Sunday, June 24, 2007

'A Radical in the East'

W. Bro. S. Brent Morris is the well-known Masonic author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry and other books, the editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, and a familiar face if you've watched some of the recent programs about Freemasonry on The History Channel or The Discovery Channel.

He wrote the following essay, A Radical in the East: The Reflections of a High Priest on his Year in the East, in 1980. It was originally published in the York Rite's Royal Arch Mason magazine in December 1980, and then as the lead essay in a collection of the same name published by Iowa Research Lodge No. 2 in 1993.

Bro. Morris received his "due notice" from the York Rite soon after the essay was published. He later found a new home in the Scottish Rite.

This is the first time this essay has appeared in digital form online, or anywhere since 1993. The Burning Taper is honored that Bro. Morris has allowed us to republish it here.

A Radical in the East: The Reflections of a High priest on his Year in the East, by S. Brent Morris, P.H.P.

Published in the Royal Arch Mason Magazine
vol. 13. No. 8 (Winter 1980)

"Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a soul." — Mark Twain

As a man matures, his thinking about various things changes. Some of these changes are gradual developments; some are sudden, abrupt turnarounds. 1 would like to share with you a shift in my thinking about Freemasonry of the latter type. My comments deal most specifically with the Chapter, though they are applicable to the Lodge or any other organization. My thinking was radicalized while I served as High Priest of Zeredathah Chapter No. 35 in Laurel, Maryland. I may not persuade you to my thinking, but at least I hope to make you pause and consider.

My road to becoming a radical began innocently one evening before the opening of Chapter. I was concerned with the usual pre-meeting worries: attendance; officers; programs; and time. Especially time, as that evening we had a fair amount of business, and I wanted to close early. I recall thinking to myself: “Open—15 minutes; read and approve the minutes—5 minutes; ballot—10 minutes; announcements—10 minutes; close—10 minutes.” Already I saw an hour’s work ahead of me, assuming no one became long-winded, and that didn’t even include business. Then the Secretary handed me a note with the name of a recently deceased Companion. My first thought was, “Damn! Another three minutes at least for a eulogy and a prayer.”

As I thought over the meeting while driving home that evening, I recalled with growing revulsion my reaction to the death of our Companion. His death had not touched me in the least—his passing did not mean to me a loss of fellowship, but only a few minutes longer to spend in Chapter. What a perversion of Masonic principles my thinking had become! As I tried to decide what caused me to change so, I realized that my thinking had abruptly shifted.

I recalled our Affirmation Sunday service at a local church where there had been an unpleasant confrontation about whether we should wear our aprons. An older Past High Priest felt that we should follow the Grand Chapter’s suggestion and wear our aprons to show the world that we were Royal Arch Masons and proud of it. On the other hand, I maintained that we were at the church to worship, not to impress the congregation. The settlement of this disagreement was that some Companions wore their aprons, some didn’t, and I felt smugly self-righteous. That is, until I later reflected on the day. Then I realized that while I had made pious noises about the joy of worshipping together, my real concern had been to wheedle and cajole enough Companions to attend so that the Chapter (and especially the High Priest) would not be embarrassed by sparsely filled pews. Was this what our Affirmation Sunday was supposed to be about?

Then my thoughts went to our efforts to gain new members. Were we interested in increasing our circle of friends, sharing our fellowship, or helping a brother find that which was lost? Not on your life! We had much simpler and baser motives. We needed more money, for one thing, and initiation fees were an easy source of income. By increasing our rolls, we would show the world that we were a healthy and vibrant organization; we would reestablish our self-importance (for if we weren’t important, why would all of these people seek membership?); and, perhaps most significantly, we would get new officer material. What could be a more urgent task for Masonic Officers than to perpetuate themselves?

Kindled by the death of a companion and fueled by some reflection on Capitular Masonry, my old thinking burned away. The time had now come for me to reevaluate my point of view towards the Chapter. The fundamental question was: “What is the purpose of Royal Arch Masonry?” My answer was fourfold: preservation, transmission, encouragement, and enhancement. Our Chapters are predicated upon preserving the Legend of the Recovery and the philosophy and way of life that is Freemasonry, and transmitting them to our successors. We also serve to encourage a dynamic interest in our Craft, and to enhance this interest by offering further opportunities for fellowship and service.

If these indeed are our purposes, how do we fulfill them? The ritual serves as our fundamental method for preserving and transmitting the Legend of the Recovery. In our Chapter rituals, we elaborate upon and expand the basic tenets of the Craft. Our ceremonies act as a binding force that permits us to enlarge our sense of unity by sharing common experiences. The formality of our procedures, customs, and (at least in Maryland) dress emphasizes the seriousness of our intent; it serves to set us apart from other, more informal groups. And yet, with these lofty purposes and means to achieve them, we fall far, far short of the mark. What has gone wrong?

There is no one simple answer. However, I will share with you what I observe to be some of our more glaring errors. Our formality all too often degenerates into a caricature of the solemnity we hope to attain. Perhaps when evening clothes were a standard item in any gentleman’s wardrobe, black tie was an appropriate dress for Chapter. Today, when few social functions require black tie and even fewer men own a tuxedo, our formality is out of place. If formal dress is the genuine desire of an individual Chapter, then it should be vigorously encouraged. But to put a blanket requirement on all Chapters—large and small, city and country—is to invite stagnation and eventual suffocation. The result is, sadly, a cartoon-like scene of ill-fitting tuxedos bought decades ago and kept in service well beyond their natural lives. Presiding over this setting is a High Priest, without his own top hat, who borrows a faded, frayed, and wrong-sized refugee from the coat closet, and then attempts to represent the glory of Solomon!

Ceremony could be the spice of a Chapter meeting, but like a spice, it should not overwhelm. If only we followed this maxim! Unfortunately, at least 20–30 minutes of each meeting is spent in the tedium of opening and closing. The repetitive nature of these exercises numbs the mind and bores the onlooker. We have all seen ritual bastardizations that produce “short form” ceremonies. These informal alterations indicate a crying need for more fundamental changes, but it is a cry that is seldom heeded. Rather than ask why we persist in using ceremonies created in and ideally suited for the previous century, our Companions slowly drift away, never to return.
When we look at our ritual, we cannot help but be impressed at the position of preeminent importance it has in our affairs. Its importance, I feel, has been bloated entirely out of proportion. Consider for a moment the thousands of man-hours spent on ritual—memorization, rehearsal, exemplification, conferral—and contrast this with the efforts spent on charity or education or even fellowship. It is a rare Chapter that does not spend the major part of its time and efforts on ritual, to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is my disturbing observation that ritual has ceased to be a means to an end, the method by which we preserve and transmit our heritage, but rather it has become an end in itself.

While I was in the East, I was advised to hold more rehearsals so we could confer the degrees proficiently. We needed to confer the degrees so we could get new members who were needed to become officers who were needed to attend rehearsals so we could confer the degrees proficiently. We’re caught on a treadmill and too few realize it. Our older members long for the halcyon days when weekly rehearsals were packed with eager young Companions longing to be appointed to the line. Those days, if they ever really existed, are past us. It is true that a healthy, strong Chapter has excellent degree work, just as it excels in all activities. However, it is folly to think that a crash program in upgrading ritual performance alone will materially improve an ailing Chapter.

Having outlined what I consider to be our purposes and some of our failings, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few suggestions on how we could improve. We could begin by allowing more individuality in our Chapters. Some Chapters may wish to meet twice a month with a full line of officers in black tie and to confer degrees on demand. Others may want to meet quarterly with only nine Companions in informal dress and to send candidates to other Chapters or festivals for their degrees. The current notion of the ideal Chapter is one that is large, has a full line of officers, meets frequently, rehearses religiously, and has a waiting list of prospective Officers. This ideal at one time may have been common, and for the nineteenth century and even the early twentieth century was perfect, but it is certainly the exception now. We must allow our Chapters to find equivalent expressions for their zeal in Capitular Masonry without feeling inadequate. The alternative is to continue as we are, with Chapters withering as they become trapped in an endless cycle of failure.

The words spontaneous and lively are seldom used to describe Chapter meetings. Why not encourage a return of activities that not only promote fellowship but also are fun? These could include Table Chapters, dinners, and—as heretical as the suggestion may be—liquor served as refreshments or with a meal. American Freemasonry was bitten at an early age by the temperance bug, and has never quite recovered. Capitular Masonry could take a progressive step for the Craft by permitting Chapters to serve liquor, and at the same time encourage a less puritanical image of Masonry.

Our opening and closing rituals (not to mention most other routine procedures) should be streamlined. We really don’t need ten or more officers in a Chapter. Certainly the Veilsmen are unnecessary as is probably the Principal Sojourner. Ideally we should have both a long and short form opening and closing. The latter exist widely in bastard form and need only to be recognized and standardized. I’ve heard many say that short form ceremonies should never be allowed because the long forms would not be used again. If there is such a willingness to abandon our current forms, perhaps they have outlived their usefulness.

Finally, I’ll share with you my most radical thought: Our degrees need to be changed! Masonic ritual as we know it was born in the late seventeenth century. It grew and adapted to serve the Craft as the Craft evolved. It varied locally, and was a living, changing expression of the differing interpretations of our ritual heritage. Then, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, possibly in response to excessive variation and extreme interpretations, our ritual became uniform, rigid, and ossified. It was declared that the interpretations and usages of the middle 1800s would henceforth and forevermore be the orthodox ritual.

As beautiful and meaningful as our ritual may be, I’m not convinced that our 1850 version is any better than a 1750 one, and I’m certainly sorry that I’ll never see a 1950 interpretation. Our ritual is indeed impressive, but it should be as we have plagiarized from the finest sources—Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and others. However, great portions are wordy, turgid, anachronistic, unhistorical, and all but impossible to follow. When an evening devoted to the Royal Arch degree alone can drag on to nearly midnight, we cannot help but run off workers as well as sideliners. The task before us is one that will require delicacy, that will cause howls of pain, but at the least must be seriously considered.

It is painfully obvious that something is wrong with Capitular Masonry. Our membership is declining, as is that of most fraternal organizations, but more alarming is the fact that the percentage of Craftsmen who join the Chapter is also declining. The reasons for this downtrend are neither simple nor clear, else we would have eliminated them long ago. As conditions continue to deteriorate, many of our Companions take on a siege mentality, perhaps feeling that they are the last guardians of the sanctum sanctorum. They call, with increasing stridency, for a return to what they perceive as the virtues of our earlier days of strength: rehearsals, degree work, and conformity. To them, any change at all is tantamount to surrender.

On the other hand, I, as a self-confessed radical, want a more imaginative solution. While we still operate from a position of relative stability and strength, we should seek bold innovations. Surely we can preserve and transmit our teachings by some more flexible method. Certainly we can encourage and enhance fellowship and interest in the Craft less stodgily. Novelty will not guarantee success, nor will change be without failure. However, if we must fail, I would rather fail by trying than by acquiescence. When we pass on, as shall all things flesh, I want to go with a bang and not a whimper.

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  1. It is with some trepidation that I beg to differ with such an august personage as Worshipful Brother Morris; but there is one facet of the issue which was not considered in his essay.

    Please keep in mind that this is the opinion of one Mason only, and a Mason who is not a member of the Chapter Degrees.

    In applying his observations to the Craft Lodge, I would say that the missing ingredient is the discussion and examination of our ritual and applying it to our daily lives. Yes, the language is archaic, yes it is difficult at times to penetrate; but if we do not pay proper attention to our rituals, then what are we? Isn't it the ritual that makes us Masons?

    Yet in how many Lodge meetings do the Brethren discuss, question, and attempt to make the ritual more than just the vehicle for conferring degrees?

    I have seen it expressed that Freemasonry is a way of life, and this to me is a useful definition that needs to be persued further.

    Now I am NOT advocating that each lodge should promulgate a doctrine on the lessons of the ritual that all Brethren must adhere to. But are we not Speculative Masons? Why, in the name of all things polyhedral do we not speculate on that ONE part of our Fraternity that makes us who we are? Wouldn't sharing our impressions of our teachings help our Brethren to understand Masonry, and themselves better?

    I'm sure each Brother has their own ideas about the meaning of ritual. Why can't we share our perspectives with each other? I believe that by doing so, it would enrich the Masonic experience.

    If research Lodges exist to examine the Craft and provide factual data about it, then isn't the proper venue for the discussion of the moral implications of our teacings the Craft Lodge, and later the appendant bodies?

    Mere repetition of words is dry and turgid, but when those words are imbued with meaning and substance they become alive!

    It isn't the "long form" or "short form" of ritual that is the problem. It's that many Freemasons have not examined themselves and how they apply the lessons of the Craft.

    But we can't just be cross eyed contemplators of our collective navel. The lesons of Freemasonry must leave the Lodge room with the Brethren and be carried out into the world to do any good at all.

    Or else, what have we come here to do?

    Just a thought.

    Traveling Man

  2. many great points, although I will have to disagree with the suggestion to serve alcohol at the lodges - that is a perversion of masonry, imho.

  3. Serving alcohol a perversion of Masonry? I think not... Freemasonry was born in a barroom; that's where many lodges meant.

    Toasting at a festive board is a time-honored tradition in British Freemasonry.

    Why is one of the duties of a Junior Warden to see that the brethren don't turn the hours of refreshment into "excess" if they weren't drinking?

    — W.S.

  4. good point, although I personally see the lodge as one of the few places i can go in my life that is not focused on peddling vices.

    I prefer alcohol to be pushed on me at sporting events, gas stations, restaurants, tv, etc. anywhere but what i would consider a "safe haven."

    I realize it's a personal thing, however I just don't see how adding alcohol to lodge will make it any better. In fact, it's been my experience that adding alcohol to anything at all perverts the activity (which is sometimes the intent).

    Alcohol: making good men... better?

  5. Some insights on this topic from the world of European Masonry:

    Regarding drink:

    In my lodge we have a little wine and cheese gathering after every meeting, which we call the agape. It is a traditional part of European-Style Masonry, and so much part of my experience of Masonry that I cannot imagine meeting without it.

    The agape allows us to socialize and decompress after the meeting, as well as to continue the conversations begun there is a less formal venue. There is no emphasis placed on the act of drinking, indeed, many of our members do not drink, but there are always a few good bottles of wine available for those who do, and I must say I find the practice very civilized, comfortable and convivial.

    We also have annual banquets, Banquets of Order, which do place emphasis on drinking in the form of ritualized toasting.

    Regarding memorization:

    In my lodge we do not do any memory work. For opening and closing rituals, each officer has a book with a script and we just use those. With practice, it is not at all awkward.

    When we are initiating, passing and raising, we do our very best to become fluent in the ritual, and do memorize some parts just for the sake of drama. If in the heat of things we have to ad lib a little, no one comes down on us.

    Our EA's and Fellowcraft prove their fitness for advancement in the form of written papers on the symbology of the degree, and/or practical projects that benefit the lodge, like making lodge furniture. The also have to pass an oral exam, but not one based on precise memorization.

    I do not dispute the value of memory work. I had a stern English teacher in high school who made us memorize poems, and I can still recite some of them (Let me not to the marriage of true minds/admit impediments...), and love them in a special way for knowing them so intimately.

    But I would say that I am grateful that in my lodge our primary efforts go toward debate, discussion and understanding. We discuss our ritual all the time, we write papers on ritual and lodge symbols which are presented and discussed at each meeting. I believe this constant examination of ritual helps keep us from mouthing empty words and moving through automatic paces.

    I am, by the way, a member of Le Droit Humain, which is the oldest Co-Masonic obedience (Co-Masonic meaning men and women working as equals). Le Droit Humain lodges work in different ways, so what I have said regarding alcohol and memorization will not be so for every lodge in my obedience.

  6. I guess they don’t do table lodges then, if you can’t drink?


  7. Bro. Chris Hodapp just posted the following as a comment to the article Challenging Lodge-Specific Traditions, but I thought it would be apropos in this thread as well.

    — W.S.

    + + +

    At a certain Annual Communication in a certain midwestern state this past month, legislation was proposed that would allow the Grand Lodge building in the state capital to let non-Masonic, outside renters serve alcoholic beveredges at their functions. It was to be a three year experiment to show the state's Masons that a wedding reception could be held in a Masonic building with alcohol and the Earth would not stop spinning on its axis.

    Naturally it lost by a hefty majority. And no one had better dare suggest that Masons be allowed to serve wine at a Feast of St. John or a festive board.

    At one point during the predictable recitation of truisms, canards, shrieks and hysteria that get trotted out whenever this topic comes up, one Mason stood up and actually said, to the effect, "If the Founding Fathers ever heard us discuss allowing alcohol into our Temple buildings, they'd roll over in their graves."

    You mean the Founding Fathers who were ALL initiated, passed and raised in taverns? Or perhaps the Masters of the founding lodges in the state who formed the Grand Lodge, who were meeting in a tavern, who turned in their expenses for rum and cigars to be reimbursed by their home lodges when they returned?

    — Chris Hodapp


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