By Bro. Stephen F. W. of Lodge Germania 1036 UGLNSW&ACTTo My Brother,
Our voluntarie service he requires,
Not our necessitated, such with him
Findes no acceptance, nor can find, for how
Can hearts, not free, be tri'd whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By Destinie, and can no other choose?
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667
The 21st Century Masonic Lament
Being a relatively young fellow of only thirty years, it is only natural that I should enjoy reading widely and talking to all the interesting people I meet. Everyone from the potential candidate joining us at the festive board for the very first time, to the most experienced and learned brethren. The subjects and topics of conversation vary wildly of course, as might be expected from such diverse company, but on more than one occasion I have come across what I have since termed the 21st Century Masonic Lament. Whether directly or obliquely, they allude to a feeling or perception that Masonry Just Ain't What It Used To Be.
Is it really? I'm afraid I cannot say for sure. Unfortunately, I haven't had the pleasure of being around long enough to experience first-hand the past six hundred years of Masonry. When the Regius Poem was first inscribed on vellum in 1390, nobody sent me a copy. When the four English lodges met for dinner in 1717 at the Goose and Gridiron alehouse to form the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, I wasn't invited. Nor did I receive an invitation in 1888 when the masters and wardens of 183 lodges assembled, and adopted the articles of union which established the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales.
What is it exactly that has changed? The quality of our candidates? The quantity of our brethren? The exclusivity of our fraternity? I think not. The candidates of Masonry is now what they have always been, a diversity of men drawn from a cross-section of society who have volunteered of their own free will and accord to undertake the three degrees. They are simply a reflection of the wider world in which our fraternity exists, so it is only natural and indeed inevitable that as the world evolves, so will our candidates. So long as they are just, upright and free men of mature age, sound judgement and strict morals, we should be happy to consider their petitions.
High-quality lodges full of high-quality brethren attract high quantities of candidates. This is a function of social dynamics. The reverse is also true. High quantities of candidates allow high quality candidates to be initiated and thus form high-quality lodges. This is a function of mathematical probability. It is a virtuous and self-perpetuating cycle, and the lodge whose members ‘minds are filled with knowledge and whose hearts are filled with brotherly love, stand forever strong against the test of time.
I can't believe we let that guy in! I can only speculate as to what was uttered under murmured breath, or lingered at the back of the minds of our operative brethren, all those centuries ago when the first gentleman was initiated as a speculative mason into that fateful operative lodge. Look at his hands! Too soft to have ever put chisel to rock! Too smooth to have ever toiled a day in the quarries! Couldn't tell the difference between a gavel and a mallet!
Have we lost our aura of exclusivity? Once again, I think not. Our fraternal ancestors were not aristocrats nor clergy, but labourers who worked the stone with simple hand tools. The exclusivity of their fraternity was one of knowledge regarding mathematics, geometry, and construction methods. Similarly for us speculative masons of today, the exclusivity of our fraternity is also one of knowledge, albeit regarding the self-improvement of character through the practice of brother love, relief, and truth. If we should be exclusive, let us be only men of good character and report, who prize honour and virtue above the external advantages of rank and fortune, scrupulously guarded through the vetting of candidates and the secret ballot. This should make each of us feel very special indeed!
If Masonry Just Ain't What It Used To Be, it is only because it hasn't been What It Used To Be for at least 300 years. Otherwise, we would still be in the quarries chiselling stone with gavels. It is only through the process of gradual change, that Masonry has remained exactly the same as what it has always been, an adaptable and resilient organisation that has withstood the test of time.
The Golden Age of Masonry
However, the 21st Century Masonic Lament reveals a far deeper and more troubling concern among the brethren. It voices a yearning for the past, a dissatisfaction with the present and a pessimism for the future. It is a fear that the Golden Age of Masonry has come and gone, and that the best days of our fraternity lay in the past and not the future.
So just when was the Golden Age of Masonry? It's a very tricky question to answer. I posed the question to a variety of experienced and learned brethren, and in turn received an equal variety of answers. Was it during the late medieval 12th to 16th century Gothic Period, when the Regius Poem was penned and operative masons built magnificent cathedrals, abbeys, castles and palaces complete with pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses out of rough hewn rock?
Or was it during the 1870-1910 Golden Age of Fraternalism after the end of the American Civil War, when Bro. Albert Pike penned his famous Morals and Dogma? Men and women flocked by the thousands to join Masonry and the Order of the Eastern Star. Other fraternal societies such as the Odd Fellows also flourished, whilst entirely new ones came into being, including the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Loyal Order of Moose.
Perhaps it was during the 1946-1964 Boomer Years in the aftermath of World War II, when servicemen returned home to settle down and raise new families? Many were hardened men with hearts of stone, cold and heavy after all the killing they had done and witnessed on the battlefield. They joined Masonry in search of the brotherhood and camaraderie they experienced during wartime, and in civilian life they found it within our lodges. The huge influx of brethren was such that Masonry reached its peak in terms of absolute numbers in 1959. This generation of brethren has had a greater and more pronounced impact on modern Masonry than any other, and their immense influence continues to be felt in every aspect of lodge life.
Need I continue? I haven't even mentioned the Renaissance or the Age of Enlightenment, either of which would make fine candidates for being the Golden Age of Masonry. No I say, for it is pointless, because the Golden Age of Masonry lays not in some imagined, recorded or dimly remembered past but in the inevitable future. The world will turn, and the present will pass, but Masonry will remain. May the Golden Age of Masonry forever remain in the future, as something to strive towards, for the best is yet to come.
Towards a New Golden Age
The Gothic Period, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the American Reconstruction, the Boomer Years. What do these Golden Ages all have in common? They were all periods of great turmoil, social upheaval and extremely rapid change. Daily life for the common man was terribly harsh, brutish and often short. None of these periods seemed to be a Golden Age for the men on the ground who lived through them. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we recognise these periods as such, a term bestowed retrospectively after the period has already ended and is compared with what follows.
It is during these periods of great strife and uncertainty that Masonry truly shines! It is then that our fraternity is needed most! It is then that we stand in sharpest contrast with the profane world around us! If we lived in a perfectly peaceful and harmonious world of brotherly love, relief and truth, there would be no need for Masonry, because everyone would already be a mason!
Today we live in a chaotic world at war with itself, seemingly adrift without a working moral compass. Desperately searching for real and meaningful values, yet unable to find any. It is an age of extremely rapid social, technological and economic change, seemingly without any direction or clear objective. We have bestowed upon ourselves the instruments of mankind's own potential destruction, very real today but completely unimaginable even 100 years ago.
But yet there is a ray of hope! We have survived thus far and may yet survive a little longer! For 600 years there has been an order of men which history has shown to be adaptable and resilient! Who profess to be just, upright and free! Who profess to practice the tenets of brother love, relief and truth! Who are now able to communicate with each other at close to the speed of light using AES256 encryption! To see, speak and write to each other just as easily and securely from Sydney, London, New York or Hong Kong as if they were in the same room!
So dear brother, fear not the young men knocking on the doors of Masonry today, for they will be the masons of tomorrow. They must become the standard bearers of our fraternity, for it is only they who can carry on our Great Work, our legacy, our traditions and our hopes for a better tomorrow. If they are in darkness, enlighten them. If they are ignorant, teach them. If they are fearful, demonstrate by example the virtues of brotherly love. On the other hand, if we spurn them, they may not return. If we ignore them, they may lead themselves astray. If we fail them, they may become disappointed in our fraternity.
Masonry is not, and has never been just a big social club. It's not just a charity or service organisation. Nor is it just a set of rituals buried deep within heads or written down in books. It is an adaptable and resilient philosophy for the strong, a way of life that beckons to be practised. Let us remind ourselves, every time we remove the cable tow from a newly initiated brother, that the bonds that truly bind cannot be perceived by the eyes that receive physical light.
May we live with the Faith to persevere, striving towards the Hope of a New Golden Age of Masonry, through the Charity of voluntary service to the Great Architect of the Universe!
Carpe diem! Ed.