It Doesn't Have to Be Like This
"...Freemasonry in the eighteenth century was a
radical movement, often standing against abuses of power on
the part of the Establishment. Its development and growth
were a vital part of the Age of Enlightenment."
by Julian Rees
Try this and see how it fits. Freemasons belong to an organisation
which ought to be dedicated to self-knowledge, the nature of being,
love, tolerance, the brotherhood of man, liberty of conscience and, yes,
perhaps a brush with the Deity on the way. But we have become bogged
down in systems resembling officialdom, obsession with promotion to
higher rank, discussions about precedence, confused notions about God,
the relative merits of this or that dining venue and the parrotting,
without meaning, of what is in itself a very meaningful ritual. Perhaps
worst of all we call ourselves a charitable organization, when what we
are is, primarily, an organisation with all the attributes I have
mentioned plus, in addition, some philanthropic ones.
"Where is the spirituality, the attempt at self-improvement, the
journeys into symbolism,... into the unexplained?"
On the evening I was initiated, one of the Past Masters shook my hand
with the words "Well, boy, from now on you won't need any other
hobbies!" I instantly found that offensive, sensing (correctly) that
freemasonry is a profession or a vocation, not a hobby. My impression,
so early formed, was shortly after substantiated by visits to lodges in
Germany where they takes these things very much more seriously than we
do in England.
Where is the spirituality, the attempt at self-improvement, the
journeys into symbolism, the journeys, come to that, into the
unexplained, both without and within? If we examine where freemasonry
in England is at the moment, to put it bluntly, we are engaged in
initiating ever more men into the craft and conferring second and third
degrees on them, so that they shall in their turn be Appointed To Office
In The Lodge, In Due Time Becoming Worshipful Master. To what end? The
end, unfortunately, is so that they can then confer initiation on more
men, so that those men can then do the same to other men, usque ad
infinitum. We seem to do this under the justification of "a daily
advancement in masonic knowledge." Is it too much to ask what
advancement? What has happened to them? How has freemasonry shaped
their lives, if at all? Have they grown, and if so, in what way? What
have they learned? These are not rhetorical questions, because to some
of these brethren something has happened; freemasonry has shaped their
lives, even if only in a small way; they may indeed have grown, without
knowing it; they have almost certainly learned something, even if it is
only some ritual learned by default. But for many of us, I suspect, the
eternal conferring of degrees very soon becomes an end in itself.
It's easy to forget that freemasonry in the eighteenth century was a
radical movement, often standing against abuses of power on the part of
the Establishment. Its development and growth were a vital part of the
Age of Enlightenment. It was, for many, the route to knowledge denied
to them by an oppressive religious or political system. Yet after a
recent talk on education in freemasonry, when I asked the speaker
whether it would be possible to include talks on historical or
philosophical matters as a regular feature of lodge proceedings (such as
are commonplace in many continental lodges), the reply was that "this
would not suit the majority --- after all, people enjoy their
freemasonry on many different levels", a knife-and-fork mason's charter
if ever I heard one.
The good news is, it doesn't have to be like this. As Colin Dyer
points out, the proper means of instructing young masons is not by
repetition of degree ceremonies, but by the various systems of masonic
lectures. In the late 18th. and early 19th centuries lodges of
instruction did not teach degree ceremonies, so much more engaged were
they in moral and philosophical debate. Masons were often `made'
outside the lodge altogether, and then brought to the lodge where their
real work started, in moral, intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
Degree ceremonies, by contrast, are only the means (however ornate) of
making masons and advancing them to other degrees once they have learned
something. Degrees of what? To attain to a higher degree, surely you
have first to study, to learn, to gain proficiency.
This is the principle of any academic pursuit, and the time-honoured
method employed by any institute worth the name; why should the
requirements of freemasonry be any less? The perfunctory questions we
require nowadays of our candidates for advancement are merely the rump
of an intricate system of morality lectures which, in the 18th.
century, had to be imparted verbally (since nothing was written down)
and learned by heart before a candidate could advance to a higher
degree. Nowadays even the small amount left over from these does not
constitute a real test at all, since any amount of prompting by the
Deacon at his side is allowable. Compare this with the practice in a
German lodge I visited, where at each meeting the Master delegated one
of the junior brethren to prepare and then deliver at the next meeting a
lecture on a philosophical subject of his choosing, and then be prepared
to answer questions on it. Or the French lodge I visited, where a
candidate for initiation was not admitted until after months of
searching questions about his moral and philosophical attitude.
When I first wrote this, I had in mind the experiences of one or two
of our younger brethren, whose second and third degrees came quite a
while after their initiation. They expressed surprise that they were
not expected to make a more taxing advancement in masonic knowledge, and
seemed bored by the lack of activity; in short, they felt abandoned. I
have a keen sense that they were right to feel this way.
So how about it? What is our daily advancement in masonic knowledge,
and how to we go about this business of self-knowledge, inner growth, or
is it all just empty words?
This article was first published in Freemasonry Today.
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