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One Hundred Years of Brotherhood

One Hundred Years of Brotherhood

The Cover of One Hundred Years of Brotherhood: the Centennial History of Lake Harriet Lodge No. 277 of Minnesota. This is the product of about four years of research and writing, much of which took place in the last few months — the writing that is. It recounts the event in the life of an active west-metro lodge and examines some of the perennial questions of Masonry, particularly: Why do so many men become Masons and then not participate in lodge meetings and events? The answer for most of the past 100 years has been: “Because they aren’t fun enough.” The new answer, put forward by Masonic thinkers in the past couple of decades is that “they aren’t serious enough.” The meetings do not show brothers how to practice Masonry as a spiritual discipline. I looked into this as I studied Lake Harriet’s brothers over the years, especially as opinions were expressed through out newspaper, the Lake Harriet Herald. There have been some brothers who did realize the need for continued study of Masonry and its symbols, but the expression of a need for more serious meetings is largely absent.

This suggests to me that the hypothesis is true, that Masons at least since 1913 have not understood Freemasonry to be a set of lessons and instructions that are clues to deeper understanding of the human mind, character, and the human condition. They have embraced the ideas of “brotherly love and freindship” and for the most part conflated the two. So, the lodges have been the focal points for a group of friends. The discussions of symbolism lay content with the superficial meanings given in the lectures of the degrees and ignored the incongruities and hints at a deeper way of understanding symbolically.

It is hard to imagine any Masons picking up on this without guidance from someone already adept in the reading of symbols. Presumably this was once taught to Felllows of the Craft or “Master Masons.” The idea that stonemasons (who our modern ideas make us think of as “blue-collar workers”) developed their tools and art into a symbolic language suitable to describe the relationships among body, soul, and rational mind, sounds anachronistic to us. We are educated to believe the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and superstition, illiteracy and so forth that was eventually relieved by the Renaissance of classical Greek literature, Hermeticism and so forth. That prejudice strikes me as wrong. The artificial division of history into “periods” is misleading. History is the record of continuous change. Occasionally, certain events will spark dramatic changes, but they should never be thought of as emerging out of nowhere. The long and short of it is that medieval stonemasons and the builders before and after that time, knew more than most of us educated people do today. Especially the Masters who were in fact architects. The expression “Renaissance Man” is usually reserved for prodigies like Leonardo DaVinci. But consider, in his own time, Leonardo was an engineer, inventor, and painter — all crafts that were accorded no social status at all. In other words, he was “blue collar.”

Fascination with the human psyche did not pop out of nowhere in the 19th century. That is just when it began to develop pretenses of being “scientific” in the modern sense — experimental and increasingly confined to the materialist worldview. Prior to the 20th century’s reduction of humanity to complicated microbiology and chemistry, the ideas of body, soul, ego, self, and spirit all rattled around among philosophers. Astrology and alchemy, which are derided out of hand by modern “educated” people, were the forerunners of psychology, using a different language of symbols to theorize the complexities of the personality and the mind. Freemasonry is the heir to that whole history of speculative philosophy, which uses symbols to try to understand the mind and the human condition.

Why are we the only species that has the sort of language and reason we have? Dolphins, whales, and other primates aside, animal communication and mental processes are not the same as those of humans, and the secret to this language/reason constellation in our minds (the Logos) lies in our ability to understand through symbols. Language is a set of symbols attached to sounds. Written language is even more symbolic and permits even more abstract thinking. This uniquely human power was called Logos by the Greeks and the Hellenistic Hermeticists and became the very highest idea of the Divine. The idea that there is a Great Architect of the Universe was a prodoct of Neoplatonism, not Judaism. The attribution of “Creator” or “Father” to the Hebrew God and the elimination of polytheism it its religion, was only a step in the direction of imagining a single Divine entity that encompassed All. It was no more like the Logos than, say, the Norse Odin Allfather. The idea of a Father god from whom everthing is descended is a mainstay of polytheism. The unique thing the Hebrews did, over time, was to eliminate all the other gods and goddesses and consolidate their priesthood on one god.

When Freemasonry took up the idea of One God and called him the Great Architect of the Universe, this was a way to allow men of any Judeo-Christian sect to join and feel comfortable with the Biblical references. However, to believe Freemasonry is Christian or Jewish or anything else because it uses the Bible as its symbol on the altar (one of the 3 Great Lights) is to ignore what is taught in the degrees. So, I have come to be convinced that Freemasonry does contain more than just a superficial set of promises to be “better men” and practice fraternalism. As writers such as William Wilmshurst suggested a hundred years ago: Masonry is a symbolic and allegorical system for understanding character and the psyche. There is nothing in the rituals that should be taken literally at “face value.” When one has realized that simple lesson, then one’s eyes are truly opened and the blindfold removed.

Of course, neither I nor any Mason can speak as an authority on Masonry. There is no one who has the right or priviledge of speaking for the whole of the Craft. The rituals and symbols must be allowed to speak for themselves. So, no one can ever claim to have finally “figured out” what Masonry is or means. One can only work at it and come to a state of satisfaction with one’s own ideas and “speculations.”

That does not, however, mean that the ideas and interpretations of individual Masonic authors should be rejected out of hand as “not authoritative.” For that implies that there is some sort of “authoritative” interpretation. Of course, Grand Lodge officers sometimes imagine they have the authority to say what is and isn’t a true interpretation of Masonry’s symbols. They are given that authority by their constituent lodges within their particular jurisdiction, but they cannot speak for all of Masonry.

That lack of any authoritative, single interpretation of the Craft symbols is a blessing and a curse. It has left a void of ignorance, largely because our educational systems teach us that there is a right answer and a wrong answer for everything. True/False. The result too often is then to simply reject anything that does not have a “right” answer as if any answer will do, and so no further thought on the matter is worthwhile. Much easier to accept a supposedly “right” answer as handed down from one’s prececessors.

But that is exactly what scientific thinking does not do. The scientific mind does not blindly accept what its prececessors have told it is “true.” The real seeker after Truth, seeks for himself and does not simply accept the first answer he is handed. This new way of thinking was characteristic of the period in which Speculative Freemasonry evolved. The classical philosophers were not content to accept what their predecessors said, nor were many in the Middle Ages — despite the oppressive centralization of power in the Roman Church that discouraged dissent or innovation as “heresy.” Really, the Church did not stop people from thinking. It just stopped them from publishing. And even there is it was not ultimately successful. Freemasonry, before the gathering together of its rituals into written forms, was one of perhaps many lines of thought that carried on “under the radar” of official disapproval. Monks and priests (the literate folk and writers of the times) were at the greatest risk of censure and of losing their social standing and livelihoods if they were caught speculating about “spiritual” matters. But stonemasons had very little to worry about on that score. The people outside of the Church system of education were more free to think that those inside it.

Or, at least, so I speculate. I am not an “authority” on the past either. Suffice to say that the search for the strength of Freemasonry anywhere outside of its rituals and teachings is the cause of decline in interest and a membership that is largely not committed to being a Mason for life. Those who do manage 50 years of being a Mason are aways honored, and should be. However, it is by no means certain that in the past 100 years they were ever given the opportunity to discover the real power of the Masonic Way — if I may coin the term. The Tao of Freemasonry, as it were.

An enthusiastic greeting and show of true affection among Masons, a firm and brotherly handshake, and getting together as friends to have fun — these are certainly important to the practice of the Craft. If you were practicing all the “inner disciplines” and practices advocated in the degrees, and were a grumpy brother who never went to lodge meetings or pancake breakfasts, or who held his fellow Masons in disdain, such behavior would demonstrate that you did not truly understand the lessons of the degrees.

That is the funny thing about Masonic teaching. Without a mentor to guide you, and one who has some sort of “authority” to teach and guide, there are many ways that a Mason can misinterpret and misunderstand what he is supposed to be doing — what the Craft is.

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