That's Not the Way It's Done
by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Bro. Guidon Sobecki
My career as a Masonic officer began like many others. I was a new member who had been to a few meetings since my third degree, and the Steward’s chair was empty. I was asked if I could sit in so we could have a full slate for opening, and I walked over figuring it could be fun to hold a staff and wear a jewel for the evening. Ten minutes later, I was jolted by someone yelling to “un-socket your rod.” Bewildered, I pulled the staff out of its base next to my chair and held it. As we stood up to give the sign, the ritual was halted as someone told me I was passing the staff to my other hand the wrong way. As we sat down for the business meeting and members brought out their phones and planners, I went to put my rod away, and was instantly told to un-socket it again until the Master gave permission. The Master overheard this and casually said we could put the rods away. But first, I had to uncross my legs and keep them planted firmly on the floor at all times. I looked around the room at the sideliners who were comfortably leaning back in their pews with their legs crossed. “So this was what it feels like to be an officer,” I thought.
Six months later, we were conferring a degree, and they needed me to take the Steward’s chair that night. A Brother from another lodge walked up behind me, grabbed my arm and forcibly walked me through the Steward’s floor work without a word of introduction of explanation. I didn’t know who he was, and still don’t, but I remember his hand leaving a mark on my arm. As I circled the lodge room behind the blindfolded candidate, voices would randomly sound off from the sidelines that my pace was off, I was ahead or behind, or that someone else was similarly out-of-spec. The candidate, hoodwinked and undergoing a transition into our ancient fraternity, heard every word of their commentary tossed in between the prayers and sacred obligations. After the last gavel sounded, I was told not to leave until I had been given a refresher on the proper way to turn ninety degrees.
One year later, I was at a district ritual class. The sidelines were packed with members from several lodges, gathered to review the latest ritual instructions from the experts. I was twenty-two at the time; the next youngest Brother in attendance was in his sixties. As the instructors filled the chairs, someone volunteered me for a position. The usual voices were now amplified and multiplied because there wasn’t a candidate to distract them. After completing my segment, someone in the corner seated in the corner raised his hand to tell the instructor that I should be run through the section one more time for practice. The instructor obliged, and it all happened all over again. At the coffee and donut session afterwards, I sat alone for a while and left without anyone noticing.
Not long ago, I served as Junior Deacon for a First Degree. Someone whose name I didn’t know, sitting by the door in jeans, crossed his arms and announced that I wasn’t having the candidate knock on the door at the right moment. Later, as the newly initiated Brother was handed off to me for the grand exit, the same Brother near the door yelled from behind us that I had to switch my rod to the other hand. I ascended the East to give the last lecture of the evening. At various points of my memorized speech, I could hear the casual conversations from the sidelines about the temple board meeting and the restaurant on First Street that just closed. It took me an hour and a half to get home, which was a relief compared to the two hours it took to drive from my office to the lodge.
The other day, I was enjoying a rare night off. My desk was cluttered with my blue ritual book with the pages wedged open to a lecture another lodge asked for help with, a red York Rite script because I had a feeling someone would cancel and I’d need to change parts, and printed copies of a Scottish Rite degree and the Shriner initiation lectures. As I pushed my dinner plate aside and picked up the blue ritual book with the bent corners, I found myself skimming the degree for what seemed like the thousandth time, double-checking the second half of the sentence in paragraph six just in case I’ve been saying “therefore” to myself instead of “hence.” It matters. No one has ever told me why, but it apparently does.
That first night in the chair being told to un-socket my rod, I suspected that it was all a part of the journey. Hidden amongst all these awkward dance classes was a true reflection of something grander than all of us. There would be a time when it wasn’t just casual rehearsal, and perfect ritual would truly make an impact. And on that day, when I turned ninety degrees just right, an old past master would summon me to a candlelit room and tell me the true power behind all this “wax on, wax off” hazing. I would finally be included in understanding these ancient mysteries and could someday pass them on to those who would seek them after me. As time went on, I realized that this would never happen. If the officers all truly achieved ritual perfection within our year, the sidelines would be silent, and the candidate would only hear the ritual and his own thoughts. That is, there would be silence until an inexperienced Brother would take a chair, and the uninvited chatter and correction would start all over again.
I have been duly taught that these words and movements, which have been passed down verbatim for generations, must be preserved in their true form at all costs. However, I don’t know who wrote them, what inspired them, or what some of these words even mean. Neither do many of those Brothers on the sidelines watching out for infractions. But I do know when to socket my rod during meetings, even though some jurisdictions have no rod instructions, and some don’t even use rods at all. I can draw out the Steward’s movements with enough detail to put John Madden to shame, but I didn’t know what the word Steward meant until Jon Snow became one on ‘Game of Thrones’ and I looked it up. I’ve asked the ones correcting me what these words mean and how all this started. At best, I’ve been told that they do ritual, not education. At worst, I’ve been told to just read it again. It’s all right there in my dog-eared blue book.
I first walked into the lodge looking for reflection, tradition, and moral contemplation. I keep going back to that lodge because I know that if I don’t sit in that chair and walk the gauntlet of ritual corrections, there may not be anyone else willing to sit in that chair when it’s time to perform our duties. While I was being taught how to walk and talk, new members came and went like phases of the moon, and the officers and those on the sidelines remained in their chairs. I’ve slowly become a better ritualist and hopefully a better Mason over these last few years, but the lodge room seemed to grow emptier and emptier.
I don’t know much about this fraternity. I’m often told I know even less about ritual. But I may just have an idea why the new members never came back, and why it so often seems that no one wants to walk up and sit in those chairs.
Guidon Sobecki is a Master Mason out of DeKalb Lodge #144 in DeKalb, IL. He is also a member of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Valley of Chicago, NMJ and is also the current King of Keystone Chapter #281 of the York Rite.