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The secret lesson of Hiram and the Ruffians

March 19, 2010 4 comments

One of the great things about the internet is how people with seemingly nothing in common can exchange ideas without ever actually meeting in person. Such is the case when I recently began exchanging emails with an amateur historian, an epidemiologist, and a professor of sociology. At first, it seemed that our only common bond was that we all share an interest in Freemasonry; however over time it developed that we all had some questions about our gentle Craft that have never been satisfactorily answered. As we began discussing the dilemma, we also found that we were able to integrate our various fields of knowledge in order to work through the problem. In doing so, we believe that we have managed to solve one of the most puzzling  issues in the early history of the fraternity.

We now have some serious evidence pointing to the origins of what is commonly known as The Hiramic Legend in the Master Mason degree.

Some brief background: Early Freemasonry had only two degrees, the Entered Apprentice, and Fellowcraft (i.e., Fellow of the Craft). This situation was extant before the 1717 formation of the Grand Lodge of England, and continued for some years afterward. Yet, sometime in the mid-1700s, records show that various lodges seemed to have begun performing some variation of this legend. The origins of the drama are unknown, but is often attributed to being some kind of morality play. The drawback of this theory is that the legend draws on the Biblical story of Hiram Abiff; in the Old Testament, Hiram is a relatively minor character. More confusing is the rather obvious paradox in which the Masonic legend deviates so drastically from the actual Old Testament story: in the OT, Hiram Abiff comes to help King Solomon build his famed Temple, and when finished, goes home to his family with some considerable payment. In the Masonic drama, however, Hiram is shown to be struck down before the completion of the Temple by three Fellowcrafts, who then attempt to hide his body in a makeshift grave out in the dessert. This is the most extreme departure from Biblical scripture recorded in any of the dozens of Masonic ceremonies, and it stands to reason that there is a purpose for this. By taking what we know about Masonic history from that era, and placing it within the context of the social and cultural aspects of the time,  we believe that we have discovered that purpose.

To understand the social context, we need to consider that the early 1700s was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; prior to this period, most people lived an agrarian-based lifestyle. However, as more factories were built in and around the cities, larger populations were drawn into the urban areas, and by the mid-1700s, larger numbers of people left the farming communities to see work in the factories. Not surprisingly, the population explosion led to issues of public hygiene: the spread of disease, the disposal of wastes, and the proper internment of the growing number of the deceased.

Although we can trace Freemasonry back to the late 1400s and early 1500s, it wasn’t until the early to mid 1700s that we see the rise of organized networks of Masons, via the formation of Grand Lodges. There are no records as to why several London lodges decided to formalize their arrangement, but it wasn’t long before other lodges joined the network — and it was a network, as the lodges we more able to freely exchange information, including the variations of their rituals and ceremonies. It is significant to note that during this period, There were still only the two degrees in Masonry;  “Master” Masons were those who were literally Masters of their lodges. Likewise, the degree ceremonies were relatively simple and the basic ceremonies were essentially the same in each lodge, although many lodges had their own particular set of “lectures” for the candidates.

At some point in the early to mid 1700s, we see records of lodges adding a type of morality play to the degree ceremonies. The main character varies in some of the earliest versions, but by the third quarter of the 1700s, that character was solidified as Hiram Abiff, and the stories became more consistent. Interestingly, they all contain similar elements: A character is beset by three assailants, and is then murdered; each assailant using a different weapon and attacking a different part of the character’s body. In many variations, the Hiramic legend specifies that Hiram is struck across the throat, in the chest, and in the head. The assailants (often referred to as the “Ruffians” in North America) strike with tools commonly associated with Masons: A square, a rule  (sometimes called the 24 inch gauge), and a mallet or setting maul.

While Masons often assume that the assailants use those particular tools as a way to tie in to the tradition working tools in the various degrees, as we unearthed more information about the underlying social context, it became obvious that this line of reasoning has it backwards; that is, the legend itself is an instructional play that uses these tools as a way to reinforce knowledge to which only a few were at one time privy.  And while we can not yet account for the reasoning behind using the character Hiram Abiff (except that he is a relatively minor character in the OT, and the change of storyline would be easily forgotten), we believe that the traditional lessons taught by this drama — about his integrity and bravery in the face of death — intentionally overshadow the real lessons that needed to be passed down to the new generations of Masons living in the crowded cities and urban areas. In this light, it is the Ruffians themselves who are the teachers and exemplars.

Read more…

There are two types of people…

June 11, 2008 Leave a comment

Watching an old movie the other day reminded me of a discussion I had a while back with someone who intimated that I did not take my duties – or Masonry, for that matter – seriously. Predictably, he went on to mention some of the things that he, himself would do if he were me; including, not unsurprisingly, making sure that people who didn’t abide by the rules would be “dealt with.”

It became apparent that my well-meaning brother was under the a mistaken assumption in which he was confusing the tools that I use in my duties (“levity” and “a relaxed approach”) with my underlying attitude and approach toward them. Obviously, this brother and I hold fundamentally different philosophies as to how the structure of our fraternity works: he seemed to think that just telling people what to do is sufficient, and considered what I do as a District Grand Lecturer something akin to a traveling minstrel show.

See, as the District Grand Lecturer, my duties as assigned are actually pretty light: I just have to administer a test to make sure that the incoming Master is prepared, ritual-wise. However, several lodges have asked me to help them polish their ritual proficiency and floorwork, and so I spend most of my time at rehearsals, giving tips, making suggestions, and (hopefully) inspiring new officers to be better by coaching them along. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how I was taught in my own lodge by some experienced Past Masters. In theory, I could simply read the book to them and say “Okay, that’s what you’re supposed to know. I’ll be back next week to grade you.” In practice, I tend to be light-hearted and jokey (where have I heard that before ?), simply because that was the kind of style that inspired me. I figure that if I’m going to join a half-dozen guys walking around a cold lodge room on a rainy evening, then I want to at least make it enjoyable for myself. If the other people get something out of it, then so much the better.

In the aforementioned discussion, I found myself rather surprised to hear the suggestion that lodge officers should be given the ritual book, and have it explained to them that the rules of our Grand Lodge say that they need to follow the instructions. Their testing, as it were, could then be done by some other officer, thereby obviating the need for District Lecturers. I was surprised because, indeed, this is exactly the case as it has been for the past fifty or more years. Connecticut has a published ritual monitor, and it’s relatively clear what the Master and officers should be doing. The problem is, some people haven’t been doing it. In fact, by my estimation, a hell of a lot of people haven’t been doing it properly for quite some years, and many lodges have had several generations of officers pass without seeing proper ritual work modeled for the younger officers, who would then model it for the officers after them.

This is where I come in. I see that there is a disconnect between what the officers should be doing and what they are doing. So, in my light-hearted and jokey way, I’ve been giving ritual coaching. While I agree that the officers should be doing things a certain way, I don’t believe that throwing a rule book at them will make them change their behavior. My counterpart believes that it doesn’t matter – they knew what the expectations were when they signed up; or at least, they should have done so, because they agreed to it.

So, which one of us is correct?

Actually, he is.

Unfortunately, being right doesn’t always fix the problem.

This is a common situation for people in organizations because of the nature of the various types of people who are in – indeed, who are needed – to run an organization.

Freemasonry, like every other organization, is comprised of people who take on various roles. Most organizations have people who have a command of every rule and regulation, down to the sub-articles and clauses. It needs to be stressed that these people are very important to the organization because without rules, you have no organization! During any discussion in which group members want to “hurry up and do something”, it’s easy to dismiss the comments of the rule-keeper when what the members are proposing run a little out of bounds. “Oh, you’re just being fussy” or “Rules were made to be broken” are typical responses to those who strive to keep order. In our rush to be post-modern action heroes, we often fail to think our actions through to the possible consequences. Organizations in which the members do not follow rules soon devolve into anarchy. Those who keep track of the rules help to keep the structure of the organization intact.

Large organizations typically also have members who understand that the underlying purpose of those rules is to have a better organization, one that is more effective, more enjoyable, or more satisfying to the members. They also understand, however, that sometimes the rules – or the imposition of new rules – have unintended consequences which affect the performance of the organization. To these people fall the unenviable task of trying to achieve long-term goals while working within the scope – if possible – of the existing structure. If they are successful, the rules are usually modified in order to accommodate the new strategies. Masons – indeed, members of any organization – need to realize that both types of people are essential to the health and longevity of the organization, and neither is more important than the other. As Entered Apprentices, we are taught the importance of a proper, true and square foundation to our temples. Those rules and regulations are the foundation of our organization, and it is essential that we understand their importance. Yet, we also understand that we are all human beings, and as such are all different in terms of abilities, skills, and talents with the tools at our disposal.

Friendly competition between the left-brain and right-brain people is necessary for the continued health of the Fraternity; indeed, this is the root of that “noble contention of who best can work and best agree;” but I think that many of us are prone to forget this when we get caught up in overseeing our own very small piece of work that we contribute.

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Picture: The Fairly Odd Parents

Information Overload

June 8, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve known my Canadian brother Justa Mason for a few years, and I’ve learned that you can always depend upon him to present a responsible opposing viewpoint to virtually any situation. Actually, what I’ve learned is that you simply can’t stop him from presenting an opposing viewpoint. On a recent post about our Past Masters MM Degree in which I described the dramatic additions to our Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend that some lodges have been known to perform, he asked a particularly pertinent question:

I understand; the MM degree is long, and Friendship Lodge adds another dramatic section to the Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend, which adds to the memory work. In our state, some lodges choose to add sections to the degree that give more background, which helps the candidates to better appreciate the lessons of the story. A number of them add the same section that we do, and one of my lodges, Frederick-Franklin 14, adds yet another section which serves to give even more insight into the character of Hiram Abiff.

Tom, I will opine here all this additional stuff does wonders for the member who can show off his memory skills.. and very little for the candidate.

What value is all this extra ritual if he can’t absorb any of it? His mind’s on overload to begin with. Shouldn’t stuff like this be done on a separate night where he can let it sink in?

What is the reason behind subjecting him to all kinds of optional ritual on a degree night?

That’s an excellent point. Most of us assume that if some ritual is good, then more is better, and lots more should be great.

Admittedly, I, myself, have pointed out that our candidates sometimes have a difficult time processing the information presented. I’ve even made light of it by writing, in a post about ritual:

The lectures and speeches are filled with symbolism and instruction, and those of us who have put the time into learning them know just how difficult it can be to deliver them with meaning.

All this just for the candidates?

You mean those new guys standing there in the front of the room with the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look? Those guys?

Yeah, those guys. Those guys can barely remember what to do with their hands and feet, and we’re expecting them to absorb some esoteric lesson, which has often been delivered by people who would have not been allowed speaking parts in the local amateur theater group. On the surface, it does sound like a waste of effort. Why go through the trouble to present such material – done well or not – if the candidates aren’t grasping the meaning?

RW Paul (the latest Nutmeg State Mason to start blogging) has another perspective, one which I’ve heard a number of times:

I am on the side that the extra lectures add value, of course I enjoy ritual and often perform some of the extra parts so my opinion is bias.

I have heard this argument in my district as well. But based on the comments by Grand Lodge that there is a lot lousy ritual being done, I think the lodges that still can perform these eleborate degrees should be proud.

I would much rather sit through extra long well performed degree than a short poorly performed degree.

Connecticut, like most US states, uses some variation of the Preston-Webb lectures in which there is a catechismal section (a Q&A section) and two other sections that elaborate on the symbols and allegories of the respective degrees. Each section can be ten to twenty minutes long, and in my experience generally seem to have been memorized by ol’ Brother Joe who retired to Florida a few years ago, so nobody does them anymore. I’ve seen these sections presented on non-degree nights a few times, but as degree nights typically get a larger turnout, it seems like the energy is better spent having them done when the largest number of people can potentially benefit.

Often, arguments – i.e., debatable points – are presented as a matter of extremes. Paul’s last sentence is an example of this, and Justa’s entire message does the same thing, albeit more subtly. I believe that there is a position between those extremes, however.

First of all, I firmly believe that lodges can deliver extra ritual that is good and well-performed. I know it’s true: I’ve seen it done. That said, one could argue that if they can do a good long degree, then they should be able to do a good short degree, too. Yup, I’ve seen that as well. But there are several advantages to a degree ceremony that pulls out all the stops, for both the candidates and for the other lodge members.

As to the candidates, I could point to the importance of total immersion in the initiative experience to create the most overwhelming feelings of awe which may inspire intense thoughts or associations on a deeper level. I suppose that I could also claim that – like the ‘shotgun’ approach – it’s important to throw as much as possible at the candidates in hopes that something will stick. Personally, I think that it’s rare for most lodges to get motivated enough to perform sections of a degree ceremony on off-nights, especially sections that require a certain amount of dramatic talent. It’s easier to present the material when all of the candidates happen to be in the room. Just the preparation for a degree ceremony tends to inspire the lodge members who are actually rehearsing the parts; I think that it would be difficult for some of them to “get psyched” enough to do inspiring work as a program after a regular stated communication.

But there’s something else that we miss: Yes, the candidates will miss some things with a longer degree. Hell, they’re going to miss things with a short degree. But later on they are going to be watching that same degree performed on someone else, and then they’ll have the opportunity to catch a few things that they’d missed.

And why do we assumed that the ritual ceremony is all for the new guys? What about the regular brothers? I’ve noticed that degree nights have a much larger turnout than regular business meetings. Wouldn’t it be nice if the older members had the opportunity to hear that rarely-done piece of ritual? Most of them might miss it if it were done as a “program” in a regular business meeting.

Let me repeat something that I wrote over a year ago in the post referenced above:

Our fraternity has some of the most morally instructive and spiritually inspiring ceremonies, all of which are delivered from memory at no small personal effort. When did we lose the motivation, the initiative to do it for ourselves?

I’m at the age where I attend almost as many funerals as I do weddings; but for each occasion I have lately discovered that during the ceremony I suddenly “hear” something new. Yes, I may have seen the ceremony and heard the same words a dozen times, but each time I hear something that I never noticed before. Why? Maybe a minister or rabbi delivers a line with more or less emphasis, or maybe because of where I am in my own life’s journey some passage that I’ve heard countless times before will strike me with a new insight. Who hasn’t been sitting at a wedding and suddenly turned to their partner upon hearing a line that reminds you of your love? Who hasn’t been to a funeral and been suddenly reminded of your own mortality? That is the purpose of ritual and ceremony – not only to instruct the new members, but to remind us - the old members – of our previous instruction.

Give this some thought: When did our ritual become less inspiring? When did our degrees become merely a pastime between dinner and desserts? When did you stop noticing something “new” in a lecture?

How many of us have substituted listening for hearing?

If the “extra” instruction is presented well – and not just once every several years – then it benefits everyone, new brothers and experienced members alike.

Turning the Keys with Dr. Robert Lomas

March 9, 2008 Leave a comment

Few modern Masonic authors can generate the kind interest that follows Dr. Robert Lomas. Beginning with “The Hiram Key” and followed up by another half dozen books on the history and symbolism of the Craft, Dr. Lomas has offered up some interesting – and controversial – theories and ideas about the evolution of symbology and the meaning of the symbolic language underlying Masonic rituals and ceremonies.

On Sunday, March 9th, he called us from his home in England and joined Bro. Heath Armbruster of Saskatchewan, Canada for the second The Working Tools podcast. Masonic Media Mogul Cory Sigler (of The Working Tools magazine and social networking site), Justin Budreau (Masonic web designer) and I had a fascinating two hour conversation with Dr. Lomas on topics ranging from the Kirkwall Scroll, to Masonic symbols, to the evolution of symbolism, to Sir Robert Moray, to the inconveniences of tele-presentations. Chris Hodapp joined us partway into the program, asking his usual insightful questions.

Bros. Lomas and Armbruster worked together to create an interesting DVD on the history of Masonic symbolism which they are selling in order to raise money for several Masonic charities. Dr. Lomas gave several lectures which were compiled into a presentation for The DVD, which is selling for $15 Canadian. Anyone interested can contact Bro. Heath at lomasdvd@kinghiram104.com for more details. If the 2 hours Dr. Lomas spent with us is any indication, it will be an excellent addition to any Masonic library.

We should point out that Dr. Lomas, himself, has just published a new book called Turning the Templar Key in which he discusses the meaning of the rituals and ceremonies of the Knights Templar and relates them to modern Freemasonry.

The Talkshoe format worked flawlessly, allowing five or six of us to talk to each other by telephone from various countries and time zones. We were joined by about a hundred real-time listeners, a dozen or so of whom registered in order to use the IM feature. Many of them had excellent comments and questions, some of which were addressed by Dr. Lomas himself.

You can listen to the show (Episode 2), or download the MP3 file for your iPod or other player at The Working Tools channel.

Rilly Big Shoe

March 2, 2008 Leave a comment

I never got around to mentioning that back in January, I did a podcast with Cory Sigler of The Working Tools magazine and Masonic social networking site. It was one of those ideas that just sort of took root and spiraled out of control grew into something unforseen.

Cory had wondered if I would like to be a guest, and then we’d spend a half hour or so dishing discussing topics that were appearing on other blogs. As the agreed-upon date crept nearer, I was concerned that I hadn’t heard from him. After a series of calls and emails, it turned out that instead of discussing other blogs, that we were going to interview the guys that wrote “Morals and Dogma for the 21st Century,” a revised version of Albert Pike’s classic that had been written in more modern English in order to make it more accessible to newer Masons. In the end, we were joined by Chris Hodapp, which was a good thing because he was the only one of us who had actually *ahem* read that book. We had a 7-way conversation that lasted 90 minutes.

You can still listen to it online, or download the mp3 on the Talkshoe site:
http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/11669

For those of you who are gluttons for punishment, we have managed to put together yet another episode for your listening pleasure. This time we are going to be speaking with author Dr. Robert Lomas – yes, that Lomas, of the Hiram Key series, Uriel’s Machine, The Second Messiah, etc.

We will also be joined by Bro. Heath Armbruster, who is involved with an amazing study on the Kirkwall Scroll, one of the oldest known Masonic artifacts; it is a scroll which appears to have been made in the 1400’s and is possibly a tracing board for several degree ceremonies.

The Talkshoe format is similar to a live radio broadcast. Listeners can hear this in “real time” as we record. Additionally, you can also register (it’s free, natch) and log in to the recording area, where you can IM questions and comments for us, and if we’re in a tight spot, we will probably even respond to them. The show format even allows us to talk calls from listeners.

The date for this next podcast is Sunday, March 9th at 3:00 pm Eastern time. Hope to see you have you join us!

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Lecture Circuit

January 23, 2008 Leave a comment

This District Grand Lecturer position is a totally sweet gig. All I’m actually required to do is make sure that the incoming Master of a lodge passes a ritual test, and at rare times, oversee a little written test on the Grand Lodge rules and regulations. In Connecticut, most lodges have their installations from December to January; human nature being what it is, this means that I would be at my most busiest toward the end of the Masonic year as I do the certifications during October and November. The rest of the year I am free to spend on loose cars and fast women, while basking in the fame and glory.

Well, I suppose I could if I really wanted to.

A while back I had a discussion with a brother who insisted that the District Lecturers were unnecessary, and that the simple requirements could easily be done by the District Deputies or their Associate Grand Marshals. And indeed, he’s quite correct; the position as it now stands does not require much work, and carries very little authority. I’ll be the first to admit that almost anyone could handle the minimum requirements. Hell, they asked me, didn’t they?

But why would anyone want only the minimum requirements?

Over the last year, several lodges have asked me to help them polish their ritual proficiency and floorwork, and so I spend most of my time at lodges reviewing degree work, and at rehearsals, giving tips, making suggestions, and (hopefully) inspiring new officers to be better by coaching them along. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how I was taught in my own lodge by experienced Past Masters.

Recently, the Master-elect at one of my lodges asked if I would be willing to help out at their degree rehearsals. As it turns out, all of the junior officers are new guys, and the Wardens are not Past Masters. You might think that this would have been a challenge, but in fact, I was thrilled to see that all of the officers put in a lot of work to learn their parts in such a short amount of time. It’s really a good feeling to be around men who take pride in their work and who want to make an impression on the candidates. We spent a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon going over floorwork, coordinating the parts, and rehearsing lines. As it turns out, this was also helpful brush-up for the new Master who hadn’t done an EA degree in 28 years.

The result was a very fine degree two nights later, and a group of very proud officers. They’re so pumped that they’ve scheduled another EA degree for mid-February. Considering that this lodge had been having some difficulties over the past few years, it’s heartening to see that things are turning around for them.

That lodge joins my affiliate lodge in the ranks of those who are making concerted efforts to improve the quality of their ritual and degree work by setting higher expectations for the officers, scheduling one or more rehearsals for each degree, and having back-up plans in case of last-minute emergencies.

Each lodge is responsible for their own degree work. Unfortunately, many junior officers have not seen good degree work modeled for them, and so aren’t able to pass on those good habits when they become senior officers. Connecticut typically runs one ritual seminar per year… at least, they used to. We stopped even that for a few years when the District Grand Lecturer system was put into place, in essence taking away the one opportunity that many officers had to learn. Last year, the Lecturers got together with the Committee on Masonic Education to put on the first ritual seminar in four years – and it attracted over a hundred Masons from around the state, plus another few dozen purple aprons. The feedback was so positive that we’ve scheduled another one, to be held in February.

I think that’s great.

I also think that it’s not enough.

And this bring me back to the point about the necessity of the District Lecturers. Some of us have held “mini-seminars,” inviting the officers around the district to an evening of instruction, held at a particular lodge. I’ve been working with one lodge at a time at rehearsals, believing that it’s better to work with officers in smaller groups. Either way, we all believe that it’s important to address the ritual issues, and having one or two officers in each district dedicated to Masonic education and instruction seems like a better approach than waiting until an officer is ready to be elected to the East.

Many jurisdictions have appointed officers to oversee ritual instruction, but how they handle it varies widely. Some have an appointed person in each lodge, so that there is always one authority on what to do (or not) at every rehearsal. I like that idea because it prevents the multiple cross-feedback loops that new officers get when two or more Past Masters have varying ideas of how things should be done, and spend half the rehearsal arguing over why their way is better or how they never did something that way before.

Anyway, they asked me if I’d be interested in doing this gig again next year.  Of course, I agreed; It’s just too sweet to pass up.

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Three Stooges Bloggers

November 4, 2007 Leave a comment

3 Mastooges

Appearances to the contrary, the handsome young men in the photo are not up for the parts of Curly, Moe and Larry. No, that’s me in the center, flanked by two of the four five Connecticut Masons who are guilty of blogging. Movable Jewel currently serves with me on the Committee for Masonic Education, and North Eastern Corner came to the recent officer’s seminar held at Ashlar Village, the Masonicare facility in Wallingford.

I’ve discovered that I have more online friends than local friends, so it’s always rare but interesting to run into someone that I “know,” but have never met in person. As it happens, though, I have met all of the Connecticut bloggers. Masonic Renaissance is a fellow District Grand Lecturer, and the mono-nymed Radcliffe of Metaphysical Freemason – the latest person to admit “If Tom can have a blog, then anyone can” – is actually a member of my lodge.

Is Connecticut big enough for five people to blog about Masonry? Hartford Advocate writer Adam Bulger wondered about the proliferation of Masons who blog in his recent article.

“I said it seemed odd that Freemasons, an order noted for its secrecy, would have so many members writing blogs, which are often like online confessionals.”

What didn’t make the article was that a lot of Masons are proud of their membership, and enjoy talking about it. Unlike the old days when you might never know that a relative had been a member of the Craft until after he died and you were sorting through his things, many Masons today are interested in exploring their journeys, and in discussing how similar and yet different their experiences are.

Of course, some of us (*ahem*) are just attention hounds.

The seminar itself is a half-day session in which Junior and Senior Wardens are given an overview of the things that they’ll need to know for when they assume the Oriental Chair. The seminars are a little different every year, but we cover a little bit about planning and organizing, team building, Masonic jurisprudence, rules and regulations, how to run meetings, etc. We also have a similar seminar for those who expect to be elected as Master in the coming year. We stress planning and team-building because most of us can’t think of anything worse than having the new Master take the gavel and then say “Uh, okay. Now what?” Similarly, if a Master has a plan for his year, he needs to understand how to delegate tasks, and how to follow up on them so he’s not caught short at the last minute. I was very pleased to find that all of the attendees that I talked to found the seminar enlightening and informative.

A nice post about the Warden’s Seminar can be found on Movable Jewel’s blog.

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