Researching the history of Lake Harriet Lodge, I ran across a note in the newsletter which pondered the question of why Masons who were also members of Rotary, Kiwanis, or the Lions Club spent more time with those organizations than with their lodge. This was 1947. I took a few minutes to read up on those well-known service clubs. Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs were each founded at the beginning of the 20th century, prior to World War I. Each has a mission of bringing business men (and women) together to serve their communities. Since becoming international organizations, they have also taken on major charitable initiatives, combating childhood diseases and that sort of thing. This should sound very familiar to Masons. For, during the 20th Century, as these service clubs became more and more popular and grew expansively, Free Masons seem to have thought of them as competition.
Did these Masons think Free Masonry was a service organization? Or did that idea emerge as the service clubs emerged? Is it possible that Masons, having forgotten what to do with the teachings of the three degrees of the Craft, absorbed this new idea and thought that Masonry was supposed to be a service club? Or did the service clubs emerge in imitation of Free Masonry?
The latter hypothesis does not seem to be the case. Service clubs, as I understand them, were created as intimate clubs bringing together local business men to help each other practice morality and the Golden Rule. They started small and grew rapidly. There are no rituals, nor any sense of these being initiatory orders. They were initially also for networking, so that members might give each other business. Overtly or just naturally that was likely to happen. Masons often give their business to other Masons, just by virtue of acquaintance, but that is explicitly NOT the purpose of Masonry and every prospect is supposed to be told so clearly. Masonry is not for business networking.
But is a lodge for “service”? The idea has become so prevalent in the 20th century that there are hardly any Masons now who would ask that question. The answer I suggest is “No.”, Free Masonry is not a service club. It was not created or designed to collect money for charitable causes, or to partner with cancer centers or hospitals to help children. Some of the early lodges may have done such things as part of their local practice of the virtue of Relief, but that was not the purpose of the lodge. As important as helping children and giving money to research programs may be, and surely it is a good deed, there is a certain emotional appeal to it that bothers me. If someone comes to you and says, “You will give money to our charity, won’t you? We are helping poor sick children,” there is an emotional pang of guilt if you say no. Indeed, how can you say no, except on the grounds of not having any money to give? We are inundated with organizations like this today — environmental groups saving baby harp seals is pretty much the same thing. You cannot argue that beings in peril can use the help of affluent Americans, but I am bothered by the sneaking feeling that the emotional appeal has become a direct marketing tactic. One sometimes feels one will write a check just to relieve the pang of guilt. And writing a check to a hospital so far removes you from the act of Relief that you really are not deriving any spiritual benefit from the action at all.
I don’t know if it is an American thing (meaning the United States) to think that giving money to a “cause” satisfies the demand to “serve the community” (or serve the planet, as the case may be). But it is a poor substitute for getting out with the poor, sick, and suffering people that are all around us in every city, and personally trying to help them turn their lives around. There is a big difference. One is easy; the other is very hard. Writing a check to a charitable cause requires almost no engagement. One is essentially sharing the fruits of one’s labor with others, but how much good it actually does, who knows? Turn the money over to a more or less trustworthy organization and go about your business, living in the same affluence you earned. Working with individuals or families in a “poor and destitute” state, as Masonic ritual says, is far more personal and requires far more in the way of emotional sacrifice and courage.
Free Masonry is not ambiguous about Relief. It asks its brethren to help each other. Directly. The help may be financial and may come collectively from the lodge or individually. Most lodges will step up with money for brothers in need if they apply for it, but that usually involves some pretty desperate straits. I suggest that Masonic lodges be a little more proactive about giving relief to brothers in a “poor and destitute” situation. A brother should not have to come to the lodge and ask for help. That is really hard to do. Instead, the lodge should have an Almoner or equivalent officer who actively seeks out information about brothers in need and quietly gives them the gift of relief as a surprise. That is Brotherhood. It should not be that a brother has to apply to his lodge for help as if he were applying to a bank for a loan. Brothers keep track of each other and should know about a need. If a brother has to present himself personally and ask for Relief, that implies that his brothers were not paying attention, or did not really care about his plight.
What if in every stated meeting of a lodge, a discussion was regularly part of the work beginning with the question, “Who can we help this month? How can we best allocate our relief fund to help our brothers? Who needs our help right now? That might be quite fun, if we could all get over the idea that receiving a gift of help is somehow an admission of failure as a man. That is what Masonry asks its members to do. That is the real practice of Brotherly Love. A smile and a handshake, hanging out together and enjoying each other’s company is part of Fraternity, but it is so much more than that. Free Masonry asks a man to join a lodge and really work to practice brotherly love within that small, workable group. That is, to meet complete strangers from all walks of life, really get to know them as friends, and really care about them enough to keep track of what is going on in their lives. We probably do that with members of our family, our siblings, nieces, nephews, grand children, etc. But Masonry challenges a man to act in the same caring way toward men who are not their relatives.
Society and religion have created a unquestioned custom that a man must help his relatives to the extent that he can do so, without harm to his own immediate family. The same moral expectation applies to women, of course. Families who do not take care of each other (much less actively dislike or cheat each other) are condemned by our society. This is what the sociologists call a “more” (pronounced mor-ay, like the eel). Mores (mor-ays) are those kinds of action that are considered correct and good within a culture. It is from this word that we derive the word “morality.” Our culture sets up a moral system, which all of us are (hopefully) taught as children. For Christians and Jews, these are based on the Ten Commandments God presented to Moses in the Book of Exodus in the Holy Bible or Torah. The expectations of a good life are based upon these mores.
Free Masonry adds to that. It presumes you know the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. It presumes that you know about the lesson of the Gospels (and many other holy books) that Forgiveness of other peoples mistakes or hurtful actions is a better basis for a society than revenge. The Masonic Lodge adds a system of morality embodied in its symbols and “working tools.” These additional mores of Masonry might be summed as follows.
- You shall apply your Will to making yourself a better person in every way (common gavel)
- You shall put aside time to help others in need and in order to have energy to do so, you shall balance rest and refreshment with your work neglecting neither (24 inch gauge).
- You shall pay attention to your behavior and make sure you always are upstanding and a good example to others (plumb)
- You shall moderate and subdue your passions or emotions, avoiding anger, violence, lust, avarice, and all other forms of excess (the compasses).
- You shall treat all people fairly and never cheat or speak untruly (the square)
- You shall treat everyone as your equal, and never allow yourself to feel superior to others or judge them negatively (the level).
- You shall never cease studying the liberal arts, for they are the basis of liberty and liberality (staircase)
- You shall remember what behavior is appropriate for the three stages of life: the youth, the mature man, the wise old man. (staircase again)
- You shall consider all Masons to be your brothers and come to their aid whenever possible, cheerfully and not grudgingly, without judging them, as a man should love his brother (the trowel and the cement of friendship).
- If you observe a brother erring in these precepts, you shall quietly take him aside and tell him so. Do not complain behind his back or harbor anger against him.
- You shall keep good counsel and never tell another brother’s secrets given in confidence (five points of fellowship)
- You shall guard your own integrity and obligations to others, never betraying a trust.
It is good to hear of brothers who come together to help another brother build a deck or a patio on his house. That is not as flashy as raising money or supplies to send to the victims of a natural disaster or to build a cancer hospital. I am not making light of those things; however, it is harder and more noble to give Relief to a brother when there is no emotional excitement or possibility of feeding your own sense of how good you are. Impressing other people with how good you are should never be the motive for helping others. And these things are hard to do. It does next to no good if a Mason hears these lessons when the degrees are conferred and never pays any attention to them afterwards. If he hears them and thinks, “Oh, yes of course I do all that already,” then he wasn’t really prepared to be made a Mason in the first place. To walk through the door and enter the lodge as a candidate requires, above all, humility — the full recognition that you are not very good at doing these things, but a willing to commit yourself to work on it and improve yourself.
Free Masonry is based on the idea that if you take individual men and perfect them within this moral system, you will improve the world. Their actions will create a momentum for these mores and they will stand as shining examples to others who encounter their humility, generosity, and friendship. Masons are asked in the first instance to keep the secrets of Masonic ritual as practice in keeping faith, integrity. It is not the signs and passwords that are important, but the act of keeping a secret that has been given to you. Why is keeping secrets so important? Because it is honesty. There are many reasons that certain information must be kept within the bounds of a group. Government secrets, industrial secrets, family secrets, personal secrets. These are not bad things; they are simply a part of life. Speaking truth and honoring truth demands also that we have the ability to keep silent if it would harm others or the group to whom we belong. We promise in our obligation to keep these secrets on the model of the passwords and signs used by the medieval stonemasons to identify themselves as Masters. But we improve ourselves through the simple practice of keeping a confidence, keeping our word. If you cannot keep your word on a trivial matter like handshakes and passwords, then how can you be trusted ever?
The lodge room and the brotherhood of its members is a closed society only for the purposes of being a Laboratory of virtue. We work in a small group with men we have grown to trust to practice those virtues we wish to emulate to the world outside the lodge. The theory behind the system is that it is difficult to love all of humankind, Universal brotherly love is a difficult ideal of perfection in human relations. A Masonic Lodge provides a microcosm in which we can practice, a scope we can grasp. It is a big thing to ask a brother to love every single member of his lodge. But we are there in lodge to try.
If a man stops going to his lodge, he stops practicing the virtues of Masonry. He may try to live up to social mores on his own. Most people do. Yet, without those nights at the lodge, coming face-to-face with those men you have come to trust, men you trusted when they were initiating you, the you are not really doing Masonry. The whole point of Free Masonry is to create these little laboratories in which we can work on ourselves with the support of trusted friends. The symbolic system is intricate and for it to accomplish anything the system must have brothers using it. A system by itself does nothing. It is like a machine without an operator. It saddens me that so many of my own brothers never come to lodge. They were shown the machine, even shown the instructions on how to use it, but they never bothered to learn to operate that machine or to practice with it until they mastered its power.
No, Free Masonry is not a service club. It is a system for improving a man’s behavior and thoughts, for enlightening and ennobling, for earning the “badge of innocence” before we die, and to join as a spiritual structure to change the world for the better. Not through checks to charity or service to our community, but through attending lodge and applying the working tools of the system regularly and dilligently. Does your lodge promote this as its purpose? Does your lodge education officer explain this system and how to operate it? The answers are all out there, published and within the ceremonies of the lodge itself, but you have to have ears to hear, as Jesus once said. If you don’t look beyond surfaces (superfices) into the depths of the system, then you are not doing Masonry and are missing out on a unique and unmatched discipline that no other “club” can offer.
Masonry is not a club. It is not a college fraternity. It takes place not at parties but within the tyled lodge room. And if you aren’t practicing using the system when your lodge room is tyled, you are not taking advantage of what you were taught or living up to your obligations to the Craft. If your lodge doesn’t actually do Masonry when it meets, but just has business meetings to plan entertainments and a series of ceremonies whose only known use is to make more members to attend the entertainments or write checks for charities, then, alas, you might as well just join Rotary, Kiwanis, or the Lions Club. There is no reason for you to be a Mason if you do not understand its machinery or know what it is supposed to do. For it is that machinery — the ritual, symbols, allegory, and the lodge room itself — that is of value. It is what makes Free Masonry unique and different from any other association of men.