Vol. XXXI No. 5 — May 1953

Masonic Paradox

One of the definitions of the word paradox is “a puzzling fact or object” and in that sense it is used here.

Few Freemasons think of the lodge as puzzling. But few men think of many common names as puzzles when in fact they are almost without explanation.

We speak of “America” meaning the United States. Ask anyone for a definition of “The United States” and he may answer, “a union of many sovereign states.” But to understand this, one must also know what a state may be. Is it a geographical entity? Is it a political entity? Is it a legal entity? Is it a combination of all three? What is meant by “sovereign”? It cannot mean “all powerful” since certain powers are reserved for the union. And it cannot mean “less than all powerful” and still indicate the complete power that a state exercises in certain particulars. What is “the American way of life?” Everyone knows what is meant by the phrase, but defining it is something else. Is it the way of Government in Washington? Is it the methods, manners, morals, practices of all people in the United States? Life is different in Maine and California; practices and beliefs are not necessarily the same in Washington state and Florida. Is “The American Way” only what is common to all, or are there many “American Ways” the sum of all of which is “The American Way?”

Every Freemason knows that he was made a Mason in a lodge. The vast majority now belong to one, some to two or more lodges. Probably every Mason knows exactly what a lodge is. But when a definition is required, there are lions in the path and the end product of several definitions is a paradox — something apparently self-contradictory.

The word is loosely used to mean several different things. When a Masonic lodge is constituted by a grand lodge “the lodge” is a covered box within the assemblage that witnesses the ceremony.

In Prestons Illustrations of Masonry (1772) we read:

The Grand Master, attended by his Officers, and some dignified Clergyman, form themselves in order round the lodge in the center; and, all devotedly kneeling, the preparatory prayer is rehearsed. The chaplain produces his authority, and being properly assisted, proceeds to consecrate. Solemn music strikes up, and the necessary preparations are made. The first clause of the consecration prayer is rehearsed, all devoutly kneeling; and the response is made, Glory to God on High. Incense is scattered over the lodge and the grand honors of Masonry are given.

Mackey tells us that in the Old Charges, the word lodge is not generally met. The meeting of the Craft is there usually called the Assembly. But there are instances of its employment in those documents. The Regius Manuscript of 1390 forbids the apprenticing of a bondman because he might be fetched out of the lodge, or logge, as line 133 of the famous poem spells it. Thus also in the Lodge of Antiquity Manuscript, whose date is 1686, the word occurs several times. There is also abundant documentary evidence to show that the word lodge was used long before the eighteenth century, applied to their meetings by the Freemasons of England and Scotland. Before the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, Preston tells us that any number of brethren might assemble at any place for the performance of work, and, when so assembled, were authorized to receive into the order brothers and fellows, and to practice the rites of Freemasonry. The ancient charges were the only standard for the regulation of their conduct. The master of the lodge was elected pro tempore, for the time being, and his authority terminated with the dissolution of the meeting over which he had presided, unless the lodge was permanently established at any particular place. To the General Assembly of the Craft, held once or twice a year, all the brethren indiscriminately were amenable, and to that power alone. But on the formation of grand lodges, this inherent right of assembling was voluntarily surrendered by the brethren and lodges, and vested in the grand lodge. From this time warrants of constitution date their existence.

An initiate is made a Mason in a lodge open on the Entered Apprentice Degree; he is passed a fellowcraft in a lodge open on the Fellowcraft Degree. He is raised a Master Mason in a lodge of Master Masons. Later he learns that there are lodges of research. It is a commonplace to refer to the consecrated and dedicated room in which a lodge meets as “the lodge.”

It is easier to ask “what is a lodge” than to answer. Before it receives a charter or a dispensation, it is a voluntary association of Master Masons. After it receives either, it is no longer a voluntary association; a member may not get out of it save by lodge action (granting a dimit) or as a penalty (expulsion or dropping for N.P.D.). Nor can any man not a Mason join it without its permission, nor any Mason become a member of it unless it accedes to a request. A voluntary association may ask other men to join it; a lodge cannot legally ask any man or Mason to become of it.

A lodge is not created by a grand lodge yet cannot now come into being without action of a grand lodge and a lodge is an expression of Freemasonry at work. A grand lodge can neither create Freemasonry nor legislate it out of existence. A grand lodge cannot, of itself, form a lodge. A lodge begins first by the voluntary act of Freemasons. The grand lodge can and does give a charter, which is assurance to all men and Masons that the chartered lodge is regular, duly constituted, obeys the laws of Masonry, is a part of Masonry, and is, in certain well defined matters, under the authority of the grand lodge. But no grand lodge can keep a lodge in existence that desires to surrender its charter. As the grand lodge can neither make a lodge of its own motion, nor prevent its dissolution at the will of the lodge, it can and does not create the lodge; it can demise it by approval of the arrest of a lodge charter by the grand master for cause, but cannot prevent its demise at the will of its members.

A lodge, once chartered, consists of all its members. But it does not require all its members to act as if all its members were present. A master and two wardens can act for the whole lodge, provided it is at a regular communication and the members have been duly notified of the meeting.

With permission of the grand master, then the grand lodge, a lodge locates where it desires to be. It need ask no one’s permission to meet where or when it elects to meet, provided these particulars are agreeable to grand lodge. If a lodge wishes to move to another town, it may do so if grand lodge permits, with no power over it by either town. Yet when a lodge is not meeting, it has, apparently, no real existence. If it is possible to conceive of every member of a lodge being killed at the same time, the lodge would have no existence. Without Masons, a lodge cannot exist, but Masons can and do exist without belonging to a lodge.

A lodge of Freemasons has certain powers that no other power can take from it and them. It selects from its applicants those candidates it wants and no others. It makes its own by-laws, which must be within the framework permitted by grand lodge. It must charge certain sums for certain acts, but rarely is there a maximum set by grand lodge. If it pays its dues to grand lodge, it can dispose of its money otherwise as it pleases, providing such expenditures are within the framework agreed to by its representatives in grand lodge.

One or more members of every lodge are members of grand lodge and must be so, whether they desire or not. In grand lodges in which all past masters of lodges are members of grand lodge, every past master is, willy nilly, a member of grand lodge. He is invested with certain rights and privileges whether he chooses to exercise them or not. These come to him not only by action of grand lodge but of his own lodge. He can no more resign his membership in grand lodge than he can resign his past mastership in his own lodge, except by non-affiliation.

A lodge can and does elect its master. But it cannot unmake him once elected and installed; a lodge can change its master only by will of grand master or grand lodge.

Not to pursue this part of the subject to weariness, we come to the real answer to the question “What is a Masonic lodge?” Legally speaking, it is a body of Masons possessing a charter from a grand lodge, with certain rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities to itself, its grand lodge, the community in which it exists.

Masonically, a lodge is something quite different.

It is not a legal body, a thing, an association, a partnership, a club, a society.

It is the embodiment of the spirit of Freemasonry within a circle the size of which it and it alone dictates.

A lodge is Freemasonry active in a group of Freemasons who unite in one set of purposes, in one place, at set times, for the performance of certain duties.

When a lodge is not meeting, it exists only in men’s hearts. Without meetings a lodge has no power, performs no work, exists only as an idea. Members of the lodge may carry out the will of the lodge between meetings — as, for instance, the committee on the sick may buy flowers and visit the ill, or take charitable donations to the needy, but the lodge, between meetings, has no active existence, except and this is a very large exception — as the lodge is Freemasonry and Freemasonry may and often does exist in men’s hearts though they never go to lodge.

A lodge does not die between meetings, nor become resurrected in meetings. The idea continues, though the entity is in abeyance. On a meeting night certain brethren of a lodge gather in their lodge room. They are members of the lodge. But the lodge is not in the room until the master opens it, according to prescribed forms and ceremonies. At the moment when he declares the lodge open, it comes into practical being, and is then not a mere gathering of Masons in a room, but a working unit of Freemasonry, with all the powers, duties and responsibilities that immemorial usage and custom and the laws and edicts of its grand lodge permit and prescribe.

When its meeting has finished, the master closes the lodge in the necessary forms and ceremonies. The instant he declares the lodge closed it is not any longer a lodge at work, but a group of brethren in a room who have finished for the time being with acting as a lodge.

They remain Masons. As Masons their conduct is circumscribed by Freemasonry. But as a lodge they now have no power and no duties, nor can have until again called together to be opened by duly constituted authority and set to work by Freemasonry.

When a lodge goes out of existence of its own desire, it gives up the Freemasonry out of which it was formed. The individual members of the lodge keep their Freemasonry in their hearts and may use it to join other lodges. But a lodge that surrenders its charter, in that surrender gives up its Freemasonry. If there is anything left (such as a lodge room or some furniture) it is not a lodge that is left, any more than the clothing a man leaves when he dies is the man.

When a lodge goes out of existence because a grand master arrests its charter, and his grand lodge approves his action, the Freemasonry that was the lodge is taken away from it. While its members may still be Freemasons, and obtain from grand lodge certificates to that effect, the lodge deprived of its charter is deprived of its Freemasonry and therefore goes out of existence as a candle flame that is blown out. The candle still has wax and wick but its purpose no longer exists; its light has disappeared. The Freemasons of a defunct lodge are still men and Masons but have no longer the powers, duties and purposes of the lodge that no longer exists.

An electric bulb without the current turned on is glass and brass and wire. With the current it becomes a source of light. Between meetings, a lodge is like the bulb without the current; it exists only as a thing that produces no results, but is potentially a giver of light.

The lodge can have the current turned on by the brethren. The potential power is there. It lights the lamp when the lodge is opened.

If the grand lodge turns off the current at the source, the brethren no longer have any potential power; the lodge gives no more light!

For the Masonic Festival of June 24, 1926, J. C. Stewart, Poet-Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2, Edinburgh, Scotland, wrote of the permanency of the lodge:

The Lodge Lives On

Our generations fleet and pass:
Earths strongest scions bows the head
And withers, like to summer grass,
And joins the innumerable dead:
But when the sons of Time are gone,
The lodge lives on, the lodge lives on!

Time’s ravages doth Time repair,
Time’s deepest wounds are healed of Time:
The Master passes from the Chair,
The Warden to the Chair doth climb:
Master and Warden soon are gone,
The lodge lives on, the lodge lives on!

The bard who sang in other days,
And woke a nation’s heart to fire,
Is dead, and wears immortal bays,
And feeble hands must strike his lyre:
The voice of Robert Burns is gone,
The lodge lives on, the lodge lives on!

No Temple is so stoutly barred
But it can entered be by Death:
Keep he the closest watch and ward
The trustiest tiler yields his breath:
Outer and Inner Guard are gone,
The lodge lives on, the lodge lives on!

The torch of light is handed down
The ages that so swiftly flee:
Out of our frailty comes renown
And life from our mortality:
The pomps of yesteryear are gone,
The lodge lives on, the lodge lives on!

What then, is a lodge? A piece of parchment? A gathering of brethren that once a week or once in two weeks does Masonic work?

This thing that exists without body; this idea that persists without material or visibility; this paradox of being and not being, has great power over the hearts of men. It can perform miracles. It can be and is a great part of a community. It becomes dearer to many men than any place or thing but church, home and family. It gains the greatest cooperation and exacts from willing givers the hardest of labors. It sings in men’s hearts as they go about their daily vocations and to many it represents their greatest ambitions and their highest hopes.

Yet never has a lodge been held in the hand or seen with the eye. It is as evanescent as the perfume of a flower and as powerful and positive in existence as the temple that houses it.

That is why it is a paradox; a paradox well-beloved!

The Masonic Service Association of North America