Vol. XXVII No. 12 — December 1949

“Rock That Abides”

Only in recent years has there been developed a science of the mind. Psychology, psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, etc. are comparatively new.

But for uncounted thousands of years man has felt inner compulsions and evolved some means of satisfying them.

One of these — and a profound need it is — is for conformity; to belong to a group, to do as does the group, to speak like the group, to think and feel like the group.

To be able to conform, obviously there must be something to which to conform. The good citizen conforms to the laws of his country. Most people belong to and conform to the teachings of a church. The vast majority conforms to the general civilized idea of conduct; we do not beat our wives, run off with the host’s silver, trespass on our neighbor’s property or cut his telephone wire. Etiquette is but a standard of conduct to which all, in one way or another, conform; lifting the hat to women, removing the glove before shaking hands, eating with a fork instead of fingers. In many communities what one does, if good, is a reason for all doing the same thing. Mrs. Neighbor across the road puts up canned fruit; all the ladies of that neighborhood put up canned fruit. Mr. Neighbor cuts his lawn every ten days; most of his neighbors must have as good a lawn, and so cut theirs every ten days. We shave daily, wear clean collars, keep our shoes polished, to conform to the mores of our society.

These things — and ten thousand others — we do because we are more comfortable, happier, more at ease with ourselves when we do them than when we do not. The dissenter may take a perverse pleasure in trying to swim upstream, but to most of us, conformity is natural. It provides a feeling of safety. It is our testimony to ourselves that we “belong.” The conformer is not an isolated unit, facing a hostile world alone; he is part of a whole which is in many particulars united. For every man who votes according to his convictions, as based on study and thought, a hundred vote “the Straight Republican” or “Straight Democratic” ticket because their fathers did so before them; because they were brought up to believe “it is the thing to do”; in other words, they conform.

Masonic ritual is the heart of a rite to which brethren may conform. It is a norm in the midst of the confusion, rush, and distractions of modern life.

Fate is a sea without shore
And the soul is a rock that abides,
But her ears are vexed with the roar
And her face with the foam of the tides.

Life is a shoreless sea. For Masons, ritual is a rock that abides. But the roar of life and the flowing tides of ceaseless change vex and depress those who love the ritual as it is and not as some who would make it “nearer to the heart’s desire.”

Some will object, “But ritual has changed!” and of course they are correct. The ritual of today is not the ritual of even two hundred years ago. But Masonic ritual, like any other man-made thing, had a beginning. More properly, it had many beginnings. The results gradually merged, one into another, until in the middle of the eighteenth century, ritual was probably reasonably well-established and reasonably uniform in the few and scattered lodges in England. Then (1751) came the division into the Antients and Moderns and many changes were made. More were accomplished in 1813 when Antient and Modern joined in the United Grand Lodge of England. Masonry came to America from England; Ireland and Scotland. It spread westward and changed as it spread. Some grand lodges had more of one “working,” some more of another. Grand lodges formed ritual committees, sometimes composed of brethren with more enthusiasm than knowledge. Webb, Cross, Barney, all had different ideas of “the correct” ritual and taught what they believed. The itinerant Masonic lecturer who traveled the country over to instruct lodges (for a fee) had, some this work, some that. The 1843 Convention in Baltimore and the Masonic Conservators influenced American ritual. There was a great deal of changing and editing and “improving.” The net result is that in the forty-nine Grand Lodges of the United States are more than forty-nine different rituals (Some grand lodges do not yet have a ritual to which all their lodges MUST conform.) “Why, then,” is a natural question, “if ritual has changed, why must it now not change?”

The question is best answered by analogy. The small boy learns of Christmas through Santa Claus. He is taught bravery by fairy tales (Jack the Giant Killer). He learns sportsmanship through marbles and tops. He is given esprit de corps by being soundly thrashed by his mates if he is a tattle-tale to teacher. His ideas of what is right and wrong, good and bad, interesting or stupid, manly or cowardly, change as he grows.

But a man grown discards his childish ideas for moral, ethical and religious principles on which he erects his life.

Take Santa Claus from eight-years old; he doesn’t die of grief. But take his moral convictions from a grown man and he is at loose ends — unhappy.

Ritual had to change as Masonry spread. Now that it spreads no more it should change no more. Our fathers handed on to us the ritual to which they adhered. We inherited it. We had nothing to do with the words in which it came to us. Few brethren either know of or care about its history. Most brethren are convinced that what they received, they should pass on to their sons. The rock on which our ancestors erected their spiritual temple has not crumbled under ours. Most Masons believe that it will hold under theirs.

Man wants something solid, substantial, unchanging, to which to hold. It may be a physical rock on which to build his house, a physical tree to cling to in a hurricane, a physical tower to flee to in a flood, but it must be always there, to be depended on, without alterations.

That to which a man must hold may also be an intangible; his trust in his bank, his government, his friend, his belief in the woman of his heart, the conviction (which nothing can shake) that come weal or woe he can go to his mother and be given all she has to give.

The failing banks put millions of deposits in stockings and tea canisters. The absconding partner and faithless friend have created many men without faith. The unfaithful wife has sent many a man to suicide. If he cannot cling and hold fast to something unchanging, man is without recourse.

Ruskin expressed this another way when he said: “They are the weakest minded and the hardest hearted men, that most love variety and change.”

Ritual has always been important. In one way it is mans attempt to relate cause to effect, to assign a reason for existence, to make of himself a part of a whole. The word ritual does not occur in the Great Light, and the similar word, rite, but once:

Let the children of Israel also keep the Passover at his appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this month, at even, ye shall keep it in his appointed season: according to all the rites of it, and according to all the ceremonies thereof, ye shall keep it. (Numbers 9:2,3).

But if the word is unique in the Great Light, the thing is not. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of rituals, modes of worship, methods of sacrifice. Manners and morals and customs of the Twelve Tribes are all set forth so that their importance is obvious; rituals patterned, systematic, exact. Many of them have come down to modern days far less changed than Masonic ritual, in its few hundred years.

Some think of ritual until they confuse what it is with what it teaches; Powys stated that his belief was that the truth of religion is in its ritual, which is nonsense, unless it is read: “the truth of religion is expressed in its ritual.” The truth of Freemasonry is expressed as much in its hidden teachings as in its ritual. Those are wise who do not confuse the thing taught with the thing which teaches. But, equally, if the thing which teaches is often changed, so will be the thing taught!

Chesterton, of the incredible mind, had much more near the truth about ritual when he said: “Ritual will always mean throwing away something; destroying our corn or wine upon the altars of our gods.” All ritual “throws away” the power of individual expression in favor of the formal expression fixed by tradition and long practice.

No one would re-write the Declaration of Independence, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. These things are vital and lovely and necessary not only because they are familiar, but because they appeal mightily to what Lichliter so well denominates “a sense of history.” A trenchant paragraph of his, written of ritual in the Scottish Rite, Northern Jurisdiction, is equally applicable to change in any Masonic ritual:

It is not just a specific innovation or deletion that is under consideration, it is the duty of conserving the historic continuity of the rituals.

“Historic continuity,” whether it goes back fifty or five hundred years, is a part of the rock which “stood the sea’s shock” — a part of our insistent jealousy of any change in our ritual.

To have done as all good brothers and fellows have done who have gone our way before; to have uttered the words our fathers knew and learned the words they spoke — this is part of our feeling of continuity, permanence, steadfastness, unchangeableness which our ritual must have if it is to continue to wield its gentle influence.

“Well, who wants to change it?” the reader may demand.

Alas, too many custodians of the work, grand lecturers, committees, filled with enthusiasm and devoted to their labors, have considered that the right way, the best way, the good way, is the modern way! Some would make the ritual always grammatical. They do not recall that what is outside the rules of good grammar today may well have been correct when first used. Some would substitute words for others which no longer have the same meaning as of yore; for instance, delete the word “profane” (meaning a non-Mason) from a Mason’s vocabulary because it now means one who takes the name of God in vain; it once meant only “without the temple” which is its Masonic sense. The word “mote” as a form of “may” is no longer in the English language. Probably no admirer of modern English has as yet dared to say “So may it be” is better than “So mote it be,” but it would not be surprising if suggested. “From whence came you” is as improper as to say “To whither goest thou?” Yet “from whence” is old ritual in many grand lodges. “All right, let’s change it — we ought to be correct!” cries the enthusiast.

It has been seriously proposed many times that grand lodges should authorize closing, if not opening, of lodges in the same short “ample form” permitted a grand master. The would-be changers argue “It is such a waste of time — seven or eight minutes ceremony to get to work. Why don’t we just declare the lodge open and get to work?”

In some grand lodges it is possible to “call off” from a third to a second or first degree for the purpose of initiation or passing, without opening or closing an Entered Apprentice or Fellowcraft lodge. This, say its proponents, saves time. But here is the cloven foot of change thrust through the door of dependence and conformity. If one committee may change the ritual to make it grammatical, another can offer a change to make it shorter. If one authority can make it brief, his brother may make it “better” by an addition. The addition may in itself be beautiful — a praise of mother, a salute to the flag, a glorification of George Washington, but is that a reason to put it in Masonic ritual? All men want housing, clothes, warmth, friends, a bank account, good health. The Lord’s prayer asks of material things only bread. Would any change the prayer to ask also for all the other blessings a man needs for his comfort and well being?

Abraham Lincoln asked: “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”

Ritual is a cement between those who love it and their Masonry. As its aura of age gives it sanctity it adds to the sanctity of the Masonic belief and the Masonic teaching.

Ritual is a part of the Mystic Tie which binds brethren to each other. Every thread snapped, every strand broken, weakens that Tie. Ritual is a standard of conformity, a rock which abides, a certainty that what has been, now is, ever shall be.

And ritual is the heritage of Masons; ours in trust for our sons, and their sons, and their son’s sons, forever.

Hence the fierce jealousy of the keepers of the ritual, to spread the cement, knot the tie, cherish the rock, keep the trust and set faces inexorably against even the “good” changes, lest any change, no matter how apparently worthy, open wide a gate through which will come many alterations.

The Masonic Service Association of North America