Ritual is a Work of Art

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB Michael H. Shirley

"The Angelus” by Jean-Fran├žois Millet 
Brother Robert Johnson’s post on the Parrot Mason, and my response to it, have in common a belief that Masonic ritual, while meaningful in itself, requires that its exposition be meaningful in order to make its full impact. Words spoken dryly and without emotion, no matter what their potential impact, have about as much effect as the recitation of the telephone book. 

We are hardly the first to make that observation. Brother John M. Pearson, Most Worshipful Grand Master of Ancient Free & Accepted Masons in Illinois, said it well in his address to the Brethren assembled for the Annual Communication in 1890:

A ritual is a work of art, and like all works of art is valuable not merely for what it represents, but mainly for what it suggests to the mind. This is true, whether the work be a poem, a painting, a piece of music, or statuary. The material representation may be good, and the technique beyond criticism, but if no thought or feeling is suggested, but little value attaches, and we soon tire of them; but a little picture of two poor peasants in a rough field, pausing in their work, with bowed heads, at the call of the bell in the little church beyond, tells the whole story of a life of toil, hardship and devotion. Men do not tire of such pictures and the grand lessons taught by them.

So of our ritual. It suggests to our minds great thoughts, in simple, homely words. To the humblest mind there is a lesson that it can understand, and to the noblest of men, grander truths yet to be learned, are clearly taught. Do not change it by a word. No matter if some of our phrases are quaint, and perhaps passing out of current use, hold to them, fix them in the memory. Let our Entered Apprentices and Craftsmen hear them again and again, until they find them fixed indelibly in the mind, and so ever after to influence their daily life and conduct. Allow no novelties to intrude themselves in any part of the ritual. They may seem at first harmless and even attractive, but, in the end, they tend to lessen the force of the more important truths we wish to teach.

Our ritual is not mere words, but the truths those words represent. Fix them in the mind, meditate upon them, and speak them with meaning in a way that communicates to the neophyte the essence of Masonry. Above all, live them. Otherwise, they are meaningless. It is the purpose of Freemasonry to put our ritual into practice in our everyday lives, to live outside of lodge according to the ideals we seek to exemplify within it. Our ritual teaches us how to do that, but only if, as Most Worshipful Brother Pearson suggested, we treat it as the art it truly is: without pretense, full of meaning, and simply spoken. Like peasants praying in a field to the echo of a higher call, my Brethren, let us exemplify our ritual with simplicity and grace, in humble gratitude for the gift of Freemasonry in our lives. 


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M, as Leadership Development Chairman and Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master of the Eastern Area. A Certified Lodge Instructor, he is a Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua, Wisconsin. He is Past Most Wise Master of the George E. Burow Chapter of Rose Croix in the Valley of Danville, IL; he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the York Rite, Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees, Eastern Star, Illini High Twelve, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon.The author of several article on British and American history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.You can contact him at: m.h.shirley@gmail.com

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