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Freemasonry, what for?

by Martin Stapdtecker


A question which always comes up when a Mason talks to another Mason, or a non-Mason to a Mason, or vice-versa, is about what good is Masonry and what its members can do that is useful, interesting or both. Because, if it was neither useful nor interesting, it would be much better to look for something else. Why be a Mason rather than a member of a perfectly respectable organization such as the Red Cross, the Lions' Club, the Rotary, a political party or, finally, the most widespread type of organization in the world, with branch offices at practically every street corner, sounding board of public opinion, the neighborhood bar?  Let's give the matter a good look.

But before being able to outline the beginning of a reply to this question, it would seem necessary to have a rather clear and accurate idea of what Freemasonry really is. This is not too simple because our Craft, you see, which is quite widespread throughout the world, while not at all Universal, as many people think, has taken many varied guises. One should not imagine a monolithic Masonry, a gigantic crowd marching in step. We are very far from being that, and that's a good thing. Each country has its Masonry, more or less multiform, and even in France it is made of half a dozen independent bodies, with their own concerns, their own methods, their own ideas and, often, their own ideologies. This is why a simple definition of Freemasonry is not easily stated and why we will mostly deal today, for simplification, with the Grand Lodge of France.

It's a good choice after all, because the Grand Lodge is the largest regular Masonic body in continental Europe. It thus happens to be extremely well suited to serve as the subject of this paper. Whatever I will say about it here will however remain applicable, at least in part, to other Grand Lodges than ours, among them co-Masonic and women's jurisdictions.

We will avoid the difficulty presented by the Masonic diversity in France (and in the world) by starting with a brief description of what modern Masonry was at its beginnings, that we will set in the 20-odd years preceding and following 1717. Everyone knows that, notwithstanding this arbitrary date, its ancient roots thrust deeply into the history of the Operative guilds and possibly go back, through it, as far as the first century BC.

But the Operative guilds knew, with the decline of Gothic art, a strong decline too. The new architectural fashion coming from Italy did no longer require the arched, airy, light and luminous structures that only skilled craftsmen, in command of all the secrets of their art, knew how to build. It was so much easier to build the long, angular stone barracks of the palaces of the Renaissance and of the styles that followed it, with their low, long, straight stone bulks, pierced by rectangular windows, having no great problems of balance, and then hide their repetitious monotony by covering them with sculptures and statues. Anyway, Renaissance architecture is made for the sun, the play of light and shadow and the blue skies of Italy. It is not made, like our Gothic cathedrals, for the rain and drizzle, the low and gray skies of our rather more septentrional countries. There were of course strokes of genius and a few rare exceptions were built, like the Dome of Florence or St. Peterís of Rome. All the other buildings, notably the least accomplished, were clothed in beautiful gardens. But, look at it as you may, mediaeval architecture was over.

The last Gothic buildings were erected in England at the beginning of the 17th century and it could be that the Operative Masons, thinking themselves condemned to rapidly disappear and believing their species endangered, worried about the conservation of their old and priceless secrets. Apprentices becoming rare and Lodges disappearing one after another, they begun to accept people who, while no craftsmen, had the intellectual abilities and often the social weight capable of compensating this serious lack. The English were the first and came to it quite readily. We know well they have always loved old things, traditions and closed clubs. Effectively, the Operatives disappeared in England in the beginning of the 18th century. Fortunately they survived in France, to regain strength and vigor two centuries later and erect again prestigious buildings, among them the Eiffel tower, but the English and many French did not know it, and anyway that's another story, to be told another day.

Masonic Lodges (that's the way these lodges of intellectuals and craftsmen called themselves) adopted the rituals, traditions and customs of the ancient builders, masons and carpenters. But in a certain way that project for saving the Operatives failed, because soon there was not a single Operative craftsman in the English Masonic Lodges. Their tradition was finally saved and propagated through the French Operatives, and Masonry became a separate entity, increasingly different from its supposed ancestors.

To give themselves more efficient administrative structures, Masonic Lodges began to federate themselves into Grand Lodges and Grand Orients. The first federation of this kind was constituted in 1717, in the back room of an inn called the Goose and the Gridiron, near St.-Paul's Cathedral in London, the first post-Gothic cathedral in England, recently completed under the supervision of Sir Christopher Wren. A sign of the times. Four lodges federated themselves that day into the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, which was going to become, nearly a century later, the United Grand Lodge of England.

Like the United Grand Lodge of England and all other jurisdictions, the Grand Lodge of France is a federation of Lodges. You might wish to know that the essential difference between a Grand Lodge and a Grand Orient is that a Grand Loge works, in principle, a single rite, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in our case, while a Grand Orient is not only a federation of Lodges but also a federation of rites, and works as many as half a dozen and even more. The Grand Lodge of France currently counts in its ranks some 29,000 active Brethren in about 650 Lodges, an average of 45 active Brethren per Lodge, though the actual headcount may vary between 20 and 150. As was the case for the British Empire, the sun never sets over the Grand Lodge of France, since there are Lodges belonging to it not only everywhere in this country but also in most continents and in both hemispheres, Northern and Southern.

What does one do in Lodge? I cannot tell too much, and you have surely heard about Masonic secrecy, or rather discretion, but there are nevertheless quite a few things that may be told. We get together in Temples, of a size adequate to the size of the Lodge, and you remember that the average Lodge has about forty members. We open our meetings with an ancient, immutable, deeply symbolic Ritual. The ancient and wise words of this Ritual allow us to forget, for a few hours, the turmoil and unrest of the outside world.

For these few hours we create a different time and space, sacred I would say, in the Latin meaning of the word, that is pure, separate; a space-time where the worries of daily life are temporarily set aside. Within this space-time we listen, every time we meet and for half an hour to an hour, another one of us speak on a philosophical, ritual, moral, spiritual, historical, sometimes scientific or artistic subject. Then we discuss it, in a disciplined and passionless manner, speaking each in turn to comment what was said as well as to add new ideas, viewpoints and details with a bearing on the subject of the lecture. Once the subject usefully understood and the discussion finished, we close the Lodge, ritually too, we leave the Temple and get together around a table to share a pleasant meal, as Brethren and friends.

Masonry, what for... The real question is: Masonry, to do what? Various reasons impel and propel the candidates knocking at our door. The need for fraternity, togetherness, friendship is doubtlessly the main motivation, notably for those, more and more numerous, which are or at least feel alone. Intellectual curiosity is the moving force for many other candidates. Personally, I came to Masonry more than twenty years ago in the belief that I would be taught magic, witchcraft and alchemy. Though I actually have a scientific background, I have always asked myself if there was not something else beyond the cold world of numbers and matter and energy, and I have always looked for it. In the end, no one taught me magic, nor witchcraft, nor alchemy, which allowed me on one hand to learn and understand quite a bit on my own and, on the other hand, to find out that these were not essential, not even important elements of our Masonic tradition, just means, tools, a kind of general background sometimes useful for practicing the art of symbolism.

There are other motives too. People younger than I notice that they never got, with their diplomas, much general background and that, outside of their trade, profession or specialty, they know nothing. Others, less young, notice after years of labor that they have existed but not lived. They feel the need to launch themselves into a fresh adventure, that of the intellect and of the spirit. Some apply while thinking that they will be ennobled, that they will become Knights of this and of that, Malta, Saint Andrew, what do I know. Yes, they might even become that some day, but not in the way they imagine.

Some apply, with little conviction, pushed by a relative or a friend. Next to them are those who apply by mistake, thinking they are joining a very exclusive club or even a religious organization, hoping to find what they hadn't sufficiently looked for in the faith of their childhood. There are, finally, those who come thinking that Freemasonry is rich and powerful, that it's good for business, for making money, maybe for promoting contacts useful for one's career and advancement.

No, none of these motivations is wholly bad. No one joins Freemasonry with a clear knowledge of what he's going to find. What matters is to have the courage, the temerity to apply. Thereafter, Freemasonry will prove itself to be a very efficient crusher of childish illusions and delusions, a sorter and a builder of men, a tracer of plans. She will know, in most cases, to deftly replace false or poor motives with valid and realistic ones. And if she succeeds not, it is far easier to leave than to get in.

I'm often asked if it's true, I'm also often told peremptorily, that Masonry is a sect. Of course, we all know it isn't, and any moderately intelligent person has long known it isn't. I sometimes explain to those who still doubt that, among the countless and often essential differences, there is a major, wholly insurmountable one between Freemasonry and a sect, such a difference that it has touchstone value:  In Freemasonry, it is difficult to get in and easy to get out. Insofar as a sect is concerned, you will notice that if it is very easy to get in, it is very difficult to get out.

Difficult to get in, was I saying... It is not easy to be accepted in a Masonic Lodge, because there is a selection of candidates that is tough but, we believe, just. You will encounter implicit and explicit elements of this selection process all along this paper, as well as the qualities we look for and the failings we hope not to find in our candidates. The criteria that we apply and the qualities that we look for are intimately related to what we are doing in Freemasonry, and that is why I will not treat them separately.

Do we never err in our meticulous selection work?  Of course we do, and the big problem, which sometimes gives us sleepless nights, is not so much bringing in someone who doesn't deserve it, but rejecting someone who could have become a good Mason. You know, those who are accepted and do not find their place leave usually by themselves, even if it sometimes takes years. Yes, we sometimes err. Because of an excess of tolerance or charity, I hope. You know maybe that we sometimes call a man who is very close to our Masonic ideals, but who isn't a member of the Craft, a "Mason without an Apron". I sometimes call, mentally only and with a bit of sorrow, a man who was admitted through excessive kindness and who would be far better off elsewhere, an "Apron without a Mason."

With all these selections and all these criteria, does Freemasonry constitute an elite?  Yes, and not only because of them, which sometimes one manages to dodge. It is an elite, inasmuch as from the first instant one must have the courage, the irrational temerity of launching oneself in the absolute unknown. This is not within everyone's reach. What does one really know about Freemasonry, outside?  Nothing. Less than nothing. If one really knew something, this great variety of reasons and motivations would have no reason to exist. One could read dozens of books, interrogate dozens of Masons, one would still know nothing before. A selection automatically happens from the very beginning between those who dare take this first step into the unknown, and those who do not and only take it timidly, backwards, back into the safety of what they know and understand. Other tests will follow, but this one, to which every one of us has silently and alone submitted himself, is the first and possibly the most difficult, because it happens at a time when we don't yet have the warm and friendly support of our Brethren. Only two in a thousand of the population of France have had this courage. Not all have been admitted.

By the way. One does not come by chance or by accident to this kind of conference. One comes because one has a Mason friend, to understand what makes him the way he is, or because of pure curiosity, to understand what Masonry is all about, or because one wants to become a Mason. There are other reasons too.

Allow me, in this perspective, to talk a moment about shrimps. You know, those little pink or gray things, full of legs and feelers, which scamper around the bottom of the sea. Shrimps are no more concerned by the water around them than we are concerned about the air which fills every crevice of the world we live in. In both cases, it's for the same reason: Water can only transmit a narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies. The shrimps' eyes have evolved and specialized, over hundreds of millions of years, to preferentially see those frequencies where the water is the most transparent, and no others. That great transparency of water, in the perception of the shrimps, rendered it of course practically invisible to their eyes.

We too, who carry on seven miles deep, at the very bottom of our ocean of air, have evolved so as to preferentially see a narrow band of electromagnetic energy, going from red to violet. This renders the air we breathe transparent to our eyes. We call this narrow band of energy which lets us see, "light".  Since the beginning, since well before the shrimps and us came into being, since when there was no animal life yet but only plants, light and life have been narrowly associated, because it is light that supplies the energy required by photosynthesis. A little later animals came to be, and light allowed them to find their food, light allowed them to find their prey, light allowed them to find each other and thus perpetuate their countless species. Time went by. One day, beings who were not yet men stood up, and thus were able to lift their heads and watch the stars. They began to think, and later wrote the word Light with a capital L. And the Light was still Life.

In the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite that we work, the Lodges are called Lodges of Saint John. The work in Lodge always starts with reading the first verses of the Gospel of St. John, which go thus, in a grandiose paraphrase of Genesis:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

"The same was in the beginning with God.

"All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

"In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

"And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not".

You will notice that it's all still about Light and Life, the search for Light in Life, the search for Life in Light.

One of the main purpose of Masonry is to give men a framework, a structure within which they could, each one of them, look for and find their own Light. All this of course is very pretty, on condition that we know what we are talking about. What is this Light that we are looking for?  You can buy in various shops very nice halogen light fixtures which give a lot of light, too much even, to the point that one begins to see the cracks in the ceiling and the dust accumulated since the last coat of paint. The Light we are looking for is different, while having nevertheless some points in common with the halogen lighting fixtures you can find in stores. How come?

Seeing, nay looking, just like hearing and listening, are among the main things we learn in Freemasonry. Another of the main purposes of Freemasonry, and one of the main differences between it and various clubs, neighborhood cafes, political parties, philosophies and religions is this knowledge, this understanding of others and of ourselves it gives us a chance to acquire. We think that the main obstacle between us and the accomplishment of our real capabilities, between us an harmony with our fellow men, access to inner and outwards peace, is the deep ignorance we have of our real selves. The idea is not new. The phrase "gnothi seauthon", know thyself, was already cut into the frontispiece of Apollo's temple at Delphos.

This understanding of ourselves lets us see the cracks of our personalities and those of the world,  the dust which the years have allowed to settle on the dreams, the imagination, the enthusiasm of our childhood and youth. It allows us, if we want and if we are able, to dust ourselves off and to wake up. It gives us the light required to do the job and be alive again. It does not do it for us. That remains our own responsibility, just like that halogen light fixture will not fix the cracks and paint the ceiling, but will let us uncover the problem and give us the required lighting to find and apply the solution.

How does one attain self-knowledge and self-understanding?  In many ways, as many as there are individuals. Essentially by learning to like silence, by taking the time to discover, to identify an know better our real objectives in life, by learning to speak, to better make ourselves understood by our fellow men, by learning to listen, to better know an understand the others, because our fellow men are as many mirrors showing us our true image; by learning to hear and trying to understand opinions radically different from ours, by questioning ourselves, by questioning our Brethren in this wonderful equality and freedom of speech the Masonic Fraternity gives us.

Because, you see, Freemasonry is also a school, without really being one. It is certainly not a school with classes, school yards, teachers, a program, a timetable. If Freemasonry is a school, it teaches in a way much closer to the one used by our Operative Brethren, that is through personal example. The Operatives say that Apprentices, if they want to learn their trade, must "steal" the skill of their Masters by attentively watching them in their workshop. With us this also happens in our workshops, which are our Masonic Temples, but just as much during our Fraternal dinners, fortuitous encounters in the entrance hall of the Grand Lodge or the friendly visits our Brethren pay each other. It is thus, by watching our Brethren, by questioning them, by listening to them, by trying to assimilate what one find good in their example and rejecting what we may not like, by meditating on what we have seen, heard and understood and, finally, by acting intelligently and without precipitation, without passion, that we may get to understand much, learn much, and doubtlessly become better men.

Self-improvement is yet another major purpose of our Craft. At the Grand Lodge of France, we do not believe very much in the action, agitation and posturing of Masonic bodies in the social and political arena. I do know, we all know it, that certain Masonic bodies believe a lot in social and political activism, and act in consequence. This is a free country, and every Mason is free in this area to select his objectives, methods and priorities. We rather think that it is by giving ourselves additional intellectual and spiritual means, by trying to render ourselves better, that we will have the possibility to act more efficiently, as individuals, in the outside world. The reason is simple:  Firstly, the Grand Lodge of France gives its members no political, religious, philosophical or social guidelines. Thus, it does not allow itself to act in their name, knowing well that a vast multiplicity of opinions, attitudes and religions is present in its ranks, and that claiming to represent them all in the national arena would be no less than imposition and deception. On the other hand, it is good that all its members be able, individually, to assume their responsibility and do their duty outside the Temple, according to their ideas, opinions and individual choices, as free men and responsible citizens. That is what our rituals tell us, and we respect our rituals.

And what shape would take this betterment, this improvement of ourselves?  Is everyone able to improve himself?  Let's see these questions, one after the other. I was mentioning a little while ago young men, fresh out of their university, armed with their brand new sheepskins and who, if they managed to find a job and think of something else, discover that they have acquired nothing in the way of a general education and that, outside their specialties, they now nothing or very little. This is an area where self improvement is easiest, because our Masonic Lodges bring together people who often have deep knowledge in countless, very different areas. The wine grower encounters the computer programmer, the theologian sits besides the insurance salesman, the physician meets the philosopher and the banker, the taxi driver finds himself in the same Lodge as the member of Government, and the cabalist sits with the storekeeper. Those who want, and those who can, have many occasions to learn a lot about many topics the very existence of which they may have ignored, before becoming Masons.

There are also subtler improvements. Listening to the philosophers among us, be they professional or not, one is able to progress towards a better understanding of the mechanisms which govern men, society and the world. It isn't even necessary to adopt these philosopher's ideas. It is enough to hear them, to listen carefully to what they have to say and then to make up one's own mind. Listening to the physicists and astronomers among us one can get rid of the fashionable superstitions running around the media and which, under the guise of astrology, clairvoyance, little green men and other nonsense have, since the end of the 19th century, replaced faith for many people. With the help of the same physicists and astronomers one may approach a better understanding of the structures and mechanisms of the Universe around us, and thus of the intrinsic beauty of Creation. By adding the frequentation of theologians one may better understand one's own path in the complex world of spirituality and faith. By meeting, and listening to, excellent lecturers on very diverse subjects, Brethren who never had known - or had the courage - to speak in public, who thought themselves handicapped by an accent, by an insufficient mastery of the language, or simply by a natural timidity get to speak without difficulty nor stage-fright, before hundreds of people.

Other Brethren, who had never written because they thought they had nothing to say, because of self-consciousness or because they dreaded the unspeakable anguish of the blank page (or screen!) find out, after a few years that they are good writers. One of my Brethren, that I saw arriving in my Lodge in 1988, timid, clumsy and embarrassed, has become one of the most prolific Masonic writers and one of the best lecturers I have met. Examples abound. "Masonry, what for?" was I asking at the beginning of this paper. Masonry, what for?  For building Men!

Finally, and still in the area of self-improvement, the least visible and most unobtrusive personal progress but the most difficult and the most important, I think, is the one that allows us to be silent and listen until the other man has finished saying what he had to say, to put ourselves in his place so as to understand him, to answer without hurting or offending him in his person or opinions, to accept that he may have ideas radically different from ours, without feeling the immediate urge to put him straight; to always try and stay serene, to be prudent in the diagnosis of stupidity, folly or madness and, having identified them, to check back from time to time; to resist condescension and contempt, because even the most stupid and craziest of men have something important to teach us. Yes, I see the smile on you faces and the unspoken question: Do you, yourself, do what you preach?  Well, at least I try!

Is anyone and everyone capable of improving himself? was I asking some time ago. With great sorrow I must answer negatively, at least as far as Freemasonry is concerned. "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit", said someone. I agree, for everything that concerns the Kingdom of Heaven. But to improve oneself in the various areas that I have mentioned, certain preliminaries are visibly needed. The most important of requirements is the will to succeed. Not to wait for success, to desire it, to vaguely hope for it, but to want it with all one's strength. Many are those who do not know how to will intensely, those who yield, who bow, who bend to fate and to the sad events of their life. Those who can not have the sustained will, main and essential element for self-improvement to succeed, will never make it. There are things one must deserve.

There is also another major condition. No, I'm not talking about culture. Culture can be acquired, easily even, if the will is there. The Grand Lodge of France has  a great and very rich library, and the people we admit know at least how to letter, don't they?  No, what I mean is the capacity for self-improvement, which cannot be acquired. Call it as you will, talent, intelligence, no matter; but you will agree that it exists, that it's required, and that it would be cruel to let someone attempt something distinctly above his capabilities. We won't be like those excessive mothers, one of which everyone has met some time or another (occasionally one's own!), and who force-feed for years piano, or dancing, or violin, or flute lessons to their adorable, but totally and perfectly untalented children.

Not long ago, at the chapter "Halogen Light Fixtures", I was mentioning the dust which the years have allowed to settle on the dreams, the imagination, the enthusiasm of our childhood and youth. This is at the root of a third major condition for anyone aspiring to become a Freemason ad improve himself. It is, no matter the age of the candidate, for him to have preserved this radiant and youthful quality of imagination, of enthusiasm, the ability to dream. No, we are definitely not dreamers. But men who have set, the way concrete sets once and forever, into an unchanging shape, immutable ideas and convictions, are not interesting for Freemasonry, because one can't improve, modify, perfect, enrich concrete, or the people who resemble it.

This is why just anyone cannot be, and is not, received in Freemasonry. There is a selection at the entrance, and we try to identify the capacity for self improvement and the firm will to go ahead with it, which can be found anywhere, in all social strata, at all education levels, but not in everyone. It is difficult, much more difficult than you imagine, and the source of many doubts and sleepless nights. But we do not want to allow, willingly, people who have done us no harm live through foreseeable failures. We want our Brethren to succeed in the work they are undertaking. But we look for, and visibly we find, because we have doubled in numbers over the last dozen years, those men with the courage to dare the step into the unknown, the required imagination to look for, and find, something else than what they already know, the intelligence to assimilate it, integrate it and finally transmit it.

Transmit... We must not forget this matter of transmission. Of tradition. You see, Freemasonry is traditional. What does it mean? The word Tradition comes from a Latin word that means "to transmit" or "to deliver". Certain elements of this tradition are evident. We have received, and we transmit further, to our successors in Freemasonry, the signs, the gestures and the symbols received from our Operative forebears, our rites and rituals, our secrets and our customs. Sometimes, after thinking it out for a long time and with much hesitation, we bring minute and prudent modifications, in the hope that they might become improvements. Like grafts on a tree, they hold or don't, and that will be the definitive and irrefutable proof of their cogency. All this is very good, very nice and telling it certainly makes a good impression. But carrying relics, any ass can do it. Tradition does something else, something far more important. Each one of us builds a Temple, a Palace, he builds himself. He does it with the contributions, the ideas, the skill, the knowledge he has gleaned among his Brethren, as he would with scattered stones coming from other buildings. He also does it by avoiding certain stones, which he considers poorly cut, inadequate, improperly used by others.

Each one of us knows that the palace he is building is, for him at least, the most beautiful in the world. Each one of us also knows that it will never be completed, because while a building or a Mason can always be improved, a life must end sooner or later. But then, why work on something that we will never see finished?  Because we are not alone, because we have Brethren. I know, each one of us knows, we all have always known that the stones of our individual buildings will serve to erect other buildings, rendering the task of our successors a little easier. These stones will serve as they are, or cut and reset anew, or crushed into rubble, milled into lime, to be burned and slacked and spread, as Rudyard Kipling said in his "Palace". Some stones won't serve at all, because they will not fit the new plans of our successors, or maybe they will serve much later. But this raw material, this premier matter, this "materia prima", will be transmitted from decade to decade, from century to century, to help other Brethren operate other changes on themselves, other transmutations of lead, iron or copper into gold.

What for, Freemasonry?  I think that now we know.

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