liturgy, the ritual is spoiled and fails to create the sacred space necessary for Masonic work.

If after such an opening ritual, the next thing the brothers hear is “Good evening brethren!” from the Worshipful Master, every vestige of incipient mystery is blown away.  What usually follows next makes matters even worse.  It is something completely foreign to Freemasonry,  a non-Masonic ritual that undermines the very foundations of the Craft in freedom from the tyranny of religion and state.  What is this intrusive sacriledge?  Pledging allegiance to the Flag.

American lodges have made the pledge of allegiance part of lodge ritual out of some misguided belief that it will demonstrate that Masons are patriots, and that their first allegience is to the State.  Maybe it is because so many Masons of the past era were veterans.  Maybe it was just because Americans started pledging allegiance to the flag as a way to identify the Communists hiding in every organization.  No one can accuse Masons of being unpatriotic.  After all, they were instrumental in causing the American Revolution.  The pledge of allegiance reminds the brothers where they are.  They are not in England and are not British. They are not Commies.  They are American Capitalists.

What could be a bigger violation of the the founding principles of Masonry?  For it is a philosophy that belongs to no single nation and is not under the control of any government other than the brothers themselves.  To display a flag in the lodge room, as Bro. Hammer says, might be permissible, but to pledge a solemn oath that has nothing to do with Freemasonry violates the sanctity of the lodge.  Having done this, the brothers resume their seats with the firm thought in their minds that the lodge is a place of patriotism (interpreted by some as loyalty to an economic system).  They have successfully been prevented from feeling they are in a place apart from the mundane.  The opening ceremony of the Craft Lodge is designed to tell the brethren assembled that they are now in a sacred space, a temple of freedom of thought, free from any thoughts of nationality, race, creed, or party.  The only way to do create that place and the state of mind it is designed to evoke is to remove any symbols or pictures that are not strictly Masonic.

Taking my lodge as an example of this problem, it has long been irritating to me that our lodge room is actually set up as an OES chapter room.  Someone in the lodge at some point decided that the lodge room was to accommodate this other organization rather than Freemasonry.  The Sr. Warden’s grand chair is placed in the north and where the Sr. Warden’s chair should be, there are two ordinary chairs.  The Order of the Eastern Star was invented by a Mason and Masons often join it, but it is not Freemasonry and it has absolutely no right to move the furniture of the Craft Lodge.  Our brothers three hundred years ago would be shocked and appalled at such a state of things.  For them the Masonic lodge was a room which supported in its every detail the work of Masonry.

Another distracting intrusion in our lodge room is a large painting representing Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law Naomi, while the old woman’s other daughter-in-la, Orpah, departs back to her people, the Moabites.  It is a wonderful story from the Bible about loyalty and love between women.   It is a great story, just as the OES is a fine ritual order for women, but it is not Freemasonry.  The OES is far more connected to the Christian Bible than is Masonry, which is supposed to take no sides and favor no religion over another.  To have this painting in the lodge room is inappropriate and detracts from its Masonic character. Similarly in our lodge there is an illuminated square and compasses with the letter G over the Master’s chair in the East, but the five-pointed star of the OES is attached to it as a part of the same light fixture.  One light is lit during Lodge meetings, the other during meetings of the OES chapter.

In such a lodge room, so muddied with non-Masonic symbols and failing to conform to the prescribed layout of a lodge room, it is not possible to do real Masonic work.  Not possible because of the improper symbolism, but also not possible because clearly the men who have allowed this state of affairs do not understand what the lodge room is for and the importance of its configuration and dedication to the Craft.  It comes as no surprise that what occurs next after the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America is a completely profane “meeting.”  In such a profaned room we begin with a casual and jocular statement of business, which is treated with no special solemnity even if the business is the confering of the degrees. Balloting might be conducted seriously, but even here, it is more likely that brothers on the side lines will be whispering to each other.

It is a sign of how profane the Masonic Lodge has become that Masters of the Lodge have to remind the brothers to turn off their cell phones.  Think about it for a moment and I think you will agree that even bringing a telephone into the lodge room is a profanation of the space utterly at odds with Masonic philosophy.  We are to leave the world behind and enter into something else, a place in which we seek to perfect ourselves.  As with the candidate, every brother must divest himself of all “metals.”  That is, of all mundane, earthy matters.  Only then will he be able to enter the frame of mind necessary to engage in the observance of Masonic philosophy.

 Soda Pop

Researching the history of my lodge, Lake Harriet No. 277 of Minnesota, has expanded my understanding of the past 100 years of the Craft.  It is an ongoing project and I have been reading through the back issues of the Lake Harriet Herald, our lodge newsletter. It has illuminated the many things I do not like about my lodge.  Foremost among my dislikes was for the physical presentation of the building.  Since I arrived, we have successfully changed the look and format of the Herald, making it something we can be proud of.   When I joined our lodge, five years ago, the one thing that was obvious to me and many of the newer brothers was that the Herald was an embarrassment.  It looked like the format had not changed in thirty years (which was true) and gave the impression that the organization was a relic of the 1970s and the age of mimeograph machines. It also had hardly any content except announcements of upcoming pancake breakfasts and lutefisk dinners, meeting times, and so forth.

The physical building was no better. The dining room looked like a worn and grubby church basement.  Miscellaneous stuff was propped against walls or piled in the areas of the lodge that should have been available for fellowship.  There was a lovely old pool table, but the room that housed it was cramped and the made moreso by the old folding tables and a meat slicer that seemed to have no place in the kitchen.  The pool table was covered by an ugly plywood cover, to prevent injury, but the result of this was that it was hardly ever used for pool.  Someone took it upon himself to move an old pop cooler into the pool room, making it even more impossible to play the game.

This pop cooler is old and was presumably donated to the lodge for the refreshment of the brothers.  But it takes on some sad and shocking symbolism for me because our pool room is also our library.  I  myself went to a lot of trouble to acquire proper book shelves and increase the collection to include the kind of books men engaged in philosophical Masonry would want to read.  I also rescued a dart board that had been tucked away somewhere and hung it on the wall so brothers could play while relaxing after the serious work of the lodge.

Now the pop cooler stands in front of the book shelves, partially cutting off access to the books and in front of the dart board preventing anyone from playing that game.  No pool, no darts, no respect for books and study, and no sense of aesthetic taste.  We have instead soda pop.  I find that a fitting metaphor for the kind of pseudo-Masonry done in our lodge.  My brothers, I know I will offend many of you to say so, but we are practicing soda-pop Masonry.  It is all fizzy water and sugar, artificial flavorings, sometimes with a jolt of caffiene to make us feel mentally sharp when we are not, and absolutely no nutritional value.

The whole lodge, in its physical manifestation gives new brothers an impression of neglect,  bad taste, and disorder.  The outside structure built over the glass entry doors looks my grandpa’s old ice fishing shack.  The folding round tables in the dining room were obviously purchased at considerable expense by prior generations and they were certainly practical – especially if you had to clear the floor for a dance, or if you had to store extra tables for bigger than ordinary banquets.  However, they looked institutional, and made the dining room reminiscent of a school cafeteria, complete with a pass-though from the kitchen and another to the dish washer.  Spare tables were folded and stored against the far wall of the room as if no one had thought of where they were going to be stored.

In our building, there is nothing like the romance of Masonry that young men are seeing today, the turn of taste back to the wood wainscoting, chandeliers, and elegance of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Masonry, because of the archaic language of its rituals, hearkens back to those times.  The Master’s top hat, the wearing of formal evening dress – there are still vestiges of a more elegant and dignified past.  The mysteries of Masonry are derived from the ancient mysteries, making them antique in one sense.  They are over 300 years old, and it is that antiquity that men today find attractive.

While the culture of the last century became more and more obsessed with the future and its supposed glories of technology, the culture of the Twenty-first Century looks ahead with horror at impending doom from climate change and overpopulation and a worldwide economic system that seems about to fall apart.  Is it any wonder that men today look back for guidance and wisdom. Our lodge building does not look like a place to seek wisdom.  It doesn’t have antique charm, but neither does it have the comfort and ambience of a coffee house, which might at least make members desire to hang out there.  Coffee houses have returned to the place in society they once occupied in the 17th and 18th centuries.  They were once centers of conversation where men went to read the newspapers and discuss what was going on in the world.  Today, somewhat ironically, the Internet and laptop computers perform a function very similar to that of the early newspapers.

Hat’s off to our lodge for having installed WiFi.  But hat’s back on again for not investing in remodeling that would make it at least as attractive as a fine restaurant or café.  It is not that we are in impecunary circumstances either.  My lodge has a large endowment and owns its building in the clear.  I can only assume that the brothers with the purse-strings do not care about Freemasonry enough to give it a respectable home — to invest in it.  Maybe it is some German Lutheran phobia about spending money on oneself.  I honestly do not get it.

Back to the Foundations

What do we do then?  The giant organizations such as the Shrine, York Rite, Scottish Rite that have attached themselves to Freemasonry and successfully destroyed the knowledge of how to practice the Craft, are too big to change.  Let them do what they want, but let us stop saying that they are a part of Freemasonry. My desire is to read the authors who are trying to revive the lost Craft, particularly the “Observance” of the Craft.  We will have to shake off the attachments we have made with other organizations.  We shall have to spend money and do a lot of work to restore our lodge rooms and the buildings that house them to a level of excellence that reflects the pursuit of self-perfection.  We must dress with reverence and respect, conduct ourselves with decorum, concentration, discipline, and silence.

The system is spelled out for us in great detail.  All we have to do is agree that we are going to devote ourselves to the study of the rituals – study, not mere memorization – and then act as Masons to follow their instructions.  Yes, we will have to admit  that generations of Masons misconstrued our noble Craft, that we, as an order, made a big mistake when we lost the practice of observing the Craft.  Some lodges have managed to recognize this truth and correct their course, and that gives me hope.  Brothers, go out and buy a copy of Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article. I am new to the Craft, but totally “get” what you and Andrew are saying. It is spot on. Even loved what you had to say about the Pledge of Allegiance.

    I am a United Methodist pastor, and much of what you have written in this post regarding generations, growth-decline, and charitable works over observed practice could be applied to United Methodist congregations in America.

  2. Belated thanks for the comment, Patrick. I wanted to add an update to this article. It expressed a number of my frustrations and I am delighted to say that Lake Harriet has succeeded in remodeling its interior spaces — the dining room and an expanded lounge area. We still have not gotten rid of the pop machine, but I think that will come. The redecoration may seem superficial in a sense, but deeper down it reflects a group of brothers who courageously led the lodge to have more respect for itself, to take itself seriously and with dignity. Lake Harriet will always be a lodge where the brothers love to laugh and joke around, but I have also seen an increase in the dignity of the degree work. Taking that work seriously and solemnly while doing it, and remembering that we do it for the candidate taking the degree, not to impress or entertain past masters — this is improving too.

    I am excited to get the new lounge furniture in a few months and to have it as a warm and comfortable place to hang out and gather between meetings. Last week I put the books back on the brand new book shelves and they look great! Anyone who read through every book in that library would really have a vast knowledge of life, universe, and everything. Now if I can only encourage more brothers to check out the books!

    My journey toward understanding Masonry more philosophically continues. My own reading continues! After a mere five years as a Mason, I make no claims to being a true “Master” of the Craft. That takes time. The degrees and their lectures are really only the syllabus for a lifetime of learning and self-development.

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