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.