Like many of you, I follow a number of Masonic websites, blogs, podcasts, Facebook pages and other sources that help me to think about the various aspects of Freemasonry. My list of bookmarked sources is quite extensive.
On one of these sources, there are a number of Brethren that are quite concerned about sharing Masonic “secrets”. Recently, a relatively new Brother simply asked what the duties of a Junior Steward are. A simple question and I suspect the Brother that asked the question was recently appointed to the position. A few other Brothers were quick to “whisper good council” in this Brother ear and advised him that to answer his question would be to reveal some of the secrets of Masonry that he promised to conceal and never reveal. The original question was soon after removed.
This confused me.
In the booklets associated with the Wisconsin Program, where the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin’s candidate education and examination information is communicated, we are clearly told that of the information contained in those booklets, the only information we are required to keep secret are the modes of recognition and the duties of the Lodge officers are covered to some extent in those booklets. In addition, in our ceremonies for the installation of officers the duties of all the officers are carefully explained. Seeing that the installation of officers is one of a very few of our ceremonies that can be performed in the presence of Masons and non-Masons alike it doesn’t seem like something we are trying to keep secret. Now, while I understand that there is some variation in this regard between Grand Jurisdictions I have to believe the viewpoints are relatively similar.
Before I continue, let me back up fifteen years as of this April. My interest is developing my understanding of Freemasonry goes back to just a few weeks after I was raised. I had not met the first men who eventually became my first mentors in Freemasonry until the day of my Master’s board. The fact that they knew parts of my family for decades before I met them helped to hasten the development of the connection we had. Anyway, just a few weeks after I was raised one of them saw me rifling through the library at the Lodge and asked if he could help me find what I was looking for. When I explained that I didn’t know what I was looking for he asked if he could make a suggestion and a few weeks later he brought in a book titled “Old Tiler’s Talks” by Carl Claudy.
Anyway, on the discussion about secrets I was immediately reminded of one of the Old Tiler’s Talks that addressed that very topic. In this particular edition, a younger Mason is concerned that one of his Brothers is violating his obligations by taking the slides from the picture lecture home where his children can see them and suggested that someone speak to this Brother about it. The “old tiler” explained to the newer Mason that the secrets of Freemasonry cannot be found on the slides associated with our lectures for if they were, the person that created them, or commissioned them to be created, would be in violation of his obligation.
This got me to thinking: what are the secrets of Freemasonry that we are always so quick to defend?
Freemasonry’s long-standing commitment to secrecy has caused more controversy, both within and without the fraternity, than any other Masonic topic. It is the source of many rumors, suspicions and mistrust. Our commitment to secrecy has both helped and hurt the organization greatly.
In many ways, we are proud of the aurora of secrecy that surrounds the fraternity and what we do, and, in some ways, we encourage it. Some of us like being called a “secret society” or even a “society with secrets” as it promotes the idea that we know something the rest of the world does not.
When we examine this, we begin to understand the nature of Masonic secrecy; how the craft perceives its relationship to the general public. Even the emblems we use in our rituals and the symbols we wear on our clothes and paste to our cars helps to cement this relationship. We want the general public to see these emblems and ask questions about them only to receive a vague explanation in return. Yet, we encourage them to continue to ask questions.
Our desire for secrecy has long gone misunderstood and misinterpreted. As Masons, we don’t reply to the criticisms from the public, and in hearing no reply, our silence is often misinterpreted as confirmation of their suspicions.
Freemasonry generally doesn’t concern itself with its nay-sayers and critics, and I will not suggest we begin facing our detractors head-on. However, the public’s suspicion of Freemasonry is probably due more to our lack of seeking recognition for the good we accomplish than to the thought that we are purposely conspiring. People tend to distrust what they don’t understand. When any group is not public with their efforts, the opportunities to understand what they do are greatly reduced. There are countless reports of the good things that Freemasons and Freemasonry has accomplished by well-respected Masons and non-Masons alike. But it is the negative, real or perceived, that draws the public’s eye and keeps their attention.
There are a number of sources we can point the skeptic to that would clear up a lot of misunderstandings, but as these sources require a general understanding of Freemasonry to interpret, they just tend to strengthen the mistrust. One must have an understanding of Freemasonry in order to understand the context and must understand the context to be able to understand something written about it. You can read a book on nuclear fusion but you have to have an understanding of the topic before you can understand the book. This is the very essence of an allegory: an allegory does not provide answers. The allegory of our ritual communicates our symbols and points us in the right direction. The understanding of them is left to the individual Mason, to his interpretation. When a non-Mason tries to understand the allegory of our ritual without the context he can do no more than read the words on the page and interpret what he is reading.
Once the Mason begins to interpret the allegories of Freemasonry, he may conclude that the lessons his attention is drawn to is intended to either divide or to unite. That Freemasonry’s secret passwords and signs are intended to exclude those that have NOT chosen to understand its beauties or to welcome those that have. He may believe his committed to keep secrets that he may not understand and lose sight of the lessons of our allegories. Or he may understand that the secret modes of recognition and the allegories of our ritual are symbols that illustrate the moral lessons of the fraternity. It may help him to understand that, though parts of the ritual are considered secret, the lessons that lie at the root of them should be revealed, rather than concealed.
Each of us are charged to guard the secrets of Freemasonry but we must consider what can be, or is hoped to be, shared. Guarding those things that are not secrets as though they are promotes intolerance and exclusiveness and contradicts the benevolent spirt of Freemasonry that takes root as the fraternity’s foundation. Some Masons are satisfied with what they see on the surface and do not seek to understand the meanings behind it and the beautiful system of Freemasonry which was carefully constructed to bring people together often keeps them apart.
Consider this: if Freemasonry provides a Mason with the tools to make himself better, and if one of the requirements to become a Mason is to be a good man prior to petitioning a Lodge. Where did that foundation of being a good man come from if not from Freemasonry? It stands to reason that before petitioning a Lodge we were able to tell the difference between right and wrong and had been familiar with many of the principles Freemasonry holds dear: perhaps the principle of equality or even the cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. The principles, tenets and maxims the fraternity holds dear are not exclusive or unique to the Freemasonry and we must have possessed them in our hearts long before petitioning a Lodge. What is unique to Freemasonry is how we reinforce them.
The secrets of Freemasonry then, cannot be the duties of the Junior Steward. Neither can the secrets be that we hold ourselves to a higher moral standard; that we practice the tenets of Brotherly love, relief and truth nor the meanings we have assigned to the ordinary working tools of the ancient operative mason. As Freemasonry expects each of us to continually apply the lessons reinforced in it to our lives, then if we are successful the rest of the world would know as much about the nature of the Fraternity as anyone by our own actions. You can generally tell a Mason by his character.
RWB. Patrick D. Cholka was Raised April 3, 2004 in Henry L. Palmer #301, where he is a Past Master, under the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin. He also served as the Worshipful Master of Wauwatosa #267. He has also served as a District Deputy Grand Master, Grand Lodge of Wisconsin
Past Grand Orator and Past Chairman of the Masonic Committee on Education, and is a 32nd Degree, AASR Valley of Milwaukee and Past Thrice Potent Master.