Dispatches from Maine

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

04 July 2008

Why Pay More?

I wanted to write about this earlier, but I wanted to avoid encouraging other bidders. Last week I engaged in a bidding war for a copy of the 1948 cipher, "The Correct Work for Maine." The question is, why would I be willing to pay significantly for a copy of that particular ritual?

Can any of our Maine ritualists answer that question?

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23 June 2008

Role Changes

Since my last posting I have had a number of new responsibilities added to my Masonic plate. At the Annual Communication in May our Grand Master, M.W. Bro. Robert Landry, appointed me to the position of District Education Representative (DER) for the 17th Masonic District. The 17th is a Cumberland County region consisting of the lodges in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Scarborough, Gorham, Yarmouth and Standish. I have never been particularly interested in joining the purple aprons, so named for the color of a Grand Lodge apron, but the job is a genuinely interesting one.

The DER is responsible for assisting with Masonic education in his District. This includes organizing and hosting the Assistant Grand Lecturer with his School of Instruction, giving education presentations to the lodges, and coordinating other speakers. During the past few months, I have offered since my last posting I have had a number of new responsibilities added to my Masonic plate. At the Annual Communication in May our Grand Master, M.W. Bro. Robert Landry, appointed me to the position of District Education Representative (DER) for the 17th Masonic District. The 17th is a Cumberland County region consisting of the lodges in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Scarborough, Gorham, Yarmouth and Standish. I have never been particularly interested in joining the purple aprons, so named for the color of a Grand Lodge apron, but the job is a genuinely interesting one.

The DER is responsible for assisting with Masonic education in his District. This includes organizing and hosting the Assistant Grand Lecturer with his School of Instruction, giving education presentations to the lodges, and coordinating other speakers. During the past few months, I offered a few interesting programs including: “4th Night” for Deering Lodge and “Masonic Etiquette” for Harmony Lodge. With any luck the renewed Grand Lodge Speaker's Bureau will provide an opportunity for a variety of speakers to get involved with Masonic education the District.

Another appointment given to me by M.W. Bro. Landry is as a member of the MEALS Committee, where MEALS is an acronym for Masonic Education And Lodge Services. Is responsible for managing the DERs and providing materials to the lodges to help them with administration and education. The committee is presently reviewing our "Candidate Instruction Manual," which gives candidate mentors educational ideas for each of the three degrees. Since the manual includes references to Masonic history and ritual development, the review is taking me the better of eight hours for each section. At our last meeting we spent over two hours just reviewing and approving revisions to the Fellow Craft Degree manual. The experience has been educational as I am constantly forced to pry references from my head to back up, or undermine, assertions made in the manual.

I hope, over the next two years, to be able to give Masonic Light back to my District after all it has given to me.

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03 April 2008

ACCU, Day One

Finally the conference was due to begin! Steve and I were conducted to the Oxford Paramount in time for registration and our first sessions. I had signed up for Tom Gilb’s “Evo” seminar. We, at *******, used Evo several years ago for a number of projects. While it did a good job managing the detail level, it generally fell down for long term project management. For instance, with Evo we were never able to answer: How is the project against its total schedule? There were also defects in the small software application used to store the task, or time box, level estimations. There were a number of great ideas we took from Evo, however, including choosing a lower available effort level for a developer. Our Evo tutor, Niels Malotaux, encouraged us to limit “effort hours” available per week to twenty six.

While this seminar did provide some very useful insights, Gilb was too self-aggrandizing and too negative about other methodologies. I did like his shift away from the old Evo time boxes, six hours per task as we were taught, and toward “front room” and “back room” development. More than that the idea of establishing measurable, stakeholder-focused benchmarks in conjunction with requirements development. In our case, at *******, we could apply this concept to record the time of several common GIS edit operations and then set a goal for improvement by the next release of the software. A particularly time consuming task in **** is copy-and-paste from one layer to another. We are able to measure the time it takes to transfer a collection of objects from layer A to layer B for our internal customer, then set a goal for improvement. This type of operation is extremely frequent and would have immediate value for both internal and external customers.

After the seminar I changed into my suit and made for The Alfred Lodge on Banbury Road. The Oxford Masonic Centre is a very large facility with multiple lodge rooms along with conference rooms and dining halls. The large hall was quite beautiful with several pieces of 19th century furniture including the painted stands used by the Master and Wardens (pictures soon to be on Flickr). The Junior Warden, assisted by another Brother, examined me that I might proved myself as a Freemason. Afterward we made for the in house pub where I had a soda, since I wanted to pay attention to every detail of the ritual, and was treated as a long lost Brother. The ritual that evening was a double Entered Apprentice Degree which was sufficiently distinct from the American version as to be only mildly recognizable. The concepts are still almost the same, but the language is completely distinct. Unfortunately, there was not enough time for the lecture expanding on the symbolism of the tracing board.

Following the degree work we adjourned to the dining hall for the Festive Board. I have enjoyed this dinner, similar in Maine to our Table Lodge. The most moving and engaging part of the Festive Board was the chain and Entered Apprentice’s song. The song itself can be found in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, but the ritual really added a great deal to the moment. I reminded the new initiates, as well as all of the brethren, of our obligation to reach out and assist our brothers. I was allowed the honor of giving the response from the visitors.

My experience at The Alfred Lodge reminds me of the simple power and beauty of the Craft. No matter where you go in the world, you are not without friends. I hope to be able to share the chain ritual and song with my own Grand Lodge, perhaps encouraging them to renew this ancient practice.

After lodge I went back to the hotel and shared a birthday pint with Steve. Unfortunately, it was not “soon to bed” as I was soon lakosed.

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30 March 2008

England, Day Four

Yesterday we left behind London and made our way to Witney to stay with Steve's family. As always the company and the food is delightful. For a late dinner yesterday we had a kind of shepherd's pie with spinach and seafood as a filling along with a delicious white Bordeaux. I ordinarily do not like white wine, but this was quite dry and very good.

In the morning I was on my own, so I made immediately for Oxford. There are no words to adequately describe Oxford. As an American I recognize that even our oldest history is quite young, barely four hundred years at the maximum. In Oxford there are pubs that old and all but a few of the college buildings are far older still. I went first to Blackwells bookshop, spending more than two hours purusing their second hand books collection. Last year I had the good fortune to find a copy of "Emulation: A Ritual to Remember" by Colin Dyer. This time, however, though there was only one Masonic title, there were several excellent Russian and Soviet history books. A bonanza for Tandy as it were.

I went right next door to the White Horse and had a ploughman's platter for lunch. Is there any better feeling than sitting in a small English pub reading a book by Dyer, his biography of William Preston? I doubt it. After a delicious lunch, and pint of bitter, I toured the Ashmolean Museum of Science and the Bodleian Library's Milton exhibit. The Milton exhibit rekindled my interest in his and Blake's work. The artistic elements, drawings, woodcuts and typefaces, were all out of the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts period. Very beautiful.

Having spent six hours touring museums and exhibits, Steve was due to meet me in town. I went over to the Kings Arms, very near the Bodlean, and had a pint of fine Cornish Bitter while waiting for him to arrive. Soon enough a huge table of American students appeared and it was momentarily hard to determine which country I was in. I read a bit more of the wonderful Dyer book on Preston, what an interesting man Preston was. I had long held the impression that Preston's dispute regarding the powers of immemorial lodges was based on some important, concrete topic (see Wikipedia), but it turned out to be a somewhat more personal dispute where, perhaps, he made the wrong decision and refused to own up to it. He took the 'passage to Ethiopia' as it were in Masonic terms.

Steve arrived in the midst of my reading about this controversy. Hungry as I could be we went to The Bear for fish and chips, delicious, and then to a few more pubs. We wound up at a pub called "The Cricketer's Arms" in Oxford. A large gray cat wandered in and went up to the patrons looking for a scratch behind the ear. We enjoyed out hand-drawn Old Speckled Hen and relaxed for the remainder of the evening. Then in the words of Pepys: so to bed.

(pictures are at Flickr)

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England, Day Three

Having spent most of the previous day geocaching for work, we elected to get right out and find the spots requested by the family. We were charged to take a photograph of the Peter Pan Statue in Hyde Park and another at Platform 9 3/4 within King's Cross Station. We rose before 7:00am for another delicious breakfast and headed for the local Tube station.

The morning was crisp and sunny as we walked through Hyde Park for the first photograph. The statue was very near to the Tube station we emerged room, so finding it was a breeze. We wanted to wander the park, but there was more to be done. Back into the Tube and we were soon at King's Cross Station. The platform was easily found and quite accessible. Having captured both of us on film, much to Steve's consternation, we wondered what to do next. Steve convinced me to go the United Grand Lodge of England Library on Great Queen St, Holborn.

It had long been my plan to spend at least a day at the Grand Lodge Library, but the jet lag/late arrival on the first day ruled out Tuesday. Then Wednesday was first recovering and then geocaching. I had all but lost hope of even seeing the Grand Lodge. We skipped right over lunch and went directly to the Holborn Tube station.

We had hoped to tour the facility, but there was some activity going on which prevented their normal tours. We were shown to the library and museum. Impressive does not do it justice. The collection within the museum is quite diverse, but my favorite objects remain the early operative 'tracing boards'. While Steve wandered through the museum I got right down to business, registering as a reader and requesting texts. One of the books I wanted to see had gone missing from the collection, something the library is likely to encounter often as they finish computerizing their entire catalog. This setback and the inapplicability of the first few texts was starting to dim my hopes of finding the ritual text I was seeking. Then I selected one of the titles I had noted down a few months ago, while using the UGLE Library online catalog. The text must have been fairly rare as my request had to be authorized by the Librarian, which it was, and shortly I was reading my eureka text. I will write more about this item later.

Poor Steve wandered around the museum for several hours while I did more research. At 2:00pm we rushed back to the hotel for our luggage, and my Past Master's Jewel, which was stored in the hotel safe. Back to the Tube, off at Victoria Station and the coach to Oxford. The English hierarchy of bus and coach I am finally beginning to understand!

(pictures are at Flickr)

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16 March 2008

Changing Ritual

Since I mentioned my concerns about the Scottish Rite ritual in passing yesterday, I thought I should provide some valuable context. My specific area of research is the development of Masonic ritual, with a focus on its development here in New England. Freemasons, in modern times, believe their ritual is today as it always has been. This could not be further from the truth. Here in Maine, for instance, the ritual underwent several significant revisions:

  • 1820

    We lost our use of the Antients Ritual and shifted exclusively to the Moderns (Webb) style.

  • 1852-1855

    The Grand Lodge of Maine agreed upon an authorized ritual as exemplified by M.W. Bro. John Miller. The ritual style we inherited from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had been lost when they moved to the Baltimore Ritual in 1844.

  • 1874

    The Grand Lodge of Maine adopted new lectures as performed by M.W. Bro. Timothy Murray.

  • 1894

    The Grand Lodge of Maine commissioned a committee to review and publish a new authorized ritual, plain text, for the exclusive use of the Grand Lecturer. This ritual shed a number of very beautiful elements in favor of brevity.

  • 19?? (I have not yet reached the 20th century...)

    A final revision of the ritual, which I have not yet found, added a number of new elements, included two new exchanges between the Master and Deacons. It also restructured the Master Mason lecture in a way that materially changed the symbolic portion of the lecture.

These revisions added a few pieces of valuable coordination in the catechism, but in general shortened some of the more beautiful language. The changes to the Master Mason lecture in particular are disappointing because they brought the Master's Carpet into the exoteric class, rather than leaving it as an independent element. Suddenly all of the very old slides which do not include the Master's Carpet make a lot of sense!

Having learned so much of this history, I dearly wish I could go back and speak with the Past Grand Lecturers and Past Grand Masters and warn them. They firmly believed that they were hewing to a more ancient form of the ritual, but with all of the documents to come to light since 1894 and all of previously secreted manuscript ciphers this assertion appears unfounded. Rather than restore an older ritual, they created a new distinct one. The ceremonies are only mildly less beautiful, yet would that we could prevent those changes from having happened.

With this in mind, I try to pay careful attention to any changes to ritual and attempt to look forward a hundred years to imagine the impact of the change. Any revision which results in a massive shortening of the degree has, in my opinion, a significant risk of being amplified in the future leaving us with but a hint at its ancient beauty. Here in Maine, I have been happy with the openness of our Masonic leaders to talk through such matters and seriously consider the impact before making a change. It appears, in like manner, the Scottish Rite (NMJ) is also open to such conversation. I look forward to gaining more understanding regarding our own process for revising the ritual and sharing my concerns regarding the long term impact of shortening.

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15 March 2008

Seriously Zerubbabel

For the past three years I have been playing Zerubbabel for the Scottish Rite Valley of Portland. Previously my role was limited to Zerubbabel in his later years, as recorded in the Apocrypha, when he returns to Persia to ask for the help of Darius to ensure the completion of the Second Temple. The role is a lot of fun, but is very serious. You have to play a man so imbued with righteous anger that he is willing to fly off the handle in front of the King and his nobles. Having argued with my share of Developer Kings and Masonic Kings, I find the role a quite natural fit.

This year the part of Zerubbabel in the 15th degree was added to my plate. While I was more than mildly disappointed in the 2005 version of the ritual[1], the role itself was a thrilling experience. This degree takes place at the end of the Babylonian Captivity and revolves around the interactions of Zerubbabel and Cyrus and Zerubbabel and Abazar. In simple terms, Cyrus is the judge and Abazar is the tempter, classical templates there. Considering the intensity of the dialog, I found the passivity of the guards to be quite odd. During the rehearsals this year I kept prodding them to be more forceful until finally they decided to get the better of me. One of my most valued Masonic mentors played the role of Abazar and he too was more than willing to push me around as well. By the end of the play, when the tempted, threatened, and tortured Zerubbabel is brought before King Cyrus, who shouts at him to answer immediately, it did feel real. The guards and I were breathing heavily from our struggle and I was easily able to summon up a sense duress. Rather than the refusal being haughty or noble, it felt more tired as if I would die rather than surrender. That is the young Zerubbabel as I see him now.

Having understood, for the first time, the first degree, the second gained a completely new richness. I see with new eyes the Zerubbabel I had loved for years. Perhaps his words in the first section of the 16th degree sound more petulant to me now than before, but it certainly gives a better insight into how to play that role effectively and clearly. I also heard, for the first time, the ritual music of the 16th, but I will write about that later. Now more than ever I want to study and understand the Scottish Rite Degrees. My thanks go out to R.W. Bros. Jake Caldwell and Jeffry Simonton for getting me into the Scottish Rite. Some days it makes me crazy, but no matter what I still love it.

[1] I would like to add that the Sovereign Grand Commander, Ill. Bro. McNaughton, and his Ritual Committee have been very gracious in engaging in a dialog with me about my concerns. This kind of openness really impresses me about the Scottish Rite.

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09 March 2008


Here in the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction the primary character in the 15th (Knight of the East) and 16th (Prince of Jerusalem) degrees is Zerubbabel. The role is an exciting one to play as he stands up bravely to kings and nobles alike in the pursuit of his principles. Despite being a prince of the house of David he never, in these moral plays, takes the road of reconciliation , but always steers by his principles regardless of the consequences to him or his people. He is a complicated semi-heroic character and one I can relate to on a personal level (just ask the poor Deputy for Maine).

As always there is a thirst for more knowledge when studying a degree, so the question is where to learn more about Zerubbabel. Thus far I have read Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, and Sefer Zerubbabel (or the Apocalypse of Zerubbabel). Are there other good texts out there for the story of Zerubabbel?

(update: No soon is this posted than I found Esdras from the Apocrypha and our hero spelled "Zorobabel".)

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08 March 2008

Albert Pike

At long last, I finally ordered a copy of Morals and Dogma. Having seen so many unopened copies floating around I had intended to wait until a kind soul offered me their copy for free. Unfortunately, having been in the Scottish Rite a few years now, my keen interest in reading Albert Pike's magnum opus has outweighed my patience. I have one other work by Pike, Sepher h'Debarim, and a daunting text it is. I have tried, on several occasions, to really concentrate and read this book. While I did learn a number of interesting things, some of his ideas were then, and are now, called into question by professional scholars, raising as to the validity of his other translations. It is also more of a reference work, to be used when studying the origin and relationship of words used in the Craft and Scottish Rite Degrees. Hopefully, Morals and Dogma will be less impenetrable than the Sepher h'Debarim!

On the topic of Pike and Scottish Rite ritual. I have become quite interested in the history and development of Scottish Rite ritual here in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. These previous ten years have found the Craft ritual in general, and specifically here in Maine, as my primary focus of study. As I ascend through the Yates Lodge of Perfection here in Portland, the Scottish Rite ritual is becoming an item of strong interest. I have been given access to read the most recent versions of the 4th-16th degrees, and as always there are more questions than answers. With any luck I will be able to obtain access to the versions over the last hundred years or so and begin to understand how the degrees have grown and changed.

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13 February 2008

Grand Lodge Library Dreams

Perhaps I have been doing too much research, but last night I had the strangest dream. No, not Johnny Cash's dream about an end to war. I was working on Dyer1878, a manuscript cypher written by a Mason's wife about c1878, at the Grand Lodge of Maine Library when I felt the need to consult an 1820 manuscript cypher. Unfortunately, that text was down at the Samuel Crocker Lawrence Library. Unthinkingly I stood up and walked through a bookcase and emerged in Cynthia Alcorn's library. She said hello and gave me a stack of manuscript cyphers. The first manuscript had an unusual cover, one I had not seen before. I opened the first page and found the signature of R.W. Bro. Benjamin Gleason and woke up.

It is ordinary for a person to wake up at the most intense moment in a dream. So, here is the deal. If you can explain why this wake up trigger was so important, I will send you an advance copy of my first paper: Evolution of the Entered Apprentice Lecture.

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10 February 2008

Ars Quatuor Coronatorum on Google Book Search

Studying the ritual is its own great reward. I had another fun disagreement about the meaning of this section of the Entered Apprentice Apron presentation:

...more ancient than the Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle, more honorable than the Star and Garter or any other order that can be conferred upon you by Prince, King, Potentate or any other person except he be a Mason...

The latter two are well understood by all to refer to an order of knighthood in England and one in France: Order of the Garter (c1346) and Order of the Star (1352). I recall reading that the former two are also chivalric orders and do not, in fact, refer to Greek mythology and the symbol of the Roman legions. Details about the Order of the Golden Fleece (c1430) were easily found onWikipedia. I was not able to find anything about a chivalric order related to the Roman Eagle, but I suspect with more work I can unearth the original references.

In the process of all this research, I was delighted to stumble upon a number of old Ars Quatuor Coronatorum on Google Books! Any student of Masonic history will have their breathe taken away by the paper from Bro. Hughan "The York Grand Lodge - A Brief Sketch". Then on page 20, in the responses to the paper, there are comments from none other than Bro. Chetwoode Crawley! Finding this material online is like finding a great treasure in your basement.

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01 December 2007

Installation at Cumberland Lodge

This evening I was pleased to be able to assist in the Installation of Officers for Cumberland Lodge No. 12. The new Master for the year is Wor. Bro. Kurt Ringrose, a co-worker at DeLorme who contributes significantly to the product I oversee, so it thrilled me to be able to participate. The evening flowed very smoothly with Wor. Bro. Steven Cobb as the Installing Master and two experienced Past Masters assisting as the Installing Marshal and Installing Chaplain. Wor. Bro. Cobb performed very well particularly considering it was his first crack; he was far less nervous than I on my first attempt! I installed the Wardens and Secretary along with doing the candle charges for the Master and Wardens. A great time was truly had by all, which is to be expected for a lodge with so many young, excited officers! Wor. Bro. Ringrose is set to have a great year in the Oriental Chair.

So many Maine Masons have witnessed the installation ceremony without knowing much about its history. One of the earliest versions of the installation ritual can be found in Wor. Bro. William Preston's seminal work "Illustrations of Masonry" in Book 2, Section 6 "The ancient ceremonies of the Order". Though it is not quite the same as our ceremony, you can see our roots in its structure and language. Much of what Preston wrote way back in 1772 is still part of our installation today.

To all of the students of Masonic ritual out there, what was the next edition of the installation and why was that ritual so important in the 18th century?

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22 November 2007

Masonic Gnosis

All of Masonic ritual has three levels of understanding: concrete, symbolic and esoteric. The first layer of understanding are the words themselves together with their meaning in language. All new American Freemasons go through a process of learning the first level when they work on their proficiency examination. Then the line officer experiences the same process as the learn the ritual associated with each chair they occupy. A good officer coach helps these men to understand what they are saying and why along with teaching them the secrets of our ritual's catechetical construction. In Maine, for instance, there are two reasons to present the due guard: requesting permission to speak and responding to an order from the Master. Armed with this rule an officer should never doubt whether to give the due guard. Another classic example of our the roots in catechesis is the exchange of the secret words. With some minor differences for the first and last word, all of the exchanges fit into two formats: demand and request. All of the information necessary to guide the dialog is encoded in the first three words of the exchange. Even learning about the famous "hele" debate is still only a structural level of understanding. There is so much good to the concrete level of Freemasonry that we can make a good man better without ever leaving this level. After all how can a man be unmoved by the tenets and four cardinal virtues?

The second layer uses the language of symbolism to look within the framework of the ritual for the deeper moral lessons. The classic example of this language is our own Working Tools lectures which educate the new Mason about the symbolism of the tools associated with their degree. The tools can differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but here in Maine the symbols are the twenty-four inch gauge and common gavel for the Entered Apprentice, the square, level and plumb for the Fellow Craft and the trowel for the Master Mason. The practical and symbolic meaning of these tools are shared with the candidate during each degree with the hope they will apply them to their own lives. This is only the outer shell of the symbolic layer, however, as the ritual contains a deeper meaning at every turn. If we survey the classical authors performing symbolic analysis of Freemasonry and its ritual we find men like Albert Mackey and Albert Pike. Their efforts worked to understand the symbolic nature of the ritual by exploring its source in ancient religions. In some cases, this exploration finds that we have misinterpreted some of our own symbols. A beautiful example of this is Mackey's discussion of Jacob's ladder in his work "The Symbolism of Freemasonry". Virtually every single Mason becomes, at some level, a student of symbolic Masonry as a common gavel ceases to be a simple masons tool and becomes instead and emblem reminding us to work daily to discard our lesser elements in the hopes of being better men, and fit stones for the use of the Supreme Architect. The student of this layer of ritual sees the ritual not just as words, the exterior of the building, but the interior structure of the edifice. This Mason begins to understand how the building was formed, not just how it appears to be. While this deeper perceptive ability makes a Mason a better student of the Craft it does not make him a better Freemason. The most perceptive can still be the worst of men and the least perceptive can teach us the most important lessons of all. This is one of our core mysteries which defies the understanding of even the most educated Freemason for a man who well understands the use of the common gavel may forget that it was intended not for discussion but for use on himself.

The third and final layer is called esoteric and it is an area deeply misunderstood by almost all, including myself. The word "esoteric" means "designed to be understood by the specially initiated alone" is often misunderstood as "secret messages for the really, really smart." In Maine ritual we contrast esoteric with its opposite concept: exoteric or "intended for the uninitiated." We divide our Master Mason emblems into these two categories and then explain them to the new Master Mason. The lecture fails to make clear, however, that the difference is not born of intellectual capacity but of experience. What makes the symbols exoteric is that their meaning has value whether you have participated in the Master Mason Degree or not. The hourglass is still moving as an emblem of human life and the beehive easily explained and understood regardless of your affiliation, but the sprig of acacia has no meaning unless you have personally participated in the third degree. Only as an initiate of that degree can you understand what is meant by the lecturer as he explains the implications of the sprig of acacia. This principle extends further to other Masonic orders such as the Knights Templar. Many men have asked me about the York Rite and I have always told them that no experience in the Masonic Degrees is as moving as this degree, but I cannot tell them why. It is an esoteric element, not because members of the Commandery are necessarily smarter or wiser but because there are elements of those degrees which must be experienced first hand to fully understand. The Chamber of Contemplation cannot be explained it can only be experienced.

There is more to understand when it comes to esoteric Masonry, however, than simply contrasting it to exoteric Masonry. In the examples above the initiation was based on direct experience, but the initiation can also be rooted in knowledge. As there was in the 1920s there is a movement afoot among Freemasons to focus on "esoteric Masonry." My grasp of this form of esoteric Freemasonry is very limited at this point as I am still unable to read and comprehend the preface to "Long Livers" (see the blogpost "Brother Eugenius Philalethes sendeth greeting") which I have set as my benchmark, but what little knowledge I have gained I will attempt to share. The initiation required to understand this movement is knowledge of Hermeticism, which essentially a specialized branch of philosophy. As with any philosophy a right beginning is at the very heart of right understanding. A good starting point for the novice student of esoteric Freemasonry is Tobias Churton's book "The Golden Builders" which has the advantage of being well researched and written for the general audience. The initiate builds up a new vocabulary of symbols based in the Hermetic arts which help him to see a different internal structure to Freemasonry. It is not necessarily a deeper understanding, just a different one more like the symbolic tier where each word or phrase opens up into a whole world of philosophy.

So, what does this have to do with the title of this posting? The process a student of Masonry goes through to deepen their understanding of the Masonic ritual is the process of gnosis: a deepening of understanding based on knowledge. Like Freemasonry itself Masonic Gnosis is a journey not a destination. That a man is on this journey does not make him better than his fellows as some of the secrets of a better life do not arise from knowledge. Thus it has always been and even the ancients distinguished knowledge from wisdom.

(Yes, it did take me eight days to write this posting...)

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13 November 2007

Of Revolutions and Reforms

I thought I was in on the writings of the major Masonic revolutionaries of the day with Bros. Tim Bryce, Theron Dunn and Widow's Son, yet none of them hold a candle to the cogent thesis of Wor. Bro. Frederic Milliken. His paper "Of Revolutions and Reforms" is wonderfully written and makes a young Freemason want to charge the Grand Lodge Bastille. I recognize myself and my would be reformer Brothers in his descriptions of the stretched-thin, battle weary men trying vainly to reform Freemasonry from within. Yet, at the same time I am watching us change Freemasonry at both low and high levels every day. After ten years of hard work I get to see lodges embrace a true traditional past of good work and solid understanding of the ritual.

As I have said before, Maine is blessed with a good system of Grand Lodge government and, in most cases, genuinely good leadership. We do have our share of men lost in the "members, members, members" struggle who sit idly by while the ritual, learning and fraternalism of their bodies literally collapses in a heap. Yet, I continue to have high hopes and high expectations for Maine Freemasonry. I just hope I can last long enough to see that beautiful world born.

(By the way, to all of the Masonic esotericists out there, I need some assistance with a paper I am writing and would appreciate some assistance. The title is currently "Masonic Gnosis" and is inspired by the writings of Tobias Churton.)

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18 October 2007

That Successful Feeling

Part of loving the ritual is listening to it performed with different stylistic interpretations. I have often imported practices witnessed in other jurisdictions, for instance, replacing the slides for the Entered Apprentice lectures with what is now considered "The Deering-style walking lecture." Really, it is just the style I saw at St. John's Lodge in Portsmouth, NH and imported to my Mother Lodge. From the English I picked up singing "so mote it be" and from Tranquil Lodge at Lewiston, ME I picked up a new style for exchanging the Entered Apprentice's and Fellow Craft's Words.

Last night was the annual Inspection and Visitation at Harmony Lodge in Gorham. The officers did a great job and it was a real pleasure to see young men doing such good work. The Master was one of the Brothers at Tranquil Lodge and he too heard the new exchange style. They employed the new style with great skill making it a proud moment for all of us. The new style is taking root in the 17th District!

The other difference in the ritual was even more thrilling. At the class on the Development of Masonic Ritual I discuss the phrase "...always hail, forever conceal, and never reveal..." in Maine ritual. The word "hail" was originally "hele" and it means "hide; cover; roof". The pronunciation of the word is up for serious debate among Masonic scholars (See "Notes on 'Hele'"). Nevertheless, the consensus among Masonic scholars of note, particularly the late Harry Carr, is the three words were always intended for form a rhyme for easy memorization and stronger impact. If the word, therefore, is to be pronounced "hail" then the others should be "con-sale" and "re-vale", however, if the other two are using a modern pronunciation then the triplet should be "heal" "conceal" and "reveal". Having discussed this at two classes and in other presentations I was both astounded and pleased when the Master of Harmony Lodge said "...always hele, forever conceal and never reveal...".

As the District Deputy Grand Master said in his remarks, "He looked like a proud papa." And so it was. Never insisting or demanding, just teaching and seeing the lessons take root and grow. I am proud of the young men in the District, their fine work and their efforts to make Masonic ritual grow in beauty. Renewal is a beautiful thing...

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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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03 August 2007

The Development of Masonic Ritual, 2007 Edition

Unlike many other facets of Freemasonry, covered in the Maine Masonic College, the history of Masonic ritual is fairly straightforward. The questions of symbolism and philosophy are covered in depth by better, smarter men like Bros. Kuntz and Plummer. The class this year will be divided into two sections:

Section One:
We will cover early Masonic ritual as it developed in Europe from a simple obligation to a memorized system of questions and answers to the lectures we know so well today. So often as we experience the ritual in our lodges, we are left wondering where a line comes from or who wrote a lecture. This class answers these essential and engaging questions without dwelling on topics without end. During the lunch break we will have an open discussion period for detailed question and answer as well as sharing our own materials and experiences.

Section Two:
The class picks up as the Masonic ritual reaches America by discussing the primary authors of American Masonic ritual: Thomas Smith Webb and Jeremy Ladd Cross. The previous class closed out with a discussion of these authors and the Baltimore Convention of 1843. Since September of 2006, however, I have been engaged in personal research about the history of Masonic ritual here in Maine, allowing us to discuss in detail the development of Masonic ritual in our own State. This is a very special opportunity which you will not find in a book or lodge program. The class wraps up as we discuss the detailed differences between the 1874 edition of Masonic Ritual in Maine and the 1984 edition, under which we are governed today. Please consider joining me for this fun and practical class, remember the good fishing isn't for another two weeks anyhow!

Attendees will receive a copy of my "Events in Maine Ritual History" research index and a copy of the three degrees as they were worked in 1874. This class is dedicated to the memory of R.W. Bro. Ralph Johnson, Past D.D.G.M. of the 13th Masonic District.

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17 July 2007

The Bristol Working

One of my regular readers, Wor. Bro. Ed King, reminded me of that important English Ritual variant: The Bristol Working. Of late I have been buying books from eBay with an eye toward American ritual development. For instance, today I received a copy of the Virgina Text Book, which is very likely to have been the basis for the Maine Masonic Text Book. Since the class is going to be 50% European Freemasonry and 50% American Freemasonry, reading the Bristol Working is probably a good idea.

While at Amazon, I also noticed several other good books to order:
What Masonic books do you consider indispensable?

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16 July 2007

The History of Masonic Ritual in Two Parts

I received word from the Maine Masonic College that my petition for a new class plan has been approved. The class will be held at Benevolent Lodge in Carmel on Saturday, September 15th. The first section of the class will last from 9am to noon and cover the history of Masonic Ritual in Europe including the three key periods: obligation, catechism and lecturing. We will then break for an hour to have lunch and an open discussion, this was a segment of the class sorely missed last time. The class will reassemble at 1pm and spend two hours working through Masonic Ritual in the United States. This section of the class is most exciting to me as it will be an opportunity to share my own research material on the history of Masonic Ritual in Maine.

There are two more items which will make this class even more engaging. The first is my own research notes, which are already at 36 pages as extracted from the Proceedings of Grand Lodge and the records of several lodges. I anticipate this material will eventually cover the period 1820-1893, allowing us to go right up to the first written cipher. I am presently working on the year 1855, when the Grand Lodge finally formalized the Master Mason Degree here in Maine.

The second is even more exciting. I have, on loan from Triangle Lodge No. 1, a complete set of hand-written rituals from the early 1870s, previous to the first printed cipher. I am in the process of transcribing this material and printed copies of this early ritual will be distributed to those in attendance at the class. Just imagine the chance to see first hand the difference between the current ritual and that used by our brethren more than 130 years ago!
"...that cement which unites us into one common band of Friends and Brothers."
Not quite how we say it today, is it?

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14 July 2007

Freemasonry in Pennsylvania

A few weeks ago I packed up the wife and kids into the RAV4 and made for Pennsylvania to visit family. Despite being a Freemason for more than ten years, I had never manage to sit in lodge in my home state. Over the past two years, however, I have had to the pleasure of hosting Wor. Bro. Norbert Slezak, a Past Master from Victory Lodge No. 694 in Butler, at several lodges in Maine. This past winter I even seated him beside me in the East while I presided over a Master Mason Degree at Triangle Lodge No. 1 in Portland. Suffice it to say he has been very eager to return the favor, having been well treated by the Brethren of Maine. When he found out I would be coming down he sought out a degree for me to attend.

It was more than just a "degree." Bro. Slezak drove more than an hour from Butler to Connellsville to join me in witnessing a Master Mason Degree. The brethren of King Solomon's Lodge No. 340 were working their very last degree at their building on South Pittsburgh Street in Connellsville. The lodge had joined with three others to construct a new, single floor facility scheduled for dedication during the summer break. It transformed the degree into a significant historical event. It was easy to see why they were headed for a new location. Their building was quite old and had been wounded terribly by a lightning strike a few years ago. The bolt had cut a gash into the building and admitted a great deal of rain water, causing further harm to the building and leaving significant interior damage. Echoing two common issues facing lodges all over the country economic changes in the region had shifted the membership from the town center into the outlying areas while an aging membership, an upper-floor lodge and no elevator had gradually eroded attendance. the decision to create a new lodge hall sounds like a wise one.

As for the degree work itself, I cannot say for certain. The work was so completely unlike the Maine ritual, which is derived from the Webb Working of the mid-nineteenth century, that I was in no position to judge. This was not a surprise as my own research into the development of Masonic ritual made clear that Pennsylvania zealously guarded its working throughout its history. There were many phrases and words in common, but the differences were even greater including differences in our famously fixed elements like the sign and due guards. The only moment when I the two rituals merged was a brief section of the "working tools" lecture. In a general sense it had more in common with the English style of working, yet still substantially different in specifics from Emulation, which I have read, or Ritus Oxoniensis, which I have seen.

As I had been so long absent from Pennsylvania I had forgotten the odd Pennsylvanian sense of being "northern." In Maine, whether you are "northern" or "southern" depends on where you live. If you are from Calais, near Canada, then south of Bangor is "southern." If you live around Bangor then the line of demarcation only shifts to Brunswick. If you live in Portland then anything south of New Hampshire is "southern." Pennsylvanians, on the other hand, have this sense that they are the north pole of "northerliness" with every point outside of the state being "southern."

This issue arose in the context of my use of the due guard before speaking to the Master or answering his summons. One of the Past Masters was explaining to the brethren after the meeting that this was a "southern" style of ritual. Just hearing the statement flung me right back into the old sense of the entire world being south of Pennsylvania! I explained to the brethren that Maine could hardly be considered to be "southern" and that I had seen the practice in other States as well. However, neither Colorado nor Florida use the due guard in the fashion that Maine does. If the practice is common to Maine but not common to Florida, a person can hardly call it a "southern" practice.

The whole discussion made me miss my home state terribly, but no sooner had I returned to the Great State of Maine than the nostalgia was firmly expelled and I was glad to find myself back in my adoptive home state.

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