Contemplating the Level

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Brian L. Pettice, 33°


Last month Brother R J Budler, posted a Masonic Challenge on the Grand Lodge of Illinois Facebook group page. He challenged all to pick a specific working tool to ponder the meaning of and attempt to apply to our lives for one month and then share our thoughts and results. The Worshipful Master of Olive Branch Lodge No. 38, after learning of this challenge, charged each of us lodge members to do this exercise and report back to the lodge. I chose the level. Here are my reflections on the symbolism of the level and how I attempted to apply it to my life.

When the level is introduced to us a working tool, in the second degree, we are told that it is an instrument used by operative masons to prove horizontals and that it reminds us as speculative masons that, “We are traveling upon the level of time, to that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” This is not the first we have heard of it though. If we were paying attention at the close of the first degree we learned that masons should, “meet on the level.” I think the symbolisms of the level in these two instances hints that the level has something significant to teach us about both life and death.

First, anyone familiar with the works of William Shakespeare recognizes the phrase, “that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns” from Hamlet where one of its interpretations is that it means death. From this we are reminded that we all are going to die. We all have the same destination. We are equal in this regard. Texts from ritual we use in our public ceremonies further bear this out. In our Funeral ritual we are charged to learn, “from the level, equality.” We also meditate on this passage, “What are all the externals of human dignity, the power of wealth, or the charms of beauty when nature has paid her just debt? View life stripped of its ornaments, and exposed in its natural weakness, and we see the vanity of all earthly things save those which go to the growth and perfection of individual character.

In the grave all fallacies are detected, all ranks are leveled, all distinctions are done away. Here the scepter of the prince and the of the beggar lie side by side.” We also learn when the Senior Warden is invested with the level as the jewel of his office at installation that, “a time will come—and the wisest knows not how soon—when all distinction but that of goodness shall cease, and Death, the grand leveler of human greatness, reduce us to the same state.” We are all, indeed, equal in Death.

But what does the level teach us about life? Again from the Senior Warden’s installation ritual, “The level demonstrates that we are descended from the same stock, partake of the same nature, and share the same hope; and though distinctions among men are necessary to preserve subordination, yet no eminence of station should make us forget that we are brethren; for he who is placed on the lowest spoke of Fortune’s wheel may entitled to our regard.” Recognizing that we are all equal in Death, we should also recognize that we are equal in Life. This recognition should change the way we live. It should change how we treat each other. 

It is intimately connected with Justice, not in the sense of retribution for a wrong done, but in treating each other with that, “just due without distinction.” We are to love each other. We are to serve each other. We are to treat each other better than we deserve—everyone, not just the person you like, not just the person you agree with, not just the person who treats you well, but everyone. For as we are equal in death, we are equal in life. We all are endued with that divine spark; with a soul; with that, “immortal part which survives the grave and bears the nearest affinity to that Supreme Intelligence which pervades and animates all nature, and which can never, no never, die.”

I am reminded of a scene in lecture in the upcoming Feast of the Paschal Lamb portrayed by the Scottish Rite. On the evening of the Last Supper, Christ’s disciples argued about which among them was the greatest. Just as we often are-- as I often am—they were concerned with matters of ego and of passions that have no importance. Jesus responded by giving them a lesson in sacrifice and humility as he washed their feet. It is that kind of humility, that kind of sacrifice, that kind of selflessness that the level challenges us to strive for. These are the things I thought of as I contemplated the level this month. These are the things I tried to remember and apply to my interactions with my fellow human beings.

~BLP

Brian L. Pettice, 33° is a Past Master of Anchor Lodge No. 980 and plural member of Olive Branch Lodge No. 38 in Danville, IL and an Honorary Member of a couple of others. He is also an active member of both the York and Scottish Rites. He cherishes the Brothers that have become Friends over the years and is thankful for the opportunities Freemasonry gives and has given him to examine and improve himself, to meet people he might not otherwise have had chance to meet, and to do things he might not otherwise have had chance to do. He is employed as an electrician at the University of Illinois and lives near Alvin, IL with his wife Janet and their son Aidan. He looks forward to sharing the joy the fraternity brings him with others. His email address is aasrmason@gmail.com.

Mindfulness and the Working Tools

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Erik Antony Marks, 32, LICSW

It is commonly held and well documented that meditation is a practice, since about 1500 BCE in areas of India. From there, the famous story of the Buddha was popularized in the west by Herman Hess’ work, Siddhartha. Meditation of some form is found in all of the major religions of the world and have significant presence in lesser recognized religions and spiritual practices. We can find in the esoteric branches of the major religions—Gnostic, Sufi, Vajrayana or Tantric, Kabalistic, a strong emphasis on meditation. In Freemasonry we agree that no major task or important venture should be started without the invocation of Deity. Mindfulness meditation can often be used as a preliminary practice to prayer, be mixed with prayer as in Trappist Monk Thomas Merton’s Contemplative prayer, or be prayer in and of itself: a prayer without words, a prayer of presence.

There are gigabytes of resources on the internet about how to practice mindfulness, meditation, contemplative practices. Brother Chuck Dunning has an excellent book about the subject in relationship to Freemasonry, which I refer to often and recommend highly. You may ask why, then, would I write this? I do better when I find the authors like Dunning, Chödrön, Trungpa, Merton, which speak to me, with whom I feel a more personal connection. The author’s voice gets my attention or a detail they attend to, matches what I need. So, with the hope this will speak to you in a new way, here is my just-past-midnight version of encouragement to use the focus on the breath in mindfulness meditation as a tool.

In my usual vocation, I sit with people to talk about what either matters to, or troubles them most. More than half the time, this involves some form of nervousness, worry, anxiety, or panic. Daily, I return to the practice of sitting still with the mind, my own--theirs. Mindfulness meditation has been such a gift in my own life that from the moment I started working in human services, I’ve tried to incorporate it. There are lots of ways to incorporate the practice. It may mean teaching them to use this technique, or incorporating a practice they already have for a therapeutic purpose. It may come only in the form of practicing on my own time so I may be more present for them. There are times I ask them to stay with something difficult or complicated...don’t move on too quickly, let’s see where this thought/feeling takes us, you. Together, we delineate, circumscribe, an area of mind to attend to and stay within those bounds, intentionally. When we draw the lines, we know when we are outside, when our desires or passions have pulled us from our intended place or course of action.

Many people find they get stuck in thought loops, ruminate, worry: “I’ve always been a worrier” I hear multiple times a month. When in those states, it can feel challenging to get some distance on the mental process. It can even be difficult to remember to stop to practice or work with the mind in some moments: we are caught in a passion about reality, or concerned about a potential scenario. We may experience a fear of our own creation and then blow it out of proportion in our thoughts. We may churn about the future, or running over the same ground of a past experience or exchange that bothers us or how we may have hurt someone we care about. All of these are workable, with practice.

I like focusing on the breath since its with us wherever we go. In most situations, the people with whom I meet agree on this focal point and find it useful. I encourage them to focus on the rise and fall of their belly or the feel of the air moving in and out of their nostrils. Don’t try to change or control the breath, just try to notice it as it is happening. When your mind wanders to anything, say to yourself: “thinking,” and come back to the breath. This is akin to getting out the mental gavel and “knocking off” an idea. There is no judgement involved, the rough edge, thought, simply needs to be removed in that moment for the ashlar to become smoother. Over the course of a minute, that process of leaving with an idea and coming back can happen many times. Sometimes we “leave” with a thought and significant time goes by before we realize we’ve forgotten the intention to return. Its ok, its only thinking. Caveat: in some religions, denominations, or spiritual practices thoughts are not “just thoughts,” they are sin. The only claim I’m making is that for the purpose of dealing with the here and now psychology of human experience, thoughts are a cognitive process, contained in our minds, until we take action, which includes speaking. A longer conversation could occur about the use of mindfulness practice to enhance prayer and/or focus, generally, as well as the remedy for thoughts as sin.

Many people return to the next session and say “It didn’t work,” or “I failed,” or “I don’t think I did it right.” I know, it happens to me too, every week. If you sat down to have a practice, put in some intentional effort, you probably did it right. Having strong feelings, mind wandering, or getting angry with self for wandering are all part of the practice and evidence its proceeding correctly. Compassionately label it all as thinking and return to the focal point--subdue the criticism. We become more adept over time, and minds still wander. I once presented with a colleague at a college health conference in which he said: “The mind secretes thoughts like the pancreas secretes insulin.” It seemed apropos. We may not be able to stop thoughts or emotions from arriving, but we can work at what to do with them once they are here. Sometimes we don’t want to be as vigilant and we indulge a little. It's ok, you’re learning your own process and how passions pull at the mind. If you cut corners, you’ll know; there is no need to be harsh or mean with yourself, just try it differently next time. You’ll see, know, and feel it.

Sometimes sitting still in silence can cause us to worry more or feel increasingly anxious. It may be so intense you may want or need to “stop early.” You can and you may. I encourage taking the longest, slowest, deepest, and most quiet breath possible before stopping and then, stop: breathe in for as long as you can, hold it as long as you can, then exhale as long as you can stand it. Done. The meta-process of that self-intervention is that moment you subdued the need to escape your experience by superimposing another on top of it. You offered your conscious mind an idea and physical process to focus on instead of focusing on, and amplifying, the anxiety about the experience of the moment. Breath as tool; breath as compasses. In that moment you taught your amygdala that the fear of the moment gripping you was not, in fact, a saber-tooth tiger about to scramble your consciousness and wreak ruin in your life. You reprogrammed, rewired, your brain…just a little bit. In return, some part of the brain, and you, said: “huh, I didn’t lose it, I didn’t freak out…I’m ok...maybe I could have tolerated a little more.” Staying present at the boundary and observing allows an unique vantage point of our felt pain or discomfort in the moment; it allows us to recalibrate our gauge and then measure our emotional experience of time differently. Then next time that nervousness or anxiety happens, you may feel calmer, grounded, centered. You may be better prepared with the lesson from the previous experience and you may feel a little less worried: try two long breaths this time before stopping. Note: for the vast majority of people, these tools don’t work in the midst of full-on panic.

Last year, I attended a memorial service for a good friend, colleague, mentor, at a friend’s (Quaker) meetinghouse. My memory of the instruction was: sit in silence until you feel moved to speak. Though wait and see if you are moved to speak by divinity and not by some other purpose (ego, showing off, being heard). Many times through the service I felt a swell of emotion and memory, and wanted to say something. But I waited and in each instance, the something was about me, not about my friend, really. There was no sermon, not liturgical charge, no directive, no rapturous music, just silence and the words of others who felt moved to speak. It was one of the most powerful “services” I had attended. I believe it was one of the most powerful because the instruction was to fully attend to the moment and my use my working tools to shape the expression of my intentions: my work was to be fully present for, and honest with, myself in the service of the memory of my friend and those in the room.

Sitting still with one’s mind doesn’t change the present, or the problems. Jon Kabat-Zin (Full Catastrophe Living) and Saki Santorelli (Heal thy self) at UMass Medical Center have decades of data about how mindfulness meditation helps with pain management, increasing tolerance to stress, improving mental functioning, shortening recovery times from illness to name just a few. Mindfulness as a daily practice isn’t a panacea, but it does help us know ourselves better, and be more understanding of our process. It helps us be less reactive and more present. It causes us to deny nothing and feel ready for anything. Even thirty seconds a day can help the mind keep coming back to the present or keep the idea of not reacting on the menu card of the moment. The more we work with our tools, the more proficient we become. The more we practice, the greater the probability we will be able to subdue our passions in the moments they occur.

Brother Erik A. Marks, 32º, LICSW, is a clinical social worker whose usual vocation has been in the field of human services in a wide range of settings since ’90. He was raised in ’17 by his biologically younger Brother and then Worshipful Master in Alpha Lodge in Framingham, MA.

At the Auction

by Senior Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Gregory J. Knott



Todd Creason and I recently attended the auction of the contents of Martinsville Lodge No. 603 (IL). Martinsville lodge merged with another lodge and they decided to sell everything in the lodge building. You could literally have furnished your own lodge with everything that was there. The bidding was fast and furious as the chant of the auctioneer got both the locals and brethren actively bidding to buy some of the great masonic treasurers.

I hadn’t been to Martinsville before, but was looking at the downtown area. This town isn’t unlike hundreds of others in rural America. Older buildings on Main Street, several of them closed or in poor condition. The bank and post office were still open. There was a restaurant, hardware store and a couple of antique shops. But overall, the best of times were in the past for the business district.

One thing struck me was that on the same side of the street were three fraternal buildings, almost right next to each other. The Odd Fellows, The Order of Redman and the Martinsville Masonic Lodge. The Freemasons were the longest survivors of these fraternities. I don’t know when the others closed, but I assume they had suffered the same fate as the masonic lodge, declining interest and membership. These lodges had been a vital part of the social fabric of the Martinsville community and now they were dark.

Todd was able to purchase the masonic pillars from the lodge and I purchased all the officer jewels. Both of us would just have assumed to see the lodge stay open, but these will be great additions to our personal masonic collections.

Everything has a season.

~GJK

WB Gregory J. Knott is the Worshipful Master of Ogden Lodge No. 754 in Ogden (IL) and a plural member of St. Joseph Lodge No. 970 (IL), Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL) and Naval Lodge No. 4 in Washington, DC.

Don't Like Your Lodge? Find Another

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Robert E. Jackson


"I've had it. I'm done. I can't believe they voted that way. I've worked so hard for this effort, but the Lodge doesn't seem to care. I feel so passionate about this subject, but the Lodge simply will not support it."

I've spoken with a Brother recently who had stated that at one point in time, he had considered demitting from the Craft. And here I thought I was the only one! It doesn't take much to want to throw away membership in something, especially when you don't have much ownership.

If you find yourself at odds with your Lodge, speak with the Master. Ensure they understand your concerns. Offer solutions, because believe me, when the Master hears problems, more often than not they will want to address it. Without approaching with a possible solution, though, the statements can be received as a simple complaint that is easily dismissed. A solution proposed, however, offers a starting point from which to build that structure.

If you feel as if the Master isn't listening to you, make sure they know. These are difficult conversations to have, but the fortitude is required for progress. If you still feel like you have nothing left with which to build your moral and Masonic edifice, then it's time to move on. But don't demit. Don't just stop paying dues. But also, don't continue to support a Lodge if you don't believe in their direction.

I'm lucky enough to reside in the state of Massachusetts. We certainly have our issues, but in my opinion (and statistics show) Freemasonry is strong within this state. If I grow frustrated with my Lodge, there are a dozen (or more) within an hours drive for me to visit and see if I feel at home.

Yes it's a Lodge and we are all Brothers, but some times siblings don't get along. Find a group where you feel welcome, appreciated, and loved. I may take flack about suggesting a Brother find another Lodge, but in all honesty, if a Brother doesn't feel welcome, appreciated, or loved in their Lodge, it doesn't help anybody to have them continue in that capacity. It doesn't mean they should stop building though. There are other resources that can be tapped to help.

~REJ

Robert Edward Jackson is a Past Master and Secretary of Montgomery Lodge located in Milford, MA. His Masonic lineage includes his Father (Robert Maitland), Grandfather (Maitland Garrecht), and Great Grandfather (Edward Henry Jackson), a founding member of Scarsdale Lodge #1094 in Scarsdale, NY. When not studying ritual, he's busy being a father to his three kids, a husband, Boy Scout Leader, and a network engineer to pay for it all. He can be reached at info@montgomerylodge.org