What Are We, Anyway? - Part Two
*** This is the second part of this blog post, for Part One, please read HERE. ***
We left off the last post bemoaning (or starting to bemoan) the "Golden Age of Fraternalism," and how it negatively affected the perception and implementation of Freemasonry and her practices. The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries marked a period where men and women joined everything, and it was the "it" thing to join something.
I'm sure many of you reading this are wondering "why is this a bad thing?"
Well, lets look at what the "Golden Age of Joining Anything and Everything" did for the Craft, to the Craft, and the state it has been left it in today.
A tremendous influx of members post Civil-War in the United States did have some positive benefits. Large sums of money were brought into the Craft, Grand Lodges grew to meet the membership demand, and most of the myriad of Masonic edifices were constructed during the early 20th century. Lodges sprang up left and right, with many populated areas having several Lodges to choose from in a small concentrated area. Masonic Lodges became one among a sea of organizations that asked for time and commitment and participation from its members.
Again, you ask, "why is this a bad thing?"
Freemasonry, to me, is a very individualized experience. Each candidate has a personal and intimate experience throughout the initiation process, with the assistance of a roomful of Brothers who help a candidate on his journey from Darkness to Light. The process is deliberate, it is thoughtful, and it imparts meaning to each and every candidate. This is a contrary philosophy to rapidly increasing in size and scope for the sake of growth alone. The Age of Joining was not organic growth, it was artificial growth. My people joined during this time, for the sole purpose of joining, and diluted interest in the Craft amidst a world with many options to choose from. During this time, there existed many people who were Masons, Kiwanis, and Odd Fellows, all at the same time. And again, it is OK to join things that you like, participate as much as you would like, but what it caused was a loss of emphasis on the parts of Freemasonry that make it special, selective, unique, and powerful.
The rapid influx of members, in most jurisdictions. coupled with the lack of due attention the Craft received, started the spiral towards lack of interest, lack of participation, and the loss of deeper meaning in the aspects of Freemasonry that many of us love and yearn for.
Over 4 million Freemasons existed during the height of membership in the 1950s, and shortly after that decade ended, membership started a rapid decline to the current numbers we have today. Just over one million Freemasons exist in the United States today. If you look at statistics provided by other studies, we should be seeing numbers drop below a million in the next five years. Why such a steep and rapid decline?
I think I know, or at least my opinion of the current state of the Craft can explain, bolstered by personal experience and traveling across the country and abroad. Again, my experience is "personal," and so is my opinion, so it may not be palatable for everyone. EDIT: I did see my last blog post referenced on Reddit, and while heartfelt I’m intent, the naysayers must truly have a wonderful Masonic experience. This is unfortunately, my friends and Brothers, the exception and not the norm. I did note some unintended insult in the comparison made between Freemasons and Kiwanis, but I have seen many a meeting that, except for a bit of ritual, have NOTHING different in substance and execution.
So why the rapid decline? Because my friends, we lost our primary purpose. We tried to be everything to everyone, ended up being somethings to some, and traded the deeper meanings of the symbolism of our Craft for the generic camaraderie that people craved at that time. And now we have to fight to bring our purpose back into the forefront.
Are we a social club? No, we aren't. Do we do social things? Heavens, yes. We offer many ways for Brethren to have social gatherings and events, and while very engaging and communal...it is NOT our purpose.
Are we a dinner club? No, we aren't. Do we host dinners and festive boards for Brethren and friends? We do, and many of them are fantastic. Some leave much to be desired. Some result in a fair amount of intemperance and excess. Some barely constitute an edible meal, but the effort is noticeable. Again, not our purpose.
Are we a charity? No, in fact, we are not. Do we host many charitable events? Too many to count. Do we donate money, time, and energy to a plethora of worthwhile causes? Indeed we do. Is a noticeable impact made on the lives of those who benefit from Masonic charity? Undoubtedly. But our primary purpose is not charity.
So what are we supposed to be? I think that we need to look at the following criteria:
- based on the resurgence of an urge and longing for Masonic education, and
- based on the uptick of a more reflective and pensive Mason in our Lodges, and
- based on the growing concern for the current state of the Craft and those left in charge of its care,
I think we are supposed to be what we originally intended: the preeminent, most authentic, and longest surviving mystery school in the World today, with the purpose of initiating people and teaching them how to become better human beings. We are the inheritors of a legacy that has existed for thousands or three hundred years, based on your beliefs. No matter how far back you think the Craft goes, it is a mystery school with a purpose that we espouse on bumper stickers, decals, Facebook posts, and billboards: to take good men and make them better.
How do we do that? Through our symbols and our ritual and our history, and not only teaching it, but applying the meaning behind the symbols to our daily lives. Upright living, just conduct, and a moral code are just platitudes in today's world. Our world has grown cold and heartless and impersonal, and as a result mankind has lost touch with the spark of divinity that lives within us all.
We can reclaim that spark, and mold it, and integrate it onto our lives, making us more social, more communal, and more charitable beings. Not as our primary purpose, but as a direct result of experiencing the Divine in us all, making all these side benefits flow freely and organically.
So that's what we are, the modern-day mystery school, with a set of symbols and tools that span thousands of years, and have so many layers of deeper meaning that it would take lifetimes to unpack it all. But that's the journey a Freemason takes, and the joy in walking those steps is what needs to be our primary goal, our sales pitch, and what we tell those who don't understand.
That's what we need to focus on, and we will flourish if we do. Not in numbers and money and stone temples that touch the sky, but in learning how to speak to our inner selves, and becoming better people for it.
~~ FDTL ~~