Originally written and presented by Right Worshipful Brother Christopher J. Busby in 2017.
Brethren, I am here to speak with you on the only aspect of Freemasonry I genuinely know anything about: my personal experience with and feelings about our noble Craft. My goal is to provide you with a unique perspective. My hope is that you hear something tonight that resonates with you. My dream is that you are driven to improve your personal Masonic experience and that of the Brethren of your Lodge.
Like most men who join our Craft, I knew relatively little about Freemasonry beyond her outer nature. My stated reasons for joining may sound familiar to some of you: I wished to affiliate myself with an organization of immense history; one deeply tied to an ancient philosophical ancestry; one whose membership has included some of the world’s greatest men. I wished to become a part of something truly greater than myself.
There are deeper and more personal motivations that compelled me to pursue this journey.
I came to Freemasonry as a lost soul. I never belonged to any organization of substance either as a child or as an adult. I never felt like I fit in… anywhere… ever. After 33 years of life, I had lived in 6 states. I met my Floridian wife in Texas and together had our children in Massachusetts and California. My roots had withered. I had lost connection to my family, and I did not know who I was. I was searching for answers; searching for a home.
The whole thing could be viewed as a cosmic fluke, but which I have since come to regard as no accident. One to which this Lodge is inexorably linked. In the late 90s, as a lover of history and due to that search for self, I embarked upon research into my genealogy. I found that my 3rd-Great-Grandfather, James Busby, was a Freemason and a member of Union Lodge No. 10.
In my research, I later found that my Great-Great Grandfather, James Holburn, a tailor, was also a member of Union and his Grandson, my first cousin twice removed, Dr. Hugh S. Holburn, a dentist in Pawtucket for decades, was Past Master of Barney Merry Lodge No. 29 and Past Potentate of Rhode Island Shrine.
What did a tradesman, a mill worker, and a dentist find in common through Freemasonry? What does their membership communicate about their characters? I was compelled to find out.
When I started, I began literally blind to what Freemasonry really was; and it took me a decade to act on. I did so when I needed to; when I thought I was ready. Freemasonry called to me – or rather (and I do believe this) my ancestors called to me using the Craft as a vehicle. I had begun establishing connections that time and even death could not destroy.
Finally, from December 2008 to May 2009, I was Entered, Passed and Raised. And then, only 4 months later, I found myself wholly questioning Freemasonry and seriously considering leaving.
The Fraternity that I hoped would be vibrant, deeply meaningful, and warm, was dreary, indifferent, and boring. Meetings generally consisted of nearly all business and were nearly devoid of substance. The men that were there may have been Brothers in Masonry, but they weren’t each other’s friends. I don’t in any way mean this to insult the Masons of my Lodge. This was simply the unfortunate turn that our Lodge had taken after many lean and challenging years.
Personally and Fraternally, I did not feel mentored or cared for, nor did I know what to do next. Frustrated, during one meeting, I arose and asked a question that had been nagging at my mind: “What are we doing here?”. I simply could not reconcile the historic, deeply meaningful ancient Fraternity that I had heard about in our ritual with the one that I now entered.
That question ended up being rhetorical. I don’t recall receiving a substantive answer. Frankly, the few Brothers in attendance that evening simply stared at me, taken completely off-guard. However, the sheer act of speaking my thoughts aloud activated me. And by speaking this question aloud, I felt oddly obligated to continue.
I sought advice. The advice I most received turned out to be the most impactful things I could do as a young Mason: I began traveling and I began reading. I engaged in many surprisingly long, late-night parking lot conversations. This led me to start investigating further and during several “Eureka” moments, I realized that I was not alone.
I began to have a sense as to what would have improved the formative period of my Masonic journey. My experience has been limited, but here is what I’ve come to believe.
How we think and talk about the Craft
What is the one phrase that we most use when describing Masonry? “Freemasonry makes good men better”. I cringe every time I hear it. It is very well-intentioned, and I accept that in an era of shortened attention spans and lowered expectations, we need quick-hit marketing snippets. Nevertheless, I believe this statement belies a fundamental problem in not only the way we discuss the Craft to the Profane but the value that we place on our Fraternity.
The distinction is subtle but crucial. To me, the statement suggests that simply becoming a Mason will improve you – that the initiate can remain passive and somehow be transformed by the Fraternity. This passivity is often suggested in the example we set as Brothers.
I offer this as an alternative: “Through the study of her history and contemplation of her ritual and symbols, Freemasonry is a spiritual and philosophical system which, when properly applied, provides men with a framework upon which to improve themselves and their world.”
A bit more complex, but gives the listener a little more to chew on, doesn’t it?
Brethren, the answers we give the profane do not have to be simple and mundane. Look deeply within yourself to find what Freemasonry truly means to you. How we portray ourselves has a direct correlation on the types of men we attract, and therefore to the continued perpetuation of our Lodges.
What makes a good candidate?
When I am asked what qualities a man should possess in order to be a good Mason, I simply reply that he must be a “seeker”. The specific thing that he seeks is unimportant. Good candidates have the desire to discover answers to very profound and personal questions. In fact, the petitioner may have absolutely no clue what he’s looking for. It is through the Masonic journey that some questions are answered, but many, many others are illuminated. What is initially sought may be completely transformed 1, 5, 10 years along the path. I suggest that good candidates; indeed, good Masons accept that their knowledge is limited by their experiences; and continually maintain a child-like openness to new ideas.
That said, I believe that we must admit that Freemasonry is not, and should never be, for all men. Masonry is not a path for the lazy or those that wish to remain comfortable in their well-established beliefs, and it is not for the short-sighted, the vein, or the shallow.
That said, how many of you have signed the petition of a man that you’ve just met that night? I’ve done it, and when I did, I failed both the man and the Lodge.
These petitioners are obliged to earn your trust and you are equally obliged to know them. Put the correct value on your recommendation, your Lodge, and the Craft. If you sign a man’s petition, you must be willing to be his constant companion and guide throughout this Masonic Journey.
When it comes to men that wish to join us: question their motivations, challenge their expectations, and be honest in telling them that the path isn’t easy.
I’ve heard it said that modern men (which I take to mean those of my generation and younger) simply don’t have the time to make the effort to memorize lessons, learn ritual, or event to regularly attend meetings. This, my friends, is an excuse and a lowering of our standards.
Freemasonry isn’t “just one night a month”; it is a lifelong commitment. Men are expected to be engaged, not only in the communications of their Lodge but to be active in their very personal pursuit of Light and by supporting other Masons in their journeys.
The Role of Ritual
Once we have the right type of man and we have set the right expectations, when do we leave the most lasting impression on him?
I have heard Brethren say that Masonry is and is not the ritual.
I believe they’re both correct.
Masonry is our ritual because that is where the beauty and soul of the Fraternity resides. All of our tenets, philosophies, and wonderful mysteries reside there. Without it, we would simply be another social or charitable club. Ritual makes us unlike any other group of men on Earth.
Our ritual binds us with each other and with every Mason that has lived or will ever live. When I took my obligation, I was spiritually connected to my Great-Great-Great Grandfather; a man who died 111 years before I was born! What else contains this type of power?
And it is also not our ritual, because without the right men; without the right experience, the words are just words. Words that can be read on the internet by anyone, man or woman, 24 hours a day.
Think of our ritual as a meditation. When we walk into the Temple we are leaving the average world behind and entering a completely different realm of being: from the material to the spiritual. It serves to gather us around a guiding set of principles. It is a way for us to individually and collectively channel communication to the Divine. We must treat it that way.
Every time we participate in a degree, we are opening ourselves to new ideas by contemplating ancient ones. The sources of these ideas are incredibly varied, but intricately connected – Christianity, Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, Alchemy, the ancient Mystery Schools… from more cultures and philosophies than I am capable of naming.
We are not only connecting ourselves to this immense body of knowledge; we are forming a profound and lasting bond with our new Brother, renewing it with each other, and proclaiming it to God.
It is no less important that we perform the ritual with emphasis, emotion, and understanding. If we deliver it as flat and ordinary, that will be the impression it leaves. When you hear a Brother describe the emotion that is elicited from the Work, you know you have done well by him.
We also have a responsibility to give our new Brethren the instruction that they require beyond the ritual. Handing a Brother a fully written out ritual lesson, instructing him to learn it and return when he’s ready to regurgitate it is not a Mentor Program.
Memorizing the ritual is only an aspect of the process of going through to the degrees, but we don’t do it simply for its own sake. Rather, it is a method by which we prove a Brother’s commitment to advancing in Freemasonry, but more importantly, it provides an opportunity to form a bond with that Brother by exploring the meaning of the ritual together.
We must focus on the internal and not the external..
I speak about what we look for in our candidates and the ritual, we can’t forget the element that truly makes a Lodge: her Brethren. We must never forget the duties that we owe to each other.
Now, I have witnessed more acts of human kindness, love, charity, and selflessness in the time that I’ve been a Mason than any other period in my life. But I have also seen incredibly back-biting, political wrangling, and egoism. I am ashamed to say that I have, at times, succumbed to much of the same.
Jewels, titles and fancy aprons make us feel important, and they do serve a purpose in the Craft, but we must not lose focus by allowing these honors to distract us.
Not only this, but we are often disconnected from each other’s lives and fail to confide in each other, sharing our pain as well as our joy. When we don’t truly know each other outside of the confines of Lodge, it hinders us within.
So, we have attracted the right men, stewarded our candidates through the degrees, we are mentoring them … how do we keep all Brothers coming back?
We must provide opportunities for Light outside of Ritual by making Masonic meetings more, well… Masonic. Opportunities must exist to discuss our tenets, our symbolism, our history, and our experiences. Masonry does not start and end with the Degrees. It must be perpetuated in all that we do when we meet. Every Brother must be engaged in our Labors. Every Brother has something of value to contribute. If you don’t think you do, you’re sorely mistaken!
Every Lodge has administrative responsibilities that must be addressed, but far too often we allow them to completely overtake us. It doesn’t take much to start a Masonic discussion, nor does it require you to be a Masonic scholar.
Create the opportunity by setting aside the time, asking a question, and then listening. The Brethren and the Lodge will be greatly rewarded.
Through our ritual and Masonic education, we move toward the goal of further light in Masonry. But true Light is not revealed by the Master simply saying “Let There Be Light”. It is revealed in the contemplation of the ritual, a study of her tenets, and continued Masonic education.
In New Hampshire, the beginning of the Master Mason’s Charge in our ritual is spoken as follows: “You have now received all the instruction that pertains to our noble craft, and have advanced by regular gradations to the summit of Ancient Craft Masonry”. That is technically correct; there is no more ritual, but it doesn’t leave the right impression.
I feel perhaps this better encapsulates what we intend to convey: “You have received the tools to build the foundation of your ‘Spiritual Temple’, and now your labors must commence. This is the end of the beginning; the true Masonic journey lies ahead.”
So, what is Freemasonry? I will start by telling you what it isn’t.
Freemasonry is not magic.
From the moment the Master takes your hand to Raise you, you are only symbolically translated to a sublime plane of being and thinking; but this is where it begins. You have the opportunity for a magnificent rebirth of spirit. It can be magical, but only if you engage in the Labor of the Craft.
Freemasonry has two very distinct paths that we walk simultaneously; Our journey in an individual journey as well as a collective one. It is about radiating light and absorbing it. It is all too easy to forget our teachings and let our day-to-day lives cast a shadow that consumes what we’ve learned. We may allow ourselves to become spiritually or physically passive, or even completely dormant. So we come to Lodge to be reminded of our teachings and to learn.
Freemasonry is a vehicle for Light, but a vehicle without fuel serves no purpose. In order for us to truly perpetuate the principles of our order, we must be active together both inside and outside of the Temple, and never stall the building of our “spiritual temple”.
In conclusion, I feel compelled to say that I have absolutely no right to tell you how to be a Mason or how to be a Lodge. This is a journey, and as such, it is personal; colored by your own interpretations, experience, and interests. There is no “right” way and any Brother that says that he alone has the answer is wrong.
I was Master of my Lodge, and during those two years did I apply all of my experiences and listen to all of my own sage advice? No. And it’s because I’m still learning. All I can reasonably hope for is that I honored Masonry, our Lodge, our Brethren, and my Masonic ancestors in what I’ve done and whom I’ve become.
Finally, I can say with absolute certainty that your Candidates, your Brothers, your Lodge depend upon you. All of you. Please act on your responsibility as the most important member of your Lodge. An active Brother Mason and a “seeker”.
I will close with a bit of a meditation that I composed while writing this, and it is as follows:
I have been a Master Mason for 8 years, but my journey has just begun. I will always be an Entered Apprentice; my ashlar is rough. I have learned, yet I know nothing. Yet, my labors are underway and they will not cease until the Great Architect of the Universe commands me to lay down my Working Tools. I will endeavor to act in this world with dignity, humility, and honesty. And along the way, I will make many mistakes. So while I am here, I will continue working that ashlar. I know that in this world it will never be perfect, but I will carry with me the satisfaction and certainty of knowing that I have not labored in vain.
Chris is currently District Deputy Grand Master of the 2nd Masonic District, Secretary and Past Master of Ancient York Lodge No. 89 in Nashua, Senior Deacon of Phoenix Lodge No. 105 in Tilton, and most importantly, a Brother Mason.