Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Profane Perspective

(This is a long one, but it's been in my draft pile forever and not finishing has been distracting me from getting other stuff done. I'm going crank it out and have done with it. Thanks for indulging me. -A)

Because I've had so long to research and reflect upon Masonry without actually being inducted, lately I've found myself trying to step back look at the Freemasons from the perspective I had last May.

I knew next to nothing about the craft, with a few misconceptions and the totally baseless, vague sense of suspicion that seems to have permeated American culture thanks to the usual suspects... from Leo Taxil to 21st century pop culture. I also think that, in this age of being able to call up nearly any fact with nothing more than an internet connection and some search engine know-how, people are just growing increasingly, automatically suspicious of any collective type of secrecy. It doesn't matter if you tell someone, "yes, there are secrets but they're really only limited to parts of the rituals, grips, and tokens... and you can go find those on the internet/at the library/at Barnes & Noble," the assumption seems to be that if you won't spill the beans in spite of the beans already having been spilled, you've got to be up to something.

That perspective is misguided and unfortunate... it reminds me of people who say, "Well, if you're not doing anything illegal then why do you care if the government taps your phone or reads your e-mail?" I think that what's missing from the current popular responses to questions about the Masons' secrets ("Not a secret society, a society with secrets", the Ben Franklin quote about the biggest secret being no secret at all, "You can find all the secrets online") is a follow-through explaining why anyone would bother to uphold an oath to protect something that can no longer be protected.

Instead of being vaguely evasive, I think a better response would be a proud explanation that being a Freemason means something, that we're proud to belong to such an old and storied organization, and that upholding the oaths is a way to signify what it means to be a Mason. That being a Mason is about being upright and true to your word. It might be a little harder for people to raise their eyebrows at a statement like that than "I won't tell you, but you can go look it up at the library." Bro. Brent Morris said something to this effect towards the end of one of those Discovery or History Channel shows (I won't call them documentaries) about the Freemasons, and it was probably the most illuminating moment in the whole program.

Early last summer, before I had even set foot in a lodge, I was obsessed with the notion of meaning. At the time I had trouble describing what I was after, I think mostly because I hadn't yet absorbed a good sense of what goes on in a lodge. What was nibbling at the back of my mind is that curious overlap between the spiritual/religious and the social. Nobody questions that a religion's customs and rituals hold meaning for their practitioners... not even most atheists would dispute that. What about Freemasonry? It's such a peculiar institution, "religious but not a religion", as one description goes. From that secular perspective, it's hard to parse what the rituals and obligations mean, if they're not to be ascribed to a system of worship. I know that was one of the things that really puzzled me when I first began looking into Freemasonry.

Reading many a Mason's weblog in the ensuing months has given me a wide enough set of perspectives to realize that there is no one, single meaning behind it all. For some it's a deeply spiritual outlet in their personal quest for enlightenment, or self-improvement. For others it's a time-honored fraternity with an illustrious past, in desperate need of rehabilitation and/or protection from uppity whippersnappers. For a lot of men, it's about just being able say you're a Mason and wear a ring or lapel pin even if you never go to lodge.

For my part, I stumbled onto Freemasonry in search of something like "Boy Scouts for grown-ups", and that's still a phrase I use to explain to some friends why I decided to join... when I'm talking to a former scout who really enjoyed the camp-outs and troop meetings, their eyes light up and they know exactly what I'm talking about. One of my absolute favorite descriptions of joining the Freemasons is in this discussion forum thread, where a Mason says "For me, it was like slipping into a comfortable old coat and finding a note in the pocket."

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who, even if they had absolutely no prior opinion about the Masons, would read Freemasons for Dummies from cover to cover, put it down, and still say, "but what's the point? Why would grown men put on aprons and funny hats and spend so much free time doing that? Do they actually take it seriously?"

My response to a reaction like that? "Results may vary." It's like the fine print at the bottom of the weight loss commercial; just because they're showing people who lost 150 pounds doesn't necessarily mean you will too. Joining the Freemasons because you're enchanted by the idealized, noble, englightened fraternity of gentleman philospher-philanthropists you've read about online doesn't necessarily mean that's what you'll find at the lodge down the street.

If you try to lose 150 pounds overnight (or drag Freemasonry kicking and screaming overnight into your vision of what it should be), you're going to get frustrated and disillusioned. If you have the will and the patience to work at it over time, though, you'll get there.

So what are my expectations as someone who has been accepted but not yet inducted? Over the past seven or so months I think they've gone from "lose 150 pounds" to a more realistic "lose maybe 50 pounds, keep it off, and see if I can't continue the trend."

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