A Masonic Perspective
The word “Path” implies action, movement, and an eventually destination. It presumes that willful action must take place before completely understanding the doctrines of the Path. It implies development and change, and seems to tell us that we will make progress, at the beginning, the middle, and end of the Path. It also seems to point out that there must be something else out there, that we are trying to navigate through. In the mundane world, a path always leads through something, a forest, for example, and provides us with a guide whereby we can rightly say, “If I stay on this Path, I will not get lost and will reach my destination. If I stray from this Path, I likely will not know where I am.”
Whether we are speaking spiritually or literally, a Path is something that one moves upon and one experiences first hand. A Path can be described to us, and we can get a general idea of what the Path is like. We can then think upon the idea of the Path, what it means to us, and what ramifications it has within our lives, as well as in the lives of others. Yet at some point, if we truly wish to know “the Path”, our knowledge must become experiential, not simply theoretical.
When I was initiated into the Masonic Fraternity, I was humbled and honored to become a part of such a wonderful institution, and to be surrounded by so many people, so profound. It was great to sit in the Lodge with tolerant, thoughtful, dependable, capable men. The Masonic Brethren I met had such integrity, their word was their bond, and I took it upon myself to do whatever I could to emulate my new brothers whom I truly admired. In short, using my brethren as landmarks, I embarked on my journey on the Masonic Path. During the time I have been in the Masonic Fraternity, I have seen this same reaction among other newly made Masons, who also did their best to imitate the example of their brethren in order to become better men.
It is because of this simple pattern of already good moral men, seeking Freemasonry as a way to improve spiritually, morally and intellectually, that we hold our Fraternity in such high esteem. These new members see something about our tenured members, something they feel will help them grow, something they wish to emulate. This is why, when I see someone with a Masonic ring, or Masonic decals on a car, my first assumption is that the person wearing that ring, or driving that car is a moral, tolerant and good man. Even though we may differ in religious, political and philosophical views, I could trust this man with my life and the life of my family.
There are some profound mystical truths in Freemasonry, it is a true Mystic Path and thus, experiential, and the key to the Path is a deep sense of Fraternity. Masonry is many different things to many different people and it tends to evolve to the needs of each individual member. While opinion may differ even among Masons regarding some of the philosophies of the Order, all Masons agree that primarily in importance is Brotherly Love. It is what cements us together.
Freemasonry, like many Esoteric Fraternities, comes and goes in cycles, that is, fluctuates like the wind. Currently, it is cycling through a period of shrinking membership. As the older members pass on, there are fewer new Masons joining the ranks.
According to The Masonic Service Association of North America (MSANA), membership in the United States was at about 3.1 million members in 1925, spiraled to its highest point of the century in 1959, at about 4.1 million members, and then began declining steadily ever since. Membership in the United States, in 2003, was reported at about 1.6 million members, which was the lowest point in the past 75 years. Obviously, we recognize that in order to pass along the Tradition and keep Freemasonry in the United States as strong and as vibrant, an institution as it is today, we must begin to transmit our Tradition to younger generations. Many of the leaders in the Masonic community have begun to implement programs and introduce new ideas designed to do just that. It is this author’s opinion that membership level will continue in cycles. Furthermore, there is no need to bring Freemasonry’s membership back up to the levels it enjoyed in the 1960’s in order, effectively, to pass along the Tradition. Likewise, even in the face of shrinking membership, our focus should always be on the quality of the prospective members, not on quantity.
During a recent Lodge meeting I attended, a Brother traveling from another part of the state stood up and spoke about our “Membership Crisis”. He had many good points about being more Masonic, suggesting that Lodges do more charity work and get out into the community more. He also talked about what he felt the younger generation expects to get out of a Fraternity like the Masons. He used me as an example of a younger member, as I am 30 years old in a Fraternity dominated by men over 60. He told me that my generation expects excitement, wants to be constantly entertained, and constantly busy or preoccupied. He also said that my generation was a generation of people expecting instant gratification, and that if the Order did not keep men like me busy, instantly, upon becoming members, boredom would cause us to leave.
Apart from being slightly offended by his conception that my idle brain must constantly be bombarded with stimuli of some kind in order to be content, his statements were, otherwise, very enlightening. They explained why some younger candidates for Masonry are thrust through 3-day classes, where they are given all 3 degrees and with very little studying and memorization to do. The Brother’s statements explained why newer ritual rules allowed that multiple candidates could be initiated simultaneously, even as they went through the most profound and personal parts of their initiations. Furthermore, his words explained why certain Lodges have become lax on some very important rules. I have seen the negative effects on the Fraternity when individual Lodges do not enforce the rules that exist for qualifying new membership, by signing petitions for perspective members whom they have not known for the minimum of six months, and by not thoroughly investigating perspective members prior to initiation. I, personally, know of one case where a man initiated into the Fraternity, had such questionable character, that his Lodge was forced to stop his progression on the Masonic Path, so that he could not advance beyond the Entered Apprentice degree. This unfortunate situation came about because the members and officers of this Lodge were trained to be concerned with the number of members, not with quality of members, in their Lodge.
This Masonic Path is not supposed to be thrust upon someone within a few days. Like any other Mystical Path, we must take one step at a time, making sure that as each step is taken, it is taken because it is our free will to do so. Each step upon the Masonic Path builds upon itself in responsibility and commitment, and we cannot ask for this commitment, or even a thorough understanding of it, in a short 3 days.
Masonry contributes millions of dollars to charity each year in the United States. It is partly for this reason, to help support the charitable contributions that our leaders have been pushing for more membership. Should we really be pushing quantity over quality? Ask an individual Brother this question and he will tell you that quality is more important! Yet, our Fraternity keeps trying to figure out how to make more Masons faster, rather than focusing on why we are making these Masons.
Strangely, though, some of our newly made Brothers become Masons so quickly, and they are finished with the degrees so quickly, they have nothing left to do within the Fraternity. They are Masons, but have been rushed through and have not had the time to develop the feelings of Brotherhood with their Lodge brothers. Everything has happened so fast that in many cases, they have missed the profundity of the lessons contained within the degrees. Lacking this understanding, they cannot adequately fulfill any officer’s position, as they do not really understand yet what kind of commitment is expected of them. If new Masons are leaving, it is because they feel as if they have been rushed through the degrees and feel alienated from our tightly knitted group, because of their lack of understanding of what Masonry is. I thought about all of this as the speaker at the Lodge was telling us how we must start changing Masonry to conform to “this new society”, which expects instant gratification, if our Fraternity is to gain any new members; and that the Masons are too boring for the new populace!
To the contrary, every young Mason that I know, who has stayed in the Fraternity for any amount of time, tells me that excitement, entertainment and instant gratification are not the reasons he joined the Fraternity. No one expects to be constantly entertained, nor does anyone feel bored. There are plenty of distractions in the world from which to choose. If we wanted instant gratification, something to keep us satiated and busy, we would buy a Big Mac and play a video game, which would keep our mind occupied and our stomach satisfied. It made me wonder if our Masonic leaders had ever asked the younger membership why they were there! The Masonic Fraternity simply offers many things that are not readily available in Modern Society. In fact, the Path of Freemasonry offers exactly what I found lacking in Modern Society!
Freemasonry must not be made to appeal to the masses. It has never appealed to the masses. No true mystery school ever has!
Our Order contains profound and sublime lessons that are only meant for those who are willing to develop an open and introspective mind, willing to honestly examine and tirelessly work towards the improvement of the self and of humanity. Masonry is designed to encourage study, self-reflection and Brotherly Love. These lessons are wasted on those who are not willing to pursue these qualities and disciplines, or who wish to automatically gain these attributes without a period of work and self-development.
We must never get to the point where we admit men of questionable character into the Fraternity just to meet membership goals, nor out of the need for more funds, nor out of fear that the Fraternity may cease to exist. The fastest and surest way to destroy the Masonic Fraternity would be to pass along the Tradition, irresponsibly, to those who did not respect and cherish it. It is far better for the Fraternity to shrink to a fraction of its size!
However, we do have a sacred responsibility to hand down our Tradition to future generations. How do we do this? Well, I believe that the first thing to do, before we try to figure out how to make Freemasonry “easier” to join, would be to talk with our membership. Why did our members join? Why after joining did our members stay active? Certainly, we do not retain every prospective member because Masonry is not for everyone, but, for those who find it their calling, it can become one of the most important and most meaningful aspects of their lives. By focusing on what is important to the members we have, we ensure that Masonry is as valuable to future generations of Masons as it is to us now.
I joined this Fraternity because I met some men of good character, who were intelligent, well spoken and well learned or versed, in the Western Esoteric Tradition. These men, I knew not only talked about “walking the Path”, but they actually walked it. They spoke of enlightenment, morality and right action, and the actions they took reflected what they were telling me. I stay active because after my Initiation, I met more men who truly have walked the Path, who backed up their speech with action, and I saw myself and others around me change in positive ways because of our choice to become Masons. I admire the men in my Fraternity, and I am still a Mason because I desire to follow their example and become more like them.
It is not that we must alter the Path of Freemasonry so that it is easier and quicker to travel on in order to replenish our membership. Rather we must find more ways to present the Path as it is, so that those who desire membership into our organization know that it exists, and anyone can ask us about it. How do we do this? Masons tend to be active in their communities. If we hold onto our Masonic Ideals, and demonstrate them to the outside world by virtue of our thoughts, words and deeds, we will inspire those seekers, who wish to be a part of our Fraternity to seek us out and request membership. If we continue to work to improve ourselves and dedicate ourselves to the betterment of humanity, then we will attract people of like mind, who will join our ranks.
Let us also make sure that we never seek membership for the revenue it can bring. We are one of the biggest charities in the world, and if we need money, there are many ways to raise it, so that we may continue to be a strong force for the betterment of our communities. We must pass along our Ideals to other generations, and always keep our eye out for those who would seek this Path, but we also have a responsibility to make sure that we transmit the integrity of our Order only to worthy individuals who can understand its meaning and purpose. Otherwise, the secrets of Freemasonry will become hollow and meaningless, the profound wisdom long forgotten; and will become simply words, one must hear in order to get through the degrees and become a member of “the club”.
As we walk the Path that we have chosen, it is important to remember that it is a Path, with obstacles and strange, unforeseen turns. We must constantly remind ourselves of the reasons we have chosen this Path and why we continue to choose to walk down it. We must also understand that as we walk the Path of Freemasonry, we become a part of that Path, and future Masons will look upon us as landmarks and examples of what it means to be a member of this great Fraternity. From the first day we become Master Masons, we are entrusted with a Tradition, and it is our sacred duty to preserve and pass along this Tradition, only to those who will cherish and follow it. If we wish to know the best way to ensure the transference of our Tradition, and what would appeal to prospective members, we must look into ourselves and find out why we desired to join the Fraternity, in the first place, and why we are still members. This [introspection] will lead to better results than trying to determine what is in the minds of persons, whom, we have not yet met. Freemasonry does not have to bring its membership [number] back to what it was in the 1960s in order to be an effective group. There are other ways to bring money into the Fraternity if needed. Our actions, our development as Masons will show others what it means to be a part of the Fraternity.
Above all else, and most important to the future of the Fraternity, we must hold sacred our duty regarding recommendation for degrees. We must not recommend someone for the degrees of Masonry unless we are sure that that person is able and willing to understand the importance of the degrees they may receive. Thereby, we can reasonably believe that all of their future transactions with humankind will reflect the high values and integrity of our Order. If we do this, we will ensure that Our Fraternity remains intact and alive for generations to come.
This was originally published Jan 19, 2011 as a contribution from By Tony Horsnby.