Archive for the ‘ritual’ Category

Ancient or Modern?

January 22, 2014 3 comments

Freemasonry Today, the publication of the UGLE, has a short article from Bro. John Hamill, Director of Special Projects,  in which he asks the question “Is it time to modernize the rituals?” It’s a great topic, and one that has initiated some bickering discussion in some of the online Masonic communities, with the general consensus that this question should be answered with a resounding “Hell no!”

One might think that being a Past District Lecturer that I’d be completely against this; but I’ve given this some thought, and I think that one could make a case that modernizing the ritual might not be such a bad idea. As Bro. Hamill points out:

The English language is said to be one of the most difficult to learn, in both its written and spoken forms. Part of that difficulty is the wonderfully idiosyncratic illogicality of how we pronounce many of our words, which often has little bearing on the actual letters they contain. Another problem is that a simple word can have different meanings, or shades of meaning, depending on its context, or even where in the country it is spoken.

Our familiarity with words and phrases affects how we use them. Over time, the words develop different meanings or connotations. For example, our current Masonic usage of the word “clandestine” now means something slightly different than it did 150 years ago.  Similarly, some words fall out of favor, some are preferred for written discourse, but are rarely used in spoken conversation. For example; “inculcate.” I suspect that nobody uses this in speech because it’s just a jumble of misplaced consonants.

Bro. Hamill also writes (and many others have pointed out):

English is a living language in which the meaning of words changes over time…

If our language is “living,” does this mean that some of our words and phrases can be taken out to the back field and buried when they are dead?

I bring this up because of practical reasons. As a visitor to many lodges, both in and out of my district, I watched as officers strained to deliver their various lectures and charges. You could see their brows furrowed, perspiration on their foreheads, and the tension just radiating from their body movements as they struggled to recite passages in a dialect that was strange and unfamiliar. Their lack of familiarity with the archaic expressions, I contend, is what gave many — perhaps most — of my brothers such a difficult time. Imagine someone from, say, the US trying to memorize a passage of French or Spanish, with little working knowledge of the language. Yes, you’d recognize some words, and perhaps some would sound vaguely familiar, but how well could you actually deliver the lines — especially knowing that some of the people in the room were listening for each little mistake? I think that the typical 30 to 40 year old Mason probably hasn’t read much 1700s Brit-Lit, at least, not since high school, so the lack of familiarity with the terms and usage turns a few paragraphs of a lecture into something akin to a foreign language.

Yes, I know that part of the appeal of Freemasonry is the rich history, but I sometimes think that those of us who decry the modernization of the ritual — or of any other aspect — is really saying that he made the effort, so now he expects everyone else to do the same. This position can be declared elitist, or possibly libertarian, but to some degree, it’s simply wrong. For example, I don’t hear very many of my brothers asking to bring back the even more ancient usages, such as:

Articulus octavus.

The eghte artycul schewt zow so,
That the mayster may hyt wel do,
Zef that he have any mon of crafte,
And be not also perfyt as he auzte,
He may hym change sone anon,
And take for hym a perfytur mon.
Suche a mon, throze rechelaschepe,
Myzth do the craft schert worschepe.


You recognize that, don’t you? Of course you do;  it’s the 8th Article of Freemasonry from the Regius Manuscript. What, are you having a hard time with the 14th century script? Here, let’s modernize the text make it easier to read:

Eighth article.

The eighth article sheweth you so,
That the master may it well do.
If that he have any man of craft,
And he be not so perfect as he ought,
He may him change soon anon,
And take for him a more perfect man.
Such a man through rechalaschepe, (recklessness)
Might do the craft scant worship.

So much easier to understand, don’t you think? Personally, while I find it interesting from a historical aspect, I suspect that if you went back to the late 1700s, we wouldn’t find a lot of Freemasons bemoaning the dearth of 15th century style lectures.

As a counter-point, I also suspect that if you sat down with a bunch of your brothers after lodge, most of you could act out and recite entire sections of favorite movies or TV shows. Most of the brothers around my own age could probably quote passages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail that are at least equal in length and difficulty as any of our lectures, and I know for a fact that quite a few of the younger brothers at my lodge can quote and act out scene after scene from most of the Star Wars movies. What’s the difference between Monty Python and the Middle Chamber? You might argue that it’s the repetition, but I’d say that part of it is the familiarity with the language.  Yes, there’s the repetition, but think about this: Most lodges meet twice a month. A Mason who attends most meetings is going to see and hear the opening ceremony at least 20 times in a year. By the time he’s a senior officer, he could have well seen 80 to 100 opening and closing ceremonies.That is a lot of repetition, certainly much more than one would experience with most movies or TV episodes. And yet, how many times have you  seen a Master of a lodge who could barely stumble through a proper opening and closing?

In answer to his own question,  Bro. Hamill concludes his essay by saying:

Occasionally, we hear calls to modernise those ceremonies, to take out old words and phrases and replace them with modern, instantly comprehensible ones. I hope those calls are never answered. Our ceremonies contain some wonderful set pieces of English language that would be destroyed if we modernised them. Freemasonry is a learning process, and if we have to resort to a dictionary to fully comprehend what we learn, that can only enrich us.

Personally, I enjoy the works as they are. Although not a history buff, I appreciate the connection to the older days of Freemasonry, and I quite like the challenge of tackling some of the unfamiliar phrasing in order to present it as I imagine a brother of 1814 would have done.  But if “modernizing” the ritual means that more members would be able to memorize it — and more importantly, to deliver it well to the newer members — then maybe this is an idea worth examining a little more closely, before we toss it into the “we’ve never done it like that” discard bin.

Shake ‘n’ Bake

March 24, 2012 Leave a comment

A Worshipful Master noticed there was a newly proficient Master Mason who came to diligently practice the ritual every time the lodge was open. So the WM went to question him: “Dear brother, what are your intentions in practicing the ritual? What do you want?”

The MM said: “More light!”

The WM then picked up a tile and began to rub it very vigorously. Of course, the MM noticed this and asked: “What are you doing?”

The WM said: “I’m polishing it to make it into a mirror.”

The MM asked: “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?”

The WM said: “You’re absolutely right, polishing a tile will not make it a mirror. How can practicing the ritual give you more light?”

The MM scratched his head: “Then what am I supposed to do?”

The WM replied: “It’s like an ass pulling a cart. If the cart does not go, should you hit the cart or should you hit the ass?”

The MM had no reply.

The WM continued: “Do you think you are practicing ritual or do you think you are practicing Masonry? If you are practicing ritual, ritual is not degrees, or opening and closing the lodge. If you are practicing Masonry, it is not a fixed form. In the midst of everything that is changing you should neither hold on nor push away. If you keep ritual in the lodge, this is dowsing the light. If you cling to the forms of Masonry, this is not attaining its essence.”

From Zen Masonry

Most lodges probably have a “move up” night, during which the officers will move up and perform the duties of the next station, usually as a way to help the newer officers prepare for the duties that they will most likely have during the next year. Once in a while, Friendship Lodge has a twist on that idea. We sometimes have a “Sideliner Night”, during which we randomly have the regular members draw a position out of a hat and fill it for the evening. We also have a “Shake-up Night”, in which the officers are randomly reassigned to different stations. It’s not really a big deal for the Senior Warden to fill in at the Junior Deacon’s chair, but it’s much more interesting when the newer, junior officers are suddenly promoted into the senior chairs. The other night, the Senior Deacon ended up in the East, and our “Associate Steward” ended up in the West, and our Junior Deacon ended up in the South.

Anyone who has watched experienced officers barely get through an opening ceremony can imagine the smiles (and groans) of the Past Masters watching such a display, but the Friendship officers usually practice several times for any degree ceremony, and so each officer certainly has seen an opening quite a few times during his membership. I happened to be sitting next to our Past District Deputy, and we joked that we’d seen worse at lodges on their regular nights.

Well, okay, maybe I wasn’t joking.

But here’s the interesting part. I was sitting there, watching the displaced officers trying to brazen their way through an Entered Apprentice opening, when I found myself ignoring what they were actually saying, and listening to what they were trying to say. Yes, most of them missed some of  the words, or substituted similar words, or switched phrases around — but that was just on the surface. When you listened closely, the words were wrong, but the ritual itself was right.

Masonic ritual is not simply a ceremony denoting the opening and closing of a lodge. Nor is it (as it seems to be practiced in some lodges) a memory competition designed to show who would make the better officer.  Our rituals, and the lectures during our degree work, are not empty passages, but lessons. Indeed, when the Worshipful Master is charged with giving instruction to the Craft, most people aren’t even aware that the ritual itself, is part of that instruction.

I have seen lodges in which Past Masters critiqued new officers, admonishing them for missing a word in an otherwise well-delivered piece. If that makes that officer concentrate upon the words, will he then begin to miss the underlying meaning, or maybe to miss the overall lesson of that particular piece? Personally, I think so. I’ve seen some officers literally close their eyes and stand , trembling with effort, to deliver a rushed, albeit word-perfect memorized lecture. I’ve seen more than one charge delivered at high rates of speed by men intent upon getting all of the words out lest they forget something and freeze up.

What is the lesson here? What values and precepts are being taught — or learned?


On another note, I’m happy to say that this week marks our Grand Lodge Annual Communication. I’m particularly happy about this one because it has been an excellent year for the outgoing Grand Master, MWGM Jim McWain. Bro. McWain has been a particularly good example of a Grand Master who has been able to blend vision with practicality. We wish him well in the future.

And adding to that, Friendship Lodge will see one of it’s own entering the Grand Oriental Chair: RWB Gary Arseneau will be installed on Monday afternoon. Gary has shown himself to be a dedicated and resourceful Grand Lodge officer for the last ten years, and we’re all looking forward to another excellent year. We understand that we probably won’t get to see as much of him in lodge as we would like, but the members of Friendship wish him well, and hope he gets a chance to visit, with or without his purple apron.

The Font of All Wisdom

January 16, 2011 1 comment

We Masons love the idea of learning our ritual and ceremonies in a word-perfect fashion. Well, Past Masters love that idea, especially if it means that some newbie officer should be doing the learning while the Past Master does the  complaining coaching from the sidelines. 

Some jurisdictions in the US have a “mouth to ear” tradition, in which the ritual is taught by a proven instructor to one person, or a small group. Other states have printed copies of the rituals and ceremonies that are passed out to (or sometimes, purchased by)  a member. Some states have such monitors written in plain English, while others might use a shorthand or some other kind of code in order to disguise the words – as if you couldn’t already get them from some website, or purchased in book form.

Connecticut is one of those states that has a ritual monitor in plain English; that is, if you can call the sometimes tortured grammatical constructions and archaic words and phrases “plain.” They have had this plain English version for at least ten years before I became a Masons, which was almost another ten years ago. The English version grew out of an older version that used two books: one being encoded (really, just using abbreviations), and the other a key; that version had been used for quite some time.

Recently, some people have been suggesting that we might want to go back to using the abbreviated word code. I have found that the people suggesting this are either old-timers who learned that way in the first place, or young, new guys who are geeky about Masonry. The old-timers claim that people will learn ritual better, since they will have to work harder, and the young-timers are usually the kind of geeks who would, given the opportunity, have been taking a Klingon class.

I used to pooh-pooh the idea because I learned ritual using the plain English books, and I think I have done rather well, at least, if you don’t count the fact that I often find myself substituting some of the archaic words with synonyms that roll more readily off the tongue. But the way that I learn these passages isn’t necessarily the best way for everybody, so I concede that the coded books might have some merit.

That’s why I found it interesting to see an article on Lifehacker this past week, which revisited a study in which  schoolchildren were given copies of material to learn; some were given good copies, while others were given copies in hard-to-read fonts. Researchers discovered that the children who had to work harder to read the material had the best retention.

From the BBC News Article:

Researchers found that, on average, those given the harder-to-read fonts actually recalled 14% more.

They believe that presenting information in a way that is hard to digest means a person has to concentrate more, and this leads to “deeper processing” and then “better retrieval” afterwards.

It is an example of the positive effects of what scientists call “disfluency”.

“Disfluency is just a subjective feeling of difficulty associated with any mental task,” explained psychology Prof Daniel Oppenheimer, one of the co-authors of the study.

“So if something is hard to see or hear, it feels disfluent… We’d found that disfluency led people to think harder about things.


Students given the harder-to-read materials scored higher in their classroom assessments than those in the control group. This was the case across a range of subjects – from English, to Physics to History.

The lead author of the study Connor Diemand-Yauman told the BBC that psychology is revealing all sorts of “counter-intuitive” results in the field of education.

“Everyday psychologists are showing that seemingly insignificant factors can have big effects on how we process and retain information.”


It’s an interesting idea, and while I’ll concede that there may be some benefit to the idea that learning ritual in code is inherently better, I think that there are too many variables for this to be definitive.  Again, from the article:

“What really matters most when reading is mindfulness… it’s not printing things badly that’s needed, but more thoughtful reading”.


“Obviously, if you can’t read it at all, you can’t learn it. At some point you may get so annoyed that you give up without trying! Different people probably have different thresholds.

And in my opinion, that is what holds so many members back; they simply get annoyed at trying to read something that they just don’t understand. Will presenting it in code make the archaic usages any more attractive?


April 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The Grand Lodge Annual Communication was Monday of this week. In Connecticut, they generally follow a pattern: a disjointed opening (because we all know that Grand Lodge officers can’t do ritual), three hours of introductions, another hour of Masonicare presentations, and then an hour break for lunch (after which there seem to be a lot of empty seats). After lunch, we have a few items of business, some remarks from the outgoing Grand Master, a few rounds of applause, and then a disjointed closing. Although I complain about them all the time, I generally try to make time to participate. Connecticut is a fairly small state, so it’s not that much of an inconvenience, unlike some other states which require an 8 hour drive. However, as it happens, several people at work are out this week, so I probably won’t get out of the office early enough to make the session, or even the installation of the new officers later on.

Not that anybody will miss me, of course, seeing that after today, I will have been stripped of my position as the District Grand Lecturer.





No, it wasn’t because of my latest April Fool’s prank. It’s simply that they have decided to eliminate the position entirely.

I’m still so not the drama, remember ?

My travels over the last three years have given me a few things to think about with regard to the ritual and ceremonies of the lodges in and around my district.

After the District Lecturer position was created, there were still issues as to what the officers should do and how they should do it. Initially, it was expected that they would help the lodges to improve in their ritual skills, but there were never any definite plans as to how they were supposed to go about doing so. Not surprisingly, some Lecturers did little, for fear of over-stepping some boundary. Others tried things such as helping at rehearsals, or having Q&A sessions on lodge nights, or sponsoring practice sessions. However, without any authority to compel the officers of under-performing lodges to participate, you can imagine that the people most often seen at the practice sessions were those who needed the least amount of help. And again, not surprisingly, some people complained that ritual wasn’t getting any better.

There’s an old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer is none; the lightbulb has to want to change.

Back in 2005, Connecticut tried to implement some small steps to improve the ritual work. They required that all incoming Masters for 2006 be certified in the ability to open and close a lodge. I was in that first class of Masters, and it was witnessed by the District Lecturer, two District Deputies, and their Associate Grand Marshals. A few years later, the certification job was given to the District Lecturers. I’ve complained a few times that often Senior Wardens would wait until the very end of the year before calling me, meaning that October and November would see me visiting several lodges a week.

It didn’t really help, though.

One of the the point that everybody missed is that some lodges have a very strong internal culture that values good ritual work. Those lodges pass these expectations on to new members in various ways; perhaps by showcasing certain good ritual performers, or by asking new officers to start memorizing lectures as soon as possible, or by holding not just one, but a number of rehearsals for degree work. What usually happens in those cases is that new officers will take up the challenge — especially if they are praised for their good work, instead of being carped at for missing a word or two. Yes, some old-timers have told me that they developed good ritual skills because the old-timers before them were harsh task-masters, but times have changed. Nobody wants to be humiliated into not doing a bad job, they prefer to be coaxed into doing a god job.

What I have noticed is that the men from these lodges have consistently better degrees because they enjoy doing it. And they enjoy doing it because they know that their brothers have encouraged them along. More interesting is that even those who consider themselves to be “poor” performers (compared to their peers) are often much better than the average performers at other lodges.

Lodges like that do not need District Lecturers, except, perhaps, to address some of the finer points of ritual and floor work.

Another point that was missed is that the lodges that really need the most improvement tend to be full of officers who don’t believe that they need any help. Connecticut is very liberal in ritual; we have a printed monitor, but several lodges follow rituals that pre-date the Grand Lodge itself. A few others have somehow managed to create their own, but have been doing so for so long that nobody bothers trying to correct them. To accommodate such differences, the Grand Lodge has a policy, which is summed up as “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty.” So, in the absence of regulation, some lodges have managed to develop “traditions,” i.e., customs that make their work markedly different from that of other lodges.

But a large number of lodges differ simply because they are doing something not just markedly different, but remarkably wrong. When questioned, they simply claim that it’s “lodge tradition,” and expect to be given a pass. Generally, the “tradition’ was an error on the part of one member that was inadvertently passed down to succeeding officers, most of whom learned ritual not from reading the monitor, but from trying to emulate the other officers, and who ended up copying the mistakes as well as the important things.

Connecticut has always had a problem with defining the essentials from the non-essentials, but I think that the overall view of the Grand Lodge itself is to let those lodges alone that are doing good ritual, even if that ritual is not exactly what is in the book. I know that this view drives some of my brothers in other, more rigidly defined states into looking for the smelling salts, but they, themselves forget, that ritual was always fluid and changing, especially in the educational lectures, which often varied from lodge to lodge. It’s a common misconception that the ritual we hear today is the same thing that has been passed down the generations; personally, I believe that this fluidity is one of the most interesting aspects of ritual practice, and should be one of our incentives to travel to other lodges.

Anyway, it’s probably pointless to discuss this any further. As the only official duties of the District Lecturers (certifying that potential Masters can open and close a lodge) were brief, those will now be assigned to the Associate Grand Marshals; the ones in my district are eminently qualified, and they are excellent brothers, as well.

For my part, I’ve been appreciative not only for the support that most of the lodges in my district have shown me, but also for the several lodges that actually asked for my help. It gave me a great opportunity to work with some fine new officers, and hopefully I’ve been able to pass along something useful to them. I wish them all the best in the future.


October 19, 2009 Leave a comment

The number 300 now being associated with half-naked, well-muscled Spartans, I didn’t want to confuse anybody with the approximate number of  Masons who attended the Grand Lodge semi-annual communication in mid-October of this year. Last year I complained a bit about the people who come to these meetings and then leave as soon as possible, so I’m not going to revisit that topic. I was, however, pleased to see that all of the lodges were represented, with only one exception — a marked improvement over the last few years. It might be cynical of me to mention that some lodges may have been motivated this year by one of the items to be voted on: the increase in a monetary fine to those lodges that fail to send any representation from $25 (barely the cast of gasoline and lunch) to $250.

This is Grand Lo-o-o-odge!

I got there about a half hour before the session started, got a coffee (no donut, thanks), and chatted with people I hadn’t seen in a while. When I finally went inside the main room to find a seat, I discovered that the Deputy Grand Master had gone to the hospital the previous night for chest pains (at this point, it seems that he’s fine), and would not be attending. The rest of the officers were in a mild panic because they would have to move up a chair in order to open the Grand Lodge session.  Why is this a problem? Because the nine members come from different lodges, and most of those lodges have peculiar traditions and customs. Since Grand Lodge officers don’t have any rehearsals (ahem), it’s not unusual for somebody to miss a cue. And even for those officers who are familiar with what passes for standard Connecticut ritual, it might have been years since one of them actually sat in that respective chair in a Blue Lodge. What with the rituals for York Rite, Scottish Rite, Eastern Star, Rainbow, the Shrine, etc., in our heads,  it’s a wonder that half the Masons remember as well as they do.

During the break, I twittered “Who certifies Grand Lodges officers, anyway?” This is a reference to my one actual duty as a District Grand Lecturer (as opposed to those duties which I’ve made up for myself), that being to watch a potential Master properly go through the ceremony for opening and closing a lodge.  I meant it to be funny, but after the session when people got home, some of them commented about this  on my Facebook page. Soon, it became  a (yet another!) discussion about the perception that Grand Lodge is perhaps out of touch with what the real needs are in the lodges.

Comments about the ritualistic slip-ups were good natured ribbing, however, one brother brought up some good points on the relatively new practice we have of setting standards (and giving out certifications) for anyone aspiring to be the Master of a lodge.

Brother Frank expressed the general frustration that I’ve heard from others around the state.

“There’s so much emphasis on getting these little certifications these days. Does anyone actually look at a Warden and evaluate whether or not he’d actually BE a decent WM? No. But if he’s good at ritual, and can regurgitate the stuff on the little tests, then he gets the nod of approval. Granted, you need to be a decent ritualist, but that’s only 25% at best of what the job is.”

And he’s right, of course. Being able to memorize a few paragraphs of ritual doesn’t make you qualified to run a lodge. Neither, in fact, does your attendance at a couple of half-day seminars, nor your ability to memorize the various rules and regulations that the Grand Lodge has codified.

Frank sums this up nicely:

“[Grand Lodge] is overly concerned with certifications these days and not concerned enough about whether the Master is making lodge … Read More ENGAGING for this great crop of new Masons we have coming in. We should be concentrating on giving these new guys a great sense of fraternity, and in many lodges that is missing. Passing the WM certification does not guarantee that a WM can LEAD a lodge — and LEADERSHIP is the key.”

Ironically, the Grand Lodge would agree. That’s why in the last couple of years, we have changed the format of our officers seminars from serial lectures to mini-team building exercises. Aspiring Masters and Wardens are arranged in small groups and mentored through various tasks. The exercises are not arbitrary; all of them are based on developing the kinds of programs that have been shown to work well in lodges. Even better, each officer has a chance to talk to the others in his group about possible issues he might face in implementing such programs in his own lodge, and to get input from those in different circumstances.

Does even this type of education guarantee that someone will be a good Master? Of course not. But it’s a step in the right direction, because it makes potential Masters aware that there are various ways to approach developing a program for their year.

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