[Square & Compasses]

What's the deal with Masonic secrecy, anyway?

Path: athena.mit.edu!dryfoo
Newsgroups: alt.freemasonry
Distribution: world
Followup-To: 
References:  <3iq37n$rmv@pipe3.pipeline.com> 
From: dryfoo@athena.mit.edu (dr foo)
Organization: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Subject: Re: WHY ALL THE SECRECY?
Keywords: 
In article , westin@primenet.com writes:

|> Please read the original post again.  I said I have
|> close relatives who are very secretive about the
|> meetings, etc.  I am of the same beliefs as they (as far
|> as I know) and still they exclude their own flesh and
|> blood.  That is not right.  You can say it is.  It is
|> not "tabloid" of me to inquire about a family member.
|> You talk about rights, and I agree.  I, you, anyone out
|> there should have the right to ASK questions.  If that
|> right is denied; all of us, Mason and Non, will soon be
|> in a lot more trouble than we want.  Would you be the
|> one to decide who can and can't question something?
|> That's what it seems you are saying.  I don't agree you
|> should tell me what I can ask.  LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE.

I am going to assume that you are sincere in wanting to know more about us, so I will try to answer your question about Masonic "secrecy" in a clear and sincere way.

Are there Masonic Secrets? Why are Masons Secretive?

Masons are secretive for several reasons:

  • misunderstanding of their own Fraternity
  • desire for privacy
  • formal obligation to protect a few methods of recognition

Why do many Masons not understand more of their own rituals?

Many Masons are not very educated about their own fraternity, so they have the mistaken impression that almost everything about us is a secret. This is not true, and it is too bad that so many Masons do not know better.

The main thing that happens in lodge meetings (besides the ordinary business of running any organization, like reading minutes, announcing who's sick or celebrating a family event, paying bills, that kind of stuff) the most important item is the conferring of Masonic degrees on a candidate or candidates. These ceremonies are almost entirely not secret, although they are not widely discussed.

Since these ceremonies were written in their present form sometime between 1723 and 1800, the language is fairly ornate and the style is complex -- lots of nice long sentences woven with dependent clauses, sprinkled with archaic words, etc. So even though the ritual uses emblems, pictures, and symbols to teach the lessons and ideals of the Fraternity, a lot of candidates come away with only the vaguest idea of "what happened", and it's only by repeated attendance and study that they begin to really understand, and undergo the real initiation in their own life, as a Mason.

Therefore some Masons, who have not received enough of a Masonic education, or not being sure of what parts of our teachings are secret and which are not, play it safe, and regard everything that happens in lodge as completely secret. It's too bad, and many of us are working to improve the level of Masonic knowledge of our own brethren, but we do respect that the combination of that language "barrier", the unusual and "old-fashioned" methods of instruction (symbols, memorization, recitation) can make it hard for many of us.

Desire for Privacy

Please post to this group and tell us:
  • How much money you make in a year
  • What you talked about the last time you spoke with your best friend
  • What financial or other help you have ever given friends or family members who were in difficult circumstances.
  • Some details of your sexual habits: (Do you have a wife or lover? When was the last time the two of you were intimate? Do you masturbate? How often? Do you prefer men or women?)
  • Your street address and what hours you are not going to be home in the next month.
  • Do you and your parents/relatives ever argue? What about?
Oh? You don't want to post that to a public forum? It isn't really any of our business, is it? Of course not! Those are all areas of your life that you regard as private. They aren't evil, or criminal, but they are yours, and the fact that you want to keep them private doesn't imply that you are up to anything bad.

Any mentally healthy person has some regard for his own privacy, and in any free society, people enjoy a good deal of control of what matters they wish to keep private.

Masonry, and any Masonic lodge, has matters that it considers private or personal, and so does not discuss them with the outside world. Some of these concern the personal affairs of members:

  • Bro. Joe Bleaux is getting over surgery for colon cancer and is embarrassed about coming to meetings
  • Bro. Phred Phaxter is upset that Bro. Dave Dontell forgot his anniversary party and someone ought to try to patch things up between the two of them
  • Bro. Will Keeptryin has hit a bad patch financially and has asked me, as master of the lodge, to let him pay only half dues this year. I offered to forgive the dues entirely, but Bro. Will insists that since he can afford to pay half, he wants to do what he can. (And in our lodge by-laws, the Master wouldn't even be allowed to repeat this discussion with any of the other members, except for our Treasurer and Secretary, so that they can take the appropriate actions to mark him Paid-up for the year.)
  • Bro. Sam Fergettit is getting older, and his wife called the service committee chairman to ask that somebody who lives near him start offering to drive him to meetings, because he'd feel funny admitting that he needs the help, but she worries about him driving at night.
Get the idea? These aren't official "secrets" but we're brothers, and this is our personal business.

Also under the idea of privacy are matters that we're not allowed to discuss because of Grand Lodge rules or our own by-laws: if Tom Deadbeat applies to become a member of my lodge, and some members of the lodge have a good reason to vote against his admission, they don't even have to tell the other members why they voted to reject him, in fact, they aren't allowed to formally announce in lodge how they voted. And if they do happen to mention their reasons to another brother in private, neither of them is allowed to discuss those reasons, or the results of the vote, in public, outside the lodge. In this way, we protect the privacy even of people we reject for admission.

Privacy also affects how and when we discuss some ritual matters that aren't "secret" in the strictest sense of the word. If I'm meeting with a serious student of Masonry who is not him/herself a Mason, there are many things about or ritual and symbols that I would discuss with them, but that I still wouldn't throw open to public discussion in a forum like this. It just wouldn't feel right to do so.

And there are matters of ritual that I might discuss with an outsider but not (ahead of time) with one of our own candidates, simply to preserve the sense of surprise and delight that accompany the opening of these matters in the correct order and in the proper context.

The Real "Secrets"

Finally, yes Freemasonry does have some real "secrets". They are usually called the "modes of recognition", and they are the ways that one Mason can prove himself to another.

They are secret in that I and every other Mason have promised very seriously and sincerely never to give them to anyone who isn't a Mason. As Master of a lodge, I teach these modes of recognition to our candidates, and as an instructor in a Lodge of Instruction, I meet with candidates from various lodges, and make sure that they have learned them and remember them correctly. But I will not tell them to you or anyone else not entitled to them. Period. I promised I wouldn't. I gave my word.

Of course, there have been many cases through history of Masons who did not take their promises seriously, and who have revealed those secret modes of recognition. There are many many books printed which contain them. I'm not going to help you find them. If you did find one, though, and you read through it eagerly, skipping all that stuff about moral lessons and history, looking for the "big secrets", you'd find them, and you'd say "What a stupid and inconsequential bunch of crap! Those are the big secrets? Who cares?" And in a sense, you'd be absolutely right. They are only important because

  1. they let Masons prove themselves to each other
  2. they are concrete representations of our promises to each other and the Fraternity.
Without that context, they are meaningless.

Conclusion

If you want to know more about Freemasonry and your relatives won't tell you, you can ask them to read this note and tell you what they agree with and disagree with in it. That could help get a discussion started.

If you are seriously interested in learning more about us because you might want to join, tell them that, and they will probably be more willing to tell you something about the Craft. You can also learn a lot more by reading the discussions here and by browsing the various Masonic resources on the WWWeb (my URL is at the end of this message).

On the other hand, if you have already that you do not like Masonry because of... well, for any reason, and you know that you are determined in it and not willing to change your opinion based on knowledge and evidence, then you should not expect us to want to open our hearts to you in friendship and trust. That's fair, isn't it?

You have to make up your mind.

sincerely,

 
+---------------------------------------------------------------------------
| Gary L. Dryfoos   617.864-4248, ofc:253-0184, fax:253-8665
| P.O.Box 505, Cambridge, MA 02142  HTTP://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/www/
| Master, Mt. Scopus Lodge AF&AM, Malden, Mass.
| P.M. Ocean Lodge AF&AM, Winthrop, Mass. (1988-90, 1991-93)
|  "...one sacred band, or society of Friends and Brothers, among whom no
|   contention should ever exist, save that noble contention, or rather
|   emulation, of who best can work and best agree."
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