[Square & Compasses]    

Gene Still's letter to Philalethes magazine

From The Philalethes, December 1997 (Vol. L No. 6), the

Journal of Masonic Research and Letters the Philalethes, magazine of The Philalethes Society.

Letter to the Editor

What a wonderfully instructive issue of the philalethes I received today (Vol L, No. 4, Aug 97)!

Lesson One

I refer to "When Will We Learn," from the Editor's desk, page 76. That FPS Smith voiced his concerns at a time when Masonic membership was near its peak in the US makes them all the more prescient. Our fraternal forebears' failure to address these and similar issues in their day led directly to the predicament in which we find ourselves today.

Question: Are we today doing a better job preparing the way for the future?

Lesson Two

Kent Henderson's "Back to the Future," page 77 offers a profile of a Lodge which celebrates the Masonic roots to which many believe Lodges must eventually return -- in the spirit of, if not in every detail of, the Epicurean Lodge -- before Masonry can reclaim its heritage and strength of purpose, and not merely exist. Bro. Henderson nicely summarizes many of the issues which have led Freemasonry in the US and, apparetnly, in Australia as well, into its present condition.

However, he only alludes to (through his discussion of Masonic instruction -- what a great syllabus to begin with!), and does not address a concern which I consider to be the singular matter before us. A root of our problems is that during our mid-century period of overexpansion, and continuing even to this day, Freemasonry was held out to the public and prospective members for its fraternal camaraderie and benevolence -- which are real -- but not for the light it shines for those who seek spiritual enlightenment.

The Masonic thinkers whom I admire most assert that Freemasonry was intended to be a beacon for the inner man, but one suspect that many, if not most, Freemasons -- honest, sincere, decent, committed, and hard-working for the benefit of the Craft though they may be -- neither expect nor want enlightenment in the Lodges, but they (actually, only those active few) are primarily concerned with mundane Lodge affairs, such as operations, politics, and the current fund-raisers. Although Freemasonry may not have been intended to be foremost an eleemosynary organization, its practices in recruiting Candidates -- and to be candid about it, members have long been more or less discreetly recruited, such as by courting community leaders -- fairly well predicted that Freemasonry would become oriented to service, rather than spiritual development.

Yet however satisfying community service may be, it should be (in the context of Masonic thought) not an end in itself, but rather derivative of or the reult of Freemasonry's success in providing to its members guidance along the path to spiritual enlightenment and a better understanding of oneself. This, many believe, is the real purpose of the Craft -- to serve as an initiatory system drawn from the cradle of civilazation for all of mankind. It is that ostensible mission alone -- to light the way with the wisdom of the ages for the interior man -- which is said to set Freemasonry apart from a host of fine, laudable service organizations.

In that mission -- our primary purpose for being -- we have dramatically failed. In reality, we pay no more than lip-service to it, so we are left today, striving mightily but to little good efect, to rejuvenate an aging, highly fragmented community service organization, all the while proclaiming that we are more than that. Yet at the same time, when countless potential Candidates yearn for the light of greater understanding that Freemasonry holds dear and could shine, if it but would, we are content to deliver fish eggs where caviar is in order. And the candidates waft away like a willow in the wind.

Lesson Three

I refer to "Imagination (in Massachusetts) is Running Rampant," in Kenneth Roberts's "Through Masonic Windows" on page 96. I sincerely hesitate to discourage any Brother who works in any capacity on behalf of the Craft. There are, after all, so few. Still, I must say -- in the context of the foregoing -- that if renewed efforts on book drives, Boy Scouts, and pancake breakfasts are really seen by others in any sense as "imaginative," then it's also possible I'm from from another planet or severely in need of help. This points up a real problem in the practical matter of rebuilding of the Craft. It's this: How do we remake ourselves (in our own image) in order to stem the precipitous decline not just in numbers, but in the quality of the Masonic experience, as it were?

Is it possible to deliver on our loftier promises as described above and at the same time satisfy those who literally sustain the Craft through a variety of more pedestrian, even mundane, social activities, which in the Lodge of today, can be life-sustaining? (It did not escape my attention that Epicurean Lodge, so remarkably and thoughtfully conceived of and put together, was constituted as a new Lodge, and not as a restructured Lodge. Aye, mate, there's the rub!)

I don't presume to have any answers to these questions that bright Masons might consider, but it does seem to me that the steps being taken (about which I've learned) are the easy ones leading us in the wrong direction. Pulling in new member with really innovative bingo nights and single-day degree festivals ins fine for a group where catfish fries and a little help for the kid down the street are the order of the day. In that group, our Masonic ceremonies are really charades, no more than time-killers while we ready the refreshment table, pretentious (and most likely badly hammered) historical curiosities.

One the other hand, if one is concerned to reflect awhile on the nature of the Great Architect, the universe, and nature and one's place in it, and then to do so approaching the study or reflection not as a blank tablet, but with some understanding of the wisdom of makind from ages past that can inform and enrich oneself, however he chooses to live his life, then Masonic thought and ceremonials can be as beautiful, insightful, instructive, and, indeed, as sublime as they were intended to be. Ancient Greek temples of initiation were inscribed with the admonition to "Know Thyself," counsel to which Freemasons, of all people, would be wise to attend, especially in this period of transition from Freemasonry as we have known it to something else -- and one way or another, it will be significantly different, so I hope we do it right.

If we know who we are, then the answer to some tough problems may become more apparent and the road to enlightenment can shine forth.

Sincerely and fraternally,

Gene Still, MPS


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