The Broken Mirror

Lexington, Lodge No. 1, Masonic History & Study Group, Rubicon Masonic Dinner Club

Let’s get past all the usual oratory customarily devoted to outlining all the reasons Freemasonry is worthwhile, relevant and makes good men better if they practice the philosophies of the Craft. We know all that part.

This article is not about whether Freemasonry is worthwhile and relevant. It is not about whether Freemasonry evolved from Egyptian society, Templars, the Enlightenment, roots of the Invisible College, the first operative stone masons lodge in Scotland, and certainly not about any absurd theory that attempts to link our institution with ancient aliens.

In fact, there is nothing about conspiracies at all in this writing. So, if rah-rah writing, the kind that we often see telling us with heartening glee how Freemasonry is thriving in North America or how we are the most charitable of all fraternities, is what you are looking for then stop here. If you seek romantic writings about famous Masons, this article will not be of much interest to you either.

If you are looking for material that speculates about the origin of the fraternity, you might consider looking elsewhere. And, if you are seeking outlandish conspiracy theories, there are generous sources on the Internet where, we all know, of course, that everything posted must be true.

No, this article might not be of interest to you unless you look at Freemasonry in North America in realistic context — as it is, not as you suppose it to be or hope it is. It will bore you if you choose to believe Freemasonry is universally thriving across the nation or that all brothers you meet from any jurisdiction is in possession of the same Light as you and can carry on an interesting conversation about Freemasonry beyond discussion of a few of the rote practices that have survived and remain somewhat collective.

Some may view this article as bashing Freemasonry. It’s shallow to think that and certainly not incorrect. Truth can hurt and regrettably, nothing in this writing is imaginary. What follows might simply make you angry. None of it is soft-soaped. It could cause you to question your views and notions about what you do as a Mason and how Masonry is practiced in your respective lodge and jurisdiction. If, after reading, you are affected in a constructive manner and better understand the challenges before each of us as Masons, then your time devoted to reading it will be worthwhile.

How Easily We Become Deflected by that Which We Believe is True

A man, ignorant of astronomy may truthfully testify that the sun moves from east to west between morning and night if that is what he actually believes to be accurate. his testimony is the truth as he knows it. That the earth moves beneath the sun while the sun stands still, does not make him untruthful. And, therein lies a principal problem for our fraternity; our truths have been passed on for generations and many that are passed on are based on ignorance — not stupidity, but ignorance: ignorance about our factual history, lessons, lectures, and beautiful philosophies all designed to further enlighten men who practice them. Most all Masons believe that what they know (or think they know) about Freemasonry, its history, lectures, lessons and beautiful philosophies is the truth. This is particularly true especially of those who stop learning the moment they are raised — or worse, never received appropriate instructing in the first place or seek it through their own volition. What we pass on as knowledge and practices is not always accurate.

Truth in and about Freemasonry is more difficult to explain than most abstracts because Freemasonry means something different to every man, as it should. The problem is that every man is not getting the same basic information upon which to apply his personal meaning, and this problem can be traced as far back as the 1850s. Much of what has and continues to substitute for basic Masonic education is based on less than what is essential to begin to understand it. We have become easily deflected. The broad assumption and expectation that all men will at least grasp the fundamentals might work if there was genuine uniformity in our efforts to provide them — and then consistently administer the practices and mechanics that advance them.

Our Love of Action and Contempt for Thought

We like to think of our fraternity as cutting edge and Freemasonry as a philosophical entity that should just be — that it exists, and, therefore, good men should know about it and flock to its doors. In a perfect world, yes, that is what it should be, but we are far from that proverbial perfect world. There’s always going to be more work to be done in the quarries of Freemasonry and perhaps considerably more than many Masons today prefer to think or recognize — or commit to.

Although Masonry moves slowly, as it should, we do love action, and sometimes our actions (or reactions) to issues that confront us are not as well thought out as they perhaps could have been.  

For example, the over-fretting about the decline of membership over the past half-century and search for new and unique ways to enlist new members has led us down the road of remaining stuck in the haze of a paradigm shift that continues to cause many to believe there’s no limits to what we need to do to keep the membership rolls in the millions. This hand-wringing is so deeply embedded we’ve watered down time-honored standards and even entertained suggestions to rewrite our rituals so they are more easily understood instead of asking men to put in the effort to understand them.

Masons may be the last of the great minute-takers and recorders of every event that takes place during open lodge. We can go back in time and learn what was served at a meal and discussed at any meeting in about any lodge anywhere in the nation. however, while we attempt to research the dickens out of our origins, we don’t seem to have a knack for creating, much less coordinating the necessary empirical research or keeping very good records on the demographics of our members; data that could illustrate, prove or disprove that all the quickfixes adopted over the decades to address the membership issue have either worked or have been disastrous. For an institution known for its search for truth, we seem to place extensive reliance on largely anecdotal data when it comes to our administration. If the medical field used research like Freemasonry has relied on such research, then physicians would still be using leeches.

So, with less than convincing evidence, but an abundance of emotionally-based, hand-wringing, sounds-likea-good-idea notions, we’ve watched as many jurisdictions have come up with a number of quick-fixes designed to make it easier for men, especially for those men we think are just too busy today to find the time necessary to devote to all that used to be required to become a Freemason, and improve themselves.

We’ve lowered the age to 18 — yes, a perfect age for molding young minds if those inexperienced minds have the aptitude, commitment and propensity at that age to be molded in the first place.

We’ve watered down our strict adherence to investigation committee practices, and moved further away from the original design intended to allow only good men into our lodges.

We’ve siphoned off much of the formality of our gentlemanly etiquettes, protocols and dress out of our practices in favor of substituting it with a form of casualness that is not even befitting a PTA meeting.

Our dues… well, if anyone thinks, for example, that $30 a year (or less) can be called purposeful dues and sustain a lodge of 30 or so members whose expenses are twice that revenue stream (that is if every bother actually pays their dues), then they might have a promising career in accounting with the government accounting office.

We heavily prompt those who deliver ritual, make excuses for mistakes, leave out parts of our lectures and rituals and then apologize as we lightheartedly continue to deliver many of our lectures and rituals in the same manner the next time. Some call this “exceptional.”

We’ve watched as our fellowship meals digressed from worthy feasts to nibbling on snacks, single slice cheese sandwiches, and occasionally a mysterious colored soup washed down with warm cans of colas.

Somewhere along the line, we gave in and allowed the belief to consume our thinking that whatever a man feels like wearing to lodge, or whatever he believes he is most comfortable in wearing, is acceptable as appropriate for the work involving Freemasonry and labor toward all aspects of self-improvement. Somehow, watching a Master wearing a silk top hat, pair of shorts, sandals and a roy rogers and Trigger t-shirt while being prompted through the process of conferring a degree has been deemed completely acceptable. Can we really embrace the idea that this fittingly corresponds with the intended dignity our rituals are supposed to project?

We find that many men are not able to be successfully tried when they visit a lodge without extensive tutoring. In fact, during such trials the phrase “We don’t teach that at our lodge…” in response to a simple question intended to authenticate a man’s membership has become as common as, “We’ve never done it that way…”

We artificially swell our ranks from time to time by shot gunning thousands of men onto our membership rolls in one day all — each becoming members after sitting through several hours of watching other men perform Masonic ritual — all without ever demonstrating their understanding, much less proficiency in any of the degrees before being ushered on to the next. Although there are some men admitted in this manner who have gone on and taken responsibility for learning about and studying Freemasonry on their own, we have precious little valid research to confirm this approach as anything more than what it was hoped to be when first introduced: a method to increase our membership rolls and collect more dues for inadequate coffers.

There are some lodges who boast that they have had the same Master in the East as many as six to eight times — many of those years consecutive. In contrast, we find some Masters who have been members a little more than a year.

We find lodges unable to open because there were too few members in attendance to serve as officers.

There are lodges that have not seen a broom used in years. Some have windows boarded, shabby and peeling wallpaper, thread-bare carpets, unemptied trash cans, occasional sightings of a roach or other insects, with rest rooms equivalent in condition to those found in bus stations. And yet, there are members in lodges found in this condition who wonder why prospective petitioners don’t return.

There are members who stand during ritual to stretch and yawn as some others mosey to the nearest window where they spit while trying not to disturb another member who is loudly snoring. Some answer phone calls on their smart phones and check email during lodge meetings.

Our due guards and penal signs, if bothered to be given at all in lodge, are lax and indolent making the motions of the arms and hands look as though flies are being swatted, which is a possibility considering the condition of some lodges.

There are lodges too that have not had a petitioner in years. Some lodges ask other lodges perform their rituals and lectures because they have no ritualists qualified to do so. Some practice fast-tracking candidates through the degrees so they can quickly petition an appendant body and then, never attend their blue lodge again.

Following the meetings of these types of lodges, men are often found lingering in the parking lots where they shake their heads and pose to each other the questions of why aren’t brothers coming to lodge anymore, as they predictably express their dismay at the lack of men knocking on the West Gate.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with accentuating the positive and celebrating those who are engaged and immersed in our Craft. There are those in North American Freemasonry, however, who apparently do not see the state of our fraternity in areas other than larger cities, at national Masonic functions, conferences and other such events that seem to believe these accounts apply only to a very small section of the fraternity. If so, they are either ignoring the reality of the state of Freemasonry as a whole or they have not spent much time traveling except to those Masonic events, lodges and other gatherings that are opposite of the aforementioned descriptions.

"The design of the Masonic Institution is to make its members wiser, better, and consequently happier. Does anyone really doubt that Freemasons have the right to demand that Freemasonry actually fulfill its purpose?"

Fortunately, there are indeed lodges that are 180 degrees opposite of these descriptions and these are the lodges that will carry on Freemasonry’s genuine purpose into future generations. These are the lodges with men who find it unacceptable to be ordinary and strive to break out of the paradigm that has smothered our Craft for decades. Unfortunately, they are not in the majority.

How did the practice of Freemasonry become so dissimilar? Why do some lodges have waiting lists and thrive while many struggle month-to-month to survive? Why do we have members who are unable to prove themselves Masons during a trial when visiting another lodge?

Why do we find members wearing raggedy cargo shorts, flip-flops, Mega Death t-shirts, and in a few cases, baseball caps, and sweat-shirt hoodies pulled up over the heads while wearing sunglasses in lodge meetings? And if that was not enough, we also find members wearing t-shirts bearing vulgar phrases with words emblazoned prominently across the back to lodge meetings — the same meetings where we are supposedly laboring to positively influence our members to become better men in a number of ways.

Why do we expect members to be knowledgeable about the Craft when they are offered no Masonic education beyond our ritual, which is so often left unexplained once given? Should we expect members to be able to intelligently discuss aspects of Masonry with another Mason if they have received no wholesome instruction and fail to pursue further Light on their own? Why should we expect men to take off their baseball caps (or hoodies) when sitting in open lodge if no one bothers to explain why only the Master wears a hat when in open lodge? Why should we expect simple and appropriate decorum in open lodge such as no talking, joking, clipping fingernails, sending texts or sleeping, if men have not been instructed otherwise? And why should we anticipate proficient openings and closing, lectures and ritual, adherence to a fitting protocol and basic manners and behavior unless the men who went before them gave them proper instruction?

Among the many other questions that must be asked is why do lodges that cannot muster enough men to open on any of the degrees or conduct their own degree work (if they have any petitioners on which to confer them) continue to hold a charter? Some say these lodges must be preserved for their history. others will clearly point out the best part of their history has likely passed.

A very common response from some members of lodges like these to a well-intended suggestion that might constructively help is, “You can’t tell me anything about Freemasonry I don’t already know.” Another typical reaction is, “You must be from a Grand Lodge somewhere… You practice your Masonry, and we’ll practice ours,” as if there is supposed to be two different kinds of practices in the first place. Some members who ask for suggestions on how to revitalize their lodge, often respond with quizzical, blank expressions when constructive replies are offered.

Some say these things are only apparent in lodges that have “fallen on hard times.” Well, that is certainly one explanation, but buried within that attempt to rationalize a justification are serious reasons that led to a lodge falling on hard times in the first place.

Some will attribute the slow, generation-to-generation decline in Masonic education, lack of instruction and consistent enforcement of our rules and processes as an explanation. They would be closer to being correct than those who just say the lodge fell on “hard times.”

Others, point the finger the lax practices of investigation committees that have allowed men to become members who are not qualified, and who can often end up in the East. Some believe our rush in the past to charter as many lodges as could be established as the primary reason we now see how watered down our understanding of what Freemasonry has become. They too would be correct.

When we consider that new members, on the average for the past quarter century, attend lodge and then drift away from Freemasonry after 1.7 years, we should start to realize there are some very good reasons other than the old standby excuse that men are busier these days. our organizational mechanics, educational system, and proficiency of our practices is far from uniformly administered, much less synchronized across the nation. regretfully, the Masonic mirror we look in to see our reflection is broken.

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Some believe we should only talk about what which accentuates the positives in and about Freemasonry, and as an institution, there’s plenty of positives to accentuate. It is, however, very difficult and sometimes quite awkward, to truthfully accentuate positives about some of the practices we find in our Craft. As a result, we often we remain silent, reluctant or unwilling to speak out about those practices and things that debase the integrity and general reputation of our fraternity. Why do we accept that which masquerades as Freemasonry to continue to be called Freemasonry? Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it so.

Is there any reason Masons should acquiesce and adopt the lax decorum, eye brow arching behavior, poor manners, shoddy appearance and meager knowledge of many things we see in the rest of society? It certainly seems that is what we have done over the past several decades instead of uniformly striving to maintain what was once thought of as extraordinary.

Our claims today of collectively being something other than ordinary is an extraordinary claim indeed. We belong to an extraordinary institution, and there are many Masons and lodges who strive to live up to its historic billing. But, as a whole, we can in no way justifiably lay claim to the idea that Freemasonry in North America is collectively extraordinary as it was deigned to be.

Fulfilling Our Purpose

No one gets Freemasonry right all the time. If it were easy, then everyone’s ashlar would be highly polished and gleaming. There are certainly lodges whose members are involved and actively engaged. No, they may not have their ritual down pat. Their practices, protocol, etiquette, lack of fundamental Masonic education may vary and in some cases seen as woeful.

They may have facilities that need extensive work and have good years as well as bad ones. But, some believe that as long as they are striving in a positive direction, then they are practicing Freemasonry. Perhaps, this position is acceptable to many under the varied definitions we see today of tolerance.

The purpose of Freemasonry clearly stated in our ritual: The design of the Masonic Institution is to make its members wiser, better, and consequently happier. Does anyone really doubt that Freemasons have the right to demand that Freemasonry actually fulfill its purpose?

Will society continue to influence our fraternity and its practices and organization more than our fraternity influences any part of society? Will our distinctive history and genius of our philosophies and practices continue to wane and invite further degeneration? Again, the answers to these two questions will depend on who you ask. Those who find these candid observations annoying or seek to challenge them with the same old predictable rhetoric are also likely those who are part of and contribute to the practices and examples described.

Freemasonry will be kept alive and preserved in the form in which it was intended, and the purpose of our Craft will carry forward. There are enough lodges in North America that are not part of the examples given to make that happen, but it is likely to happen only in certain areas of the country, not across the board.

Many of these conditions today did not start just recently or become this way quickly. Most of these things that pass as Masonic practices or Freemasonry were passed on by previous generations who, in turn, had them passed on to them. With no change in these regressive practices on the horizon in many areas, what will be passed on to the next several generations? It should be safe to say that what will be passed is the same thing.

One veteran Mason recently joked that in another 20 years there will be no one left in his lodge who will remember how to open and close lodge anyway. his comment drew no laughter at all.

We need a grip on the fact that Freemasonry is not going to be a multi-million member fraternity again in the near future. There’s no reason at this time in our history to believe it can be. Importantly, and fortunately, it does not have to be to survive.

Regardless of the state of Freemasonry today, the institution and all it stands for will always attract good men. The questions in context to our current condition are how long can we retain those men and how much genuine knowledge will they have of our stated purpose, factual history, and practices, and working knowledge of the Craft?

We need to continue to look in the Masonic mirror and to do so often. The broader image of Freemasonry we see reflected back at us today tells us the mirror is broken. The good news is that it can be repaired or replaced, but only through consistently committing the labor to do so through wholesome and genuine fundamental instruction, and a hardy does of high caliber leadership that embraces the challenge.

So, instead of calling a tail a leg, why don’t we push and work with commitment to get back to Freemasonry as it was intended to be instead of just talking about it. And for those who doubt we need to, then to paraphrase Past Grand Master of Indiana, Dwight Smith, why don’t we try Freemasonry and see what an explosive difference it would make?