Friday, May 29, 2009

Watch that Cable Tow

Early on, when I was devouring all the information I could find about the Blue Lodge and appendant bodies of Freemasonry, I couldn't wait to get going; take the first three degrees, then continue on to the York Rite and eventually the Scottish Rite. The idea of all those degrees was exciting - not so much for the elaborate and impressive titles that accompany them (although those are certainly fun,) but for the idea that each one represented some important and relatively obscure bit of knowledge to mull over, each one building on the last, hopefully leading to some kind of ultimate Masonic enlightenment.

After joining and getting swept into the officers' line of my mother lodge, I decided fairly quickly to let the appendant bodies wait. As an officer I'm spending quite enough time as it is in Blue Lodge, and to echo Bro. Tom Accuosti's sentiments I don't feel like I've gotten everything there is to get out of the Craft degrees before rushing off to the next.

However: An interesting thing happens when you get out and visit other lodges, and spend time getting to know other Brothers. Chances are good you'll strike up acquaintances with Masons who share pretty closely your interest in a particular aspect of Freemasonry (like history, ritual, philosophy) or some of the manly avocations that seem to go hand in hand with Masonry (like single-malt Scotch, homebrewing, and cigars/pipes)... and when those guys start talking about how much they enjoy their Chapter or Valley, the natural reaction is to start thinking about joining so you can experience more of that kind of fellowship.

Such is my situation... my interest in the Royal Arch has been rekindled of late, but I really can't rationalize piling another monthly meeting onto my calendar. I am going to try to make myself wait, banking spare time in the way a kid will bank pennies for a baseball mitt or bicycle.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Seldon Plan

I recently listened to Episode 30 of the Masonic Central Podcast (direct MP3 link) featuring Professor Margaret C. Jacob, who covers a lot of very interesting historical ground about the spread of early speculative Masonry, and the way it comes to be either very open or very secretive depending on the surrounding political/religious climate. Also fascinating was her explanation of the Masonic libraries stolen by the Nazis during World War II and then kept by the Soviet Union (and then former Soviet Union) until 2000; information that suddenly doubled the amount of material available to Masonic researchers. That's the kind of discovery that can potentially turn lots of established historically accepted "truths" on their heads, and if there's one thing Freemasons like to discuss it's historical truths.

Whether approaching Freemasonry as a direct descendent of the ancient Egyptian Mystery Schools, or a less mystical, gentlemanly by-product of the Enlightenment, one always encounters discussions about the intent of the unknown Brothers who first developed the symbolism and ritual of the Craft. Opinions differ as to what their intentions were, but there does seem to be a general impression that they were trying to establish something very deliberate, and enduring.

Professor Jacob talked about how Freemasonry in the 18th century taught men, among other things, skills of leadership and self-government - a very unique thing during a time when most of the world was still ruled by monarchy.

When it comes to Freemasonry and its role in the 21st century, she painted a less flattering (but uncomfortably accurate) picture. While Freemasons were ahead of the curve during the 18th century in terms of forward thinking ideas about religious tolerance and human rights, in the 21st century we're being dragged behind modern society kicking and screaming; the issue of continued racial segregation (in the form of Grand Lodges' refusal to recognize Prince Hall Masonry) in the south was cited as one reason that many of her students have a very difficult time finding any sort of relevance in the Fraternity, as was regular Masonry's continued exclusion of women.

I will admit that I have a really hard time with the idea of women belonging to my Lodge/Grand Lodge. I feel that the question of gender is quite different from race in this context; I believe, unapologetically, that adding a co-ed dynamic to the Lodge experience would distract greatly from the Work (with men probably more to blame for that distraction than women, frankly.) I have no problem with Co-Masonry, and perhaps the next logical step would be toward recognition between US Grand Lodges and the Supreme American Council of Co-Masonry - but I think that forcing all lodges to admit women would destroy a lot of them, as many Brothers would stop attending, demit, or form new, clandestine, male-only lodges.

Back to the original creators of speculative Masonry... did they foresee these crises of race and gender, but trust to future Freemasons to be carry the torch of enlightenment and lead the way when society was a little more ready? Did it not even enter into their deliberations because race and gender inequality was "the way we've always done it?" Did they even care what happened to Freemasonry after their deaths? We're so used to thinking about Freemasonry as a tradition whose origins are lost in time, that it's hard to remember that, at some point, someone was making it up as they went along.

One of my favorite science fiction stories is the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The premise, in a nutshell, is that a mathematician named Hari Seldon develops a statistical science called psychohistory by which he's able to analyze past socio-political trends to predict future ones, and in so doing foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire, to be followed by a 30,000 year dark age before a new empire would arise.

Seldon and a team of psychohistorians take it upon themselves to develop a plan by which they can manipulate future history to shorten that dark age to a mere 1,000 years, by situating a "Foundation" in such a way that it is able to preserve much of the knowledge of the current Empire and remain at an advantage over the more barbarous neighboring planets.

The Foundation stories chronicle a series of crises that arise along the plan's timeline, carefully designed by the psychohistorians so that the Foundation will ultimately have no choice but to follow the particular course of action that will advance the formation of a new, enlightened empire at the end of that 1,000 year span.

When we talk about the original creators of speculative Masonry, it seems like we often attribute a similar prescience to them, that they were creating this peculiar system of morality (veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols) to be passed down through the ages, and that we are not to question or deviate from the landmarks they left us.

I don't think that attitude has worked all that well, as Professor Jacob aptly points out. Part of the problem is that American Freemasonry has been fighting its own internal battle with membership attrition... if we can stabilize that problem, it will be up to this new wave of 20-40 somethings to aggressively re-establish the relevance of our Fraternity in an increasingly fragmented and distracted society.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Planning Ahead

Like many an active new Brother officer, I find myself hurtling towards the East. It's a prospect that excites and intimidates me simultaneously.

After serving as Senior Steward pro tem for a couple of meetings last year, the first chair I was officially installed in was Junior Deacon - at the time I was a little bit freaked out by the knowledge that this put me one step away from being Senior Deacon (and thus the Middle Chamber lecture) which was a little more involved than I had anticipated getting so soon after being raised.

Over the ensuing months a few things have happened:
  • I've gotten to know the Brothers at my mother lodge better
  • I've gotten a better sense of which things have "always been done that way" and which things are done that way just because people got out of the habit during leaner times
  • I learned the Middle Chamber lecture before I actually needed to know it, demonstrating to myself that learning ritual is not a big deal IF you give yourself time and work at it slowly but surely.
  • I've visited other lodges, and had a chance to compare and contrast with my mother Lodge.
This last has probably been the most helpful to me in terms of developing a more holistic view of the Craft, and has given me a lot of ideas that I would love to see implemented at my own lodge. Even though I am still three years away from taking the Master's chair (if the current line of officers continues to move up) I often find myself thinking in terms of who I may be able to call on to help with a particular initiative when I'm Master, or whether there are any steps I can take now to lay the groundwork for something new/different during my year in the East.

Of course, the first major planning step was to decide that yes, I do actively want to be Master of my lodge for a year. That sounds obvious, but it's a pretty crucial decision that I think often gets short shrift from Brothers who suddenly find themselves in one of the Wardens' chairs with some amount of pressure to keep going because many lodges still have trouble finding officers. It's not for everyone, and if a Brother becomes Master against their better judgement out of a sense of duty or obligation, it's potentially destructive to the whole lodge.

Once you've made the decision to go for it, though, you should start planning, even if you're still Junior Steward (for one thing, holes in lines open up and you may find yourself bumped up a seat or two before you know it); think about what you want to accomplish during your year in the East, think about what skills you need to develop to effectively run a meeting, settle disputes, and set the Craft to labor. When the gavel is handed to me, I don't want to find myself standing there like a deer in the headlights, and turning to the Past Masters to answer questions about every little procedural detail, or about how something is "supposed" to be done (whether by custom or by obscure detail not found in the cipher book). So, I'm watching meetings intently and asking the Brothers with an eye for ritual lots of clarifying questions, and I'm trying to build a mental index of talents and interests of the Brethren at my lodge.

I figure if I try to plan everything out now, I might have about half of my act together when the time comes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

That Which Was Lost

I've known for some time that my paternal great, great, great grandfather was a Freemason. A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me to do a bit of research in hopes of finding out what lodge(s) he belonged to.

To my surprise, I learned that he was a charter member of the lodge here in town in 1866 - the lodge to which I had already applied for affiliation only a few weeks earlier. That was the only lodge to which the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had a record of him belonging, and given that he was 68 years old when it was chartered I contacted the Grand Lodge of Vermont
to see if they had any record of him having joined while living there earlier in the 1800's.

I learned that he joined a lodge in Caledonia county by demit in 1855, but unfortunately there was no record of which lodge he had demitted from, so I still don't know where he was entered, passed, and raised. I wonder if this may be due in part to the aftermath of the Morgan affair, during which time the Grand Lodge of Vermont itself went dark.

In light of these very specific details of my ancestor's Masonic activities I find myself simultaneously exhilarated and saddened.

When I first became interested in joining the Masons, I was wary of the back-slapping, back-room, good-ole-boy network type of bonding which I worried might be in store. While I have encountered some Brothers who seem to place more meaning on simply belonging to a private club than on the tenets of our profession, my personal experience is usually that a man being an active Freemason usually speaks volumes about his character. It serves as a kind of shorthand in much the same way that our symbols are shorthand for much deeper concepts.

Knowing that he was a Mason gives me a surprisingly strong sense of kinship and friendship with this man whom I previously knew only as a small photograph taken some 140 years ago. While the rituals have doubtless been streamlined in the interim, either one of us could sit down next to the other in Lodge and follow along.

Of course, shared experience as a means of bonding is not unique to Freemasonry. There are any number of father-son traditions that get handed down across the years; participation in a particular sport, military service, attendance of a particular private school or college, and so on. The thing that I find so very compelling about the shared experience of the Craft with my great, great, great grandfather is that underneath all of the more superficial aspects of Freemasonry, the goals of our shared profession are so lofty, fundamental, and universal.

The tinge of sadness comes from the knowledge that he's a Brother I won't get to know in this life. Being directly related to him provides a vivid context in which to consider the man, but when you start to consider all of the interesting worthy Brothers who have gone before us the world over, they can seem like sand through the hourglass.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A $5 case for a $7 Apron

My new-to-me apron arrived without a case, and not having another $50+ to spend on a case right now I headed to Michael's and picked up a 22"x 17" Star Eco-Smart "red wallet" portfolio for the princely sum of $5.00. Black would have been nicer, but this is a start. I think perhaps my next mission will be to keep an eye out for a used case on Ebay and at local flea markets.

I haven't examined a purpose-built case to see how aprons are typically fastened to keep them flat and attached to the side when the case is being carried around, but in my case I'm simply using a few binder clips to fasten the apron to the top edge of the portfolio, with a bit of padding to keep the clips from digging into the apron itself.


I'd like to join Bro. Chris Hodapp in saying that the Buffalo, NY Jesters indicted for numerous unwholesome activities have no business being Masons. According to a new article at the incident has sparked a wider investigation, and it's looking like the Buffalo incident is not (as the Jesters organization claims) isolated.

Like Widow's Son has said in his posts about the Jesters on The Burning Taper, what creepy old men do together on weekends is their own business, but I am disgusted and insulted that they would do so under the auspices of Freemasonry. I can't think of any reason they would claim to "proudly believe and participate in Masonry"1 while systematically violating their Masonic obligations and flouting numerous of our core principles except as a way to appear just & upright by association.

Any conspiracy theorist will tell you that Masons don't have a corner on super-sekret rituals and activities. The Jesters should go their own way and leave us out of whatever it is that they stand for.

1"Royal Order of Jesters - Masons, Shriners, Freemasons, Masonic Lodges, Grand Lodges" Royal Order of Jesters
n.d. Web. 4 May 2009.