Not a specifically Masonic post, but it is topical for this weekend.
Originally posted on The Tao that can be told:
It was a Saturday.
On Memorial Day weekend.
I had the list with me, which meant at least an hour looking for items for our annual picnic. And true to form, when I got down near the end of the list, there it was: the mystery item.
I’m good with going grocery shopping. Ask me to pick up eggs and milk on the way home, no problem. Ask me to do the family shopping for the week, no problem. Ask me to pick up several things for a particular dish to be made… problem.
Every time my wife gives me the list there is always something vitally important on the list that she can’t do without. Sometimes it’s a…
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The question came up with one of my friends on Facebook: “Is there too much Masonry on social media?” By that, he was asking if the dozens and dozens of similar Facebook groups, often with overlapping membership, and all seemingly having the same conversations (and disagreements) over and over is somehow bad for the society. Naturally a few wags jumped in to suggest that the problem was that there wasn’t enough Masonry in the Masons on social media. An amusing retort, but it misses what I think is the real issue.
Social media, specifically the big groups like Facebook, offer an opportunity that we constantly remind new Masons about: the ability to “travel” to foreign countries. On Facebook, you won’t attend a lodge, but you can certainly find yourself in a conversation with someone from a different state in the US, or a Canadian province, or (if you don’t mind the time zone lag) brothers from across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.
American Freemasons are somewhat insulated by the above-named oceans; most of the US practices some version of the Preston Webb lectures, and the variations between most states are fairly minimal, at least in contrast to the workings and customs in lodges in the UK,Scotland, Ireland, France, and other areas. And because most of us lack some exposure to other workings and customs, we often tend to think that our way is “correct,” which leads to long pointless discussions on why you should (or shouldn’t) wear your ring a certain way, or why our English brothers don’t seem to get into arguments about the feminine Masonic orders, or whether the workings should be learned from a book or verbally, or why a tattoo isn’t a violation of one’s Masonic obligations.
I’ve often seen a picture of some brother’s new tattoo or some Masonic item, followed by a few comments like “You forgot your oaths,” or “Why are you displaying the secrets?”or “I take my obligations seriously and would never do anything like that!” or even “Are you even really a Mason?” To me, the disturbing thing isn’t that those commenters didn’t know about the different customs elsewhere, but that they immediately jumped to a conclusion and instead of questioning, responded with criticism. Perhaps when we talk about “the universality of Masonry,” some people make the assumption that Masonry is universally practiced the same way as it is in their lodge, instead of assuming the bigger picture, that Masonry is a way to encompass a universally agreeable set of moral values.
Masons on social media would be better served by giving some thought to their comments before typing. Of course you take your obligations seriously, but why would you assume that the person in question does not? Instead of jumping to conclusions when you see a brother espouse a different opinion, ask yourself what may be different about his lodge, his community, or his Grand Lodge that would cause him to think differently. And if you can’t come up with an answer, then ask him directly. Questions like “Hey, I saw that you have a different way of doing ___. Why is that?” will go a lot further toward spreading the cement of brotherly love and affection than assuming that he’s simply doing something wrong.
You may not be able to actually travel to far-off lands, but thanks to the internet and the various media platforms, you can at least get an idea about the different customs and cultures elsewhere. Freemasons should take advantage of those opportunities to learn about each other because we are, after all, one of the oldest social networks in existence.
Most of the old web boards where I used to hang out with Freemasons from around the globe have quietly gone dark, deserted, or have disappeared entirely, as threaded conversations have moved over to social media sites. That’s not an entirely bad thing, because the social sites like Facebook and Google Plus tend to attract many younger Masons, who in addition to text can now use pictures and video to share their experiences. Facebook groups, for example, are filled with pictures of newly raised Master Masons, shots of their lodge, their rings (worn properly, of course), and various other examples of Masonic displays.
Where we once were known as “the quiet fraternity,” we now have a host of designs to adorn our cars, hats, jackets, shirts, belt buckles, computer or phone desktops, and pretty much anyplace else we can think of. Some of the examples of artwork that I’ve seen have been excellently rendered in various image creation & manipulation programs, and I’m often amazed at the detail that some of my graphically inclined brothers can put into those images.
One of the trends that I’ve been noticing has been the masculinization (or rather, the hyper-masculinization) of Freemasonry; that is, of the images and symbols that we use. In the last few years I’ve been seeing more drawings and graphics depicting overly-stylized Square & Compasses adorned with skulls, crossed thighbones, and various edged instruments; some of these artistic variations would seem more at home on the back of a motorcycle jacket, or perhaps adorning a 1980s metal band album cover.
From a technical standpoint, some of those designs are pretty cool in the way that they bring together disparate elements, or in how those elements are repurposed or re-examined. Symbols are not immutable; indeed, they change as the culture in which they are found changes. A good example is how the color pink is now more associated with young girls than with young boys, in a reversal from just a century ago. And new symbols pop up into our culture all the time: think about the red octagon that we now associate with “Stop” or the circle with a diagonal line across it, which now denotes “Prohibited.” Those symbols didn’t exist as such a century ago.
But some symbols are inherently associated with certain groups, and here is where I think that some of us (well, okay, maybe just me) are feeling disconnected. Recently I ran across this cool representation of the well-known symbol of Freemasonry: the overlaid Square & Compasses:
Let’s ignore for the moment that the skull is used in Templar Masonry and in the Scottish Rite, but generally not in the Blue Lodge. The skull itself has a furrowed, intent looking brow, Terminator-red eye sockets, and a somewhat threatening visage. It’s not the symbol that inspires one to think about their mortality and place in the world, but rather, to convey a sense of danger, or perhaps challenge. And the sepia tones are a nice contrast to the metalized look of our working tools.
The part that really made me think about this trend was the S&C, itself. What is a Square? Essentially, it is an instrument with a calibrated 90º corner and straight edges that allow us to design, sketch, or true up corners to keep them from going out of alignment. This square, while presenting a nice looking bit of metalwork, almost looks like a machine part. What’s with those inside edges, anyway? How can you trace a design on a trestle board with that? Speaking symbolically, is this teaching us to be true and honest?
I’m not sure where to even begin with the compasses. If the square looks industrialized, the compasses have been weaponized. In real life, a set of compasses is to aid in measuring and drawing arcs and circles; the points of which will scribe a faint line in the material on which they are used. But what is this instrument supposed to do? Those scalpel edges aren’t even in the same axis as the legs – they would scrape the hell out of anything you tried to use it on. The tips are further enhanced with stylized barbs and hooks, which would be pretty inconvenient to use as a hand-held tool. And from a symbolic perspective, our own compasses are supposed to keep us “within due bounds” and to remind us of certain Masonic principles, such as Friendship, Morality, and Brotherly Love. To me, these compasses show the complete opposite of those tenets.
This is just one example, but there are many such depictions readily available on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media sites. I’m at a loss for an explanation, but I’ve been wondering if for a generation of men who may have spent more time playing indoors than outside, Freemasonry is how they are rediscovering their own sense of masculinity and what it means to be a Man (capitalized) in a society that has actively sought to eliminate any dangers, real or imagined. Playground recess has been cancelled or restricted in many schools, as has ball-playing and running or racing games. Playground equipment is now designed with the avoidance of possible lawsuits, which means anything more than the swings or slides is now off limits. Even pick-up games in the suburbs are a rarity, having been replaced by child-league sports, overly-supervised by adults. Television and movies often present an ambivalent take on adult men or masculinity, and studios are becoming more fearful of alienating potential viewers by presenting old-school male role models — unless it’s to point out that they are dinosaurs in our modern age.
Have these kinds of influences led the newer generations of young men into turning Freemasonry into not just a men’s society, but a masculinity rediscovery society?
One of the reasons that I look forward to going to the hospitality rooms the evening before Grand Lodge is that it’s like going to weddings and funerals: it’s a way to meet and reconnect with brothers that you haven’t seen in some time, and the atmosphere is favorable to some social lubricant (often of the Scotch variety) to help the conversations along — especially the kinds of conversations that you don’t normally get to have at, you know, actual lodge meetings.
Last year I was having such a conversation with one of my friends — coincidentally a brother that I met on a Usenet Freemasonry group — and we were talking about the different aspect of the Freemasonry. I was explaining that it seemed to me that we had a lot of different reasons for joining a lodge: social aspects, esoteric aspects, community, fund raising, ritual, etc. My friend, who shall remain nameless, said that in his considered opinion, he liked to break it down to three primary reasons (three being a “prime” Masonic number, after all) that he saw for joining our fraternity, and coinciding with our tenets: Friendship, Morality, and Brotherly Love. He opined that pretty much all of our brothers joined for at least one of those reasons.
He went on to explain that in his view, those brothers who are drawn by the chance to give back to the community, or the other charitable aspects of Freemasonry are in the “Relief” camp. They are motivated by the good that they can do for those who are less fortunate. In the old days (before my time), we were often known as “the quiet fraternity” because many of our members simply did generous and charitable things without alerting the media. Now we tend to make a bigger deal out of it, ostensibly for the purposes of “becoming better known the community,” but the essence is the same: charity is a virtue.
Some brothers are in it for the social aspects. On other online forums I’ve seen this kind of thing mocked, but I think that is because many of us really don’t understand that the early days of Freemasonry were not in stodgy, serious lodge rooms, but in convivial inns and taverns, surrounded by food, drink, and good friends. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy the company of one’s fellows. And I don’t think that anyone could possibly argue against making a visitor to one’s lodge feel friended and welcomed. Joining for Friendship is important, because many of those brothers, recognizing the need to maintain the organization, go on to other positions in the Craft.
And of course, there are those that join because of the connection that Freemasonry has developed with the esoteric. Whether it is the well known Square & Compasses, or the various symbols discussed in our workings, or the lesser known alchemical workings, there are those who see Freemasonry as a connection to the philosophers of the past and the wisdom of the future. Those are the brothers who joined for the morality; they are the truth seekers.
Naturally there are those who joined for one reason, but discovered others. And there are those who enjoy the different aspects, and who flit from one to the other, as their interest takes them.
Which camp do you prefer?
The Grand Lodge Annual Communication is coming up shortly — a little late this year, and hopefully not as contentious as the Semi-Annual session back in October. I expect to be attending the parties and gatherings the previous night, and I’m hoping that I can get enough time from work to attend to actual meeting the next day.
One of the items that has been overlooked in last year has been the quiet success of the first internet-only lodge in Connecticut, and quite possibly in the entire US. Similar to Castle Island Virtual Lodge, our new lodge has no physical presence, which means that it embodies one of the other connotations of the word “lodge:” not the building, but the membership.
While you might think that the lack of need for a building would make it pretty easy to set up an internet lodge, it has, in fact, taken well over a year of planning, researching, and developing by a small group of some of the more progressive members of our fraternity. One of the issues was finding a secure network platform that would allow more than two dozen visitors. While several of the Grand Lodge committees meet online, they usually do so via Google Hangouts, which is limited in the number of video connections.
The most difficult part of the process was not the website, but convincing other Freemasons that not only is an internet lodge more than just a novelty, but that it can be a good alternative to the conventional lodges. CIVL has long since proved that the security of such a lodge is viable, but there were several other issues that needed to be resolved. Not surprisingly, most of those were the non-technical issues.
By far, the most contentious issue was that of degree work. Lodge members, not being able to be in the same room together for degree work, recorded some of the best ritualists in the state performing all three degrees, plus the various lectures and charges. Those videos are stored on a secure server, with DVD copies. Candidates, after having paid their degree fees, will then receive a pass code to download each degree, or, if desired, to have a DVD delivered in Netflix style. They can then watch the degree ceremony, after which they will have the opportunity to prove themselves before going on to the next degree.
Those opposed to such an arrangement insist that video degrees will lack the personal touch that helps conventional lodge members to bond. Another point is that having a candidate simply sit through a screening would take away from the initiatory experience, and leave the candidate with little reason to return.
On the other hand, proponents of virtual degrees point out that the videos are much better quality than the work seen in most lodges, and that if a candidate has a large screen TV with a home theater setup, the experience might well be superior to the conventional way. Another point is that the One Day Classes have already removed the participatory nature of the degrees by presenting them as a spectacle; if one can become a Mason by watching others on a stage, then why can’t one become a Mason by watching others on a video screen?
Scottish Rite officials have declined to comment, but have been rumored to be watching the situation closely. Likewise, the Grand Lodges of several states have quietly contacted the officers of our new lodge with questions about scripting and producing similar videos for use at their One Day degree festivals.
Fortunately, the progressive minded thinking for which our Grand Lodge has been known prevailed. Connecticut has two research lodges, a European Concept lodge, and now, an internet lodge, which will (hopefully!) be announced at the upcoming Grand Lodge session.
For those interested in what our modern and forward-thinking brothers have been working on:
Network Lodge No. 502 AF&AM
Welcome to the Freemasonry of the Future!
My post on the Masonic version of the Abilene Paradox — which I named the Craftsmen’s Paradox, since I’m the guy writing about it — generated a not-unsurprising amount of feedback on Facebook, Reddit, and in various PMs and emails. I was surprised at first, but I’ve come to realize that (in conformance with the sociological aspects of this flavor of groupthink) the One Day Classes have been around for going on twenty years now, so the big conversations are long since over; we don’t realize that there is a new generation of Masons coming in this way, and the lodges have a new generation of officers who apparently aren’t questioning their own Grand Lodges.
While not every state still uses the ODCs, it’s interesting to see the justifications are almost always the same: it makes it easier for busy men, younger men with families, or men about to be deployed in the military service. Likewise, the handful of statistical surveys always present the same conclusion, i.e., that the men raised in the ODCs are retained or active in the Society at about the same rate as those who come in the conventional way.
So, there are a small class of candidates who would find this helpful, and they tend to be just as active (or alternately, tend to drop out with the same frequency) as the members coming in with the regular degree system. Yet, there are obviously quite a few men who are being dragged into the ODCs — quite possibly more than those for whom it would be desirable. This again raises the question: Are ODCs a solution in search of a problem?
Some of the responses were from Masons who have seen or acted in the ODCs, and their comments tended to be along the lines of “follow the money.” That is, while they or their lodge had an opportunity to showcase some fine work, they came away with the attitude that it was a way for Grand Lodges to fast-track the dues into the lodge and Grand Lodge accounts.
Interestingly, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts just had one last week. From their website:
[…] Lodges will be invoiced $100.00 per candidate registered. That will include the cost of meals for the candidate and mentor along with the candidate kit for the candidate. Anything lodges collect over and above that from their application fee they keep.
In the US, Masons do not become full members until they are raised as Master Masons; Entered Apprentices and Fellowcrafts typically do not pay dues (although they also are not allowed a vote in lodge business). In many states, there are always a percentage of candidates who, for reasons unknown, never progress past the first or second degree. Many of the responses gave the impression that Grand Lodges use the ODC to get those candidates “all the way in a day”, so they are compelled to pay dues for at least the first year.
And I’m not picking on the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, it’s just that they happened to have one this past weekend. Again, from their website:
Your support of this class will help “make a difference” to rebuild the membership of our fraternity.
Another theme I’ve seen is that we have so many lodges that simply can’t do the work because the current members are poorly practiced, don’t care enough to improve, or don’t have enough members to properly put on a series of degrees. This is a pretty sad state of affairs, and it ties into my thinking that maybe we need to let some of those lodges die, instead of committing time and resources to keeping them alive. My own opinion is that by supporting the ODCs, we aren’t rebuilding, we’re merely repairing by stuffing dues paying bodies in the lodges the way we might stuff caulk into the cracks of a drafty building. We build a stronger fraternity by giving our members something to be proud of, not by rushing them through the degrees.
But the worst indictments against keeping the ODCs came from the members, themselves, who had been brought in that way. Here’s a sampling of the comments and emails from those who went “from Mister to Master” over the last few years:
“I absolutely feel cheated and I’ve mentioned it on several occasions to the point where I was chewed out by a DD because how dare I question the GM.”
“[My lodge] didn’t want to have to do individual degrees. Either they didn’t have the numbers or they weren’t prepared. My lodge hadn’t done a MM in over a year and lots of guys forgot how to do it (as was evident during the degree).”
“I was a one day classer because I wasn’t given an option. I actually had time to do it the normal way and my lodge would do several degrees a month.”
“It is my experience as well, that not one Mason who took the 1 day option feels that his experience was equal or better than the traditional route.”
“I didn’t think about it until I saw a degree done the regular way at another lodge. It was really impressive to see how much work the lodge put into it.”
It’s pretty clear that once the ODC candidates discovers that there was another option, they felt cheated out of the experience. You are only initiated once, and lodges should take the opportunity to do it properly, or not at all.
A guy stopped by my work who happens to be a brother in a small, struggling lodge. For the last two years, this brother has been a Steward, and has gone out of his way to make sure that there is dinner & refreshment for every meeting. He started small, and his efforts were rewarded by guys who started coming back to lodge to have a meal and hang out with old friends. They charged half price for the meal, making up the difference with some lodge funds in order to get the word out. The lodge looked like it was climbing out of the membership hole.
But the new WM this year decided that he didn’t want to spend more lodge money on dinners, and didn’t want the hassle of dinners at every meeting. So his “will and pleasure” was that there would only be dinners for degree nights, brothers must make reservations ahead of time, and they would be charged the full price $10 to $15.
Within 2 months, attendance had dropped off.
Now, dinners are not Masonic instruction. They aren’t even spiritual instruction. But they are a reason for members to come down: the pre-meeting dinners are a time to renew old friendships, to catch up with what old friends are doing, and to make acquaintances with the new members of the lodge.
You have new members of your lodge, don’t you?
There’s a lesson here, someplace. We need to give both the old members and the new members a reason to come down. It’s certainly not to hear the minutes, or to complain about the latest Grand Lodge requirement, or even to listen to some bit of Masonic history that they could easily have gotten from The History Channel.
What reason does your lodge have that makes it worth your time to come down?