The Magpie Mason enjoyed a good, but extremely busy, week. The American Lodge of Research held its Installation of Officers on Tuesday, and yours truly was installed Junior Deacon for the year. This gives me a lot to think about, for a number of reasons, but mostly because I’ve been Master of a research lodge previously (New Jersey Lodge of Masonic Research and Education No. 1786). Every experience in Freemasonry opens my eyes to something, but those years with New Jersey’s research lodge taught lessons like no other – and I say that having served in the East of a Craft lodge and four other Masonic bodies – so I hope to be more valuable to ALR than most Junior Deacons.
Anyway, among the thoughts ricocheting around my mind are: What is Masonic education? What does it mean to be a lodge of Masonic research in 2011? What are Masons seeking when they want to learn, and how do they expect to learn? What should I expect of them?
The vexing challenges arise from the fact that lodges of research are anomalies in Freemasonry. The culture of Freemasonry in the United States is summarized by the characteristics of 99.999 percent of the Craft lodges here: superficial unions of men; the overwhelming majority of whom do not participate in anything their lodges do; haphazardly united in name only, thanks to decades of aimless membership development. Lodge activities differ little from those of Elks lodges and other clubs of generic fraternity. If there is a form of education, it is confined to ritual memorization, occasionally interrupted with something about George Washington. I’m aware this reads like an indictment, but it is a fair assessment of the general scene in this fraternity. Some lodges are exceptions, but they comprise a tiny minority, and their positions as lodges of learning are anything but secure because they prove our status quo need not be. Conversely, the research lodge has a very specific purpose which unites a corps, although usually a small one, of laborers who do that work.
I have a lengthy answer to this question that can be read at the bottom of this post, but to put it quickly, while Freemasonry has its few lodges of research, I believe each Craft lodge should be a lodge of search.
We search for Light. We search for The Lost Word. At a certain point, we search for our Operative Grand Master. In short, we seek Truth. It is philosophical inquiry that can begin with a look in the mirror, and can continue without limit in all directions thereafter.
In a lodge of search, the Speculative Freemason should think about what Masonic ritual and symbol mean to him. And he should say so, and should defend his thoughts by answering questions about them.
In most of the Masonic world, this takes place in the Craft lodge where, after each degree, the aspirant presents what is called a Piece of Architecture. This is an essay of personal reflections on what the preceding degree and its symbols mean to the candidate. These are not research papers; they are speculative interpretations on a personal level. They are read aloud in lodge, and the presenter then defends his thesis by answering the brethren’s questions. This can happen several times in the period between degrees. That period can exceed a year. Or two. Presenting his Piece(s) of Architecture is a requisite to advancing to the next degree. It even might begin at the petition phase, when the Master asks the prospective candidate to explain, in writing, why he wants to become a Freemason.
Does your lodge do this?
of Masonic research in 2011?
Research, among other purposes, should tell us what those who preceded us did in their searches. Some cleared paths for us to follow; others show us where not to go, provided we are paying attention. The researcher sifts through clues – historical facts and fictions – for the sake of explaining why the present is how it is. These data should be used to inform one’s search, because too many Masons embark on their spiritual work without realizing their aspirations are based on myths and legends. Of course myths can be as instructive as facts, but I see too many Masons basing their identities on certain non-truths, and I doubt that’s a sustainable approach to life.
The very first research lodge was Quatuor Coronati No. 2076 in London, which was set to labor in the 1880s. Its self-determined mission was (and is) to separate myths and legends from the genuine history of our Order. (e.g. Before QC2076, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, et alia were Freemasons. After QC2076, they are not and never were. That’s a simple summary, but incredibly and inconceivably it was a drastic demarcation.)
Most members of research lodges do not even attend the lodge meetings. Maybe they are content to receive in the mail the annual book of transactions. Perhaps they desire even less than that: only to be able to say they’re members. It is a miniscule minority – not even one in a thousand – who research and write papers, and present them from the podium, intending them for peer review and publication.
To be a lodge of Masonic research and education is to swim upstream and to pursue labors with scarce resources and sparse company. Without Masonic search taking place in the Craft lodges, Masonic research is an opportunity untouched by nearly all Craft Masons.
I’m rambling, but in answer to the question What does it mean to be a lodge of Masonic research in 2011, I am reminded of a phrase often repeated in the Gospels: He that has ears to hear, let him hear. That is not a question of physical deafness, but one of cognition and understanding. Maybe even gnosis, if I may be so bold. Its speaker essentially is saying You who “get it” should pay special attention right now. The lodge of Masonic research and education should shine its Light, and – if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor – those who have ears will hear.
In a lodge of Masonic research, the Speculative Mason should decode the meanings of Masonic ritual and symbol in the contexts of specific theses. That is, don’t simply aggrandize the fraternity by repeating how Famous Man X was a Freemason, but examine Bro. X’s life to try to determine how Masonry might have affected the man, and consider that when describing how the man affected his world.
and how do they expect to learn?
There is no single, specific answer to that first question. Every man is looking for something that speaks to him directly. To the second question, based on what I see, I am hopeful that thinking Masons are motivated to read – I mean books, not just websites – and to travel. The night after ALR’s installation, I returned to the same room for the Regular Communication of Kosciuszko Lodge No. 1085, where Bro. Erik spoke on the life of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. (See post below.) The Master was quite surprised to see how many visiting brethren were present, in addition to the seven Apprentices and Fellows who have ears to hear.
All I ask is a willingness to do a little work. It’s not for my benefit. The gain is yours. Be a thinker. Read useful material, and think about it, and question it. Don’t expect to have everything spoon fed to you, or at least not after your Ceremony of Passing. Be responsible in your autonomy, in your labors.
Six years ago, the think tank named The Knights of the North was challenged by Bro. Stephen Dafoe of Alberta to author a collection of essays to populate a website to be called Masonic Dictionary. Topics from A to Z were addressed by KOTN’s few members whose writings often recall The Devil’s Dictionary, but were offered in complete candor, sincerity, and hope for a better tomorrow for Freemasonry. (The website promises we’ll be back soon, but after this many years I think it’s safe to say KOTN more or less morphed into The Masonic Society, an independent education foundation worthy of your time.) I was assigned the letter E – for Education – a topic Stephen titled “The Unspeakable Masonic Word.” Below is the complete text.
When we speak of “Masonic education,” we are needlessly redundant. Freemasonry is education, simultaneously moral instruction, spiritual enlightenment and intellectual growth so that a man may come to know – and improve – himself. But this isn’t supposed to be a solitary activity; Freemasonry also is a brotherhood. The Master Mason Lecture explains the symbolism of the Beehive: “He who will not endeavor to add to the common stock of knowledge may be deemed a drone in the hive of nature, a useless member of society, and unworthy of the care and protection of Masons.” Together the brethren seek “that which was lost.” What was lost? Truth. It is that search after Truth that makes Freemasonry philosophical, and where there is a love of wisdom, education is the act of courtship.
Because Freemasonry’s teachings intentionally address the fundamental and perpetual curiosities of man, it can accurately be said that it is education without limit in both appeal and scope. Truly any wholesome field of study or discipline intersects somewhere along Freemasonry’s path of learning and much of Masonic teaching coincides with the Humanities. Masonry reveals itself through ritual. These centuries-old ceremonies are a framework, or more accurately, a map that each Freemason may follow in his search for Truth. To summarize just one aspect of this process, as an Apprentice, the newly initiated Mason is taught to subdue his passions while letting the Four Cardinal Virtues guide him toward candid self-awareness. From this ceremony one finds commonality with Plato and Aquinas. The former saw these virtues as a recipe for a perfect society; the latter adapted the virtues for the betterment of an individual’s attitudes, values and behavior. Next, as a more experienced Mason called a Fellowcraft, he is shown the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy guide the Masonic student as they had the thinkers who gave Western civilization its Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, with all the culture contained therein. A proper understanding of the Arts and Sciences empowers Masonic man to make his mind the rational master of his primal Five Senses of hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling and tasting, and so this progress builds upon the Platonic-Thomist foundation. In the Third Degree of Freemasonry, the Master Mason is sufficiently aware of his place in the universe so as to fear no danger, not even death itself. Ultimately, upon exiting the Holy of Holies for the final time, the Master Mason goes gamely “into that good night” knowing that there is no sting of death and no victory of the grave, but only eternal life.
We have dubbed Education “The Unspeakable Masonic Word” because it seems like no one ever talks about it. In my experience, research lodges, study groups and the like are treated like red light districts where only the furtive venture in search of the forbidden. So at first you’re pretty much on your own. To get started, think about what you most desire to know about Freemasonry, and then go find the answers. Easy? No, but it shouldn’t be. Depending on the subject, a researcher can spend months looking for a long out-of-print book; even years can pass before inadvertently coming across a needed factoid in an unexpected source. Naturally the internet delivers limitless information, but – even as with books – one must exercise discriminating choice. Again, let the ritual be your map. Choose an unfamiliar word, an odd phrase, a seemingly antiquated idea. Then define it. Identify its Masonic significance and apply that meaning to a broader context of how it could benefit others; and then translate that idea into your own words so that you take possession and internalize it. Once it is yours, it is there as a tool for use in your growth, and it’s there for good. Repeat the process, as needed, for life.
That education is interwoven in Freemasonry is a reality that predates modern Masonry itself. In the Old Charges – the dozens of manuscripts penned over the course of more than three centuries prior to the start in 1717 of the Masonic Order we know today – are found clear procedures on how new members of the building trade were to be schooled in their craft over long spans of time. In the Halliwell Manuscript, believed written in the 14th century and the earliest of these documents, are found the “Fifteen Articles for the Master Mason,” including:
3. He must take apprentices for seven years, his craft to learn.
11. He must be both fair and free and teach by his might.
12. He shall not disparage his fellow’s work.
13. He must teach his apprentice.
Nor is there anything extraneous about the grave consequence awaiting the unskilled, untested, and unlucky operative builder in the ancient world. The pre-Biblical Babylonian ruler Hammurabi set down a legal code that included:
If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made his work sound, so that the house he has made falls down and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall kill the son of that builder.
Clearly the importance of education in the building arts is indisputable. (Remember that the funny-looking cap you wore at graduation is called a mortarboard.) Today Freemasonry’s instruction is all presented in allegory and symbolism, but the education is no less crucial to the Speculative Mason’s life. Tragically few seem to understand or want to understand, and this power goes neglected in the quotidian realities of contemporary Masonry. Why? Because it is hard work! In mastering his Craft, Masonic Man spends his life relentlessly scrutinizing himself, the condition of his fellow man and of the world, and the role of the Great Architect of the Universe in it all. It is not by accident that the hard labor of constructing in stone is the metaphor through which Masonry’s instruction is imparted. Nor is it by chance that the seeker of the degrees of Freemasonry is repeatedly tested for his willingness to proceed further. While the teachings of Freemasonry are universal – “Every human being has a claim upon your kind offices.” – it was never intended for every human being to enter its temples, and yet its doors have been flung open for many years allowing practically any man to enter. Consequently, the libraries that once were busy beehives have been converted to other, more simple purposes, their books locked away in storage, forgotten. (Indeed the word “temple” itself, as in a place for conTEMPLAtion, has been abandoned for the monotonous “Masonic center.”) Simultaneously, the discussions that once compelled Masons to reconsider their opinions, to re-examine their very lives, and to improve their world have been replaced by charity walk-a-thons and other activities that, while helpful, should be entrusted to our neighbors in the Lions, Kiwanis and Elks organizations. While organizing and staging a charity fundraiser is a big job, it is child’s play compared to the vital challenge of metabolizing Masonic thought, and achieving that state of being where the heart of Jerusalem meets the mind of Athens.
In the fundamental duty of educating oneself and one’s fellow Masons, we today are not negligent. We are uninformed, and the craziest thing about it is that the ritual tells us what to do. Remember the advice imparted to you upon your first knocks on the Inner Door: “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” One’s search is a personal endeavor, but there are friends to help you along the way. When enough of us start speaking aloud about Masonic education we can restore to its rightful place the paramount purpose of Freemasonry: to labor together in replenishing the “common stock of knowledge” in our pursuit of Truth.
And speaking of The Devil’s Dictionary and the formation of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, here is how the Dictionary defines Freemasonry (hat tip to RW Fred Waldron):
FREEMASONS, n. An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confucious, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and Palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids – always by a Freemason.