Shall We Study Our Purpose, Meaning, and Origin?


SHALL WE STUDY OUR PURPOSE, MEANING, AND ORIGIN?


      A few weeks ago, I was asked by the Sovereign Master of my Council
of Allied Masonic Degrees to prepare a paper suggesting a way that Masons 
might regularly come together for the explicit purpose of Masonic study.  
The Sovereign Master had his reason for making this request.  That reason,
I now suspect, was to show me the folly of my ways.

      I was the one complaining in our Council meetings about there being
so little agreement regarding what is the purpose of the American version
of our Masonic Fraternity.  One of my favorite phrases regarding American
Freemasonry was from an old song, "Alfie":  What's it all about?

      I have been a member of the Craft for over twenty years in three
different jurisdictions; also with membership in the York Rite, Scottish
Rite, and the Shrine (and, yes, even membership in Eastern Star).  I have
done the usual little reading about Masonry that most of us do.  Reading
books such as "Freemasons' Guide and Compendium", "Morals and Dogma",
"A Bridge to Light", "Born in Blood", and so forth.  A couple of C.W.
Leadbeater's books about Co-Masonry also made interesting reading, as well
as five or six of Joseph Campbell's books on the connection between
mythology, ritual, and religion.

      I have reluctantly and sadly reached the conclusion, Brethren, that
there is really not much to study or even to seriously discuss regarding
American Freemasonry today.  We express our concerns about our dramatically
declining membership.  Well, why shouldn't our membership decline?  We have
become a shallow organization with nothing to offer that is particularly
interesting, fun, or exciting.  The Shrine is a possible exception, but the
Shrine is not a Masonic body, per se.

      I often hear that the purpose of Freemasonry is, "To Make Good Men
Better".  Thank you very much.  Wow.  Big deal.  People should be knocking
at our doors clamoring for petitions so that they can be made better, 
right?  Okay, so after the man is "made better", then what?

      Fellowship, and finding friends wherever we go is another reason that
is cited as an incentive for being a Freemason.  Most churches, and 
organizations such as the International Rotary, offer much the same thing,
and without any requirement for memorization.

      Charity is always worthwhile, and Masonry stresses charity to our
fellowman, along with the charitable attitude of tolerance.  Charity in
any form can be engaged in without being a Mason.  Many men and women who
are not a part of the Masonic community support charitable, worthwhile
causes all the time.

      The York Rite and the Scottish Rite have their specific charities, 
but these charities are not very well known outside the Fraternity and, in
any case, a person does not really have to be a Mason to contribute to 
them, or, for that matter, to contribute to any charity.

      The Shrine has its children's hospitals, burn centers, children's
clinics, and the Shrine circus.  These charities have a well known, high 
profile.   Also, the Shrine down-plays ritual and has a general reputation
of being an organization of members who like to get together to eat, drink,
and be merry.  Perhaps all this has something to do with the proposals to
consider allowing non-Masons to join the Shrine.  Why not?  After all, the
Shrine is not and was never intended to be a Masonic body.  Of course
allowing non-Masons to join the Shrine might, as some allege, hurt member-
ship efforts in the Scottish Rite and York Rite, but that is off the
present subject.

      Back to the question of tolerance.  Yes, Freemasonry claims to uphold
the principles of tolerance.  But are individual Masons particularly well
known for their tolerant attitude?  Not that I am aware of.  Some Masons
are indeed very tolerant, some others quite definitely are not.  Pretty
much the same is true of the general population.

      What, really, is there to study about American Freemasonry's purpose,
meaning, and origin?  Nothing much that is of any real interest.  The
Fraternity has no particular meaning today except perhaps from a 
sentimental point of view.  For example, remembering what it was like to be
a Mason "in the old days".  Or the fact that a well beloved father, uncle,
or grandfather was a Mason.  Or that many of our Founding Fathers were
Masons.  All well and good.  But, where is the on-going Masonic meaning
today for the potential candidate who happens not to have any sentimental
reasons for becoming a Mason?

      Purpose?  What purpose?  Performing a little ritual in Lodge once or
twice a month in order to make some good men better?  That is fine but 
let's face the fact that it is not really very much.  Some folks might even
be turned off by the very presumptuousness of an organization that seems to
imply that men who petition for membership are those who have a need for
being made better than they already are.

      In other words, are we perhaps saying that the Fraternity thinks that
there is something wrong with anyone who would want to become a Mason?
Therefore our purpose is to try to make any new member "better"?  This
might sound to the uninitiated like Masonry is some form of religion.  We
as Masons know that Masonry is not a religion.  However, many people have
been taught since childhood that being "made better" will most likely 
involve a religion of some sort.

      Many, many non-Masons have told me that they believe that Masonry is
a religion.  When we Masons point out that Masonry is not a religion, we
are told that since there is an alter in our Lodge room with a book of holy
writings upon it, and since Masons take oaths and kneel and pray at that
alter, it is very hard to believe that Masonry is not a religion.

      At least one good friend of mine has candidly told me that he under-
stood that Masonry was a form of Satanism, or at least that Masonry
incorporated some sort of Satanic rites in its ritual.  Again, while we
Masons know that there is nothing whatsoever of the Satanic in Freemasonry,
we all know that the allegation that Satanism is practiced in Masonic
Lodges is not an unusual comment to hear.  The basis for this seems most
often to be vague memories and stories concerning some of the ritual that
at one time may (or may not) have been in French Freemasonry and 
subsequently found its way to America in what became the Ancient and
Accepted Scottish Rite.  This connection becomes pretty obvious to anyone 
who has read "Morals and Dogma", although to the person who actually
understands what he is reading, it is clear that there is nothing of
Satanism advocated in "Morals and Dogma".  Nonetheless, at times it seems
that there are Masons who are almost frantic in their effort to portray our
Scottish Rite ritual as being based strictly and solely upon the Bible,
which of course is not entirely true.

      What about the origins of Freemasonry?  On this we have many schools
of thought and agreement on none.  That is why I maintain that there is
nothing about Masonry to study.  Certainly there are literally thousands of
books that have been written concerning our Craft.  But since there is no
consensus of agreement about who or what is correct, then there is nothing,
really, to study.  The most popular origin myth, of course, is the one
involving the building of King Solomon's temple.  Another legend speaks of
the so-called operative stonemasons of medieval Europe.  Still another
story has it that our Fraternity had nothing at all to do with with stone-
masons and that the first Masons were some of the surviving members of the
order of Knights Templar.  Others will say that the first Mason was Adam.
And then there is the idea about our beginnings in the Ancient Mysteries of
Greece and Rome, and even in the still more ancient religious beliefs, 
rites, and rituals supposedly practiced at the time of the Egyptian 
pharaohs.

      Brethren, in my opinion there is nothing in Freemasonry, especially
American Freemasonry, to study.  We flatter ourselves by pretending that
there is.  We are just a bunch of more or less good guys with a few private
signs, symbols, and modes of recognition.  These really have no meaning or
value other than to make us feel important and different.  In other words,
our way of having our little ego trip.

      Perhaps we in Blue Lodge, York Rite, and Scottish Rite Masonry should
stop being such conservative, unimaginative stuffed shirts.  Maybe we
should consider following the example of this country's Founding Fathers
and, as Masons, begin having our meetings in the private rooms of the 
modern equivalent of the old colonial taverns, with plenty of food and 
drink and good, thought-provoking conversation.  Our noble brothers of the
Mystic Shrine have done a little something of this sort with very admirable
results.

      We speak of getting new members into the Craft.  Frankly, as things
stand at the present time, I am a little embarrassed about sponsoring a
candidate into Masonry because I don't want any friend of mine to have the
disappointment that comes from looking around after a year or two of
attending Lodge and thinking to himself, "This is it?"  "This is all that
there is?"

      The average candidate today is initiated and might stick around, out
of curiosity and politeness to his sponsor, to be passed and raised.  After
that, there is little or nothing offered by the American Masonic Fraternity 
that most men consider to be worthy of their time.  If any of my Brethren
doubt this, then take a thoughtful look around at all of the empty seats on
the sidelines the next time that you attend Lodge. 
    
     
Copyright 1995
Michael Smiley