I have given much thought over the past twenty years to the state of Masonry in America. To be sure, the success or failure of our organization is almost wholly based on the Symbolic Lodge and the experience a Brother receives there. A global review of successful lodge models clearly shows us there are at least two models of success in the Masonic culture.
There are, for example, thriving lodges in America which stay focused on delivering Masonry with a well-rounded agenda. These lodges characteristically provide accurate ritual work, meaningful charitable activities, visible community services, regular family and social activities, and an adequate fraternal experience for their members. Successful lodges do this consistently year after year. Lodges that are increasing in membership in the United States typically do these things better than most.
But there are also lodges whose success is focused only on Masonry as a fraternal experience; one in which meaningful tools for personal improvement and spiritual development are consistently delivered to members month-in and month-out. Such lodges are centered on what we might call the “inner work,” in which the appeal is wholly fraternal and carried out in privacy, with little public visibility. In America, we think of these as “traditional practices” lodges.
Let me say that I fully support and encourage the first model of success for the overall American culture, as it is the one that gives us public presence and credibility and offers our members the opportunity to practice without the lodge what they learn in it. It is the lodge experience that the Masonic Renewal Committee of North America has claimed will be attractive to a significant number of American men.
Having said this, however, it is the second model of success that will be the focus of this paper because I am convinced that men in the 19 to 35 year-old-range are interested in organizations that are centered on education, spiritual development, and fraternity. And it is this segment of our population that will most likely determine if Masonry will survive or die as an American institution over the
next few years.
I have done some serious soul-searching about our claim that the most important purpose of our Order is to take good men and make them better; in large part because we fail miserably in our effort to create and protect the setting within which this process can occur—the sacred space of the tiled lodge. To me, meeting on the level implies that there is a place where, in fact, no invidious distinctions exist; a place where there is no basis for envy or jealousy; a place where there is no need for power or control; a place where there is no impulse for influence or manipulation; no motive for condescension and patronizing; a place wherein there is no presumption that we will duplicate there the behaviors and attitudes that may prevail outside of it.
Yet, in lodge after lodge; in Grand Lodge after Grand Lodge, we typically find that the normal characteristics of human behavior remain the same. within the tiled recesses as without them. My Brethren, if the normal failings of humanity do not stay outside the lodge, then how can we claim to offer a different space within it? How do we deliver on our promise that wisdom dwells in contemplation, that the genius of the Mystic Art presides over our assemblies, and that we are practicing our operative craft only when we are gathered together in a sacred space set aside and consecrated specifically for that purpose?
Those of us who are active in our communities and are known as Masons and those of us who work in Masonic buildings which offer daily public tours frequently get the chance to talk with many non- Masons. In those conversations we find a surprising number of young men asking questions about Masonry. Many of these men, particularly those who have done some website surfing, have already formulated an opinion about us. Thus they often come into Masonry knowing more about it than we do. They have read all the anti-Mason rhetoric that is out there. They have sifted through the good and the bad, and have independently concluded that Freemasonry is a venue for truth-seeking; a vehicle for self development; a quest for the spiritual.
Many young men are coming into our Order with expectations of discovery and personal improvement. What they too often find is an organization where old men with old ideas rule; where little happens of substance; where 90% of the members are unseen and inactive; and where behaviors practiced in lodge are remarkable only in their mediocrity and collective lack of understanding in both its organizational purpose and its relevance to the individual.
These realities have led me to become increasingly resistant to the usual lodge culture that we offer in America. I am increasingly fearful that if we do not change our vision and behaviors of what we are supposed to do in lodge, we will run the risk of having to compete with newly created forms of Freemasonry which will likely deliver an even more fragmented system of fraternity with no uniform principles, one that operates from a ritual base of no lineage and promotes practices that are different than what our Founding Fathers envisioned in our Renaissance and Enlightenment era beginnings.
In my judgment, there is an enormous threat to recognized and legitimate Freemasonry today which is being facilitated by electronic ommunication. The Internet, for all of its advantages of networking, has the potential of organizing an entire generation of young seekers into a form of Masonry that knows no Grand Lodge, which operates independently from any collective system of sanctioning, and which will ultimately offer an inadequate model of stability to enable it to survive longer than most other American fads.
This is not a valid or responsible approach to improvement. We are the trustees of a timeless model of improvement for men. Our job is not to light a new torch, but to carry the torch of the old way to the next generation of men. We have a heritage and a lineage which is ours alone because we have earned our own position within it from a legitimate constitutional base.
The point then which I want to raise with you today is this—there is nothing inherently wrong with Freemasonry. It is only because we have stopped seeing Masonry as a transformative art that we have stopped being successful as Masons. It is only when we stopped the dialogue of sharing the meanings and interpretations of our allegories in lodge as a collective practice of lodge that we lost our understanding of Masonry. It is only when we stopped offering the right model for fraternal role modeling to our younger members, one that provides meaningful generational connections to them, that we became less attractive to the largely fatherless culture in our society.
It is only when we stopped seeing the lodge as a vehicle for facilitating the ideals and needs of men, rather than forcing men to be suppliants to the Lodge, that we lost the essential motivation for joining. It is only when we stopped creating social and leadership venues that offered valuable connections between generations of men that we became irrelevant in their eyes. It is only when we stopped creating meaningful legislation in our Grand Lodges, when we stopped making the kinds of adaptations which may bring us progress, and when we replaced progressive opportunities with meaningless rules, that we became too selfserving to be interactive with the larger society.
It is when we decided to become a popular organization that permits anyone to be a member, rather than accepting only those who are duly and truly prepared as instructed by our rituals, that we lost the segment of the male culture that could help us the most and sustain us in every generation. It is, after all, the man who has prepared himself to accept responsibility for his own actions who is also prepared for any kind of constructive learning about himself. When a candidate knocks on the door of a Masonic lodge, he is standing at the threshold of his own consciousness. Beyond that door, he should find a Temple of Enlightenment. And everything he does therein, every symbol he encounters, every pause he takes, every process he witnesses through the degrees of Masonry from that point forward should enhance his increased awareness, his levels of consciousness, and his transformation as a more enlightened human and spiritual being. Brother Kirk MacNulty perhaps defined this concept best in his wonderful book, The Way of the Craftsman, that the craft communicates two notions—first that mankind is made in the image of God and, second, that each of us reflects the structure of the universe.
So, we have to understand that every lodge is a group of men who come together for the purpose of carrying out certain kinds of magical work. The lodge experience is defined by the space which it creates, by its patterns of symbols and ideas, by its music and lighting, by its understanding of its legends and its psychological structure. Traditional practices lodges understand the lodge space itself, and that the work done there is done in secret; and through this discipline of secrecy, it creates for its group a “space between worlds.”
The lodge, because of its consecration and structure, becomes a receptacle of mental and
spiritual health. It provides the path or way of contemplation. It is a healing place because of the purification of its space; and the men working within such a place are doing inner work together. It is a place where only peace and harmony is known because each man within the group is building a temple to God and he knows that is what he is doing. Every participant knows it is his edifice of consciousness and wisdom, in which he himself is the building stone. We cannot smooth the rough ashlar, we cannot square this stone, we cannot make it fit in the Temple without the awareness that this is the work we are doing; that the lodge is the stage, the studio, the working floor, the trestle board for such work.
My Brethren, I can assure you that when you create such a place, and when you bring
the right men into this space, and you stay focused on the individual and his experience,
your rituals will awaken magical energies both within you and within your lodge setting. Your group can literally charge with extraordinary power what is otherwise an ordinary space and transform your lodge into the transformational center that it can and should be.
[Reprinted with permission of the author and The Voice of Freemasonry, published by the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia.]