By: R.W. Andrew J. Bennert, District Deputy Grand Lecturer, District No. 4
From the moment that a candidate knocks on the door of the lodge, to the time a Master Mason reaches the door of the Celestial Lodge above, Masonic Ritual is ingrained in everything that we do. As many of you know, New Hampshire’s ritual is one of the purist rituals here in the United States. It is incredibly close to what Thomas Smith Webb first recorded in his book, The Freemason’s Monitor, a volume that was printed 223 years ago. Though first documented by Webb in 1797, the words are believed to be much older, passed down, mouth to ear, for generations before that, making our ritual here in New Hampshire that much older and authentic to our Masonic Forefathers original intent. That link to the past has made the Masons of New Hampshire even that more aware of getting the ritual right.
In his four pillars of Retention, Ritual Excellence, Masonic Education, and Communication, our Grand Master has highlighted the importance of our ritual as one of the key factors of Masonry here in New Hampshire and something that we all should strive to make as flawless as possible. After all, what would we be without our ritual?
What is Ritualistic Excellence?
Many would argue that Ritualistic Excellence is getting every word right, as written, and committed to memory. This has been the norm for many years, but it is only one third of the puzzle of Ritualistic Excellence. To complete the puzzle and reveal the full picture of what Ritualistic Excellence truly is, two more vital pieces are needed. Ritualistic Performance, and Ritualistic Understanding.
Let’s take a moment and touch on each part of the puzzle.
You have certainly heard it said by a Brother “I can’t memorize.” I am here to tell you that that statement is false. Every person can memorize, but because everyone learns differently or has their own personal learning obstacles to overcome, the key is finding the method that works for the individual. There are many memorization methods in existence. One method is to repeat a phrase repeatedly until it is ingrained, adding bits and pieces along the way, until eventually they have the whole of a piece committed to memory. Others may do better by hearing it over and over again. Some people learn better when working with a partner to help prompt them if they need it.
Whatever the method you choose, it is the commitment of time that is the most important element in this process. A Brother who says, “I can’t memorize“ is really saying “I don’t have the time to commit to this right now” or “I am not willing to give that much time to the ritual.” We all came to this fraternity for varied reasons and the length of everyone’s cable-tow is different, so we must be mindful of that when asking a Brother to sit in an officer’s seat. Every officer of a lodge should, at the minimum, have committed to memory the ritual for the office that he holds (and be actively working on his next office’s ritual if in the line) to ensure that lodges can keep this most important part of our fraternity alive and strong.
If you have ever been a patron of theatre, enjoyed movies, or watched television, I am sure that you have seen some bad performances. I am sure that you have also seen some ritual that was not as good as it should have been, even if the officers were all word perfect. Ritual, or any performance, is enhanced by how the words are delivered. When executing a degree, you are performing. An actor does not just learn the words and deliver them. He spends time to work out where to infuse meaningful inflection, pauses, and movement to enhance what was written and make the words his own. The same should be done by each officer of the lodge. When the Senior Deacon receives a candidate at the door, he should think very carefully about how he asks his questions. What are the ruffians feeling as they deliver their lines and is that portrayed in the delivery? Every aspect of our ritual, right down to how the Worshipful Master raps his gavel, is part of the performance and a good performance will only enhance the experience that a candidate has in what should be a defining moment in his life.
Though memorization and performance are vital aspects of Ritualistic Excellence, there is nothing more important to the puzzle than Ritualistic Understanding. This goes far beyond just knowing what the words mean. Our ritual is old and many of the words that were chosen are not common in everyday language today. Because of this, we should look up any words that we don’t know so that we have a base understanding of what it is that we are actually saying. True Ritualistic Understanding goes a step further. This is where we become scholars and dive deeper into the meaning behind the ritual. Why was the lesson that the Chaplain gave during that degree used? What is its significance? What are the seven liberal arts and sciences, and why are they important to Masons? What is the Master speaking about in his opening and closing charges, how do those words ring true in lodge and how do we keep them alive in our dealings outside of the Temple?
Ritualistic Understanding is something that will never truly be mastered because your understanding of the ritual and all its subtle nuances and intricacies can continue to be studied and discussed with other Masons and shaped by those experiences. This is where Ritualistic Excellence and Education truly work hand in hand to help us develop ourselves and our understanding of the Ritual and the Craft.
Ritualistic Excellence is a journey that started the moment you cracked open your first E.A. Lesson book and that journey is lifelong. There is always a way to improve upon your knowledge of the ritual and how best to deliver it with meaning. Constant review of the text and study of its meaning will ensure that words that are already memorized are fresh in your memory and learned correctly. Our ritual is a key aspect of our fraternity that makes it so incredibly unique. It deserves our attention to detail and our commitment of time to ensure that it is delivered properly so that every Brother gets the best possible experience we can give them.