Reprinted with permission from the Northern Light Magazine

“The work is what makes us Masons; we gotta learn the work,” an elder statesman of the craft once told me, wearing 50-year, Rainbow Girls and District Instructor’s pins turned every which way on the lapel of his faded suit jacket. “But why?” He just shrugged, “The work is how we make Masons. That’s what a Masonic lodge does; it makes Masons. If we don’t know the work, then we’re not a Masonic lodge.”

His commitment was admirable and his conviction was sincere. There was a sense that he meant every word but, at the same time, was just tired of saying them. I had no doubt he knew he was right. But his reasons – his answer to every question – formed a tautology. Why do you need to know the work? Because you’re a Mason. What does it mean to be a Mason? To know the work. It was clear he had acquired something in a lifetime of Freemasonry which had become too fundamental to his understanding of the fraternity to explain, or even realize, but I thought that with enough questioning he could find his way to the essence of what he was trying to say.

But I was wrong. He could not find anything else to say that would explain what that magic quality was that made the work so important. The British social anthropologist Jack Goody once commented that ceremony “preserves the emptied if not empty form, now shorn of meaning because that is [just] how things are done.” While this may be true in some cases, I simply could not accept that it was the case with Freemasonry. This is a voluntary enterprise, not some unavoidable tradition. Millions of rational men throughout history have spent hours committing whole books worth of words and movements to memory. And every year thousands more have joined them in that process of their own free will and accord. Something, I thought, must be drawing and keeping them there.

But I was wrong again. Membership in North American Masonic lodges has dropped over 66 percent since 1959, the year of the fraternity’s all-time American high.

I wondered if this didn’t have something to do with that tautology about Masonic work. Could it be that the Masonic cycle was broken; absence of ritual was creating an absence of Masons, or the other way around? I spoke to several Masons and asked them about their proficiency in the work. They all claimed to have varying degrees of knowledge about the work, usually correlated to their time in the fraternity. Those (we’ll call them) estranged Masons I was able to get a hold of, on the other hand, claimed little or no knowledge of the work. More interestingly, I began to realize that those Brothers who knew more of the rituals were also better acquainted with their meanings as well. When asked, some offered their personal interpretations while others cited the official lectures in the esoteric work. The more work a Brother knew, the more he had to say about it. This, it seemed to me, had to mean something.

Yet even those Brothers who had the most to say about the work could rarely give me a good reason for knowing it. Most just echoed, “The work is what makes us Masons. Masons have to know the work.”

Many of the estranged Masons would argue that anthropologist, Goody, was right when it comes to Freemasonry. They knew only a few of their new “Brothers” and their contact with them was limited to a tedious catechism practice. It is no wonder they quickly decided that Masonry amounted to just a lot of memorization and bad acting. This made me suspect that the cause of Masonry’s failure to attract, or keep, new members with its former efficiency has to do with an understanding about Masonic ritual that at some point began to be taken for granted.

Freemasonry is traditionally defined as “system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” Initiates certainly have the symbols and allegory laid on thick; walking out the door after their first degree. Less often, however, do they get the Lodge System of Masonic Education Booklet No. 1 or The Entered Apprentice Degree booklet, which form an elementary primer on Freemasonry. Even less often do they get invited to a special seat at dinner, with questions about their family and work life. If their diligence (and faith) one day get them raised, they can look forward to a Red Book and Monitor containing more ciphers and a few chunks of the lectures, as well as new pressures to come to lodge practices. Those exceptional few that actually attend will get to spend two, three or four additional hours memorizing the ritual every other week. And even then, no one seems to know the work correctly.

Perhaps it is time for lodges to change their approach. If Freemasonry is “a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols,” it should be no wonder that teaching the allegory and symbols, but expecting the system of values to be revealed on its own, is not working. Before you can find meaning in a story, you have to realize that it is allegorical, and before you can read a symbol, its meaning must be explained. That is why the work is called “esoteric,” from the Greek for “belonging to an inner circle.” New Masons must be brought into the loop before they can be expected to understand.

Masonic work encapsulates Masonic values and it is these values that define Masonry and make a Mason – not the work itself. The ritual is a vessel. To use a relevant metaphor: the tenets of Freemasonry are the roof, arches and columns of Freemasonry; the ritual, her ceiling, walls, and facade. It’s these tenets that give the fraternity her strength, establishment, and security while the work provides corridors in which to travel, chambers in which to meet, and intimacy. As the fundamental supports of Freemasonry are allowed to fall into disrepair, like so many lodge rooms, it is no wonder that the fraternity is showing signs of collapse. Thus, it is the duty of all Master Masons “especially those who have seen the fraternity in full force” to inspire, motivate, and, most of all, educate their Brothers, who don’t know what they should, why they should know it, or what they’re missing out on. In this way, Masons may come to learn the value of work once again, subdue their passions, and improve themselves in Masonry.

Still, it should be kept strictly in mind that the learning of Masonic values is not limited to the ritual alone but occurs every moment Brethren dwell together in unity. On the five points of fellowship, this is where charity, faith, reason, and brotherly love are learned and where Masons are made. It is only when these values are learned and cultivated that the empty glass of work can be filled and serve its ancient purpose. When the tenets of Freemasonry are held up in their rightful place and properly exercised, the work may naturally assume its proper place in Masonic life. Many veteran Masons may in fact be surprised at just how many of their Brothers seek out the work to capture and express the joys that the tenets of Freemasonry, when properly exercised, can provide. These two factors – the work and the tenets – must be kept in their proper balance.

The late anthropologist Monica Wilson wrote that “rituals reveal values at their deepest level. . . men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed.” This is how I have come to understand what was meant, but never said, by so many Brothers: Masons know the work because the work conveys the tenets, and the tenets are what make a Mason.