Thursday, April 17, 2008

In Summary

Since my induction in February I've been to five lodge meetings; my three degrees, a Lodge of Instruction, and my district's Exemplification. The exemplification happened the very night after I was raised, and as the only person crazy enough to show up without being obliged as an officer, I wound up playing the part of the candidate again, and got to experience the short and long forms of the second section - how many Masons do you know who were raised thrice in two days?

Five meetings isn't a lot, but it's been enough for me to start to get a sense of some of the personalities and dynamics within my lodge. I still have a long way to go in terms of learning and understanding the ritual, but receiving the third and final degree did have the feeling of "completing the picture" for me. That is not to say that I was somehow suddenly elevated to a state of full cosmic enlightenment, far from it - but after 9 months of trying to figure out what it's all about, the third degree left me thinking "Oh! Now I think I get it," even if I can't put into words what "it" is.

I am quite pleased to be able to leave all of that speculation behind, and my plan henceforth is to write about actual experience as I continue in Freemasonry. I feel a little bit like I'm closing a book, and so before I move on I want to write down some impressions and observations based on my own experiences from discovering Freemasonry, to petitioning, to investigation, to induction.

So you just got kind of interested in the Masons

Assuming you're in the same boat I was, with no direct context among family or friends, the whole business can seem a little bit mysterious or even sinister, especially since every TV show or newspaper article about the Masons begins, "There are over 6 million Freemasons worldwide, but they are very secretive and little is known about them."

The first thing a lot of people notice about Freemasonry is the heavy use of symbols, some of which may seem a bit strange; a coffin? A dagger pointing at a heart? A big disembodied eye hovering over everything? Unfortunately, it seems like many people leap to the immediate conclusion that such symbols must be somehow occult or macabre, rather than simply archaic; The first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 and the Freemasonry has been around longer than that in one form or another, so we're talking about symbols from 300+ years ago. They didn't have emoticons back then.

Then there's all the terminology; Rituals, Temples, Altars - in the 21st century, the use of these words outside of the context of a mainstream religion seems to have Temple of Doom-style connotations to people.

I know most of my own hangups were centered around terminology; "If it's not a religion, then what's the altar for and why do they call their buildings temples?" Once I learned that Freemasonry uses the allegory of the building of King Solomon's Temple as the basis for its teachings, most of my misgivings went away. If you're in the same boat I was last June, intrigued but a little bit weirded out, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Brother Chris Hodapp's Freemasons for Dummies.

Contacting a Lodge

Even if you've decided that the Masons aren't up to anything weird, taking the next step and contacting a lodge can be indimidating; after all, it's a "secret society", isn't it?

Things to keep in mind:
  • If you've spent any time reading up on the Masons, you have no doubt read that membership is down - your local Lodge(s) will be delighted to hear from a potential new member.
  • If they didn't want people to call them, they wouldn't have a publicly listed phone number.
  • If you're more comfortable with e-mail, and you find a website and e-mail address for your local lodge, by all means go for it. Just be mindful that a lodge's e-mail address may not be checked as obsessively as you check your own; if you don't receive an immediate reply to your e-mail, don't worry about it. One of the first lodges I contacted by e-mail took a few weeks to get back to me! If you're really raring to go, telephone is probably your best bet.
  • The person you talk to went through the same exact thing; they had to knock on the door and ask to join too.

Submitting a Petition

If you've pretty much made up your mind to join by the time you go and visit a lodge to ask questions and get a tour, you might want to bring along names, addresses, and phone numbers for people you want to use as references, so that you can fill out an application on the spot if you decide you want to go for it.

Other than that, there's not much to it. In my jurisdiction, the application form asked for the information you'd expect; name, address, contact information (day/evening phone numbers), and then a question you wouldn't expect on most other applications:
  • Do you believe in a Supreme Being?
By now you have probably read or been told that this is a key requirement for membership - but beyond an answer in the affirmative, you are not asked to elaborate.

The Investigative Committee

From my own personal experience, and having read about numerous other Brothers' experiences, you don't need to get nervous about your "investigation". Look at it as an opportunity to get to know a few of the men who will be your Brothers once you join, and obviously for them to get to know you. In my case, I got the impression that they relied more on my references to get a picture of what kind of person I am, and used the meeting with me to get a read on my social skills and general demeanor.

This experience probably varies widely from lodge to lodge, but in general, if you're an upright citizen who's not a jerk, you should be in good shape.

The Interminable Wait

This was the hardest part for me, once I decided I wanted to become a Mason; my timing was such that I applied right before my lodge broke for the summer, taking July and August off... and then my degree was scheduled on short notice in September, but I wasn't able to attend because of a long-standing, prior obligation! That's how I wound up waiting nearly 8 months to take the first degree.

I occupied my time by reading about Freemasonry on and offline, and I allowed myself to get caught up in some of the laments about the current state of the craft, and debates over reform and revitalization, speculating blindly about what kind of experience I'd find when I finally did join my own lodge, and generally steeling myself for disappointment, like I was joining about 100 years too late.

I don't know that there's really any way I could have avoided that; 8 months is a long time to wait for anything these days, and from the start Freemasonry was something I was very interested in; it was the white bear I couldn't not think about for three quarters of a year. If you find yourself in the same boat, waiting for months before your actual induction, at least do yourself the favor of not setting your opinions or expectations in stone. Like Sarastro said on his weblog:
Imagine that you've spent the last 15 years reading about riding a bicycle. You've read everything there is to know about balance, coordination, how a bicycle works, theories, training manuals, biographies of great bike riders, etc.

None of that can compare to actually getting your butt on a bike and riding it.
So as you speculate, remember that no one person speaks for Freemasonry, no matter how high their website ranks in Google search results. Consider this: even Grand Masters' authorities end at the borders of their own jurisdictions! As you read about frustration or indignation over the state of Freemasonry in one place or another, try to keep in mind that your own experience, once you finally take that first degree, will almost certainly be different than what some guy on the other side of the country is writing about! For that matter, it will probably be different than the picture you're building up in your mind (like that hypothetical bicycle above.)

One last thing I would say: avoid spoilers if you can! Skip the part about the degrees in Freemasons for Dummies, and stay away from complete descriptions such as can be found in Duncan's Ritual, which can be easily found online. I tried to avoid details about the degree ceremonies themselves, and although I couldn't help but be exposed to some details ahead of time, I definitely feel like the experience was better than it would have been if I knew exactly what was going to happen next.

The Induction

On the night of my initation, several Brothers went out of their way to reassure myself and the three other candidates that there was nothing to fear, and that everyone else in the lodge has been through the exact same thing. This was in contrast to some other accounts I've read where some Brothers will make jokes about "riding the goat", which might seem to them like a harmless enough joke or a good way to break tension, but does a disservice to the potentially nervous candidate and the seriousness of the event.

I'm here to spoil the joke for all the merry pranksters out there: There is no goat. Seriously.

When you are told early on in the first degree to Fear No Danger, it's the truth.


So this is the end of "Chapter 1" - I want to thank my Brothers who helped me learn about Freemasonry when I first got interested, and through their encouraging comments and insightful writings convinced me that this was something I wanted to be a part of. Thanks, Widow's Son, Tom Acousti, Chris Hodapp, Wayfaring Man, and the author of Horseshoes and Handgrenades, whose handle I am afraid I don't know! I read so many Masonic blogs and forums during my initial curiosity that I'm sure I am forgetting someone, so one last generic "thanks" to everyone else. Fiat Lux!


Tom Accuosti said...

I'm here to spoil the joke for all the merry pranksters out there: There is no goat. Seriously.

OFGS! That goat thing makes me crazy! It's totally last century, and even at that, it was stupid. We do not use goats!

Gerbils however..

A.C. said...

Gerbils however..

Just what we need, cross pollination between the Richard Gere urban legend, and Masonic urban legends!

Ambling Scrooge said...

Gerbils however...

Well, since you opened the cross pollination door:
"Gerbil Burger Pod" is an acronym for "Bilderberg Group"...


Anonymous said...

Tom the Meddlesome Naysayer said...

We do not use goats!
Gerbils however..

And you were asking me about the ferrets...

A.C., you've written an excellent summary of the joining process which belongs on every Masonic web page. I was with a prospective member on Friday and his main question was "What happens next?"

And we don't use anything close to Duncan's. Anyone who would try to use it get into one of our meetings to hear all the exciting Lodge business will be disappointed.

Justa Mason