It has been 15 years now, but in the early days of the “traditional observance” lodge movement, I recall a few Grand Lodges had a rough time accepting what they surmised was a new way of “practicing” Freemasonry in their jurisdictions. As with many new ideas in our old institution, we can generally depend on the most stalwart brothers of our craft to be the first to surface with shouts of horror and disbelief that some landmark of Masonic law has surely been breached. Any practice that feels or looks different than the practice men are used to in their own lodge culture is at least a threat, if not an outright innovation, to the ways of Masonry. One Grand Master was known to have said there was “an unbridgeable gulf that exists between these lodges and the Grand Lodge. “
It was a remarkable statement. Since the intent and goal of the traditional lodge movement was simply to bring to our own American culture those traditional practices of Freemasonry that had long proven to be a successful model for the Masonic experience in every other country in which Freemasonry is practiced, it was stunning to its founders that any Grand Lodge would object. If anything, the organizers of the movement felt with all their hearts that they were bringing the true form and structure of Masonry back to the American Masonic landscape.
But that was the issue. There was a difference in understanding how form is defined in Masonry. We all agree that some form is important else we would move to wholly promoting one day classes, or changing the ritual to eliminate its core teaching, or signing up men over the internet. But, beyond the obvious, it becomes easy to confuse form with activity.
Form is what makes Masonry. It is the form that sets the parameters of our institution. It is the form that establishes it landmarks and customs. It is the form that enables us to be a global brotherhood of men. It is the form that allows us to penetrate the deepest aspects of our being, discover who we, why we are here, and what our duties are in life. It is the form of Masonry that creates its experience.
But if we misunderstand the form, or deny its significance, we cut ourselves loose from our heritage. We are then set adrift in a world that denies the possibilities which are inherent in man to discover. We become just another club for the profane. The whole purpose of initiation, the whole intent of Masonry is to provide a path whereby men can realize the potentialities which exist within themselves—potentialities that cannot be reached other than at the center of one’s own consciousness. And it is the form in Freemasonry that leads us to this center of our being.
What, then, makes us Masons? What is a Masonic Lodge? Grand Lodges have typically laid out four characteristics that define a lodge—fraternalism, charitable endeavors, community service, and philosophical discussion. Yet, none of these characteristics define Masonry. And each can lead us astray.
We can’t simply be a fraternal or social organization. If we are, we have nothing to offer that can’t be better provided by many other organizations. Charity does not define Freemasonry, as charity is taught in essentially every moral code to be incumbent upon all human beings. Community service cannot define Freemasonry, as it was not historically a part of Masonry. Community service is something that grows out of the Masonic experience, but is not inherent to it.
Nor can we be a philosophical organization, as far as philosophy is meant to be a branch of knowledge limited to the rational mind. Modern philosophy denies the existence of the most important element of the human heart; intuitive understanding. Human beings simply do not have the capacity to decide what is right without grace; without the active action of the Divine.
You see, these four characteristics could be attached to any number of groups in society. If there is nothing inherently different about Freemasonry, then what distinguishes us from the rest of the community? If these things do not define Freemasonry, then what does?
Our ritual instruction makes this quite clear. It is the internal and not the external qualities of a man that make him a Mason. The element that defines Freemasonry among all groups is that Freemasonry is an initiatic society, a mystery school that reveals the nature of God, and instructs men how to discover and recognize his divine nature and potential. It is the art of initiation that allows the individual to access the higher nature within himself. His greatest potentialities cannot be achieved except through ritual and an understanding of the initiatic process. Masonry is a form of knowledge, a transformative art which is passed down through its form of instruction. It is the form alone that allows us to transcend the confines of our profane nature so that we can come to know the nature of truth. The form enables the inner work.
The men in Traditional Observance Lodges believe what our European forefathers believed; that there are those who seek Freemasonry today because they are looking for the same thing that men of every past generation and every past culture have earnestly sought—they are looking for something that can bring meaning to their lives.
Many other organizations can provide the four characteristics that so often define our lodge experience today. If we wish to practice these things, that is fine; but to be special we should be about the business of doing them better than any other group.
What other groups cannot provide, and what only traditional Masonry currently provides, are the traditional forms of an initiatic organization. That is truly the only experience which distinguishes us from the rest of the community. Fortunately, it is a lodge experience that is growing in popularity and acceptance. But for the new craftsmen, it is simply the old Masonry; rediscovered.
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