By Midnight Freemason Contributor
R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley

      One of the things I didn’t expect to do when I became a Mason was to devote a significant amount of time
 to memorizing ritual. And I don’t really, although I’m sure I spend more time than some of my Brethren. My days are filled with lots of other things. I spend maybe twenty minutes a day at it, on average. I’ve found that going to stated meetings and degrees regularly takes care of about ninety per cent of what I need to know for stated meetings, at least if I pay attention. I recall going to Workers Club in my second year as a Mason, having only really learned the parts necessary for my office (Junior Warden), and being placed in the West. I protested to our instructor, Jesse Higginson, past chairman of the Board of Grand Examiners, that I didn’t know the ritual. “I bet you do,” he said. He was right. Simply by going to lodge and paying attention I’d absorbed the lines I needed.

      Just showing up worked pretty well with routine ritual, but lectures and degree ritual are another story. I wanted to learn the Work, but thought it a daunting task. I remember going to a Second Degree shortly after becoming a Master Mason, and being amazed at the Worshipful Master’s seemingly effortless and endless ritual. But I had no idea how to start. Jesse did. One evening after a degree, he pointed at me and said, “Next Workers Club you’re going to know First Fellowcraft.” So I went home and learned the ritual, and at the next Workers Club I didn’t have to focus on the words, but was able to concentrate on the floor work. I realized that learning this stuff was going to take time. It wasn’t a big part as ritual goes, but the set speech took a little effort, and the reward was knowing more than I had, and a true feeling of competence. The next part I concentrated on was just a bit larger: the Senior Deacon’s lecture in the second section of the Second Degree. I did that for two reasons: first, there was one line I particularly liked, and I wanted to be able to say it; and, second, I was tired of calling the eighty-two-year-old retired banker who knew the part to help with our degrees. So every evening after the kids were in bed, I sat on my porch and worked on it, one line at a time. I’m not a memory prodigy, so it took weeks of constant effort, reciting it one line at a time, for it to stick. I didn’t take it in order: there are set paragraphs that don’t have anything to do with each other rhetorically, so I’d take one I found easier than another and build it up slowly. I’m not very good at building memory palaces, but I found visual mnemonic devices worked pretty well at getting me over difficult parts in a hurry. For example, if I had to remember a line involving three principal classes of workers, I’d picture the principals of our three local schools standing in a classroom with tool belts. 

      I know one Grand Lecturer whose memory is so good that he’s said to have memorized a ten-page speech in an hour. I can’t do that, or anything close to it. But I can memorize the Work, as others have before me. It’s not easy, but it’s simple, and simply put, it takes hard work, effort, and persistence. I said earlier that I spend about twenty minutes a day at memorizing ritual. That’s every day. I don’t miss one unless I’m sick. I’ll work on it while walking, relaxing on my porch, or cooking. I keep a Book of Standard Work open while I’m doing other things, and try to memorize a word or two beyond what I know. And slowly, slowly, I learn more. Some parts are harder than others (the Tenets and Cardinal Virtues lecture is giving me fits), but I’m getting it. And I will keep getting it, adding more until I know enough to test for Grand Lecturer. 

      I really didn’t expect to do this when I became a Mason, but I’ve found that the memorizing our Masonic ritual enables me to help my Brethren, to feel useful, and to feel competent. It also enables me to keep the ritual with me all the time, to think about it more deeply without having to hunt up a book, and to think of how it applies in my daily life. By internalizing the Work, I’ve become able to make connections I couldn’t make before. Memorizing the ritual isn’t just about making sure our meetings run effectively. It’s about something more. Memorizing the Work enables me to really work at being a Mason in my heart. And that is surely worth the effort.


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley is the Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master for the Eastern Area for the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F. & A.M.  He is the Past Master of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and Leadership Development Chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois. He's also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, Eastern Star, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. He's also a member of the newly-chartered, Illini High Twelve No. 768 in Urbana-Champaign. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.

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