Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Man in the Mirror

Why is change so difficult in the Craft? Is change necessary? Should we just weather the storm? All of these questions continue to be asked throughout the fraternity. Some Lodges are experiencing a renaissance and others fade from existence. Some experience success with change and other are holding firm with tradition. So what is the right answer? Perhaps there is no one right answer. The solutions of failing Lodges are as diverse as the Lodges themselves.

The many issues at hand in keeping the Craft alive in many areas seem to be almost impossible to solve. Oftentimes we feel like the little Dutch boy trying to keep the dyke from breaking. For many the answer is to just stop trying – and they stop coming. For others, they become over-reactive and try to be everything to everyone and they burn out, often grow bitter and then stop coming. So what is the answer?

I would suggest moderation and an honest assessment of your particular Lodge and its membership.

One item that might be useful is to consider why your Lodge is where it is. Many Lodges formed because there was a basic need. Perhaps there was not another Lodge for quite some distance. Then consider what might have kept the Lodge going. Perhaps the factory which brought in members (and thereby forming a unifying social experience) is now closed. Each of our communities has its own unique story. An analysis of your Lodge’s history and its reason for creation as well as the socio-economic environment in which it exists might provide some useful information.

The direction of the Lodge is also something which needs to be taken into consideration. Does your Lodge even have one? Taking a Lodge consisting of older Brethren who have been brought up with social Masonry and changing it into a Lodge with a full-blown esoteric emphasis might not be successful. What type of Lodge do you belong to? Would the Lodge and/or the area support the style of Lodge you would like to see created? Would the formation of a social or esoteric club provide the needed activity while preserving the current feeling of the Lodge’s purpose?

Another frequently asked question is “How much is too much?” In the rush to provide activities and to appeal to the general membership are we exhausting ourselves? How do we appeal to everyone? My answer is that we can’t and we shouldn’t. There will always be a core membership who attends and many who don’t. To continue to cater to the absent masses without result, in my opinion, takes away time and energy from those who do. A balance in activities might be the best bet. Not everyone wants to attend family/children-friendly functions, or alcohol permitted stags, etc. Each is important, but in balance to allow for the inclusion of everyone. Pulling Brothers away from their families many nights a week may cause some family strife which may result in absenteeism. Balance is key.

When I was a District Deputy, there was a constant grumbling among many of the Lodges in my district. “It’s all Grand Lodge’s fault”, they would cry, “Why don’t they do something?” The answer is, they can’t. They can provide programs and instruction, but they can’t make a Lodge successful. It is the Lodge’s responsibility to do so. So my Brothers, take a long hard look at yourselves. Be brutally honest. What makes your Lodges what they are? What would you like to change and what can you realistically change? Do you want to change?

Only the man in the mirror can give you the answers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Resurrecting the Calling Card in the Modern Age

Sometimes life just gets in the way of fun. Grad school and its associated workload have made new entries to the blog a bit difficult. I offer the following from the Art of Manliness website. It could definitely be useful in a Lodge environment.

When the household servants moved out, and Alex Bell’s new fangled talking machine moved in, the practice and etiquette surrounding the sending and receiving of calling cards suffered a slow death. The only place where calling cards survived was in the U.S. Armed Forces. Officers still carry on the tradition today. But quite happily for the modern day gentleman, they are now making a comeback in civilian life as well.

While technology has opened up a legion of ways to communicate these days, something within us still craves the transfer of something tangible, something more civilized and refined.
Enter the calling card.

Why not just use a business card?

During the heyday of calling cards, using a business card for a social purpose was considered bad manners. Today, while business cards are great for making business contacts, they still aren’t really suited for social situations. They probably have your work number and work email, and not much else on them. Think of all the times you meet someone you’d like to see again. Handing them a business card is too stiff and formal. Ditto for simply having them put your digits into their phone.

Oftentimes when meeting someone, the connection you establish is too new for your acquaintance to feel comfortable calling. Perhaps before pursuing more contact, they’d like first to check out your Facebook page or blog or send you an email. And how many times in a conversation does someone tell you about their website or their blog, and you swear to check it out, but then can’t remember its name when you get home? A calling card is the answer to all of these situations. A calling card can tell a new acquaintance more about you and help them better remember you. It provides a chance to enhance the first impression you make and gives your new acquaintances the ability to pursue a relationship with you in the way they feel most comfortable.

Designing a calling card
As aforementioned, during the heyday of calling card use, the design of men’s calling cards were fairly spartan, just name and address. Today it is more acceptable to create a calling card design that gives you a chance for a bit of self-expression.

How to design a card
Your calling card should reflect your personality. When someone puts your phone number into their cell, they may look at this entry some time later and fail to remember much about you. A calling card should include something to jog their memory (although in truth, currently simply giving someone a calling card should render you fairly unforgettable). Pick a color scheme, font, and design that convey something about you. But do remember, you’re still a gentleman, not a lady, so don’t make it too flowery or cartoony. You may still opt for simply having a traditional, plain card with only your name on the front. This of course, would likewise say much about your personality.

What to include on the card
To call upon a friend in the Victorian age, there was only one option-drop by their house. In our modern society, technology has provided a myriad of ways for a new acquaintance to contact you, and your card should reflect this. In addition to your name and phone number, consider including some (but certainly not all-you don’t want it to be cluttered) of the following pieces of information:

- Blog or website address
- Twitter username
- Facebook or Myspace name (if it’s different than the one on the card)
- Email address
- Instant message name

If you decide to go for a very traditional man’s design with only perhaps your name on the front, you can then tailor the information you wish to give to each individual you meet by simply writing on the back and making the desired additions. Read more

How to Use the Card
A calling card can come in handy in any social situation in which you want to exchange information with someone. Remember, you may use the blank back of the cards to write notes and invite someone to meet up with you again. For example, you might write, “Join me for coffee this Saturday, 3:00pm. Starbucks on 51rst and Harvard.” Or use the back to invite someone over for dinner and write down your address for them. Here are some more situations where a calling card would particularly come in handy:

- Class reunions. You’re going to run into a ton of people with which you want to exchange information. Instead of constantly busting out the pen and paper, just hand them your card.
Networking between jobs. You’re not currently employed, so you don’t have a business card. Or if you do, it has your old employer’s info on it. While you’re looking for work, have a calling card ready to present to potential contacts and leads.
- Parties. If you’re planning an informal party or get together, write down your address and the time of the party on the back. When you run into people you’d like to see there, give them one of your cards and invite them over. Sometimes calling cards also come with small envelopes, sized to fit your card. You can therefore always use your calling cards as traditional invitations sent through the mail. Also, if your calling card comes with an envelope, you can use them as gift cards.
- The classroom. It’s often hard to make the leap from being “in-class” friends to “outside of class” friends. Give someone you enjoy chatting with in class your calling card. They’ll probably start posting on your Facebook page and your friendship will take off from there. Or use the card to set up a study group.
- Dating. When trying to meet a lady, it’s nerve racking to ask for her number, and if you foist yours upon her, she may not call you. Giving a potential lady friend your calling card is a great third option. First of all, it’s non-threatening. She may be too shy to call you outright. She may rather start off with a casual email. And she may not be sure about what she thinks of you. Giving her your calling card lets her peruse your blog or Facebook page first. Second, giving her your calling card gives you a chance to give a two minute blurb about the history of the tradition. You’ll immediately be set apart in her mind from the usual cads she meets and she’ll think you a true gentleman. Finally, when she takes home your calling card, it’s something tangible that will remind her of you and make it more likely that she’ll reach out and contact you. Read more

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Search of Smooth Ashlars

The internet has afforded me the opportunity to meet a great deal of wonderful men that I am honored to call my Brother. Worshipful Brother Damien from Lodge Devotion #723 in Melbourne, Australia is one who is among the top of that list. This entry was written by Brother Damien and posted on the Lodge Devotion website. It is reproduced here by gracious permission of the author.

At our January meeting, Lodge Devotion was honoured to have W Bro Alex visit us and expertly deliver the First Tracing Board Lecture with a preamble on the history of the Tracing Boards of Freemasonry.

I often notice additional and significant points within the Ritual of the Craft the more I hear it. Indeed it is said ours is a "progressive" system with interrelated and equally important parts - and that these must be understood with a keen bird's eye view of the entire ritual - although pieces of it do stand-alone. The more you listen and consider the Ritual of Freemasonry, the clearer it becomes that there is much to comprehend.

Upon hearing the First Degree Tracing Board Lecture last meeting - certain points came to the forefront of my mind and deepened my understanding of our "progressive science". One was the section of this Lecture that speaks of the importance of the Smooth Ashlar. The Smooth Ashlar is often represented as the goal of the Freemason. He starts as an unrefined Ashlar. Rough and Irregular. Needing further work in order to be perfect himself. However, becoming a Smooth Ashlar it not just a goal. The Smooth Ashlar is also an important tool - and one often missed. As explained in the subject Lecture, the "experienced craftsman" uses the Smooth Ashlar to test his square on. The Square represents morality and conduct and in the simplest of terms should guide all our actions and "inculcate the purest principles of piety and virtue". It is also one of several tools to transform the Rough Ashlar, symbolising a Freemason whose personality and character can be further improved, toward becoming a Smooth Ashlar.

The significance of testing your Square against a Smooth Ashlar should not be lost. Indeed, I think is often is. If the Ashlars represent the character of a Mason, rough moving to smooth, and the square is the tool to achieve perfect symmetry, then identifying the right "Smooth Ashlar" to test your Square on and emulate is critical. We must carefully choose the role models on which we copy ourselves. We must rigorously examine the example we strive to emulate.

Today, it could be said the many of the stones held as exemplars are shiny rather than smooth. They are faulted, and in copying a faulted example, our work too is doomed to be faulted. Not Square. Not Regular. Not Perfect. Let's both be cautious in the Ashlars we attempt to copy, and in the Ashlars we offer to others to emulate and test their moral square on.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Watch yourself, the task is hard"

This was too good not to share. I am a member of the Masonic web-forum "The Sanctum Sanctorum" - a treasure trove of information. This exerpt was a web posting by a Brother in response to the topic "The Purpose of the Journey."

Working in stone is no easy task.

It takes years upon years of careful study and practice to develop the skill necessary to put chisel to stone and learn to chip away the flaws and imperfections which reveal the wondrous work of art within. During this time of practice, the apprentice will wear his hands to the bone, the delicate skin giving way to painful blisters, that in time will form the callouses possessed by Masters.

Many times he will contemplate the meaning of his toil. "Is all this agony really worth it?", he may ask. At times he'll miss his mark and whack his hand and cry out in pain, "Enough!", as he throws his tools across the room. He does not toil alone in his endeavors. No, he is always under the care of the watchful eye of the Master. When his tools go flying, the blood pours from his hand, the thought of giving up enters his mind, this is when he learns of the patient love of the Master. He binds the apprentices hand to stop the bleeding, picks up his tools, and says "Rest, I'll show you how its done". Then the Master approaches the stone and works the tools with a patient grace delicately removing every unwanted flaw and imperfection.

Upon the stone, the once hard and lifeless surface, the delicate features emerge. It is but an eye, the apprentice's eye, perfect in shape and form.The Master returns the tools to the apprentice, with a loving smile and says, "Watch yourself, the task is hard". With a caring nod of approval, he sets the apprentice back to work.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Another Thought on the Ashlars

It has been awhile since I have posted and I have been feeling a bit guilty of late about that. I started graduated school a few weeks ago and I must be honest, my cable tow has never felt shorter. On the upside, in thinking about my studies I have been considering some of its connections to the Craft. The connections are more personally impacting to me, but I think that there may be some light from which other Brothers may benefit.

It has been 20 years since I completed my undergraduate studies and I have decided that it was time (mostly because I am not getting any younger) to return and attain my Master's Degree. The process was a bit intimidating as I had to undergo some inspection before they would permit me to continue. You see, I am a student of the University of Pittsburgh's Social Work program and the process to become a part of it required some work. I am glad to say that I was found to be "true work" and was accepted.

The process and subsequently some of my studies that followed have had me reflecting on the subject of the ashlars again. So, I went back and did some reading on their symbolism. The Masonic Dictionary had this to say:

"...[T]he general purpose of the symbolism has been the same throughout - a reminder to the Candidate that he is to think of himself as if he were a building stone and that he will be expected to polish himself in manners and character in order to find a place in the finished Work of Masonry."

This is a pretty standard definition. As I read a little further down, I found this statement:

"The Ashlar is the freestone as it comes from the quarry. The Rough Ashlar is the stone in its rude and natural state and is emblamatic of man in his natural state - ignorant, uncultivated and vicious. But when education has exerted it's wholesome influence in expanding his intellect, restraining his passions and purifying his life, he then is represented by the Perfect Ashlar which, under the skillful hands of workman, has been smoothed and squared and fitted for its place in the building."

Now, while I found that passage to be quite fitting (especially in the subject of education), it also made me think about things a little further.

We have been taught that the ashlar is symbolic of a man in Masonry. The man is the stone - to be worked on and perfected by the proper application of the working tools. I have always thought that there is one ashlar (me) and that I was working to have it placed into the "building" (the Lodge/the Craft). But I have begun to wonder about our personal "building". Perhaps there is not one ashlar, but many - each with its own purpose and its own stage of readiness. Perhaps the quarry is our own soul and personality and that we select the proper stones to become ashlars in our own spiritual temple. Each of these stones whether they be education, happiness, anger control, becoming more spiritual or whatever else it is that we choose to include, are particular to each individual and each are necessary to the building of our own particular edifaces.

So, my Brothers, I am off again to continue work on this rough ashlar. I would like to leave you with this thought:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Trestle Board Cat (from "Zen Masonry) - Commentary

"When Hiram Abif spent time in the evenings working on the designs for the trestle board of the next day, a cat that wandered around the building often made such a noise that it distracted him. He ordered that the cat be tied up in the evening. After his death, the cat continued to be tied up during the evening planning. When the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the work site and tied up in the evenings. Centuries later, learned and experienced Past Masters wrote scholarly treatises about the significance of tying up a cat before planning the work of the next day."

Brother Tom Accuosti's blog Zen Masonry presents an interesting look at Zen, Freemasonry and the use of koans as teaching tools. Br. Tom explains a koan as something which "can be thought of as a riddle. Unlike a riddle, a koan does not necessarily have a logical or inferential answer. In fact, it may have no answer at all. The effect of a koan can be to break the student out of his “thinking” mind. Some koans can be obscure and impenetrable. Often, they are paradoxical and seem nonsensical. They may require long study and deep contemplation. Yet, some koans can trigger a very sudden and profoundly clear insight, knocking us backwards as if struck by a blow to the head. Just as koans are like riddles, they are also like fables. The difference is that a koan typically doesn’t tell you the moral to the story. Your task is to use whatever means you can to bridge the gap between the words and whatever meaning the koan may hold for you."

This was the case for me with "The Trestleboard Cat." Recently, some of my Lodge Brothers and I have been discussing various projects that we would like to see happen over the next few years. One of the topics deals with some educational dinners we are planning and how to determine if they are a success or not. I suggested that every "tradition" started somewhere with some Brother who may have thought "Hey, I'd like to do this..." - and so it was. This was true with other things that our Lodge does or is starting to do - they are traditions or customs.

This got me further thinking. Some of the things we currently do don't necessarily make sense. Oh, they may have at one time or another, but for some reason they just don't seem to now. You might be thinking, "Well, maybe they just don't make sense to YOU." You might be right. However, some of our practices might just be Trestleboard Cats. For instance, in New York there is a pretty strong sentiment toward alcohol. Now, I can understand why that might be in some instances, but is there a reason that we need to be such a dry fraternity? Was there a reason behind the legislation? There must have been - it's there. But is it important now? I can also see Trestleboard Cats in our Lodge - some outdated "custom" or "tradition" that may have made sense at the time, but just doesn't now or, like the koan, it was something that was done because that was how it needed to be done, but not so much now.

There is another story I heard recently that concerned a mother and her daughter preparing Easter dinner. The mother took the ham out of the refridgerator, set it in the pan and cut both the ends off. The daughter asked the mother why she did that. The mother replied, "I don't know. I do it because that's how my mother did it." She reaches for the phone and calls her mother. "Mom, why did you cut the ends off the ham?" Her mother replied, "Because that's how my mother did it." Later, while everyone was gathered at the table for dinner, the ladies looked to the eldest matriarch at the end of the table. The mother asked, "Grandma, why did you cut the ends off the ham?" The matriarch answered, "I did it so it would fit in my oven."

How about you, dear reader? Do you have any Trestleboard Cats in your Lodge?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Little Dutch Boy - A Masonic Parable

Once there was a young Master Mason who discovered a problem in the Lodge.

What should he do? From a single problem, a terrible result might grow. The whole Lodge could suffer, and all of his Brothers might be affected. So he did the only thing he could think of. He took up the task, and the problem stopped.

Of course, now he was stuck. He couldn’t rest, because as soon as he did, the problem would start again.

So he did the task for quite some time. He was rather tired, and he felt a bit numb from the effort of doing the task without help, but he knew he was doing his duty. At last a Past Master happened to pass by.

“My Brother,” he said with a certain amount of sternness, “why are you doing what you are doing?”

“I am addressing a problem,” the Brother explained. “I saw the issue, so I did something about it.”

“Heroic!” the Past Master exclaimed. “You shall be rewarded! Meanwhile, keep doing it while I call the other Past Masters together.”

So the Past Master called a meeting of the all the Past Masters and they agreed that the Brother had heroically saved the Lodge. “And now,” the Past Master asked, “what shall we do about the problem?” “It seems to me,” one of the other Past Masters replied, “that private enterprise has already found an admirable solution to the problem. The Brother has undertaken the task, and the problem has stopped. You might describe it as voluntary self-regulation. There is no need for expensive action.”

So the Past Masters voted to award the Brother a Certificate of Appreciation, which the Past Master was delighted to be able to present to him the next day. “Thank you,” the Brother said politely, “but I still have to keep doing this to keep the problem under control.” “And we appreciate that,” the Past Master replied. “I may confidently speak for the whole group of Past Masters in saying that your heroic action is universally admired.”

So the Brother continued laboring for a few more days.

It was not long, however, before another problem appeared in the Lodge, connected to the first. “What shall we do?” the Past Master asked the other Past Masters. “There is another problem.” “As private enterprise has so admirably solved the previous problem,” one of the Past Masters responded, “the solution to this new issue is obvious. We need only persuade another heroic Brother to deal with it.”

So they went into the Lodge meeting and found another Brother who, after much persuasion, was willing to deal with the problem.

It was, however, only a few days later that two more issues surfaced. This time it was much harder to persuade Brothers to step forward and help; and when, a week later, half a dozen more problems appeared, no volunteers were to be found.

“What shall we do?” the Past Master asked the other Past Masters. “Private enterprise seems no longer to be adequate. We may have to fix the problem itself this time.” “Nonsense,” said one of the Past Masters. “The solution that worked before will work again. We must simply force private enterprise into action.”

So the Past Masters visited the Lodge and guilted a number of young Master Masons into dealing with the problem.

But the Lodge, which was old and poorly maintained, continued to spring new problems here and there, so that it was all the Past Masters could do to find more young Master Masons to deal with the issues. At last the Past Masters compelled every young Master Mason in the Lodge to deal with an issue – without addressing the larger problem. All Lodge activity came to a halt, as it is well known that young Master Masons are very willing to participate, which the Lodge depended upon at that time.

“What shall we do?” the Past Master asked the other Past Masters. “We have run out of heroic young Master Masons. At this rate, we may have to deal with the problems ourselves.”

“That would be moderately inconvenient,” said one of the Past Masters.

So the Past Masters decided to address the problem by ignoring it – for if they ignored it, it would go away. Several years have passed and the young Master Masons have moved away. The old Past Masters can still be found, in their crumbling Lodge, still ignoring the problem. And if you go by the Lodge right now, and look into the Lodge room, you will see a number of old Past Masters very busy complaining but not doing anything about their problem. It is lucky for them most people have mistaken the them for a group of crotchety old men talking about past glory, which has allowed them to continue their labor uninterrupted.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wizards Wackjobs and Wierdos - From "The Relevant Mason"

"They snickered when he walked by, the two Brothers, longtime past masters and longtime members of the lodge, both slightly deaf, thought they were whispering. 'Is he a wizard or just a wackjob?' the man had asked. Both giggled and snorted a bit, the other responded, 'I don’t see a wand in his hand, but nothing would surprise me with this lot.' The Wizards actions that brought such ridicule, the study of the esoteric areas of Masonry. He had read a paper the other day during good of the order and the paper was about speculative alchemy, since which time he was branded 'one of those.'”

This is the opening of Bro. Cliff Porter's blog, "The Relevant Mason". He is discussing an issue which, in my opinion, is slowly but surely coming to the forefront of many Lodges. There is a movement in the Craft which is demanding its time to be heard. No longer willing to accept being silent and watching as the status quo continues to send many Lodges into the downward spiral which leads to closure, these Brothers (yours truly included) are looking to reverse the trend by getting back to what many consider to be the basics of Freemasonry. The basics of Freemasonry involves looking to the Craft prior to the massive upswing in membership which followed World War II. This includes Masonic education and research into the more esoteric side of the Craft's traditions and ceremonies. This is often met with resistance by some of our more seasoned members and some even go to the extent of ridiculing those who try to introduce these concepts into the Lodge. Bro. Porter, in my opinion, sums up many of these statements quite well:

“Just because you want Masonry to be mystical, spiritual, or include other hocus pocus, does not mean that it does.”

“What in the heck does alchemy have to do with Masonry at all?”

“Pike, Wilmshurst, Hall and others were weirdoes or oddballs and don’t speak for the Craft. Heck, most men in Masonry are never going to read those crackpots anyway.”

The fact of the matter is that our ritual does contain some very deep symbolic and philosopical overtones which extend beyond the normal fraternal intiatory experience. Men who come to Masonry are not just made "members" - they are transformed and created as Masons. To dismiss this fact as "hocus pocus" does a serious injustice to our fraternal system and tradition. As I tell many of our Lodge's new candidates, there is a reason behind everything you see, hear and do during your time in the Lodge. If Brethren choose to ignore that fact it does not deminish the truth that it is there.

The post-World War II upswing in membership was a two edged sword for the Craft. On the one hand it brought in a large number of new members into the Craft. On the other it made our Lodges into degree mills where we force-fed new Brethren through questions and answers without educating them and allowing the West Gate to swing open with no real inspection of the material being allowed into the Lodge. The Craft changed - and not overnight - into a "quality=quantity" philosophy which changed the Craft and tried to mimic the Elks, Moose and many other more social fraternities. The result was, and my apologies for any who might be offended, a generation of poorly educated Brethren who in turn passed this watered down education to the next generation. It is difficult for these older Brethren because this is the only Masonry they have ever known and to challenge it is to defy their understanding of the Craft and its purpose. I cannot help but imagine what their older generation felt about their young selves as the fraternity changed. I am sure they were not happy about it either.

But, times are changing and the Craft with it. As Bro. Porter puts it:

"There is a shift in the Craft right now, a rent in the fae as it were. Like all transitions, even the initiatory one that all Masons are supposed to go through, there are ripples and currents and instabilities. There is always a death before a rebirth."

Our declining membership, our crumbling buildings and our loss of direction continue to reinforce that a change is necessary. It is not a re-invention of Freemasonry, but a return to more of the historical and "traditional" functions of the Craft. It will require us to stop looking outward and clamoring for members and to start looking inward and being critical of ourselves. If we cannot articulate intelligently about the ritual, symbols and philosophy of the Craft, whay would anyone want to join us? If you don't understand it, what's the point? Our method of doing business since the membership boom is no longer effective and it is obvious.

It is time to look back, to study, to investigate and to educate ourselves. It is time to get back to the Freemasonry of our forefathers. We can make room on the trestleboard for the pancake breakfasts and charity events, but they should not be the dominant theme. Let's get back to being Freemasons and to doing Masonry - to shaping ashlars and to building spiritual temples.

Bro. Porter ends by saying:

"So it is, I must relegate myself to the denizens of the wizards, wackjobs and weirdoes that will study as the ritual begs, search as the charges recommend, and never stop trying to build the temple, hone the stone, and perfect the ashlar."

With that I stand with him and state empatically that I too am one of the wizards, wackjobs and wierdos and I am proud to be known as such.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A New York great has passed

I just read that M.'.W.'. Calvin Bond, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York has passed. I had the honor and pleasure of knowing MWBro. Bond and his presence will be greatly missed in The Grand Lodge of New York and the Craft.

More complete information may be read at Bro. Richard Powell's site, "Ars Masonica."

"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Marking out the ground for the foundation

(The working tool pictured left -a Skirret - was handmade by Bro. Bearss from Palmer Lodge #372, Fort Erie, Ontario)

One of the working tools of the Third Degree in the Emulation ritual is the skirret. For those of us used to the Preston-Webb tradition, this tool is not one which we are used to seeing, but it is one which is important for Master Masons to be familiar with and employ.

As you can see by the photo, it is like a spool of thread with a handle. The loose end of the thread has a loop which will catch the center pin. The skirret's thread is allowed to unwind and held taut. Once the length is reached, a piece of chalk may be used to mark the foundation, the skirret's thread ensuring a straight line. The skirret's thread, when allowed to unwind, becomes longer than any practicable ruler or straightedge but it is just as true. It is similar to a modern-day chalkline.

The Emulation ritual explains that the skirret "is an implement which acts on a centre pin, whence a line is drawn to mark out ground for the foundation of the intended structure." This is the operative use of the skirret, and the ritual goes on to explain that, for the Speculative Mason, "the Skirret points out that straight and undeviating line of conduct laid down for our pursuit in the Volume of Sacred Law." We are instructed that the skirret is a tool specifically to be used in preparation for laying a foundation.

Bro. James Marple in his article "The Mason's Skirret" points out that what makes the skirret so special is "that it is used before the foundation of a building is laid; and, therefore, the skirret is generally used before the other working tools. A skirret allows a person to see the precise location for the foundation. Consequently, the surrounding ground can easily be designated for other purposes. Initial use of the skirret enables changes to be made to the mark rather than, later, to change a finished foundation of stone or concrete."

When we consider these qualities in relation to the Volume of Sacred Law, the skirret is the tool which helps us to understand how the Volume of Sacred Law applies to our own lives. We are instructed that the Volume of the Sacred Law is "the rule and guide of our faith." How do we apply this to our daily life? Through the straight and undeviating line as set by use of the skirret. It allows us to map out the foundation of our character and allow us to see the footprint upon which our Temple will be built.

For my American Brothers, take a moment and think about how important this missing, yet vital working tool is to a Master Mason - both in the construction of your own inner Temple and in the building of our new Brothers' Temples as well.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spreading the cement of Brotherly love...

On Tuesday, June 8, 2010 Brethren of Enchanted Mountains Lodge #252 (including yours truly) traveled to East Aurora, New York for the 17th Annual gathering of Blazing Star Lodge #694, F&AM. This gathering also celebrates the reception of Brethren from Palmer Lodge #372 from Fort Erie, Ontario. I had been asked to come to the meeting to receive a hand made skerritt from Bro. Bearss, the Senior Warden of Palmer Lodge.

Some time ago, several of the Brothers of my Lodge and I journeyed to Palmer Lodge for their annual chili cook-off. It was a great time and you could not ask to meet a better, more welcoming group of Brothers. During that time we had occasion to tour their Lodge and talk with them about the similarities and differences between New York Masonry and Canadian Masonry. One of the big things that stood out to me was their use of several working tools that New York does not utilize - specifically the pencil, the chisel and the skerritt. I was educated by Bro. Girdlestone, the Lodge Secretary (pictured all the way to the right in the above photo) as to their uses. This followed me back to New York.

As I began to hold classes for our new Brethren, these other working tools began to be a point of discussion. So, I gathered a kit of working tools to bring to these discussions. I had everything - even a chisel and a setting maul - but the skerritt was tough to obtain. I contacted Brother Jeff and he said he would see what he could do. Several months later, he contacted me and told me that Bro. Bearss had handcrafted one for me and they wanted me to come to Fort Erie to get it. Problem was, I don't have a passport. So, what to do?

A few months pass and Bro. Jeff asks if I can come to the annual gathering in East Aurora. I contact the Brother hosting the event and next thing you know - seven Brothers and I are in East Aurora. Again - we experienced a warm reception from the Brothers from Blazing Star and Palmer Lodge. A wonderful time was had by all and I was presented with an absolutely beautiful piece of work by Bro. Bearss (he is third from right and I am fourth from right). It was tough to head home, but we can look forward to next year's gathering. A huge thank you to Blazing Star Lodge and Palmer Lodge for allowing us to come to their annual event.

So - what's a skerritt? Stay tuned...a little something about the skerritt in my next post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The baton is passed

This past Tuesday I had the honor of installing the officers of Enchanted Mountains Lodge #252, F&AM. This duty has been performed for many years by RWBro. Orin Parker, DDGM. Bro. Parker asked me to take over the job and I was both honored and concerned. Bro. Parker has been a mentor to me over the last 20 years of my Masonic career and I really wanted to honor him by doing a good job.

WBro. Tim Nolan was installed for his first time in the East. We had a good turnout and the ceremony went off without a hitch. Usually we have a tighter dress code, but this night was pretty hot in the Lodge - one of the reasons we don't meet in July and August. We installed a full line many of whom were not Past Masters.

I know that I have left the Lodge in good hands and I look forward eagerly to see what great things lie ahead for our Lodge.

Monday, May 31, 2010

"Because time won't give me time..."

During my work with our newer Brothers this past winter I found myself in constant discussions about the importance of the Working Tools. "These are not just symbols," I would tell them, "these are actual tools for practical application in your daily life."

Lately I have been reminded of the old saying: "Those that can -do. Those that can't - teach."

I started class this past week - a fifteen week Statistics course that is crammed into a six week summer session. For me this is a double whammy. Firstly, math has never been my strong point. There is a reason I went into human services - you sure as hell don't want me doing your taxes or anything else that requires more than basic math. Secondly, I haven't really been in a classroom for 20 years. Sitting in the class and looking around - I am definitely the old man in the room. The carrot is that I pass this class it unlocks the key for me to start my Masters - a program to which I have already been accepted and which hinges on passing this class.

To make a long story longer, this week not only saw the beginning of this class but also my full time job, my part time job, Lodge responsibilities, Scottish Rite work, family commitments and occasionally - sleep. So I thought about those lessons taught to my new Brothers and specifically the 24" Gauge and I thought...I think I need a bigger Gauge.

But alas, there is no 36" or bigger Gauge. We have been given a 24" Gauge and are taught how to use it - to keep all in proper proportion. The trick is finding out how to make it all fit into 24 hours. I think that the trouble is that we continue to try to force a bigger object into a smaller one. We cannot force 36" of length into a 24" space. Oh, we can try but eventually something gives out and sometimes it is not something that can be fixed or replaced.

For instance, when I was younger, I worked myself to the bone. At one point I had three jobs and slept when occasion merited. Sure, we could pay the bills, but I missed time with my kids. See, they are all grown now - one with a family all her own - and I find myself wishing that I kept things in proper proportion. My temple has some holes in it - I tried to fit too much into too little a space and I lost some valuable stone from time to time.

I reached into my toolbox and pulled out my Gauge this week. Slowly I began to cut away some of the "vices and superfluities" of life. After next week, I will be fitting things to the 24" Gauge and I am already feeling a little relieved and more relaxed. I will spend less time doing so much for everyone else and spend a little time of those things that need my attention. I think I will start with my new grandson - after my stats homework is done, of course.

How are you applying your 24" Gauge?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"I hold in my hands an instrument of death..."

One of the things that has always intrigued me has been that a central symbol - featured prominently in ritual work of the Craft - seems to be missing. Each of the working tools seem to hold a place, yet one is mysteriously absent.

What happened to the setting maul?

It's like CSI:Jerusalem. The crucial piece of evidence is missing and almost nowhere to be found. What I find interesting is that the gauge and the square are involved in the degrees, yet the setting maul does not.

Several Masonic writers including Steinmetz, Pike and Hutchens have discussed the symbolism of the trials at the Gates and the reasons for the use the specific tools and the locations where they were used. Roughly, they speculate the following:
  • The First Gate: a symbol of the physical. The tool is the gauge. The blow strikes the throat, stifling speech.
  • The Second Gate: a symbol of the psychical. The tool is the square. The blow strikes the heart, stifling the emotions.
  • The Third Gate: a symbol of the spiritual. The tool is the setting maul - not the trowel. It is, in Hutchen's words "an instrument of brute force." It is with this instrument that ends his life with a blow to the head - the intellectual center.

More questions surface. Why does this implement not feature more prominently in the work? Why was it this instrument and this blow that kills him?

Steinmetz further comments on the setting maul in his book "Freemasonry - its Hidden Meaning":

"A setting maul is an instrument made use of by operative masons to coerce the unwieldy stone into its proper position in the building; but we, as Free and Accepted Masons are taught to make use of it for the more noble and glorious purpose of impelling ourselves into our proper positions in that building of which we are to form a part. A more recondite exposition is seen in the Constructive and Destructive aspects of Universal Law. In the hands of the ignorant and unskilled workman it becomes an instrument of death and destruction, but in the hands of the enlightened and skilled craftsman it becomes a constructive instrument with which the recalcitrant stone is forced into its proper position."

A key word jumped out at me when reading this - "recalcitrant". The stone described is not one which is difficult, but one which is stubbornly disobedient - one which is obstinately defiant of restraint. This is not a job for a simple trowel, but of a tool which is able to apply a greater level of directed force coupled with appropriate strength. In the hands of a Master Mason it can be a tool to guide stones into place. To the unskilled it is tool of destruction which will shatter the stone rather than settle it.

To me, this seems the more appropriate tool of a Master Mason. It is our duty to correct the errors of our less informed Brethren - a skilled application of the maul brings the Brother back into place. An unskilled application may shatter the Brother's confidence or damage his dignity - therefore damaging the ashlar - perhaps beyond repair.

Yet for some reason it remains missing. Perhaps some time in the future the answer will come to light, but for now we have only to speculate.

What do you think?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thou hast promised that when two or three are gathered together...

Earlier this week was the 229th Communication of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York, held in New York City. I made the journey with our Senior Deacon. It was his first time at Grand Lodge and it was interesting to get his thoughts on the process.

The first day was the usual. For me the best part is opening ceremonies when 200 or so men sing the national anthem - accompanied by the grand pipe organ. It makes the makes the hairs on the back of my head stand on end. For some reason this year the first day was a bit grueling. The speeches seemed a bit long and the fact that the City was hot an humid that day didn't help. We remained for most of the day and picked up the Potts Award - the Grand Lodge award for Perfect Attendance at the Grand Lecturer's Convention - on behalf of the Lodge.

The second day saw more committee reports and the election of our officers for 2010-2012. Elected were:
  • RW Vincent Labone, Grand Master
  • RW Jim Sullivan, Deputy Grand Master
  • RW Tim McMullen, Senior Grand Warden
  • RW Charles Uhle, Junior Grand Warden
  • RW William Thomas, Grand Tresurer
  • RW Gil Savitsky, Grand Secretary

Good luck to our new Grand Officers and see you all in Manhattan next year.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

“The only difference between this place and the Titanic is they had a band…”

I am a member of the Order of the Amaranth. I belong mostly because my wife belongs and because it gives us time to spend together. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Order, you can find out more from the Supreme Council’s website. I am writing mostly because this has been drifting around in my head for some time and I need to find some outlet for it. I am finding myself increasingly frustrated by the current state of the Order, at least locally, and I am finding it more difficult to remain motivated about belonging and attending. For the most part I feel like I am on the deck of the Titanic and I am watching the iceberg approaching. There are a few others with me and we are frantically ringing the alarm bell – but the officers are out at evening tea.

Perhaps it is because I am very involved with the Blue Lodge and that they have begun to wake up and see the writing on the wall that I find it difficult to believe that the Amaranth cannot draw parallels to themselves – especially since Masons comprise a portion of their membership. It’s almost like folks are ignoring it – like ignoring a toothache figuring that it will eventually go away. The problem with that approach is that if you ignore something long enough, there may be nothing to save once it is all over. Amaranth is undergoing the same strains that the Blue Lodge is currently experiencing: a decrease in new members, an ever-aging membership, worries about financial stability and sometimes (I think) a questioning of purpose. The Masonic fraternity is well familiar with these problems. The difference is they are beginning to do something about it.

The current issues are apparent in the local Court of which I am a member. Meetings are tedious at best. Let me paint a picture for you. The meeting opens with a lengthy and archaic ceremony that is staged for more people than are in attendance. This is followed by a lengthy introduction of anyone who has held or used to hold some kind of office.

This is the active part of the meeting.

The remainder of the time is spent mostly with everyone looking at each other (and their watches), mentioning that we need more members and talking about the old days when the sidelines were full. We talk about how we need to fundraise and make up the budget shortfalls. Then on to the lengthy closing (again with not enough members needed) followed by coffee, some more disgruntled conversation, and then – home. See you in two weeks.

Sound familiar?

It is my understanding that this is how it is pretty much around the state. The funny thing is that no one seems to know why this is happening (see above and I can guess) and those in charge that can affect change either can’t or won’t do so. The fact of the matter is, if someone at Grand Court doesn’t get brave enough to do what needs to be done, there won’t be a Grand Court – and eventually probably no local Courts either.

The Amaranth espouses four principal tenets: Truth, Faith, Wisdom and Charity. They have, in my opinion, fallen a bit by the wayside. Truth seems to have been overcome by Intolerance. The ritual teaches that we need to “solicit the most careful scrutiny and reveal the good and true” yet we continue to not be truthful with ourselves. We know the state of things, but we refuse to see them as they are. The intolerance even extends to being intolerant of change.

Faith has been pushed aside by Apathy. Once, there was a strong understanding of the purpose of the Order – now it seems lost or at least clouded. There is no impetus to change or to better ourselves and to steer the Order into forward movement. Burnt out older members are tired and don’t want to be involved anymore. Younger members have little time or drive. We talk about needing members, yet we won’t get out of our seats to go find them.

Wisdom has given way to Astigmatism. The near-sightedness of the Order is probably one of its biggest problems. There is no room for out-of-the-box thinking or considering changes. There is only the way things have always been done. Lastly is Charity. To me, Charity has fallen to Inequity. It is not a matter of doing what needs to be done, but to do what appears to be submitting to special interests and egos.

This seems like an overly negative post. It is both meant and not meant to be. I belong to the Order because I choose to and because I believe that, at its foundation, it is a very worthwhile institution. What is difficult is that some of our leadership can’t seem to get out of their own way, to move past outdated ideas and to ensure the longevity of the organization. Here are some suggestions:

1) Look at revising some of the Standard Work. I am not saying that we should throw out tradition, but to make the ritual more manageable with today’s numbers. Similarly to the Scottish Rite, the ritual can be adapted to more workable numbers based on average attendance – at least for opening and closing ceremonies. What would also be useful is some kind of education. Freemasonry has a multitude of resources that discussed Masonic symbolism and philosophy. The Amaranth ritual is full of wonderful symbolism (like the Rite of Ablution). How about some kind of program that would promote an understanding of the tradition?
2) Make the meetings more productive. We spend more time recognizing current and past officers and less time doing some thing productive. Save that stuff for a Past Officer’s Night and let’s have some programs or travel instead.
3) Prepare for financial increases. Cost of living has gone up - so have expenses. Let’s stop nickel and diming the membership with constant internal fundraisers and just raise the dues. This will permit us to fundraise outside the membership for our charitable projects.
4) Stop talking and start doing. Enough of what was. Let’s deal with what is and do something about it. Get out into the Districts and drum up some interest.
5) Do something. We can get a hundred members to join, but if there isn’t anything for them once they get there, what’s the point. Do a program, go on a trip – something.

That is just a start. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time for something new.

Here comes the iceberg. Are we going to steer the boat clear or should we get ready to man the life boats?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

All good things must come to an end...

I woke up this morning and started thinking about upcoming events. Grand Lodge session is next week and I am looking forward to the trip home to Long Island and spending some time with the folks, then the train ride to Manhattan. There will be the traditional breakfast at the Malibu Diner, then Grand Lodge. I will be traveling with a Brother who has never been there, so it will be extra special. There is nothing like experiencing it through the eyes of a "first timer." The best part is when the room breaks out in the "Star Spangled Banner" - the unified voices of the Brothers always hits the heart.

It was then that I started thinking about Installation in June. I have been asked to take the role of Installing Officer by the Brother who has done it for as long as I can remember. I was honored to be asked, but I can't help but think that we are entering a new era. I have begun to make the transition to one of the "Old Timers." This was overshadowed by an even bigger realization - my term as Master is almost over.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a mixture of sadness and emptiness. I know...I have been talking about counting the days until the end of my term. It has been a very busy and long two years in the East. We have initiated 11 new Brothers, we have begun using a Chamber of Reflection before the First Degree, we have improved our ritual and we have begun holding weekly classes for new Brothers. We have begun a study circle - the 309 Society - which held its first dinner lecture. There is a new sense of pride and the Lodge is beginning to turn around.

And it's almost over.

I have spent the last several years in a position of leadership. Six were as a District Officer. As I got ready to step down as District Deputy and enjoy a bit of a break, I stepped right back in the East. I had hopes and dreams, plans and aspirations.

And now it's almost over.

I will be entering graduate school in September (God willing) and my class nights will be on Tuesday nights - so no Lodge for me - at least not my home Lodge. I have begun to think about the times spent with my Brothers and how much I will miss it next year. Sure, I'll be in other Lodges, but it isn't mine. It isn't home. For the first time in a long time I won't hold an office - I won't have a purpose - and it feels weird.

So, what have I learned? I have learned a few things which I would like to share:
  1. No matter how many times you have served in the East, each time is different and offers you an opportunity to do something wonderful and lasting. This was time number 6 and I think I enjoyed it more than I did the first time.
  2. Plan, plan and plan. You can never do too much. And when you are done planning, check it and make a plan "B". You are the leader and must be ready to switch plans when things fall through - and they will.
  3. Surround yourself with people who love Masonry. It keeps the momentum going.
  4. Find people who are good at what they do and then - let them do it. One of my new Brothers taught me this. He continuously kept coming up with ideas and, when allowed to work on those projects, never failed to experience a successful venture.
  5. Think outside the box. Tradition is important, but stale programs are not. Don't be afraid to try something new. That tradition was a first-time occurrance once.
  6. Walk the walk. If you set a standard, be the example. Your Brothers will not follow your lead if you won't walk the path yourself.
  7. Have fun. Laugh at yourself. Don't take things so seriously. Enjoy the ride.
  8. Think big picture. Sure a successful dinner is a good thing, but how will it help make the Lodge grow? Use your plans to work toward a larger purpose.
  9. Don't get caught up in yourself. From membership you came and to the membership you will return. I am most always the first one at the Lodge and the last one home. My guests dine before I do. Don't get hung up on the title. You are there to serve, not to be served.
  10. Admit your mistakes. Apologize and take responsibility.

The Brother who is lined up for the East is beginning his preparations for his term. The other night we went over his trestleboard and looked at his officer line up. He had this "deer in the headlights" look which was tempered with a glint of expectation. I remember that look, and the thought of those days past brought a smile to my face.

So here we are, two meetings left to go and then I will lay aside the top hat and hand over the gavel to the next in line. I am full of confidence that the work began will continue and my time will have been well spent.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Oh yes it's Ladies Night...."

The Lodge held it's somewhat annual "Ladies at the Table" dinner on 04/10/10. This is an event which usually takes place around Valentine's Day, but due to a somewhat hectic schedule needed to be pushed up a bit. This year's dinner was a bit smaller than usual at 36 in attendance. Previous years topped out at around 70. Initially I was a bit disappointed, but after the dinner was over, I actually think the smaller group was a bit more intimate and, quite honestly, more manageable.

"Ladies at the Table" was based on a table lodge written by Br. William Richards, Past Master of Webster Lodge #61 in Winooski, Vermont. More information from his Short Talk Bulletin can be found here. The ceremony has been published in book form by the Grand Lodge of Vermont and is available through them. The ceremony as written is a very nice program utilizing a Masonic table lodge format. There are a series of toasts made in honor of preselected ladies.

I took that ceremony and adapted it a bit. In lieu of honoring specific ladies, each of the seven toasts are made to the several ladies in our lives - our mothers, wifes, widows, daughters, etc. The ceremony also includes each lady being presented with a rose or carnation. The ladies and widows of Lodge #252 dine free of charge and the rest pay a nominal fee. The dinner is broken up into 6 removes or courses - and they are brought out between toasts. This year we chose a cruise theme (the pic above is our dining room decked out for the occassion) and our menu, prepared by RW Bro. Bruce Kenney, was a selection of samples from around the world (Greece, Germany, Italy, England and Ireland). The Brothers serve, steward the wine, clear the tables and clean up - our ladies get to sit back and relax.

In honor of all our ladies - who support us in our several stations in our labors for the Craft - thank you!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Each to his own ability

"A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with an idea of a cathedral in mind." ~ Antoine De Saint-Exupery

One of the key tasks of being Master is trying to improve your ability to assess your Lodge's strengths and weaknesses. As the Master Mason in charge of the building, you are responsible for assigning the right workers to the right tasks. During the construction of cathedrals there were many workers - stonecutters, mortar makers and quarrymen to name a few - who performed their several tasks to complete the building. Similarly, I must know how to find the right men to do the work needed to keep the Lodge moving forward.

As I have said before, these past two years have been eye opening for me. Regrettably, I have seemed to try to make the man fit the task, rather than finding the man that fits the task. Any one of us can attend a meeting or two and within a reasonable amount of time assess what each man may be good doing and what jobs would not be a good fit. I had difficulty with this, sometimes just because I was blind due to my ambition to make the Lodge fit the model I had in my mind. I wanted the Brethren to be as motivated as I was. I wanted them to be as involved as I was. The reality is - they won't be - and the more you force the issue, the worse it will get. It also has a tendency to set the task up for failure. By forcing a Brother into a task he is not suited for it is, in my experience, will result in either the job not getting done or it will not get done well. In addition, you may end up with a Brother who becomes upset because he was forced into doing something he didn't want to do or is angry because he ends up looking incompetent. This weakens the overall integrity of the building and adds to the weakness of the Lodge.

Our Operative Brethren had skills and specialized tasks. There were:
  • Stonecutters - those who carve blocks into the right size and shape and add decoration.
  • Mortar Masons - those who mix the mortar that joins the stone.
  • Quarrymen - those who select the stones that become ashlars for the building.

There are also certain tasks that Masons needed to perform:

  • Laying out walls, patterns or foundations using the rule.
  • Shaping, trimming, facing and cutting stone prepatory to setting.
  • Replacing broken or missing masonry units into the structure.
  • Smoothing, polishing and beveling surfaces.

From this list we can project them into a Speculative form that we may utilize in our own Lodges. Quarrymen are those Brethren who are best equipped to work with candidates and shape them from stones to ashlars and prepare them for the building. Mortar Masons are those Brothers who are best equipped to coordinate or chair social functions that create the cement of Brotherly Love and affection. They are also those Brothers who are skilled at mediating disputes. Stonemasons are those Brothers who are best equipped to continue the mentoring process beyond the 3rd Degree. They are adept at educational endeavors and can provide Masonic education.

We can also use the tasks of Master Masons as well:

  • Laying out walls, patterns or foundations using the rule. (developing a trestleboard)
  • Shapping, trimming, facing and cutting stone prepatory to setting. (mentoring)
  • Replacing broken or missing masonry units into the structure. (brotherhood committee, widows committee)
  • Smoothing, polishing and beveling surfaces. (education)

The possibilities are endless. The focus is really to be honest as to a Brother's strengths and assign him to the appropriate task - and then let him do it.

Who are the workmen in your Lodge? What tasks can they perform? How can they best be utilized to add strength to your edifice?

Monday, April 5, 2010

If I had a Hammer.....

"While foundations were being laid, skilled craftsmen worked in quarries and produced blocks of stone that would be used in the building process. It would not be unusual for as many as fifty advanced skilled apprentices to work in a quarry along with 250 labourers. They would be supervised by a master quarryman. A master mason would have provided the master quarryman with templates for the shapes required from the cut quarry stone. Each stone would be marked to show where it would go once the building started."

As a start to my new approach to Masonry I became involved with the education of new Brothers. Traditionally in our Lodge the Master delegates this task to an experienced Brother. In light of my new outlook, I decided to step up and become a part of the process. After all, I was the one who would declare these men as "suitably proficient". How could I do that unless I know first hand that they are so? I also felt that in order for me to be able to give direction to mentors, I needed to have been one myself.

In my research of Freemasonry I drifted toward the history of stonemasons who worked on the ancient cathedrals. The work was delegated to a Master Mason and he oversaw the many tasks of the building. The very starting point of this whole process however began in the quarry itself. It was the Master Quarryman who directed the selection of the stones which would be fitted for the builder's use according to the plans given him. It impressed me that the building of these grand edifices started not with the Master Mason, but with the quarryman who formed the ashlars for the building. With that, I set out to lay aside my duties as Master Mason for awhile and work at becoming a quarryman - shaping the stones which become ashlars for our Masonic edifice.

In New York, Brethren journeying through the degrees must learn a catechism - a series of questions and answers - which must be memorized. They must then "prove their proficiency" in the work by reciting this catechism in front of the Lodge or a committee appointed by the Master. In my Lodge, this process usually occurred outside of the Lodge proper, so that most Brethren had no idea how proficient new Brothers actually were. This was often true of the Master as well - he just took the word of the examining Brothers that proficiency was achieved. To me, that was a mistake. As Master, I virtually "signed off" on a Brother's qualification to be advanced. Therefore, they were a direct reflection of me. So, if a Brother gets to the end of the line and is completely devoid of any understanding of key concepts and symbols, he is a bad piece to be fitted into the "building". By extension, too many of these improperly formed stones will eventually compromise the integrity of the building and it might eventually collapse. Taking it a step further, as the Master Mason in charge of the building, it is my fault for allowing these stones to be used. This had to change.

"Suitable Proficiency" is a huge grey area in New York. The Master, and he alone, determines what "suitable" means. So last year I got knee-deep in running classes. I began by changing the philosophy that regurgitation of the catechism was enough. It was important that a Brother understand why he is answering a question way he does and why the questions has been asked of him. The first class of two in the Fall of 2008 were given the option to take their proficiency in open Lodge - a first for Lodge #252. Both succeeded in doing so. The Spring class of 2009 saw weekly sessions with a walk-about the Lodge. Unfettered by cable tow or hoodwink we walked through each degree so that they had a clear visual of their experience. Our last class - Winter of 2010 - went beyond. The weekly classes did all of that, plus we began to explore the symbols of the lectures - the point within a circle, the cardinal virtues, the Sts. John (to name a few). This class, in my opinion, was the best educated so far. The best part is that they are hungry for more, and have me scrambling to keep up with them.

It was truly rewarding to see these stones selected for the quarry and shaped for the edifice. There was a real sense of accomplishment - for them and for me. So now I will no longer see myself as just a Master Mason placing designs of the trestleboard. I also help to select and shape to stones which will become part of the building.

I am a Quarryman.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Back in the Saddle

I  began my Masonic journey 20 years ago. It is hard to believe that so much time has past. I find myself reflecting back on it quite a bit of late. I am discovering that the Mason I am now is not the Mason I was then. In fact, I have commented on more than one occasion that if my 21 year old self could talk to my 41 year old self, it would probably beat the hell out of me.

Part of that shift, I think has been in my perception of what the Craft is and isn't - or what it is and what it is supposed to be. I am constantly struggling with the Masonry in which I was raised versus the Masonry which I have studied.

This is my sixth term as Master. As I prepared for my two-year term, I began as I did the last time I served in the East - started thinking about who would sit in a chair, what activities we were going to engage in, dinners before meetings, ad nauseum. Then one afternoon while working on my trestle board, it hit me. During the opening of Lodge in my jurisdiction we are reminded of the duty of the Master - "to set the Craft at work and giving them proper instruction for their labor." It was quite an epiphany. I had spent so much time worrying about dinners and movie nights that I completely forgot about one of the fundamental and paramount duties listed in my job description - to ensure the proper education of the Lodge under my care. So I began in earnest to begin to educate myself so that I may in turn begin to pass that information on to my Brothers. In doing so, I fell upon the website for the Masonic Restoration Foundation. For me it was another door opening.

You see, for many years the mantra in my Lodge was the bewailing of a lack of membership. "We need more members," the Past Masters would cry. Then, the predictable round of harrumph of everyone agreeing - which would then turn into a long list of "I can remember when..." Then we would adjourn for coffee and go home. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the MRF did for me was to begin to see a big more of a bigger picture. I was feeling like the little Dutch boy trying to plug all the holes in the dike. We have a membership shortage, we have a money shortage, we have a morale problem, etc. For me, the issue was finding something fundamental - a starting point which would serve as a foundation for the rest. The MRF pointed out that it should begin with education. Denis Chornenky of the MRF stated the following:

"Much of our dilemma rises from the fact that too many men that join are not properly educated about the fraternity. Rather than coming to an understanding of the Craft based on diligent study and thinking, new candidates tend to form their opinions based on the behavior of fellow Masons, who are themselves too often poorly educated about the fraternity's history and philosophy. A disproportionately small number of serious and scholarly men within the organization have led to a general decline over the last several decades."

It stands to reason that if we are not educated about the philosophy and principles of our Craft, then we cannot express it, much less teach it to those who follow. Taking that a step further, if we cannot express it, nor teach it, then the organization's purpose becomes obscured and eventually the organization will change to become something different. For me - that was the light going on. If we can increase our understanding of what the Craft is, we can not only embody it, but pass it forward. This brings Light into the Lodge, jump starting our personal pride and sense of purpose. It creates a reason for Brothers to some to Lodge and for men to want to seek out our company and to join us.

I am not really sure what will come of this blog. What I do know is that the last year and a half has seen some real positive growth in our Lodge. We are educating, we are initiating and we are improving. What I hope to do is share some of what we are learning and hopefully being a part of a resurgence of the Craft as a whole, and perhaps to continue learning as part of the process.