Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Mark Master Degree (#1 in a series: The Degrees of the York Rite

During the October 2009—June 2010 Masonic meeting season, I am posting reflections on the York Rite degrees. The index with links to all posts of this series is here.

The Mark Master degree is the first of the “capitular” degrees, so called because these degrees are conferred by a Royal Arch body called a “chapter” (Latin, capitulum). The capitular degrees are administered by one of the three bodies that comprise the York Rite: the Royal Arch Masons. For the most part, these degrees have as their guiding myth the final phases of the construction and the dedication of the Temple built by the biblical King Solomon. The official York Rite website in the United States describes the Mark Master degree as follows:

A Degree that emphasizes the lessons of regularity, discipline, and integrity. It is a most impressive Degree centered on the story of the Fellowcraft of the quarry and their role in the building of the Temple.

Using a very traditional vocabulary, as one is said to be“raised” a Master Mason, so too one is said to be “congratulated” a Mark Master Mason. In England, there are entire Mark Master Mason lodges.

In reflecting on this degree, I was struck by two things.

One is the emphasis that is placed on the worker creating creditable work. On several occasions during the degree, a prop representing a stonemason’s work is presented before an inspector, who pronounces his judgment upon it. The very name of the degree comes from the actual customs of the medieval stonemasons, whose stones each carried the “mark” of the stonemason who worked upon it. Every piece of work was carefully crafted, knowing that it would be individually inspected before being accepted for placement into a building—and the work product was always associated with a specific worker. In the degree, this matter of craftsmanship was all the more charged because this stonework was to be incorporated into the House of God.

Compared to the work standards of the medieval stonemason, the work standards of modern life leave a lot to be desired. One popular saying regarding work product that is marginally acceptable describes the product as “good enough for government work”—which evidentally is not very good. One component of that phrase—“good enough”—is used so often in describing work product.

And yet so often the work is not good enough. Whether we are considering a physical product, a software product, or a service, so often what is produced is not even acceptable. The service person is surly, sloppy, or does not listen well; the physical product is shoddy; the software has bugs in it; all of this is excused on the grounds of the pressures involved in modern business and production, pressures that rush software out of beta testing (if there even was beta testing) and into production, and so forth.

Opposed to this, the Mark Master degree encourages us to take real pride in our work, to make it the kind of product that we could present with confidence before a diligent inspector. Certainly this has a great deal of relevance to real life on a surface level of interpretation. (Perhaps, within the context of a modern-day company, we need to make sure that the workload that we put upon our employees is such that they actually could put care into their work.)

Beyond that, there is another, more spiritual interpretation to consider. We learn in the Blue Lodge a symbolism where each life is a stone in “that spiritual Temple, not built with hands.” In this symbolism, each of our lives is such a stone. The Mark Master degree teaches us that we are not to think that this stone is acceptable as is; rather, the stone is to be worked, carefully worked, worked well enough to fit exacting standards of inspection. (The Blue Lodge has some comparable symbolism, but the Mark Master degree presents this point quite vividly.)

What kind of habits do I have that I should change? What rough spots need to be smoothed out to make my life a stone fit for the Divine House? What new habits should I incorporate into my life? Operative stonemasons worked with stone; the Freemason works with the material of his own life.

The second point that stood out for me in this degree involved the matter of charity. A lot of emphasis is put on addressing the needs of a Mason who needs a hand. At the current moment, with the global economy being in recession (not to say “meltdown”), there are a lot of Masons who really need a hand. Perhaps there are few of us who could turn that around completely for a brother. But maybe we could spot the brother a meal or two for him and his family. Maybe we can scrape up a day or two’s work for him to do. Surely we can all give encouragement, and the price of a newspaper with the want ads.

Being a Mason means being a grown-up. Being a grown-up means facing real difficulties, like unemployment. Being a brother means taking the position that we are all in this together.

Please note that these reflections are purely my own responsibility, and are neither sanctioned, sponsored, reviewed, nor approved by any Masonic body.

Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

[The image above illustrates a 19th century rendition of the traditional symbol of the Mark Master degree, taken from a public domain source.]


  1. I am a Brother who, by no fault of my own, will shortly be out of work and a member of the ever growing number of jobless Bretheren. When another brother recently asked if I was going to lodge, I offered him a ride. Its not so much the large things (although welcome I'm sure), but more of the small things we do for each other that binds us together and keeps of morals, friendship and fsaith strong. Look out for our Brothers less fortunate and keep in mind the lessons we have leasrned through our degrees.

  2. Interesting article.About Master's Degree. I've been in grad school for a while now,I totally agree with your insights.Thank you for sharing you experience.


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