The following is the text of a lecture delivered in Amicable Lodge which has been very slightly edited in order to maintain the integrity of the tyled lodge.
First, the usual disclaimers. What I present here is what I have found to be true -- for now, at least. I am a firm believer that truth is a thing that we strive towards but not a destination at which we are terribly likely to arrive. The explanations and meanings I assign for the allegories and symbols of our Fraternity are those that, in this context, seem to me to be most helpful. That in no way precludes the idea that there might be other valid and useful meanings. I hope it is not necessary for me to say that I believe that our rituals have profound, relevant, important lessons to teach each and every one of us. One of the great things about the language of symbols is that they can speak at multiple levels and communicate more than one message. I am aware that some of what I offer here is touched on in the degree system of other bodies. I consider the rituals of the blue lodge to be a complete and closed system -- that is to say, that while I value haute degree Masonry, I do not believe that it is useful to mix the symbol sets and confuse the message of the degrees. Speak to the Holy Royal Arch, a degree I find most worthy, in the Chapter. Here, however, we speak the language of the blue lodge, the foundation of the Craft.
Is there a lawyer in the room? There usually is. For you, I offer the analogy that the rituals of the blue lodge are the judgment of the court. The higher degrees of Masonry are obiter dicta -- opinions expressed which may be illuminating but are not binding precedent. Useful perhaps in understanding. Absolutely not to be ignored. Often providing clarity. But not to be confused with the text of the judgment itself.
Another disclaimer. This is the Amicable Lodge version of this presentation – meaning I have included personal details and exposed more of the skeleton of my thinking than I would in another context. Amicable Lodge is my lodge. Many of you know me well enough to understand and those of you that don’t can speak with Nicky Batz -- I’m sure he’ll be glad to bring you up to date.
And now, an unusual disclaimer. I have been living with death lately in a fashion generally unfamiliar to me. Many of you know that Nathan, my partner, suffered a very serious medical crisis last year. For a good number of days, it was unclear if he would survive. Faced with that reality, I imagined my future and for the first time in my life, could not envision anything. The meaning drained from everything in the shadow of Nathan’s death. I looked forward and faced an abyss. Fortunately, the prayers of the many people who love Nathan and tolerate me were sufficient, the hands of the doctors and nurses proved healing, and Nathan and I both survived. But it made death a reality for me in a way to which I was entirely unaccustomed.
After his recovery, Nathan decided he wanted to attend a Buddhist center not too far from where we were existing in Florida. I went with him, initially out of the sort of polite support for which my Anglo-Catholic heritage has so well prepared me. But the teacher at the center, Venerable Tendron, is a remarkable individual and I soon found myself eager to learn more – and much of what Venerable Tendron taught, about the nature of existence and the operation of karma and so forth, necessarily touched on the topic of death. And so, my thinking on this topic has been strongly influenced in recent months by the teaching of the Gelug school of Mahyana Buddhism. Not, mind you, that anything I say here should be confused for the dharma or with what any Buddhist teacher might believe. We won’t be discussing sectarian religion – not even my messy version of such a thing. But when discussing death, we necessarily touch of the commentary of those who have contemplated the eternal and chosen to share their wisdom.
So, we begin.
What is the purpose of Freemasonry? What do we claim is the aim of our institution? The ritual, in the first degree, tells us, “To soothe the unhappy, sympathize with their misfortunes, compassionate their miseries, and restore peace to their troubled minds, is the grand aim we have in view.” Let me say that again.
That is the purpose of Freemasonry -- it is Freemasonry’s definition of what, if you will, better men do. We seek to give men more compassionate hearts, hearts more open to seeking to soothe the suffering of their fellow creatures. And we give them tools by which they may begin to do this, including those five named specifically in the opening of the Middle Chamber lecture.
Well, how does that work?
We must accept that Freemasonry is a profoundly counter-cultural Institution. Before “religious tolerance” had entered the public consciousness as a phrase, the Craft was a place of religious tolerance. In the age of the Kardashians, it is almost an act of cultural rebellion to be an institution that teaches that there is virtue in being able to preserve a secret. As a Society, we have established our values and maintained them as the profane world has changed. While the profane have been blown about by the winds of fashion and the gales of fad, the Fraternity has held onto its core identity even when that provoked the murderous ire of dictators or the destructive antagonism of the ignorant mob. I’m not saying that Freemasonry hasn’t changed at all -- we have changed more than many of us would like to admit over the decades and centuries. But that core identity, that nucleus around which we build our Institution has remained.
Another way in which Freemasonry differs from the rest of Western culture is its view on self-improvement. Consider the symbols of the rough and perfect ashlars. In our larger culture, when we wish to improve ourselves, we add something. We take a class to add a skill. We read a self-help book to add insight and knowledge. But the rough and perfect ashlars tell a different story. Somewhere, underneath the rough and superfluous parts of the rough aslar, lies the perfect ashlar. Freemasonry, this would suggest, believes that within us is the perfectable, if not perfect, man we would wish to be. We apply the gavel to knock away our bad habits, our unskillful manner of thinking, and those vices in which we have indulged, revealing the better man that has been awaiting the Master’s square. This is a radical idea.
Yet another way that Freemasonry differs from contemporary culture is that it places the symbols of mortality firmly in view. Our profane society hides death. We assign it to particular places: the funeral home, the cemetery, the hospital or hospice. We try to scrub it from our modern, sanitary culture. We don’t talk about it. We don’t think about it. Indeed, if a stranger to our culture came to visit, otherwise unaware, it would be no surprise if he were to assume we were all ignorant of our mortality. Until, of course, he encountered our media which is saturated with fantasy images of death. Death on TV and in movies is entirely unreal. I have seen people killed in explosions with perfect makeup and only a smudge of black ash, artfully placed on one cheek, to mark the injuries they have sustained. Death is, even in its presentation, cleansed and made remote.
This is a recent phenomenon. In the Victoria age, people often took photos with their deceased loved ones prior to burial. The dead were often kept for a number of days in the parlor – a body in the midst of the life of the home. Indeed, some fragrances were popularized as a way of covering the scent of decay of the body – patchouli, I’m looking at you. In New England, you may still find homes that have an underground room set apart from the house that was used to store the bodies of those who died in winter until the ground should soften enough to permit burial. We were born at home, we died at home and death was a part of life.
In the Fraternity, we put death at the center and look it in the face. We have a grave and skull and crossbones among our emblems. We, of course, immediately turn our attention to the Third Degree but I will point out that death is with us from the first degree. Indeed, it has what must be considered a place of prominence at the very end of the degree.
For the most part, when discussing the Third Degree, we naturally focus on the activity of the degree. But the candidate’s perspective is somewhat different. For a long portion of the degree, the candidate lays still, in darkness, hearing what occurs around them but not participating. He is given, it is to be hoped, some time to reflect on his situation and the means by which he arrived there.
And therein we have the reason for the centrality of death to Masonic philosophy. Death is wonderfully clarifying. From the perspective of our deathbed, so much that seems urgent and important is revealed to be trivial. The superfluities and distractions of daily life are stripped away and we discover, often I think to our surprise, what it is what we truly value.
Let us all think back to that moment when we laid in the grave and imagined ourselves to be the Junior Grand Warden of the primeval Grand Lodge at Jerusalem. Having just given our life in order to preserve our solemn oath to our companions, we think back on our life…
Do you suppose that Hiram Abiff thought to himself that he really regretted that last Tuesday the line at the Starbucks outside the West Gate was so long that he had to skip his morning latte in order to get to work on time? Or do you suppose that, imagining him able to contemplate such matters from the comfort of the grave, that he spent those hours resenting the way he was overcharged for that nice bit of Tryian marble he used for the arch of the Temple?
I doubt it.
Imagine yourself on your own deathbed. Imagine that you are blessed to leave this life with a clear mind, free of pain, and with an opportunity to prepare for death. Do you think you will spend those last days wishing you could beep your car horn one more time at that driver that made you miss the green light? Do you think you will spend those hours wishing you had been able to buy just one more really good suit? Or, if you are me, another dozen books?
I find it far more likely that on my death bed I will wish for more time spent with those I love, for the opportunity to tell those important to me how much they mean to me and how grateful I am for their presence in my life, for the chance to ask forgiveness for my harsh words and quick temper, to make amends for my faults and to enjoy, perhaps, just one more time the clarity of moonlight reflected from a still ocean in the profound silence to be found only far from land.
Your own list may be different from mine. It probably should be -- you, I hope, have more skill in keeping a tongue of good report. And perhaps you prefer mountains to the ocean. Or desert.
I know that when I sat beside Nathan’s bed in the intensive care unit and offered up the prayer of my heart for his healing, all the small things which sometimes seem so important fell away. Our disagreements, our difference, our arguments, our foolishness – none of it mattered. Death, present in the room, was a powerful reminder not of the end of all things, but of love, which shined so brightly that the trivial details on which we seem determined to focus in our day to day lives simply could not be seen any more than the road ahead may be seen when you are driving directly into the evening sun.
My point is that is unlikely that any of the things we long for at death will be those things which consume so much of our day-to-day energy. Freemasonry, in her generosity, attempts to give her sons the amazing gift of dying with fewer regrets. Placing the emblems of death at the heart of the Fraternity encourages us to clarify our values. It forces us to prioritize our time in the profound recognition that the hours that pass cannot be reclaimed and, like the sand in the hourglass, will soon all be exhausted. It reminds us of the fragility of life and therefore of its precious nature and urges us not to waste it.
It is amazing that so much of what we pour ourselves into day in and day out, that which consumes our time and energy, our thoughts and worries, our attention and our care is so quickly stripped away by the mere contemplation of our own mortality.
One of my favorite writers, the libertine Charles Bukowski, said, “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” The nothing – the trivia that consumes our time and thereby consumes us keeps us from loving one another by focusing our attention away from the reality of our common fate and on those incredibly trivial differences of nationality, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so forth. Freemasony places death on view, in sight, talks about it, directs our attention towards it, so that our compassion might be aroused for all our fellow creatures who with us will fall into the grave.
I recently turned 51 years old – it is the oldest I have ever been. When I wake up in the morning and first begin to move, I have aches and pains in places that I didn’t know I even had when I was in my 20s. I now take medication on a daily basis to simply maintain the healthful and youthful radiance that was once naturally mine. I am less flexible – physically and, I begin to suspect, mentally than I once was. Freemasonry would take these reminders of frailty and decay, these harbingers of mortality and transform them into reminders to be kind, to be generous, to offer myself as an aid to others who might need a hand.
In the words of the semi-mythical Shantideva:
May I be a guard for those without one,
A guide for all who journey on the road,
May I become a boat, a raft or bridge,
For all who wish to cross the water.
May I be an isle for those desiring landfall,
And a lamp for those who wish for light,
May I be a bed for those who need to rest,
And a servant for all who live in need.
I did warn you that I had been influenced. But when I heard those words, I confess that it immediately called to mind a particular set of Masonic degrees.
Of course, Freemasonry does not stop there. It reminds us that the grave is not a destination, but merely a gate on the path we walk. It uses the emblems of mortality to direct our eyes down to the grave and, paradoxically, through the grave upward towards that immortal part of us which our ritual assures us bears the closest resemblance to the Divine (and if you want, some day we can discuss just what a radical notion that might be).
My faith, as confused, hyphenated, and messy as it has become over the years, still remains firm in the belief that love never dies, but only steps out of view for a brief time. It hides in the shadow of death, but we are assured that there is a light which will restore that love to our view.
Many of you know how fond I am of the motto on the Amicable banner which hangs in the director’s room – translated from the Latin it says, “Light from darkness, life from the grave.” It is an appropriate motto for a lodge of men dedicated to exploring the very root of meaning and the very heart of what it means to live well.
There is another reason to keep the emblems of morality in mind: they remind us to live. I have another Charles Bukowski quote on this topic, but it is so riddled with profanity that I could not figure out how to ellipse the swearing and retain the sense. Let’s just say that too often we forget to live and shuffle like animated corpses into death. We do not love. We fall and do not rise again. We surrender the struggle and slide into mediocrity. Living a life of ease, we are insensitive to the great music of life around us, we turn the poetry of life into the worst sort of bureaucratic prose. Having wasted life, our death is meaningless because the fire has already been extinguished.
Life is not meant to be lived in drudgery. Nor is it meant to be expended on trivia. It is meant to be consumed. It is meant to have meaning. You are meant to grapple with the important questions – those conversations you last had when you and your closest friends stayed up in your dorm room one night and someone was particularly inspired by their first philosophy class – those conversations are important. As we age, the opportunity for those conversations is reduced and our energy is sapped – by good things, like children, by banal things like work, and by the constant stream of meaningless mediocre media.
Freemasonry, generously, makes us look at the grave in order to remind us of the significance of our lives and then provides us a space where meaningful conversation may be taken up again – hopefully with more insight and wisdom than college provided us.
Freemasonry demands that her sons avoid mediocrity. She expects them to be worthy of engaging with the philosophies of the age. She expects them to help form and guide that conversation in which humankind has been engaged since we first looked up from the dirt and wondered where the light of the stars originated. Freemasonry expects much of us and places death before us to remind us that our opportunity to contribute to the Great Work, the Noble Science, and the Royal Art is rapidly coming to a close.
You, my Brethren, are the initiated. Embrace the challenge and find your meaning. In the vastness of space, in the great expanse of time, during that brief flash of light during which you live this life, burn brightly, warmly, brilliantly and fly into the grave with confidence that you will arise again.
I want to close by expressing my profound gratitude to you -- for your kind attention and interest, for just being here -- in this world, men coming together to be better men are a minority -- not everyone is using their evening in this way. I want to thank you, then, for your willingness to do the work needed to be better and for the good you do in your community and in the world by being a better man.
Not every lodge is Amicable Lodge. This is a special place, a unique brotherhood, a sacred space. My time in exile, as it were, has taught me a number of things but nothing more important than that I should be eternally grateful that the Grand Architect of the Universe truly does love madmen and fools, took me by the hand and led me to this lodge, to this band of brothers. There is no place, my brothers, like home.
Let us continue the practice of daily progress in Masonry so that we continue to carry out ever more perfectly the tenets of our profession: Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.
Truly, I love you all. Amen.