Desiring Machines: Is Letter-Perfect Ritual Really That Important?

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Patrick Dey

Some time ago, Robert Johnson directed me to an entry in Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry under “Parrot Masons.” The entry is worth quoting in full:

“One who commits to memory the questions and answers of the catechetical lectures, and the formulas of the ritual, but pays no attention to the history and philosophy of the Institution, is commonly called a Parrot Mason, because he is supposed to repeat what he has learned without any conception of its true meaning. In former times, such superficial Freemasons were held by many in high repute, because of the facility with which they passed through the ceremonies of a reception, and they were generally designated as Bright Masons. But the progress of Freemasonry as a science now requires something more than a mere knowledge of the lectures to constitute a Masonic scholar.”

Ouch. Apply some ice to that burn and chill for a while.

Recently I was pondering something in tandem with this: that of the desire to be. Where were we first prepared to be made a Mason? “In my heart,” we say. This implies there is a deficit, a lack, and there is a desire in our hearts to become Masons. It is Desire that is at work here. We, as Deleuze and Guattari would say, are desiring machines (Deleuze and Guattari tend to call most things that operate under some capacity “machines,” including people themselves). There are deficits, and we yearn to bridge them. The analogy of a bridge is appropriate. We as Masons are taught to build our spiritual temples, but operative masons also built bridges as well, so let’s stick with bridges for now. Desire is like a half-built bridge that takes us from one shore to the other, but we are always building the bridge to cross that deficit.

Let us revisit Descartes for a moment. We all know his theorem “I think, therefore I am.” His entire argument is nearly flawless. Taking a solipsistic point of view, he can prove nothing exists. However, something is contemplating this, there is something thinking, or at least something desiring to think. He can prove nothing but the fact that something is thinking these things. Thus: je pense, donc je sui. Really the only flaw with his argument is that he never defines what “I am” is, but that is another matter. Let us accept this. Something is thinking, a thinking machine, therefore the machine exists. Yet, I think Descartes was onto something better and jumped the gun a bit: I desire, therefore I am. I am a desiring machine, therefore my machine exists. Descartes says that something is “wishing” to think. It is hard to prove the thought, as thoughts are fleeting, gone as soon as they come. But the desire remains. Something still desires to think, regardless of what exists of the thought that follows.

We don’t think we are Masons and therefore we are. No, we desire to be Masons, and that is our first preparation. It is not a thought; it is a desire. It is asked of us when we are made a Mason: “What is it you most desire?” Light. We desire “Light.” Prior to that moment we are in a deficit (darkness) and are brought from darkness to light. Yet we continue to be in a deficit. We as Masons are always in a deficit of Light. What is said to us in the Fellow Craft Degree? “You have received Light, but partial.” And again in the Master Mason Degree, “that we look forward to greater Light in Masonry.” Though we desire more light, further light, greater light, we continuously build a bridge across a deficit of darkness towards Light, but we never quite get there before we forever drop the working tools of life.

If there is one truly valuable moment in the Cryptic Degrees of the York Rite, it is the speech given by Hiram Abif just before his death in the Royal Master Degree. Hiram says that his work will never be done. “That we may build industriously while our strength endures; laboring to complete our work ere the shades of evening come in which no man can work…” Hiram is always working, not just on the Temple, but on his bridge to span the spiritual darkness to Light.

And here we return to the Parrot Mason. What is it you most desire? To be a letter-perfect ritualist? Does that make you a Mason? I know a guy who has memorized the entirety of the chapter “Squeeze of the Hand” in Moby-Dick, does that make him a whaler? I know another guy who has memorized the dates of every battle and skirmish of the American Civil War, does that make him a Civil War veteran? What is it to be a Mason?

Are you a Mason because someone else calls you a Mason? I suppose according to the laws and constitutions of all Masonic jurisdictions that the purpose of the Lodge is to “make Masons,” that to be called a Mason one must belong to a lodge. But are you a Mason because you are called a Mason? I suppose in title one has become a Mason, but being — ontologically being — a Mason would be, so it appears to me, a desiring for Light.

Again, we are desiring machines. I do not think I have obtained Masonic Light, rather I desire Masonic Light and continuously build towards it. Masonic Light is partially a noun (“you have received Light, but partially” — the part of the Light that can be bestowed upon you at the altar), but mostly Masonic Light is a verb. Let me say that again: Masonic Light is a verb. It is something Masons are working (verb) towards, or should be working toward, not something that is given.

Is the Masonic Working (i.e. the working of Masonic Light) the reciting of a lecture letter-perfect? Did you receive the Light because you said the oaths verbatim as in the book? Did you work it because you made the effort to show up to the degree and were present? Is that really all it takes to be a Mason?

Obviously, Mackey would disagree, hence his derogatory name of “Parrot.” And obviously, being a Mason is a constant striving to cross the deficit of darkness to Light. It is a continuous process of becoming, by way of following the tenets of Masonry, inculcating and embodying the lessons and virtues that are communicated to us in the Degrees. Further Light is not the immediate act of petitioning the Shrine, York Rite, Scottish Rite, et al just after becoming a “proficient” Master Mason. It is not how many titles and accolades one can accumulate. Will one ever be done accumulating titles?

When asked what you most desired, was your answer: “To be a Past Master, Past Grand Master, Past High Priest, Past Illustrious Master, Past Commander, IX Grade SRICF, Past Sovereign Master, Past Potentate, Past Worthy Patron, et merda”? Unlikely. Or did you say: “I want to do letter-perfect ritual of all the degrees in Masonry from Entered Apprentice through the 33rd Degree”? Also unlikely. So where did the change occur? At what point after a man was initiated as a Mason did he start to become the guy on the sidelines grumbling that the brother delivering a lecture switched up a word?

At what point did the Masonic fraternity go from not putting much emphasis on the ritual — back when there was no written ritual — to becoming obsessed with letter-perfect ritual? In my home jurisdiction, there are awards given to brothers who can demonstrate they know all the catechisms or all the lectures within a year’s time, and there are guidelines of how many prompts they are permitted to receive and how many mistakes they are allowed to make. Does that make them a Mason? Does having a little card in their wallet that says they know all the catechisms by heart make them a Mason?

Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to have consistency in ritual work between brothers and lodges, and it is nice to do it well and fluently. But the immense emphasis put on perfect ritual does not make that brother a good Mason, especially if they did not learn a single thing from the words they memorized and are regurgitating before a new initiand.

Being a Mason is a verb. Masonic Light is a verb. Both are unending bridges under construction across the great deficit of darkness.

What is it you most desire?


Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7, and serves as the Secretary-Recorder of all three. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister), and is a member of Gofannin Council No. 315 AMD and Kincora Council No. 8 Knight Masons. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.

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