Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More about Aprons

My English Constitution apron arrived with remarkable speed, having been mailed from the UK last Friday and showing up at my doorstep the following Tuesday.

It's a beaut - there are a couple of small spots that need re-stitching and the whole thing will benefit from a surface cleaning, but overall it's a very nice apron, especially for the $7.50 or so USD that I paid for it.

Upon re-reading the Massachusetts members' handbook, there is a very brief section about aprons - a few notes about which aprons a Past Master or Past District Deputy Grand Master may wear if they sit as an officer, and then some scant instructions about members' aprons: Members of a lodge wear blue-bordered aprons, while guests wear white ones.

I thought this was interesting, as I've only ever seen a handful of blue-bordered aprons provided by a lodge, and that was not at my mother lodge - also, I was handed one of those blue-bordered aprons as a guest! I expect that this is one of those things that each lodge evolves its own traditions around. Or perhaps lodges don't attach much importance to apron specifics, beyond making sure that all Brethren are properly clothed before entering the lodge room.

I find this kind of minutiae fascinating.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Badge of a Mason

After ruminating last week about the plain white cloth aprons we wear in the US, I found myself poking around Ebay to see what was available in the way of regalia that's just a little more inspiring. There are plenty of sellers offering new Master Mason aprons in what I guess you could call "U.S. Style" - dark blue trim with an all-seeing eye on the lap and the square and compasses underneath... screen-printed or embroidered, depending on how much money you want to spend.

The one listing that really caught my eye was for a gently used apron in the UK, in the English Constitution style: lighter, royal blue trim, silver chains at the end of the tassels, and three rosettes: one on the lap and one in each lower corner. Amazingly, the bidding never even reached £4.00 and the lambskin apron, which belonged to the seller's grandfather, should be on its way over the Atlantic to me soon.

I have not read or heard of any regulations in Massachusetts regarding the style or decoration of aprons, and there is another Brother in my district who I have seen wearing a British-style apron, so I plan on wearing this one whenever I'm not sitting as an officer at my mother lodge. To me wearing this apron feels like a rational homage to the roots of our fraternity (and my ancestry) in the UK.

I decided that I wanted a nice apron not as any kind of status symbol, but as a point of pride in being a Mason and a token of the seriousness of the business in which we are engaged. I have a feeling that it never occurs to a lot of Brothers that they could get themselves something nicer. Partly because there aren't many physical storefronts selling Masonic regalia these days, but mostly because (at least in my lodge/jurisdiction) the subject of aprons is really never discussed with new Brethren beyond "Take your lambskin home with you, you won't wear it again until you get buried with it. Wear these cloth ones from now on."

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Official: Dan Brown's next book out in 2009

Dan Brown's next book will be titled The Lost Symbol and will be published on September 15.

[edit] Whoops, I thought I had read on one of the announcement news stories that book will take place in London, but most speculation still places it in Washington D.C. and with a title like The Lost Symbol (Which is pretty bland compared to The Solomon Key) it could well involve the Freemasons.

Part of me feels like I should read The Da Vinci Code just so I know how the Freemasons were (mis)represented in the story and can discuss it intelligently, but this review was so off-putting when I read it five years ago that I really have no interest in reading anything by Mr. Brown.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What's in an Apron?

I attended my first Fraternal visit to another lodge as a member of our District Deputy Grand Master's Suite last night, and as such I got to wear a purple-bordered apron. I felt a bit conflicted about this temporary status symbol as I listened to the section of the Entered Apprentice lecture which tells a new Brother that "Masonry regards no man for his worldly wealth or outer appearance."

I believe that presiding and past DDGM's are absolutely entitled to wear their purple aprons with pride and well-deserved respect for the amount of work and pure time they spend serving their district, but me putting on a purple apron felt a little bit presumptuous and/or showy; the DDGM's Official and Fraternal visits are a part of Masonry (in Massachusetts, anyway) that seem to be less about the tenets of our profession than about ostentatious formality.

Don't get me wrong, in many ways ostentatious formality is one of the things I cherish about Freemasonry in Massachusetts; as a society, we don't treat much of anything with formality any more, and if you ask me one of the biggest secrets of Freemasonry is that it's a last bastion of the lost art of gentlemanliness. I love the courtesy, civility, and mutual respect to be found in a well-governed lodge. Give me another 20 years and I'll probably be one of the old timers who manages to look dowdy in a tuxedo, but right now I rather enjoy dressing formally for the evening's work.

The thing about all of the announcements, processions, and ceremonies around a District Deputy Grand Master's visit, though, is that they don't really have anything to do with "the business in which we are engaged"... they're really more about hierarchy. And that's OK, I guess - I'm not one of those "down with the Grand Lodge system" people, and from what I've seen the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts provides a lot of support for its constituent lodges. I think things would be a lot more chaotic and fractious without it. As for that purple-bordered apron I wore last night, it felt... superficial. I won't say I didn't like it - not so much because of the purple but because it wasn't a tattered, slightly yellowed old thing made of flimsy cloth. As an officer I get to wear a nicely embroidered apron most of the time, and the contrast to the lodge loaners I wear when visiting other lodges is always a bit stark.

In most (all?) jurisdictions in the United States, an Entered Apprentice is given a nice white lambskin (or perhaps "lambtex") apron during their initiation, but then they're told to put it away in a drawer until they die, at which point it is to be buried with them. Instead, lodges typically provide a big stash of plain white cloth aprons for members and visitors to wear. Past Masters and Past District Deputy Grand Masters are often given nice presentation aprons at the end of their terms, but most Masons are stuck with the white cloth loaners. This has bugged me for a while - if an apron is the badge of a Mason, shouldn't we take a little more pride in the ones we wear in lodge? If you try to argue that it's not the apron but the man who wears it, then why do Past Masters and Past DDGMs wear such nice and ornate ones?

I tend to fall into the "formal" camp when it comes to the question of how lodges should dress and conduct themselves - to me it signifies the respect that Brethren should have for the Craft and especially for the candidates being introduced to it. When I see photos of Brothers wearing their aprons over jeans and t-shirts in other, more casual jurisdictions, I admit that it rankles. However, the purple apron I wore the other night seemed like a cautionary reminder that formality should not be for its own sake.

Monday, April 13, 2009

How Many Non-Joiners are in this Fraternity, Anyway?

One year ago this past Thursday I was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason. A year later I find myself Junior Deacon of my mother lodge, and earlier in the week my petition for affiliation with the lodge in my new home town was read. I've become good friends with Brothers whom I would never have met within my professional or social spheres, and my perspective on the Craft continues to evolve.

When I first got interested in Freemasonry nearly two years ago, I researched obsessively online. I was not looking for "secrets," exactly -- rather, I was trying to find an accurate description of what it's about. What I found were voices of passionate Brothers who described Freemasonry as a once-great, Jedi-like order of gentlemen which used to be all wise and mystical and stuff, but has lamentably fallen from their once-lofty ideals and devolved into a cheap imitation of its former self. This was the overall impression I had to go on during the eight months between my application and my initiation, and as my Entered Apprentice degree approached I steeled myself for frustration and disappointment.

My actual experience has been much more nuanced. There have certainly been frustrations along the way and it is still sometimes disheartening to look at the artifacts of the now-defunct Royal Arch Chapter and Knights Templar Commandery that used to meet in my lodge's building, but overall I still believe that Brothers who spend all of their time and energy kvetching about how Freemasonry isn't traditional or philosophickal enough are missing the forest for the trees.

As I get to know various Brethren and start to talk with them about their experiences over the years, one statement that comes up with curious frequency is, "I'm not a joiner." I used it myself in a very early post here! Why in the world do so many non-joiners become Masons, and get so involved with an organization which, at one level, is all about social gatherings? One such self-professed "non-joiner" is a three-time Past Master of our lodge!

When looking at Freemasonry from the outside, it's easy to get the idea that most of the "inner temple building" work that Masons do happens during our meetings. After all, the three degrees are designed to provide candidates with the working tools to build their own moral and Masonic edifices, right? Except half the time the Officers of the lodge are too busy trying to remember their parts and floorwork to pay attention to the actual content of the ritual, and the gobs of information thrown at the candidate are too much to be absorbed in a single evening. (As one apt description goes, it's like getting hit by a wave: Most of the water passes right over you, but you still get wet.)

So if we don't work on our rough ashlars during meetings, then when do we? It's often said that Freemasonry has a curious dual nature, public and private... Public insofar as lodges sometimes host community dinners, do fundraisers, blood drives, et cetera, and Private for all the things people typically associate with the Masons; closed lodge rooms, members-only functions, secret passwords and handshakes. I think that perhaps it could be said that Freemasonry has a curious treble nature: public, private, and personal. When I'm studying ritual, either to memorize it or to internalize its messages, I'm generally by myself, at home. When I contemplate adding one more Masonic event to my calendar and think about the length of my cable-tow and whether or not I'm making effective use of the 24-inch gauge, it's an internal dialog.

I think that the fellowship I have enjoyed at Lodge meetings and other Masonic functions is something more than the effects of a shared experience, which is something that can bond any group of people together. The shared experience of the three degrees is certainly part of it, but I think that the personal aspect of the Craft runs under the surface and provides an even stronger, unspoken connection. How refreshing it is to enjoy a good meal with a group of men who I know are engaged in their personal labor to chip away at their own rough ashlars and leave the world a better place than they found it... it really does recharge my batteries in a way I would not have expected as a textbook introvert.

(That being said, are there Brothers who think of Freemasonry as just a private, charitable dinner club with a few "Boy Scouts for grown-ups" ceremonies thrown in? Sure. There are also Brothers who take things to the other extreme and insist that most of us aren't worthy of their philisophickal table scraps and should have joined the Elks and left the business of mystical, esoteric, spiritual alchemy to "REAL" Masons. I don't worry too much about the former because I know they certainly don't worry about me, and I have yet to encounter the latter in meatspace... I doubt many would deign to darken the door of a Massachusetts lodge anyway, what with our open houses and advertisements.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A delightfully positive, substantive, and non-sensational newspaper story about Freemasonry

Lodge St John Kilwinning No. 173 in Largs, Ayrshire Scotland is celebrating its' current building's 100th year, and the Largs and Millport News has done a very nice feature on them:

Monday, April 6, 2009

Our Masonic Profiles

I've been thinking a lot lately about what kind of Masonic profile I present to the profane world. Not so much in terms of being a good representative of the Craft (I like to think that I don't have to alter my default behavior to do that) but the extent to which I "promote" it. If I re-post every new item on my lodge website to my Facebook account, or constantly re-tweet my lodge on Twitter, what purpose am I serving? Am I raising public awareness about Freemasonry in my community, or am I just spamming (and potentially weirding out) all of my contacts?

It's no secret to any of my closer friends & family that I'm a Mason, but the fact is that many of them don't seem to care much one way or another. It's been nearly two years since I decided to petition a lodge, and I wonder if I'm reaching the end of a typical cycle that active new Brethren go through, where the initial excitement and pride give way to personal reflection as they begin to really absorb the ritual & symbolism of Masonry, and figure out where they're headed.

To put it another way, I'm all for elevating my lodge's public profile and I am no less proud to be a Mason than I've ever been, but I don't want to do Freemasonry the disservice of making it seem too commonplace by posting every little event or announcement into my social media stream; so many of them are really interesting only to Masons (and local Masons at that) that I feel like my profane contacts will either just tune them out, or figure that I've gotten all cliquey (at best) or culty (at tin-foil hat worst) now that I've joined a lodge.