Vol. XLIII No. 6 — JUne 1965

The Ritual Is Important

Conrad Hahn

The United Grand Lodge of England passed a resolution last year that permits a variation in the ritual pertaining to the penalties of the obligations in the three degrees. The actual wording of the penalties themselves remains unchanged. The permissive variation is intended to remove the moral objections that some brethren have had to the inclusion of the penalties in the obligations.

In announcing the alteration, the grand lodge explained that it has retained the penalties, not merely because it is opposed to any considerable change in the ritual, but primarily because subsequent parts of the ritual derive their symbolism from the penal clauses. They are important as an introduction to later ritualistic activities. They are essential as “historical” elements in the Hiramic legend, not as a literal retribution to which a candidate gives assent.

The variation, however, is optional. The constituent lodges must decide, each one for itself, whether to make the change in the ritual or not. Once a decision is reached, “it should be adhered to, without a revival of discussion, for a reasonable length of time, e.g., at least five years.”

American Freemasons will also be interested to learn that the Grand Lodge of England rejected an amendment to the resolution that would have referred this matter to a committee to be appointed by the Board of General Purposes. “The Board does not have responsibility for matters of Masonic ritual.”

In fact, the lodges have been instructed not to address questions about this permissible alteration to the Board of General Purposes. They are to decide these questions “in accordance with the accepted practice of English Masonry, viz., that a lodge should settle for itself what form of ritual it wishes to adopt.” The constituent lodges do not only enjoy considerable freedom; they also accept and discharge serious responsibility in ritualistic matters.

While some American grand lodges may find debatable such freedom to choose the form of ritual a lodge may adopt, committees on information or instruction will find helpful the suggestions that the Grand Lodge of England made to its constituent lodges concerning the enlightenment of candidates about the obligations and the penalties.

There can be no objection to sponsors explaining at an early stage to a Masonic candidate that Masonic ceremonies involve an Obligation or oath, which contains a penal clause. It is equally reasonable to explain that subsequent parts of the ceremony derive their symbolism from these penal clauses, which are therefore important rather as an introduction to it than in a literal sense.

It is also suggested that the alternative methods of introducing the penal clauses be explained to the candidate, and the lodge’s method emphasized. Naturally, the details of the penalties are not disclosed. The candidate should be allowed to decide for himself if the lodges practice is acceptable to him. If it is not, “he should be advised to withdraw his candidature.” This is really “laying the cards on the table,” but one cannot help admiring such a forthright clarification of Masonic practice for the benefit of the candidate. It emphasizes the fact that the ritual is the fundamental tool in Masonic education and instruction.

What a brother learns from the ritualistic work in the lodge is the first and usually the determining impression that Freemasonry makes on him. He either “likes what he sees” or he discovers that the Fraternity doesn’t offer him what he expected.

For this reason, the ritual must be regarded as the basic tool for Masonic education. Every exemplification, therefore, should be the very best that the officers can portray. The ritual can be depended on “to do the job,” if the candidate possesses the necessary qualifications for Masonic initiation.

One of the great needs of our time is not a renewed emphasis on the technical aspects of good ritual work, important as that is. That is the responsibility of the officers of the lodge, as well as of grand lecturers and lodges of Instruction. The great need is for an understanding of the significance of Masonic ritual.

Much of the querulous dissatisfaction with Freemasonry’s influence and image stems from a misconception of its fundamental purpose and reason for existence. The teachings of the ritual have been lost in a search for a Masonic prosperity that has little to do with the universal aspirations of a worldwide brotherhood. It is hard to believe that a member has grasped the significance of Freemasonry when he suggests that the Fraternity needs youth centers, swimming pools, and a country club with an 18 hole golf course in order to hold and attract new members.

By way of contrast, the Grand Lodge of England is suggesting that candidates be informed of the nature of Masonic obligations and the penal clauses that accompany them, so that they may decide for themselves if they want to undertake certain solemn commitments. If not, they are to be advised to withdraw their petitions.

This is placing emphasis on the real meaning of Masonic initiation: the acceptance by an individual of a certain course of moral instruction (the ritualistic activities of the degrees) and his commitment to shape his life according to that teaching.

Every private society or group, from the clan to the little bridge club, tends to develop in its membership certain attitudes and feelings that are characteristic of the psychology of groups. Some of these reactions are consciously stimulated; some are subconscious and develop from the activities of the organization. Men who seek political power have learned to use the group spirit to further their plans. For example, many of the people who spread palms before Jesus and shouted “Hosanna” when he entered Jerusalem were shouting, “Crucify Him!” less than a week later.

Many a man who has witnessed the three degrees of Masonry and promised to change his life (not someone else’s) by means of friendship, morality, and brotherly love sees no incongruity in demanding that other brethren join him in his political prejudices or in denouncing Masonic individualism. There will probably always be those who seek to use Freemasonry as a tool for mass activity — by manipulating the spirit of a group.

However, so long as the ritual of Masonic degrees is exemplified responsibly to qualified aspirants for Masonic Light, the harmful tendencies of such manipulation will be kept in check. Mass action — particularly the frenzied fanaticism of a mob — cannot develop or grow where the value of the individual is treasured and where individual commitment to the group’s ideals is constantly kept in mind.

Every organization seeks to develop in its members a feeling of distinction, of exclusivity based on its aims and objectives. Freemasonry is no exception. Even within itself the Fraternity has developed special rites and orders to give distinctive meaning to the activities of those members who seek to increase their understanding of the society’s purpose and activities.

What really gives Freemasonry its distinctive, its “exclusive” characteristics is the ritual — the most important pillar in the edifice of Masonic tradition. Its fundamental meaning, therefore, is tremendously important, especially to the candidate as he participates in the rites ofinitiation. Every petitioner should understand, when he knocks on the door of a lodge, that he is about to participate, deep within himself, in an act of faith and courage, since he is permitting himself to be led along a path whose end he cannot yet see.

At the same time the officers of the lodge should clearly recognize the responsibility they are assuming in conducting the initiate along the new path he is trustingly following. In Freemasonry that path leads through the ritual and traditional Masonic instruction to the Light, the light of understanding that a moral man can reach a higher plane of self-realization in the larger society of humankind.

Initiation means literally a beginning. Masonic initiation tries to teach a man the necessity for a new beginning, of a new direction for his moral and spiritual impulses. The ritual is the vehicle by which this instruction is conveyed.

Good ritual work, therefore, is that which convinces the candidate that he has voluntarily struck out in a new path and that the adventure is his and his alone to pursue. All his commitments were made in that spirit and context. Later he will learn how to fit his individual progress into the life of the Fraternity and the community as a whole. That is the meaning of the ritualistic expressions concerning the polishing of the rough ashlar, the better to fit it for the builder’s use.

But if a rough stone is to be shaped for a specific application in the still unfinished temple of brotherhood, one must have an idea of its future shape, a design, in order to make it fit exactly. Masonic ritual, therefore, is more than a course of instruction in moral precepts. It is a path for the properly instructed initiate to follow in search of the meaning of life, especially his own. It leads to the light that may reveal “that which was lost,” a knowledge of man’s relationship with the Great Architect of the Universe.

The lodge has done the ritual well if it makes the initiate dare to follow that path in a search for further light about his duty and destiny in this mysterious life. The ritual is a bridge by which the individual Mason can set out on a journey among his fellowmen — to be a man in the completest meaning of that word.

Every group or society also seeks to give its members a feeling of kinship or belonging. In this respect it responds to a fundamental human need, and Freemasonry is no exception.

However, many members of the Craft seem to be in doubt about the nature of the cement that unites Freemasons in a bond of fellowship, regardless of the circumstances of their education, vocation, and prosperity. This is why there are so many plans and projects proposed to “turn the tide” of shrinking membership and poor attendance.

Just as speculative students once believed that by alchemy they could find “the philosopher’s stone” and thereby correct the ills of mankind, so there have always been Freemasons who believed that the Fraternity could improve itself and the world by means of sectarian, political, or modern merchandising programs. Today even the much-praised concept of tolerance is hardening into a dogma. There are even some Masons who would do away with, or seriously modify the ritual to make it more “modern,” more “useful.”

What really holds Freemasons together? Just one concept, the idea of brotherhood. Not the brotherhood of identical twins, but the vital pulsating brotherhood of differing individuals who admire each other primarily because they are different, but who try to strengthen in each other some common aspirations for the light of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

That lodge has done its ritualistic labors well, which has given its initiates the skill to mix that kind of speculative cement; for with that kind of understanding of the real aims and purposes of the Fraternity, a brother will carry on his Masonic labors with pride and with gladness, having understood from the beginning of his initiation that the only real penalties he might suffer are the loss of self-esteem and the disapproval of his brethren.

The Masonic Service Association of North America