Community as Craft - Bro. E. Fernández

(This transcript is of remarks delivered by Bro. E. Fernández at the March 7th, 2017, 2nd Masonic District Lodge of Instruction. Quotes may paraphrase source material.  Emphasis has been added throughout.)

Bro. E. Fernández is the Treasurer of Amicable Lodge. He may be contacted at treasurer@amicablelodge.com.

            The subject of this month’s Lodge of Instruction is community. As a starting point for this week’s discussion, the curricular guidance from Grand Lodge cites an article on the difference between community and networking on the "The Art of Manliness," an excellent web-publication written by Bro. Brett McKay of Lodge Veritas #556 in Oklahoma. Many of you are familiar with this article or, if not, you will find copies at your tables. Bro. McKay's article is a thoughtful starting point for us to begin thinking more deeply about community and the Craft.

               Networking, however, is only relevant or useful here as a point of contrast for better understanding it’s more ennobling counterpart, community. As Bro. McKay notes:

“With networks, the bigger they are the better. While “more’ may not be ‘better,’ ‘more’ is always more profitable for the people who make a living out of networking.  [In the Florida lodge where I was raised, the desire to “network” qualified as “mercenary intent,” and could disqualify a petitioner in an interview.] In contrast, communities have inherent limits on size… most humans [according to social psychological research] can’t maintain more than around 150 meaningful relationships. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherer societies hover around 150 members before they split… if community gets too big, people get overlooked. And because members no longer face the social scrutiny of their peers, they can opt out of contributing without shame or consequence. Once that disengagement happens, community life slowly begins to crumble. [Some Masonic scholars even attribute the decline of membership in American Freemasonry to the so-called 'big lodge' phenomenon of the early 20th century, where lodges became so massive that they were unable to build or sustain meaningful relationships and relief infrastructure for their own members.]”

               So, from these observations, we can discern our first ingredient of community: social accountability.

              Social accountability is different than the kind of accountability that is enforced by networks, governments, and other large civil or professional associations through written rules and impersonal coercion. And the difference, I would argue, is love.

              By "love" here I mean two things: first, the love we show toward the needs, feelings and experiences of those in our own group—those to whom we belong and who seem to belong to us—and love for ourselves or, more specifically, for the good opinion of ourselves that the approval and acceptance of our community affords us. And these affections bring with them unwritten rules and deeply personal forms of coercion. So, totally different.

               Now, let’s put a finer point on it still. Of all its manifold variations, “love” in this society of ours refers of course to brotherly love, or fraternity: that cement which binds our community into one solid mass. But what, exactly, makes this cement so effective?

              An illustrative example may be found in our ancient brother, the Greek Epicurus, who—agreeable to our ancient custom—I have retroactively raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason because it enhances by argument.

              In his philosophy and his life, Epicurus (the so-called "philosopher of pleasure") found the greatest pleasure and fulfillment not in sex or wealth or power but in the company of friends. So much so that, at the age of 35, he acquired a villa in Athens where he would set up what today would be described as a commune with several of his closest friends and their wives. This was, as the contemporary European philosopher Alain de Botton explains in his book The Consolations of Philosophy, a direct result of Epicurus' observations of his own soul. Epicurus understood that:

“We don’t exist unless there is someone who can see us existing. What we say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed. Their knowledge of and care for us have the power to pull us from our numbness. In small comments, many of them teasing, they reveal they know our foibles, and accept them, and so in turn accept that we have a place in the world. We can ask them, “Isn’t he frightening?” or “Do you ever feel like that?” and be understood rather than encounter the puzzled “No, not particularly” which can make us feel, even when in company, as lonely as polar explorers. True friends [and brothers] do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria. It is the core self they are interested in. Like ideal parents (or, again, brothers), their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes or revealing that we have made little money this year. [This is key. This means that] The desire for riches should perhaps not always be understood as a simple hunger for a luxurious life. A more important motive might be the wish to be appreciated and treated nicely. We may seek a fortune for no greater reason than to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look right through us. [But] Epicurus, discerning our underlying needs, recognized that a handful of true friends can deliver the love and respect that even a fortune may not.”

And so we find a second key ingredient for community, and particularly our community: the cement of fraternity, composed of equal parts familiarity, acceptance, affection and mockery.

              Epicurus and the other residents of “the garden,” as their community was called, lived in modest, private quarters; farmed a simple but nutritious diet on the premises; and spent most of their day in communal work and discourse. Like stones in a tumbler, through their regular contact they gradually wore away one another’s rougher corners.

              Although they did not enjoy any material abundance, Epicurus and his chosen family had the most fulfilling pleasures of deep, intentional friendships. They nursed one another in illness. They did, when the time came, bury their dead, even Epicurus himself. And, very importantly, in their walled garden, they were protected from the wounding social and spiritual deprivation and social isolation of the broader—or, we might say, profane—Greek society. They may have eaten artichokes, or lentils (or maybe pasta dinners) more often than they might have chosen, but they never had to eat them under the noses of the odious social or economic "superiors" of the profane world.

              In Epicurus’ garden, then, we can discern a third key ingredient of community: protection. This means cultivating, within the boundaries of a closed community, the material security of its members as well as their even more important social, psychological and emotional security—the safety, in a sense, of our both our bodies and souls.

              If you would indulge me just one last detour—I would ask you to consider the wary aloofness of one of my favorite Massachusetts Grandmasters, the Most Worshipful Leon Abbott, who served from 1917 to 1919:

              Abbott is notable for his hostility to the participation of lodges in parades; profane chain letters of various kinds; unmasonic recruitment practices; the indiscreet handling of masonic correspondence; and the discussion of lodge affairs in public places. In one edict that some of you will know that I am fond of quoting, our Most Worshipful Brother admonishes us to:

“Remember that from the beginning Freemasonry has done its own peculiar work in its own way. It does not challenge any comparison with others. It does not advertise itself. It does not seek for the applause of the general public and it is indifferent to criticism.”

              So what, exactly, is his deal? By evoking our landmarks of secrecy and tyling (two ancient Masonic forms of protection), Abbott reminds us—in his own stern, New English way—of the same truth we found in the garden of Epicurus: that the hierarchies of the profane world; it’s materialism; it's superficiality; it's indifference; it's rampant social isolation, have nothing to offer a community built on heartfelt fraternity, which of course is the only true fraternity.

              Indeed, as we know all too well, the profane world is both inclement and unpredictable; in one season, they celebrate us, beseeching us to fling open our gates and turn our society in-side-out for their fickle approbation, and, in the next, find us hateful, and attack our brothers and our lodges like alien tissue. Make no mistake: both of these are equal threats to our society; inclement, like rain and ice, they would crumble the cement of brotherly love and leave us—as the very Worshipful David Riley likes to say—just a poor substitute for Rotary.

              Properly managed, the trifecta of accountability, fraternity, and protections we work so hard to cultivate in our lodges support and strengthen one another, and thereby our lodges and our selves in our own journeys through life.

              Now, I would like to turn the discussion back to you, and invite you to discuss and respond to these initial thoughts as we move into our exercise for this month. In your discussion, I particularly urge you to push past accountability, where we are most prone to get stuck; ask yourselves not just how your lodge maintains accountability but also with what quality of fraternity and protection your lodge rewards that accountability. Or not. I look forward to hearing your insights.