Masonic Catechism

Making the Most of the Masonic Catechism

In Bro. Robert Davis’s recent TLP article, “What Came You Here to Do?”, he reminded his readers of one of the first and most important questions and answers we encounter as Freemasons. Many of us have fond memories of learning the questions and answers required to prove our proficiency in one degree before moving on to the next – our Masonic catechism. At the very least, it provided opportunities for us to meet and sit with more experienced and knowledgeable brothers in the Craft. In most cases, these opportunities included taking time to learn more about each other, and even to bond as men with shared values and intentions. In somewhat fewer cases that I know of, these sessions involved discussions about the historical content and meaning of the questions and answers.  In the rarest cases, teachers have actually challenged their students to think deeply about the symbolic and philosophical dimensions of the catechism, its allegorical allusions to the work of Masonry that we identify when we answer why we became Masons and what we came to do. This last way of working with the catechism is precisely what Bro. Davis demonstrated in his article. Yet the rarity of such contemplation actually occurring in our lodges begs some important questions.

1.     Why isn’t the catechism used as a platform for actually developing deeper insight into the teachings of Masonry, and the ways those teachings are meaningful to us as individuals?

One reason that seems obvious for this lacking is that the teachers simply haven’t been taught to do it; it isn’t part of the tradition of advancement in most lodges.   Therefore, even if the idea of doing so occurs to anyone, it gets pushed aside because it is considered unnecessary to, or even distracting from, the new Mason’s advancement to the next degree.   Of course, this points to an underlying assumption of what it means to advance in Masonry, and that assumption is that it is mostly about getting through the degree ceremonies as quickly as possible in order to be a full member of our fraternity.

A second reason is undoubtedly that many teachers don’t feel prepared to facilitate such a process.   To begin with, they have no personal experience of it from their own advancement.  In addition, they may not understand the value or the methods of encouraging others to think about symbolism and philosophy.  Similarly, they may also be uncomfortable with a process that is actually more about helping a brother explore and clarify his own questions and understandings than simply memorizing the right words.   These issues indicate that, all too often, the highest aims of Masonry taught in our rituals aren’t the actual priorities of the way Masonry is practiced in our lodges.  In short, our behavior suggests that we aren’t primarily concerned with transforming ourselves and each other into more intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally virtuous men. 


2.     What is being missed by not using the catechism in this way?

Perhaps by now it is obvious that the shortest and most direct answer to this question is that we are missing out on Masonry itself!  We aren’t really doing Masonry, not really being or even becoming Masons, craftsmen of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty.  We’re just talking about these things in very grandiose and flowery ways, almost as if the whole thing is a big joke, a farcical façade over less noble, less demanding, and less rewarding purposes.  If we want to get more specific, all we have to do is review our rituals and catechisms, taking note of all the personal, moral, social, and spiritual benefits they literally and figuratively suggest. The less we do Masonry, the less we unfold everything it holds in waiting.


3.     What can we do to encourage getting the most out of the catechism?

To begin with, individual Masons must recognize the opportunities provided by the catechism.  Next, they must understand the value of those opportunities.  Then they must commit to take advantage of those opportunities for themselves and ensure them for their brethren.   Enough brothers making such a commitment can change the culture of a lodge, a district, or even an entire jurisdiction. 

In a culture that makes the most of the catechism, brothers talk to each other about the important opportunities it provides for attaining deeper insight into ourselves, our fraternity, and our lives outside the lodge.  We emphasize, celebrate, and reward the depth of one’s catechism experience rather than the speed and accuracy with which one performs rote memorization.  Every question, every answer, no matter how simple it seems, is actually taken as a veil that conceals as well as reveals Masonic light.  We seek and exchange practical tips on how to facilitate such processes instead of simply providing lecture and repetition of the questions and answers.  We support our brothers in exploring the very poignant questions and possibilities raised by the words of our rituals.   We bare our souls and listen carefully to each other, and share our struggles and our successes in becoming more virtuous men. 


4.     When will we start doing it?

Yes, when?




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What Come You Here to Do?

Photo by: Colin Frankland

Photo by: Colin Frankland

What come you here to do?

My Brothers, this is one of the great questions in all of Freemasonry!

As those of us in the fraternity know, it is actually one of the first questions we ask an Entered Apprentice Mason in his first catechism lecture.

The earliest ritual reference of which we have record is Prichard’s Masonry Dissected, published in 1730. I have read all the early ritual exposures and I can assure you this question and the subsequent answer given to it is not commonly found in the pre-Grand Lodge or early Premier Grand Lodge era ritual workings. In fact the answer appears in no other English ritual exposure from 1696 to 1769. In the single ritual text in which it does appear, the answer is given thus:

Not to do my own proper Will,
But to subdue my passion still;
The Rules of Masonry in hand to take,
And daily Progress therein make.

It is possible this particular catechism was used in early Operative Masonry because it is a didactic memory technique for learning. And this method of learning (using rhyme) dates centuries earlier than even the Regius Poem, (c. 1390),—purported to be the oldest didactic in Masonry. It may have also originated in 18th century continental Masonry, but again, there is no other reference to the question and its follow up answer in any other English ritual exposure from 1696 to 1769.

In a 1738 French translation of Prichard’s exposure, we find it once again. This time the question is worded What do you wish to do here?; and the answer given is; I do not inspire to follow my will, but rather to subdue my passions, while following the precepts of the Masons and making daily advancement in this Profession.

And then there is a 1745 French exposure entitled “The Broken Seal” where we find the questionWhat do you come to do here? With the answer; To conquer my passions, subdue my desires, and to make new progress in Masonry. 

It appears the consistent theme in each of these exposures is that the primary task of an Entered Apprentice is to subdue his passions and then, using the lessons of Masonry, to make progress in his life.

Now, the first thing almost every Mason will notice is that the answer given in the old catechisms is not the answer taught today in the ritual workings of our contemporary lodges. In fact, I would suggest that today’s answer has a much deeper meaning. It was developed during the early 19th century; when Masonry was a far more philosophical than moral undertaking. It commonly goes something like this: What come you here to do?

To learn to subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry.

The interesting question is this: Are there any commas in this sentence? I think that there are. I think if the answer was actually written in most Masonic monitors, it would look like this:

To learn, to subdue my passions, and improve myself; in Masonry.

If I am right, then there was a new admonition added to the task of an Entered Apprentrice as the philosophical integrity of our Craft ritual expanded; namely—that he first learns.

And I think this changes everything!

To learn is to acquire knowledge; to acquire knowledge of a subject or skill as a result of study, of experience, or teaching; to receive instruction; to find out about, or discover; to be informed of, or learn about; to teach or inform a person of something.

We have to learn there is a moral imperative, for instance, before we can subdue our passions; we have to study Masonry before we can understand it. We have to discover there is an allegory before we can interpret it. We have to be informed of its history before we can comprehend its societal relevance. We have to detect its symbolic associations before we can grasp its spiritual nature. We have to contemplate its meanings before we can experience its insights. We have to be informed of its rules and laws before we can act within the due bounds of fraternity. We have to understand the meaning of manhood before we can grasp the unique power of fraternal association. 

We have to learn before we can improve ourselves. And we are taught as Entered Apprentices, we cannot improve ourselves without first subduing our passions--without releasing ourselves from our own ego so that we can feel the brotherhood of man. And we learn as Fellowcrafts that we have to overcome and go beyond the human senses, we have to transcend the logic of human education, we have to journey beyond the paradigms of human awareness, we have to surpass even inspiration and insight, go beyond all the powers and properties, the sciences and senses of man to erect our perfect ashlar; to get in touch with divine truth--which is metaphysical—it surpasses human understanding. Then, as Master Masons, we learn that we have to finally overcome ourselves before we can achieve peace and harmony within ourselves, and in our lives.

The bottom line of Masonic teaching is that, through the journey of our degrees, we learn that Divine truth can’t be understood by the human agencies of education, or dogma, or rationale thought, or by the evidence of the senses—it has to be perceived directly. And, my Brothers, it enters into us by the path of initiation.

All of this is pretty heady stuff. Men come into Masonry to learn to improve themselves. If they are coming here for any other reason, then we are failing to represent with honesty what our organizational purpose is. Men come to us to learn. The lodge is the receptacle, the personal space, the sacred environment that will either facilitate their learning, or prevent it.

To me, this brings up another question for all of us: Which kind of facilitator is our lodge?




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