Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Which Public Image Do We Claim?

I was visiting with a fellow Mason not long ago who was expressing how difficult it is for Freemasonry to articulate a public image which adequately describes our organization and is believable to the general public. This is indeed a remarkable challenge because we are bombarded with so many different perceptions about the fraternity. It seems there are many non-Masons willing to represent to the world what we are; without really knowing. The growing popularity of television documentaries, movies, and books about Freemasonry are filled with half truths, templar plots, inferred hostilities toward established religions; alleged infiltrations into the world’s most influential circles of government and elite centers of power. If this were not enough, the web is also filled with discussions asserting Masons to be extreme freethinkers unconstrained by civil authority or law.

The bane of being of the secret society tradition is that Freemasonry is constantly subjected to fanciful illusions of those who like to tell a good tale. And there are plenty of folk who are naïve enough to believe almost anything they hear.

The fact is that there are many public images regarding Freemasonry. It all depends on who you are reading and how you are reading it. There are those who choose to see a hostility between Freemasonry and religion; yet we live in a world with a huge and growing un-churched population. Many in this group perceive Freemasonry as an institution one can trust to openly and objectively discuss the tenets of all belief systems. There are those who see separation of church and state as hostile toward religion; but there are far more who agree with Freemasonry's position regarding the necessity of teaching a society to be watchful that the zealotry of faith does not restrict personal freedoms. There are those who see Freemasons as libertines; yet there are far more who see Masons as seekers of enlightenment within the historical norms of reason and judgment. There are those who call us conspirators against moral and civil authority; but far more who see, in Masons, community men with solid moral and ethical values. There are those who believe our secret society has sinister motives; but far more who are curious about our hidden treasure, our mystery, and the quest we make for that which is unknown except to an enlightened few.

We have something else that everyone respects, yet goes unnoticed by many who have nothing good to say about Freemasonry. We have family heritage. It can be suggested that more men have come into Masonry because someone in their family was a Mason than any other reason for joining. We remember the heroes in our life. And we want to be like them. For men everywhere, that is a far more powerful reason to belong than any web-discussion, tel-evangelizing, or idle commentary of the blind catering to the ignorant is a reason for not belonging.

Surveys have shown that 10% of the population dearly loves us; 10% hate us; and the other 80% have no opinion about us at all. Methinks this puts us in the driver's seat in terms of our opportunity to have an impact or "spin" on our own image.
I have never for a moment had any second thoughts about the value and rightness of Freemasonry. But I have struggled agonizingly long over our institution's inertness to collectively put into practice what it teaches. The biggest weakness of our Order is that we have no way of organizing our strengths to collectively improve society in the name of Masonry. Perhaps this is why we have become more of a charitable organization than a fraternity, even to ourselves. It is easy to get behind a good cause. But we are not so sure how to be a highly valued moral voice for our society.

I’m not sure myself how we position the world’s oldest fraternity to be seen as one of the most respected voices of good judgment and right thinking. But I know image building starts with the example we each individually set for those who know us. And if we wish to project right example onto the corporate name of Freemasonry, our collective acts out in the world must at least match the instruction we receive within our lodges.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What is Gnosticism?

Another overriding theme in Brown’s book The Lost Symbol is that the deeper philosophy of Freemasonry comes from Gnosticism—an early Christian belief system whose adherents accepted the knowledge of Pagan religions as helpful in discerning the truth about the nature of God. Indeed, the term “Gnosticism” is derived from the Greek, Gnosis, which means knowledge—a word specially employed in religious inquiry to designate the science of things divine.

What is perhaps less known is that the term Gnosis was originally used by a sect of Jewish philosophers belonging to a school in Alexandria calling themselves the Peripaticians, who endeavored to show that all the wisdom of the Greeks was derived from Hebrew Scripture. For instance, they argued that any passage of the Old Testament could be interpreted allegorically so that any sense one desired could be attained from any passage of scripture. In this way they showed that Plato, on his sojourn to Egypt, had actually been their scholar. A single production of this Jewish sect has come down to our time. It is the ‘Book of Enoch,’ whose main object was to make known a description of the heavenly bodies and the true names of the same. Thus, to this sect of Gnostics, the beginning of perfection may have been the knowledge of man, but absolute perfection was definitely the knowledge of God.

A review of the teachings of Gnosticism guides one to conclude that it held itself above a paradigm that had slipped into so many religious creeds--that man had turned God into the image of himself. That is, the true nature of God had been diminished so that the human mind could better relate to Him in man’s own terms.

The Gnostics held this to be the greatest error of human nature. So they devised a way in which one could be a Christian while holding to the ancient, purer and truer ideas about the nature of God. And their approach was tied to the Ancient Mysteries. As every division of sectarianism tended more to corrupt the pure nature of God, and as idolatrous forms of worship became more established and popularly regarded as true and real in themselves, the Gnostics practiced and secretly taught an esoteric theology of which the corrupted forms of religion and worship were but the exoteric form of their faith. One could be an “immature” Christian in public and a “mature” Gnostic in thought.

Hence, the Gnostics taught that there was a mystery which related to the real and ineffable God; and those consciously initiated into this mystery held to a purer creed. Thus, the Gnostics preserved the old teachings while encouraging sectarianism itself. This enabled them to be Christians on the outside, while on the inside accepting all religious systems as having some basis of truth, and extracting from each what brought harmony to their ideas.

In short, the Gnostic spirituality was about looking within. The Divine aspect was immanent as well as transcendent. Thus, there was no real chasm separating humanity from its creator. God is within His creation. This offers the possibility that self-knowledge and knowledge of God can be one thing--that the Self and the Divine are identical.

Needless to say, religion as a matter of personal exploration didn’t play too well for those who were otherwise doing quite well at organized religion. So Gnosticism quickly became a heresy. By the sixth century, it was pretty much extinct as a religion as far as Europe was concerned. But it left behind deep traces in the writings and symbolisms of the magicians, astrologers, kabbalists, and seekers after the grand arcanum throughout the whole of the middle ages and through the renaissance.

The Ancient Mysteries continued to quietly flourish, although authorities of the church didn’t worry much about it, feeling they had successfully discredited it as being wrought with too much philosophizing and over-imagination. Then, in 1945, an Egyptian peasant stumbled upon an earthen vase full of papyrus books stored in a cave at Nag Hammadi. It turns out there were more gospels to the gospels than the early church had led everyone to believe. One of them proclaimed Jesus to be a Gnostic teacher. Another, the Gospel of Phillip, describes the initiate as “no longer a Christian, but Christ!” What the writer meant was that a man’s maturity in spirituality can become so intimately joined to Christ that he becomes Christ-like.

Dan Brown’s claim in his latest novel that organized religion has subverted the original meaning of the Bible is hardly surprising. Nor is it new news. He is simply using the message of the Gnostics as reflected in the Buddha who said, “You are God yourself,” and as taught by Jesus, who said, “the kingdom of God is within you,” and as quoted by the first antipope, Hippolytus of Rome, “Abandon the search for God…instead, take yourself as the starting place.” Novelist Brown simply chose to focus on Gnostic teaching as the underlying treasure to be discovered in the search for the Lost Word.

So the question becomes: Does this have anything to do with Freemasonry? In a historic sense, very little; since there is not a shred of evidence that Freemasonry evolved from the Ancient Mysteries. There are very few Gnostic symbols and talismans that have been borrowed by the authors of our craft Masonic ritual. The only such connection the operative fraternity may have made with the mysteries was that the mason marks of the stone masons were often the same as those used in Hindu religious practices; which can be traced back through Gothic retention, Gnostic usage, through Greek and Etruscan art to their ultimate Hindu source.

But the speculative side of the craft is another story. Many of the early writers on Freemasonry held the view that the Craft, particularly the Higher Degrees, was a continuation of the Ancient Mysteries; that is, Freemasonry was not a lineal descendent of the mysteries, but was a continuation of the mystery tradition. As an example, one of the cryptic themes so prevalent in our Degrees is that Initiation can lead to a personal epiphany and transformation. This is a Gnostic idea. Similarly, the comment above from the Gospel of Phillip that one must be resurrected in life is a symbolic parallel to the raising of the Master Hiram in the allegorical drama of the Third Degree. Indeed, one of the fraternity’s most respected writers, Walter Wilmhurst, defined the aim of Initiation as bringing into function that dormant and submerged faculty that resides at the depth and center of our being which is the vital and immortal principle of our personality. The goal is to regain our spiritual consciousness, that higher world and life within us—our soul consciousness. In Masonry, this goal is sought, at least in part, through the search for the Lost Word.

The bottom line is that progress in initiation is gnosis. It is not rational knowledge that we seek. Nor is it accumulation of information. Neither is it theoretical knowledge. What we seek is insight, or knowledge gained through direct experience; for gnosis involves a process that embraces both self knowledge and knowledge of ultimate, divine realities. It is the path of the psychology of being. It is about keeping the faith in the religious tradition of our choice, while having faith in our own intuition, the personal experience of our own inner liberation. The inner work of Freemasonry, and particularly the Scottish Rite, is to effect a significant change in consciousness that transports the knower to a higher awareness of himself, his nature, God’s nature, and his intimate and immortal connection to the divine.

Dan Brown in The Lost Symbol has helped us understand and accept the premise that we are all divine, and that we can all access the divine within us. What is above; is below. Knowledge is freedom. “If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Scottish Rite and Noetic Science

One of the major threads in The Lost Symbol is an explanation of the work of physicist Katherine Solomon, who is a leading researcher in the field of Noetic Science. Sponsored by the Smithsonian, Solomon studies the untapped potential of the human mind.

Although we have not given it the same name, Noetic Science is a theme which repeats itself many times throughout the Degrees of Freemasonry.

The idea is that most of us have barely scratched the surface of our mental and spiritual capabilities. The Degrees of the Rite give us an understanding that the mind, like the logos, was with God in the beginning, is made in the image of God, and therefore has the potential to be accessed for remarkably metaphysical and powerful purposes. Noetic scientists envision their studies as explorations into the nature and potentials of consciousness using multiple ways of knowing. They sometimes refer to it as “inner knowing,”--exploring the nature and potential of consciousness. We think of it as the “inner way” or the transformative art of Masonry. Whenever we have an insight or intuition relating to an allegory presented in our ritual that suddenly becomes clear to us for the first time; whenever we are enlightened by our ability to find clarity through reason to a problem we have never before been able to solve; or whenever our senses warn us of an impending danger, causing us to consciously divert our path away from it, we are experiencing the inner way.

Again, we call this work the transformative art of our fraternity. Our studious focus and meditation on the deeper nature of our teachings can literally transform or change us for the better. But the noetic part is that our collective discipline in working together toward perfecting our mind, soul and spirit can also change society for the better. Jung called this type of change as affecting the collective unconscious. Jung saw the collective unconscious as being the repository of all current and past religious, spiritual and mythological symbols and experiences. And these things are imbedded in the genetic dna of all of us. These things form the map of our psyche—the archetypes of all things which have pre-existed us—the thinking processes deep within us which we inherit even if we don’t know it.

The collective unconscious, then, is a kind of universal mind. Since it exists in all of us, it can be manipulated in the direction of good or evil. Dan Brown’s fear in The Living Symbol is that, if the forces for good in the world do not become aware of this metaphysical power of the mind and will, it can be captured and manipulated for evil purposes.

The hope of the Scottish Rite, as the enemy of all spiritual and mental tyranny, is that by projecting the balance of faith, logic, and reason into the minds of mankind, it can develop the wider human potential and creative capacities for good in the world.

By supporting individuals in the transformation of their own consciousness, we lay the cornerstone for a collective transformation in the world which is built on freedom, wisdom and love.

Methinks this is what Dan Brown wanted us to discover in his book.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why the Scottish Rite is the Focus of Dan Brown's Message

If you have not read Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, you may want to pick up a copy. Of course, a good detective novel is always fun and few writers are better than Brown at weaving a good story around hidden things. But the underlying theme of the Lost Symbol is the Ancient Mysteries. The journey or quest for discovery of what is hidden in Brown’s book is nothing less than the Lost Word! There’s scarcely a Freemason who would not recognize this as one of the foundational themes of our Order!

This makes the message of Brown’s book a bit more than blasé for the more astute members of the world’s oldest fraternity.

In the novel, one of the principal characters is a fellow named Peter Solomon (memorable name). It turns out he is both the Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite in Washington DC and Worshipful Master of his Lodge in the nation’s capital. He spends a good bit of time alluding to the knowledge of the Ancients and their traditions of study. In the story, Solomon posits that what science has recently learned with its new discoveries concerning the structure and progress of the universe was also known by the ancient philosophers, mathematicians, religious scholars and mystics. Our new science is, in fact, old knowledge.

Of course, this comes as no real revelation to Scottish Rite Masons since we spend a good deal of our time learning and discussing the ancient wisdom traditions. The Rite devotes five Degrees specifically to the Ancient Mystery religions. In fact, the Mysteries in general are woven around many of the Degrees.

We all know the purpose of the Mysteries was to purify one’s body and mind, and increase one’s awareness of his spiritual identity as he made his personal journey to self-discovery. But the Mysteries had another profound aspect which directly ties to the theme of the Lost Symbol. This characteristic was first articulated by Clemens of Alexandria when he revealed that “what was taught in the great Mysteries concerned the Universe, and was the completion and perfection of all instruction.” The Mysteries had many other features, but this overriding cosmic idea dealt with questions of the sun and stars, the universe as the creation of God, and of man’s place in it.

In Brown’s book, this theme resonates notably. The greatest enigma of humankind is the question of who, or what, created the Universe. Until recently, science and psychology have taken a sort of atheistic approach to the idea of a God-inspired creation. Science and psychology thrive in a world of statistics. In the examples of psychology, the investigation always centers around normal human development. Psychology uses “normal” as a statistical concept--measuring all behavior around it.

Likewise, Science uses logic to test theoretical ideas. Thus, asking a scientist to involve a supernatural agency that transcends the laws of physics to explain what they already know came to be because of a big bang, is asking a bit much.

But new advances in what scientists know in their understanding of the very early universe has transformed the entire debate, and recast this age old puzzle in a totally different light. Before 1940, the central idea of physics was that there was no big-bang moment at which time all matter was created. Instead, the Universe just was; and as it expanded, new particles were continuously created to fill up the gaps so that the average density of the universe remained unchanged. The idea was that any individual galaxy simply passed through its life cycle, and when its stars died, new galaxies were already formed from the newly created matter to replace the old. This was called the “steady-state theory” of the universe. It has no beginning or end.

For many scientists, the theory was particularly interesting because, by abolishing the “Big-Bang” theory, they had once and for all removed the need for a Creator. The universe could operate like a perpetual clock that is self winding. Such a place doesn’t require any Divine intervention to start it or keep it running.

Fortunately, the steady-state theory fell out of favor not on philosophical grounds, but because it was proven by large radio telescopes to be false. Then, in 1965, it was discovered that the universe was, in fact, bathed in heat radiation—which has since proven to be a relic of a big bang. All of a sudden, the designer argument could not be categorized as right or wrong. Astronomer James Jeans proclaimed that “the universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician. It begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”

Hello! Do we need to be reminded again of the meaning of the letter ‘G?!!’

Well, even the early Greek philosophers recognized that the order and harmony of the cosmos demanded explanation. Newton himself believed “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent powerful Being.” The problem is that, while clear evidence of design exists so much in nature, its proof remains hidden in some way from us. And we can’t use logic alone to make such discoveries. Scientific proof can take us only so far. To go past that point requires faith.

But the problem with faith alone is that it is so often untrustworthy. How can one be sure that what he experiences is real? How can he guard himself against giving way to pure emotionalism in the belief that he is being transported only by faith?

The ancients knew that the answer to the dilemma of logic and faith was Reason. While reason, like science, could not take one into the presence of Deity, it could stand to validate one’s faith experience while reinforcing one’s sense of logic. The Ancients knew that it was in this balance, this equilibrium between faith and reason where true religion could be found.

Do our rituals not teach of the balancing power of wisdom, strength and beauty in all things? Is not the search for what is hidden always a constructive process when guided by logic, faith, and reason? And isn’t the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom the true labor of life?

When we probe the mysteries, we are always engaged in metaphysical work. And to consciously engage in this kind of work is Initiation.

This was what Peter Solomon knew. Or perhaps it is what Dan Brown knows and is trying to tell the world through him.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Are You a Master Mason?

A lot of men ask me if I think every Mason should be a 32° Mason. Since I am privileged to serve the craft in Oklahoma as the Secretary of one of the most popular and respected Scottish Rite organizations in America, you would think I would enthusiastically respond in the affirmative; touting a long list of reasons why it is so very true that all Masons should be Scottish Rite Masons!

Well, you might be surprised to learn that my answer to this question is “no.”

I think what we get out of Masonry depends so much on how we feel in our heart about being a Master Mason. We all know that some men are Master Masons in name only. Remember—we are admonished by the Worshipful Master well after we have taken all the obligations of Craft Masonry that we are not yet Master Masons; and we may never become Master Masons. We are told of a journey we must first make, and are informed the path will be arduous at best. We are warned that if we do make it, we will make it only as a matter of faith and will.

It turns out this journey is no less than our own life journey. And, for every one of us, that journey is still a work in progress. In a very real sense, we are all Master Masons at times; while, at other times, our actions fall short of the ideals we are taught in Masonry.

In evaluating how we are doing, here are some important questions: Have we done anything different with our life since we were initiated as Entered Apprentices? Do we know we are better men today than before? Have we become transformed by our experience of becoming a Mason? Are we more caring, less selfish, more thoughtful, less judgmental, more sharing, less rigid, more willing to learn and grow and help others who are on the same journey with us?

There are many ways of testing whether or not we have done anything different with our lives since we became brothers of the Mystic Tie together. It’s really a matter of becoming aware that we are actively and consciously working toward our own personal growth and development. It is this awareness which makes Masonry the most important work we will ever do--because, in large measure, our happiness is based on ourselves.

This brings me back to my earlier response. Here’s the question I usually ask when a brother inquires about becoming a 32° Mason. Are you ready to make the journey into yourself to discover who you are and learn what it means to live a life of meaning; so that you will not only become a better man, but will also have made so lasting an impression on your family and fellowmen that they, in turn, will want to live like you?

You see, this is the kind of faith and will which ultimately makes us Master Masons. To be a good man is not the only qualification to be accepted. An appropriate intellectual and spiritual level of personal development is also to be considered.

If we are men of such hope and conviction; if we have a deep yearning to discover our inner nature and strive to make the best of our own life’s journey--to live a life that makes a positive difference to ourselves and others--then we are Master Masons; and the right kind of men to be Masters of the Royal Secret.

For such men, the "book of the world" lies open before them. The reward is in the journey.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mediocrity in Masonry . . . Shame on us!

One of the questions that occasionally eats at me when I am driving home from a Masonic event, degree, or function that has been woefully mediocre is how our members can sit through such Masonic happenings month after month and still believe our fraternity is relevant and meaningful to men’s lives? How honest are we in claiming we make good men better while persistently repeating practices and behaviors which are so distinctively average, or worse? Self improvement involves some form of positive change. It requires some level of progress; entails some elevated sense of being. Explain to me how a lodge facilitates self improvement by offering its members a venue that doesn’t “feel” any different when they are inside the lodge than outside of it.

Perhaps many of us come into Masonry looking for nothing more than fraternal association. But, if that’s the case, it ought to be the best fraternal association we have ever had!

Once we encounter the preparation room, or make our progress through the degrees, it is hard to dismiss the awareness that we are engaged in something wholly different from our other community experiences. We quickly learn that Masonry has a higher calling which requires that we make an ascent into the very center of our being.

An endeavor of such high importance and due solemnity is not a run of the mill undertaking. It becomes clear there is nothing mediocre about Masonry. So why do we make it that way?

Here’s the problem. Accepting mediocrity in our lodge practices is the same as living a mediocre life. By making un-extraordinary acts and behaviors our ordinary practice, we entrap ourselves from knowing how precious life really is. We don’t use opportunities that come our way as a means of expressing how special we really are. Instead, we walk the walk with the rest of the herd and soon find ourselves in such a deep rut of limitations we lose sight of our own value. We become trapped in mediocrity.

Regrettably, this too often seems the condition in which lodges, Scottish Rite Valleys, York Rite Chapters, Councils and Commanderies find themselves. When nothing extraordinary, educational, insightful, compelling, intellectual, contemplative, spiritual, or fraternal occurs in our private, sacred, fraternal spaces, then we become only another ordinary, average, run of the mill, dime-a-dozen organization. It is hard to see how this kind of Masonry takes good men and makes them better.

It is not the kind of Masonry we should want to share with our friends.

I believe that if we truly want to move “from the square to the compasses,” we have to dare to be different. And we can’t dare to be different by following someone else’s expectations. When a lodge does the same thing year after year, it is accepting by default someone else’s expectations. There is nothing creative, inspiring, or different about parroting ritual, paying bills, and going home. That’s doing only what many others have done before us.

To distinguish ourselves among men and organizations, we first have to perceive in our own minds that we have something to do which will ultimately set us above the average. We start by thinking about the choices before us.

Do we choose what is safe rather than what is right? Do we only do things right, or do we do the right things? Do we set out on a new path, or take the same old, comfortable way? Do we bring credit to our teachings, or debit them as ideals of the past? Do we become the examples that young men want to emulate, or do we seem to them as just another group of ho hum guys?

You see, the choice always controls the chooser. To be exemplary men, or an exemplary organization, we have to be exceptional in our awareness of who we are, what we are here to be doing, what we know, and how we practice what we know. We have to have the courage to be different from the rest of the crowd—nobler in our expectations and more refined in our state of mind.

Because that’s just the way Masonry is.

He who wants milk should not sit himself in the middle of a pasture and wait for a cow to back up to him.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Are The Rags Of Our Righteousness?

The interrogatories of Craft Masonry are said to have been penned by William Preston and appear in the ritual workings of the Entered Apprentice Degree sometime after 1772. Prior to this, the preparation room was used for different purposes. In the earliest days of Speculative Masonry, the candidate was “made” a Mason in the preparation room by having the obligations administered to him by the Master before he ever stepped foot into the lodge. This was the case during the late 17th century period and remained common through the first two decades of the 1700’s.

As degree workings became more formalized, the “making ceremony” was moved into the lodge room itself and the anteroom became the waiting area for the candidate while the Master opened the lodge. Once the lodge was opened, the Master asked if anyone was in waiting to be “made.” The Wardens and the proposer retired to prepare the candidate. He was relieved of his metals, asked some basic questions such as name, occupation, and place of residence, and then left to his own reflections for at least half an hour. His proposer sat with him, and he was not allowed to talk. Guards (likely the deacons) stood near with swords drawn.

While all this was taking place, the lodge set up its trestleboard, or set of figures drawn into the floor with charcoal and chalk, set in an oblong square.

Preston changed all this with his formal interrogatories; and these are adopted and in use today. After the questions are asked in the preparation room, the Deacon gives the candidate a charge which informs him of the seriousness of the journey he is about to take, and suggests that, through the language and hieroglyphics of our ceremonies, we may come to understand the meaning of death and rebirth.

And then he is given a warning. He is told that his status in life is not enough to gain him a place in heaven; that indeed he must become poor and destitute, blind and naked. Of course, he doesn’t realize this at the time, but what he is being told is that we will be communicating with his soul rather than his body from this point forward; because we already know it is only his soul that is capable of interpreting and understanding the allegories we will present to him. And then we add another very brief and eccentric afterthought—that “he must be divested of the rags of his own righteousness…. .” Now, what in heaven’s name does this mean? Why would we divest someone of their righteousness?

Righteousness is defined as conformity of life to the requirements of the Divine or Moral Law. This would seem a very Masonic plan. Righteousness means virtue, or integrity—again, a central Masonic goal. To be righteous is to be morally right or justifiable. So again, why are we divesting our man of his own moral justification?

Well, I’m not sure. But I think we are imploring him to consider what righteousness means to him. The operative word in our admonition is that we are divesting him of the rags of his own righteousness. This would imply we are suggesting the validity in which he defines righteousness is worthy of his reconsideration. Because righteousness is a subjective thing. Like Truth. It is a virtue which has been so broadly used throughout history that one hardly knows what to make of it.

For instance, Barclay complained about the greediness of some merchants in mixing European plants with Indian wrappers and calling it righteous and legitimate tobacco. What does that mean? It was said of George Washington that he was righteous in the treatment of his slaves? Now there’s an oxymoron. We have been told over and over again that America has a righteous government. Oh really?

You get the idea. A man does not even get to knock on the door of Freemasonry before he is told to set aside what he has already been taught, or told, or ordered, or mandated in so far as his moral code is concerned. You see, we are not so much interested in what someone or something has already made of him. Freemasonry asks him to set aside the assumptions of his past; be divested of his subjective upbringing, bear the nakedness of his own heart, and be clothed in the purity of his soul. Only then can he objectively learn what he does not know; and begin the great and important undertaking of re-discovering himself.

It is only when he makes this mystic journey within that he can take on the mantel of righteousness; and know that he is justified in his moral standing.

So, regardless of our station in life, or where we are on our own journey, it never hurts to occasionally stop and ponder this significant question for ourselves:

What are the rags of my own righteousness?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fraternalism--The Lost Word in Charity

Any study of the beginnings of Freemasonry will clearly show that fraternalism was the first and most distinguishing characteristic of Masons and Masonry. We are, above everything else, our own brother’s keeper. This has been the raison d’ etre which distinguishes us from all other groups.

Masonic charity, in its original terminology, meant fraternal, or private, charity—and is represented by the meaning of Brotherly Love and Relief in the great Masonic triad of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. It is “the cement which unites us into one common band, or society, of friends and brothers.”

Our obligations are obligations we have taken on behalf of each other. Our moral, social and financial duties are first and foremost to our brothers, their family members and survivors. In the ties and duties we received at the altar of Masonry we swore “to help with generous care all those in sorrow hidden; the brother on the darkened square….while tears gush forth unbidden ”

The admonition we get from the lodge Master in his opening charge, “let us be happy ourselves,” has everything to do with our kindness and brotherly affection toward each other. We are reminded of this again in the installation of officers: “we have one aim; to please each other and unite in the grand design of being happy and communicating happiness.”

Until the Shrine of North America institutionalized Masonic charity in 1922 by introducing an outside cause into Masonry, Masons always took care of their brothers and families first. They understood the traditional meaning of fraternity and fraternalism.

But institutional charity was appealing. It felt good to help others outside the lodge, and even better when that effort was directed at mitigating childhood misfortune. So, on the coattails of the good publicity the Shrine received nationally, we decided to move our charitable hearts beyond the confines of our lodges. It didn’t happen all at once; like some passing fad. It was a one lodge at a time inspiration which just kept growing across the landscape of communities.

Of course, it wasn’t long until the Masons also discovered it was much easier to tell their friends about Masonry by pointing to what we did, rather than explain what we were. Too, it was much easier for the public to discover and accept us when we were doing things they could see, rather than wonder what we were up to behind our closed doors.

By the 1950’s, this public charity thing had become an exciting partnership for all Bodies of Masonry. It felt good. It was convenient.

We should have known where all this would take us; but we didn’t pay much attention. As our lodges continued to grow in numbers, it became more difficult to stay intimately connected with every lodge member. In American Freemasonry, bigger was perceived as better. Especially in the larger urban areas, there was a kind of competition among lodges as to which would have the most members. It became nothing to boast of a lodge membership exceeding 500 brothers. The largest lodges had more than 5,000. It was no wonder outside charity became more important. It was simply much easier to apply our charitable dollars to outside causes than to stay on top of the needs of our own brothers, their widows, and children. Besides, the publicity was better; and the positive public image was both appealing and tempting.

Our brothers in need didn’t really know what was lost to them. The process of moving our charitable focus from inside our lodges to the outside world was so gradual, so subtle, we didn’t even realize when we had corporately lost the single most important tangible benefit of being a Mason—that we and our surviving families would have the security of Masonic aid and assistance for as long as we lived. The new reality is, in many lodges, the faithful few who regularly attend meetings rarely know those who don’t--let alone their human condition. Yet the lodge community charitable program is often firmly established and well known. In my own state, 227 lodges gave $2.7 million to community causes last year. That’s no small change.

In retrospect, with the increasing mobility of our society over the past few decades, who’s to know whether this has been a good or bad thing. Maybe we would not have retained our intimate connections anyway. Perhaps we would not have survived without better public contact and the improved public image that good works create.

This is really not the main concern of this musing anyway. To me, the scary thing is that it took only three generations of men to change a 400 year tradition. It makes one wonder how many other Masonic traditions have been lost to time only because a current generation had not a clue about the past.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Of My Own Free Will and Accord"

I’ve always been curious about the peculiar practice in Freemasonry that no man may be asked, invited, or solicited to enter the fraternity. It is an organizational feature almost unique among societies. In fact, organizations with the most select membership are those which receive no applications, but select and invite their candidates. The no-ask/no-tell canon has been a rule of immemorial standing in the fraternity and, yet, it is impossible to determine when it originated. There is nothing concerning it in the Gothic Constitutions, nor in any of the rules and by-laws of the old lodges, or in the Constitutions of 1723; nor is it discussed by any of the Masonic writers of the 18th Century. There is nothing in the ritual on the subject. The “candidate interrogatories” written by William Preston asks only that the candidate affirm he comes to Freemasonry unbiased by an improper solicitation. And yet, we know that men of noble rank were solicited to become Grand Masters, though they were not Freemasons and had to be initiated just for that purpose.

So, all this begs some questions--if we come to Freemasonry by our own free will and accord, in what way are we free? Masonically, what does it mean to be free men? Is this freedom important? Once we enter and take on the commitments and obligations of our fraternity, does this make us less free?

Perhaps there is something to be learned by reflecting on the meaning of being free men in the context that Freemasonry is a “system of morality veiled in allegory.” These three words, “system of morality” may be at the core of our understanding of being free-men, or free-masons. Certainly, these words would be a reason why we should insist that all men who join us do so with complete freedom. Freedom is a condition sine qua non for joining an order based on morality.

That a person enters of his own free will and accord means that he is a man free from all prejudices and attitudes which are not based on his own self examination; that he is prepared to judge all attitudes, including his own, with intellectual integrity; that he is free and ready to make a moral judgment and to defend it even when he is in the minority or under strain for holding such a view; and, even more important, that he is aware he must place limits on his own freedom if he is to insure other men the same right to theirs.

There is a thin line between being free and being just; between dividing one’s obligations with one's rights; in self-censoring our own freedom as a result of recognizing another has the same right to his own; that the moral norms of one country may be different in another, yet both right; that the majority recognize the minority’s point of view and that the minority accept the right of the majority to bind all by its decisions. One becomes morally free only when his individual independence is balanced by intelligent choice.

To be moral and to act in accordance with moral values requires the ability and readiness to judge between right and wrong, between what is in conformity with prevailing norms and what is not. A moral choice can only exist if it rests on choosing between two possible alternatives; and this choice has to be made with complete freedom and with no coercion of any kind. A man determines his sense of morals only when these are put to the test. If the choice he makes is made under coercion, there is no moral value in his choice.

To be a Freemason means we possess fundamental moral attitudes which are based on constant self evaluation and re-evaluation of every aspect of our life. The opening charge to the Master Mason in the 4° of the Scottish Rite is worthy of our contemplation. “Freemasonry is an institution seeking human happiness through tolerance and love; self-perfection, glorifying justice, truth and equality; fighting tyranny, ignorance and prejudices.”

To achieve this definition means that every Brother must approach free objectivity in his moral choices. We may think of freedom only in a sense of being free from restrictions or limitations. However, this is perhaps the lesser freedom. The freedom to act according to our freely-made moral choices and convictions is what makes us true Freemasons.

Are we less free as a result of undertaking such commitments together as Brothers? I think not. In fact, we have chosen of “our own free will and accord” to be committed to certain moral values.

To me, this is a true expression of being free.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Masonic Charity Foundation Announces $1 Million Gift for Alzheimer's Resarch

The Oklahoma Masonic Charity Foundation announced this week it will donate $1 million to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation to help build and equip an Alzheimer’s Disease Laboratory on the medical foundation’s property in Oklahoma City. Ken House, President of the Masonic Foundation, remarked that “there’s hardly a person in our state who has not had a family member, or someone they know, who has been devastated by this tragic and crippling illness. Our own fraternity has its share of members whose productive lives have been shortened because of this awful disease. We are proud to assist the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in their cutting edge efforts to find workable treatments for this terrible malady.”

The gift comes at a landmark time for the OMRF, which is currently embarking on the largest expansion of research space in the foundation’s 62-year history. It recently acquired the Keys Speech and Hearing building from the University of Oklahoma. That property was situated in the middle of the medical foundation’s research campus. The acquisition will enable the foundation to build an 8-story research tower which is scheduled to be ready for occupancy by 2011. The new facility will provide over 200,000 square feet of new laboratory space and facilities. Funding for the construction of the tower has already been secured.

The Masonic Foundation’s grant will construct and equip one of the 8 floors of the new tower to be dedicated to Alzheimer’s research. The floor will be named the “Masonic Charity Foundation Alzheimer’s Disease Laboratory.” The Masons’ funding will not only provide scientific equipment necessary for scientists to focus their efforts on understanding the cellular processes which lead to the development of Alzheimer’s, it will offer recruitment packages for attracting new scientists, salaries for technical assistants, and laboratory supplies essential to Alzheimer’s research.

This is a public/private partnership of magnificent proportion. With the building of the new research tower, the Masons will be partnering with the state of Oklahoma through the state’s Opportunity Fund, along with many of the largest corporate and family foundations in Oklahoma. Our collective dream is to be able to add to the already remarkable achievements being made by the Medical Research Foundation in the field of Alzheimer’s research. Together, we will be aiding and attracting some of the best scientists in the country to explore new techniques for treating a disease that steals the memories—and ultimately the lives--of more than 4 million people in the United States every year.

That’s a dream worth owning.