Vol. XXXII No. 1 — January 1954

“The Voice of the Sign”

“Let all things be done decently and in order.”
— 1 Corinthians 14:40

Masonic magazines, books, research papers are filled with accounts of the ritual; its beginnings; its debts to myth, history, romance, religions; the necessity of good ritual, well learned, well delivered; the importance of ritual as the thread on which Masonic truths are strung as jewels in a necklace.

But you will hunt long, hard and fruitlessly for any major contributions on the subject of why men and Masons have rituals at all; what the real purpose of ritual may be; why Freemasonry must have had a ritual if it was to exist.

This short paper attempts to gather together a few thoughts from the small band of writers and students who did not accept ritual as they accept day and night but sought the reasons that made a ritual for our ceremonies a necessity.

Masonic ritual did not come into being, complete and in full, like Minerva springing full grown from the head of Jupiter, fully armed for battle!

Masonic ritual had a beginning.

What was before the beginning?

Men, who did the best they knew in instructing other men in the simple essentials of the first Freemasonry. They did this in their own words. They told what they had learned; they instructed the newly-made Fellow of the Craft in the rules of the Freemasonry of a day no man may say how early. They taught the apprentice to labor diligently, to give a day’s work for a day’s wages, to bring no shame to the Craft, to be true to Holy Church — anyone may read the moral and social principles of early Freemasonry in the Regius Poem and indeed, in many other manuscripty Constitutions.

Ceremonies grew naturally. When his seven year apprenticeship was completed, the new Fellow received his working tools from friends or family. Someone would give them to him with a few words of admonition. Gradually those words became familiar and fixed. Calling the Craft together for a meeting to discuss some problem, one leader would do it one way, another in a different way, but as the slow years passed, one way was found better than another and the same words were repeated and again repeated.

What was true in a day hundreds of years ago is true today. Our ritual changed and grew as it was added to and expanded by the Clares and the Dunkerleys and the Olivers and the Prestons. It has become the thread of continuity; the bond by which we feel a kinship with our Masonic ancestors. To do and to say “as all good brothers and fellows have done who have gone this way before” is to express a brotherhood of the mind.

Men pray in a thousand ways. Doubtless any sincere petition to Deity is the equal of any other. But the prayer of prayers, known to every man, woman and child in the world who speaks English, is the Lord’s Prayer; a universal ritual the utterance of which is not only a petition to the Most High but a bond between multiplied millions of worshipers, not the less strong that they may never meet.

Our Masonic ritual contains our history; that much of that history is hidden from all save the student is beside the point; the history is there. Words have their histories; words are “windows into the past” through which the student of vision may look and see old ways of thought, old inventions, discoveries, adventures, romances, ideas long forgotten but once important.

Herewith a paragraph from an unknown author writing in The Builder, a quarter of a century ago:

What a library might be thus written on the language of our ritual! To the etymological historian all of its words would be so many thousands of windows, many of them of richest stained glass, opening back on such panoramas of the past as would amaze us! The philosophies of the eighteenth century would be there, the many-colored gild life of the Middle Ages, theorems of the Arabic mathematicians, reveries of the kabbalists, guesses of the occultists, thoughts of the Greek philosophers, visions of Hebrew prophets, the twilight mysteries of Egypt.

Mankind has always been ritual-minded. It is as much a part of human nature to need ritual in life, as it is a part of nature to provide a natural ritual. H. L. Haywood has phrased this so well that quotation is better than a rewriting of his words:

Inspiration to ritualism is everywhere. Night and day everlastingly succeed each other. The four seasons continue their endless circumambulations, like the candidate in the lodge room; the stars move about in their fixed orbits (evidently, H. L. H. means “planets” when he says “stars.” Ed.) The tides rise and fall, moons wax and wane, seed-time and harvest come and go, growth is followed by decay, birth is succeeded by death, and even the comet, once deemed the most capricious of all major objects of creation, has been found to return upon its own path forever.

Perhaps man’s earliest ritual was circumambulation — moving around a stone altar on which was the holy fire, emblematic of the sun, in the same direction the sun seemed to move, from east to west by way of the south.

All civilized life, in all countries, has been lived by rituals. Births — christening, church-confirmation, prayer — the bended knee. Weddings are ceremonies; burial is ritualistic. We shake hands on meeting and parting, remains of a ritual that showed no concealed weapon in the palm. We lift the hat to the equal, the superior, the weaker — once we lifted the helmet to show we feared no blow from a friend. Regardless of the inclemencies of the weather, we greet a friend with “Good morning” — a wish that his day be “good.”

Armies march and drill. Men love to watch parades and to parade. To be part of a band, a choir, a troup, a team, doubles the joy of whatever activity is its mainspring.

Ritual in the lodge is the magic that makes Masonic “work” common to all. And this is vital — it is the “antidote” for the boredom that hearing the same old words in the same old way, night after night, month after month, year after year, oppresses so many.

Masonic ritual, if necessarily repetitious, is also a great binder-together. The ritual of a degree is “worked” (that is, spoken and/or acted) by many. The officers speak, some brethren conduct, those upon the sidelines follow and take part — even if a small part — at appropriate times. All brethren participate, for instance, when the candidate first sees Masonic light — few there are who do not receive some pleasure for thus being a necessary part of an important ceremony.

The psychologist uses the term “group consciousness” as meaning that spirit that animates many, as opposed to that which motivates the individual. The “mob spirit” which can produce panic is a species of “group consciousness.” At the other extreme is the thought of many engaged in a good act of importance and necessity, which demands many minds and united attention.

Ritual is either complete or it disintegrates. It is not possible successfully to continue the performance of ceremonies in which from A to B is a fixed ritual, from B to C any words that occur to those performing the ceremony, from C to the close another fixed form of word or act. A Masonic ritual could not continue to hold men together if a lodge could be opened with any words that a master found desirable to utter, then continue with a fixed form of ceremony, building up to an obligation an officer might fancy appropriate, and ending with a ritualistic closing! Hie several parts would not fit. They would not be a whole but an aggregation of unrelated parts. To be successful ritual must be complete. Without completion, rituals deteriorate and finally disintegrate.

Ritual is continuity not only for the lodge, the grand lodge, the nation that may have several, but for a fraternity of which universality is a vital part. Rituals differ, of course; climate, times, education, language, memories, necessities, have made divergences in rituals inevitable. But there are certain parts of Masonic ritual that do not vary between places, climes, grand lodges. There is divergence in the ritual of the Lord’s Prayer — some ask forgiveness of trespasses, some of debts; some speak of the power and the glory “forever” — others “forever and ever.” But in its essentials the Lord’s Prayer is universal ritual.

The “So mote it be” which closes Freemasonry’s oldest document — the Regius Poem (1390) — is universal. The answer to the first question a master asks of his senior warden in opening a lodge is universal. The Great Lights are universal, even though “The Volume of the Sacred Law” may be the Old Testament in one lodge, the Bible in another, and the Koran in a third. The legend of the Master’s Degree, the search, the fundamental landmarks are universal. This universality makes a mighty appeal to men; an appeal so great that they will endure repetitious ritual that has long ago lost its novelty, for the sake of being part of something vast, something old, something that fits with the Psalmist who sings “He that keepeth thee will not slumber.”

The ritual is the core of the Fraternity. Obviously every teaching, every precept, every principle of Freemasonry can be communicated from man to man without the use of a single ritualistic phrase. To communicate any idea in a dozen ways presents little difficulty. “Twice two is four” — “two times two makes four” — “the multiplication of two by itself produces four” — all say the same thing in different words. But using the same words presents a “something to tie to.”

The visitor in a strange town who wishes to spend a fraternal evening goes to the Masonic lodge, confident of what he will find therein. If he is a “bright Mason” and knows his own “work” he is sure that he will soon satisfy the examining committee. When he enters the lodge he knows what to expect, what he will hear, what is expected of him, what to do, what, if anything, to say. It is to a “home away from home,” to use the well-worn phrase, that he goes. Without ritual, visiting would be impossible, and if possible, unhappy and undesired. Men do not go to strange meetings of strangers to take part in strange ceremonies. They go where they know they will find familiar words and acts as they, in turn, have provided familiarity and “hominess” for the visitors to their own lodges.

The ritual is to many all the translation of Masonic symbols that they know. Only symbolists understand the boundless wealth to be found in symbols; to many, a symbol is just one thing standing for one other thing; “G” for geometry; trowel for brotherly love; apron for innocence. For these — and they are in the majority — ritual is the title to this monograph — the “voice of the sign.” In lodge constant attendants learn ritual even if they never repeat it. They hear the ritualistic explanation of the familiar Masonic symbols; knowing no others, these become mental fixtures. By these they recognize their fellows; by such phrases do they find familiarity and a welcome in lodges other than their own; by these, in deed, do many who have studied Masonry believe themselves to be well-informed Masons. It is good that they do, for a little wisdom is better than none and there is such a thing as the little leaven that leavens the whole.

But also there is the “slightly spoiled egg” which will ruin a large omelet. American Freemasonry has a small poisonous growth that is doing its little best to make the omelet uneatable.

This is the “ritual tinkerer.” Usually he is a devoted brother, an ardent Freemason, a good man and true, to whom ritual is the be-all and end-all of Freemasonry. To him, learning ritual and delivering it letter perfect is the whole end and aim of Masonry. Naturally, then, he wants the ritual “perfect” and by means of a “committee on work,” or a meeting of “district lecturers” or some other piece of grand lodge machinery, is constantly “making the ritual better” by ironing out grammatical errors, removing obsolete words, adding this phrase or that paragraph “because it is beautiful.”

Alas, it is for such as these that the ritual on a cross might pray “Brethren, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” ANY change in ritual, if the ritual is old, is a change for the worse. Any alteration of the fraternal chain which has given Freemasonry longer life than that of any government, nation, philosophy, association, is a weakening. American Masonic ritual exhibits some astonishing alterations in some places; interpolations that, no matter how beautiful, are not Masonic ritual. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is in a class by itself. Hamlet’s Soliloquy is unique in literature. The Twenty-third Psalm is almost as universal as church ritual as the Lord’s Prayer.

But these have no place in Masonic ritual.

No more have a hundred other interpolations, changes, alterations, interjections, transformations, reshapings, shufflings and modulations! Every one of these, alas, is a deterioration of what should be sacred and inviolate, and all in the name of “improvement” by good, if misled, men who do not understand that to paint the antique varnish, silverplate the pewter or polish the ancient bronze is sacrilege.

Change the “voice of the sign” often enough, even if the individual change appears innocuous and in the aggregate of years it will read a new meaning into the symbol and make Freemasonry something that Freemasonry never was.

The “voice of the sign” is the life of Freemasonry.

It is we, here and now, who must give it the nourishment of loving recognition: the fact that for Freemasonry to continue to be Freemasonry it must have its ritual, its old ritual, its only ritual.

What the “voice of the sign” was, what it is now, it must ever be.

Amen, So mote it be!

The Masonic Service Association of North America