Masonic Light

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 In somewhat fewer cases that I know of, these sessions involved discussions about the historical content and meaning of the questions and answers.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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When the Buzzards Go to Roost

It’s only an opinion, of course, but buzzards seem to me to be an especially nasty species of bird. I don’t even like to give them the dignity of thinking they are birds. They never really fly, they’re only half-dressed, and they have no apparent means of employment. They just sit around with their necks hanging down between their pointed shoulders, knees bent, buttocks tucked in—in kind of a semi-fetal, perpetual slump.

And there they sulk. They don’t appear particularly to like anything, not even their own kind. They sleep most of the time, and you never really see much of them. At least not until something begins to die.

Then, it’s as if they had a calling. They stretch and yell and jump and pick at themselves. They sort of collectively launch after their wounded game in a feathered frenzy. It becomes a contest to see which of them will be the first to get their talons and their beaks in the warm flesh of their poor victim. Tearing and ripping at their prey and at each other, to see who will devour the most and the best of what is offered up to them.

It’s a pitiful sight. Almost a ritual, repeated time and again until there is nothing left but bones.

It reminds me of another species I have observed. This one’s also a rather strange bird. It’s called a Past Master.

I’ve seen this fowl do pretty much the same things. It generally sits around minding its own business, cleaning its talons, and rubbing its bald head. Until something happens; almost anything at all. And then, watch out! It doesn’t take much to provoke this bird. In fact, he has been a little disagreeable ever since he was relegated from the head of the flock to his roost as Past Master—usually by some “up-start” who, in his way of thinking, can’t know half as much about what is going on. As far as the gaggle of Past Masters is concerned, the judgment is almost always in on the “sitting” Master before it ever went out. It is assumed that, if not watched like a hawk, the new guy will most assuredly tear everything down that they tried to erect while they were the head of the flock.

Now, the not so interesting thing about this is that, in the kind of lodges I am describing, these old birds were no different when they served their year in the “chair.” In fact, it is unlikely they tried anything earth shaking in their own time to move their lodge forward. Rather than actually take a chance on saving their lodge, they made the same choice every Master had made before them. They opted to contribute to the lodge’s death for yet one more year—by doing nothing.

And now, having passed to the ranks of “Past,” they sit in their roost, usually along the north side of the lodge, and sharpen their talons--in case something happens--so they can turn it back into nothing.

Of course, this visual image of Masonry does not apply to active, vibrant, dynamic lodges; of which we have many. And there are many wonderful Past Masters in the world of Masonry. But nonetheless, the image too often does exist across the landscape of American Masonry. I can well imagine it exists in any organization that has a progressive line.

It brings up a point. When a Worshipful Master chooses to “do nothing” during his year, and the Past Masters heartily endorse his lack of effort; they are, in effect, contributing to more than just the death of their lodge. They are contributing to their own demise. They are eating the meat from their own bones. And, over time, there will be no reason to be a Past Master. There will be no place for them to roost.

They will have no lodge in their area. And it will no longer mean anything to be a Past Master. They will spend their last days just being “old buzzards.” Then, when they die, there will be no younger birds to watch over their remains.

If there is a moral to this rambling, perhaps it is that our fraternal institution was never supposed to die because we had only buzzards for leaders. The ideal was never that a presiding officer be only an average leader; neither should he be expected to imitate a poor example. Nor should anyone who has already led feel envy because a successor outdoes him. Rather, all of us should act together in care of what brings our lodge success. And success is always fed by right example.

Leadership in Freemasonry has never been about titles, jewels, caps, fezzes, honors, or tradition. It is about making good choices in how we act, think, behave, and bring credit to our teachings. It is not the past, after all, but the future which conditions us—what we do with what lies in front of us is far more important than anything that has already happened to us.

Here is a key: Vision, integrity, and a focus on excellence happens one man and one lodge at a time. Once an environment is created that is conducive to self-motivation, the group dynamic changes. And when enough of the right things change in lodge after lodge after lodge, Freemasonry will grow again.

When the buzzards go to roost for good.




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Putting Masonic Light Into Action

                    Guthrie SR Atrium – Photo by  Matthew D. Anthony  (c) 2012

                    Guthrie SR Atrium – Photo by Matthew D. Anthony (c) 2012

Scottish Rite Reunion season is upon us. During the past few weeks there has been a flurry of back channel emails in my Scottish Rite Valley discussing the programs and sessions that will take place, degree team sound offs, etc. I am supremely fortunate to be a member of the Guthrie Valley, which not only boasts a beautiful Masonic building, but also has unique education and contemplative practice programs. During the Reunions there are group meditation and education courses, as well as ample opportunities to spend one-on-one time with individual seekers, teachers, and facilitators from numerous spiritual traditions ranging from mainstream Christianity, Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Islam-Sufism, Neo-Paganism, etc., so it is truly a spiritual melting pot that provides a smorgasbord for the spiritual seeker. It also provides people from all spiritual backgrounds and levels of interest or development with a platform to learn from one another, which unfortunately is a very rare opportunity. In a world that is constantly tearing itself apart over the proper name for God, or the proper mode of worship, a Reunion provides a rare opportunity to simply spread Light and love.

As I prepare for the upcoming Reunion, I have started to go through my notes and ritual copies to prepare my lectures for the two or three education sessions that I'll be teaching. The main theme that I keep coming back to is one of the central teachings of the Scottish Rite, which is that its members should actively go out into the world and practice what they have learned in order to take up the struggle against tyranny, oppression, ignorance, and human suffering of all kinds- To be a true soldier of Light in the world.

Too often people are merely content with “receiving” teachings, which they in turn put away on a mental shelf and call it "wisdom"; however, wisdom is not passive learning and recitation, because that is merely an intellectual exercise. To discover Truth and become “wise”, means really internalizing the teachings that you learn from Freemasonry, your spiritual practice, friends, mentors, etc., and actually putting these teachings into an active practice, which will not only make “you” a better person, but it will also make the world around you a better place. After all, it doesn’t do you any good to constantly go to a church, mosque, a dharma center, or Lodge if you aren’t reflecting those teachings into every aspect of your life. Don't be content with putting your lamp under a bushel. (Matthew 5:15)

From a Buddhist’s perspective it doesn’t do me any good to know about the noble truth of suffering, and the need to end the suffering of all sentient beings, and then turn a blind eye to suffering. From a Christian’s perspective it doesn’t do me any good to know about Christ’s compassionate and loving nature, and then turn away from helping someone because “they don’t deserve it”, or “they haven’t earned it like I have”, or condemn someone just because you don’t personally agree with all of their actions, choices, or lifestyle.

I really enjoy it when a teacher, preacher, or spiritual leader tells their followers to get off of the meditation pillow, out of the pews, and off of their knees in order to actually go out and put teachings into practice. I firmly believe that getting out into the world, and actually practicing what you have learned facilitates dramatic personal and external growth and progress, and the friction and conflicts that arise in the world will highlight areas of your ashlar that you still need to work on. The journey of a craftsman is a lifelong journey, and it is a journey of work.

Few among men are they who cross over to the further shore. The others merely run up and down the bank on this side.” – The Dhammapada

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." -(Matthew 5:15)


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