Freemasonry, like religion, is an institution that has created for itself its own teleological system of boundaries. What is, and what isn’t, a Freemason is often a hard etched line drawn in the metaphysical sands of the philosophy. And yet, those lines shift between organizations, time or ideology. To overcome this, most branches of Freemasonry have chosen to define Freemasonry in a particular way, like a very specific rendering of a point within the circle – everything within the circle IS and everything without IS NOT. But, at the edge of that boundary, often times are other groups who have made that self same requisite of what is and what is not. Some of those boundaries blend together and others are hard buttressed edges replete with warning totems, curses, and threats of community rejection should they be crossed. The latter example is the edged between mainstream Grand Lodge Freemasonry and Confederation of Freemasonry known as Le Droit Humain. In this installment of Sojourners, I get to cross that boundary and spend some time talking with Dianne Coombs, a lady Freemason from Le Droit Humain. While far from being an outlier within her branch of Masonry, Dianne and I met on that boundary edge and to talk about the fraternity on the other side. Not surprisingly, I found there to be more in common than I thought marked by some stark differences in contrast. The thought to keep in the back of your head while reading this is to ask yourself “how different are we really?”
Greg Stewart (GS) – Dianne, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Before we delve to deeply in the conversation, tell me about who Dianne Coombs is? How long have you been a Freemason?
Dianne Coombs (DC) – I have been a teacher of various subjects for 35 years. I am also a practitioner of yoga, and a student of various subjects such as astrology. I have been a Freemason for 32 years.
GS – What initially interested you in becoming a Freemason?
DC – The organization with which I practiced yoga has schools of initiatic and esoteric studies. It was founded by Masters who were among other things, Freemasons. I wanted to continue being in school, so to speak, and being in a hierarchical organization with specific stages of advancement.
GS – I’m curious, you mention schools of initiation and esoteric studies, and could you elaborate on those traditions?
DC – That group is a worldwide group with headquarters in Mexico City, named the Universal Great Brotherhood.
On the internal side, there are degrees of recognition, and the requirements include a vegetarian diet and abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Those who have been recognized with the first degree and above have the opportunity to join a Secret Chamber.
GS – For the record, you are a member of le Droit Humain (LDH), a mixed-gender masonic organization. How did you initially find them and what lead you to join?
DC – I found out about Le Droit Humain through a friend who had been recently initiated. I joined because I was intrigued by an organization that uses ritual and ceremony, something I am very drawn to.
GS – Were your initial ideas about it validated, or did you discover something different?
DC – Yes and more! More than being just a formal ritual I learned how people, working together to perform ritual well, could create a powerful impact and strong personal bonds.
GS – How so?
DC – At my initiation the ceremony seemed very familiar, possibly through connections to my religious upbringing and later spiritual practices.
GS – If I might ask, what was your religious upbringing that you found familiarity to?
DC – I was raised in the Episcopal Church, but the familiarity didn’t directly relate to the liturgy of the Church. I think I am a person who feels a connection with spiritual ritual, so perhaps that was the connection.
GS – So what influenced you most about Masonry early on? Where did you find your inspiration?
DC – I was initiated into a Lodge that had members who came from a variety of spiritual traditions that all worked together in harmony. I was inspired by the leaders of the American Federation at the time, but no one person in particular was influential.
What was more influential is the fact that Le Droit Humain is an international Order [which] meant that I could attend Lodges all over the world and have Brothers and Sisters all over the world.
GS – Do you, or have you, held any masonic office or leadership roles within Le Droit Humain?
DC – I am installed Master, and currently I a District Deputy for the Mountain States region for the American Federation of Le Droit Humain. I have also served as the head of bodies for higher degrees (beyond the Craft Lodge), and I am a member of the Federation Consistory.
GS – Interesting. Not knowing much about LDH, how many higher degree bodies are there in the Le Droit Humain configuration? Does it mirror American mainstream masonry in the U.S.? Would they be easily recognizable to mainstream masons?
DC – After the Craft Degrees, we have Lodges of Perfection, which mainly work the 4º , 12º and 14º, lodges Rose Croix, which work the 17º and 18º, Areopagi (Areopagus singular), which work the 29º and 30º, Sovereign Tribunal of the 31º, Consistory (Princes of the Royal Secret) – 32º and Grand Inspectors General – 33º.
These are based on traditional Scottish Rite degrees, so I think they would be recognizable to mainstream Masons. Those members who have joined Le Droit Humain after having been members of AASR have not mentioned significant differences.
We also have three York Rite degrees that are considered side degrees because they are optional and do not lead to advancement for higher degrees. They are Mark, Holy Royal Arch, and Royal Ark Mariner.
In LDH, higher degrees are not conferred by decree, but given ceremonially in which the candidate participates.
GS – What do you mean by that?
DC – In [mainstream] AASR, multiple degrees can be conferred simply by attending and watching. In LDH, there is a set time period between the higher degrees to receive them , and the candidate must participate in the ceremony, rather than by observing.
GS – I’m always fascinated with the operations of Masonry, the things we do for it, tell me about your work with le Droit Humain.
DC – I have held various offices within Craft Lodges, and I have helped to create Facebook pages to increase awareness about our Order. Additionally I have served as a contact for those who are inquiring about the American Federation.
That’s on the external level.
On the internal level, I have found that being a member has helped me to work to a higher stage of spiritual understanding and to feel a greater connection to humanity as a whole.
GS – Spiritual level, elaborate on that. What have you come to find that to mean in a Masonic context?
DC – In Masonry, I have found a great deal of diversity in background and beliefs compared to other groups in which I have been a member. The fact that we are working together for a common purpose, the brotherhood of humanity, I think transcends the work being done in the individual Lodge. Le Droit Humain has national and international conventions which serve to create connections with people from all over the world. As far as spiritual understanding goes, the individual must transform himself/herself in order to assist humankind. That is one of the great teachings of Freemasonry in all of the degrees. At the same time, there is the reminder that, “it’s not just about me.” None of the ceremonies or rituals can be performed by an individual, but must be performed by the entire lodge working together.
GS – You make an interesting point that I can’t say occurs in a broad way with the Grand Lodge System. So, why do you think co-masonry exists organizationally? Does it fill a particular niche or need?
DC – There are various co-Masonic organizations in the world. In English-speaking countries we are known as The International Order of Freemasonry for Men and Women, Le Droit Humain. We dropped the term “Co-Masonry” because it had a connotation of somehow being lesser than other Masonry. In Europe it is known as “Mixed Masonry,” but that doesn’t really translate into something that makes sense in English.
Le Droit Humain was founded by a man and a woman who were active in the campaign for the rights of women. Thus, it exists because its members believe in equality. Our international constitution says that we accept men and women as co-equals. In addition, generally speaking, its members believe that Freemasonry need not be reserved exclusively for men because the human soul has no gender.
GS – From what you’ve learned or what you know, how did this mixed masonry begin? What were its origins?
DC – This is copied from the international website:
Maria Deraismes, journalist and fighter for the rights of women and children and Dr. Georges Martin, Senator, General Councilor for the Dept. Of the Seine, Municipal Councilor of Paris, undertook campaigns in favor of the civic and political rights of women, the defense of the rights of oppressed children, against clerical intolerance and for the establishment of a neutral school respecting the ideas of everyone.
Maria Deraismes was initiated – on 14th January 1882 – into Lodge “Les Libres Penseurs” of Pecq, a small village to the west of Paris. She was the first female Freemason, symbolising initiatory equality.
Eleven years later, on 4th April 1893, Maria Deraismes and Georges Martin, a well known mason, created in Paris the first co-masonic Lodge. Out of this co-masonic Lodge came the birth of the Grande Loge Symbolique Ecossaise “Le Droit Humain”, establishing the equality of men and women, out of which, later, came the birth of the International Order of Co-Freemasonry “LE DROIT HUMAIN”.
Maria Deraismes died on 6th February 1894, and the task of organizing and developing “LE DROIT HUMAIN” fell on Dr. Martin. His energetic will placed him beyond frontiers, ethnic groups, religions and cultures, and he very quickly founded Lodges outside France: in Switzerland and in England.
The ORDER spread throughout Europe before sowing itself in other parts of the world.
Le “DROIT HUMAIN” was built out of a marvelous dream, to unite humanity despite all the barriers, ethnic groups, geopolitics, religions and cultures.
GS – Do you see that mandate of creation still in operation today?
DC – When Le Droit Humain was first founded, a principal reason was to recognize the equality of women, not to create an Order outside the borders of France. After the death of Marie Deraismes, Georges Martin saw that this need transcended national borders. It was his vision to create a more universal Freemasonry.
Considering that humanity remains divided on so many levels, I see that that mandate is definitely still in operation.
GS – What do you see as the role of mixed gender masonry in a landscape dominated by the masculine variety of the fraternity?
DC – Its role is the same as that of many Masonic orders: the progress of humanity. The principal difference is the work on an international level without distinction of gender.
GS – Is there room for both?
DC – There is definitely room for both, just as there is room for women-only or male-only orders. The male members of Le Droit Humain disagree with the idea of discriminating against half of humanity, which is often part of their reason for joining.
GS – Do you see a fixed and unchanging boundary in separate, but essentially equal, branches of Masonry (i.e. regular, Co-Masonry, Prince-Hall, Feminine, etc…)?
DC – I do not see it as fixed. I have come into contact with members [of] traditional male craft lodges who are genuinely interested in learning more about mixed orders. I see very tiny baby steps happening right now towards mutual recognition.
GS – That sounds promising, anything you can elaborate on about this mutual recognition?
DC – While I have come into contact with some traditional Masons who continue to insist that women cannot be Freemasons, in forums such as social media, I have had respectful exchanges of ideas from masculine Brethren. Neither side is insisting that the one join the other, but the fact that the dialogue is respectful, indicates to me that the door is opening slightly. The Lodge of which I am a member has received referrals from masculine lodges for women who would like to become Masons. While that is not indicative of mutual recognition at this point, the fact that there is even a conversation is a step in the right direction.
GS – Are there any overtly different aspects between co-masonry and the grand lodge tradition?
DC – Not really – the main rituals used in the United States are based on traditional AASR rituals. The rituals used in Europe in both Le Droit Humain and traditional orders are essentially the same.
GS – Should there be some recognition between the branches, or even equality of association as in say, some kind of open organizational association?
DC – Yes. We should have this recognition because, in our mutual pursuits for the progress of humanity, we have a lot to gain in solidarity of efforts and to learn from each other’s approach.
GS – Why do you think there continues to be a distinction between the two?
DC – I think many people in the masculine Orders have a great respect for tradition. [But] sometimes respect for tradition does not allow for change. There can be a delicate balance between the respect for tradition and evolution.
One of my favorite texts, The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy, teaches that there is always change. If this change is for the greater good of humanity, change does not need to be avoided.
GS – It sounds like there is some degree of openness from the LDH side, how do you react when words like ‘clandestine’ or ‘bogus’ are thrown around when used in describing a flavor of Masonry other than those calling themselves ‘regular’?
DC – I kind of shrug my shoulders. It’s not worth getting upset over, since it’s usually the result of a lack of understanding. By the same token, some male craft lodges have become purely social organizations (men’s clubs) and have drifted away from the deeper traditions of Freemasonry. Often those in traditional lodges seem to have a kind of fear of other orders, or they demonstrate the need to be exclusive (perhaps on a psychological level) – not only towards women, but also towards those or different race or ethnicity.
GS – Within LDH, what do you see as the role of the esoteric aspects of Masonic study?
DC – Although not explicit, the esoteric aspects of Masonic study are an integral part of the Work. The esoteric traditions of initiation in general often draw many people to become members.
GS – Is there an explicitly esoteric aspect to it?
DC – Yes – we interpret the symbolism of the rituals and furnishings to have a deep meaning, which, of course, is not interpreted for anyone, but left for members to discover for themselves. Many members consider Freemasonry to have ancient roots, back to the earliest times of recorded history, and that Freemasonry is the repository for the ancient Mystery Schools. Even though the symbolism is not interpreted for anyone, it is understood that many ancient traditions have a connection.
GS – Which traditions do you think it draw the greatest parallels or symbols from?
DC – I think the great Mystery traditions have informed Freemasonry in general and Le Droit Humain in particular – ancient Egypt, the Hebraic tradition, the Eleusinian mysteries, the Knights Templar, and more.
I think Le Droit Humain would make the same connections with past traditions that mainstream Masonry has made.
GS – As a body, who does Le Droit Humain look to as its organizational patriarchs, matriarchs or its great authors?
DC – Our organization is not based on the Grand Lodge system; we have a Supreme Council headquartered in Paris. Those countries with a sufficient number of lodges are termed federations.
Our International Constitution says that,
The Order is organized into federations, jurisdictions and pioneer lodges within which Freemasons … meet in lodges of all degrees that have been granted a charter by the Supreme Council of the Order.
Due to the way Le Droit Humain is organized, we do not have patriarchs or matriarchs. We have had many Grand Masters who have left profound writings, as well as have past heads of the American Federation, but none is more influential than another.
Inspirationally, members often draw upon the same Masonic authors as members of other orders.
GS – So, let’s take a turn here and talk about something on the minds of both sides of the divide. As a membership society in a landscape of similar such bodies and organization how do you believe LDH is faring in the modern landscape?
DC – Over the last five years, the American Federation has increased its membership by nearly 50%.
GS – Where has that growth come from do you think? Is there an organizational push for growth or is it organic?
DC – I think there are a lot of factors – the thirst from humanity in general, increasing our visibility without proselytizing, and as is the case with other Orders, personal relationships.
GS – So where do you see le Droit Humain 5 years from now? How about 10 years from now?
DC – I expect to see more Lodges being formed in new areas and increased numbers in those that have already been established.
GS – If someone was interested in finding out more about le Droit or interested in associating with them in some capacity, what would you recommend to them? How could they go about it?
DC – Besides recommending the web pages, I would recommend completing the contact form on www.comasonic.org, because a person who is interested in learning more will be contacted personally. Requesting information on Facebook pages generally draws a personal response as well.
Dianne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share your thoughts. I definitely appreciate it and I know many reading, while perhaps not publicly, appreciate it too.