Saturday, May 26, 2012

‘Observing the Craft’

Retrieved recently from a dead PC is my review of Bro. Andrew Hammer’s terrific book Observing the Craft written for The Journal of the Masonic Society. I didnt know Hodapp already had written a review for the publication, so this review might as well have been lost in a hopelessly infected and disabled computer. But it was resurrected, with some other files, by a wizard earlier this spring, just in time to submit to Cory Sigler for his first issue of the new The New Jersey Freemason magazine, which arrived in the brethren’s mailboxes a week ago. I only had to dust it off, trim a few words, and click send.

Now, if I can get my thousands of JPGs off that computer, I’ll be a happy man.

Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance
By Andrew Hammer
Mindhive Books, 2010, 145pp.

Click here to order your copy.
Not to be confused with either Traditional Observance lodges or the Rite of Strict Observance, Andrew Hammer’s book has us cast our eyes to the East to observe his trestleboard for Masonic labors. Observing the Craft briefly and boldly reaches two key objectives: First, to show Freemasons that the rituals and symbols of the lodge impart all the Light Masonry intends, and secondly to convince the Mason that the lodge ought to be cherished, that it is worthy of his time and talents. Along the way, Hammer unflinchingly redefines Masonry’s numerous appendant, concordant, and affiliated fraternities as “distractions” that deprive lodges of the brethren’s attention; and he provides a simple formula for improving the lodge experience so that Masons can enjoy the excellence they expect and deserve. He gets that and much more done in only 145 pages, perhaps unsurprising for a Mason who shares the name of a tool made to deliver sudden, forceful impacts.

For context, it should be understood that Bro. Hammer is not a typical American Mason. A native of the United Kingdom (which explains his book’s British spelling), he is a Past Master of Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, which meets inside the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. The ethos he helped bring to this historic lodge in the previous decade is summarized in a plain statement to prospective petitioners. I paraphrase: “The question is not ‘Can I become a Mason?’ There are many lodges in the area that will be glad to have you. The question is ‘Can I become a Mason in Alexandria-Washington Lodge?’” This is not arrogance, but it is a reason why his lodge was dubbed the Grand Lodge of Northern Virginia, a sobriquet bestowed unkindly by Virginia Masons who instead should have been taking note of A-W’s revival under the leadership of Hammer and his colleagues. In the revitalization of Masonic lodges taking place across the country in recent years, Hammer’s touch is felt thanks to his leadership in the Knights of the North think tank, The Masonic Society educational fraternity, other organized proponents of Masonic renaissance, and of course this book.

Observing the Craft is audacious in its phrasing, but its thinking is so fundamental as to be irrefutable. It is, after all, paraphrasing the teachings of the lodge. When Hammer challenges the flawed belief that more men equals a stronger fraternity, which leads to mass initiations, he says “The very essence of membership in the Craft is not about bringing people in, for whatever reason… the essence of membership in the Craft is that it must be sought.” He essentially is reminding us of the Entered Apprentice Charge, which urges us to be cautious in recommending a man to the lodge because it is the mysteries of Masonry that distinguish us from the rest of the community. And where that charge warns us against arguing with the ignorant that ridicule Masonry, Hammer insists “If we are to be consistent in that charge, then we must also not suffer ourselves to placate prying eyes or the mindless paranoia of philistines.” Not a motto for Square and Compass Day.

Addressing charity, the author describes it as “the perfection of every virtue,” something with which we all can agree, but he is fearless in making the distinction, long forgotten in Masonry, that “Masonic charity is not material benevolence. Rather, it is the spiritual and philosophical awakening which motivates it.” Does not the lecture of the First Degree instruct us, on the subject of Relief, in acts of emotional and psychological kindness?

The author also writes at length on tangible aspects of lodge life, namely dining, dress, and ritual. Of the first item, Hammer takes us to the Festive Board, a stylized Masonic meal (not to be confused with the Table Lodge) that follows the tiled meeting, but continues the decorum of that meeting. “The guiding idea is that the food should be of the same quality one would find in any fine restaurant, and it should be presented and served in a way that conveys dignity even if served on paper plates.” In ambiance, the Festive Board is a place of good cheer, where the brethren may speak candidly, offer toasts, and basically balance the solemnity of the lodge meeting with the joy of fellowship.

As regards dress, Hammer explains that attire is nothing less than a Mason’s “physical manifestation of his effort to bring his mind and soul to a state of excellence.” The specifics are best left to the lodge, but “No one should dress differently for lodge than they would to attend their house of worship or take part in any other important event in their lives.”

On ritual, it is “perhaps the single most important aspect of observing the Craft” and “what transforms a room into a lodge, the men in that room into Masons, and the profane into the sublime.” It goes without saying, so Hammer gently reminds that the performance of our rituals to the highest levels of proficiency is the primary goal, but his larger point concerns ways to “excite the curiosity of all observant Masons.” Urging us all to always work within the guidelines of our respective jurisdictions, the author suggests the following:

  • Confer the degree on one man only so he makes an individual journey, and is the center of the lodge’s attention.

  • Employ music to “elevate the assembly of minds gathered together” and to accentuate different aspects of ritual work at specific times. Conversely, use silence to remove all distractions from the sense of hearing. Obviously, this means no chatting on the sidelines, but also much more for the benefit of everyone’s state of mind.

  • To further assist the focusing of the mind, light and darkness must be properly managed. “Darkness, like silence, concentrates the mind by removing all other distractions” and the light revealed to the candidate when the hoodwink is removed should be only “a simple flame,” so no other “competing visual images” enter his mind. That’s the moving flame of the candle, mind you, and not the kitschy “Masonic light bulb.”

  • Appealing to our sense of smell, Hammer praises incense. The sense of touch can be addressed through what is called the Chain of Union, the interlocking of arms and clasping of hands to achieve “psychological and physical union” around the entire lodge room.

Clearly, to Andrew Hammer, Freemasonry is a verb. To observe the Craft is to take up the Working Tools and thoughtfully go about our labors in self-improvement, but doing so harmoniously together. It’s all explained in our rituals, lectures, charges, and other orations. The trick is to not be content with merely memorizing and reciting all that inspiring literature, and instead to animate it by doing what it advises. In his concluding paragraphs, Hammer explains “This book was written in an attempt to call the Craft from refreshment to labour. That labour involves confronting our fear with dignity; it involves standing up for the ideas of free thought and free association in the face of those who would demand we eviscerate our mysteries before their altars of cloying superficiality; it involves respecting ourselves enough to say that we must not be afraid to reach for more light within ourselves, that light of the contemplative spirit within each of us that cannot be meted out to curious bystanders just because they want to see it.”

It is the blueprint – if you will, the designs upon the trestleboard – for a successful lodge of skilled craftsmen. How many of us will heed the sound of the gavel?

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