True Secrets of Freemasonry

Those who become Freemasons only for the sake of finding out the secret of the order, run a very great risk of growing old under the trowel without ever realizing their purpose. Yet there is a secret, but it is so inviolable that it has never been confided or whispered to anyone. Those who stop at the outward crust of things imagine that the secret consists in words, in signs, or that the main point of it is to be found only in reaching the highest degree. This is a mistaken view: the man who guesses the secret of Freemasonry, and to know it you must guess it, reaches that point only through long attendance in the lodges, through deep thinking, comparison, and deduction.

He would not trust that secret to his best friend in Freemasonry, because he is aware that if his friend has not found it out, he could not make any use of it after it had been whispered in his ear. No, he keeps his peace, and the secret remains a secret.

Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, Memoirs, Volume 2a, Paris, p. 33

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Is Masonic Ritual Timeless and Unchanging?

First of all, the obligatory disclaimer. The following is solely the opinion of the author, and does not represent any group, sub group, lodge, district, Lodge Officer, Grand Officer, Grand Lodge or other masonic entity.


Ok, now that we have that out of the way, the issue of the day is Masonic Ritual, and the question is: Is Masonic Ritual Timeless and Unchanging?
Concerning making changes in Freemasonry and/or attempting to define Freemasonry as a social club and community service organization...

In the installation of officers the Master is admonished; "You admit that it is not in the power of any man, or body of men, to make innovations in the body of Masonry."

In the anteroom lecture we are asked "Do you seriously declare upon your honor that you will cheerfully conform to all the ancient usages and established customs of the fraternity?"

We all answered that question in the affirmative, from the youngest Entered Apprentice to the Most Worshipful Grand Master.(1)

11. You admit that it is not in the power of any Man or Body of Men to make innovation in the Body of Masonry.(2)

You admit that it is not in the power of any man, or body of men, to make innovations in the body of Masonry.(3)

There are more sources, but these three will do to make the point that innovations cannot be made in the Body of Masonry. The Grand Lodge of California, and the Grand Lodge of California are in agreement, as are, well, darn near every REGULAR Grand Lodge on which I could find references. The question we need to answer before proceeding then, is RITUAL included in not making innovations?

Clearly, the answer is no. Referencing alone the information contained in "The Convention that Changed the Face of Freemasonry" we can see that the ritual was deliberately and systematically... standardized in the early 19th Century. And yet...

Ritual, from Merriam-Webster Online:
1: the established form for a ceremony; specifically : the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony
2 a: ritual observance; specifically : a system of rites
2 b: a ceremonial act or action
2 c: an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner(4)
There is nothing in this definition which would give one the sense that ritual cannot be changed or modified, so based on historical usage and technical definition, the ritual is NOT timeless, and CAN be changed at whim. Therein lies the challenge, for the ritual is designed to inculcate certain wise and serious teachings, to assist in the formation of a mason, to set a man on the path to inner change... to make him a better man, before g-d, his family, and his community.

It is a challenge because, any time change is undertaken without serious contemplation of all possible ramification, a slippery slope has been trod upon, with the end unknown to the authors.(5)(6)

The Grand Lodge of California is very strict about the ritual. As prescribed at the Convention noted above, the ritual is overseen by a Grand Lecturer, whose duty it is, with five Assistant Grand Lecturers, and a number of Inspectors, one assigned per district, to teach the ritual and ensure that all lodges under charter to the Grand Lodge of California, follow and use the same ritual, jot and tittle, pronunciation, gesture and floorwork. This leads to some interesting ritual work, and in the past several years, a continuous stream of minor "modifications"/"Corrections" to the ritual work.

An effort to "standardize" the ritual has also been undertaken in the past few years, so that what is done in the first degree is also done in the second and third. So if the Senior Deacon makes a 1/4 turn at one point in the ritual of the first degree, in a similar circumstance in the second he does not make a 1/2 turn, but instead ALSO makes the 1/4 turn. Minor tweeks.

This also means that if one Grand Lecturer feels that, say, Succoth should be pronounced Suk-koth, and the next feels it should be pronounced Zuk-oth, well, the inspectors make sure that all Senior Deacons know of the decision and are doing that in all future degrees.

These "corrections" are communicated through the Officer's Association all officer's are required to attend once per month, where the ritual is "exemplified" and information is disseminated. A great opportunity for masonic education is wasted in these sessions, because the Inspectors (and really, pitty the poor inspectors who have to try to make this interesting) are required to exemplify each degree at least twice per year, and assorted other materials must be presented, each year, year after year after year. So discussions of an educational nature must be set aside to focus on the ritual... but I digress.

The point here is that the Grand Lodge of California is very strict about the ritual, and what actually constitutes ritual. For instance, strangely, the color of the lights in the lesser lights is a matter of ritual, as is the wearing of white gloves by officers in other than one part of the third degree. Also, so, apparently, is the path a Deacon walks in carrying out his duties. These examples are offered not to ridicule the Grand Lecturer or the good work that he and his Assistant Grand Lecturers do, because it IS an often thankless job they face, but to offer an insight into the ritual workings in Califorina (and as I am NOT a member of any other Grand jurisdiction, I can only offer my perspective on California practices).

What we end up with, then, is ritual controlled by a small, closed group of well educated brothers with the best intentions of the craft at heart. The problem, however, is that these men, by the very nature of their work, send out these "corrections" without the input of the men who will be using them. We are all brothers and fellows, and we practice charity, of thought as well as of action, and obedience to lawful authority, but men are men, and over time what has resulted is a dual ritual, one used when the Inspector/some grand officer is looking, and the ritual that is worked in the lodge for the conferral of degrees.

The two rituals are similar, but in many cases what has developed is the knowledge that the Grand Lecturer and Assistant Grand Lecturers are ever changing, and the knowledge that the next Grand Lecturer or Assistant Grand Lecturer will change what his predecessors have changed makes the ever changing ritual more complex. Even the best intentioned brother, dedicated to inculcating every single "innovation" that comes down the pike at some point just tries to keep his head above water, listening politely when the Inspector corrects him, and then goes on doing what he knows. The body of changes just gets too large to compass and still learn the work.

California has a working, systemic, and well implemented methodology in place to teach the ritual (Officer's Association), it has an authoritative and well educated cadre of Grand Officer's in place to teach the ritual and carry questions / suggestions / complaints up to the Assistant Grand Lecturers and Grand Lecturer (Inspectors), and has a small, manageable, dedicated, well educated group of Ritual Authorities (Grand Lecturer and Five Assistant Grand Lecturers) to oversee the ritual. This system has worked, and despite its flaws, it continues to be a working and respected methodology with the backing of the Executive Committee and brethren of the lodges.

So, is ritual timeless and unchanging, written in stone and inflexible?

Not in California... thank the GAOTU
May the blessing of heaven rest upon us and all regular masons. May brotherly love prevail, and every moral and social virtue, cement us.


(1) Freemasonry as a Sacred Retreat by John W. Taylor
(3) Grand Lodge of California, Free and Accepted Masons, Installation Ritual, Obligations of a Master
(4) Merriam-Webster Online, Ritual, as a noun
(5) Slippery Slope, Wikipedia Online, English Version, 02-17-08
(6) A Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes, ISBN-10: 0872204200; ISBN-13: 978-0872204201, Hackett Pub Co Inc; 4 edition (June 1999)

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