From WBro Alistair (Todd), PM, Lodge Argyll, UGLS (and now Lodge Devotion 723 Melbourne)
To my mind the essence and impact of the ritual is the largest influence that can make a Mason a better Mason and keep a Mason well founded.
However the critical factor of Masonic ritual I believe, is to fundamentally understand its meaning, and that level of understanding discerns a good ritualist from a truly inspired proponent of the Art.
I was once asked when I was a young Mason, what my understanding of the impact of the ritual was. My answer fell woefully short of barely adequate and in simple terms it was defined for me thus
'ritual impact is the ability to deliver a distinct understandable and clear message in a relatively short space of time to a candidate who knows nothing of the content or the meaning of what you are about to say to him, and having delivered that message to leave him with a lasting impression for the rest of his life. '
'In short a difficult task not for the feint hearted my dear boy' a memorable quote from my long time but now departed friend and mentor Phillip Clark PGSW.
I remember the trepidus occasion of my first day at school when assembled at the front of the school hall with senior years behind us and senior eyes upon us, we took the first awkward steps to rote learning. It was times tables and I recall the event was overwhelming. However as the days passed and the repetition continued, the mind became used to the exercise and a life tool was planted in the brain, one that fifty years later is utilised many times a day .
The message I retrieved from that experience was not that an attempt was being made to belittle me in any way but that everyone had been where I stood and had been similarly 'initiated' . Quite Masonically pertinent as it turned out.
My early experiences in Freemasonry were fortunately blessed with the presence of some very experienced Craftsmen who, like the headmaster of my first school, suggested that the best start is to learn a short narrative and learn it rote or as it may better be known these days , “off by heart”. Once I had accomplished this then I was to report back and we would engage in the next step.
I concluded from this encounter that everyone has the ability to learn things off by heart, it comes with practise. The alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer are classic examples and those wretched times tables that keep me awake at night too! That is how I engaged in my career as a ritualist; from the answers to the questions after the first degree until 27 years later.
Armed with this knowledge and unstinting faith in my mentors, I began, as I then was, an Entered Apprentice, to learn the answers to the required questions which would enable me to pass to the next degree.
A Shakespearean moment if ever there was one. However I knuckled down and went over and over the material in my mind, even learning what the questions were. I created quite a stir when I turned up for lodge of rehearsal as an Entered Apprentice.
I was asked what I was doing there, so I said ‘I'm here to rehearse just like you are’.
The preceptor and the DC laughed like drains and took me to a side room where I was put through my paces.
I answered all my questions and answered them word perfect. Proud with myself I managed to elicit a smile from the preceptor, he congratulated me on being halfway there. The DC then smiled and said " the script was perfect however the delivery requires some polish. "
I screwed up my eyes in quizzical disbelief and they proceeded to demonstrate how they believed the questions should be asked and also how they should be answered.
I was mightily impressed with the way that they had encouraged me as we'll as the way they had mentored me to another level.
The brother preceptor ( in Scottish Freemasonry, he is the all knowledgeable ritualist who will give you the definitive of what some of those oh so verbose phrases really mean) defined for me the critical factors of Masonic ritual, as I wrote earlier. He also sagely stated that there are two things that will make a Mason stay a Mason . One is the first impression that is made in the first degree, and the second one is the lasting impression that you make in the third degree.
In twenty seven years I have attended many many workings and installations and Masonic lectures. I have performed every piece in the book. I have watched hundreds of ritualists deliver hundreds of charges.
In my experience and in my book one ounce of passion is worth ten pages of rote learning.
However I have witnessed that the finest proponents of the art are those where passion and rote are forged inseparably to form a platform that ensures clear understandable and lasting personal memories for the candidates. A simple gesture to the audience or a touch of the candidates arm to reinforce a point are sometimes all that is required. It takes practise and care.
Modesty precludes my self definition as an act of praise limited to 'I think I'm a good ritualist', I think I know my stuff, and I know that I understand what it means.
By definition therefore the ingredients for greatness and being a proponent of the Art are present. Contentious debate could ensue but it isn’t about me, and it’s not a contest.
The real essence is it’s all about the candidate.
I trust that by the grace of God the forging of passion and rote shall ever be my quest and blessed reward. Like all blacksmiths we aim for the same outcomes but the individual differences are oh so subtle.
As with every journey the hardest part is the first step, but my journey has been rich and fulfilling and every time I perform a piece of ritual, I look up to the all seeing eye in the lodge and smile at the remembrance of my friend and mentor who first forged my passion in rote. I did it because I was passionate, and I thought that it was what was required. The Scottish first degree final charge tells us many things however one of the most important ones is that ' may you cultivate such of the liberal arts and sciences as lie within the compass of your attainment and without neglecting the ordinary duties of your station in life that you may feel called upon to make a daily advancement in Masonic learning'
The mathematics are simple; 139 pages of ritual. One page per month until you get to the chair which took me eleven years. More than talent, it takes work, patience, passion and understanding.
Brother Phil, you told me that anyone could do it and that anyone could do it well. All that is required is rote and passion, and you can make the difference that keeps Masonry alive . I hope that you are reading this and may your memory keep the forge forever alight.