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.)


Anonymous said...

I am a PM of a very large, better-than-average Lodge. I say better than average because like it or not, some Lodges should cease to exist. I say this, having visited quite a few over the years. I would like to make some points about your post.

You are still at the level where you see Freemasonry through rose colored glasses. Don't take this the wrong way - I hope you NEVER lose that idealistic view and continue to have good experiences.

Conversely, I have seen a side of the Fraternity that has left me somewhat jaded. This is entirely due to the fact that I am a Past Master. The dichotomy of the WM's chair is Ritual and business. Business must be attended, yet can in some cases be the source of the greatest stress you may ever encounter.

There have been many times I have wished I didn't know much of what I learned as WM. You gotta have the balls to be a real leader, which means considering the Lodge before the individual Brother. In every Lodge I've ever attended there is strife where harmony should exist, all due to the same things we encounter on the outside. Power and money.

I gave my Lodge 7 years of my life, and to quote a Brother, "It was the most wonderful thing I would never do again." Now, even though that was a couple of years ago, I find myself more at a distance, and wanting only to attend a few meetings a year, nothing more, ever since becoming a Mason.

A point on another subject:
We all have our pet peeves. One of mine is the arrogance some Brothers display when referring to other fraternities. I've seen Brothers at Grand Lodge stand and say if (insert complaint) doesn't change they may as well join the Moose, Elks, etc. What an pompous, puffed-up thing to say. I am a long time member of the Moose Lodge, and I take issue with that 'better than thou' attitude.

Most of my Brothers are in fact 'good men' and use the tools of Freemasonry to become better men. I am not alone with my frustration in the Masonic Fraternity. Many of the good men are seeing more light, that is, becoming enlightened about the "hard to tolerate" side of the Brotherhood. Many of us want to change the ever increasing ease with which one can become a Mason, lack of real and useful education and emphasis on gaining members rather than retaining and aiding Brothers as we should.

The best of luck on your journey through this Fraternity. I only suggest you keep an open mind, a critical thinking mind and work to make the organization better, not bigger.



A.C. said...

Brother HB,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments! My perspective on Freemasonry is constantly shifting; I've read through far too much acrimony and seen what a static attitude towards Masonry can do to a lodge to pick a mindset and stay with it... especially if experience conflicts systemically with one previously held notion or another.

I'm under no illusions about the fact that ego, politics, power and money often lead to disharmony in a lodge; I haven't been around my district all that long, but it's been long enough to have heard about plenty of intrigue (past and present). And read plenty of examples of it nationwide online before I ever knocked on the untyled door.

I'm also aware, as I make my way towards the East, that the Master of a lodge often winds up at the middle of these things. My reasons for moving through the officer's line are not entirely altruistic; of course I want to help my lodge by devoting my time and energy to keeping it (and by extension, the Craft) going, but for me it's also most definitely a personal challenge I have set for myself. A lodge of Masons is a pretty small macrocosm of society, but it will still be a proud accomplishment if I can be an assertive (and hopefully mostly-respected) leader of it for a year, and hopefully restore a little bit interest in education & history. (I agree, it's about quality, not quantity.)

So yes, I suspect that part of my continued enthusiasm stems from not having burned myself out yet. The cumulative time commitment of a Brother who goes through the chairs is substantial, and I'm sure that when I'm through I will relish the opportunity not to go to lodge/lodge of instruction/Grand Lodge quarterlies/official vists simply because I don't have to. And that's OK. My obsessions tend to be cyclical, and in another few years I may be on to something else for a while.

With regards to my comment about the Elks, that was made only to characterize exactly the sort of arrogance you take exception to, and was never intended to reflect my own attitude towards the Elks or any other fraternal organization. I do apologize if I gave that impression!

Chris said...

Reading your blogs and the comments posted makes me realise what a truly small world we live in. So many of the issues that seem to erk you are the same as those that wind me up. I have brethren in my lodge who pay their dues but never attend from one year to the next. Also brethren who seem to have lost the ability to pick up the phone in order to let me know that they will be absent, or refuse or are reluctant to join the Lodge of Instruction but continue to fumble and stumble over the same pieces of ceremony.
I have instigated what I call 'The Five Minute Lecture' in my LOI. Each brother has to prepare a five minute speech on some aspect of the ceremony being practiced. By this I mean that only one or two of the Brethren will give their talks at any one meeting. It gets each brother thinking about the ceremony and Freemasonry in general. So far this has been extremely well received. My ultimate aim is that should there ever be a lull in our regular lodge meetings, I will be able to call on any brother from the LOI to come forward with a prepared speech. This has proved to be a great help to brethren who have in the past struggled with public speaking. I doubt that there are any lodges worldwide blessed with true harmony and therefore the best advice that I could offer to you is strive for excellence in everything that you personally do and'Lead by example'.