To whence go I?
September is when lodges in Connecticut come back from their summer break, and frequently have candidates from late spring to be initiated. It’s common to see the busier lodges schedule a set of degrees in the spring and then another in the fall. As we approach the end of the month, most of the lodges in the 5th District have now had a fall EA degree. Over the last week, I’ve attended four of them, and participated in three in some capacity. One of the occupational hazards of being a District officer – indeed, of being any kind of officer who’s name and phone number can be remembered or easily looked up – is being asked, generally on short notice, to take a small part in a degree when a regular member is suddenly indisposed. My not passing up an opportunity to
show off help out means that I often get asked to do some small part. In fact, when I became the District Grand Lecturer, I made a point of brushing up on some of those parts that are often the cause of frantic last minute phone calls by overworked Masters; I have all three Charges on my Palm so I can refresh my memory on short notice, in addition to my favorite piece of ritual, the Letter G lecture.
Good thing, too, because as I was attending one EA on Monday, I got a call from the ritual team captain of another lodge asking if I could do the EA charge on the next night. Having just rehearsed it at two lodges the previous week, I was naturally agreeable for another chance to
display my enormous ego help one of the lodges in my district.
I well understand that many lodges do things differently from each other, but I’m often surprised at the large differences between lodges that are barely ten miles from each other. In Friendship Lodge, the chaplain offers up prayers from his place in the East, next to the Master. Several other lodges, however, escort the chaplain to the altar – a nice touch. Some have the Senior Deacon carry the American Flag to a position in the lodge prior to the brethren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, others leave the flag in the stand. In the opening and closing ceremony, in some lodges the Junior and Senior Wardens acknowledge being addressed by the WM or another officer, others simply skip any acknowledgment and get right on with the words in the book.
Oh, and speaking of the words in the book…
Connecticut has a printed ritual monitor. For the last ten years or so, new officers who were given a copy of the ritual monitor turned to the front of the book and started learning the ritual. First, right at the very front, are a couple of pages on going to refreshment and coming back to labor. Then comes the (shortened) EA opening and ceremony, followed by the rest of the degree. Then comes the (also shortened) FC opening ceremony, followed by the rest of the degree, including the (also shortened) Middle Chamber lecture (sometimes known elsewhere as the “Staircase” lecture). Then comes the (yes, shortened) MM opening, followed by the rest of the degree. Then comes a section on decoding the few portions in mnemonics, and finally, all the way at the very end comes the correct, full-form opening ceremonies. In the section known, for what it’s worth, as the “Appendix.”
Yes, I typed that correctly. The official opening ceremonies are in the very back of the book.
At one time I understand that the book was in code (“mnemonics” they called it), then it went to English with only certain parts in code. At some point – obviously before I came along to explain things to them – the Grand Lodge authorized an edition that had, for reasons still unclear to me, a shortened version of our opening ritual right at the front of the book. The shortened version (so they explained to me) was to be used as a courtesy for when non-Masonic guests were waiting without, perhaps to come in to address the lodge as part of some evening program. Since a properly done opening ceremony takes less than ten minutes – five minutes if your officers are young and spry (and yes, I’ve timed it) – I fail to see what shaving three minutes off of that time actually accomplished… that is, what it was supposed to accomplish.
I can, however, tell you what the Jurassic Park-like unintended consequences have been.
For the last ten years, new officers have been reading the front of the book and learning the shortened opening ceremonies. As they became older, more experienced officers, they modeled those ceremonies for the next crop of new officers, and so on, until after several years, most lodges “forgot” how to do full form openings – unless there happened to be a Past Master who, for once, would have been correct in stating “That’s not the way we used to do it in my year.”
Even worse, since the closing ceremonies mirror the opening, some (by which I mean “most”) lodges that substituted short openings soon mutated the short opening into a short closing. And since the “labor and refreshment” sections draw on the opening, is it any surprise that some (that is, “most” in my experience) lodges now have mutated that section, as well?
In my opinion we’ve had too many years of not modeling the best ritual that we can do, and I think that this has been damaging to not merely the officers, but also to the candidates. What must a new candidate think after he goes through the interview process, hears the stories from the older members, and reads the list of the famous Masons that we love to trot out to impress the new guys, only to walk around a chilly room, blindfolded and half naked, and hearing sniggers, a multitude of prompts, “Ooops, sorry, heh heh” and other whispered asides? Personally, I imagine that I’d feel cheated out of a potentially great and moving experience if my first introduction to Masonry was conducted by a group of brothers who didn’t seem to take the ceremonies seriously enough to rehearse them beforehand. What, after months of anticipation, could possibly induce me to come back?
To reiterate, the short form was supposed to be used only to expedite the opening of a lodge in order to get right to important business. In my district there are eight lodges, and I know that several use the shortened forms regularly – including on degree nights. I’ve also seen a few of those use the (incorrect) mutated shortened closing ritual. One of them just got out of that habit a couple of years ago, and in the last year has gone to full form for all meetings, and once they got into the habit, nobody complained that it “took too long” to open lodge.
I’m not blaming this all on the book, however. A few years ago the Grand Lodge made a few corrections and reprinted the book, but it’s essentially the same as the previous one. Rumor has it that plans are underway for a complete overhaul, but even if it came out next week, it will take several years to undo the
damage bad habits that have been learned from watching the bad habits of the previous generation of officers. Why? Because simply giving somebody a book to read does not make them proficient in ritual. Good Masonic ritual is learned by reading and understanding the words and phrases, coupled with seeing it properly modeled by those who are proficient – that is, comfortable utilizing gestures and inflection, and in using the antique turns of phrase. The words and directions are already in our ritual monitors; brothers who are interested enough to read the thing – even to casually skip around – can certainly figure it out. The question that we need to ask ourselves is why they don’t do it more often.