Thursday, November 24, 2011

An Apologia on the Traditions of Freemasonry

Freemasonry is entirely built around traditions. Its intellectual inspiration was born from the determination of Isaac Newton and his friends to create an area of freedom in an England torn apart by civil and religious war. Ever since there have been lodges in Scotland, men have passed between the pillars of King Solomon’s Temple, that epitome of soul-searching reflection, to nurture a harmonious distinction between tradition and modernity. Freemasonry perceives the harmony of opposites as the secret of life and the world.  

The Mason’s Temple is a volume of freedom of expression, reflection, education, and progress; it is not a cube. It is a consecrated space enabling each one who meets therein to be truly free, to meet on the level without regard for rank in society or partisan concerns. A Masonic Temple is not a secret place, only a protected one. Freemasonry is an initiatory society offering men a working method which will enable each initiate to make his way toward moral and intellectual perfection. In the lodge, men from every walk of life, of all ages, every social category and every spiritual and philosophical conviction find a basis for reflection through a common language and a common culture in an authentically fraternal relationship. Freemasons are united by their initiation and they come together in a common ideal of freedom, equality, social justice, non-denominationalism and peace. There is thus a sacred space within every Masonic Temple, but for its members, it represents only a transcendence of the human condition. Freemasonry was founded first to emancipate consciences; not concern itself with the saving of souls.

To establish its fundamental values and provide a guarantee of equality to all, Freemasonry has adopted the tools of the operative masons as symbols to remind members of their freely consented obligations. Aprons, gloves, collars and jewels are not just raiment’s of clothing, but a reminder of a common commitment to work together for the progress of humanity, a common respect for rules which cannot sully the purity of the institution’s intentions, or the equality of all members within the lodge.

It is not the trappings of the fraternity that make the light. It is not the apron that makes the Mason. It is his individual commitment and obligation to listen, work and share with his brothers a common quest for spiritual and personal growth by integrating into his being the moral and ethical principles which comprise an enlightened heart and mind. The vocation of Masonry is spiritual, its demand humanist, and its heritage toleration, the rights of man, and the independence of people everywhere.    

The rituals and traditions of Freemasonry tend toward universalism rather than occultism. The aprons, lodge furnishings, decorations and regalia of the fraternity are not there to keep the uninitiated at a distance, but to bear witness to the Masonic movement’s attachment to its history and symbolism. They are a permanent and ubiquitous reminder to every brother of the purpose of his commitment. Even though Freemasonry may have evolved with time, and the years and centuries may have invited change within the organization, its object has remained immutable: to reveal men in their fullness, that fullness in knowing how to search the realms of spirituality and philosophy within the archetypes of maleness to find and embrace the mature masculine soul.

It may be seen by the outsider as a discreet and often poorly articulated institution, but Freemasonry has left a deep mark on the western world and its history. It is at once a philosophic, philanthropic and progressive institution working for the intellectual and social betterment of mankind through the practice of virtue, tolerance, and benevolence in every dimension of manhood. It was wholly founded on fraternity and its aim is to unite men despite their differences.

The vast network of Masonic symbolism teaches that Freemasonry is also a society aimed at helping man rise above his ordinary condition so that he may be better prepared for building a more humane and enlightened society. Whether in the sacred conclaves of the Masonic temple, or represented in the decorations of a Mason’s regalia, the ornaments of fraternity collectively recite the symbolic alphabet of a universal language that transcends all ethnic and cultural differences among men. It is a language which remains lost to nine-tenths of the world’s population. The unique and specific nature of Freemasonry’s approach and frame of thought represents its collective consciousness.

While often misunderstood, Masonic secrecy is in no manner meant to hide something. It is simply the secrecy that accompanies any spiritual or personal approach respecting the intimacy of an initiatory quest. It is a guarantee to every initiate of personal individual freedom to seek out and discover that which is the noblest and purist within his mind and soul.   

Freemasons are without doubt men of tradition and, because they are men of tradition, they are men of progress. They do not hope for a nostalgic return to some past era, but for the tradition of transcendence and evolution of which every man in every time is capable. The hope of every Freemason is that tomorrow will be better than yesterday and today. That is the progress of the ages.

When fraternal men work together for their own perfection, they do so to participate fully in the life and progress of their time, and the progress of humanity.
The existence of an active traditional Freemasonry in a democratic society is the best guarantee and assurance of genuine spiritual and civic freedom.

Monday, October 24, 2011

May Brotherly Love Prevail, and Every Moral and Social Virtue Cement Us

Every Mason will recognize the above declaration as the epilogue of the closing prayer given at almost every lodge meeting. It was penned by William Preston in 1772.

It is an admonition for toleration.

Frederico Mayor, in an address dedicating the Beit-Hashoah Museum for Tolerance in Los Angeles in 1993 said; “…our ability to value each and every person is the ethical basis for peace, security and intercultural dialogue.” Albert Pike stated it even more poignantly in the tenth degree by declaring that without toleration “we are mere hollow images of true Masons, mere sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.” The fact is that a peaceful future depends on everyday acts of kindness and respect. It is a lesson every Freemason knows well.

Among all the teachings Masonry imparts to its members, none is more important than championing the ideal of toleration in all things. In the book of lectures for the symbolic lodge, we read; “By the exercise of Brotherly Love we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family; the high and low, the rich and poor; who, as created by one Almighty Parent, and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support and protect each other. On this principle, Masonry unites men of every country, sect and opinion, and conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.”

The history of much of the world is a saga of deep ethnic divisions, regional conflicts, religious zealotry, and economic hostilities among peoples. Intolerance, jealousy and greed have fragmented almost every country in the world. There was a time when people came to America seeking asylum from such human suffering and strife. The altruistic nature of democracy has made the United States a multi-cultural society. Now the same divisions that have caused so much suffering and loss in the rest of the world are becoming manifest in the freest country on earth. We are becoming a nation filled with mistrust and animosity.

The natural reaction to diversity is to isolate ourselves in our own culture. It’s a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. It is easy to believe that we can’t get hurt if we stay within our own group. We can’t get into trouble if we don’t participate. But with people now migrating to America in record numbers, everyone who has perceived themselves as 20th century American-born citizens are rapidly becoming a minority. This perception is strong across every culture. National unity will never be possible if we feel threatened by every group outside our own. It’s time all of us made a little sacrifice and effort toward a greater cause.

Since (as the saying goes) you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it seems the only chance we have of achieving and maintaining a sense of national unity at home is to develop a healthy learning environment among our children that will give them a full cross-cultural understanding. And such understanding will not just happen. To communicate and learn from one culture to another takes entire families out of their comfort zone. To achieve a reconciliation of idealistic, ethnic, religious and cultural differences between the old ways and the new will require an extraordinary feat of will and learning. In most cases, toleration itself will have to be learned and practiced.

But it is a role I believe was made for the Scottish Rite. If the Rite is indeed a great power, it is so because influence is power; and will is power. The teachings of the Rite answer these kinds of questions: What kind of society might we have if we were to achieve a culture of peace? How much would such a culture manifest itself in our family lives, communities, state and national politics and international relations? What relationship exists between tolerance and peace? Can human rights be realized without a social commitment to tolerance? Is there a significant relationship between human rights and democracy? What are our own personal and community concerns about the issue of tolerance? How do our concerns relate to tolerance on a global scale? How can we contribute to promoting a tolerant world?

If our own history is a guide, Freemasonry gains civic and social relevance when it stands up for what it stands for. There can be much value in sharing our values with the cross-cultural world in which we live. Perhaps it is a mission of the Scottish Rite to take the lead in diagnosing the kinds of intolerance which hinders the world; and then pledge, individually and corporately, to do whatever is necessary in educating the next generation of adults that tolerance is indeed the most reasonable means to peace in the world. 

It seems like such a worthy mission—to stand on what we stand for.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Perception and Realilty

I don’t know how many of you have seen the recent movie, starring Leonardo DeCaprio, titled Inception. I did. And the symbolism blew me away. It’s about a man who specializes in entering other people’s dreams to steal information. He’s the best in the world at this science. In his last big job, he is given a new twist to his abilities. Instead of going inside someone else’s dream to take information, he is hired by a wealthy man to enter into the dreams of the son of a dying competitor in order to plant an idea inside the heir’s unconscious that will break up his father’s empire and later make decisions which will benefit the heir’s wealthy rival. When an idea is implanted into another individual’s unconscious, that process is called Inception.

The viewer spends a lot of time between dreams and reality in the movie. The makers of the film made it difficult for us to know when we are viewing a dream and when we are viewing reality. They allow us to think we have it straight, but then leave us with a nagging sense of doubt that we may have it wrong. How, then, do we tell what is real and what is not? What is the difference between reality and perception? This question becomes the real essence of the movie.

It explores the harsh notion that, not only can an individual get things wrong; an entire society can get things wrong. We need only to look at the inequality which brought about the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s to see how large group psychology can be in error. It wasn’t until 1954 that blacks were paid the same as whites. It was not until 1977 that psychiatrists finally got around to declaring homosexuality was not a disorder. It was not until 1984 that widows were given rights to their husband’s pensions.

Closer to home in our own fraternal society, we all know there are good and well-meaning Christians who still cite Albert Pike as once claiming Freemasons are all worshipers of Satan. Never mind that this claim was actually made by a notorious atheist and pornographer named Leo Taxil in 1894, three years after Pike died.

The point is that group consensus often gets things wrong, and it can take a long time to fix things. So how do we know what is real and what is not real? Fortunately, the journey of Masonry helps us respond to this difficult inquiry. In the progressive path of our degrees, we learn some remarkable things about perception. Here is how our process works.

We start off learning the world around us by direct touch and taste; by what we see and hear; what we perceive and smell. In the process of learning, we run into a lot of walls. Our journey is not always forward and direct, but oft times torturous and winding. As we grow intellectually, we have to overcome our subjective reaction to things. At some point we begin comparing notes, we discuss our perceptions with others, and we attempt to come to a consensus of what is real and what is not; not always realizing that we are only comparing our own subjectivity with that of others. This is where we often decide what is right thinking and wrong thinking in our culture. Yet, realizing that our world view is not the same as the world view of those who are raised half way around the world, we have no other way of declaring what is morally right or wrong except by consensus agreement.

But then, if we don’t question our inner nature; that is, if we don’t investigate how we personally feel deep inside our own soul about all the group consensus we encounter, we will never become objective unto ourselves. We will never learn to think for ourselves. We will never know there are times when the world must go on without us. And that this realization is actually an affirmation of one’s self. The assumptions that are born out of our experience are not always born out by our experience. We can and do make mistakes about what is reality and what is not. Philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, the sciences; all are inspired to enable each individual to distinguish for himself between what is real and what is not.

I found the movie, Inception, to be about love, betrayal, possessiveness, having to cut loose from a willfully death-bound person or relationship. It’s a story about life and how confusing life can be without affirmation. I think the bottom line message is that if we never get inside ourselves, overcome our subjective impulses, get to know who we are, and become comfortable in our own skin, then life is a like living in a dream. It is a poverty stricken limbo—all buildings, all city, all streets—and no changing vistas of reality.

We must never forget that, for everyone, perception is reality. But it never hurts to test the reality of our perceptions. I believe that is the nature of the Masonic journey. It calls us at all times to reflect on where we are with our perceptions of things.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Meaning Behind the Myth of Hiram

Most Grand Jurisdictions have adopted what we as Masons know as the “Fundamental Principles” of Freemasonry. These have been republished many times, and represent what we often think of as the “Ancient Masonic Usages,” or foundational rules of our Fraternity.

One of these principles is that Freemasonry must be organized into symbolic degrees, and these degrees must encompass a legend of a temple tragedy. This is a curious statement because it immediately informs us of two things about our Order: (1) that its ritual ceremonies are intended to communicate something to us which was never meant to be real; and, (2) this something is overtly aimed at a tragedy, which implies we are engaged in a dark side of the human experience.

We all know there is nothing factual about the central legend of our degrees—the story of Hiram. It is a myth. The events which unfold in our drama never actually happened.

But without further explanation, this can represent a problem for 21st century men because we live in a world of information. If something is not real, then it has little value to us. And if something we thought was real turns out not to be that way, then it has even less value because we not only no longer believe in it, we also no longer trust it. This is one of the central paradoxes of politics and religion in our time.

Then, in Masonic ritual, we compound this problem of what is not real by adding a tragedy to it. On the surface, one might argue that most men see enough of the shadow side of things in their own life experience. Why should we expect a man to embrace an organization which not only focuses on that which is not real, but then brazenly delivers to him yet another tragedy of life in his experience as a Mason? The answer is that the original authors of Masonic ritual assumed every initiate already knew what a myth was and what it was designed to teach before he was initiated. This means that today, when we become Freemasons, we, too, are already to have a certain adeptship with the world of myth when we enter the fraternity. But most of us don’t. Thus, it wouldn’t hurt if the Masonic educators in our own time would spend a little time helping our new men make this 400 year leap in context while they are experiencing our ritual settings for the first time.

Here’s what we need to know about ritual and myth.

The function of ritual is to give form to human life in a way that transcends all generations and all time. The role of ritual is to imprint into each man’s psyche the same imprintings of the society in which he grows up. Whether experienced in church, a synagogue, a mosque; a legislative hall, or judicial chamber; or even in the rituals played out in a family, the purpose is always the same. The rituals are the means of such imprinting.

Ritualized procedures also depersonalize the protagonists in our life; lift them out of themselves so that their conduct now is not their own but of the species, the society, the caste, or the profession. Hence, for example, the rituals of the investiture of judges, or of officers of state; those so installed are to function in their roles, not as private individuals but as agents of collective principles and laws. Without ritualized rules which reconcile confrontation, no society could exist. The mere shattering of the ritual form is, for humans, a disaster. Ritual is the structuring form of all civilization. We all need to know the rules of the game. This is the justification for the use of ritual in Freemasonry.

Likewise, the myths of our tradition are the mental supports of our Rite; our Rite is the physical enactment of the myth.

Now, the interesting thing about myths is that the teachers in them change over time but the message remains the same. In the earliest period, man’s teachers were the animals and plants illustrating the powers and patterns of nature. Later on, they became the seven heavenly spheres, where the cosmic order became the model of a good society on earth. Of course, we have long since de-mythologized these through our sciences.

The center of mystery is now man himself. It is a curious characteristic of our species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe. In fact, we have lived in a man’s world since the Greek tragedies. And this is where the Hiramic legend comes in. In the ritual myths of Freemasonry, the two great tragic emotions of the Greeks--pity and terror--is laid out. With pity, we unite whatever is grave and constant in human suffering with the sufferer. With terror, we unite whatever is grave and constant in human suffering with the secret cause.

And the secret cause of all suffering is, of course, mortality itself. It is the pre-condition of life. It cannot be denied if life is to be affirmed. Yet, along with the affirmation of this precondition, there is pity for the human sufferer, who is actually a counterpart of oneself. Our myth empowers us to reconcile our own mortality so that we may overcome ourselves and the fear of our own end.

The story of Hiram Abif and the three Ruffians plays out the great mythic image of pity and terror as expressed by the Greek Tragedies. The human sufferer is wiped out by our ceremonies, yet everything is done to point out the value of the sufferer. The terrorists who cause the suffering also suffer the same grave and constant reality of life.

This is the secret. In the process, the virtues and vices, the ignorance and knowledge, the darkness and the light of all humanity is rediscovered within each man, and these characteristics collectively emerge as the essential character of the latent hero in all of us. It is the Lost Word, that is, it is all the potentialities of life, found; but revealed only to the initiate who understands the form and substance of the journey he makes for himself.