Dispatches from Maine

Just another person of little note writing about ordinary things. That I reside in Maine is icing on the cake.

06 October 2007

Fellow Craft Words

In the ten years I have been a Freemason, there have been two important innovations in the Schools of Instruction. The first was a change of format created by R.W. Bro. Jeffry Simonton and R.W. Bro. A. James Ross. They opened up the schools and put them back in the hands of the District, transferring substantial controls to the people in attendance rather than vesting it all in the Grand Lecturers. This change continues to appreciate in value as the years go on.

The second change, made by our present Grand Lecturer, R.W. Bro. Steve Nichols, was to focus on not just the words themselves, but also their meanings. Since so much of the ritual was written in the 18th century the words employed have often passed out of usage years ago. The classic is hele (hail in Maine), the link was provided by Bro. John Nickerson, but there are many others: palliate, obdurate, fine (#1), and so on.

As we discussed the Fellow Craft Degree last week, Bro. Nichols zeroed in on two words which many Brethren whip past without hesitation: vicissitudes and bourn. His definition of these two words "change" and "milepost," respectively, lead to an extended email discussion between he and I. He has graciously given me permission to publish that conversation here.


The line in Maine Masonic Ritual is "It furnishes us with dwellings and convenient shelters from the vicissitudes and inclemencies of the seasons.".

From: Christian Ratliff
Date: 26 September 2007
To: Steve Nichols


I could not find a dictionary at the School of Instruction, but I was not sure the definition of 'vicissitudes' was entirely accurate. While it can indicate 'change' there is a subtlety to the word, when used with a natural phenomenon like weather, which I believe is crucially important to understanding the meaning of the line "..vicissitudes and inclemencies of the seasons...". The full definition of the word is:

Main Entry:
vi·cis·si·tude Listen to the pronunciation of vicissitude
\və-ˈsi-sə-ˌtüd, vī-, -ˌtyüd\
Middle French, from Latin vicissitudo, from vicissim in turn, from vicis change, alternation — more at week
circa 1576

1 a: the quality or state of being changeable : mutability b: natural change or mutation visible in nature or in human affairs
2 a: a favorable or unfavorable event or situation that occurs by chance : a fluctuation of state or condition
b: a difficulty or hardship attendant on a way of life, a career, or a course of action and usually beyond one's control c: alternating change : succession

I believe the meaning our founders, in particular Wor. Bro. William Preston, intended was that of 2a or 2b. Not so much 'change' as events which occur at random, beyond our control and occasionally create hardship. You can see the semantic there more closely aligns with an impulse that would lead man to develop from cave living to lean-tos to more and more advanced housing. Mere change is not sufficient to start this process.

To which he replied:
From: Steve Nichols
Date: 26 September 2007
To: Christian Ratliff


Your point is well taken. For a long time I considered the second definition to be the only meaning of "vicissitudes," that is, a change for the worse in some situation, something that caused a problem or pain. When I encountered the word in the ritual, I went back to the dictionary and found the first definition, with the emphasis on change. Since there were not three (the number three keeps popping up in the ritual) words modifying "weather," I concluded that the intent was to contrast the change suggested by the word "vicissitudes" and the difficulties suggested by the word, "inclemencies." Of course, I can always fall back on the old saw about each Mason drawing his own conclusions. Perhaps we should have--or should in the future--pursue the several possible interpretations of the word, "vicissitudes," during the Schools of Instruction. It is my fervent ambition to lure the attendees into reflecting on the sources and meanings of the words in the ritual, even if I don't know exactly what those sources and meanings are myself.
Never wanting for an opinion, I responded:

From: Christian Ratliff
Date: 26 September 2007
To: Steve Nichols

I would suggest reading the line this way:

It furnishes us with dwellings and convenient shelters from the unpredictable and hostile weather of the seasons.

The intent of "unpredictable" is not give a sense of comfortable but to remind us that not only is weather destructive, but it also will assault us when we are least prepared. Having a stable structure to run to in such circumstances is not just in our best interests, but also may save us. If the line instead read:

If furnishes us with dwellings and convenient shelters from the changing and hostile weather of the seasons.

The depth of our non-control of the weather is not as evident. It also ceases to convey the sense that weather has long been the enemy of man and only through adaptation to its requirements have we been able to survive. The weather does not just change, it eludes and defies us. In any case, I completely agree that it would be great to see more deep discussion of the meaning of our ritual.

This discussion revolved around the line "and remembering that we are traveling on the level of time, to that undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns." Bro. Nichols defined the term "bourn" as milepost, as in a mile marker along a roadside in Europe.
From: Christian Ratliff
Date: 3 October 2007
To: Steve Nichols


Back to meanings again. I have been thinking of the definition you gave for "bourn(e)" at the School of Instruction. Given that we are talking about Preston borrowing from Shakespeare, the context is the great soliloquy from Hamlet, "To be, or not to be." The section in question is:
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Then fly to others that we know not of.

The point of the word bourn in this context is less "milepost" and more "border" or "limit." The meaning being "once you cross over the border into death, you will not come back." The image, to my mind, is death as a great barrier through which you cannot see inward nor escape outward. During the late Reformation era, in which Shakespeare, was writing the view was gradually changing regarding death. Rather than the Catholic view of "confess before death and be saved" or the Protestant view of "accept Jesus and be saved," intellectuals like John Donne, and by extension Shakespeare, are putting forward a new perspective that death is a complete unknown. Notice that Hamlet fears killing himself not because of the injunction of God, but because he has no idea what happens after death. Furthermore, he can never know because no one returns from thence once they cross over that great border.

Turning back to Freemasonry we have the working tools lecture:
I now present you the working tools of a Fellow Craft. They are the plumb, square and level. The plumb is an instrument made use of by operative Masons to raise perpendiculars, the square to square their work and the level to lay horizontals, but we as free and accepted Masons are taught to make use of them for more noble and glorious purposes. The plumb admonishes us to walk uprightly in our several stations before God and man, squaring our actions by the square of virtue, and remembering that we are traveling upon that level of time to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

In this, fuller context the entire lecture appears to say, "when you are alive (plumb) always act rightly (square) so that when you die (level) and cross into the afterlife (bourn) you will be found worthy." Even the physical meaning of the tools give us the imagery of life and death: the plumb is upright and alive, the square is the test of rightness and the level lays us down horizontal and in death.

I would suggest that in talking with people about the word "bourn" we should use the imagery of a border and disclose to them that these lines are Shakespeare's Hamlet as borrowed by William Preston.

Steve replied


Not only do I not mind, but I encourage the publication of your discussion of the meaning of "bourn(e)." I find your reasoning on the subject very convincing. My introduction to the term "borne" (yet another spellling) came from my time in France, where the use of the word is widespread and where everyone understood that it meant a milestone. The concept of a boundary or limit, however, is a further definition, equally acceptable. The context in which the word is used generally determines which definition best fits its use. I rather hope that your discussion of "bourne(s)" will generate some difference(s) of opinion. As you know, one of my fondest hopes is that an interest in the discussion of the meaning of our ritual will grow and foster a better understanding of the Masonic words which we fling about with the greatest abandon.


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At 03 February, 2008 01:10 , Blogger Csouther2587 said...

Bro. I'm a Freemason in Anderson Sc Ruff 240. I went to see a production of hamlet and was reminded of the FC working tool. After a google search you blog turned up. I just wanted to tell you the work you doing is wonderful. I find that to often new masons don't really understand the things they are learning and thats a shame. Thank you brother. I had a wonderful coach who answered all my question and if he didn't know it he found it, but we aren't all that lucky. Keep up the good work.
Bro. Andrew Souther


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