"Just what," he asked, "do you do inside those lodge rooms?"
The question came out of nowhere, unexpected. A friend sitting across from me at lunch just suddenly exploded with curiosity, wondering what mysterious things we Masons do in… secret. I recalled asking a similar question myself as I stood outside a lodge room as a non-Mason, waiting for admission to present my father his 50-year pin, "What in the world must be going on in there?"
Many in the profane world, on the rare occasions their thoughts turn to Freemasonry, ask the same question or similar questions about the fraternity. In the ensuing silence, absent annoying facts, the deadly combination of imagination and speculation mixed with the enticing elixir of mystery and secrecy sets in. We have seen all too many examples of the resulting urban legends about our activities.
Our word "mystery" derives from the Greek word "musterion," Implying secrecy, it was used to describe the activities and tenets of the many ancient Greek guilds, brotherhoods, and schools of philosophy. Only the initiates of those organizations knew their secrets, which were beyond the understanding of outsiders. Sound familiar? The word is likewise used in the Bible. In Matthew 13:11 Jesus says, "To you (his disciples) it has been granted to know the mysteries (musterion) of the kingdom of heaven, but to them, it has not been granted," emphasizing the concept that his disciples have knowledge beyond the capacity of outsiders to understand.
Individuals or groups… everyone has secrets. Your company's board of directors doesn't always make its minutes public. Your church trustees discuss confidential topics. Individuals have things they want to keep to themselves. I have even personally known two couples who were secretly married. We revere our secrets, and most times we have them for what we think are legitimate reasons, but just let someone else have a secret and it will draw people like a magnet. Busybodies of the world, unite!
When Brother Meriwether Lewis scouted ahead of the Corps of Discovery and climbed that first mountain in the Rockies, he did not know what he would find at the summit. It was a mystery. He later wrote that he conjured up a picture of the mountain sloping into a green valley, with the Columbia river flowing through it and maybe, far-far away a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and their final destination. When he got to the top he saw nothing of the sort as he looked at miles and miles and miles of more mountain tops. His imagination did not match reality. Rather, a "rough and rugged road" was revealed to him. Rarely is our speculation about what will be revealed an accurate outcome.
Most mysteries don't lead to speculation about green fields and flowing rivers, do they? Given human nature, the imagination seems to lead us down a more sinister path or into something just plain weird. Swamp gas becomes a flying saucer. Or was it the other way around?
So Freemasonry, a System of morality, veiled in allegory, illustrated by symbols, and all that stuff, becomes an easy target. Outsiders see the symbols, some looking weird and exotic. They don't understand or don't know about the allegory and, voila… a musterion. Now, throw in a dab of secrecy and you've got people worked into a frenzy.
It is common for law enforcement agencies to withhold information about a suspect during an investigation. They do this in order to avoid tipping off the suspect about what they know. This, of course, drives people crazy. They want to know everything and they want to know now – even though releasing that information might be detrimental to their ultimate goal: catching the suspect. Transparency is good, but so is discretion. We love our own secrets and hate other people's. So my company can keep its plans confidential, but not those sinister Freemasons. And by the way, secret does not mean sinister.
Here's a pro tip: don't write a book called "The History of Freemasonry." Call it "The Secret History of Freemasonry." It's good for sales.
Mystery, secrecy, imagination, and speculation… mix them all together and you give people license to run free and wild, and come up with opinions like these:
I don't have any real proof but I know for sure…
Freemasonry is a cult
Freemasons worship Satan
Freemasons control the world
Freemasonry is a secret society
Freemasons are elitists
When it really gets fun is when the entertainment world takes over. There, our lodge rooms have passageways to strange places. We take on supernatural powers. Our altars and other lodge furnishings open to reveal mysterious things. We solve complicated and cryptic puzzles like they're second-grade math. We know all the secrets… not just of Freemasonry, but of life and the universe. We are, in fact, the Adept.
So I answered my friend's question. "In our lodge rooms, we have an opening based on a ritual. While it's not public, you can find a pretty good representation of it in your local library or on the all-knowing Internet. We conduct a business meeting. Sometimes we have an educational program or discussion. Then we have a ritual-based closing. On certain occasions, we initiate new members into the Masonic degrees and we also hold officer installations and other ceremonies which are open to the public."
Then I asked, "Are you disappointed?" He politely said, "No." But I couldn't help wondering if what I had told him had his imagination running wild.
Bro. Steve Harrison, 33° is Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is also a Fellow and Past Master of the Missouri Lodge of Research. Among his other Masonic memberships is the St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite bodies, and Moila Shrine. He is also a member and Past Dean of the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Brother Harrison is a regular contributor to the Midnight Freemasons blog as well as several other Masonic publications. Brother Steve was Editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine for a decade and is a regular contributor to the Whence Came You podcast. Born in Indiana, he has a Master's Degree from Indiana University and is retired from a 35-year career in information technology. Steve and his wife Carolyn reside in northwest Missouri. He is the author of dozens of magazine articles and three books: Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, Freemasons — Tales From the Craft and Freemasons at Oak Island.