Sunday, October 1, 2023

‘Ritual: script or oral history?’

Title page of Grand Lodge’s current book.

A Past Master in Kansas, a DDGM actually, regularly offers his views on things Masonic, kind of in blog format, on Faceypage. He posts in “A Past Master’s Thoughts” almost daily. About a month ago, in reflection on a lodge experience the day before, he wrote:

The topic of ritual came up. It seems there is a lodge that requires ‘word perfect’ ritual. Let me say I get that, but even Grand Lecturers stumble… It was brought up the difference between perfect and proficient. There is a difference. 
Do you know the work? Does it resonate with you? Ritual is energy. Can it be felt, or are we just spewing words? 
For those who say they cannot learn ritual, I have a few questions: Do you know your address without looking it up? Your phone number? If your favorite song came on the radio, but the volume turned off, could you sing it? If you said yes to any of those, you can be proficient, at least, in ritual.

At issue is rote memorization which, whatever your method might be, has been essential to preserving how we do things and passing it to our posterity. I believe that emphasis on letter perfect ritual has two origins:

1) The process of education, training, maturation, etc. in operative building involved the apprentice learning from the master mason without deviation. I can’t imagine there could have been interpretation by the pupil of the teacher’s instruction. Failure to learn The Way of Doing Things would terminate the apprenticeship in failure.

2) About a century ago, our grand lodges in the United States began publishing their own ritual books, resulting in a fundamentalism in which the memorization and flawless recitation of ritual became paramount.

From ‘A Past Master’s Thoughts.’

How many inept leaders have you seen win high office for no other reason than their demonstrated ritual skill? When the fraternity was larger (if you don’t know, the number of regular Master Masons in this country has returned to nineteenth century levels), obviously there was more talent to provide the ritual experts needed for continuity of the work. And having the book isn’t enough; we need the “actors” to bring the written word to life. This isn’t as easy today, thanks to changes in how the young are schooled. The rote memorization, aided by mnemonics, that older people, like myself, relied on appears to have been retired. (I don’t know if something else has replaced it.) So the task of studying, learning, and recalling Masonic oratory, which never was easy for most, looks today like an unduly difficult and outdated method to a thirty-year-old. Generally speaking. I always see exceptions.

But—finally arriving at my point—would it help to rethink ritual, changing our concept of it from a script to our oral history? This isn’t to allow any encroaching changes to the words—although our ancestors did okay without official ritual texts—but rather to dilute the intimidating pressure to memorize the printed page.

I consider myself an amateur historian. Part of the mental gymnastics in my own labors to learn ritual is my knowledge of ritual history. I don’t claim an all encompassing knowledge, but realizing how there have been huge and numerous changes in what we do, and being familiar with a number of the specifics, has proven very helpful to me. That knowledge demystifies what some may call the unapproachable, and with that barrier breached, one can take possession of the words. They become digestible facts.

The phrases, dialogues, etc. have evolved over the centuries and they likely will change in the future because they are written by men, so there is no reason to hesitate in studying and learning them. Our Past Master in Kansas likens the dynamic to knowing song lyrics but, for our purposes, maybe embracing Masonic ritual as oral history (there still are jurisdictions that employ the mouth-to-ear method) will change a chore into the enriching challenge it should be. I just envision greater intimacy this way.

The Oral History Association defines oral history as “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”

While ritual isn’t cited specifically, everything we do in life derives from custom, habit, observance, practice, procedure, etc. Change the Ritual Committee name to Oral History Teachers.

Speaking of ritual, tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of England’s Emulation Lodge of Improvement, and I hope to find time to delve into that then.


Cameron Bailey said...

Thank you for this very thought provoking post. I believe that I'll find myself contemplating it over the next few days and weeks!

Magpie Mason said...

You’re not doing so bad yourself, Most Worshipful!