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

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.

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