Our ritual work is the life's-blood of Freemasonry. It is what sets
us apart from every other fraternal and charitable society in existence.
In this essay our Wor. Bro. Waks reveals what every actor learns and
what every lodge officer should know. There is almost nothing I could
add to this excellent explanation of how to learn ritual.
If you give this an honest try, and are careful not to skip to the
next step before mastering the previous ones, you will be a skilled
ritualist. You will enjoy doing the ritual work, and most importantly,
your candidates will be moved and will learn something of the heart of
Freemasonry from your presentations.
Feel free to print out this article to share with your lodge
officers. An Adobe PDF version of this
Learning & Memorizing Ritual
by Wor. Mark Waks <email@example.com>
This article originally appeared -- in a different format in Masonry Universal..., issue
One of the problems that most often plagues Masonry is poor
ritual. By this, I don't just mean getting the words wrong -- I mean
ritual that is drab and uninspiring, which fails to actually *teach* a
candidate. Ritual is often mediocre, and it doesn't have to be; anyone
can do ritual well, provided he knows a little about acting.
It isn't hard, actually; it's mostly a matter of knowing how to do
it, plus a lot of practice. This article is intended to impart some
guidelines on how to do Good Ritual. It doesn't demand a lot of time, or
any particular talent, just a little drive to do well. Read it and play
with it. With some practice, you should be able to use these techniques
to good effect in your Lodge. The course is specifically aimed at
dealing with the longer speeches, but much of it is also relevant to
shorter pieces; I commend it to junior officers.
This is adapted from a lecture that I worked up for my own lodge;
having done that, I figured I should try to spread these tips around for
the common weal of the Craft. (Caveat: I do assume that you have some
kind of cypher book, with encoded ritual. If your jurisdiction doesn't
use this, you'll have to adapt these lessons.)
1: Figure out the Words
The first step of learning any ritual is to know what you're saying!
This should be obvious, but is often overlooked, because brethren are
afraid to admit that they don't already know the right words. Don't be
afraid to admit your own limits -- I've never met *anyone* who gets
every single word right every time.
Start out by listening to someone say the speech, preferably several
times. (You should be doing this the entire previous year, listening to
your predecessor.) Listen carefully, and make sure you understand what's
being said; ask questions if you don't. (After Lodge, of course.)
Next, go through your cypher or code book carefully, and see how much
you can read. Mark words that you can't figure out, or that you're
unsure of -- this is the point to catch any mistakes you may be
making. Then call or get together with a Ritualist or a reliable Past
Master, and talk through it, reading out of the book slowly. Have him
correct any mistakes, and fill in the words you don't know. Take notes
(preferably somewhere other than in the book), because you will forget
the corrections as soon as you're on your own.
2: Understand the Speech
This step gets overlooked even more often than the previous one. Read
through the ritual a couple of times, and make sure you really grasp
it. Don't just know the words -- know what it's talking about. Find out
who the characters being talked about are. Again, ask questions.
Now, start trying to understand the speech structurally. Any ritual
is made up of components, separate pieces that are linked together. For
example, a section may be talking about symbols, with three paragraphs
per symbol: concrete meaning, abstract meaning, and purpose. Figure out
what these pieces are -- you'll use them later.
The next step is especially useful for long speeches -- visualize the
speech. Any speech can be thought of in terms of movements, places,
rooms, stuff like that. Words are hard to remember in order; places are
easy. The canonical example is the Middle Chamber Lecture, which walks
through King Solomon's Temple. That's no accident -- that path is easily
visualized, and makes a good example of how to learn ritual, which is
probably why it is the first major speech an officer learns. This is why
we use symbols in the first place: because they are easy to learn and
internalize. Use them.
3a: Small-Scale Memorization
This is never anyone's favorite part; anyone can do it, but no-one
finds it simple. It's considerably easier if you do it right,
Start out by reading the speech over and over. Don't move on to the
next step until you can read it from the cypher quickly, without breaks
or hesitation. Read it *out loud*, when you get the chance. This step
is particularly important, and skipped more often than any other. Don't
skip it -- this is how you get your brain and mouth trained to the
words. It may sound silly, but it really matters -- the mental pathways
used to talk are distinct from those used to read.
Now, start trying to learn sentences. Just sentences. Read the first
word or two of the sentence, then try to fill in the remainder from
memory. Don't fret if you can't do it immediately; it will probably take
at least 5 or 10 times through before you're getting most of the
sentences. You'll find some that are hard -- hammer those ones over and
over (but don't totally neglect the rest while you do so). Again, get to
the point where you're doing reasonably well on this, before going on to
the next step.
3b: Large-Scale Memorization
Once you've got most of the sentences, try to move on to paragraphs.
Again, some will be easy and some hard. Try to understand exactly why
this sentence follows that one -- in most cases, the ritual does make
sense. An individual paragraph is almost always trying to express a
single coherent thought, in pieces; figure out what that thought is, and
why all the pieces are necessary. Keep at this until you're able to get
most paragraphs by glancing at the first word or two, or by thinking,
"Okay, this is the description of truth," or something like that.
Finally, start putting it all together. This is where the structural
analysis in Step 2 gets important. You visualized the speech, and
figured out how it hooks together; use that visualization to connect the
paragraphs. Make sure you have some clue why each paragraph follows the
one before. In almost every case, the next paragraph is either a)
continuing this thought, or b) moving on to a related thought. In both
cases, you can make memorization much easier by understanding why it
flows like that. Convince yourself that this paragraph obviously has to
follow that one, and you'll never forget the order.
4: Smoothing It Out
You're now at the point where you've got pretty much all the
sentences down, and most of the paragraphs, and you're able to get
through the whole thing only looking at the book a few times. Now, start
When you're driving in the car; when you're alone at home; pretty
much any time you have some privacy, try saying it all out loud, at full
voice. Trust me, it sounds very different when you actually say it
aloud. You'll find that you stumble more, and in different places. Some
words turn out to be more difficult to pronounce than you expected. Try
it a few times.
Start out by trying to do this frequently -- once, even twice every
day. It'll be hard at first (and it's a real pain to pull out the cypher
book while you're driving), but it'll gradually get easier. When you're
starting to feel comfortable, slow down, but don't stop. Practice it
every couple of days, then every week. Don't slow down below once a
week. If you feel up to it, see if you can speed up your
recitation. (But do not ever speed-talk the ritual in open Lodge --
that's for memorization and rehearsal only.)
Last part. You're now at the point where you pretty much have the
ritual memorized. Now, the trick is learning how to perform it well.
Very nearly everyone has some amount of stage fright; us acting types
often have it even worse than most. The trick to overcoming it is
control of the nerves.
Now that you're comfortable reciting the ritual, observe how you do
it. By now, you're not thinking about it so much; your mouth is doing
almost all the work, with the conscious mind simply making a few
connections between paragraphs. That is the right state to be in. Think
about how that feels, and learn it.
Before you go in to "perform", do some basic acting exercises. Take a
few deep breaths; concentrate on not thinking. I think the ideal is a
little light meditation, but it takes a fair bit of practice to be able
to drop into that state on demand; for now, just worry about being
calm. Being calm is far more important than anything else. If you're
calm, you're unlikely to screw up too badly; if you're tense, you're far
more likely to. Some people like to exercise the body a bit, to relax
the mind; you should do what works for you.
Now the final nuance, which separates merely competent ritual from
the really good stuff. Now that you're able to let your mouth do all
the talking, start listening to yourself. Think about the ritual again,
but don't think about the words, think about what it means. What are
the important bits? Emphasize those. How could you use your body or
hands to illustrate a point? Try talking *to* the person in front of
you, not just *at* them -- look them in the eye and make them get the
point. You are teaching important lessons here; try to capture a little
of the emotional intensity of that importance.
Think of your "performance" as a melding of two parts. Your mouth is
providing the words, your mind and heart the emotion. Again, nothing
beats practice. This is what rehearsal should really be for -- taking a
dummy candidate in hand, and learning how to really get the point
across. Don't fret if you find that you need to change "modes" now and
then -- here and there you will need to think about the words briefly,
when you change paragraphs or hit a hard sentence. That won't throw you,
though, so long as you keep track of what you're saying; you've already
figured out why each part leads into the next, and that will guide you
when you stumble.
Don't expect to get all this down instantly; it takes most people a
few years to really get good at it. Just try to advance yourself bit by
bit. Learn the transitions and pieces first -- if you have that, you can
get through the ritual. Next time, work on memorizing more
thoroughly. The time after that, work on getting it really smooth.
After a while, you can build up to the point where you have the luxury
to act. And at that point, you will find that you start doing the kind
of ritual that Masonry is meant to have -- both moving and interesting,
enough so that the candidate (who is, remember, the whole point)
actually *learns* what you're saying, and what it actually means. And if
you really do it well, you'll find that you come to understand the
meaning of the ritual a good deal better yourself...
Wor. Mark Waks
Master, Hammatt Ocean Lodge - Saugus, MA
Mostly known on the Net as Justin du Coeur
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