Is Our Masonic Ritual Out of Date for Today's Man?

Robert G. Davis, MPS

Ritual in America. It's everywhere. And it's habit-forming. In fact, we are so immersed in it that it would take an extraordinary degree of perception even to note its presence. But still it's there, and its efforts are real and have a tremendous impact on how each of us live and act.

Think for a moment about its influence in your life. Most of us follow the same routine every day of getting out of bed, eating breakfast, getting ready for work. We take the same route to our jobs. We wear the same mix of clothing. We eat at the same restaurants. We usually follow a repeated routine in how we spend our leisure hours. We flock to stadiums on Saturday afternoons. We observe military parades, inaugurations.

Our Sunday church services are steeped in ritual. Even our architecture is a response to the ritual patterns by which we live together and how we socialize.

You may perceive it as something different. But it's all ritual. It's any practice or pattern of behavior which we repeat in a prescribed manner.

All ritual is communication. In Freemasonry it becomes a system or collection of ideals and practices which, when repeated time and again, and introduced to our new members in the same prescribed way, establishes a fraternal bond between each of us. Its practice lends a formality and stability to the fraternity. And its uniformity and immutability is evidence of the antiquity and changelessness of our institution. It has even been said that, upon the preservation of our ritual, depends the honor and reputation of our Order.

Certainly, the practice and communication of ritual has been the major Masonic activity of the last one hundred or so years. In Freemasonry, it deals with the relationships a man has to other men, to his institutions, with his God, and with nature. It expresses those fundamental values we attempt to understand and to control in our lifetimes — values that relate both to our social positions and our sense of the Divine.

And the ritual not only says something. It also does things. It correlates our value systems among our members. It interprets for us timeless statements of truth through symbols. It prescribes certain patterns of behavior which tells us how we should live. It establishes associations among certain kinds of contradictions which have common meanings. It directs our passions and intellect toward right, ethical values and to the sound moral principles of our organization. And it has been around pretty much in the same form and in the same language for over 250 years.

It indeed seems the intent of Freemasonry has been to try to formulate a ritual meaningful to all people at all times in all places. But the test of how well that ritual communicates its lessons today largely depends on whether or not its form of expression provides a meaningful experience to those it intends to impress. This raises a couple of interesting questions. Is it true that communication is effective only if it fits our times? Has our ritual become too outdated to meet today's needs? Has our message become blurred because our form of communication is no longer fitting?

Yes, there are some problems with our ritual. For instance, one of the paradoxes we have always had to confront in our Fraternity is how to communicate a single ritual to everyone from twenty-one to ninety-one, learned and unlearned, from diverse socio-economic and religious backgrounds, in a way that is in touch with reality for all of them. Newspapers, radio, and television in America have certainly taught us one thing. In all forms of communication, men seek the things that touch them at their level of development. Some people prefer an intellectual approach to things, others an emotional appeal. Still others prefer some balance. So, it is perhaps an extraordinary hope for us to expect every brother to take to his heart the same ritual in the same way. It is as unreal as to expect every teen-ager to love classical music.

In our Masonic ceremonies, there is also an inherent danger that we are conveying our liturgy for its own sake. This in notably at risk when our ritualists are not highly sophisticated in the ways of communication. They feel secure in repeating the same rite over and over in exactly the same way. A repetitious rite at its best lifts the heart; at its worst it is an aberration. There is a fine line between discourse and monotony.

Ritual for its own sake is vanity. It communicates little and teaches even less. Ritual for the sake of its participants, on the other hand, reflects a thoughtfulness, a concern for its message, and a true commitment to meaning. But it's a sad truth that it's far more difficult to perform ritual for the sake of its participants. It takes a greatness uncommon to most of us.

It would be less than honest, then, for us to presume that our ritual meets the needs of all personalities within our fraternity. If this were true, our Lodge rooms would always be filled to capacity. We all know that rare indeed is the Lodge which can fill every seat in its hall at every degree conferral or stated communication.

It can be suggested, then, that the "adopted" ritual of Freemasonry is not the only important characteristic which motivates men to hold an interest in our Order. In fact, the ritualistic aspect of our work may not be important but in a very limited sense. It may be serving only those who learn it; i.e., the officers or ritual team of the Lodge.

And as long as our Lodge ritualists choose to impart our ritual as though they exist only from the eyebrows up, we will too often fail to communicate and will merely pass along information. In a Lodge where the adopted Masonic ritual is the only method of communication introduced to our initiates, our newly raised Master Mason's impression of our work may unfortunately be his last.

Having said all this, I now want to reassure you that I do not believe the ritual in use in Oklahoma, at least at the Blue Lodge level, needs to be renovated. Nor do I think we need to create a new one using contemporary language. (There was a need to do this very thing with the ritual of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in the Orient of Oklahoma — and it has recently been done in a very effective form and to the delight of many).

But the monitorial and esoteric language of the Blue Lodge is a different kind of thing. It renders order and symmetry to the whole Lodge structure, and provides the framework for an ordered and progressive education in our tenets and principles. Further, there is a discipline or prescribed authority to things in our Masonic ritual which adds to its solemnity, and conveys to the candidate our devotion to our established customs in a most effective way. But again, the forms, the ceremonies, and the language of our adopted ritual, when considered alone, may still not be that important to overall member interest, enthusiasm, and retention.

What is important is that we communicate the many and varied elements which encompasses the essence of our ritual in a way that reaches our brethren at their level. We really must take the time to make sure that our candidates truly understand the Masonic principles being imparted. We must convey our lessons, our history, our legacy, symbols, and our heritage in a way that really touches the minds and emotions of our brethren in the here and now.

What is needed today is a well developed and carefully formed Masonic education course undertaken both within and without our Lodges and in a format which relates to today's male. If we honestly want our new Masons to learn and understand the nature of Freemasonry we really must develop and incorporate alternative teaching techniques that will supplement, in a meaningful way, the processing of candidates through our degree mills. We should agree in principle with the Masonic observer who complained, "the nightly grinding out of candidates may make numbers, but it will never make Masons!"

"Well," you say, "Masonic education is the job of the brother who teaches the catechisms!" Indeed — but how many of our instructors are teaching anything more than the "work"? Are they informing the candidate about the various links we can claim to the past? Do they discuss the system of operative Masonry of Medieval Europe? does our instructor inform our young initiate where our word "Lodge" comes from? Does he explain the difference between a stonemason and a Freemason?

What about Freemasonry in the eighteenth century? What happened at the Grand Lodge in England in 1717? When did the ritual for the 3rd degree become part of today's system of Masonry? What was important about the union of the "moderns" and "ancients" in 1813?

How did our Masonic degrees come to be? Why do we use initiation as a form of education? Where do we trace our tree of Masonic knowledge in each of the Appendant Bodies? Why do we use symbols? And what do they all mean? Where did they come from? How does Masonry differ from religion? Are those things which are told will be concealed from the initiate ever revealed to him?

And what do we really tell our candidates about the Masonry in our own Grand Jurisdictions? Does he know when and where Freemasonry came to America? Or how it evolved in his State? Has he been furnished a copy of the constitution and Code of his Grand Lodge? Is he informed about the history of the particular ritual his State has adopted? does he know from whence it came? Does he understand the duties of the officers of his Lodge, or his Grand Lodge? Is he informed about the Government and Authority of Freemasonry?

Does he learn about its philanthropies? Can he tell his friends specifically what his Lodge or the Bodies Corporate of Masonry support in his area? What can he tell his friends at all about the organization he has just joined?

Brethren, I submit that if these questions and many more like them are not being explained to every brother who knocks at the door of his Lodge at some time during the process of his initiation, passing, and raising, that we really have little reasonable chance to expect him to become intimately connected to our fraternity. If we are not teaching our new brother the many historical, interesting, and fascinating sides of our incredible organization at the time when he is most impressionable and receptive to learn about them, then we are committing a serious breach of faith not becoming to the ideals to which we are entrusted.

Finally, if we should expect to retain the old forms of our ritual and, at the same time, communicate effectively in a way that fits our times, we should seriously consider incorporating the audio and visual techniques of a modern America to the time tested ideals of the past. We should blend our ritual with twentieth century teaching methods. If we cannot educate and train enough Lodge officers or leaders to provide a meaningful learning experience in at least most Lodges in our Jurisdictions, we can certainly package a very worthwhile Masonic Education Course in the form of videotapes, tape/slide presentations, closed circuit television, or by using the other media tools accessible to almost every community. If Lodges are not so equipped, it would be easy to develop a Masonic Education series of videotapes for home study. Bibliographies of books can be made available for purchase. Lodges can develop libraries and library funds to create an ever expanding local source of Masonic knowledge.

There is much that can be done. There is much that must be done.

If Masons would simply invest the time and resources necessary to become knowledgeable on the fundamental subjects of Freemasonry, and to the extent they can impart this information to each other and to their non-Masonic friends in a conversational way, then we really would be communicating in a manner fitting to our times. Then and only then, will our ritual have meaning to all Freemasons in all places at all times. And that, my brethren, I am sure was its original intent.

Source: The Philalethes