Monday, March 24, 2008

The Degrees of Freemasonry: Their Purpose

Above the porch at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were inscribed the words; Know Thyself. This is perhaps the oldest and most succinct description known to man of the purpose of Freemasonry.

It is said the phrase refers to the personal ideal of understanding human behavior, morals and thought, because ultimately to understand oneself is to understand others. But it also means knowing one’s own habits, morals, temperament, ability to control anger, subdue passions, get along, and manage other aspects of our human nature that we, as men, wrestle with on a daily basis.

Masons believe the most significant personal task we will ever undertake as men is to overcome ourselves. This is the very cornerstone of self improvement and personal development. But it is also both an internal and an outward process. We have to learn how to be accountable for our own actions such as bringing responsibility to our work, our relationships, our behavior, and the choices we make in life. Living responsibly means that we must learn to think for ourselves.

But being a good man also implies that we are consciously aware of how we represent ourselves to others. Truthfulness, goodness, honesty, bravery, courage, purity, righteousness—by whatever name we give them, our values define us because they also define for the outside world who we are.

This process of self development and spiritual improvement is what the “degrees” or stages of membership in Freemasonry are all about. It is what distinguishes Masonry from all other organizations. Becoming a Freemason is not an event, but a process.

Freemasonry exists first and foremost to transform men. Our stated purpose is “to make men better” and that commission takes place because one is initiated into a fellowship of men. Freemasonry’s strength lies in the fact that it offers the right model by which men can grow and achieve balance in their human and spiritual lives. It tenders a safe and private medium for meaningful dialogue in the ways of virtue and ethics. It offers the role of patriarchy to younger men. It facilitates the timeless, ethical and spiritual traditions that have always improved the status of men. Just as it has done for every generation of men for 400 years.

Freemasonry is nothing less than a venerated and time-tested rebirth into manhood.

The Degrees of Freemasonry

Masonry conveys its lessons by degrees. There are three such degrees in the Craft Lodge system of fraternal association—the Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. These titles were originally derived from the different level of skills and experience earned by the craftsmen who worked within the builder’s guilds during the middle Ages. Masonry adopted the language of the building trade because, as men, we are engaged in building our own human and spiritual edifice. This is a process that requires a lot of tools.

Our degrees are often thought of as stages or levels of membership. But they also represent different stages of life; as well as different levels of understanding and awareness. The degrees are therefore progressive in nature; like our own life journey.

Taken together, the degrees of Masonry provide a path, or way of thinking about what is important; what can add stability and meaning to our life. They represent a map of consciousness which can literally result in our transformation as a more enlightened human and spiritual being. The lessons in Masonry are based on the notion that mankind is made in the image of God and that each of us reflects the structure of the universe. This correspondence between the universe and man; between God and man, is the basis of all Masonic instruction.

The lodge or physical space where the degrees are conferred, then, can be thought of as a receptacle for mental and spiritual health. The men working in such a place are doing inner work together—building their own temple of awareness and wisdom in a private setting where only peace and harmony is known. To its members, a Masonic Lodge is, in a very real sense, a temple erected to God. This makes Masonic work the most important and fulfilling work we ever do.

Entered Apprentice Degree

The admission of each man into the Masonic Order is a symbolic representation of the beginning of his journey toward mature and manly judgment; of vesting himself with those qualities essential for living a responsible and fulfilled life. The first Degree in Masonry is therefore Initiatic in nature, i.e., its intent is to facilitate something new in the individual. The instruction of the Degree focuses on leaving one place in life and arriving at another; leaving one condition, or state of mind, and arriving, through thought and study, at another. It symbolizes the journey we must all make, with all the obstacles and challenges we must overcome.

But it also introduces a path for overcoming our hurdles and problems—a path which can lead us from ignorance to knowledge; from confusion to understanding. We find that since we are all part of the same goodness and love, it is therefore possible to be helped by others, and to help others. This level of understanding and trust forms the basis for true fraternal association.

In the Entered Apprentice degree, the quest is for Masonic light. In Masonry, light symbolizes knowledge, self-development, and insight. The search for light is the search for understanding and growth, both of the personality and the spirit.

This first step on your journey to mature masculinity is centered on asking of yourself: Who and what are you? Whence do you come? Where are you going? What is your duty in the world? Above all else, as men, it is important to know these things.

Fellowcraft Degree

Contemplation and enlightenment are the special subjects of the Fellowcraft, or second Degree of Masonry. It is often called the Middle Chamber Degree.

Its instruction focuses on developing an awareness of the science of the human soul. The secrets of our mental and spiritual nature; and the many principles of our intellectual life and experience are brought into our conscious awareness. We learn that difficulties and obstacles placed in our way are a necessary means of developing the full potential good within us. The only way we can approach perfection is by honest and disciplined effort.

In one of the most profound lectures in all of Masonry, we learn that the quest for self and spiritual improvement is a journey of exploration, education, and discovery. Our goal is to become transformed as better men.

The arrival at the Middle Chamber is a symbol of transformation. One starts his journey in ignorance, and ends as a different person, strong, enlightened, in command of his passions and emotions, truly free for the first time, and ready to take command of his life.

When we are at this unique and sacred place in Masonry, we are prepared to know three kinds of truth: moral truth (to truly know what is right and wrong), intellectual truth (the knowledge of what is accurate and what is false) and, if we develop ourselves far enough, Divine truth, which is beyond human understanding. The Middle Chamber becomes a symbol of the soul, or spirit, for it is only there where we can receive Divine truth.

Master Mason Degree

The entire premise of the Master Mason or the third and last of the ancient Craft Degrees in Masonry, is that there is a great mystery to be solved in every man’s life. All men in this world are in search of something in their own nature which they have lost; but that with proper instruction and by their own patience and industry they may hope to find. The world that is our experience, the world we know is but a transient and temporary thing; full of shadows, images and merely substituted secrets.

This Degree is often called the sublime Degree because its instruction is centered on fitting us with genuine secrets of deep and weighty import—dramatic and intense religious and spiritual processes known by every religious system in the world--the supreme lesson of which is self-sacrifice, a mystical death to what has gone before, and a rebirth and illumination of the ultimate truth and reality of our real self.

Only those with reverent and understanding minds can penetrate into the hidden meaning of the Soul.

The deeper secrets in Masonry, like the deeper secrets of life, are always heavily veiled. They exist beneath a great pyramid of time; and he who knows anything of them knows also that they are many and valuable; disclosed only to those who act upon the clues given in our rituals and lectures:

“Ask and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”

Monday, March 17, 2008

Freedom of Speech Was Not Granted as a License For Ignorance

Good grief! Another elected official in Oklahoma has embarrassed our state by making a bigoted and ignorant statement about something for which she has not a medical or academic clue. This time the subject is homosexuality.

State Representative Sally Kern, in a recently televised speech, stated that homosexuality is more dangerous than terrorism; that gays are destroying our society. She goes on to compare gay people to cancer, calling them “deadly, and destroying our children and this nation.” Hers is the kind of remark that leads people to think Oklahoma and ignorance are synonyms. It is particularly discouraging to those of us who believe what the world needs now more than ever are speeches with words expressing love, compassion, cooperation, and understanding rather than hatred, divisiveness and intolerance. Even more, when we have a sense that moral judgments should, at the minimum, start with a belief in the brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God, her comments are downright offensive. They are an insult to any thoughtful person’s sense of reason and intelligence. We must never forget that all homosexuals are born of heterosexual parents.

Sure, it has yet to be proven beyond debate that gay and lesbian behavior is genetically embedded in those who are; just as it has never been proven that sexual preference is a matter of individual choice. But herein lies a remarkably sobering question. What if gay and lesbian tendencies are indeed genetic? How would this modify the categorical imperatives? What impact would this have on society’s collective moral conscience? How would one feel if he could know with certainty whenever he encounters a gay that, except for biological fate, there he himself is!

Besides, regardless of how we may feel about this issue, it is getting increasingly more difficult to argue that genes play no role in homosexuality. In the last 15 years, more and more research results are leading scientists to an increasing likelihood that one or more genes are connected with gayness. This has already been proven in monkeys, cattle, fruit flies, in DNA tests with X chromosomes, in brain differences between gays and straights; and even in tendencies that twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than other siblings.

And this brings me to the real point of this musing. If gayness turns out to be genetic, then it can no longer be considered a 100% non-impeachable moral sin. Moral values will no more depend on sexual orientation than morality depends on religion. As hard as we have often tried over the centuries, no individual or group has ever been able to supplant or replace the innate human capacity for knowing the difference between right and wrong. The bottom line is that moral judgments are based as much on reason as on blind faith or blind feelings. There is a morality in reason just as there is a morality in dogma. It begins with the individual’s life as the primary value, and the recognition that that life contains the same spark of the Divine as yours and mine. We are all Sons or Daughters of God.

Of course, we still have to ultimately identify the further values that will enable us to sustain our life with some sense of fulfillment and contentment. But, in the overall scheme of things, our very nature demands that we not live by random urges or animal instincts. In fact, most of us don’t. Rather, we live by a moral principle which distinguishes us from animals and upon which our existence fundamentally depends. That principle is reason. Some prefer to call it good old common sense. It is the faculty which enables us to experience the world, understand it, and make judgments of fact about it.

Just because a particular religion holds its doctrines to be absolutely true is no evidence that they are. Sally Kern’s convictions which have convinced her that gays are as much a threat to the world as terrorism is no evidence that they are.

But then, educated, intelligent, reasonable, and compassionate people already know that. This is why Sally Kern’s recent remarks are so embarrassing to Oklahomans.