It’s Just a Fraternity!

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
C. R. Dunning, Jr.

While I’m not very active on social media, I do occasionally wander through its twisting catacombs. Recently I was doing just that, and across two days I repeatedly saw presumably well-meaning Masons in different virtual spaces making assertive comments like the title of this piece. Some of them even voiced frustration with people who are “trying to make it what it isn’t.” In almost every case, a more pointed complaint was made against Masons who regard the Fraternity as a contemplative, spiritual, or philosophical tradition. Some specifically grumbled that their brothers who want their lodge environments to be more sincere, reverent, and inspiring are taking the fun out of Masonry.

Interestingly, these complaining brothers didn’t mention what they think the limits are to being a fraternity. Is this Fraternity only about fun fellowship? Does it concern itself with self-improvement? Is mutual support part of it? And, if it includes any of those things that are beyond simply making and hanging out with friends, then where exactly is the dividing line that separates them from spirituality, philosophy, and being contemplative? How is it that coming together for study and discussion of spirituality and philosophy interferes with good fellowship?

Another observation I made was that none of these brothers referenced the ritual of this Fraternity to support their claim. It made me wonder if they’ve ever listened to the actual words of the rituals that facilitate becoming a full member of this Fraternity. It’s hard to not conclude that to them many of the rituals’ words are just fancy but meaningless paper, bows, and ribbons on the package of membership. Somehow these brothers haven’t fully realized that the words of our rituals are meant to teach real lessons, provide real instructions, and urge real efforts to learn and grow spiritually and philosophically.

Similarly, it seems clear that the complaining brothers haven’t studied the history of our Craft. They haven’t been impressed with the fact that the rituals of this Fraternity were developed by men who were very interested in spirituality and philosophy. Those same men made sure that the shift from Operative Masonry to Speculative Masonry emphasized the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of the Builder’s Art. These and later great leaders of Masonic thought have repeatedly stated in their own words how important a solemn and contemplative atmosphere is to accomplish the central intentions of our ritual. Heck, they even wrote such admonitions into the ritual itself! But I have digressed to the topic of the previous paragraph.

Another problem behind the scenes of those complaints is that many brothers don’t know how to differentiate spirituality from religion. So, being taught that Masonry is not a religion, and that there should be no religious contention in the lodge, has given some brothers the impression that spiritual topics and attitudes have no place in this Fraternity. This misunderstanding happens despite our rituals being filled with spiritual considerations and urging us to pursue them. But I digress again. Back to the point, another issue in this context arises with brothers who, for whatever reason, cannot imagine or condone, let alone engage, spirituality that is inclusive of religious views other than their own. This problem is most unfortunately demonstrated when brothers seek or create rules and regulations that effectively impose their own beliefs on others and even remove things from our rituals and official documents that they find uncomfortable. In effect, in their own religiosity, they try to turn this Fraternity into an extension of their own churches. In the face of such ignorance and intolerance, it’s no wonder that, with the best of intentions, other brothers would scream “We’re just a fraternity!”

The point about taking the fun out of Masonry makes a little more sense to me. Different people take joy in different things, and some of us obviously have our minds made up that there are irreconcilable differences between fun and anything that involves a sincere commitment to learning and growth. By the way, those closed minds can be on either side of the divide. There are “fun” folks resistant to learning and growth, and there are “learning and growth” types who avoid fun. But I’m mindful of how important play is as a means of assimilating information and developing skills, and how often the true masters of an art seem to be more at play than at labor with their creativity. It’s also worth noting the staggering volumes of food and spiritous beverages consumed by Masons of the early Grand Lodge era while they considered profound issues and concepts! Surely there are activities that demand more solemnity and decorum, such as degrees, installations, and funerals. It is also right that some forms of humor and good cheer have their own places apart. It’s a hallmark of human maturity, and thus of Masonic virtue, to recognize where one is among these territories and their overlaps, and to conduct oneself accordingly. I’m happy to say that I know many brothers who are very good at both sincere labor and lively refreshment!

Now, you might think that I would condemn the complaining brothers I’ve been referencing, but I don’t. They deserve the benefit of the doubt and I have no reason to question that their position is conscientiously rooted in Masonry as they know it. The “just a fraternity” attitude was demonstrated to them before they became members. The negligence of our history and of the meaning in our rituals was inculcated by the examples of their elder brothers. And their perpetuation of that attitude and negligence has been rewarded with advancement and even honors. They may also be reacting to religious zealots posing as Masonic purists. In short, they’re the best Masons they can be given the circumstances of their fraternal experience. How can I hold any ire against them?

For me, all these observations and reflections point to three very important truths. First, if this Fraternity is to be what its founders intended, what its rituals say it is, and are very well-equipped to facilitate, then Masonic education is of utmost importance. In our efforts to ensure a future for this Fraternity, if we don’t know what most deserves to be saved and passed on to future generations, then we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Second, an examination of our history and ritual shows that the problem of “trying to make it what it isn’t” began a long time ago with the rise of the “just a fraternity” attitude. Third, this Fraternity can be both fun and spiritually and philosophically meaningful; for brothers with open minds and hearts, the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

But let’s face it, fewer brothers will grasp any of these truths if we don’t help everyone see them in our history and the words of our rituals. Without Masonic education, it really is just a fraternity, and that takes the meaning and the fun out of it for those who are actually seeking more light in all the colors our tradition offers. With good Masonic education, each brother knows he can appropriately enjoy whichever color he finds most attractive, and he can do so without preventing others from appropriately enjoying theirs. In the process, brothers might even discover some colors to be more attractive than they had expected, and in doing so benefit from a richer experience. That’s just the fraternity this Fraternity is meant to be.


Brother Chuck Dunning
is an advocate, facilitator, trainer, and consultant in contemplative practice, with more than 30 years in the professional fields of higher education and mental health, as well as in Masonry and other currents in the Western esoteric traditions. He has authored Contemplative Masonry: Basic Applications of Mindfulness, Meditation, and Imagery for the Craft (2016), and The Contemplative Lodge: A Manual for Masons Doing Inner Work Together (coming in 2020), and was a contributing author in The Art and Science of Initiation (2019). Chuck has articles published in several Masonic journals and websites, is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer on the Masonic Educational circuit, and has been interviewed for numerous periodicals and podcasts. In 2019, the College of Freemasonry in Rochester, New York presented him with the Thomas W. Jackson Masonic Education Award for Fraternal Leadership in Masonic Research and Esoteric Study. In 2018, the Southern California Research Lodge recognized him as being among the Top Ten Esoteric Masonic Authors. Chuck is the founding Superintendent of the Academy of Reflection, which is a chartered organization for Scottish Rite Masons wanting to integrate contemplative practice with their Masonic experience. He is also a Full Member of the Texas Lodge of Research. You can contact Chuck via his webpage:

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