The following paper was created in part for Episode 5 of Three Distinct Knocks. That episode can be found here: https://youtu.be/MPi58H3uk00
We often talk about the problem of retention in Freemasonry. In many lodge — in most, perhaps, even — it is common to have a candidate entered, passed and raised and then vanish from the active life of the lodge. He may continue to pay his dues for a time, but eventually he is suspended for non-payment. While we continue to fret about the problem and theorize as to its cause, it keeps happening. The problem is complex and there are many causes. I’m not going to offer a panacea tonight. But one underlying cause is our failure to appropriately manage the expectations of candidates.
Freemasonry is a peculiar institution in many ways, but one of the ways in which its plan eludes many candidates is that it is the custom of the Fraternity to heap upon a man titles and honors and then expect that he will labor to earn them. Undergoing the ceremonies of being entered, passed and raised, in the best of circumstances, provides a man a powerful initiatory experience — he should feel changed, he should feel as if a new world has opened to him. But he will not have the secrets of the universe laid bare before his eyes nor will a perfect understanding of the experience be immediately given to him.
Freemasonry guards her secrets jealousy, even from the initiated. She reveals them haltingly, slowly, shyly, carefully, step by careful step. It is this that is meant when we describe Freemasonry as a progressive science — that is a particular branch of knowledge in which one makes progress in a systematic fashion.
I have heard men who should know better, who have been advanced to positions of leadership and responsibility in our Craft, say that the purpose of Freemasonry is merely good fellowship or to advance public philanthropy and that the ritual, however much time we spend on it, is merely an archaic way of reinforcing these values. In short, it isn’t worth studying.
But many men, of great intellect and excellent education, have found Masonic ritual and philosophy worthy of study. Innumerable volumes, of varying quality and usefulness, have been written about the Craft. Pike, Oliver, Hall, Wilmshurst, Mackey, and many, many more have devoted great portions of their lives to the study of the philosophy and ritual of Freemasonry — and to explaining it to others.
Every Master Mason has a responsibility to make progress in the science of his Craft. It is his profession. And while the Grand Lodge has every right to set the ritual and to govern its subordinate lodges, ancient Masonic tradition affords each Master Mason the opportunity — no, the right and obligation — to make sense of those rituals himself. But we don’t do this alone. In isolation, our thoughts may turn upon themselves and errors replicate without correction. We examine our ritual and offer our thinking on its meaning, we explore our philosophy and its significance in our lives, as a part of a community, a band of brothers. Together, we seek truth.
And so, we talk with our brothers after lodge and offer an idea, which gets explored and strengthened or rejected. We read the works of those who have walked our path before us and engage their ideas.
Steadily, slowly, over the course of a lifetime, we make progress in understanding.
Freemasonry, in a sense, is not a single tradition. The influences that have shaped and guided our Fraternity are innumerable. It is rather like a great river. Many rivers flow into the Mississippi and when you reach the delta, if you dip a cup into the waters of the river, it is impossible to tell from which tributary that water originated. This makes Freemasonry a rich field of inquiry. It means that there is always more to explore — that the final version is never written, the “right answer” is never found. Instead, what we have is a substitute that is the best each man can do for himself at this time — a substitute we use until, at some future age, we discover the right.
If we explain to candidates at the beginning that we are initiating them into a society that is on a quest — a quest that will take their lifetime and more — a quest for meaning, for truth, for a better life and a better way of being a man — then they will not expect that Freemasonry will reveal all at the first and, just perhaps, we will gain more companions in our journey.