Monday, February 17, 2014

The Happy Reflection Consequent on a Well-Spent Life

It is perhaps appropriate that my first post in nearly 3 years is on the subject of age.  On seeing how long it has been since I posted, my immediate thought was, "we cannot without astonishment behold the little particles contained within this machine; how they pass away almost imperceptibly, and yet, to our surprise, in the short space of an hour, they are all exhausted."

Much has happened during those three years; I am currently serving in my second term as Master of my Lodge - a subject for a completely different post, which will probably wait until after I am relieved from that position.  I also find myself no longer comfortably in my mid-30s but nearing my 40th birthday.  I like to think that I don't obsess about milestones as much some, but that number, 40, is sobering.  During the last year or so, when I realize that some remembered event happened not "about a year ago" but ten years ago, the realization is accompanied by a small feeling of panic at how those years have slipped away, and how likely the next 10, 20, or 30 will slip away just as quickly.  Again, probably a subject for a separate post - one that I may not bother to write because the topic of "white male entering middle age" is a horse that been beaten to death, buried, exhumed, and whacked a few more times for good measure.

For the last month or so I have been preparing to confer the Master Mason degree, which deals quite a bit with the topics of mortality and what we leave behind when we die.  Amidst all this reflection on the passage of time, aging, and death, it was a pleasure to read Roger Angell's New Yorker essay, This Old Man.  Angell is 93 years old, and his essay is a poignant but encouraging look at many of these questions.  Particularly relevant to Master Masons is this paragraph, where he talks about the list of acquaintances he once knew who have died before him:
My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
I have not been a Mason for very long; barely six years.  Yet in that time I have attended the funerals of a number of well-loved Brothers... some were elderly Brothers who departed after lengthy illnesses.  Their death was sad, but also came with a sense of relief for their families and Masonic Brothers. One was a first cousin, twice removed; a man who was like the kid brother my grandfather never had, always a delight to talk to at family gatherings... I had no idea he was a Brother until I saw the program the day before his Memorial service.  It was my privilege to join his lodge in conducting an evergreen service.  One was for a Brother, a pillar of his lodge, whose death at age 42 was a complete shock to all of us.  I can't say that I knew any of them very well (even my cousin, to my chagrin) but when you see how much they meant to their families, and the Brothers who knew them well, that almost doesn't matter.

One of the most valuable things about Masonry is the way it provides us not only with a framework of symbols to help us deal with the death of friends and loved ones, but a continuum of Brotherhood across the years, decades and centuries.   It teaches us, both in its lessons as well as its practice, that death is a part of life, and that the best we can do is to make the most of the life we are given, and to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Master Builder by Any Other Name

The Grand Lodge of Iowa has something called the Master Builder Program, which encourages new Masons to get involved in their lodges by giving them a checklist of tasks to complete... on successfully achieving these milestones, the new Brother earns the title of Master Builder, and in the process has gotten actively engaged in his lodge instead of disappearing after the 3rd degree.

The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts has a very similar program, which is indeed very effective at getting new Brothers involved even in lodges that don't always do the best job of following through with them. In Massachusetts, though, a Brother who works through the list of requirements earns the title of Masonic Rookie. Which would you rather be called?

Monday, March 7, 2011

On the subject of dues (or, Beating a Dead Horse)

The Petersham Curling Club charges $390 per year, or $32.50 per month, for membership. This for a casual sporting club that does not make any of the lofty claims our Masonic recruiting materials often do... no 'making good men better,' no 'Curlers give $2 million a day to charity,' no 'George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were curlers too!' But clearly, the passion is there because members pay those dues year after year, and take advantage of all of the privileges that their membership affords them.

My mother lodge's dues, in contrast, work out to $7.30 per month, and that's after they were raised a couple of years ago. After dues went up, we got an angry letter from one Brother who now lives in another part of the country, assuming there had to have been a mistake in his dues bill. When told that no, dues had indeed gone up, he immediately asked for a demit, stating flatly that "$88.00 per year is too much for Blue Lodge dues. I pay less than that to belong to the Shrine."

If my lodge's dues jumped to $390 per year, I'd feel a pinch for sure - but I would find a way to pay it because being a Mason, and participating in my lodge, are that valuable to me. Imagine what your lodge would be like if everyone who belonged placed as much value on their membership as curlers do!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Like the Precious Oil Upon on the Head

It was my privilege last week to visit not one but two lodges under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of New York, both of which meet in the magnificent Grand Lodge building on West 23rd Street in the Flatiron district of Manhattan.

I toured the Grand Lodge building in 2007, while still waiting to take the first degree, and although I had done some reading and knew something about the arrangement and significance of the furniture in each lodge room, I was still very much an outsider.

When I stepped into the anteroom of the Ionic room last night before the meeting of St. John's Lodge No. 1, there was a palpable charge of anticipation about the room that simply wasn't there when I walked around it as a profane tourist 3 1/2 years ago. The pre-ritual ritual of Brothers filing into their lodge and greeting one another warmly is the same whether you're in a dense city or in a remote country lodge, and it's the same whether you're a member or a Brother traveling in a foreign country.

What we do is profoundly special. How many other organizations give you the ability to walk into a room as a complete stranger in a faraway city at the start of the evening and part with bear-hugs at the end of the night? When it's done right, Freemasonry is just an amazing thing. As every Entered Apprentice is told, it conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance, but too often Brothers never set foot outside of their district, or even their own lodge. Even as a dedicated officer or active Brother, it's far too easy to get worn down by the grind of nuts-and-bolts Freemasonry and the petty intrigues of your local Masonic community.

When you travel both literally and Masonically, you experience a fascinating juxtaposition. Physically you find yourself hundreds or thousands of miles from your home, friends, and family. Even if it's a place you've been before, it's not home. You're out of your element, on your own... but if you find a lodge in that foreign place, you will be met with slight guardedness which quickly gives way to sincere fraternal affection once you're duly examined to the Lodge's satisfaction.

Once the lodge is tyled and the meeting starts, you realize that it doesn't matter where you are. A well-governed lodge at work exists out of time and space, and distinctions of geography aren't important. It's an important reminder of the universality of Freemasonry, and a great way to recharge your Masonic batteries.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Junior Warden-elect

The last regular communication of the year was held at my mother lodge last week, and I was elected to the office of Junior Warden.

I admit, I will be glad to be more or less done with the Senior Deacon's chair (although I expect that I will get tapped to deliver the Middle Chamber lecture or take the second section of the Third Degree now and again.) I thoroughly enjoyed learning and performing my parts of the ritual, but it will be nice to be out of the spotlight for a while.

I also admit I'm not tremendously thrilled with my impending duties related to the coordination (if not direct preparation) of meals and collations... but I've been in the lodge long enough to know who I can work with to hopefully pull off some good meals.

Just as the office of Senior Deacon serves as a filter for officers who either can't or aren't interested in learning some pretty heavy ritual, I think perhaps the Junior Warden's traditional meal-organizing duties have evolved as a filter for officers who either can't or aren't interested in the kind of organization and leadership required to coordinate such an event; if a Brother can't pull together a bean supper, how well is he going to run the Lodge? I will endeavor to keep that in mind next year.

It's not for nothing that the metaphor of Labor is woven into our rituals and lectures. Freemasonry is work... I think officers generally realize this more than many members, but even among officers it can be easy to lose sight of what hopefully attracted us to knock on the doors of our Lodges in the first place. There's more to it than just memorizing ritual, or planning meals, or running efficient meetings - these skills are all parts of it, but not ends in and of themselves. One of the things that some of the Brothers I most admire seem to have in common is a tremendous respect for, and desire to perpetuate, the most noble ideals of the Craft itself... and that means thinking beyond the sometimes trivial distractions of your own Lodge -- not ignoring them, but not giving them more attention than they deserve, either. I hope to find the balance by the time I reach the East.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Silence and Circumspection

I usually have ideas for Masonic blog posts floating around in my head, but as I get more deeply involved in my lodges I find myself less inclined to blather on about them, which is why I don't post much here these days. Early on I wrote that I chose to write this blog pseudo-anonymously because I want to be vague about the people and organizations I am interacting with, out of respect for their privacy. This is still very true. In addition to this, my attitude about how we talk about and promote the fraternity has evolved slightly.

In terms of a person who might be looking at different organizations they might like to join, the Freemasons' mystique is basically the only thing separating us from the Elks or the Lions. It drives me crazy when local papers run two-paragraph articles about the Masons opening their doors, because one of those paragraphs is always devoted to a well-intentioned brother saying "We don't have any secrets, actually."

We absolutely do have secrets - both tangible (the passes, grips, and words a Mason is given with each degree) and intangible (the personal insights that can be gained by studying the symbols and lectures of our fraternity, and the deep bonds of history & fellowship that can only be experienced by joining and being active.) To claim otherwise is to miss the entire point of our institution.

The Benjamin Franklin quote about how the grand secret of the Freemasons "is that they have no secret at all," is also often trotted out in these articles. Again, by using that quote to marginalize the aspect of Masonic secrecy, we're missing the point.

The importance of secrecy within the fraternity is perhaps best explained by posing the question, "If I can't even trust you to uphold your obligations to keep these few words and handshakes secret, how can I trust you to do anything else?"

The importance of secrecy without the fraternity is the leap of faith required by a candidate who wants to join. When I asked to be made a Mason, I had some doubts but had conceived a favorable enough opinion of the fraternity to put them aside. When my grandfather was a younger man, straight information about the fraternity was much harder to come by. He had a very favorable opinion of Freemasonry, but all of the Masons he knew were so closed-mouthed about the whole business that he never joined, intimidated by what the initiation might involve.

I think that leap of faith is important. On the one hand a candidate will have heard all kinds of awful things about Freemasonry: Satanism, world domination plots, drinking wine from human skulls, et cetera. On the other, he will think of his dad, or his grandfather, a best friend or respected colleague, upstanding, admired men who he knows would never have been involved if any of that weird stuff was true. It's up to the candidate to decide that there must be something there, and knock on the door of Freemasonry himself.

Rumors and falsehoods about Freemasonry have been swirling around for centuries. Idiots blogging about Jay-Z and Lady Gaga Illuminati subliminal media mind control is just the latest spin on a long tradition of suspicion and paranoia. For every author who writes a positive, straightforward overview of the fraternity there will always be a David Icke spewing lies and nonsense. No amount of telling newspapers that "We're not a secret society, we're a society with secrets" will change that, so perhaps we should stop worrying about it and working within our lodges to make sure that the Brothers who do take the leap of faith feel like it was worth it and stick around. Blogging about my frustrations might be a good way to vent, but doesn't accomplish much other than preaching to the choir of other frustrated Masons while contributing the the demystification of the fraternity.