Think back to that day you became an Entered Apprentice. You had waited with patience – perhaps for months, perhaps not exactly so patient – for this big moment. You knew you had a long way to go in your journey, but you, the man they finally addressed as Brother, were now a Freemason. You stood before the Master of the Lodge among your Brothers, knowing you were a part of things… accepted… perhaps you even had a small sense of accomplishment.
Then, it all momentarily fell apart. You were asked for something you could not produce, and all of those warm, positive thoughts evaporated into a hopeless, empty feeling. You were the new guy. You wanted nothing more than to please your new Brothers. You saw an empty hand stretched out. You wanted to comply. You couldn't. Now what? Were they going to expel you for this? As your mind reeled, the Master explained what this was all about. You just received, in a graphic way, one of your first Masonic lessons.
Every Freemason, even if financially well-off, has for at least one fleeting moment known the despair of not having enough. That little object lesson, sometimes called the Rite of Destitution, certainly cannot compare to the reality of a life of grinding poverty, but the hope is it will teach you, the new Brother, that it is your duty – not your option, but your duty – to treat those in that condition fairly, to be able to empathize with them and, if at all possible, contribute to the relief of any such person "so far as his necessities may require and your ability will permit."
Freemasonry being, as we are instructed, a progressive science, this is not the end of your lesson in charity. Elsewhere in our Masonic journey, we learn Relief is one of the great tenets of our craft. We in the United States and even the Western world are privileged in most cases to have the means to support ourselves and our families, but even here there are those who cannot do so. So we, as Freemasons, do what we can, both as Lodges and individuals.
It is a never-ending task. Jesus himself admonished us that, "the poor will always be with you." So undiscouraged, we remain aware that every little bit helps, and we never give up. Lodges, institutions, and persons of great means can – and do – make a significant difference with their contributions. The Shriners Hospitals, for example, have an immense impact on humanity with their charities and, with support, have the means to do it. We, as individuals and smaller Lodges, do not operate on the same level, but the spirit of our contributions is no less significant.
Most of our Brothers are individuals who would be generous to those less fortunate anyway, but it does not hurt to have that Rite of Destitution gnaw at us as a reminder that practicing the great tenet of Relief is the duty of every Freemason.