There are those who believe that Freemasonry is not unlike many civic or nonprofit organizations that conduct weekly or monthly meetings for the purpose of carrying out the adopted aims of their group. Those who belong usually come together at pre-determined days and times on the calendar, as they have for years or decades; identifying themselves on each occasion as Lions, Rotarians, urban leagues, literary societies, or one of dozens of other names.
The meetings of these groups are opened in the same ritual fashion as has been followed since their founding; some with nothing more than the rap of a gavel, an opening prayer, a song, and a reading of their purpose. In others, the officers may recite their duties, or perform specific tasks associated with each gathering. In still others, every word and action follow a formal liturgy that has been adopted at some previous time by a higher authority and closely adhered to by every sub-organization that is part of the larger group.
In fact, we live in a society that is entirely built upon traditions. And all of these traditions acting together create an overall sense of stability in our communities.
For this reason, many of us tend to be joiners. We have an inherent need to belong to a group so we can feel our identity is known beyond ourselves in some way. Most of us are social by nature, and choose not to live entirely in isolation from our peers.
But joining more often than not creates a paradox for members of any group. They find that, although they can say they are this or that or the other; they rarely participate in the organization to which they belong. Thus, those who regularly do participate represent only a microcosm of the larger group. As this is the nature of most voluntary organizations, it could reasonably be claimed that the majority of members in any group who are dues paying members only, are not really influenced in any way by the traditions established for the group. It is enough for them just to say they belong.
If this is true, it would be easy to conclude that most of our fellow Freemasons who regularly participate in their brief sojourns into the whimsical world of Freemasonry would not materially affect or influence the perspectives or behavior of Masons who only belong but do not participate. Perhaps an even more cynical argument could be made that even those brothers who do participate regularly seldom affect or influence in any way their worldly lives. This would certainly seem to be the case if the lessons taught inside the lodge are not lived out in the world. If Freemasonry is not practiced out in the world, it may indeed make little difference whether we say we belong to a civic club, a literary society, or a fraternity. We simply belong for the sake of belonging.
But here is the catch. Freemasonry was not designed for this result. Freemasonry is different from all other community groups in the sense that it has a singular design in tradition. Freemasonry is a transformative art. It is not about belonging. It has always been about becoming. It is a state of mind wherein the initiated individual can move to a higher level of awareness within himself of who he is, what he is supposed to be doing, and what has meaning to his life. He develops a compulsion that he is going to become a better person not because of his belonging to the group; but by what the organization can teach him about himself.
Freemasonry therefore takes a different path than all other community organizations. It understands that a man’s inborn goodness might temporarily be clouded or distorted by the passions and experience of life; or indeed, by evil itself. But it can never be destroyed. Man is intrinsically good. The spark of the divine is within him; which is why he ultimately searches for spiritual fulfillment. It literally is his raison d’etre. In fact, this yearning for spiritual consciousness is innate in every human being. With this ubiquitous insight about human nature, it is the internal, and not the external, qualities in a man that Freemasonry is implored by its purpose and ritual instruction to seek in those who wish to cross its outer door.
The spiritual teachings of Freemasonry presented in our system of symbolic and allegorical instruction offer a hidden path to personal improvement and cosmic enlightenment. In this path, there is no loss of effort or harmful counter effect. Even a little practice of it protects one from great fear.
We have always known the tenets of Freemasonry are best taught by symbolism for the reason that interpretation of meaning is an act of intellectual discernment, free will and individual choice. Our symbols contain important moral and ethical values, as well as profound spiritual insights. They are not only relevant to personal development, but essential to modern society. Roscoe Pound’s famous assertion that “Masonry has more to offer the 20th Century than the 20th Century has to offer Masonry” is equally true of the 21st Century.
With these things in mind, the question may be raised; “Why at all do we doubt the relevance of the Masonic message?” Is it because our culture has taught us to feel indifferent or unattached to life? Is the observation that we cannot individually influence the outer world made true by default? Has materialism and cultural bias so influenced the human mind that it can no longer think for itself?
Even if the answer to these questions is yes, it is not because the message of Freemasonry is irrelevant or flawed. It is because we, as Masons, have stopped connecting with and believing in our inner nature. Perhaps we have become careless in connecting ourselves with thinking men. We have not kept a watchful eye on our west gate. We have not limited our joining criteria only to those who are duly and truly prepared to take on the obligations and duties of an initiated man—the man who seeks above all else his mature masculine soul. Freemasonry can never expect to be interesting when it chooses to attract uninteresting men.
In our contemporary American Masonic culture, the need of the hour is that we bond to the original mission of our founders, which was to teach moral and ethical truths, take on the values of mature masculinity, and encourage the regular practice of independent and collective thinking in raising the spiritual consciousness of our brethren and society.
Our long fraternal experience across many generations has proven that, when we do these things, we shall then hold our heads high and proudly say:
We walk the path the great have trod,
The great in heart, the great in mind,
Who looked through Masonry to God,
And looked through God to all mankind.