The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Facilitating Purpose in Freemasonry

Some men were born to be Freemasons. A subset of them actually become Freemasons. A subset of those remain Freemasons. Why is that?

We all know men whom we know would make great Freemasons, and would enjoy the fraternity and craft on a deep and satisfying level, and yet they have no interest in joining. Some have never heard of Freemasonry. Some vaguely recollect that such a thing exists, but it has never registered to them as something worth considering. Some know what it is, but have not met a Freemason whom they'd like to be like (and the Fraternity usually ends up molding men into certain forms, the deeper they commit themselves to the moral and symbolic practice of the Craft). Some know Freemasons whom they admire and whom they know to be Freemasons, but have not overcome the inertia that comes with starting a new endeavor. Some want very much to be Freemasons someday, but not yet.

Some men become Freemasons, but never find any kinship within their lodge, and eventually stop attending, and later stop paying dues. Some men dive in deep, volunteer for everything, join every appendant and concordant body they discover, and burn themselves out. Some rise up the chairs, and do the duties of each office with great integrity, and discover a deficit between what other brothers' commitments are and their own, and grow resentful, and leave. Some run smack into a wall.

Sometimes that wall is a lodge's resistance to changing structures that might not be working effectively anymore. Sometimes that wall is a cabal of grumpy Past Masters who refuse to relinquish control even when they are no longer serving the lodge well. Sometimes that wall is a series of procedures and protocols that seem to exist to impose arbitrary authority rather than to help men practice Freemasonry.

I was born to do mathematics, and yet I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. Why?

I was an ace in mathematics in high school, and majored in math during my freshman year of college, but my math department was too small, and they couldn't teach me the kind of math I wanted to learn, so I dropped out of school. When I went back to college, it was as an English major because I know I could find the kinds of teachers I wanted in English.

Years later, I went to graduate school to get a teaching certificate. On the first day of school, the administrators told me that the schools were glutted with English teachers, but had a bad shortage of math teachers, and if I were willing to change my subject matter, they would give me financial aid incentives. I switched to math, and started taking math classes on the side. One math teacher told me that with my aptitude for math, I should consider doing work in mathematics. I took all the classes required for a major in pure mathematics in five quarters, and then entered a Master's degree program in math.

In my Master's program, I had brilliant, inspiring teachers who helped me reach a significant level of mathematical maturity. When I entered my Ph.D. program, I ran smack into a wall.

I was 32. Everyone else in the first year of my program was 22, and had come directly from a Bachelor's program. My school had no idea how to teach me math, and had no idea how to allow me to do math on my own. There were a series of comprehensive exams on various subjects, with exam questions that were very, very difficult but not always very relevant to the kind of math we were actually going to do. The entire focus of the first two years was to get the students through those comprehensive exams.

I was treated as if I didn't know any mathematics except what my professors taught me at that school. My intellectual curiosity was irrelevant. My previous experiences were irrelevant. My purpose for studying mathematics was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was passing the exams.

Also, socially, the 22-year-olds I encountered had never had any social interactions with people not their own age. I would have conversations with classmates, and in the middle of the conversation realize that they were flailing because they didn't know how to talk to a grownup. The age gap of ten years, while irrelevant to me, was a big deal to most of them, a gap they couldn't really cross.

I got lonely and frustrated and deeply depressed. Although I had a profound aptitude for doing mathematics, I never felt I belonged the whole time I was working on my Ph.D. I was in the strange situation of having the stated purpose, doing mathematics, which I felt and still feel I was born to do, be irrelevant to my survival at the school. Once that divorce became too explicit, I dropped out.

Freemasonry should be about doing Freemasonry. Freemasonry is a powerful psychological and spiritual system that uses symbolism, memorization, ritual and introspection to transform men's lives for the better. It inculcates true brotherhood, a profound reverence for Deity, a feeling of charity, and makes good men better by its technique. But it is a hazard of the fraternity that extenuating circumstances that have nothing to do with doing Freemasonry often drive men out of the Fraternity.

This can happen at the lodge level, at the Grand Lodge level, or even through an appendant or concordant body. Conversely, any one of these bodies can bring a Mason back to the practice of Freemasonry, and remind him why he joined.

I read about Grand Lodges piling up edicts, rulings, requirements, and prohibitions that really have nothing to do with doing Freemasonry. I see lodges where men are more obsessed with minutiae than with character or brotherhood. We all know lodges where the inclusion of a new 25-year-old Mason would change the culture of the lodge too dramatically. I see lodges where one corrupt Master or secretary chokes the life out of the lodge, and makes each meeting about knuckling under to them rather than doing Freemasonry. We all know men who have been Masons for decades without ever doing any Freemasonry.

Lightfoot rightly warned us that lodges often make it impossible to do Freemasonry within the lodge. We have other structures, like research lodges and lodges of instruction or exemplification, wherein it might be harder to do Freemasonry. We have rules and requirements that might on paper look like they are helping, but in practice alienate men from the actual Craft of Freemasonry. If men feel bullied or pressured or coerced into attendance or participation, why would they continue to volunteer? If you squeeze the Freemasonry out of their Freemasonry, what have you given them?

If you don't give brothers sufficient opportunities to do Freemasonry, you will alienate them and they will leave.

Often with a broken heart, because they were born to do Freemasonry.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The York Rite

In September, I was installed King of Cambridge Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the Royal Arch equivalent of Senior Warden. A Chapter of Royal Arch Masons is the body of Freemasonry that is the entry-level into the York Rite of Freemasonry's higher degrees. Most York Rite bodies require that their members be Royal Arch Masons in good standing. There are three York Rite Bodies that most Masons know about, and at least twelve invitational bodies listed on the official York Rite website, and most likely there are more that have no web presence.

In Massachusetts, a Royal Arch Mason can petition for the degrees given in a Council of Royal and Select Masters, and when he has taken their degrees, if he is willing to swear an oath to always be willing to lift his sword in defense of the Christian religion, he can petition for the degrees given in a Commandery of Knights Templar.

Royal Arch Masonry, in its current form, coalesced around 1800. Three of the degrees are very old, and one is a more modern innovation. The Mark Master Mason degree might be the oldest degree in Freemasonry, and in Scotland, there are still Mark Master Mason lodges that just confer the Mark Master Mason degree. Also, there are bodies of Freemasonry in the UK and Ireland that require the Mark Master Mason degree for membership. It is sometimes considered to be a continuation of the Fellowcraft degree. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not sure how to express it without violating the secrets of both degrees, so I'll desist for now.

The Past Master degree was developed in the early 18th century, and was originally the esoteric portion of the installation of the Worshipful Master of a Blue Lodge into his office. In Massachusetts, it is a requirement that a Mason elected Worshipful Master of his lodge has to be qualified in a Lodge of Qualification, within which he receives the Degree of the Chair, which has significant overlap with the Past Master degree in the York Rite. This degree has been included in the Chapter degree system because the following two degrees were originally limited to Masons who were Past or Presiding Masters. When the Royal Arch degree spiked in popularity in the mid 18th century, many lodges were installing half a dozen Worshipful Masters a night, just so they could receive the Royal Arch degree. Grand Lodges tend not to look favorably on such shenanigans, and so the modern Past Master degree in Chapter is sometimes called the Virtual Past Master degree to signify that the recipient is not an actual Past Master after receiving the degree. I don't like that usage, but I understand why it exists.

The Most Excellent Master, the next degree in the sequence, is probably the most recently created degree of the four. It was first performed in the late 18th century. My guess is that it came into existence because the Royal Arch degree jumps ahead a few centuries from the time period of the Mark Master degree (the Past Master degree seems to be ahistorical), and that leaves a gap in the plot which the Most Excellent Master fills very beautifully.

The Royal Arch degree is the ne plus ultra of the Chapter degrees. It was hugely popular in the 18th century, so much so that the Ancient and the Modern Grand Lodges split over what prominence the Royal Arch degree should have in Craft Freemasonry (the Ancients felt it should be a Blue Lodge degree, and the Moderns felt otherwise). It is considered to be the completion of the Master Mason degree, and as a result, in 18th century Masonry, it was sometimes conferred on candidates on the same night as their Master Mason degree, with or without the Degree of the Chair in between.

It is my controversial opinion that the Royal Arch degree is intrinsic to Freemasonry. The Scottish Rite has Royal Arch degree(s): the 13th in the NMJ, and the 13th and 14th in the SJ. In the Swedish Rite of Freemasonry, the Royal Arch degree is conferred in a St. Andreasloger, or Lodge of St. Andrew, in the 6th degree. Indeed, the Royal Arch legend appears in most rites of Freemasonry, just as Chivalric degrees appear later in the sequence in most rites of Freemasonry.

In the 19th century in the USA, the York Rite and the Scottish Rite were rival rites of Freemasonry that had rival blue lodges, as well as higher bodies in Freemasonry. This is still true in other countries. Mexican history is so intertwined with Freemasonry that Yorkinos and Escoceses have formed rival political factions in Mexican politics (notwithstanding the ban upheld in the USA against dragging partisan politics into Freemasonry or vice versa). In the USA, a truce was worked out where Grand Lodges of the US states and territories agreed to only perform the first three degrees in Freemasonry using the York Rite versions of those degrees. There are a few holdouts in Louisiana that were established before this truce that still perform the Scottish Rite versions of the first three degrees, but otherwise in the USA, the York Rite Blue Lodge degrees are the Blue Lodge degrees. So in a sense, most Masons in the USA are already York Rite masons from the moment they enter the preparation room before the Entered Apprentice degree.

Royal Arch masonry, and the Knights Templar, grew in popularity through the 19th century. For reasons that will be clear to a Royal Arch mason, Union soldiers in the Battle of the Wilderness, even those who weren't Masons, took to wearing Royal Arch pins on their uniforms  because it was thought to deflect Confederate snipers. By the end of the 19th century, Knight Templar triennials would swamp major cities with uniformed Sir Knights, with numbers rivaling fairs and expositions, and every one of those Sir Knights was also a Royal Arch Mason.

In the 20th century, corresponding with the spikes in Masonic membership after both world wars, every body of Freemasonry benefited, and the York Rite was very much shaped by this influx of new Masons. As Blue Lodges grew, some had memberships exceeding 1500 or even 2000, and this put considerable strain on the lodges, and concordant and appendant bodies were happy to take up the excess. Despairing of ever entering the officers' line in their mother lodges, masons became Royal Arch Masons (or Captular Masons) and Royal and Select Masters (or Cryptic Masons) and Knights Templar in order to gain a shot at leadership. The Shriners exploded in popularity, and required that their applicants be either a 32° Mason in the Scottish Rite, or a Knight Templar in the York Rite. This eventually led to one-day classes where a new Master Mason could gain the requirement for Shrine membership in a weekend. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was not at all unusual for a York Rite Mason to have a wallet full of dues cards from bodies he never attended, just so that he could continue to attend those bodies he wanted to attend.

From 1960 to the present, mainstream Masonic membership in the USA plummeted from over four million to roughly 1.25 million members. 21st century Freemasonry already looks very different from 20th century Freemasonry, and the divergence will only grow over time. Consider that the population of the USA was 179 million in 1960, and is almost 317 million today. That means that in 1960, 4.7% of men in the USA were Masons, whereas today, 0.8% of men in the USA are Masons.

The structure of the York Rite in the USA is such that this demographic slide hurts it very badly. While there is a General Grand Chapter, a General Grand Council of Cryptic Masons, and a General Encampment of Knights Templar, not every state body belongs to these general groups, and within each state, Chapters, Councils and Commanderies operate much like Blue Lodges do, only with a much smaller pool of potential members. Contrast this with the Scottish Rite, where two highly competent Sovereign Grand Commanders have complete authority over a top-down structure of bodies that organize at the state level, but reside at a municipality level large enough to cast an umbrella over the regions in which they operate. York Rite bodies "stick apart", and are far less equipped to mount a joint strategy to refactor their mission in the face of demographic inevitabilities, for better and for worse.

To top it off, the Christian-specific nature of Knights Templar has a polarizing effect on Freemasonry as a whole, and the York Rite in particular. Whereas Scottish Rite and Blue Lodge Masonry, and the Shrine are universalist in outlook, asking only that their members believe in a Supreme Being, and the continuation of the soul in some capacity after corporeal death, the Knights Templar (and by association, the York Rite in general) has a Christian component that deviates from the universality of Freemasonry in general. No other faith tradition has Masonic bodies dedicated to their faith. Albert Pike was very opposed to this partiality towards one faith in Freemasonry, and created the Knight Kadosh (30° in the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite) degree as a critique of Templarism in Freemasonry.

When I was first made a Mason, the erroneous explanation was given to me that, as a Jew, I could not become a York Rite Mason because I could never be a Knight Templar. Later, that was qualified (still erroneously) to say that I could become a Capitular Mason and a Cryptic Mason, but that I could never take the "higher degrees" in the York Rite. Still later, I was told that I could become a Knight Templar if I were willing to swear a Christian oath. Considering that my people were exposed to violence in my family's history for not being willing to swear Christian oaths, that was hardly attractive to me. Finally, I was told the truth, that I had to swear an oath to be willing to lift a sword in defense of the Christian religion in order to be a Knight Templar, and that many Jewish Masons whom I knew were willing, within their consciences, to swear such an oath. I know now that someone who has only done the Royal Arch degrees is every bit the York Rite Mason that someone who belongs to many York Rite bodies is.

Please understand me that I do not condemn nor judge any Jewish Mason who genuinely searches his faith and conscience and concludes that such an oath does not interfere with his duty to God as he understands it. I myself might someday be persuaded to do the same, but for now, I'm not comfortable within my conscience swearing such an oath.

The polarization that Christian-only Freemasonry causes is two-fold. First, it excludes non-Christians, and second, it attracts that subset of Christian Masons who are ambivalent about the universality of Freemasonry. While this is untrue of the majority of Templars I have met, there is a small group within Templarism that tries to reconcile the universality of Freemasonry with Christian Fundamentalism, with the danger of choosing the particulars of their fundamentalism over core Masonic values. A Mason who thinks that they can only find true brotherhood within Christian-specific bodies of Freemasonry (and I've heard that sentiment expressed, albeit rarely) is not practicing Freemasonry when he harbors such a sentiment. All Masons are all brothers in the Craft.

The 20th century model of the York Rite can be expressed as follows: the York Rite consists of three bodies of Freemasonry: the Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the Council of Royal and Select Masters, and the Commandery of Knights Templar. One sees lots of convenient diagrams where the York Rite is modeled like the Scottish Rite, where instead of a sequence of degrees from the 4° through the 32° across four bodies, there are eleven degrees and orders across three bodies. The sequence of York Rite degrees is usually presented as implicitly hierarchical: a Cryptic Mason is implied to be more advanced than a Capitular Masonry, and a Knight Templar is more advanced than either.

I think this model does a profound disservice to the York Rite, and is dangerously obsolete considering the modern demographic trends, both in population and in religious affiliation. In 1960, 93% of men in the USA were Christian, as opposed to 78.5% today. In 1960, 5% of men in the USA held a faith other than Christianity, as opposed to 10% today. And young men skew these demographic shifts more than older men do.

I think a better model, for the 21st century, for the York Rite can be expressed as follows: the York Rite is a group of Masonic bodies that teach vital lessons in Freemasonry in uniquely beautiful and profound ways. You become a York Rite Mason by soliciting your local Royal Arch Chapter for the degrees. After a ballot, you will receive four degrees (and they should be explained in detail for both historical and esoteric significance, as well as where they fit in the Masonic superstructure). A Chapter of Royal Arch Masons is a place where you can connect with the brothers of the other lodges in your area, and share some profound and beautiful ritual with them. In the Chapter, you will receive further light in Freemasonry, and you will be welcome to tackle Masonic symbolism on a deeper and more philosophical level than you have done previously. Chapter is a think tank and leadership conference for the Masons who meet in your Masonic building (if there are a number of lodges and a Chapter in your building) or town or neighboring group of towns.

Once you have had a chance to appreciate what Capitular Masonry has to offer, the rest of the York Rite opens up to you. York Rite Freemasonry consists of a myriad of different bodies that meet for different purposes. You can learn even more from the Council of Royal and Select Masters, or you may be invited to join a Council of Allied Masonic Degrees, or if Christian-specific Freemasonry is important to you, join a Commandery of Knights Templar, or get invited to  join the SRICF, or the Royal Order of Scotland.

I think that making Capitular Masonry mirror Blue Lodge Masonry too closely dulls its allure. Capitular Masonry has lessons for a Mason that he can only learn in Chapter. The Mark Master degree and the Royal Arch degree are two degrees without which it is much more difficult to fully grasp what Freemasonry is all about. That is why the Royal Ark Mariner degree historically had the Mark Master Mason degree as a prerequisite, and why so many York Rite bodies require that the applicant or invitee received the Royal Arch degree. Because the knowledge conferred with those degrees is knowledge that helps Masons understand the whole picture of the Masonic system.

York Rite Masonry holds many of the most important truths in Freemasonry, and some of the most precious of these are in Capitular Freemasonry. And yet, a Mason can be a Royal Arch Mason for decades without any of this light falling upon him. That's tragic, and immediately attributable to the dearth of education and lack of contemplation with which these degrees are so often bestowed and received. In the Mark Master Mason degree, we are taught to receive our wages, and then, we are given Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Those who have wrought but one hour are made equal to those who have borne the burden and the heat of the day. The Chapter Penny is waiting for each of us to receive it whenever we learn how to receive our wages, regardless of how long that takes. We just need to be willing to learn how to receive them.

There's a very real chance that the York Rite may fall into disuse and close up shop in the next thirty years. Many Chapters today have meetings where they fail to have a quorum sufficient to open the Chapter legally, and many Councils and Commanderies are closing because they don't have enough members to keep going. This is heartbreaking. As the Light goes out, Masonry as a whole darkens. If we let the Chapter, or more broadly, the York Rite as a whole, fall into decrepitude and die, we will rob future generations of this precious Masonic light. This should be acutely in the minds of every York Rite Mason. Some measure of genius will be required to turn the tide, but turn the tide we must, if we want men five generations hence to receive this light. It may very well be that many individual bodies now open will close, but if the ones that stay open bestow pure, clear Masonic light upon their members, that light will flourish. York Rite bodies are loosely connected to each other. We can use that as a strength, to present the underlying structure of the York Rite as it currently exists in a 21st century way that emphasizes the synergy between the bodies in the York Rite. Perhaps we can celebrate the York Rite as a flexible network of paths between the York Rite bodies rather than a single path with a single endpoint.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Jewel P. Lightfoot's Manual of the Lodge.

Jewel P. Lightfoot was Grand Master of Masons of Texas in 1915. In 1934, he was asked by the Grand Lodge to prepare a manual about Freemasonry to go with the ritual monitor then being distributed in the Grand Lodge of Texas. The result was so outstanding that four decades of Texas Freemasons received the Manual of the Lodge when they were raised as Master Masons, and the profound effect of this remarkable book continues to resonate to this day. As far as I am aware, the last printing was in 1972. The full title of the book is Lightfoot's Manual of the Lodge: With Ancient Ceremonies and Commentaries. I bought my copy on, but your Grand Lodge library should have a copy.

Lightfoot begins with a ritual monitor, which includes the ritual for constituting and consecrating a new lodge, a corner-stone laying ceremony, a masonic burial service (including the graveside ceremony), and the installation ceremony both for Grand Lodge and for subordinate lodges. The second half of the book are assorted commentaries about the symbols of Freemasonry. Here is where we see Lightfoot shine as a Masonic author and orator. The commentaries begin with the following diagram:

I want to share with you an extended quote that Lightfoot shares with the reader in the section about The Temple. This is from an address he gave before a session of the Grand Lodge of Texas, when he was Grand Orator, in 1911.

"But stately and magnificent as [The Temple of Solomon] was, it but symbolized a grander and more wondrous Temple—the Temple of the Human Soul—a sublimer creation than ever arose on earth—a higher expression of creative skill, not only than the Temple of Solomon, but also than the temple of the material universe.

The soul possesses more resources of design; more intricate and wonderful harmonies are displayed in it, than in the inter-play of suns and systems. Orion, sculptured in light on the black walls of space, fades into a mere firefly pageant when compared to this matchless Temple which sprung from the Soul of the Infinite, is robed with His Own Beauty and Majesty, and endowed with His Own Immortality.

Not only is this Temple grander in structure and sublimer in outline than the Temple built by Solomon, but it transcends it in its nature. The Temple of Solomon had to stand as he built it. It could not enlarge itself; it could not enhance the stately ornamentation with which he had beautified it; it could not lift its mighty roof to the sky, and when its massive walls and polished pillars began to yield to the touch of time, it could not repair its wastes, or fill in its losses; but the living Temple of the soul does all this. It enlarges its sweep and sway, and even builds the imperfect work of the past into statelier achievements of the future.

But do you think we have yet seen its highest achievements and its qualities robed in their brightest glory?

Why, we have just began to mount the steps of the portico of this Temple and to catch dim visions of the transcendent glories within.

Language is of far too small a compass to voice its divinest harmonies, and only when transported from the imperfections of earth, we shall stand amid the circumstances and scenery, potent to awaken its latent susceptibilities, shall we ever know the slumbering, yet wondrous powers and capacities of the human soul."

Very inspiring.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Becoming a Mason: What's the Worst That Could Happen?

I originally wrote this in 2009, and at the time I was not willing to publish it for fear that I would offend my brothers. I posted a different version of this on another website in 2010, but after reworking it, I decided to publish it here. In the interests of full disclosure, I belong to three Blue Lodges, a Royal Arch Chapter, a Council of Allied Masonic Degrees, two Scottish Rite Valleys, a Shrine Temple, and two scholarly societies, and none of these organizations is as bad as the fictitious lodge in this essay. Different bodies in Freemasonry are functioning on different levels, and I am lucky enough to belong to some truly outstanding Masonic organizations. The mediocre experiences I have had only strengthen my appreciation of the stellar experiences I have had, and strengthen my resolve to improve those organizations in which I can make a difference.

You study Freemasonry as an outsider, and read about Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, George Washington, Paul Revere, and other great masonic heroes. You read about Masonic Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, and about masonic scholarship. You read Wilmshurst, Mackey, Pike and others, and learn our beautiful masonic philosophy. You visit your Grand Lodge, and see the beautiful building with glorious rooms in it. You learn that your favorite great-uncle, since deceased, was a mason. You work up the courage to visit your local masonic lodge.

Either a friend brings you by to meet the Worshipful Master, or you cold-call the lodge secretary, or you visit the lodge on Square and Compasses Day. In an event, you make first contact. The mysterious facade has been penetrated, and now you find yourself looking around the lodge room on a guided tour, or sitting at a table with an application in front of you, and a mason explaining to you some of the basics he thinks you need to hear before he’ll accept your petition.

Let’s say the room hasn't been dusted in a while. Behind the man talking to you is a shelf with masonic regalia, plaques, trophies and such, aged through disuse, the most recent piece of which is from the 1970s or 1980s. The man talking to you tells you a few facts that seem to contradict what you read in Freemasonry For Dummies, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry, or what you read on this or other websites. Maybe you ask to talk to other brethren, and they take a really long time to call you back, or don’t return your calls at all. You are astonished at how slack everything seems.

Months go by, and the lodge writes you a letter to tell you that the lodge voted you a candidate, and gives you the date for your Entered Apprentice degree, and tells you to put on a suit and tie. You show up early for your degree, and the officers are scrambling to get everything ready. Some of the brethren are in t-shirts and jeans, and others are wearing polo shirts and khakis, but only a few non-officers are wearing ties. One officer asks you some formal questions, but gets the words wrong, grabs a little book, and reads you the questions out of the book. You are put through the degree work, and you hear the officers stumble with the ritual. A few times you are suddenly halted and jerked in another direction. You can hear giggling, talking, and even hear a cell phone ring and get answered during the degree. Most of the lectures are delivered haltingly, with another voice giving verbal hints when the lines get flubbed. The first part of the degree work ends, and you all shuffle to another room where there is cold pizza and warm Mr. Pibb waiting for you on folding tables and chairs for your dinner. You are fighting back a wave of disappointment.

You go back for the second half of the degree, and it’s even worse. The focus of the room is scattered: not on the degree being done, not on the Worshipful Master, and not on anything in particular. Someone on the sidelines openly mocks an officer’s delivery of one of the lectures, and nobody stops him from doing so. Mercifully, it ends after a while, and one of the officers introduces himself as your degree coach. You are given stuff to memorize with his help, and everyone leaves in a hurry. The brothers clamor into their cars, causing a traffic jam in the parking lot for 20 minutes before you get home to your wife, asking you how it went.

You meet once with your degree coach, who doesn't actually know the stuff you have to memorize, and confidentially tells you that “it’s all BS, anyway.” As much as you want to learn the lecture, nobody really helps, but nobody really cares how badly you do. As sure as clockwork, you are given the next two degrees, and before you know it, you are a Master Mason (even though you don’t feel like you know anything, or deserve the honor), and a member of this lodge. Brothers pull you aside and warn you not to listen to other brethren in the lodge “who don’t really get it.” You wonder where the Brotherly Love is.

You get handed a partially filled-out application each from the local Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the local Shrine Temple, and the local Scottish Rite valley, with brethren bickering in front of you over who gets to sponsor you. In attempting to persuade you, one of the brethren tells you that blue lodge is stupid anyway, and that the real action happens in his appendant body. And a group of guys with gold thingies dangling from their breast pockets ask you to be Junior Warden next year, and you’re not really sure what that is, and whether or not you should.

The first meeting you attend with no degree work has a number of officers' chairs empty, and maybe 2-3 other brethren present. The minutes get read, there is a business meeting where venomous bickering erupts over whether to pay for needed repairs for the building, and then the lodge is closed. Many of the brethren go to a local bar afterwards, but you are not invited. Standing alone in the parking lot of the lodge, you wonder why you bothered.

You want to visit another lodge, even though you are terrified that the Tyler there will discover how little you know, and turn you away at the door. You visit another lodge, either out-of-state, or elsewhere in your state or district and find that these brothers are doing something altogether different from your mother lodge. You present your valid dues card and in this case are fortunate enough to gain entry that way without stricter examination. The lodge room building is clean without being sterile. You are greeted right away, and introduced to the officers and brethren. The brothers behave as if they genuinely like each other, and socialize outside of lodge. The ritual is crisp and solemn without being pedantic. A lecturer gives a fascinating talk that keeps the brethren engaged throughout, and the discussion over dinner reveals that the brethren are well-read about masonic subjects. The festive board is generous and lighthearted, and things look a lot more like how you pictured the fraternity when you first joined. You go back to your mother lodge and relate your experiences, and are immediately told that there is no way that your mother lodge is ever going to make any serious changes. “This is the way this has always been done here.” You realize that none of the brethren of your mother lodge have visited another lodge in a long time, and have no interest in how other masons do masonry.

This is clearly a worst-case scenario, and no lodge I know of is this bad. I am not describing any particular lodge here, and certainly not describing any particular person. Most of these horrors come one by one from discussions on internet forums, descriptions of lodges since gone dark, and isolated events. Truth be told, if this description were my experience of masonry, I would not still be a mason. Still, there are individual things I have described above that would be enough to persuade a new mason, should he experience them, to demit from his mother lodge.

Why, then, do I paint this ugly caricature? Because if you think your entry into Freemasonry is going to be absolutely perfect, you might be disappointed. We are all rough ashlars, striving to be perfect ashlars, but not every mason, nor every lodge, strives with equal facility. You will come across institutionalized shortcomings in some lodges. We don’t all have this process perfect yet. Most of you will not have to face any of these things, but I want those who do to know that it’s not the end of the world for you as a mason.

The amazing thing is that a lodge can be as bad as I describe, and be turned around and made great. Really. Masons want to be good masons, they really do, as long as you don’t paint them as bad masons first. A WM can deliver sloppy ritual and still be a great leader, or be an impeccable ritualist and be a terrible leader. A lodge can be sloppy and still have true brotherhood and camaraderie. A mason can behave boorishly in a tyled lodge and still give you the shirt off his back when you are in distress, and conversely, a mason can be elegant, solemn and proper, and not lift a finger to save you when you are in trouble. Both are subadequate masons, but a mason is obliged to cultivate a lot of different high qualities, and while few manage to cultivate them all, far fewer still fail to cultivate any.

If you are new, you don’t know what troubles your lodge has faced in the past. Your lodge may be broke. A few years beforehand, your lodge may have had a feud that made half the lodge demit. Your lodge might have butted heads with the DDGM or Grand Master, and come out much the worse for the conflict. Your lodge may have a small group of brothers doing everything they can to keep the lodge from going dark, and have been doing so for decades, and are now totally burned out. But the lodge has survived, and now that you are a mason, has at least a puff of new life breathed into it.

If your lodge is not initiating many candidates (and it won’t if it’s a mess), you will be more important as one of the few new bloods. If you can get your friends to join, with eyes wide open as to what they are going to find, some of you will join the officer’s line in short time, and you can make sure to do your roles properly, to greet the brethren warmly as they enter, to prepare better meals, to keep the lodge regalia in better condition. You can learn your lectures cold and offer to teach them to new candidates. You can help set the mood of the lodge with your enthusiasm.

If the guys currently in line are eager to get out, they will hand their chairs to whoever really wants them. If you collectively hold lodge meetings that would attract interesting people, the interesting people will come to lodge. I have learned that nearly every mason is hungry for good masonic education. Point out something interesting about a line in the lecture he may have never considered before, and you will awaken in him why he first knocked on the West Gate. If he sees your new wonder about our ritual, often it will rekindle his own enthusiasm for it.

The right new man sitting in the East can invigorate the lodge, at least for the year or two that he has the Oriental Chair. If he wants the enthusiasm to continue, it’s up to his Wardens to continue the changes, and the Deacons and Stewards to keep the new spirit going.

If you demonstrate that you care about the lodge, warts and all, others will step aside to allow you to act upon your enthusiasm. If you love to cook, offer to cook the communal meal. If you love events, offer to organize an event for your lodge. If you love ritual, you can make your part excellent, and if an officer, you can ensure that those beneath you in line do their parts well. With enough work, with enough passionate brethren you help to bring in and instruct, you can turn the lodge around. And by so doing, you are demonstrating your true worthiness to assume the leadership of the lodge. As glorious as it is to join a top-notch lodge, it is far more glorious to help transform a mediocre lodge into an awesome lodge.

Talking to Massachusetts masons, I've heard of or seen half a dozen lodges undergo this transformation, and noticed that the ones that don’t undergo this transformation, and remain sub-exceptional, go dark or merge with better lodges. Mediocrity is a tar-pit—either the lodge pulls itself out, or gets sucked under. It is a mason’s duty to do what he can to improve his mother lodge before he asks for a demit. No lodge is perfect, and making your mother lodge better is every mason’s job as long as he remains a member. If you, after due trial, lose a firm conviction that your lodge will ever be suitable for you, find a lodge you like, demit from your mother lodge and join theirs. It happens all the time. Don’t judge our whole fraternity based on one lodge at one point in time.

The absolute worst case scenario a candidate can find himself in is to get initiated an EA only to find that nobody at the lodge knows the EA lecture. He can’t take the FC degree, and doesn’t know how to demit and join another lodge (and some Grand Lodges won’t let him do that before MM), so he’s in EA limbo until he quits in disgust. A lodge that avoids this predicament by letting the EA fudge the lecture is hardly better. Fortunately, very few lodges in the USA are this bad, and if you fear that the lodge you visit might be this bad, I strongly suggest that you knock elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with asking the lodge during the application process if they can guarantee that there are enough degree coaches who know the lectures to get you through to MM. Unless you submit an application somewhere, you can visit as many lodges as you like before you apply. Shop around and find one that suits you.