Guarding the West Gate
“[…] For that matter, if you just read the retraits…””The what?”
“The statutes of the order, drawn up rather late, after the order had put on its robe and slippers, so to speak. There’s nothing worse than an army when the war is over. At one point, for instance, brawling is forbidden, it’s forbidden to wound a Christian for revenge, forbidden to have commerce with women, forbidden to slander a brother. A Templar could not allow a slave to escape, lose his temper and threaten to defect to the Saracens, let a horse wander off, give away any animal except a dog or cat, be absent without leave, break the master’s seal, go out of the barracks at night, lend the order’s money without authorization, or throw his habit on the ground in anger.”
“From prohibitions you can tell what people normally do.” Belbo said. “It’s a way of drawing a picture of daily life.”
Umberto Eco, “Foucault’s Pendulum”
I’ve been reading a lot about how we, Freemasons, have not been adequately “guarding the West Gate” lately; the expression we use for being more careful about who we allow to join the fraternity. These complaints reach a crescendo whenever there is a high-profile gaffe (the hullabaloo over Michael Richard’s recent failure to deal with hecklers at a comedy club comes to mind), but there are always a few brothers around to decry the decline of the Craft every time something odd or embarrassing makes the news. Several Masonic bloggers have been making light of some of the more recent examples in much the way that cultural pundits throw the spotlight on the antics of, say, Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole or Danny Bonaduce. The Scottish Rite’s misadventures with NASCAR, the financial woes of the Shrine, the “one-day classes” held in various US states, even the recent so-called publicity campaigns by some Grand Lodges in the US have all elicited the complaint from some quarters of the Craft that the fraternity is no longer what it once was, that these are all symptoms of the push for quantity, rather than the quality of members.
The concern that I’ve been hearing a lot recently is that we, as a fraternity, are failing to guard the West Gate. The implication seems to be that we, as a fraternity, are no longer attracting “the greatest and best of men” and are instead happy to settle for those who think little of our historic and fraternal culture, that we are on a mad rush toward mediocrity.
Sociologists say that one can learn about the customs of a society by observing their proscriptions and taboos. Umberto Eco has a humorous take on this subject in his 1988 book “Foucault’s Pendulum” in which the narrator and his friends muse on the unusual rules of the Knights Templar and imagine a situation in which one might break all of them. There is no question that Freemasonry has, over the centuries, attracted some of the greatest men of our culture. However, let us not forget that Freemasonry is a fraternity comprised of thousands of lodges scattered throughout the various communities of the world; it is unreasonable to expect that all of our members have been – or should be – Benjamin Franklins or Winston Churchills. Indeed, the backbone of our fraternity has been those who have put effort into making themselves better men, and who will never receive accolades from historians: perhaps your grandfather or uncle, or your neighbor, your math teacher, a favorite minister.
I don’t have any numbers to back up my statement, but I have a very strong suspicion – an educated guess – that whatever the Good to Bad citizen ratio might be in the general public, that the ratio is considerably better within the membership of the fraternity. Yet, because any lodge will always draw upon the members of the community in which it is located, it is also not unexpected that once in a while – a very great while – we will see a Michael Richards meltdown, or (going back in time) a Benedict Arnold. And I would also like to believe that our brethren of generations past were well aware of this, too; after all, why else would they have come up with the prohibitions and penalties of the obligations that we take?
Certainly men of honor would not need any more than a mere request to keep the secrets of the Fraternity. (“Elias, we’re going to allow you to join our society, but we ask that you remember not to discuss anything that goes on here, nor write it down for others. Will you promise not to do so?”) The various non-Masonic committees on which I serve do not make me take an oath to not talk about committee matters. I’m sure that most people do not sign a non-disclosure agreement after each conversation with a boss or co-worker. That is because we expect that most people will be honest, fair, and considerate in their dealings with us.
Most of them, anyway. See, we also expect that some people will not. So, too, must have our ancestors, who explained to our Entered Apprentices that: “[…] human nature is weak, and life is full of mysteries.” The implication, of course, is that as much as we would like to think otherwise, Freemasons are men, and will always have the vices and temptations to which mankind is heir.
Think about all of the “thou shalt nots” in your Masonic obligations; those of us who have had to memorize those obligations could easily compare them to something out of Leviticus in the Old Testament. The new Entered Apprentice is admonished about secrecy. The Fellowcraft is told to obey all of the rules, and not to “cheat, wrong or defraud” his brothers. And who hasn’t boggled at the numerous prohibitions and injunctions of a Master Mason? Reminded yet again not to “cheat, wrong, nor defraud” his brothers, he is also told to make sure that he keeps the affairs of his brothers private, to help them whenever he can, and – astoundingly – to respect the intimate relationships of his brother’s family. Yes, Masonic historians have all sorts of interesting theories as to the origination of these obligations (including trying to link these to the Knights Templars, which is why I included the above paragraph from Umberto Eco); but has anyone ever asked why good, honest men would even need such reproachment?
A glance at any history book shows that just as great men lived in all eras, so did scalawags and scoundrels; in fact, many great men were scalawags. The Craft is no more in danger from within than it was 200 years ago, because we are not attracting people who are any different than those of 200 years ago. No, the admonishments of our obligations are there precisely because the early founders knew that the West Gate would never be perfectly guarded, that some men would be overcome by their passions, and that human nature will sometimes overshadow the moral virtues that we try to emulate.
Our task, then, remains the same as it was for generations past: to concentrate on smoothing our own ashlars.