These are the words that greeted me upon a quick check of my social media account. After a week that has felt like a year has passed since Monday, full of emotion and media whiplash as our nation slams nose to nose with a public health pandemic, the likes of we hubristically assumed "won't happen here," anxiety and fear were palpable. No matter who you were, your age, your job, your financial situation, COVID-19 has unavoidably pinged on your radar this week. As governments, municipalities, medical caregivers, restaurants, grocery stores, and centuries-old institutions have all been brought to heel attempting to interpret the tea leaves of this new threat, Freemasonry could hardly have been expected to ignore it. With a nationwide membership base composed majoritively of men considered by the WHO and CDC as "at elevated risk" for contracting the virus, preventative and emergency measures were inevitable. Only this morning my Grand Lodge, The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Illinois, put out an order from the Most Worshipful Grand Master that all Grand Lodge and Craft Lodge programs and meetings were hereby suspended until at least May 1st, 2020, over a month away. They were hardly the first Grand Lodge to issue such an order, and I am sure more will follow suit.
While the Brother who Facebook posted the opening quote in response to this order was, I am sure, intending it sardonically, I couldn't help imagine that there are many Brothers who likely share the same sentiment but from a place of real anger and confusion. "Masonry canceled? But how will I fellowship with my Brothers? What about our lodge fundraiser? What about the Degree we had scheduled for next week? What about our business meetings? What do I do for a month?" These are all valid concerns, and ones which we will surely see manifest in the coming weeks and possibly months as the Craft collectively holds its breath and waits to see what happens next.
However genuine these concerns might be, to take this tack is to miss the meaning of Freemasonry entirely. Freemasonry is more than trappings and aprons and showing up to hear minutes read. The lessons of our Craft manifest in our own earnest and selfless desires to be charitable, not in the organized opportunity itself. Our ceremonies and symbols are based on immortal and unimpeachable concepts, and ideas that a man truly on the path to illumination through our mysteries will understand are worth waiting for, and should not be rushed. In short, the physical plane is but one aspect of our Masonic philosophy, and we now have a more focused opportunity than we ever have in living memory to change our perceptions and open ourselves to the real work of the Craft.
We read and hear about the interior work of Freemasonry regularly throughout our ceremonies and lectures, although many Brothers compartmentalize these as little more than fairy tales or historical accounts. Our houses not made with hands, our edifices constructed without the din of iron tools, the numberless worlds around us, all allude to the building and attempted perfection of our own hearts, minds, and souls. I say "attempted" not to highlight our shortcomings, but because the act of performing this work and the process itself is just as important as the results we want to achieve, and upon reflection, we find that process and product are really one and the same. In striving to master ourselves on all planes, we live the real philosophies of our Craft.
Just like an organism adapting and strengthening itself against changes in its environment and situation, as Freemasons, we have been given just such a stimuli. Our focuses now necessarily shift inward as we limit our direct contact with others. Why not spend the time you might typically spend at lodge reviewing your ritual work with a critical eye for context? Perhaps consider exploring any one of many excellent, fun, and enlightening Masonic podcasts, YouTube channels, or websites? Pick out a new book to read (although many public libraries have shut down for the immediate future, there are scores of texts available as pdfs, e-books, and audiobooks online for little or no cost). Engage with your family. Meditate. Pray. Recharge. Forget why you were angry. Write a paper. Draw a picture. Channel your creative energies into something you love. In short, perform the interior work.
If we do this, if we spend time introspectively working on ourselves contemplatively and in silence, can you even imagine what will happen when thousands of Masons who have spent a month earnestly doing the same and building their own temples within now converge together back into our hallowed halls? The levels of renewed energy, drive, perspective, and clarity gained from our individual efforts would be truly, awesome. The effect of thousands of refreshed and engaged hearts, minds, and souls meeting with common goals is an unbelievable potential force for good, an organic refocusing of our efforts, and a chance to take our Craft collectively in a stronger, healthier and more unified direction.
In taking care of ourselves, we are better enabled to take care of others. I don't mean just in a physical sense but in an emotional and psychologically supportive way as well. When we can master our own emotions, reactions, and understandings, we are better equipped to empathetically and practically assist those who are still struggling. The old story comes to mind of a man who fell into a hole too deep to climb out of. A doctor passing by heard his cries for help and threw a signed prescription down to the man. A passing banker, also hearing the man implore his aid, threw a handful of money to the man. A reverend, hearing the trapped man's admonitions, tossed down a Bible. But finally, another man heard the cries for help, and without hesitation, jumped down into the hole. "What did you do that for?" bawled the trapped man, "now we are both stuck down here!" "Despair not," said his new companion, "I have been here before myself, and I know the way out."
However, we choose to react to the threats and changes that inevitably challenge our daily lives is entirely up to us. This isn't very easy to come to terms with. While we may not have chosen to be sick, or confused, or hurting, we can choose to not be governed by fear. Darkness may be unknown and foreign, but it is also unlimited potential. I hope that in these trying times, and in times of prosperity as well, we will always seek illumination and with our working tools in hand, build ever onward.