Friday, June 11, 2010

Junior Warden-elect

The last regular communication of the year was held at my mother lodge last week, and I was elected to the office of Junior Warden.

I admit, I will be glad to be more or less done with the Senior Deacon's chair (although I expect that I will get tapped to deliver the Middle Chamber lecture or take the second section of the Third Degree now and again.) I thoroughly enjoyed learning and performing my parts of the ritual, but it will be nice to be out of the spotlight for a while.

I also admit I'm not tremendously thrilled with my impending duties related to the coordination (if not direct preparation) of meals and collations... but I've been in the lodge long enough to know who I can work with to hopefully pull off some good meals.

Just as the office of Senior Deacon serves as a filter for officers who either can't or aren't interested in learning some pretty heavy ritual, I think perhaps the Junior Warden's traditional meal-organizing duties have evolved as a filter for officers who either can't or aren't interested in the kind of organization and leadership required to coordinate such an event; if a Brother can't pull together a bean supper, how well is he going to run the Lodge? I will endeavor to keep that in mind next year.

It's not for nothing that the metaphor of Labor is woven into our rituals and lectures. Freemasonry is work... I think officers generally realize this more than many members, but even among officers it can be easy to lose sight of what hopefully attracted us to knock on the doors of our Lodges in the first place. There's more to it than just memorizing ritual, or planning meals, or running efficient meetings - these skills are all parts of it, but not ends in and of themselves. One of the things that some of the Brothers I most admire seem to have in common is a tremendous respect for, and desire to perpetuate, the most noble ideals of the Craft itself... and that means thinking beyond the sometimes trivial distractions of your own Lodge -- not ignoring them, but not giving them more attention than they deserve, either. I hope to find the balance by the time I reach the East.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Silence and Circumspection

I usually have ideas for Masonic blog posts floating around in my head, but as I get more deeply involved in my lodges I find myself less inclined to blather on about them, which is why I don't post much here these days. Early on I wrote that I chose to write this blog pseudo-anonymously because I want to be vague about the people and organizations I am interacting with, out of respect for their privacy. This is still very true. In addition to this, my attitude about how we talk about and promote the fraternity has evolved slightly.

In terms of a person who might be looking at different organizations they might like to join, the Freemasons' mystique is basically the only thing separating us from the Elks or the Lions. It drives me crazy when local papers run two-paragraph articles about the Masons opening their doors, because one of those paragraphs is always devoted to a well-intentioned brother saying "We don't have any secrets, actually."

We absolutely do have secrets - both tangible (the passes, grips, and words a Mason is given with each degree) and intangible (the personal insights that can be gained by studying the symbols and lectures of our fraternity, and the deep bonds of history & fellowship that can only be experienced by joining and being active.) To claim otherwise is to miss the entire point of our institution.

The Benjamin Franklin quote about how the grand secret of the Freemasons "is that they have no secret at all," is also often trotted out in these articles. Again, by using that quote to marginalize the aspect of Masonic secrecy, we're missing the point.

The importance of secrecy within the fraternity is perhaps best explained by posing the question, "If I can't even trust you to uphold your obligations to keep these few words and handshakes secret, how can I trust you to do anything else?"

The importance of secrecy without the fraternity is the leap of faith required by a candidate who wants to join. When I asked to be made a Mason, I had some doubts but had conceived a favorable enough opinion of the fraternity to put them aside. When my grandfather was a younger man, straight information about the fraternity was much harder to come by. He had a very favorable opinion of Freemasonry, but all of the Masons he knew were so closed-mouthed about the whole business that he never joined, intimidated by what the initiation might involve.

I think that leap of faith is important. On the one hand a candidate will have heard all kinds of awful things about Freemasonry: Satanism, world domination plots, drinking wine from human skulls, et cetera. On the other, he will think of his dad, or his grandfather, a best friend or respected colleague, upstanding, admired men who he knows would never have been involved if any of that weird stuff was true. It's up to the candidate to decide that there must be something there, and knock on the door of Freemasonry himself.

Rumors and falsehoods about Freemasonry have been swirling around for centuries. Idiots blogging about Jay-Z and Lady Gaga Illuminati subliminal media mind control is just the latest spin on a long tradition of suspicion and paranoia. For every author who writes a positive, straightforward overview of the fraternity there will always be a David Icke spewing lies and nonsense. No amount of telling newspapers that "We're not a secret society, we're a society with secrets" will change that, so perhaps we should stop worrying about it and working within our lodges to make sure that the Brothers who do take the leap of faith feel like it was worth it and stick around. Blogging about my frustrations might be a good way to vent, but doesn't accomplish much other than preaching to the choir of other frustrated Masons while contributing the the demystification of the fraternity.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I didn't wait for the movie after all

I was surprised to find a copy of The Lost Symbol in circulation at my library and decided I might as well grab it. It was a quick read, although there really is only about 90 minutes' worth of story in it; it might as well have been written as a screenplay, right down to Brown's apparent casting choice of Morgan Freeman for the character of Warren Bellamy.

Masons should read this book. Yes, the characters are cardboard, the writing awkward and full of repetitious clichés, the cliffhanger scenarios and plot twists overly wrought, but we should be able to discuss it intelligently with non-Masons whose first impressions, for better or worse, have been formed by it. And I did like a couple of things about the book, and the involvement of our fraternity in it.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

(Don't read further if you want to read the book or watch the movie yourself.)

Dan Brown resisted what would have been an easy plot device to run with; the old tin-foil hat trope about the real purpose of Masonry (world domination) only being revealed to "high ranking Masons" while all the Masons outside the inner circle foolishly believe it's just a harmless social club.

Brown does throw the phrase "high ranking Mason" around a lot, and he does write about there being inner circles within Freemasonry, but in this story these inner circles are all about gaining and guarding wisdom, not power. Maybe fiction, but one I can work with if guys start showing up at my lodge asking how they can get one of those neat 33º rings. The world domination kooks? There's no working with them... just ask the crazy lady who keeps showing up at my lodge's open houses, trying to trick us into revealing something sinister.

And when it comes to the MacGuffin, the actual Lost Symbol that gives the book its title, it turns out in the end that there is no Lost Word which can be uttered to unlock the "Ancient Mysteries." The mysteries are encoded in all of the religious texts of the ages, hidden in plain sight and waiting for mankind to learn how to see them again. Veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols, if you will.

On one hand, this is as cheesy and anticlimactic as holiday specials which end with someone saying "The true meaning of Christmas is within ALL of us!" On the other, isn't this what we experience when we take the degrees ourselves? We take long obligations which sternly admonish us never to reveal the secrets of Freemasonry unlawfully... but once we're given those actual, specific secrets they're a little anticlimactic too, as Brother Michael Halleran writes in his wonderful essay John Quincy Adams, Masonry & The Free, Invisible Car:

But there is another group of men who have passed through the west door: these men are under the impression that when they reach the third degree they will be given the spiritual equivalent of a new car, and when they find that this is not the case, they lose interest rapidly. Perhaps they see the lessons and lectures we give as essentially frivolous, or perhaps they don’t understand them.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Crack Reporting about the Masons

I mean, really, why did they even bother?

Can we please stop giving quotes about how we don't have any secrets to the press? At this point they have clearly taken the "Masons are trying to shed their mystique and seem more mundane" ball and run with it. They don't need our help anymore.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Importance of Traveling

If you become a Mason, chances are good that a Brother will stand up after one (or all) of your degrees, congratulate you, and then proceed to exhort you to get out and visit other lodges, in and beyond their district. Sometimes they'll go so far as to say, "Visiting other lodges is what it's all about!"

Because many of these Brothers are old-timers, they get tuned out by the other members of the lodge who have heard the same spiel dozens of times before. You, who still barely know the names of anyone in your own lodge, will think to yourself "First things first! I don't even understand what just happened to me. I don't want to go to some other lodge full of guys I don't know."

But here's the thing: if you join your local lodge and find that it's not a good fit for you (membership too old, membership too young, personality conflicts, whatever) how are you ever going to know if there's a lodge in the next town over that's everything you're looking for if you never go and visit them?

If you've joined and are getting everything you need from your mother lodge and see no reason you should ever visit another, that's great... but if you've joined and feel let down, or puzzled at what the big deal is, get out and travel! It's one of your rights and privileges as a Master Mason. Don't be hesitant about setting foot in a room full of total, or near-total strangers; they're your Brothers, and you may meet among them Masons who embody whatever particular aspect of Freemasonry attracted you to the fraternity in the first place.

The problem is that it can take a while to determine whether a lodge is merely suffering from typical generation gap issues ("We've always done it that way!" "$8 is too much for dinner as it is!") or if there's a deeper dysfunction at work, and because new candidates look to the rest of the lodge to show them the ropes, they may assume that the microcosm of their lodge is "just the way Freemasonry is," wonder what the attraction is supposed to be, and stop showing up.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Question for my Massachusetts Scottish Rite Brethren

If a Brother wanted to join the Scottish Rite in Massachusetts and go sequentially from 4º to 32º, is that even something that can be done anymore? Just join a Lodge of Perfection and work from 4º through 14º, move on to Princes of Jerusalem, and so on? I've looked at a few different Valleys over the last 2 1/2 years and get the impression that there are some degrees that get performed rarely, if ever... and not sequentially, either.

A corollary question: If you joined the Scottish Rite by way of a one-day class, did you find the degrees themselves fulfilling, or is your enjoyment of Scottish Rite drawn from your participation in one or more of the bodies that make up your Valley? I live prohibitively far from any of the Massachusetts Valleys to get anywhere near as involved as I have in my Blue Lodge, so my main interest in the Scottish Rite (at least, right now) would be in experiencing the degrees themselves. I know the degrees don't need to be taken sequentially, but I'm not in a rush.

Under whose watchful care even comets perform their stupendous revolutions

“A universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it.” — Cambridge cosmologist John Barrow

(Via Futility Closet)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Building Costs

This would make an excellent research paper, and someday when I develop some research chops and perhaps when I'm out of the officer line I'll have the time to pursue it, but in the meantime, I have found myself wondering lately:

Has anyone done a financial analysis of the following data points:

  • Membership numbers in the early 20th century
  • Dues costs relative to the currency of the time
  • Money spent to build the magnificent, reverent temples that we can't afford anymore

Worcester Masonic Temple - 2

I find it hard to believe that Brethren alone could have chipped in enough money to build grand edifices like the Temples at Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts, even with double our current membership or quadruple the dues we currently pay (adjusted for inflation). Were building corporations able to secure large construction loans for these projects? Did wealthy Brothers act as patrons, donating thousands of dollars? How did they get built, really?

(Former) Springfield Masonic Temple - 6

And the age-old question: Why does nobody care any more? When I talk to old-timers who had the privilege of meeting in some of the beautiful old buildings that have since been abandoned, the old temples are usually spoken of with a shrug, not the wistful sadness I feel when I look at them. And the follow-up question: Why are the new lodge buildings that do occasionally get built so utterly uninspiring? I know that they simply "don't make 'em like they used to," but surely we could do even just a little bit better than the white clapboard boxes that seem to be the norm for newer lodge buildings in New England.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


The age-old policy of Masons not to discuss religion or politics in Lodge is a very good one, but after living through last year's Presidential campaign and the current special senatorial election in Massachusetts, I find myself a little bit disillusioned.

Even if members of a lodge observe that policy (and many of the older, conservative Brothers in my neck of the woods don't), what if you've added them as contacts on Facebook? There's no Masonic code of conduct that says you can't talk politics around other Masons outside of Lodge, so watching Brothers (liberal and conservative alike) let fly on Facebook can be eye opening.

It doesn't bother me that a Brother might have a political difference of opinion with me, but it absolutely bothers me when I see a Mason making false logic or ad hominem attacks against the ideas, members, or candidates of another political party... because when I shake a Brother's hand in Lodge, I don't want to be wondering if he secretly holds me in contempt, too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

All Dressed Up

From the Onion: Man Unable To Wear Nice Clothes Without Everyone Asking Questions

I can't speak for other parts of the world, but here in north-central Massachusetts I get a lot of funny looks whenever I duck into a convenience store to grab something on my way to or from a lodge meeting, dressed in a suit.

People really just don't dress up for anything any more... when my wife and I made our first visit to our local UU church last year (my first visit to an organized church in a number of years), the high school kids were wearing jeans and logo sweatshirts. Adults asked, "Why are you all dressed up?"

It really blows peoples' minds when I'm wearing a tuxedo.