Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Point of Freemasonry, Part 1:
Personal Transformation

It is easy to be so wrapped up in the minutiae of daily life—taking out the trash and the recyclables on the right days; making sure the kids have done their homework, and that there are no (longer any) potatoes growing behind their ears; keeping track of whether one’s Dear Spouse’s birthday is next week or the week after (or, quelle horreur, last week); getting All That Work done—it is so easy, I say, to get so wrapped up in this that we lose perspective, and forget about our ultimate objectives: Why do I do this work? Why are my Dear Spouse and I together? Why do we have these children? Why am I living this daily life?

As with our lives as a whole, so too with our Craft. It is easy to get so caught up in the minutiae—Who is driving whom to what Masonic event? Did we get enough food for the Festive Board? (and so on and so on)—that we can lose track of the more important questions, the questions that should be uppermost in our minds regarding our Fraternity: Why Masonry? What is Freemasonry really about? What are our objectives as Freemasons?

There is, of course, a well-worn answer to the question of the purpose of Freemasonry: “To make good men better”—an answer that has been slung around since at least the mid-twentieth century. It is a fair capsule description, as far as it goes.

But it does not go nearly far enough. To really understand the point of Freemasonry, to comprehend and even to fulfill our purpose as Masons, we need to understand the full scope of Masonry’s objectives.

We need to understand that Freemasonry is about transformation.

This is the first blog post of a series in which I explain my approach to the purpose of Freemasonry. In this post, I describe the objective of Masonry in terms of individual, personal transformation: self-transformation—even, I daresay, self-transmutation.

Symbols as Principles of Personal Transformation

Think of the visual symbols that are most characteristic of each of the three degrees of the Blue Lodge: the working tools, the tracing boards, the symbolic stairway. Ponder, as one great whole, the experience of the rituals of Masonic initiation. All of these things are intended to change the way that Freemasons think about themselves and their lives, and the way that they behave, both in their personal lives, and in their interactions with others.  Consider this:
  • The candidate enters the sacred space of the Lodge room in darkness—not because the room is unilluminated, but because the candidate is ‘blind.’ This is our position in the world, despite whatever position, rank, or wealth we may possess: without spiritual light, we are as good as blind.
  • Our blindness is not relieved until we kneel at the Altar of prayer, holding fast to the Volume of Sacred Law (and Insight).

To create a life of excellence, we learn, it is necessary to apply certain principles and practices. Among these are:
  1. A constant, unremitting effort to correct the defects of our characters, to chip off the characteristics we should not possess, and to fill in the areas we lack.
  2. A commitment to hold our behavior to the highest standards. There is to be no bending of the rules here, when it comes to our integrity.
  3. Determination to take a balanced approach to every day, and use our time wisely: to work industriously and diligently, but not to the point of exhaustion; to rest, but not to the point of sloth; to engage in recreation, but not to the point of indolence or intemperance. (I will consider service in another post in this series.)
  4. A lifelong, major effort to improve our minds and skills, in multiple areas of knowledge, the arts, the sciences, and the humanities.
  5. A firm commitment to keeping our word; to doing what we say we will do, when we say we will do this; to not doing what we say we won’t do, when we say we won’t do that.
  6. A determination to stick patiently with the Work and the Journey, not expecting results or progress that are not really earned.

A Contrast to the Ways of the World

One cannot overestimate how radical the transformation promoted by Freemasonry would have been in 17th and early 18th century Britain and continental Europe:
  • Spiritual discipline was largely a thing for monasteries, convents, and seminaries, not for laypeople in the world.
  • Aside from the Jewish community, most Europeans were either illiterate or barely literate by today’s standards. In contrast, Freemasonry promoted ongoing education in the Arts and Sciences.
  • Among the aristocracy, intemperance and indulgence were quite widespread. There is a reason why the English simile, “drunk as a lord,” has endured for centuries.

It is easy to tut-tut at life in the age when Freemasonry as we know it began. But our own age is not so very different, and is filled with more powerful distractions. Let us just focus on the situation in the United States.

The functional “illiteracy” of the American public in multiple areas is astonishing to the point of parody. The relatively mediocre ranking of the U.S. in terms of students’s mathematical and scientific knowledge is well documented (and, to my mind, is even a threat to national security). The geographic and historical ignorance of Americans is all too well documented, as well. Even in relation to their own religions (let alone anyone else’s!), Americans as a group are stunningly ignorant. To all of this, Freemasonry counters: educate yourselves!

Much of popular culture—particularly as seen in certain works of music and video—promotes a materialistic lifestyle focused on an alcohol- and drug-fueled binge of hedonistic self-indulgence, an attitude exposed in such films as The Wolf of Wall Street (trailers here and here)—a film which is, after all, a dramatization of a non-fiction book by a former Wall Street insider). To all of this, Freemasonry responds with a vision of a life of purpose, based on spiritual principles of one’s own choice—and with the tools to make that vision a reality.

Conclusion—and Two Take-Away Messages

Freemasonry is meant to “get into your head,” as well as your heart. It aims to transform the Mason’s worldview, and the Mason’s very motivational structure within the personality. That is personal transformation. It has been the focus of initiatic disciplines over the course of at least the last 4,000 years of human history. And it is the focus of Freemasonry today.

There are two take-away messages here:

First, for my fellow Freemasons: Understand what Freemasonry is really about. Masonry is meant to help you thoroughly change yourself—to help you transform yourself; even (in an alchemical sense) to help you transmute yourself—into a person different than the person you were when you first approached the Western Gate. I exhort you to engage that process, actively, not passively. (In future posts on this blog, I shall consider in more detail how to do that.)

Second, to my readers who are not Masons, who are intrigued by all this: Consider getting involved. There is, almost certainly, a Masonic body near your residence or workplace. (You can learn more about Freemasonry in my book, Freemasonry: An Introduction; Chapter 9 is titled, “How to Become a Freemason.” Ladies: I describe woman-oriented Masonic groups in Chapters 3 and 6.)

Next in the series: Freemasonry and Community Transformation.

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[The image was created by the artist known as “silster,” and is titled “Hero Transformation.” It was found on the artist’s webpage.]

(Copyright 2016 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

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