"It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" is a song by the American rock band R.E.M., from Athens, Georgia, which first appeared on their 1987 album Document. The song's satirical title pretty much sums up my current state of mind, as I live in my own version of the movie "Groundhog's Day." I don't feel fine. I miss going to lodge, I miss going to degrees, and I miss the fellowship I share with the Brothers in the Lodges that I belong to, and being able to hang out with those Brothers outside of the Lodge.
Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do is write another Covid-19 related article. However, after sheltering in place for the past 2 months, and witnessing how brethren have reacted to it, I've made some observations. They are outlined below.
As a disclaimer, the opinions below are my own and do not reflect the opinions of the Grand Lodge of Illinois, any other of the contributors to the Midnight Freemasons blog, nor any of the lodges or concordant bodies that I belong to. Now that is out of the way, here are my observations.
1. Online meetings will never replace the real thing, but there are things we are doing online currently that we should keep doing after this is over.
One thing that has amazed me during the pandemic is the absolute number of opportunities for virtual Masonic education and fellowship.
Alex Powers of the "Historical Light" Podcast, Various members of the Refracted Light and Winding Staircase Facebook groups, Jared Stanley of the "What is a Mason?" podcast, RJ Johnson of the "Whence Came You" podcast, and many others have provided these opportunities.
Many of the appendant governing bodies like the S.J. and N.M.J. of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite have risen to the challenge, providing online degrees and educational presentations as well. I certainly hope that these do not end once we are back to whatever the new normal is going to be.
Another thing that I've observed is that some of the more mundane aspects of a Lodge's stated meeting can be handled virtually. Do we really need to continue to have committee reports, meeting minutes, bills, finances, new and old business discussed at length in a meeting? Many of the lodges I belong to were already sending out the minutes and financial information to its members prior to the meetings via email, and if there were no objections or corrections from the members present, the Master was approving them as read. This should be expanded to include committee reports, as well as old and new business items. Let me provide an example of how I see the handling of the committee reports, old and new business being handled virtually before some of you grump past masters out there blow a gasket.
For committee reports, I think this is a given. There is no reason to have a committee report read in open Lodge. The reports, like the minutes and financials, can be disseminated to the membership prior to the meeting. Questions regarding the reports can be answered by the committee prior to the meeting. If an item requires a vote, then the vote will need to take place in the meeting; however, the item itself could be referenced briefly and voted upon. For old and new business, I see a similar process.
But it can help streamline the meetings. The time that is saved by streamlining the meetings can be used for education or fellowship opportunities. If you could have a boring two – three hour stated meeting or a 20 minute stated meeting followed by a festive board at a local restaurant with an educational speaker, which would you choose? I would hope it would be the latter.
2. Remember that you don't stop being a Freemason outside of Lodge.
While on the subject of boredom, I get it. You're stuck inside, bored, and the lowest common denominator of entertainment is to scroll through your social media feeds and comment on everyone's social media posts. That's your right, although I would argue, trying to learn some new ritual is a better use of your time. What has really disturbed me recently is the number of brethren that I have seen that have been critical in social media of the actions of the government at the Federal and/or State level in their handling of the crisis usually due to their political leanings. While I understand that you're entitled to your freedom of speech, I also remind you of something that is in the charge to the Entered Apprentice, at least here in Illinois:
"As a citizen, you are enjoined to be exemplary in the discharge of your civil duties, by never purposing or countenancing any act which may have a tendency to subvert the peace and good order of society; by paying due obedience to the laws under whose protection you live, and by never losing sight of the allegiance due to your country."I don't understand why it's so difficult for someone who is a Freemason to realize that they are not just a Freemason while in Lodge. Can we stop ourselves from posting on social media about Politics and/or Religion, or worse? Most of us are guilty of posting something we regret at one time or another. We've seen something that we disagree with from our point of view, and we feel the need to engage in an online debate about how our side is correct and your side isn't. In my experience, it never ends well. Someone is going to be offended and/or angry because social media isn't a place where you are able to have a civil conversation about these topics. Mob mentality usually takes hold, passions are enflamed, and things are written, which will remain somewhere in cyberspace forever. These are things that usually aren't very intelligent and do not help portray the Craft in a positive light.
I continue to read posts from a certain number of Brothers, many of whom I've heard say things like: "I never speed because of the square and compass on my car," but seem to forget that they represent that same square and compass in their social media posts while criticizing the insanity of a political ideology that they don't agree with. I understand that you're "outside of the Lodge room," but you're also representing the ideals of political and religious tolerance that we pride ourselves upon by wearing that square and compass on the hat you're wearing in your profile picture.
Many of the jurisdictions already have social media codes of conduct or rules in place that can end up in Masonic discipline for those that continue to violate them; however, many jurisdictions do not. While I know many of you might not agree with such policies, it's obvious to me that they have been put in place because a majority of brethren are unable to subdue their passions online. Don't put your Grand Lodge in the position of having to police you. If you're afraid of speeding because you don't want to portray the Craft in a negative light, remember that your words on social media are immortalized. Not only can your "friends" or if you don't have security set up properly on your social media, "the profane" can read them, and your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, etc. will be able to view them. Remember the answer that the Senior Warden gives to the Worshipful Master when opening on the 1st degree to the question: "What came you here to do?" The answer: "To learn to subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry." Practice some restraint.
3. It is time to reconsider the ban on alcohol in the lodge building.
Speaking of restraint, at the beginning of this mess, some brethren from UGLE (United Grand Lodge of England) revived a tradition of the 9 o'clock toast to absent brethren. They accomplished this by communicating via various social media and online platforms and invited brethren from all of the world to join in. Every Brother that I have seen participate has handled themselves with the proper decorum fitting of a Freemason. This made me think that if we can do this virtually, then why shouldn't we be able to do this person once we start to meet again?
I want to be very clear. I'm not advocating for alcohol to be present in the Lodge room under any circumstance. However, I see no reason why brethren should not be able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outside of the Lodge room in the lodge building. If some Brothers want to retreat to the dining room for a nightcap, why should we not let them? If some of them want to go outside on a lodge patio and enjoy a cigar and scotch, it should be allowed. Many of our brethren across the pond in UGLE have bars in their Lodge buildings. While doing so might require additional insurance, liquor licenses, brothers to keep track of tabs, some auditing process to make sure that money is properly accounted for, keeping an accounting of inventory, having a bartender, etc.; if a lodge wants to and is able to do so financially, I see no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to given that the proper local/state laws are followed.
I think it can be done respectfully enough to allow those that want to participate to be able to do so while not infringing on those who do not want to. Once again, we need to act with enough self-governance to not turn the means of refreshment into intemperance or excess, but we should be able to enjoy fellowship over an adult beverage if we so desire. If we truly are "Good Men," then the various Grand Lodges which are prohibiting alcohol on individual lodge property should trust us to behave as such. If we are truly gentlemen, treat us as such.
4. It is time to enforce a dress code for stated meetings/degrees.
Part of being a gentleman is dressing like one. I don't know about you, but I've spent enough time in athletic and or sweatpants during this isolation. I am looking forward to the opportunity to dress up again. The meetings/degrees that we are having should be treated as events. We need to set an example for those coming into the Craft, the community at large, as well as a respect for each other and the Craft by dressing like gentlemen.
Obviously, there will always be exceptions to the rule (for example, a Hawaiian or tropical shirt theme night at the Lodge), however the more that we slack off and allow sweatpants, shorts, tank tops, t-shirts in Lodge, the further we slide into irrelevance. Let's act like we care enough about Freemasonry to at the very least dress in business casual with a collared shirt and slacks, and in my opinion, in a suit and tie at the bare minimum. If we want to maintain our traditions, let's be somewhat traditional. We need to start enforcing a dress code for our meetings and degrees, or at the very least whisper wise counsel into a Brother's ear about his dress of cutoff jean shorts and a tank top at the District Deputy Grand Master's official visit or officer's installation. If you don't have a suit or the means to buy one, talk to your Worshipful Master. Don't be embarrassed. I'm sure that your brethren will gladly contribute to getting you looking dapper in no time.
Coming out of this, we are presented with a real opportunity to reshape our Lodges the way that we see fit. While some of my views might seem elitist, and I suppose that they are. We are going to be living a new normal shortly until there is a vaccine or wide-spread testing. As we adjust to whatever this new normal is, use it as an opportunity to improve the Craft at your local Lodge. As we are going to have to change the way we have been conducting our work, we need to think about what changes we can make in order to make our experience not only memorable but unique.
Therefore, I present some other suggestions to improve the Craft. Many of these are suggestions come from the works of the Knights of the North, namely in their work, Laudable Pursuit (http://theknightsofthenorth.org/laudablepursuit/). If you've not read it, please click on the link, download the pdf and do so. I'm not going to address every point, but I will list them below.
1. Slow down the degree process.
2. Only have one candidate per degree.
3. Thoroughly vet our candidates.
4. Start cherishing our time together as brothers and engage in fellowship outside of the Lodge.
5. Start embracing some of our traditions like using a chamber of reflection before degrees, use of ambient lighting or candlelight, burning incense prior to the meeting, using music during our meetings and degrees in order to make the lodge/degree experience truly an experience.
6. Embrace masonic education, including not being afraid of talking about esoteric topics.
7. Start practicing masonic charity towards our brethren, their widows, and orphans instead of the local P.T.A. or little league team.
8. Allow men that have non-traditional or eastern religious beliefs but have belief in a supreme being to be accepted into our Craft.
I hope that you try to implement some of the ideas I've put forth. Freemasonry can only be impacted or changed at the local level, at your Lodge. It just takes some brethren to not be afraid to try something new. Let's come back stronger and better than before. If we are truly trying to make good men better, then shouldn't we be trying to make the organization that we are using to do this better as well?