Sunday, November 30, 2008

One Stone at a Time

Not too long ago I appealed to all the Masters and Past Masters out there for tips on how one might go about memorizing all that ritual.

The answer, as gently provided to me by Bro. Tom Accuosti was (and I paraphrase), "Just work on a little bit at a time, all the time."

I just memorized first large paragraph of the Middle Chamber lecture. I am Junior Deacon this year, but I figure there is no time like the present to start working on one of the longer bits of ritual that will fall to me as Senior Deacon next year. It took me a little more than half an hour and I know I will have to keep repeating it to myself for a while to make it stick, but as the saying goes: well begun is half done.

It is surprisingly exciting to have started down this path; what little ritual I have learned so far has sunk in mostly through osmosis, rather than by my actively having to work at it. I have to stop myself from moving to the next paragraph and give my brain a chance to catch up.

How did I do it? A little bit at a time. Duh. I feel a bit sheepish, like someone who asks a trim and fit friend how they stay healthy and keep their weight down and receive the obvious answer, "Eat less and exercise more."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Back to Basics

After months and months of waiting, rumination, and speculation on the philosophical nature of Freemasonry and the secrets that lay behind the antechamber door, the nature of this weblog shifted rather dramatically after I took the degrees and jumped headfirst into the inner workings of my lodge. Since being raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason, I have been focusing instead on the more mundane, nuts-and-bolts details of what Masons actually do to keep their lodge running. There is nary a mention of Masonic Light on this blog since June. This is not because I have given up on those loftier, esoteric notions about Freemasonry... rather, it is because I have developed a better sense of their context, and I am much less inclined to make proclamations or opine too strongly about any one aspect of the Craft... there are so many different aspects, and I'm still learning how they're interconnected.

It is easy to forget just how mysterious this whole Freemasonry business seems before you join; the symbols, worrying about the investigation, being a bit unsure about the super-secret rituals... in general, just wondering what it's all about... No matter how crazy you know the Masonophobes are, what if there's even a hint of truth about all that New World Order business, or that Baphomet guy? Can you really leave if you want to? (The answer there is yes, by the way - far too many new Brothers do.)

If you take the degrees and stick around, the work that Masons do behind the tyled door loses that initial veneer of mystery very quickly... so quickly that the part of us that had hoped to find a secret society of beard-stroking, enlightened gentlemen might feel a little bit disillusioned and discouraged. It can be hard to think reverently about "The Mysteries of Freemasonry" when you're sitting down to a potluck supper of Swedish meatballs, pizza, and potato chips.

At the same time, though, I have been struck by a deep and moving sense of the transcendent at various unexpected moments over the last six months, at degree rehearsal, at a dinner served on paper plates, during a business meeting, or (less surprisingly) during a particularly elegant passage in the ritual. I think I've written before that Freemasonry is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why it's so hard to describe to non-members... and why it's so hard for non-members to see what all the fuss is about, and unfortunately causes some of them to conjure up bizarre notions of what it is that we do.

A word occurred to me the other night that I think describes our order quite well, despite the fact that Masons are often not the bunch of mystical philosophers some of us imagine them to be before joining:

Monastic.

To me this word bridges the gap between that sense of mystery I remember before joining, and some of the more mundane realities of the lodge; to put it another way, monks and nuns of any faith have to do their laundry sometime... that doesn't diminish the sacredness of their vows in any way, shape, or form, it's just a part of the package.

I think it would be a stretch to say the we as Freemasons are truly monks of some kind, but being an active member of your lodge does require some discipline and dedication to the Craft... joining the Masons in jurisdictions that still require new candidates to memorize the lectures for each degree requires careful study and a certain level of seriousness that goes above and beyond the demands of many other social obligations. This is especially true if you take it upon yourself to learn the ritual and commit to sitting in a chair for at least 10 meetings a year. Whether you make that commitment because you're honoring a family tradition, because you just enjoy the company of other good men, or because you're looking to unlock the secrets of the universe by searching for hidden meanings in the ritual, it's all Freemasonry.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Question for those who have already traveled to the East

When did you learn the Master's parts of the ritual? That is to say, did you start memorizing the work years ahead of time, or did you wait to cram for each degree until you were installed in the Oriental chair? As I page through my cipher to work on my few parts as Junior Deacon, I get a bit woozy when I look at the Master's lectures which go on for pages at a time.

I suspect that the delegation of the Middle Chamber lecture to the Senior Deacon was a very strategic choice when the ritual was being developed; I imagine that if the SD is able to find a technique that enables him to memorize that work, then the rest will follow more easily... but at the same time, he still has a couple more years to understudy the Master before taking it all on. (Or, he can graciously step out of the line if he decided he's getting in over his head.)

As a confirmed high school nerd who once upon a time took it upon himself to memorize the name of a certain forgotten German composer, I am reasonably confident in my ability to memorize things... and if I get a head start maybe I can do so in a way that's not like trying to drink from a fire hose.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Harmony being the strength and support of all well regulated institutions, especially this of ours.

Remember the rules as we leave last night's election behind us: No politics in Lodge. Based on a few conversations overheard over dinner or after meetings in the run up to the election, there are going to be some uncomfortable moments at my lodge next week, but for my part I will smile neutrally and excuse myself if the result of the election comes up.

If things get particularly ugly I will hopefully have the fortitude to remind my Brothers that religion & politics are off-limits.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dust off your Forget-me-not lapel pins, Brothers

Though there are those who will take what I am about to say as political, I am not posting it out of any partisan motives; if this Huffington Post article, "Sarah Palin Linked to Second Witch Hunter" came from Fox News and was about Joe Biden I would be telling you not to vote for Barack Obama.

But it's about Sarah Palin, so I am urging all of my Brothers not to vote for McCain/Palin. If you can't endorse any other candidate, then please just don't vote at all. Seriously. Why? From the article:

One of Palin's two witch hunters has publicly stated, in a July 13, 2008 recorded address [see video, below], that Sarah Palin is in the Alaska "spiritual warfare" prayer network and thus Palin appears to be tied into to a U.S. and international "spiritual warfare" network, The Global Apostolic Prayer Network, which claims that a planetary-level demon spirit blocks prayers of Catholics from reaching Heaven and whose top members boast of possibly having helped kill Mother Theresa through prayer-warfare.


I would hope the outright craziness (not to mention creepiness) of this "prayer warriors killing Mother Theresa" business would be enough to convince any rational person not to vote Republican this year, but Masons may be especially interested in this other tidbit:

Global Apostolic Prayer Network leaders compare Catholicism to Freemasonry and have conducted prayer warfare which they claim may have helped to kill Mother Theresa. One top leader and apostle of this spiritual warfare movement endorses the activities of church-based Central American death squads.
Please, please, please - don't let anyone under the influence of these people anywhere near the White House.

Stephen King on the 30th anniversary of "The Stand"

Speaking of the existence of a Great Architect and the afterlife, there is a good interview with Stephen King about his novel The Stand, a long-time favorite of mine that deals with themes of good versus evil set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic America. From the interview:
It's a mystery. That's the first thing that interests me about the idea of God. If there is one, it's mysterious and powerful and awesome to even consider the concept, and you have to take it seriously. I understand where Bill Maher is coming from when he says, basically, the world is destroying itself over a bunch of fairy tales about talking snakes and men who are alive inside fishes. I'm very sympathetic to it, but at the same time, given the cosmos that we're living in, it's very persuasive, the idea that there is some kind of first cause that's running things. It might not be the god of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, it might not be the god of al-Qaida, and it might not be the god of Abraham, but something very well could be running things. The order of the universe as we see it, the interlocking nature, and the way things work together, are persuasive of the idea that there may be some overarching first cause.

The rest is at http://www.salon.com/books/int/2008/10/23/stephen_king/index.html

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What is the Metric of Success?

This last Saturday, during our open house, my lodge received 7 new applications for membership. These were men who had each been interested in Freemasonry for some time and saw the open house as an opportunity to learn more without perhaps feeling the same level of commitment or scrutiny as you might by calling or e-mailing a lodge out of the blue.

These were not random schmoes who saw an "open house" sign, wandered in off the street and decided to submit an application as a lark.

I was not involved in any of my lodges' previous open houses except as a visitor last fall, but I know this most recent batch of petitions surpasses any past results on a purely numeric basis.

Was it a success? After some lengthy conversations with several Brothers yesterday I don't think we can claim success unless we follow through with these new candidates if and when they join, taking the initiative and responsibility to show them the ropes and get them engaged and sticking around.

As evidenced by my current predicament, my lodge's officer line could use a little bit of shoring up, but what we don't want to do is continue the trend of viewing all newly raised Brothers as warm bodies to stuff into officers' chairs (unless that's what they're into.) What a few Brothers and I want is to restore the aspect of fellowship at our lodge by getting members together for occasions other than
  1. Rehearsals
  2. Dinners/Stated Meetings
  3. Degrees
Maybe even getting Brothers together outside the lodge, which doesn't happen much right now in any organized fashion.

At the same time, I want to work the problem from the other end and find a way to soften the disappointment of newly-raised, esoterically-oriented Brothers who aren't going to find the mystical order of philosopher-Jedis they may be expecting based on their internet research. There has to be a way to do it without totally discouraging them.

As I experience all of these different facets of Freemasonry, the mystery that fascinates me most right now is what keeps men coming back to do this? Why do Officers sacrifice one night a week to practice ritual, even if they're not interested in (or maybe haven't even heard of) Pike, Mackey, et al? Why do old-timers show up to watch degrees they've seen dozens, even hundreds of times before? Why do some men take on the huge time and energy commitment of serving as a District Deputy Grand Master, even after all of the time and energy they devoted to their year in the East?

If you asked a dozen Brothers you would get a dozen different answers, and yet there is a common thread in there, somewhere.

Secrets, indeed.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Square & Compasses Day is Tomorrow in Massachusetts

Saturday, October 18, 2008 is Square and Compasses day in Massachusetts. All Lodges across the state will be open from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Public welcome!

http://www.massfreemasonry.org/index.tpl?SID=122430045913832382&ng_view=56&ng_id=31
http://askafreemason.com

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Take it With Me

Scientific American has published an interesting article called "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death" at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=never-say-die&ec=su_neversaydie, examining the conundrum of how it is impossible for us to comprehend the absence of self-consciousness after death. You can't know what it's like until it happens, but once it happens you won't be around (in your current form, at least) to describe it. It's like trying to imagine what there was before the big bang... it makes your head hurt after a while.

Especially curious is the fact that even people who steadfastly believe that there is nothing after death think in terms of a deceased person having a consciousness:
"One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well—he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now. "
So is the popular human belief of some sort of continued existence after life on earth merely an evolutionary, cultural, psychological defense mechanism against the bleak existentialism of knowing that the entirety of one's existence gets snuffed out and disappears completely when we die? Or is it the touch of the Great Architect, trying to steer us all on the path of leaving this world better than we found it, to ready us for entry into the Celestial Lodge?

I think about this question a lot; I try to be coldly analytical and dismiss my deep-seated belief of some kind of organized intelligence at the heart of creation as a purely human construct, a collective bed-time story to keep us from going crazy at the thought of leaving our friends, families, and happy memories behind for the long, empty night that awaits us all when we die.

It just doesn't work. For all of the scientific advances humans have made during our cosmically short time here on earth, I don't believe that we have learned enough about anything to be able to state authoritatively how everything in this universe came to be, or where our souls go when we die. At the same time I have a hard time subscribing to the idea that there is a single true religion, and that only followers of the "right" faith get a golden ticket to the big Wonka factory in the sky when they die, while everyone else is punished for eternity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oGVDLcpXQ8

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Dilemma

Our Junior Deacon wasn't at rehearsal last night, and I offered to understudy the position for the evening, since the JD is a little more involved in things than my own position of Senior Steward... and it seemed like I might as well get a head start on learning the JD ritual, figuring that by the time I have to step up next fall I'd be in great shape.

Little did I know, the JD (Who was raised only a few months before me) has had to drop out of the line for a few months. I'm not on the hook for this week's meeting, but it's clear that the chair is open if I want to go for it.

Out of context, the office of JD is not too intimidating... but it's the knowledge of the Senior Deacon's duties right around the corner that gives me serious pause. In an ideal Lodge with a full and stable line, it would take a Brother at least three years to reach the office of Senior Deacon. That's three years of watching the SD's floor work and ritual, learning a lot of it by brute repetition. Maybe it's even enough time for some of the Middle Chamber lecture to sink in.

By contrast, I've only been a Master Mason for 5 months and I'm already looking at the third chair in the line. It doesn't feel right in terms of that learning-by-osmosis factor, nor in terms of integration with the lodge; I mean, I don't even know where all of the light switches are yet! I feel like I've got more basic things to learn before I take such a prominent place in the initiation of new candidates.

The question that is troubling me is finding the balance between what's best for me and what's best for the lodge. Better for the Lodge's sense of stability to have an empty Junior Deacon's chair, or an empty Junior Steward's chair (assuming the Junior Steward wanted to move up as well)? Better for me to sit in relative obscurity for another year, giving me more bandwidth to deal with my duties as an Ambassador and my efforts on the lodge web site, not to mention the ongoing saga of the renovation of my house?

Our installation of officers doesn't happen until next month, so I've got some time to think about it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

More Fodder for the Tinfoil Hat Crowd


When I first watched Dan Aykroyd's video pitching his new Crystal Head Vodka, I assumed that the tone and content was tongue-in-cheek, much like Roger Ebert's recent Q&A about Creationism, but that does not seem to be the case.

And that's OK, I guess; whatever floats your boat & all that... but John Hodgman points out something I failed to notice on my first visit to the Crystal Head web site: The square & compasses can be seen in the lower right corner of the page, tucked into what appears to be a map of some Mesoamerican city. As Mr. Hodgman says,

Huh?

(And is it wrong that I want a bottle?)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On the Subject of Openness/Advertising

The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts has been running a lot of the Ben Franklin TV ads lately on WGBH, Boston's PBS affiliate. Just this morning I was surprised to hear that some news update or other on WAAF's Hill-Man morning show (your typical low-brow morning zoo) was brought to me by the Grand Lodge of Freemasons.

As Masons (especially the sort who spend idle moments reading and writing about the Craft online), we have a tendency to focus and dwell on anything and everything having to do with Masonry, and we're especially sensitive to our portrayal in popular culture and the mainstream media. "We're selling out!" "We're watering down the fraternity!" "Freemasonry isn't about slick advertising!" ... et cetera. The thing is, non-Masons who have zero interest in Masonry aren't going to pay any more attention to these ads and articles than they would to any other brand/product/service/organization they don't care about. It's the idly curious and fence-sitters that this kind of exposure reaches, and I think that's a good thing. I have to grudgingly concede that even the shallow, "We don't have any secrets" articles that irk me so might reach worthy men who are intrigued but uncertain about their preconceptions of Masonic secrecy.

Seeing an ad and taking the initiative to petition, be investigated, and take the degrees are two entirely different things. Yet it seems like a lot of the negative reaction within the fraternity towards greater publicity stems from the idea that any old cowan or eavesdropper who sees an ad or article about Freemasonry is going to try and join. I simply don't believe that to be the case.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Just When You Need It

No sooner had I done a bit of venting about my frustration with the state of online Masonic discourse than Widow's Son introduced a new guest editorial series on the topic of Masonic Harmony, reminding me that you always have to be vigilant against confirmation bias... just because some of the loudest voices also happen to be some of the most disharmonious, it doesn't necessarily follow that they are representative of all of the Brethren going quietly about their business online.

These guest editorials are some of the best Masonic writing I've read online in recent memory, and if I may make a gross generalization the gentle reminder from my Brothers is:

Illegitimi non carborundum.

Please don't feed the trolls, and certainly don't let them distract you from your own Work.

Thank you, Brothers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Yep, Quiet Around Here

Over the last month or so I've started and abandoned 4 or 5 posts explaining why I haven't been posting... not the usual "Gosh I can't believe it's been so long since I've posted" blog fodder, but a look at the current online Masonic climate and my reaction to it.

I have kept putting it off because I have been quite busy with activities both Masonic and profane and also, frankly, I don't need to explain myself to anyone... but as the gap between my online and meatspace Masonic experiences widens, one thing becomes increasingly clear:

I am not feeling the Brotherly Love online.

With some exceptions, I find a lot of online Masonic dialog increasingly divisive, if not downright toxic. The thoughtful back and forth exchanges I seem to recall finding in mid-2007 when I first got interested in Masonry have given way to polarized modern-vs-antient, old-vs-young, fish-fry-vs-festive-board, Grand-Lodge-vs-GOUSA, them-or-us bickering. I've slowly been unsubscribing from a lot of Masonic RSS feeds over the last few months, because I really don't care to be associated with it, even by such a passive act as reading it.

My wife made an observation the other day about people who seem to decide they know everything there is to know (or, at least know everything worth knowing) by the time they reach age 30. She said she can't imagine what it's like to be that confident in one's own world knowledge, and then said something that is certainly true for me too:

"The more I learn, the more I realize there is left to learn!"

I don't have any agenda other than to improve myself in Masonry, and right now I am not finding a lot of opportunities to do that online (private exchanges with Brothers notwithstanding.)

I know the tone of this post is somewhat harsh, and for that I apologize... but chalk it up to the frustration I've been bottling up for longer than I probably should have. I'll be around, but these days I am focusing most of my Masonic energy on rebuilding my Lodge.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I Know What I Want for Christmas


If you follow the link, MAAC also shows a Scottish Rite double eagle with Boston Bruins colors that I also find especially appealing. Apparently they have quite a selection of jersey blanks and symbols to choose from. I'm also picturing a nice red and white, Royal Arch triple tau on a blank Redwings jersey.

Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with MAAC and haven't done business with them, I'm just a great big geek of a hockey fan and Freemason.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What came you here to do?

Much like Aedifico42 in his recent post on MasonicMinute.com, of late I have been wondering just how constructive my time spent blogging about Masonry really is. Specifically, opinionated blogging... about the state of the craft, what Freemasonry is, what it means, what it's supposed to be, et cetera.

Thinking back to the first couple of weeks I went searching online for information about the Freemasonry, there were two types of sites that were instrumental in my decision to ask to become a Mason:
  • Factual: Sites that discuss Masonic history and fundamentals; the nuts and bolts of how a lodge works and what the degrees are about
  • Experiential: Sites featuring first-hand accounts of what it's like to be initiated and become a member of a lodge
It didn't take long for me to exhaust whatever factual/experiential resources I could find, and during my long wait to be inducted I moved on to other sites/blogs of the "I hate fish frys, modern Masonry is lacking" stripe. While these critical viewpoints did temper some of the loftier notions I had about the experience that lay in store for me, they also set me up to feel as though disappointment was inevitable.

Recently I attended a district meeting, standing in for the vacationing Brother who usually represents our lodge. Lots of things were discussed, but among them were not the finer esoteric/philosophical points of Freemasonry. The question of retention and how we can provide new Masons with a better experience was raised, and agreement was pretty much universal that we need to do better - and ideas were discussed. The same sorts of ideas that get thrown out across the internet by solitary Brothers lamenting the state of the craft in their local lodges, to be read by Brothers on the other side of the country who can't do much but commiserate. At a real-live face to face meeting though, suddenly you're in a room full of Masons who can effect local change. What a difference!

Otherwise, it was mundane stuff... planning events for the coming year, discussing logistics and delegating responsibilities. The sort of thing that any organization has to do. There was nothing inherently mystical or ritual about it, but there was good fellowship and a mutual understanding that everyone there had given this lovely weekend evening out of their supposedly "dark" summer out of devotion to the Craft.

I guess what I'm saying is, between that meeting and the ambassador training I attended last week, I feel like I've done more to improve Masonry in my Lodge and district in one week than I have in 15 months of blogging.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Practical Freemasonry

Ambassador's Jewel

I'm now officially a Masonic Ambassador for my lodge, having attended one of Grand Lodge's training sessions earlier this week. I even have a certificate and and jewel to prove it.

So what does a Masonic Ambassador do in Massachusetts? They are often the first point of contact for a potential candidate who calls Grand Lodge for information, or looks up a local lodge on the Grand Lodge web site. They answer candidates' questions, and follow through with them as they take the degrees so that they have a familiar face they can sit with at dinner, and most importantly know they can bring questions to.

Within the lodge, the Ambassador tries to help find ways to integrate new members, whether that's just introducing them to Brothers with similar interests, or learning about their hobbies/skills and putting them in touch with a particular committee where they can contribute.

Grand Lodge recognizes that it's about retention as much as it is about recruitment, and Ambassadors are charged with getting Brothers new and old engaged in their lodges again. The whole session was refreshingly pragmatic and quite encouraging overall. One plain statement presented during the evening was that it is important that lodges understand that membership is the only reason for our existence.

Now, now. All of the other things that make Freemasonry so unique and important to all of us are also reasons for our existence... but without new members who keep coming back the only place we'll be able to discuss them or enjoy the fellowship of one another is in the comments sections of each others' weblogs.

I also learned that there are some official Grand Lodge guidelines regarding web sites and what types of content are allowed on them, so I may be quiet here for another while until I can make sure I haven't committed any no-nos with content I've posted since last June.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ambassador Training in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts - July 30, 2008

See the Grand Lodge web site for more details.

If the past month hadn't been so completely flat-out crazy, I might have gotten around to posting this before the other two came and went.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Serenity Now

It's been a spectacularly stressful couple of weeks around here. I've alluded to our new house over the last six months... it's been quite a project, more or less a complete rehab of an 1831 farmhouse, and there's still a good ways to go before it's "finished". We've run into the predictable cost and schedule overruns that can plague any large-scale home project, and have been increasingly in a state of limbo as we start to pack and distance ourselves from the house we've called home for the last five years.

Early last week we had a bit of stress relief when our landlord offered to let us go month to month on our lease, which was up at the end of this month. "Great!" we thought, "that gives us a few extra weeks to get the house into a habitable state, and plenty of time to pack and haul our junk over there!" We took them up on their verbal offer for the month of July, and promptly sent them another months' rent.

Two days ago our landlord reneged on their offer and told us to hit the bricks by July 1, leaving us with 5 days to pack AND move AND clean, instead of the 5 weeks we thought we had. If they hadn't offered to let us stay in the first place, we would have been much more industrious over the last week and a half, but as it was we thought we had some breathing room.

So, after allowing myself to freak out for an hour or so, I had a choice: let my anger and frustration over the situation stress me out even further, or get my shit together and adapt to the "new normal". I chose number two. Don't get me wrong, I am about as stressed out as I've been since the last time we moved 6 years ago, but I'm not going to compound it with anger at the landlord right now.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When in Doubt, Call Somebody

There was a bit of miscommunication around who will be sitting as officers for the degree we are squeezing in next month. Only a few of us showed up for rehearsal last week and again last night, and we all went home after it became clear that nobody else was coming... I had been asked if I could participate right after our last degree, but at the time I was non-committal because I wasn't sure if I could make the meeting. I had figured I would convey my availability by showing up for rehearsal, but when nobody showed up last week I didn't take the initiative to call someone to find out what was going on.

As it turns out, enough other people were non-committal that it was decided to organize it as a Past Masters degree. That's fine by me, as I would prefer to watch at least one Master Mason degree from the sidelines before getting sucked into the progressive line. I might have planned my Monday evenings differently had I known, though.

I'm really not upset about the mix-up in the big scheme of things, but I am starting to realize that I am going to have to take the initiative if I want to be "in the loop"... I think perhaps the core of long-time brothers who have been manning the ship for so long tend to assume that there is little interest in participation among newer brethren, and thus continue to plan and organize amongst themselves. Who could blame them when 2 of the 4 Brothers with whom I was raised in April haven't been back, and another was a no-show for his Fellow Craft degree last month?

Meanwhile, as a fairly new Mason I have been more passive and waiting to be set to labor... hence the disconnect in the middle.

Monday, June 23, 2008

We can't all be Wilmshurst

Yesterday I watched the first two parts of the John Adams miniseries produced by HBO earlier this year. While quite interesting, entertaining, visually stunning, and occasionally rousing (the patriotic indoctrination of the founding-fathers-as-demigods I received as a Massachusetts schoolchild remains surprisingly effective,) I realized that I would like to see the same production values applied to an adaptation of Freelon Starbird, a young adult novel told from the perspective of an 18 year old Philadelphian in the Continental Army during its hardships in 1776. I'm read about half of it so far, and I wish that I had been exposed to it as a kid; it paints a much more sobering picture of the complicated political climate in the colonies at the time, and how truly awful the conditions were.

The tale of the American Revolution has been mythologized to such an extent that it is very easy for us to forget how many colonists wanted nothing to do with any sort of rebellion, even if they weren't crazy about the whole taxation-without-representation business. This is portrayed to some extent in John Adams, but perhaps because we're so familiar with the cast of characters and the eventual outcome, it feels glossed over.

A few weeks ago I wrote about those 100 year-old "Masons these days don't study the ritual enough, they don't know what True Freemasonry is" quotes that often get trotted out as proof that Freemasonry is on a steady decline. I somewhat cheekily suggested that maybe all those quotes prove is that there have always been people who are never satisfied with anything. What I was really saying is that just as the uncomfortable or less interesting parts of the American Revolution often get glossed over, I think it quite likely that there were plenty of Masons 100 years ago who were just as dedicated to the Craft as Pike, Mackey, or Wilmshurst, but never saw what all the hullaballoo about esotericism was and never bothered to write books about what Masonry meant to them. Pike, Mackey, Wilmshurst, et al did, and have become canonized over the years; it has become difficult to separate what Freemasonry is from what they felt it was in their experience, in their times.

Again, I say this not to discount the idea that there may be deep esoteric meanings to the rituals, nor to discredit the work of these widely respected Masonic authors... just to point out that our Brothers didn't have Blogger in the 19th and early 20th century, so the perspective that got published is the one that has prevailed.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Masonry as Validation

Synchronicity is always interesting. I've had the title for this post kicking around my head since my last lodge meeting, and only a few days later Freestyle wrote a paragraph about finding validation in Freemasonry, in his post The Spirit of the Craft.

Freestyle wrote specifically about validation in terms of freedom of religion; how Freemasonry reaffirms our collective belief that one's personal faith is one's own business:
"I thought God was God. There are lots of names for God...lots of descriptions. But at the end of the day...God...was God."
I agree wholeheartedly. The crucial yet vague requirement of belief in a non-specified supreme being remains a rather unique feature of our order, and remains relevant even in the 21st century. Increasingly it seems like people are inclined to reject all notions of deity out of bitterness over acts of hatred, violence, intolerance and hypocrisy committed in the name of one religion or another throughout human history. I don't remember where I read it, but someone had a very insightful question that they liked to ask of atheists: "What is it, specifically, that you don't believe in?"

Apart from religion, though, so far my experience in Masonry has provided validation for a number of other things I have long believed true on my own:
  • People shouldn't be jerks to one another
  • Tradition and history are important*
  • Community is important
  • A person should aspire to knowledge of numerous subjects
  • It's OK to be an adult male, and to enjoy the simple fellowship of other adult males (no matter how loutish TV commercials say you are.)

* I write this cautiously, because there's tradition (Masonic ritual, Trick or Treating, Old Home days) and then there's tradition (arranged marriages, dog fights, female circumcision) - they're not all good.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bully logic

Last week's Boston Herald article made it to Boing Boing (http://www.boingboing.net/2008/06/17/punks-in-the-masons.html), and for the most part the comments are refreshingly well-informed, and positive.

I must call shenanigans on one comment, though:

http://www.boingboing.net/2008/06/17/punks-in-the-masons.html#comment-213515

It's got it all... the anecdotal "dad of a friend" who was a "high ranking" Mason, how they found went through his secret Masonic stuff after he passed away (the safe and locksmith are a nice touch), and how they learned through these secret documents that "... the highest law in the land for them is NOT the American law system. That's treason as far as I'm concerned. "

He then employs the classic conspiracy theorist technique of preemptively calling any Mason who denies this claim a liar. How it makes my teeth itch!

Lately I'm noticing that "OMG baphomet/satan/devil worship ritual and bloody oaths" freakouts are old and busted, and "Masons are up to no good with their secrets and cronyism, but they're so lame, they're just a bunch of old dudes doing their stupid old-fashioned gothy ceremonies and it's just so totally uncool and lame that anyone would be into that, what a bunch of losers who can't make friends on their own" is the new hotness. I can't tell if people really feel that way, or if Internet Tough Guy bluster is just their reaction to an idea they somehow feel threatened by.

I find it sad that the idea of structured, organized community involvement has slipped so far out of our social consciousness that some people don't even recognize the basic goodness or relevance of it anymore, even if they don't have the time or interest in it themselves.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Junior Steward Presumptive

A couple of weeks I found myself sitting in the Junior Steward's chair during a Fellow Craft degree rehearsal. I was therefore not too surprised when I was asked (about 30 seconds before the meeting started) if I could "fill in" for the actual degree. Afterwards asked if I would be coming to rehearsals for the 3rd degree we're squeezing in next month.

Looks like I should start saving up for a tuxedo.

Heartbreaking

(Former) Springfield Masonic Temple - 6

I had a meeting in Springfield, Massachusetts the other day, and I gave myself a bit of extra time to drive by the Masonic Temple at 339 State Street to take some photos... I had seen a postcard view and was pleased to find that the place still showed up in the various searches I was doing online.

As the place came into view, I was literally awe-struck. The apartments of the Grand Lodge of New York were amazing in their own right, and the Worcester Masonic Temple is also a proud structure, but this was the first time that the edifice of any Masonic building I've seen in person had such an effect on me.

"My Brothers built this," I thought to myself, craning my neck to look at the huge, prominent square and compasses and stylized double-headed eagle prominently featured on the building's facade.

(Former) Springfield Masonic Temple - 8

What a testament to the pride and commitment of those Brothers in Springfield 85+ years ago, that they were willing and able to contribute and/or raise the substantial money that the place must have cost... some 86,000 square feet with four lodge rooms, a 1,500 seat auditorium, and a large banquet hall. $1,000,000 1924 dollars.

And guess what? They sold it in 2007. It's now the headquarters of the International Communion of the Holy Christian Orthodox Church. The linked article mentions declining membership and growing suburban Lodges as reasons that the building had become a "White Elephant," but it also says:
[Archbishop] Paul told BusinessWest that he intends to make the facility more of a community asset than it has been historically, with the probability that more groups can take advantage of its four large meeting rooms, 1,500-seat auditorium, and 800-seat cafeteria.
Why is the ICHCOC the first owner of the building to have that idea? Why weren't the auditorium and banquet hall being rented out all along? I'm sure the decision to sell the place was not made lightly or easily and I don't know any of the circumstances that led to it (I'm sure taxes on such a huge downtown property were outrageous, something the church probably won't have to worry about) but I admit that every time I read about lodges giving up their historic buildings I feel angry and betrayed that such amazing resources are being allowed to slip away. I don't think we will see such grand and elegant Masonic buildings erected in our lifetimes, if ever again. Certainly not on dues that haven't been adjusted for inflation since the 1950's.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Masons are Hip in Boston, too



Some of my Massachusetts Brethren are featured in a new Boston Herald article, Frat boys: Masons drum up members among Hub rockers.

As with the L.A. Times article which probably inspired it, the piece focuses on two things:
  1. Younger guys are joining the Masons
  2. They're actually cool young guys. With goatees, even.
The emphasis on the Masons-as-the-hip-new-thing met with some derision/consternation as it bounced from weblog to weblog in the online Masonic community, but personally I think these articles will reach the right people. As I said myself last June,
"While I am prepared to be among the youngest members of a lodge, I don't think I want to be the only young member."
I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who sat on the fence for a while, wondering if they would find other men who are of similar age AND to whom they could relate.

(Photo by John Wilcox)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Fictional Fraternities

I followed a link to this interesting list of fictional fraternities from the Van Gorden-Williams Library's weblog post Improved Order of the Benevolent Quiz-Takers, and quickly noticed that a couple that are missing:

The Bookhouse Boys

From WikiPedia:

The Bookhouse Boys are a secret society on Twin Peaks formed to combat the darkness surrounding the town.

The members, some of which belong to the police department, also play a kind of vigilante role against drug dealers etc. The series says that it was formed about twenty years previous to the events, so probably some time in the 1960s. They are not afraid to take the law into their own hands, e.g. when Bernard Renault is interrogated in the Bookhouse.

Like the Freemasons, they have their own secret gesture, a stroke with a finger on the temple.

The Esoteric Order of Dagon

You may remember these fellows from H.P. Lovecraft's story The Shadow over Innsmouth:
It was called, she said, "The Esoteric Order of Dagon", and was undoubtedly a debased, quasi-pagan thing imported from the East a century before, at a time when the Innsmouth fisheries seemed to be going barren. Its persistence among a simple people was quite natural in view of the sudden and permanent return of abundantly fine fishing, and it soon came to be the greatest influence in the town, replacing Freemasonry altogether and taking up headquarters in the old Masonic Hall on New Church Green.
Although it's true that I didn't know much about the Masons and certainly never gave any serious thought to joining a fraternal order until last summer, it's interesting to read through that list and realize how many cultural cues I grew up with. All of the "funny hat frats" on TV helped reinforce the stereotypal view of lodges as goofy, harmless stag gathering places, while The Bookhouse Boys and the Esoteric order of Dagon were examples of the more mysterious, shadowy sort.

Wait, we *do* have secrets?

The Philadelphia Masonic Temple has been undergoing a multi-million dollar exterior restoration, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer article at http://www.philly.com/inquirer/business/20080606_Masonic_Temple_project_nears_completion.html.

The article covers the history of the building, and then covers some of the usual bullet points about the Shriners, declining membership, younger men joining, et cetera... and then closes with a teaser from RW Stephen Gardner, Grand Master of Masons in Pennsylvania:

To be a Mason, he said, "you must acknowledge the existence of a supreme being. In that sense we're religious, but we don't discuss religion."

Another thing they don't discuss are Masonic rituals, which Gardner said were based on the Bible, but "not really religious lessons."

Asked to explain more, he replied, "I would prefer not to go into that, per se."

Compared with "We don't have any secrets, really," which do you think would make someone vaguely interested in Freemasonry curious enough to learn more?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Year to the Day

I started this weblog one year ago today. At that time, I had just started a new job enabling me to work at home. This stirred up a few issues which I realized had been troubling me in a larger sense for several years.

Probably the biggest perceived issue for me was lack of local social contacts... The combination of working far from home, living in a tiny rural town, not being a "joiner", and not having kids to make acquaintances by proxy had conspired to leave me feeling isolated. Working at home, I realized, would totally cut me off from the outside world unless I actively sought out some kind of social interaction.

Another issue was a general sense of malaise, a feeling that my life was somewhat adrift, in terms of both spirituality and long-term goals and aspirations. Last spring my wife and I had just paid down a significant portion of our debt, but the prospect of buying a house still seemed beyond our reach. (Little did I know at the time that we'd close on our first home just six and a half months later!)

Really, I said it best myself in that first post:
At age 32, the realities of adulthood are starting to set in. I'm not talking about the music getting too loud, lamenting my high school or college glory days, or agonizing over the couple of grey hairs that have shown up in my beard. I'm talking about finding oneself removed from the built-in support networks of a place like college or high school, and close enough to middle age that horizons don't seem quite as wide-open as they did in my twenties.

Not that I'm preoccupied with death - just that I've had a growing sense over the last couple of years that it's time to stop screwing around. I don't rightly know what that entails, but I have some ideas, and it is here that I intend to explore some of them.
My first order of business last summer was to find a local community group to join, to get myself out of the house and hopefully make some local friends. Elks, Lions, Kiwanis, Odd Fellows... I scoured the internet for such information and (most important to me) first-hand descriptions as I could find, hoping I would be able to find some kind of experience that would be like "Boy Scouts for grown-ups."

The group that kept popping up peripherally again and again in my searches was the Freemasons. I didn't really know anything about them other than the typical vague notions of ritual, secrecy, and exclusivity. As I started to actiely dig for more information about the Masons it was easy to discard the Masonophobe nonsense for what it was, but I did have my own suspicions about the ritual in terms of the Masons as a basically religious group, which was not really what I was looking for. I can still remember quite strongly the cognitive dissonance I felt about Masonic ritual; "If Freemasonry isn't a religion, then what the heck is the ritual for?"

The more I read, though, the better sense I got about the ritual's place in the overall Masonic experience... and thanks to helpful first-hand accounts from various Masons online a lot of things were de-mystified for me. I was intrigued by weblogs by self-professed "esoteric Masons," and my suspicion started to give way to excitement that such a group of intelligent, well-spoken people existed. It still took a while to get used to the idea of becoming a Freemason myself... I spent a lot of time turning the idea over and over in my head, and it was around that time that I decided to start this weblog.

Freemasonry wasn't going to be my main focus... I had initially imagined this as a place to think out loud about any number of "deep thoughts", using a pseudonym so I could write freely about anything without worrying about friends, family, or spouse stumbling across it.

Needless to say, the Masonic aspect took over as I chronicled my eventual decision to petition, and the long wait that followed. A lot of the time I was forming opinions or expectations based on the experiences of others; Like a lot of people I was drawn to the Masons because of their history and metaphysical/philosophical Light-seeking aspect, but I read so many laments about lax ritual, stubborn old-timers, lodges abandoning their grand old buildings for steel sheds in the suburbs, and "fork and knife Masonry" that it almost seemed like disappointment was a foregone conclusion.

So here I am, a year later... a Master Mason, all of the secrets of Masonry revealed to me, pseudo-lambskin apron tucked away in my dresser drawer, Masonic ring on my finger, edging inexorably towards the officer line.

Am I deeply disappointed, or feeling betrayed that the Freemasonry I've inherited has strayed from its glorious roots?

No, not really.

Having gone through the degrees and attended half a dozen or so Masonic functions I have seen instances of those things that newer Brothers can find so frustrating, but I tend to reject the notion that the Masonic grass was always, always greener in the days of yore. True, there are plenty of passages written 80 or 100 years ago by Masons lamenting the sorry state of the Craft, and you could take that to mean that Freemasonry has been in steady decline since the first speculative lodge was opened however many hundreds of years ago.

On the other hand, you could spin that as proof that there have always been people who are never satisfied with anything.

I'm being a little bit glib, but I think I have a valid point. Don't get me wrong - I do have some reservations and frustrations about the current state of Masonry in the U.S., but I'm not crazy about the "desperate call to action, throw the baby out with the bathwater" attitude often presented as a solution. The changes we seek will happen if we devote as much energy to implementing them in our lodges as we do writing about our frustrations online. It won't happen overnight, but if we truly believe that they're fighting for then we should have the patience to wait it out.

I think that a lot of the Light we seek comes from the overall Masonic experience... not only the ritual but the dinners and collations, the road trips to other lodges, the joking around during rehearsal. Those things couldn't sound less esoteric or spiritual on the surface, but from what I've experienced so far Freemasonry is greater than the sum of its parts, which is what gives it that elusive X factor that makes it so hard to describe succinctly. To put it another way, I think that while poring obsessively over our symbols and rituals for hidden messages and meaning, some Brothers miss the forest for the trees. That's not to dismiss the idea that there may be deeper messages or meanings in the ritual, just that they are only a part of the Masonic whole.

Speaking of experience: I recognize that my experience is my own, and that I may be more fortunate than some having joined the lodge and jurisdiction I did. I am not trying to invalidate or belittle the some of the very real frustrations or problems that I know exist in other lodges and/or jurisdictions. I simply want to add a positive voice to the chorus.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Travel in Foreign Countries

In the unlikely event that anyone reading this is 1) A Mason, 2) A FileMaker developer, and 3) Going to DevCon in Phoenix, Arizona next month: Drop me a line at theexlife@gmail.com and maybe we can at least meet up long enough to grab a cup of coffee during the week.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Good Questions from Bro. Accuosti

VW Bro. Tom Accuosti left a thought-provoking comment on my last post, in which I wondered aloud why so many brethren disappear after the third degree:
Good question. What about the mentors and avouchers for the new guys. Do they keep in touch with them? Does the investigation committee mention that they would like the new guys to participate?

When I go out on interviews, I usually tell them that we'd like them to commit to at least one event per year. A Child ID, an afternoon making sandwiches, a cleanup day, something. That generally sets the tone that we expect something, but nothing too vague or arduous.

Do you rehearse every week? That's great!


These are good questions, which I can only answer from my place as a relatively new member myself:

What about the mentors and avouchers for the new guys.

From what I could tell, the assignment of mentors is fairly casual at my lodge - it seems like that duty usually falls to the Secretary.

Do they keep in touch with them?

Yes and no; early on I got calls asking if I was planning on attending district Lodges of Instruction, and the invitation to stop by on Monday night is open-ended, but there haven't been any "just checking in to see how you're doing/if you have any questions" conversations or phone calls.

Does the investigation committee mention that they would like the new guys to participate?

The committee who investigated me asked if I was prepared for the time commitment involved in joining the Masons - the three month timeframe at two or more nights per month - but other than telling me "you get out of it what you put into it," that request/expectation of minimal commitment wasn't expressed.

It's definitely a tricky balance; on the one hand, Freemasonry is not supposed to interfere with your family or professional commitments... on the other, there's the stubborn part of me that wonders why someone would bother joining if they knew they would be too busy to participate in their Lodge.

Of the four of us who were raised in April, only two of us came back for the next regular communication in May, and as far as I know I'm the only one who has gone to any functions (exemplification, table lodge, Lodge of Instruction) at another lodge.

Ultimately, though, it's not fair for me to speculate as to why Brothers don't show up or get involved unless I'm prepared to ask them about it. I have my interest and enthusiasm, and it's OK if it's not shared by everyone.

Do you rehearse every week? That's great!

As far as I know, at least some folks show up every week (assuming there's a degree happening at the next meeting) unless it's a long weekend. I'm not sure whether that carries through the summer break or not.

This is how it happens

My lodge is open most Monday evenings for degree rehearsal, and so candidates can go over their ciphers with a mentor.

Knowing this, I stopped by last night to poke through the lodge library, which I had not had a chance to explore yet.

When I came back down from the library, the officers were just headed into the lodge room to begin running through the second degree, and I was heartily invited to come in and watch... I had been encouraged to come and watch before, but I hadn't had a chance since taking the third degree.

As everyone filed into the lodge room and took their chairs, it was realized that there were no Stewards present. The Senior Steward arrived shortly thereafter, but not before I agreed to sit in the Junior Steward's chair, you know, just for the sake of the rehearsal.

It has not escaped my attention that we do not currently have a Junior Steward installed. If I keep showing up on Monday nights, I will probably wind up sitting in that chair next year.

Is this why so many new brethren disappear once they're raised, for fear of actually getting involved?

One-Word Movie Review: National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets

Meh.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

A New Obsession

When I lived in Southern California, I was fascinated by post-modern googie architecture - partly because of a general interest in 1950s design but also because it was nothing like what I grew up with in Massachusetts. After I got my first decent digital camera in 1999, I got into the habit of planning pilgrimages to various buildings I had read about so I could see and photograph them.

Since getting back to New England I haven't really had a similar photographic subject to focus on, but lately I've been taking a lot of photos of things Masonic and related to other fraternal/civic organizations. It's fun to have a photographic obsession again. As with the googie architecture, I like finding and shooting things that not many people are paying attention to any more and feel some of the same sense of urgency to capture them before they disappear.

Odd FellowsPacific Lodge A.F. & A.M. - 1
Bygone WelcomeWorcester Odd Fellows' Home - 17Benevolent Protective Order of Elks

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On The Wearing of Rings

One of the things I remember reading early on last summer was that Masons aren't supposed to wear rings or put bumper stickers/emblems on their cars until they are raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason.

I don't remember where I read it, and I don't know if the claim was made about North American Freemasonry in general, or if the writer was posting about their own jurisdiction and I didn't really make the distinction at the time.

I should read through it again, but I don't recall any mention in the Massachusetts' members handbook of who is "allowed" to wear rings or put stickers on their car. I certainly don't recall any mention of a proper way to wear one's ring (compass points out vs compass points in, on a certain finger, or whatever); it strikes me as a slightly fabricated topic of discussion, as though someone recently assumed that there must be some kind of tradition or significance, and kicked off a debate where none existed previously. I like this answer best. (via the comments on Bro. Shane Hale's recent post - congrats, Shane!) However, I may be totally off base here and flagrantly dismissing a matter that is much more important in other jurisdictions. My apologies if this is the case - if there are Grand Lodges (or local lodges, for that matter) with official stances or policies about the wearing of rings I'd love to learn about it.

I've been wearing my ring with the points out for fairly pragmatic reasons. It's easier for someone else to recognize it that way in most situations, and that's half the point of wearing a Masonic ring (at least it is for me.)

As for auto decals: there was one tucked into my handbook, and I received that right after my Entered Apprentice degree. I don't think it matters too much in Massachusetts. Plus, as far as I know there's nothing stopping anyone, including cowans and eavesdroppers, from ordering a whole Lodge's worth of regalia, rings, hats, bumper stickers, et cetera from someplace like LAFSCO... the ring (or the manner in which it is worn) does not the Mason make.

Lodge as Retreat

Over the last couple of months I have gained a real appreciation for Lodge as a retreat/refuge from the outside world. Stresses of work and our imminent move into the new house (which still needs much work to be habitable) have been mounting, and I am very much looking forward to leaving that all behind for a while during tonight's dinner and Lodge of Instruction.

It's a bit different than going out for a drink or a movie with a friend; I have a hard time taking an arbitrary break if I know there's something I could/should be doing with my time instead. While being a member of a Lodge definitely includes a large social element, it's the extra bit of structure, formality, and commitment that lets my inner taskmaster accept it as something I have to do, not just something I'd like to do.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Worcester Masonic Temple

Worcester Masonic Temple - 2

I had an errand that took me to downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. I had never seen the Worcester Masonic Temple before except in an old postcard view, so I plugged the address into Google Maps and discovered it was right around the corner from my destination.

I was surprised to discover I actually had seen the building before, about 6 years ago when I was trying to find the RMV and used Ionic avenue to turn around. When I saw it again I remembered being struck by the place the first time and assuming it was an old high school. If I had looked closer I would have seen the square and compasses over the entrance, but at the time I wasn't the least bit interested in Freemasonry, and didn't notice.

The building was totally deserted on a Friday morning... not surprising really, but tucked away on a downtown side-street with no other adjacent businesses except a Boys and Girls' Club that was also closed up tight, it felt a little bit lonely and forgotten.

Nevertheless the building looks like it's in good shape --at least on the outside-- and I believe it also is home to the Scottish Rite Valley of Worcester and a Knights Templar Commandery. I noticed that it also serves as a 32º Childrens' Learning Center... I'm sure that if I came back on a weekday afternoon or evening the place would be much more lively. I'd love to get a look at the inside.

Worcester Masonic Temple - 2
Worcester Masonic Temple - 3
Worcester Masonic Temple - 4
Worcester Masonic Temple - 5
FIAT LVX
Worcester Masonic Temple - 7
Worcester Masonic Temple - 8
Worcester Masonic Temple - 9
Worcester Masonic Temple - 10
Worcester Masonic Temple - 11



The temple was completed in 1914 and originally used by four lodges from the city of Worcester. You can read more about the history of the building and one of the venerable lodges that meets there at: http://morningstarlodge.homestead.com/MorningStar.html


View Larger Map

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not Your Founding Fathers' Freemasonry

In his post John Quincy Adams, Masonry & The Free, Invisible Car, Wayfaring Man examines a stinging description of Freemasonry by John Quincy Adams in a letter to William A. Stone in 1832. Here’s a brief excerpt that sums up Adams’ view:

...nor is it conceivable that any such Entered Apprentice, on leaving the lodge after his admission, should fail to have observed, with pain and mortification, the contrast between the awful solemnity of the oath which he has taken, and the extreme insignificance of the secrets revealed to him.

It’s actually not so much different than the tired quote from Benjamin Franklin:

The great secret of Freemasonry is that there is no secret at all.

At risk of putting words in those esteemed gentlemens’ mouths, here’s my take:

Adams is saying that upon being initiated, the new Entered Apprentice’s first reaction is, “That’s IT?!” Adams then posits that the full initiation is spread across three degrees to keep those disappointed candidates hoping for the real secrets in the second and third degrees; otherwise, everyone would bail after the first.

Franklin is saying that you’re missing the point if you obsess on the secrets and ignore the three virtues of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

It seems like there are two main types of disappointment expressed by new Masons here in the 21st century. One is from candidates who are expecting “instant enlightenment,” or as Wayfaring Man writes:

But there is another group of men who have passed through the west door: these men are under the impression that when they reach the third degree they will be given the spiritual equivalent of a new car, and when they find that this is not the case, they lose interest rapidly.

The other kind of disappointment is from Masons who are excited to join the fraternity after reading about its role in the 17th and 18th centuries… how it provided a safe haven for open-minded men to learn and discuss philosophy, spirituality, and science on the level. Upon joining, though, they feel they can’t find any brothers interested in discussing something more stimulating than who’s going to man the griddle at the next pancake breakfast. 2 Bowl Cain writes:

American Freemasonry of the 20th and 21st century has changed and become a 501c10. The Freemasonry of our Founding Fathers is dead and gone in America. Pre 1800’s it was an entity on its own. Today it is one of many other 501c10’s.

The conclusion of these Masons is that three degrees have become little more than a vestigial curiosity and otherwise there’s not much separating us from the Elks, Lions, or Kiwanis. To borrow the car analogy, these new Brothers are expecting to learn how to build a car from scratch, and are crestfallen when they’re handed the keys to a regular old Chevy that’s already been built.

In their disappointment, some of them never discover that the Chevy is a 1958 Corvette Roadster, which needs a lot of work but will be a priceless classic when it’s done.

The thing that seems to be constantly overlooked in these comparisons of modern and early American Freemasonry is that our society has undergone tremendous changes since the revolutionary period… industrialization, urbanization, and then the backlash and willful self-isolation of suburbanization. We’ve invented cinema, radio, television, video games, and the internet. These changes have all affected the ways in which we interact with others and view the world around us, and even if our ceremonies and language haven’t changed much in the last 200 years it’s not reasonable to expect the Masonic experience not to have changed along with the rest of society.

The plain truth is that Freemasonry isn’t needed today as a safe, private forum to discuss political and religious matters in the same way that it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. While you’ll still find plenty of intolerance and small-mindedness on those subjects throughout this country, you generally needn’t fear being jailed or executed for expressing yourself in public.

So what is our relevance?

One of the biggest scapegoats for the decline in membership among all fraternal/service groups is the fact that the free-spirited baby boomers rejected these groups as part of “The Establishment,” and left their parents’ generation holding the torch from the 1960's onward. As generation X and Y have come along, we have been inculcated with the notion that the Masons, Elks, and Odd Fellows used to be popular/relevant/bigger than they are today, but nobody except a few old guys belongs any more. As institutions they have been stripped of any kind of relevance as far as younger generations are concerned, because in so many cases our parents never felt any relevance either. My generation’s attitude seems to be “Aww, it’s kind of quaint that there used to be organizations like that, instead of the way society is now when nobody knows their neighbors or gets involved in their communities. Oh well!” The thought of joining such groups ourselves doesn’t even occur to us unless it’s a family tradition, because we never got those cues from most of our parents’ generation.

I can still remember quite clearly my deep sense of surprise last year upon learning that a 26 year old co-worker was a member of the Elks. The idea of a young guy joining one of those clubs who met in those old buildings I’d been driving past for years knocked something loose in the back of my head, and ultimately led to my becoming a Mason. While I was attracted to the Masons in particular because of its emphasis on the art and science of character building, in a more general sense I joined because I wanted to feel some of that sense of community and fellowship that was lacking in my life.

I think that we are sometimes too quick to dismiss that basic, social/community aspect of the modern Masonic experience as being “just like the Elks” and therefore somehow distasteful. As humans continue to create more diverse and effective ways to isolate and distract ourselves, plain old fashioned social gathering and interaction will become an increasingly valuable commodity. I don’t see that as anything to be ashamed of.

As for the “missing” philosphical aspect of modern Freemasonry, I think that we newer Masons have the wrong expectations when we petition… there seems to be this concept of esoteric or philosophical discussion as a monolithic thing, like a bullet point on the meeting agenda:

  • Open Lodge

  • Read minutes

  • Read bills

  • HAVE ESOTERIC DISCUSSION

  • Close Lodge

The approach seems stilted to me; I wouldn’t sit down next to a Brother at our next dinner and say, “So, would you like to have an esoteric discussion about Masonry?” Sitting down next to a Brother and asking a more specific question like, “So, what were you thinking about during the second section of the third degree?” is a much more targeted question that might jump start an interesting discussion about what Masonry means to the other Brethren at my lodge.

It’s not reasonable to expect the lodge experience in the United States (and from state to state, district to district) in 2008 to be the same as it was in England in 1717. Nor is it reasonable to expect broad changes to happen or be embraced instantly, no matter how spoiled we are by one-click shopping and overnight delivery.Keep in mind how long it takes to become a Master Mason in some jurisdictions: at least one month between degrees in most of the ones I know of, and longer than that in others where they’re serious about proficiency. It was 8 months between the day I applied and the night I was initiated.

Keep in mind how long it takes to become Master of a lodge: seven years assuming there’s a full officer line and nobody drops out. When was the last time you spent seven years working on anything except perhaps your Master’s degree or PhD?

The first operative mason who had an idea about how it would be possible to construct soaring, thin stained glass walls by using flying buttresses probably didn’t figure it out during the first year of his apprenticeship. He probably didn’t get it right on the first try, either.

If we aren’t finding the experience we seek, it is up to us to draw the blueprints and provide the guidance, and more importantly the patience to bring it to the Craft.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wor. Brother R. Theron Dunn

I would like to extend my sympathies to the family and friends of Worshipful R. Theron Dunn, who passed away on Tuesday after a brief, unexpected illness.

Theron’s weblog, Beacon of Masonic Light, was among the first that I encountered when I got interested in Freemasonry last year, and it provided some of the strongest counter-arguments to the voices of discontent calling for radical changes, Grand Lodge reform or even the formation of new Grand bodies like the UGLA/GOUSA. I never met or interacted with Theron personally, but his counterpoints were partially responsible for helping me form my own middle-of-the-road attitude toward Freemasonry. I am not the first to say it, but while I may not have always agreed with some of Bro. Theron’s arguments and positions I usually understood where they were coming from.

Sometimes I didn’t, though, and I will admit that there were times that I had started (and abandoned) cantankerous rebuttal posts of my own. I bring this up not out of any kind of guilt or apology; I still have my opinions, and Theron will no doubt have many stimulating discussions about his with all of our Brethren in the Celestial Lodge above. I bring it up because his untimely passing puts those differences of opinions in a better context; Being brothers isn’t about any one person being “right”, or about agreeing on everything all the time, (good lord, how boring that would be!) it’s about tolerance and mutual respect. As Brother Dunn was fond of saying, "It's not about me changing them, it's about me changing me."

Virtus Junxit, Mors Non Separabit.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Whither the Odd Fellows?

I've been thinking a lot about the Odd Fellows since my post last week, saddened to see a once-vibrant fraternity disappearing and wondering how it was that the Masons have remained comparatively strong as the Odd Fellows seem to be fading away. Looking at the directory of Massachusetts Odd Fellows' lodges, most of them are in the greater Boston area and some of the ones further west are indicated on the map, but no longer listed below... presumably gone dark.

Is there some vital difference that has kept Freemasonry alive while Odd Fellowship has faltered? Or (and I suspect this may the case) did the Masons' state-by-state Grand Lodge system provide better regional autonomy and support for lodges during the leanest years than the IOOF's internationally sovereign structure?

There's a part of me that feels like I should petition Naukeag Lodge in Ashburnham, Massachusetts if only to try and help keep it alive --and, I admit, to satisfy my curiosity about how the Odd Fellows' degrees compare and contrast to the three Blue Lodge degrees. As a motive for joining, though, that feels rather empty compared to the visceral "That's what I've been looking for" feeling I had when I asked to become a Mason.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Good thoughts for W. Brother Theron Dunn

http://freemasonsfordummies.blogspot.com/2008/05/wbro-theron-dunn-gravely-ill.html

Call it prayer, call it "thinking positive thoughts," call it "sending good vibes" - whatever it is that you do, please do it for Brother Dunn.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nice.


I am not much of a jewelry purchaser or wearer. In high school I succumbed to the Jostens sales pitch and had a class ring for a while, but I lost it somewhere during my senior year and it wasn't until I got married that I acquired another hunk of metal to put on my finger. And even then, my wife and I bought our wedding bands from a vendor at the Sherman Oaks street fair in 1999 or 2000... plain old sterling silver bands for about $8.00 apiece, picked out from between all the flaming skull and iron cross rings on either side. (Of all the things on which we might have spent thousands of dollars we didn't have, teensy metal loops was not at the top of our list. Neither of us even particularly likes gold or diamonds.)

Masons' rings mean a lot of different things to their individual wearers. As for me, I decided to get one to show my pride in belonging to the fraternity, and to provide a mode of recognition to others when I'm peregrinating. I didn't want to spend a lot of money, though, and some of the rings you see at the low end of the spectrum (on Ebay, for example) look like Cracker Jack prizes. I found this on Amazon, and I'm very happy with it for the price; I find it elegant in its simplicity and understatement.

(Obligatory disclaimer: I am not affiliated in any way with the vendor, I don't get any kind of referral, et cetera. I'm just a contented customer.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

And...?

This past weekend was the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts' official 275th anniversary blowout, with Grand Lodge tours, a black tie dinner, a ball, guided Masonic tours of Boston, and other goings on. If I weren't still working away at my house (The end of June is alarmingly close, and I really can't spare any weekend days for at least the next couple of months) I would have volunteered to lead some tours of the Grand Lodge (which I have yet to visit, myself)... but oh, well... I figure by the time the tricentennial rolls around I should be in a much better position to participate in all the festivities.

So with all that was going on this weekend, you'd think an accompanying article in the Boston Globe might have gone into a little bit of history, touched on Prince Hall, or generally departed from the same fluff written about the Masons in pretty much any newspaper... but no, you get the usual:
  • Mention the conspiracy theories right away
  • Mention the Freemasons in in the American Revolution
  • Mention the presidents who were Masons, throw in Ben Franklin and John Hancock for good measure
  • "We don't have any secrets" quote from a prominent Mason
  • "Resurgence in popularity thanks to the Da Vinci Code and National Treasure" seems to be the new bullet point replacing "aging members dying off and lodges struggling for survival"
Of course, shallow articles about the Masons are just part of our secret plot to lull the public into a false sense of disinterest.

(Clippy graphic purloined from a post by Bro. Christopher Hodapp a while back.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Childhood Glimpses

Last week I had occasion to drive through Worcester, Massachusetts on Route 190. Having grown up in a town near Worcester, I rode through many a car trip along that major artery through the city, and one building used to dominate the hillside to the north of the freeway: The Odd Fellows' Home. It's still there, but another building has sprung up between it and the Freeway, so it has receded into the background a little bit.

My parents would often point it out, partly because it's a neat building, and partly because it's fun and mysterious to talk about a group of people called "The Odd Fellows". My parents never had much of an answer for me as to who the Odd Fellows were, other than that they 1) had been around for a long time, 2) did a lot of charity work. 3) were a private sort of a group (they might have gone so far as to use the word "secretive".)

What they didn't know was how people got to be in the Odd Fellows in the first place... and as a kid, any question your parents can't answer is surely a deep, deep mystery of the universe.

Looking at the large, victorian building perched atop a hill with its prominent logo (three interlinked rings) across the tower, it's exactly the sort of dramatic place you would expect a group called the Odd Fellows to meet, and as a kid the fuzzy mental picture I developed went along with the building; old guys in fancy clothes meeting at night behind locked doors, doing mysterious things. The fact that such a phenomenon existed was intriguing to me, but did not strike me as relevant to my own existence, nobody in my immediate sphere being involved; over the years it was an interesting bit of cultural trivia to know of the Odd Fellows, and to recognize the three linked rings on the occasional building or cemetery headstone, but it wasn't until much more recently that I ever contemplated finding out how to join such an outfit.

I was not a particularly popular kid growing up, and was never at the top of anyone's list to invite to any "clubs" that might have been formed... but the notion of clubs and club houses definitely appealed to me. One of my favorite book series as a kid was Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators... the titular teenaged characters had their own detective agency run out of an old trailer completely buried in a junkyard. They could surveil their surroundings via periscope, and access to the clubhouse was via a series of hidden tunnels through the debris, with special knocks and everything.

I would bet that aside from all of the noble ideals of spiritual temple building and service to mankind, inside just about every Mason is a 10 year old boy who really digs being part of a "secret club". I'll cop to it, how about you? Apart from those of you whose fathers/uncles/grandfathers were Brothers, How old were you when you became aware of groups like the Masons and Odd Fellows? How did you learn about them? What did you think? Looking back, what do you think now?

Friday, May 2, 2008

That's Better

I still have plenty of distractions whirling around in my head, but I managed to break the logjam that prompted my last post and now don't feel quite so much like I'm stealing time away from something more or important, or wasting precious free moments by nattering away on this weblog. So, in no particular order, here are thoughts that have been knocking around my head this week... (fair warning, this turned into a rambly one.)

Last Saturday evening I attended my first Table Lodge, which you could also say was my first "non-newbie" Masonic function - that is to say, I wasn't receiving a degree, and I wasn't required to be there as with a Lodge of Instruction. Also, I was the only person there from my lodge so in a way it was a little bit like that first time you take the car out by yourself after getting your license.

It was a lot of fun, and I can't wait to attend another. (although I will have to budget myself; $25 is not much to pay for an evening of warm fellowship and excellent food, but enough of them would definitely start to add up!)

A few observations:

As mentioned, I was the only person there from my own lodge, which meant I didn't have any "default conversational partners" for the evening. I had met some of the Brothers who were there from other lodges at my degrees, or at Lodges of Instruction, but for the most part I was on my own. I wound up sitting next to a Brother from the northwest corner of the state. He was very friendly and welcomed me warmly to the fraternity, but I didn't really converse much with him through the evening. I didn't really converse much with anyone through the evening, and because I'm the sort of person who tends to watch and listen before diving into most situations, that was Ok. I wasn't being actively ignored or shunned, and feel I could certainly have struck up a conversation if I had wanted to.

The overall sense of fellowship was really something... I described it to a profane friend as a general, mutual feeling of "I've never met you before, but if you're here you must be an OK guy." The food was good, and the evening's 7 toasts (with wine) were way more fun than they had any right to be. Looking around from time to time, I saw that I was not the only Brother choosing to just watch, listen, and passively enjoy the company.

With the exception of the entrée and the wine (apple juice for those choosing to abstain), the meal was served on paper plates. I did not feel that this detracted especially from the overall experience, which was simply one out of what I hope will be many, at many different lodges over the years, some more formal than others, some more "traditional" than others. If after all that I want a table lodge with real dishes, glasses and silverware, I can damn well become Master of a lodge and try to make it happen during my year in the East.

Which segues into a CD that just arrived in my mailbox today (gotta love SwapaCD), Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs. It had been on my wishlist since it came out in 2006, and promises to find itself in heavy rotation as spring gives way to summer. Anyway, a couple of lines from the track Together struck me:
You want everything to be just like
The stories that you read but never write
If I want to change or improve something in my life, or at my lodge, or wherever, then all I have to do is actually get off my ass and do it. Sometimes it's easy to lose track of the simple equation:

x not done + someone doing x = x getting done

Most of the time it's easier to complain about x not being done, or write about all the reasons x should be done, than to actually do x. Probably the most profound example of this equation in my life happened about 12 years ago, when I went with my brother and sister to the iMax theater at the Boston Museum of Science and watched a film about special effects - specifically, the kind old-school miniature building that made Star Wars such a ground-breaking phenomenon, and has since been almost entirely replaced by CGI. As we left the theater, I made a comment like "Wow, I'd love to do that for a living", and my older brother flippantly said, "Well, then you should go do learn how to do it!" He probably doesn't even remember the conversation, and at the time I didn't think much of his comment.

A month or two later, I moved to Los Angeles with my then-girlfriend (now wife), who got a job at a foam fabrication/costume making shop herself, thanks to skills she had picked up doing 3D illustration in college. Since we only had one car, I would drop her off in the morning and then pound the pavement all day trying to get my foot in the door with a web design company. I got to be a familiar face around the shop where my wife worked, and one day when they were up against a shooting deadline, I was asked if I wanted to help work on some stuff for a Saban (you know, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) production... and just like that, I was doing special effects for a living.

Granted, the pay was crappy and it was a far cry from Industrial Light & Magic, but if I had been passionate enough about effects to put in the long hours and work my way up the food chain in L.A., ILM would not necessarily have been out of reach. Want to work in special effects? It's easy: move to L.A. and start cold-calling the small shops around the San Fernando Valley. Sooner or later you'll find one that needs warm bodies for some project or another, and if you demonstrate any kind of competence at all you stand a good chance of being kept on after the crunch.

I did manage to do some work I was proud of on some props and costumes that appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but my heart wasn't in it... there were guys who would sacrifice their nights and weekends without overtime pay on the mere possibility that they might get their name in the end credits of a movie. Me, I just wanted to go home and crash.

Speaking of making change happen: I'm psyched about yesterday's announcement of The Masonic Society, which I probably would have joined already had I not spent almost exactly the same amount of money on an inexpensive (but tasteful) Masonic ring only hours before. I think I will join The Masonic Society as a housewarming present to myself after we have moved into our new house later this summer.

As for the ring, it's something I'll be proud to wear, and I'm also very curious to see what kinds of places and situations I'm in where it might be noticed by a fellow Brother. Photo to follow when it arrives.

And finally, I need this t-shirt: