This article originally appeared recently in Bro. Tim Bryce's column. It was written by Bro. Patrick O'Neill of Colorado. His message bears repeating and republishing.
Possibly the greatest danger to Freemasonry today is confusion — confusion of what it is, and what it is not. Without a clear-cut understanding of what Freemasonry is we find ourselves involved in extraneous matters. These diversions lure us away from Masonry's proper place.
After much study, Brother C. C. Hunt suggested that "Freemasonry is an organized society of men symbolically applying the principles of operative masonry and architecture to the science and art of character building." This is very simple and is the core of our art, and if we keep our eyes on the central objective, we may yet preserve Masonry.
"The concern of Masonry is the science and art of character building." Lodges frequently fall into the trap of engaging in many worthwhile endeavors, but which are not the direct concern of the Masonic Lodge. That is not to say that those endeavors are not worthy, or that they should never be the concern of Masons. But it does illustrate that often in trying to do too much we lose sight of our primary purpose; we head in all directions at once and get nowhere. Let us consider some of the things that Freemasonry is not — things that divert the Lodge from its central purpose of character building. It is not a charity, though it is charitable. It is not a service club; it is not a place to hone one's political or business skills. It is not a place to make business contacts or to look for better jobs. Freemasonry is especially not a self-glorification society. Neither, is it a mutual-admiration society. Many persons outside our membership consider it to be only this. In fact, I was told by a member that the reason he wanted to become a Mason was because when he was doing construction work on a Lodge he saw the master of the Lodge driving a Corvette; he was impressed by this, and he wanted to join Masonry to be like that man. This is certainly the wrong reason to seek out membership in Freemasonry. These men seek honors, not the opportunity for service, they flaunt their insignia, rank, and ostentatious trappings without the slightest inkling of their symbolic meaning, and they have no sincere dedication to those principles? If our own members are so confused, is it any wonder we're on the wrong path?
History proves that elevation of the human spirit is the product of devotion to principle, hard work, and sacrifice. No honor worth having can be earned by laziness, purchased with currency, or bargained for. The only true honor is earned by merit and is extended only through continued service to his fellow man. There is a vast difference between self-glorification and self-improvement. The one is ludicrous and a sham. The other is the road to life's fulfillment.
The member who takes office and honor for the sake of pride and personal glory and does not understand the deeper obligations implied, is truly the Emperor with no clothes. He is deluded in thinking the honor is deserved. He is an embarrassment and is actually the object of pity, not of respect and admiration. These men surround themselves with sycophants and "yes men," because they cannot stand the light of truth, they cannot look at themselves with an objective eye.
Men are drawn to Masonry by the quality of its members. When that quality is compromised in the Lodge, members of a different sort will attempt to maintain the Lodge by any manner of devices, not Masonic. They will attempt to become a "club" which deviates from the purpose of character building. This "club" will pat itself on the back at every corner, congratulating themselves for the most mediocre of accomplishments. They will build monuments to themselves and hang pictures and plaques on walls, congratulating themselves for mediocre years of service. They do not recognize the basic principle of Masonry. This is not Freemasonry, this is a sham.
This group will join the group of hundreds of "clubs" which had no definable purpose except self glorification. History has respected Masonry, but history will not be kind to the lazy, the self promoting; the insincere. This group or "club" will never attract the potential members and the leadership that the fraternity needs. Self-serving back scratching is too transparent to fool discerning men of principle. We have seen a great number of men come through our doors and not remain, "Why?" Is it because we asked too much of them, or is it because they found nothing but a shell of what was supposed be here behind our doors? I offer that it is the latter.
Now we can continue down this path to oblivion, or we can pull back and find our first purpose, that of character building. Sometimes Lodges start looking for a "purpose" so they adopt a cause or a charity, and while these pursuits are for the greater good they do not sustain or build the fraternity. Too often Lodges fall victim to the idea that rather than building the character of men we'll build a building or we'll fix up the one we currently occupy. They falsely believe that this will attract and keep members and by doing this everything will be all right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose of Freemasonry is character building, not building or reconditioning buildings. Are great characters built in shiny new edifices with marble floors and chandeliers? Possibly. But they cannot be built without the dedication and hard work of a mentoring group. Marble floors and new buildings don't build character. I can name dozens of businessmen that while very successful in business should never be allowed to darken the door of our fraternity. Likewise, I can think of dozens of NFL and pro basketball players who have shiny marble floors and beautiful chandeliers whom I wouldn't lower myself to accept a petition from for membership in the fraternity. These men might even try to buy my respect by offering me great sums of money to rebuild the building I occupy. They might offer to build me a shinny new Lodge, but I would accept nothing from them because they are insincere in their motives.
The fraternity's major problem isn't charitable works or buildings, no the true problem lies in how we choose our leaders. I liken our current system, the progressive line, to musical chairs. The guy who is the only one remaining in the Lodge after the other new brothers are neglected and fail to return is the one they put in the progressive line, regardless of his qualifications and dedication to his job. It should not be this way. For years now we have promoted a series of men through our chairs who were not qualified to advance through them; that's not to say they aren't good people. They did not have the benefit of proper training and education. They cannot properly lead a Lodge of Masons because they don't know how. To the new members they appear to be confused and unsure about what they are doing. Men of character will not follow a fool even if he is tied to the oldest and most successful fraternity in the world, so they leave. We have allowed mediocrity to become the norm and it shows now in the membership.
Is it proper to promote people just because they were the only ones who continually showed up to Lodge or they wanted to do it "without putting in the work or having the leadership qualities so necessary for the propagation of our order?" This is completely backwards: There is no man, nor has there ever been one, who could thrive in a leadership position with no training and no guidance. Why wasn't character development and leadership development instituted as it should have been? The answer is simple: the men who had the responsibility of mentoring didn't do their jobs. No one is born a leader, leadership is taught, cultivated, and perfected. Character is likewise developed, it is cultivated, and it is certainly not found in each successive chair, after simply filling the former one with one's buttocks.
If we were to reevaluate our priorities and concentrate on our primary mission, namely character building, we can then expand our duties to take care of the widows and orphans as our obligation as Master Masons directs. Our obligation does not say pay for the building of a new lodge or the remodeling of a deficient one to the exclusion of character building or to the exclusion of those worthy distressed Master Masons, their widows and orphans. Until we address the fact that our foundation is buckling brick by brick, and strengthen those "bricks," Freemasonry will continue to suffer. Brothers, let's stop attacking symptoms and address the true problems of the fraternity, let us not fall into the trap of putting a fresh coat of paint on our building when the foundation is crumbling underneath us.
— Patrick O'Neill
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