Pursuant to my recent article titled, “Has Freemasonry Lost its Luster?“, I received several comments regarding the piece, including one from Brother Jacques Huyghebaert, PGM from the Grand Lodge of the Czech Republic.
He liked my article and shared with me his outgoing Annual Report & Valedictory Address as Grand Master, a very illuminating read. He has given me permission to share it herein. I hope you enjoy it. – Tim Bryce
Rank, Regalia and Regulations
Rites, Rituals and Reflections
by Jacques Huyghebaert
Grand Master’s Annual Report &
Prague, 26th April 2015
As I am at the end of my Grand Master’s term and am submitting to you my final report, allow me to share with you some reflections on the nature of Freemasonry, its current state in the world in general and in the Czech Republic in particular.
I cannot but observe that for the last 70 years Freemasonry has witnessed a continuous numerical decline, losing over 50% of its members worldwide.
The trend has been particularly strong in the U.S.A. in the U.K. and in the English speaking world, where recruitment of new members has reached an all time low and at a time when the average age of Freemasons is now reported to be above 65.
The future of the Craft looks grim in some of these countries…
In contrast, in Continental Europe and in Latin America, where for over two centuries Brethren had been subjected to religious and political persecutions, Freemasonry has since the end of World War II, seen its membership steadily grow. Age distribution among the Brethren is balanced. Old prejudices and lies against Freemasonry have faded away, while public interest and respect for the Order are growing.
What are the reasons behind these evolutions? What is it that makes the two situations different ? Are we in the presence of two distinct types of Freemasonry? I will now review the negative and the positive elements of the situation and suggest a constructive approach to strengthen the genuine values of Freemasonry.
For the general public, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, Freemasonry has in the past generally been associated with elite, high rank and public respectability, having counted among its members Kings, Princes, Heads of Government as well as artists, scientists, academics and eminent members of every class of society.
Today however, Freemasonry is sometimes described by non-masons as an out-dated institution, whose members continue to dress in an old fashioned way, wearing gold chains and medals, richly embroidered regalia, parading in solemn processions, using pompous titles and spending their time at the performance of formal ceremonies.
The question that arises is: what that is sufficiently attractive has such a type of organization to offer, in the context of today’s society, to an educated, dynamic mature person, that he would wish to attend Lodge once or twice a month in 2015?
Statistical figures in England. show that for the last 30 years, 4 out of 5 new Brethren, have been leaving Freemasonry within the 5 years following their admission.
This fact demonstrates without any possible doubt that the expectations of 80% of the candidates joining Freemasonry have not been satisfied, resulting in disappointment, followed more or less automatically by their resignation from the Craft.
RITES AND RITUALS
Rites and Rituals are not limited to Freemasonry, they are a universal feature appearing in all human societies, they exist from times immemorial.
Burial sites, found all over the world, confirm that already in prehistoric times, as distant as 100,000 years ago, the corpse of a dead person would be placed, in accordance with certain rules, in a tomb constructed for that purpose, or in a grave intentionally dug into the earth, along with various objects, thus giving the proof of the existence of established burial practices, funeral rites and ceremonies going back to the dawn of mankind and the very emergence of Homo Sapiens.
Solemn ceremonies in ancient times were usually performed in the context of the rites and rituals of prevailing religions and cults, being traditionally associated with major life events such as birth, coming of age, marriage and death.
Rites and rituals were at the root of cultural behaviors governing society by formalizing relationships within the family, tribe and nation.
While in its Masonic sense the word “rite” refers to a system or an organization, covering a number of degrees and ceremonies, like the Scottish or the York Rites, the word “ritual” deals more particularly about the content of the ceremonial activities.
A rite or ritual can be described as an established usually solemn ceremony or act, requiring a particular dress code, performed in a customary way, and consisting in a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, taking place in a particular place, usually a Masonic Temple or Lodge Hall, according a prescribed order, form and manner, governing both words and actions.
Speculative Freemasonry from its inception in the early 18th century has been characterized by the paramount importance of ritualization in its activities.
REGALIA AND RANK
In addition to masonic rites and rituals, without which it would be difficult for most of us to imagine our Lodge meetings, our ceremonies and degree work are characterized by the impressive place which our customs have conferred to regalia, rank and titles.
Regalia is a Latin word which covered originally the emblems or insignia of royalty, especially the crown, the scepter, and other ornaments used at a coronation.
Each and every Mason begins his career with a plain white apron, to remind him that Masonry regards no man on account of his worldly wealth or honors.
This ritual symbolism is intended to signify to us that the internal and not the external qualities of candidates are the criteria that have to be examined for initiation.
Yet, despite official pretensions of humility, and the ritual statement that Freemasons are equal and meet on the level, concretely, generations of Brethren have been dressing up in impressive ceremonial clothes, eagerly wearing elaborate aprons, collars, gauntlet-cuffs and gloves, as well as breast jewels, medals, gold or silver embroidered paraphernalia and sashes richly adorned with symbols.
The wearing in Lodge of distinctive clothing and costumes, ornaments and regalia on formal occasions is inextricably linked with Freemasonry and still carries a paramount meaning to a vast number of senior Freemasons as the indication and recognition of their pre-eminent hierarchical status, rank and position in the Lodge and the Order.
Important masonic ceremonies are still largely conducted with the pomp and luster of customs and traditions passed down from our 18th century predecessors directly to us, but many of which already existed in medieval pageants and religious liturgy. By contemporary 21st century standards, as existing in developed countries of the world, however we need to ask ourselves if, not only in the eyes of non masons, but also of potential candidates, these old dress codes traditions and usages have not become ostentatious and grotesque remains of a bygone, obsolete age.
THE TRADITIONAL TOP-DOWN HIERARCHY
Characteristics of the authoritarian model:
- From the top of the ladder, when looking down, you see a lot of “shit”
- From below, you only see “assholes”
Is this the type of Grand Lodge that we want for the future?
RULES AND REGULATIONS
We hear from time to time that Freemasonry is an Order based on hierarchy, where power is vested at the top, while we members are expected to obey and abide cheerfully by all the rules, regulations, edicts and decrees made by our leaders.
While earlier pyramidal forms of government, based on the assumed superiority of its heads, had been the rule for the major part in the history of mankind, the authoritarian model was first challenged and then progressively abolished from the 18th century onwards, except in parts of the world ruled by tyrants and dictators.
The development of speculative Freemasonry has taken place in parallel indeed with the spread of egalitarian principles of Human Rights, and with the ideals of freedom and justice, dear to all Freemasons, which characterize our modern world.
What had been earlier be immutable justification for the divine, royal or natural right invoked by the very few who preside at the top and command, and the imperative duty to obey applicable for the rest of us, materialized in the difference between the high and the low social classes, determining in an absolute manner the relations between men and women, parents and children — is now nearly universally rejected.
The patriarchal role of the wise and experienced man, the teacher and the professional craftsman have been seriously eroded, as we have lost confidence in the relevance of the former codes of dominance and their associated beliefs and behaviors.
As deep, far reaching and rapid social and technological changes have been taking place during the 20th century, authoritarian government stereotypes appear generally today as outmoded, inefficient and inappropriate models.
In contrast with the public trend promoting casual dress codes, simple and informal social relations, including at work, we should examine whether the corollary of the great importance given by Freemasons to rank and title is perhaps not that our Fraternity, in some jurisdictions at least, is at risk of being the victim of too much hierarchy and abusive use of personal power by individuals.
Worse: has the image of poor internal fraternal relations, crippling the reputation of some Grand Lodges, caused by excessive authoritarianism, not become a deterrent for potential candidates to join Freemasonry as well as a direct reason for a number of disgruntled Brethren to resign their masonic membership?
Is it not true, on the contrary, that as genuine Masons, and as taught in our ritual, we should systematically meet on the level and always remember that we are Brethren!
In accordance with the masonic principles which we proclaim, and using common sense, let’s keep administration, bureaucracy, rules, and regulations as light as possible, while encouraging peer-to-peer teamwork, consensus and friendship between the Brethren, the Lodges, the Grand Officers and Grand Lodge.
Thus we will be able to focus on Freemasonry itself and enjoy its benefits.
RITUAL AS A SIGNIFICANT AND MEANINGFUL EXPERIENCE
It’s obvious that, if so many men join the Craft, then leave, it’s because when they get in expectations aren’t met.
The common sense thing is to find out why people join, what were/are their expectations before joining the Craft and deliver on that — if it fits.
From the outside, Freemasonry has a sense of mystery and wonder; that there is something valuable to be gained from membership.
Candidates simply don’t get this when they get in. The Masonic ritual is often delivered at ceremonies in superficial, mostly rote ways. New Brethren are asked to start memorizing the ritual, without having been informed in advance about this requirement and without receiving proper Masonic education after initiation.
The on-going trend followed by several Grand Lodges of wanting to ‘change in line with society’ and to recruit and retain members isn’t working.
The recipe to save Freemasonry is to reconnect it with its deeper purpose.
The answer is not to change Freemasonry.
The answer is to understand what Freemasonry is at its core.
WE HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE!
Despite good health, the comforts of modern life and the security of sufficient income, many people these days are dissatisfied with the routine and shallowness of modern life and are looking to reconnect with deeper, more fundamental truths.
What are we looking for, to make our life interesting?
1. A break from monotony
Sitting all the time locked up in an office can be next to unbearable, claustrophobic. Going through life following every day the same dull routine with occasional weekend activities can be extremely insufficient. Widening our horizon makes our life more interesting and gives us a sense of freedom.
2. Spiritual adventure
Learning and discovering new things, exchanging ideas, establishing friendships, studying different cultures is an exciting, unusual, unpredictable journey, which always ends in being an interesting experience or encounter. A full life revolves around constant curiosity and thirst for knowledge. When are old we should be able to look back on our life happily and appreciate the opportunities we took to explore the vast world which surrounds us.
3. A broader perspective
By opening our eyes and mind to discover different people and cultures, in a spirit of tolerance, we are able to enrich ourselves. A thing that is seen as unacceptable to us could be a daily occurrence in another culture. Just because we have been raised to believe in a certain set of beliefs, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right.
4. The Brethren
A very exciting thing about Freemasonry are the Brethren we meet and the friendships created along the way. Every Mason has a different journey, a different background story that has led him to his present point in his life. Each Brother is unique in his own way. Masons generally like to share where they come from and are interested to learn from each other. Meeting Brethren and establishing friendships leaves undoubtedly a constructive effect on our life as we move forward.
5. Personal Development
Complacency is Toxic! Freemasonry provides an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. All this offers a unique chance to reflect on our life, to analyze where we stand, and decide where we want to go in the future.
6. Just Because.
We only have one life to live! Let us therefore enjoy it to the fullest!
FREEMASONRY INVITES US TO REFLECT
Eternally valid questions and reflections are for example:
- From where do we come?
- Where are we going?
- Who are we?
- What is consciousness?
- What is the sense of life?
- What is the value of friendship?
- What means initiation?
Freemasonry unlike other groups, does not recruit, it confers initiation.
Masonic rituals and ceremonies operate as an instrument, addressing our emotional senses and delivering practical, personal, spiritual and philosophical advancement.
Trends, environment and conditions change — but the deep mental and emotional nature of the human being does not.
As individuals, we are fundamentally the same, physically and psychologically, as our distant ancestors thousands of years ago.
Freemasonry transcends time and culture.
We make sense of the world and ourselves through the internal languages of mind. We are biologically programmed to react to emotional signals, which experience teaches us, are well conveyed through formal rites and rituals.
Freemasonry creates meaning through the language of symbols and allegories.
THE LOST WORD
In A Bridge to Light issued in 1988, under authority of the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Washington, D.C., Bro. Rex R. Hutchinson wrote that:
“Modern speculative Freemasonry did not spring full blown upon the historical stage at a London pub or tavern meeting in 1717.”
“The operative Masons had already contributed a long legacy of symbolism and tradition that continues to enrich the Craft to this day.”
“Also there are persistent references in Masonic ritual, especially in the Higher Degrees, to relationships with Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Gnostics, Alchemists, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, Essenes, Persians, Hindus and Kabbalists.”
“Whether these presumed relations demonstrate a continuous heritage, of which modern Freemasonry is the linear successor, or simply a source of inspiration is not essential, what matters is the teaching behind the symbols.”
“Whatever the truth of history, the contributions to the symbolism of Freemasonry by the religions, philosophies, mythologies and occult mysteries of the past lie upon its surface for all to see.”
“Rather than being a secret society, Freemasonry is a revealer of secrets. The great truths of ancient man were, in their time, also great secrets and few were admitted into the sanctuaries where these truths were taught.”
“Freemasonry teaches these truths to all worthy men who ask to learn them.”
IN SEARCH OF LIGHT
We all tend to stay in our comfort zone.
The comfort zone can be described as an abstract theoretical bubble, where we feel at ease, in control of our surroundings, and fully comfortable.
Everyone at some point should push his own boundaries to promote personal growth. One way to burst that bubble is Freemasonry
Masonic symbols are the keys to a long, difficult but rewarding spiritual journey, it is a thorny road which we have to travel by ourselves. Our Brethren can help us, but at the end of the day, nobody can do it in our stead.
Initiation does not consist in receiving any type of knowledge that can be written or said, or perceived by the five senses of human nature, but is an introduction to a type of totally different knowledge, where the Brother will learn mainly to use his heart to conceive the beauties of Freemasonry.
Then nothing will remain neither occult, nor secret, for the intention of the Fraternity has never been to hide, but only to transmit through the succession of ages, the most excellent tenets of our Institution.
The sense of symbols, first very obscure, will progressively became clearer, and those words that the young Entered Apprentice can only spell with difficulty, will be read later with ease if he patiently perseveres.
He is guided symbolically when he is given the first letter of the word. But he has to discover the second letter himself. In due time, the third letter will be communicated to him in order that he may uncover the next.
This symbolic approach, held in high esteem among the peoples of Antiquity, is still used today by Freemasons but has nothing to do with a craving for secret or mystery, nor has this method become obsolete.
Much to contrary, far superior to the confusion of words and of languages, Masonic symbols, so expressive, are more fitting than ever to imprint upon the memory wise and serious truths.
Let us hear what Dr. Albert Schweitzer had to say about this:
“When truth, knowledge or wisdom cease to be understood, they do not live any longer in our minds.”
“When knowledge is reduced to a mere dogma that is blindly accepted, it may appear to survive for some time, while its rules are still being slavishly observed. But as its underlying coherence and justification is being lost, truth is soon distorted and breaks into pieces, in the same way that the dead body decays and falls apart under the effects of putrefaction.”
“When truth is communicated directly, without requiring any effort from the recipient, it will not leave a lasting impression, for most human beings live day by day and are not capable of forming their own opinions.”
“So, it is necessary that all elevated ideas, be created again and again by each one of us in ourselves. Only when we attempt to follow with trust the inner road of our individual thought, can we hope to attain living truth.”
“Living and profound reflection does not fall into subjectivism.”
“It drives, by the force of its own intellectual power, notions that Tradition regards as true and attempts to transform them into knowledge”.
To this spiritual path the Masonic ritual alludes, when it states to the candidate at his initiation that he will need to go the same way as all Brothers have done, who have gone this way before him.
By their individual work, Freemasons can contribute to the construction of a better world. By their ideas and the example of their life, Freemasons can help in spreading more fraternal human relations.
Being sincerely in search of “that which was lost”, enlightened by the Wisdom of Silence, fortified by the Strength of Symbols, each Brother has the inner capability to reconstruct the Beauty of the Masonic Secrets in his heart.
THE SITUATION IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
Czech Freemasonry was re-born in 1989, starting nearly from scratch after a long period of darkness. Today, we have gained worldwide recognition and respect.
Following our own path and facing our own difficulties, we have escaped so far the terrible numerical decline that has affected Masonic membership in so many countries, where old, experienced and well established Grand Lodges had been operating most successfully in the past.
We have currently 543 Brethren on the roll of our Grand Lodge. The total figure has been hovering around 550 unique members for the third consecutive year.
We hear the positive message from the Grand Secretary’s annual report, that the average age of the Brethren of the Grand Lodge of the Czech Republic has gone down, that we have now over 50 middle aged Entered Apprentices, who have replaced the elderly Brethren who have gone to Grand Lodge above, as well as a number of non-active Brethren who have been removed administratively from the Grand Lodge roll. We also hear that several lodges have many candidates.
Yet, I think that we should not rest on our laurels. I remain convinced that we can do far better in terms of membership. Can do ? No, MUST do!
In the 1950s there were over 500,000 Freemasons registered under the United Grand Lodge of England, for a population of 50 million at the time. Masonic membership in the U.K. then peaked at approximately 1% of total population.
With 10.5 million inhabitants in the Czech Republic, 1% of the population would mean over 100,000 Freemasons. Even only 0.5% would mean 50,000 members.
If we were 5,000 Brethren, = 10 times our current membership ! we would represent only 1‰ (1 per thousand) of the male population in the Czech Republic While our Fraternity is interested in the quality, not in the quantity of its members and while it is true that not everybody is fit to be a Freemason, would it not be proof of an incredible arrogance on our side to believe that out of every 1,000 of our countrymen, only ONE has the moral qualifications or the intellectual level to be a Freemason?
With 500 members, we are merely surviving, financially speaking, and, let’s admit it, we fail having reached the critical mass needed to operate as a Grand Lodge. 5,000 members means also concretely: 10x more income!
5,000 is possible, but it will require action, by all of us – at Lodge level! So let’s leave our “comfort zone”, and initiate many more potential candidates!
Brother Huyghebaert can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.