Wednesday, June 24, 2009

‘Is Summer over yet?’

This edition of The Magpie Mason is dedicated to Bro. Gallant, who is in search of New York lodges that work Scottish Rite ritual.

Here is a reason to look forward to autumn: Garibaldi Lodge No. 542 will confer its world famous Entered Apprentice Degree on Friday, October 9. The Friday before Columbus Day.

The lodge will open at 8 p.m. in the Grand Lodge Room (third and fourth floors) at the Grand Lodge of New York, located at 71 West 23rd St., near the corner of Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan.

This degree draws visiting brethren from all over the world. The last time I attended – April of last year, I think – the visitors were called upon to introduce themselves, and they hailed from lodges across the United States, and indeed all over the globe. The Grand Lodge Room accommodates approximately 1,200 people, and believe me when I tell you that every seat in the room was occupied. (In fact, the first time I attended – April of 2001, I think – four hundred Masons, mostly those who arrived late on their buses from Pennsylvania, had to be turned away to placate the Fire Marshal, who was poised to close down the building for safety’s sake.)

If you plan to attend, be at the front door of Grand Lodge at 6 p.m. Bring your regalia and membership identification.

But that reminds me of another important observation. The last time I attended an EA° at Garibaldi in the fall – October of 2003, I think – the room was nearly empty. I was able to get one of the best seats in the house, and I’m not saying where that is.

Other facts you should know:

• Born on the fourth of July 1807, Giuseppe Garibaldi is regarded as “the George Washington of Italy” because his military and political skills were crucial to the unification and establishment of the modern Italian nation-state. And he was not limited to that nation; Garibaldi also fought for independence in Brazil and Uruguay. (It was then that he adopted the red shirt as symbolic attire. At Garibaldi Lodge, you’ll see the officers wearing red dress shirts with their tuxedos.)

After revolutionary exploits in Italy in the late 1840s, Garibaldi went into exile in of all places... Staten Island, New York. So there is a physical proximity of the lodge to its heroic namesake, as well as the ethnic unity. Because of his sojourn in New York City, there is a terrific statue of Garibaldi in historic Washington Square Park. The bronze depicts the warrior with his hand on the hilt of his sword. Is the warrior drawing the weapon, or is the statesman sheathing it?

• The lodge works in Italian, but that does not mean the ritual is incomprehensible to those of us who do not understand the language. Unlike the Preston-Webb-Cross rituals most Masons in the United States know, this ritual is much more physical and expressive and, frankly, dramatic. Its symbolism contains many alchemical elements. I won’t say more.

• Not only are Apprentices and Fellows welcome to attend, but they in fact will be seated in the East with the Worshipful Master, Grand Master, and other dignitaries. Just make sure you introduce them as such to the tilers at the doors.

• Be prepared for a long night. It takes a while to get everyone seated and the lodge brought to order. The degree is longer than that worked in most New York lodges. There are introductions of dignitaries. Maybe the Grand Master will make a speech, as MW Neal Bidnick did last spring... for 45 minutes. My point is, this is not a Broadway production with an audience that can walk out if they’re bored. This is a tiled meeting of a duly constituted and ritually opened lodge. There have been times when visitors, who were so startled by this uncommon ritual, walked out of the lodge. Don’t do that.

• The ritual is “unusual” in that it is uncommon in the United States. There are approximately 10 lodges in Louisiana, several in California, and a few elsewhere that work this ritual. What is it? I call it Scottish Rite. My longtime penpal Bro. Jacques Huyghebaert terms it French Rite. My droog and leader Bro. Piers Vaughan once described it to me as Memphis-Misraim Rite.

I think we all are fundamentally correct, because I don’t think there are material differences separating those three forms of Masonic ritual.

Frère Jacques is co-editor of a very important book on Masonic history and ritual titled “Le Progres de l'Oceanie 1843: The First Masonic Lodge in Hawaii (Sandwich Islands),” which is available from the Grand Lodge of California for about $40. (Seriously, contact Grand Secretary Allan Casalou for a copy of this fascinating piece of research.)

This is a bilingual text of mid 19th century Scottish Rite Craft ritual used by a lodge in Hawaii that was founded by the Scottish Rite Supreme Council of France in 1843. (When you see kings of Hawaii on lists of famous Masons, they were members of Lodge Le Progres de l’Oceanie.) Read the lodge’s history here. Therefore I pay attention when Jacques describes the Garibaldi ritual as French Rite ritual translated into Italian.

Now Garibaldi himself was grand master of the Ancient and Primitive Oriental Rite of Memphis-Misraim, an amalgamation of the Rite of Memphis and the Rite of Misraim, two Masonic orders in Europe that drew from the history and myths of Egypt for their ritual and symbolism. Therefore I pay attention when Piers describes Garibaldi Lodge’s ritual as M-M.

Whatever one wants to call it, it must be experienced. The candidates who enter the Inner Door begin a transformational process. Of course the labor is up to them (and some do not return for the Second Degree), but this highly instructive ritual has the ability to grab the heart and vitals, and set that labor into motion.

Monday, June 15, 2009


MW William Berman presents the gavel of authority
to RW Jose Daguman, inaugural Master of Plaridel.

RW Jose Daguman, RW Constantino Buno and RW Ross Rosales are the inaugural Master and Wardens.

The new altar cloth is in place.

The festivities are still underway as this edition of The Magpie Mason goes on-line, a celebration of the constitution of New Jersey’s newest lodge: Plaridel No. 302.

Above: MW John Colligas, our junior past Grand Master, reads aloud the warrant issued to Plaridel as MW Berman looks on. Below: the warrant.

It isn’t every day that we form new lodges; the trend for decades has been merging, consolidating, or just going dark. In the past 20 years or so, the Grand Lodge of New Jersey has constituted four lodges, including our research lodge (which the authorities say is not a lodge). The last Ceremony of Constitution took place seven years ago, when Sons of Liberty Lodge No. 301 quit the Garden State Grand Lodge and affiliated with us. The celebration tonight marks the constitution of Plaridel Lodge No. 302.

Above and below: officers and brethren of Plaridel Lodge.

What these two new lodges share in common are their urban origins and ethnic identities. If you have any communication with Masons from outside the English-speaking world, you undoubtedly have been told of a fraternity that is heavy on initiation and instruction in the Craft’s symbols and teachings. The hotdog eating contests, kiddie parties and other ridiculous activities that have undermined Masonry in the United States are unknown to them, and if they do know, they’re mortified. Polite about it perhaps, but mortified.

I’m really hoping Plaridel adopts the cause of meaningful initiation supported by true impartation of the Craft’s secrets. Of course the lodge must function within the laws of our Grand Lodge (some of whose officers say there are no secrets in Freemasonry), but a lodge can walk that tightrope if its officers know what the rule book says – and what it does not say.

Both Sons of Liberty and Plaridel are at labor in New Jersey’s Fifth Masonic District, which covers Hudson County and is home to most of this jurisdiction’s urban lodges. These two lodges consist of brethren who are immigrants or first generation Americans, and I believe the advent of these lodges hints at the future of Freemasonry in New Jersey. Almost all of the other lodges in the state exist in suburbs, where they in effect become part of the civic club landscape alongside the Elks, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc. These “ethnic” lodges however offer the promise of true Freemasonry: a brotherhood informed by our unique God-centered psychology, and united in labors of intellectual, moral and spiritual growth. The names of these lodges recall fights for freedom from oppression. Those battles were not waged for the right to host chili cooking contests. Freemasonry is about more serious things, and is intended for more serious men. I wish them great success.

W. Phil Caliolio, left, as president of the Philippine Masonic Association of New Jersey, helped establish Plaridel. RW Steve Wolfson, on left in photo at right, had the goal of adding to his District a new lodge that adds to the ethnic diversity of New Jersey Freemasonry.

Plaridel Lodge is named for Marcelo H. del Pilar, a hero who is dear to The Magpie Mason’s heart because he was a journalist who labored to end three centuries of Spanish colonialism in the Philippine Islands. If only we had one of his kind in this country today. Read more here.

One aspect of fraternal life at Plaridel is confirmed: They eat well. This roast pig was the main course tonight, but hardly the only choice facing kosher/halal diners.

Approximately 100 Masons from across New Jersey, plus New York and the Philippines packed the lodge room at the Bayonne Masonic Temple, home of mighty Peninsula Lodge No. 99 (The Magpie Mason’s mother lodge). The 85-year-old temple has a special energy to it, albeit without air conditioning! It was the site of the first Rose Circle conference and salon in 2006.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

‘Free to keep secrets’

Standing before a bookcase stocked with a complete set of AQCs, author James Wasserman addressed a packed room May 29 at the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Library at the Grand Lodge of New York.

Author James Wasserman was the guest lecturer for “Freemasonry and the Quest for Liberty” at the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Library at the Grand Lodge of New York May 29, promoting his latest book The Secrets of Masonic Washington: A Guidebook to Signs, Symbols, and Ceremonies at the Origin of America’s Capital.

I think library Director Tom Savini should be proud. It was an excellent event that drew a standing room only crowd, which is amazing considering how many other things there are to do in New York City on a warm, still, summertime Friday evening. The Master of The American Lodge of Research was there, as was the Junior Warden of Civil War Lodge of Research, and other accomplished people in the field of Masonic education, like John Mauk Hilliard. But it seemed as though most of those present were not Masons, which indicates to me that Freemasonry can pique the interest of educated adults by hosting cultural events in elegant settings.

“Freemasonry is the spiritual component of the greatest political experiment in history,” said Wasserman, introducing his thesis of the Craft’s significance in the birth of the American Republic. He divided Freemasonry’s inevitability into three historical epochs. The first is Biblical history, wherein we see man attempting to govern himself in Eden, followed by that gradual evolution of patriarchal leadership, from Noah to Moses. His point: that the political governance we know today has a spiritual basis. He illustrated this with a recollection of the prophet Samuel who sagely warned the Israelites that they should be careful what they wish for when it comes to hoping for a king to lead them. Investing their faith in a temporal king would displease the Lord. Quoting 1 Samuel 8:10-14:

And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king.... This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.... And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards.... and give them to his servants.

A period of about 500 years in which the Hebrews would be ruled by kings ensued, ending with the Babylonian Captivity. This, Wasserman said, would not have escaped the notice of those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, with its list of grievances against George III.

We remember the somber observation of the Declaration’s first paragraph, where it is stated that people with sufficient cause have the right to dissolve political ties with others for their self-preservation. Then of course there is the immortal, stirring, poetic clarion of the second paragraph.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

What many of us probably forget is the list of several dozen very specific complaints enumerated against the Crown, “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny,” and that foreshadow the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

At approximately the same time Samuel’s warning came to fruition, Classical Greece and Rome were giving the world new forms of government, Wasserman explained. Direct democracy was practiced by the former (c. 500 BCE to 322 BCE), and an embryonic form of representational government was established by the latter (c. 509 BCE to the first Caesar). Greek Democracy proved to be unwieldy and inevitably dysfunctional; Roman politics morphed into militarism, which led to empire and “bread and circuses” until “leaner, meaner and hungrier barbarian tribes” undid it, he added. A millennium later, the Catholic Church proved to be the stabilizing force that established a political hegemony over Europe’s many regional rulers. This brings us to Wasserman’s second, if ironic, historical period of Freemasonry’s eventuality: feudalism.

While this term often is applied to other places and times, feudalism is the political and legal system of medieval Europe in which peasants, who were bound to the land on which they lived, were in effect possessions of the lords who owned those lands. Needless to say, these peasants, or “serfs,” had no political rights or access to justice. Even the advent of the Magna Carta in 1215, a revolution well remembered by the Founding Fathers, did not adequately address the rights of the peasantry. This backdrop reveals the glaring contrast embodied by the operative stone masons who were free to travel to practice their craft.

From the 12th to the 16th centuries, thousands of cathedrals, churches and other stone structures were built across the British Isles and throughout Europe, Wasserman explained, “about 1,200 of them, in 25 countries, remain today.” Their existence is thanks to “skilled craftsmen, geometricians and architects” who were permitted and capable of electing their own officials, occupying their own residential areas, tending to their own charitable and health care benefits for their workers and dependents.

Masons developed the guild system, which expanded on those existing freedoms, adding the ability to establish rates of pay, delineation of responsibilities, prevention of fraud and, of course, systems of recognition – those ritualized answers to questions that affirm ownership of one’s mind.

“Secrecy is the right of a free person,” Wasserman said, thus operative masonry is the second building-block, set atop the foundation stone of Biblical man’s struggle to establish self-rule, leading toward a culmination of individual liberty and political governance. That operative masonry, with its “magnificent edifices reaching skyward,” best represents the singular experience of a free person, for its successful transformation of mysteries, like geometry, into permanent achievements.

Of course before that zenith is reached, Europe evolves through the Renaissance, described by Wasserman as the offspring of the communion of Christianity and Islam, and the Reformation, and it is shortly thereafter that masonry undergoes an important, if enigmatic, transformation. The 17th century saw membership in masons’ lodges opened to men who had no connection to the building trades. The best known of these is Elias Ashmole (1617-92), an intellectual possessing a strong interest in Natural Philosophy, who was drawn to the society for its possession of Sacred Geometry and other hidden wisdom.

Wasserman’s third building-block, his capstone, is the Enlightenment. The labors of Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Denis Diderot, Christopher Wren and so many others gave rise to and defined the Enlightenment, when “rationality, as a means to understand reality, rejected the hopelessness of earlier Catholic thought.” To Wasserman, the United States, its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution and Bill of Rights embody mankind’s desire for spirituality. “The human soul craves religion, spirituality, and oneness with God,” he said, whereas atheism and agnosticism “leave an unsatisfied hunger in the human psyche.” And Freemasonry is a companion to this new nation and its government. It offers to the seeker after knowledge that very quest, without causing him to leave his intellect at the door of a church. “I believe that resulted in the greatest quest for human liberty in history. The United States of America and its entire legal and ethical system is based on the Bible, and it is no mistake to identify America as a Christian country. (I’m Jewish, by the way.)”

For James Wasserman, Freemasonry is the “most refined advance of Western culture.” While it consisted of wealthy elites at the time it took root in America, it grew and spread throughout the new nation when it embraced soldiers, artisans, merchants and other self-made men, proving itself to be an ordered society of far-thinking individuals who also would work outside of the lodge to help society strengthen its democracy by dismantling social and economic barriers.

It was a great event for the Livingston Library. The only problem is the talk Wasserman gave was more interesting than the book he wrote. In recent years there have been a bunch of quality books about Freemasonry that are excellent resources for Mason and non-Mason alike, and Wasserman’s “Secrets” definitely ranks among them. His book is one of the more lavishly illustrated, with dozens of outstanding color photographs – many of them close-ups – revealing the amazing details of the symbols and codes embedded in the architecture of our nation’s capital.

Monuments, statues, friezes, plaques, and other architectural voices tell the story of a peculiar system of human governance, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols that are mysterious to all but the initiated eye. But to be honest, a great many of these do not have connections to Freemasonry. To be sure, there are many Masons depicted in stone and metal, from George Washington to Albert Pike, and there are symbols that also appear in Masonic instruction, but the majority of these landmarks have oblique relationships to the Craft: Biblical figures, Greco-Roman gods, zodiac symbols, et al. “The Secrets of Masonic Washington” is valuable reading to the student of symbolism, but its Masonic education value is more contextual; in a way, it actually demonstrates that Washington, DC is not the physical manifestation of Masonic idiom that inexperienced or naïve Masonic students want to believe it is.

The stronger expressions of the Wasserman thesis are found in his discussion of the city’s man-made topography itself, and while nearly all Masons in the United States know at least a little about how Brothers L’Enfant and Washington sketched the earliest drafts of the federal city’s layout, Wasserman does a great service by poetically likening the square shape of the capital to both moral integrity, as in a square deal, and to a more esoteric understanding of the four physical elements of Fire, Air, Earth and Water. Other eye-openers include Wasserman’s perspectives on the Constitution’s relationship to the placement of the seats of the three branches of government; on the cruciform nature of the city’s design; and the spiritual harmony it all was meant to convey to the people. Invaluable reading, but outweighed by the Walking Tour that begins on page 71 that illustrates the many beautiful, but not necessarily Masonic, sights to see.

James Wasserman is not a Freemason. He said he is pursuing membership in the Craft in Florida, where he resides. It is no secret that many of the best books written about Freemasonry in the past 20 years were authored by non-Masons, and Wasserman deserves to be listed among those despite what I think might be a misguided enthusiasm to credit the Craft with too much.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Alpha Lodge on parade

Montclair, New Jersey’s annual African-American Heritage Parade and Festival took place yesterday. Hundreds of marchers representing a variety of groups, from Masonic lodges to the Stiletto Rydaz Motorcycle Club, marched through the heart of this historic township.

Part of the Alpha Lodge contingent gathers at the starting point waiting for the parade to begin.

Alpha Masons and Prince Hall Masons mingle before the start of the parade. In addition to the Alpha brethren and those from other area lodges, the parade included Prince Hall Masons from Eureka Lodge No. 52, and Shriners from Golconda Temple No. 24.

The Orange High School Marching Tornadoes line up and get ready to hit the road.

Many classic cars were in the parade. Shown here: a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air; a hot rod Cadillac; and a really souped up Chevy Nova.

Whether lining the streets or observing from their stoops, Montclair residents turned out in great numbers to watch this colorful and loud procession.

The downside about marching in a parade of course is you actually miss the parade. Alpha Lodge was near the front of the procession, nearly at its head, so it was tough to photograph most of the sights.

Above: This happy fellow is available from a local antiques dealer we marched past. Naturally it reminds one of Sir Francis Bacon’s coat of arms, so I took it as fortuitous that it decorated our parade route. Price: $180, but the Magpie Mason was assured it can be had for $120.

Below: One of the homes we passed in a residential area dominated by 100-year-old Victorians is guarded by knights in... well, evidently not shining armor, but armor nevertheless.