This commentary is partially in response to an article I recently read on this very site, written by Brother Randy Sanders, who I have known for a long time and have come to respect and admire as a friend and Brother, in the truest meaning of those words. Now, that being said, and confident that I live in a world where we can have our own opinions and beliefs on certain matters, and still treasure one another, I want to end this introduction by saying that I disagree with certain things in that aforementioned piece.
Let’s start off with the premise of “ego and elitism” that was referenced a few times. I am not going to broach the subject of cancel-culture, because I think we are a more enlightened folk that can move past the buzz words of the day. I find the concept of “ego and elitism” quite interesting, however. So let’s start with the concept of “ego.”
In its barest sense, ego is the identification of “self,” the “I am” that forms the inner aspects of our human psyche. It is the middle ground between the impulses of our animalistic nature, or the “id”, and the moral compass which culminates in our “superego.” When used in a negative context, as in the aforementioned article, it is used to describe an air of superiority over other human beings.
Does wanting to improve oneself engender feelings of superiority? It’s hard to answer that question without sounding morally reprehensible, doesn’t it?
Do I feel like I have a better sense of my own “I am” than I did yesterday? Yes, I believe I do.
Does it make me a terrible human being? No, I do not think it does.
Does expressing to the world that I want to be a better man, husband, father, Brother, or human being make me egotistical? I guess a little, but that really becomes your problem and not mine. This is ego in its purest form; it makes you a living, conscious, and breathing creature that seeks self-improvement, and perhaps one day, self-actualization.
“Elitism” almost always engenders a negative sense of selectivity and exclusion. Let me fill you in on a little secret: Freemasonry is selective… and it is exclusive. We do not admit everyone that enters through our West Gate. We have a process that is secret and sacred to admit or deny potential candidates’ entry into our Fraternity. We require certain criteria for admittance, most of them being the same regardless of jurisdictional differences. When we exclude one person, for whatever reason, that is known as exclusivity.
Dictionary.com has one definition for elitism as: “consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.” As “elitist” as this sounds, I do not see anything inherently wrong with this definition as it applies to Freemasonry. We “are” a select group, at least we should be. We turn away prospects that do not meet a certain criterion, whether right or wrong, and we restrict membership based on the results of a secret ballot.
There is a quality to this process that screams “we are different than you,” or more aptly put, “we are different than the rest of the world.” Do we not scream this on billboards and bumper stickers? We will take good men and make them “better”, or so says the advertisement on our pancake breakfast flyers. We do not take depraved men; we do not take men with reprehensible crimes in their past; we take men that “we” consider good, based on a loose set of criteria, and work to make them “better.” Having a threshold for inclusion in any group is the very definition of “exclusive,” no matter how we try to explain it away.
Now there is also a “negative” use of exclusivity that I must address, one that is found in different parts of the country, which never gets enough Light (no pun intended). When people are excluded because of the color of their skin, which Deity they pray to, or what their last name sounds like, that is just plain wrong.
Let me be clear when I write this: people who use our criteria to exclude people from the Fraternity on the basis of creed, sexual orientation, or color of their skin are not true Masons. People who discriminate for any reason “except” moral fitness, are not real Masons. They may know the handshakes and the ritual and show up for a meal once in a while, but they are not in actuality invested members of our Order. Paying dues does not a Mason make. You must, fortunately for those that care, actually “live” and “breathe” this stuff. If you don’t like this comment, you need to take a long hard look at yourself and your own inner beliefs.
Now, how does this impact Freemasonry for the members that are already “in the club, as it were? To touch on one of Brother Randy’s points where he states that some Masons:
“desire to change Freemasonry to the way they believed it should be done”
Let’s touch on that one for a brief second. We cannot look at the Fraternity the way it exists today: a crumbling structure that charges little for little in return in 90% of its Lodges today. We cannot look at the fraternity today with the eyes of those in the 1840s, or those in the 1930s. We cannot view this order with anything but the eyes that formed Lodges, crafted our ritual and its solemnity, and even built this Nation.
So how was “Masonry” done? Let us go back to the beginning of it all, with whichever legend you like to use. We have small groups of men in Europe, creating and revising rituals meant to initiate the profane into something new, something different, and something separate from the world they lived in at the time.
And here’s another secret tidbit, Freemasonry is by nature, esoteric. Esoteric, coming from the Greek εσωτερικός, means “intended for only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest” or “designed for or understood by the initiated alone”. Freemasonry is 100% esoteric, without having to inject anything extra in it at all.
I can guarantee you with 100% certainty that these same men, who were born in the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment, did not go through the trouble of creating, or co-opting Operative Lodges, for the sole purpose of social gathering and beer drinking. They did not inundate us with the surface meanings of so many symbols of mortality, just so they could go on posters, coasters, and coffee mugs. They did not revise and refine the Hiramic legend to simply be a cheap, dramatic play that pushes us through the degree system just so we can get a dues card and a seat at the bar on a Friday evening.
They did not, in any way shape, or form, envision that Freemasonry was anything less than a place to learn about oneself and their purpose in life, through a definitive process of initiation.
What then is the purpose of Initiation? Freemasonry contains a major aspect of its structure, one where Lodges lead a candidate through the three Craft degrees, either shoddily or with reverence, and ultimately take an outsider and make him a Brother. Eliade defines initiation as a body of rites or traditions, most oftentimes oral, whose purpose produces a clear and concise alteration in the religious, spiritual, or social aspect of the initiate. To take that a step further, he notes that the initiation produces a defined change to that person’s existence; they become a different being altogether than they were before they were initiated. The definition of Initiation vehemently argues that we “need” to be doing this, no?
Let us circle back to the meat and potatoes of the argument. “Masonry” was done in a very unique and beautiful way, for a very unique and beautiful purpose. We have since lost that purpose with fiascos like the Morgan Affair, the Golden Age of Fraternalism, and a systemic animosity towards the spiritual in this country. Masonry is not “done” this way anymore, for the most part.
Bro. Randy, in his very passionate article, tells us that we need to let people practice Freemasonry the way they are comfortable. If that were somewhat true and beneficial to our Craft, we would be flourishing, where instead we are dying. Lodges could potentially be filled to the brim with people, sharing meals, singing songs, clanging beer steins, and other evidence of joy and contentment if we really were everything to everyone; instead, we see crumbling buildings and recycled Officer lines. Everyone having their own opinions, no matter how bigoted, or morally wrong, or reprehensible in a way that is relativistic to their own short-sighted view of the world, as opposed to that absolute view of good and right, would be "hunky-dory" and acceptable; but it is not.
Just because people have been doing it “their own way” for so long, it does not give them a pass to continue down this road of malaise, indifference, and lack of care. The idea that people joined for many different reasons, and each experience Freemasonry in their own unique way, is simply our justification for its steady decline. This sounds harsh but let me explain.
For the above to be an effective and actual response, we cannot be splintered in our initial experiences and purpose. We need to have a mission statement to start from, and from there, you can grow and learn and be however you like. Without a solid place to start, which is the same for everyone, the Freemasonic journey becomes muddled and loses all meaning.
With a firm foundation in the mystery of Freemasonry, all the other “side-quests” in this journey become natural and free-flowing and NOT simply the sole purpose of membership. Charity, no matter how small or large, would be meaningful and come from a place of love; fellowship would have a deeper meaning and lasting significance; brotherhood would have greater importance than simply tout it on a bumper sticker. All those other aspects of Masonry would spring forth from that deep wellspring of change inside, that change that comes through initiation.
Let me tell you what that mission statement was: It was to initiate men, take them from their old life, and show them how to learn the meaning of life from a process of life, death, and rebirth. Taking that knowledge and then making it a true part of their inner being, they would then view life through different eyes. Their social interactions would be much more meaningful; their connection to the Divine, in however manner they believe, would be all the more enriched; they would have a better sense of love and care for their families, friends, and loved ones; and they would take all these current aspects of the Craft and exemplify the teachings in their words and deeds.
Can you be just a “social club” Mason? If the teachings in our Ritual taught you anything, you would never want to be one to begin with. Can you be just a “charitable” Mason and donate money whenever asked? While that’s really nice of you, charity without love and relief is a hollow act that serves a purpose in the short term, but it does not fill either soul in the long run. Can you be just a “dinner club” Mason? I guess you could, but without inculcating the parts of your Initiation that deal with fellowship and Brotherhood, it really is only just a meal. A customer loyalty card at a sandwich shop or coffee house would be more economical.
The point is, if you did not care for, or had a terrible/boring/uninspired experience while bring brought into the Craft, that does not excuse one’s continued actions or behavior, or lack thereof.
Remember (or relearn) what the ritual teaches you; remember why you joined in the first place; and understand that this journey is meant to impart lessons for the “rest” of your life, not just when you were kneeling at the altar for the first, second, or even third time. The common thread, as Bro. Randy does point out, is that we all share the common trait of kneeling at the altar; some of us experienced change, and some others just saw it as a steppingstone to those by-products of Freemasonry today. It is to this latter group that I speak to today. And again, if you are offended by what I just wrote, then did you really take those obligations all that seriously to begin with?
Remember that mission statement of Freemasonry and let “that” be your compass for being that kind of Freemason. This institution was created for a purpose, not just to serve pancakes on the weekend, or be a place to escape your family for a night, or even a place to take a nap on the sidelines. Live that purpose, and as corny as it sounds, “be the change” you want to see in the world, and Freemasonry will start to realign itself with its original purpose, and the world will be a better place for it.
Bro. Joe Martinez is a veteran of the United States Army, and currently an executive in the legal consulting and information governance space. He has been a Master Mason since 2005 and is a member in Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the UGLE. He is a member of the premier esoteric Lodge in DC, Benjamin B. French Lodge No. 15, and also holds memberships in the York Rite, Scottish Rite, and many other appendant bodies. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, and one of the founders and admins of the Refracted Light Facebook group, which provides live educational opportunities to Masons and Initiates all over the world. He enjoys focusing on and researching the Initiatic Experience, Rituals of Initiation, and the Mysteries of Ancient Civilizations, as well as the relation between modern science and Gnostic teachings.
 “Elitism,” accessed March 11, 2021, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/elitism.
 “Esoteric,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster, n.d.), accessed March 12, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/esoteric.
 Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation the Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1965), 20.