I’ve been busting my butt memorizing Masonic ritual, which isn’t easy at best since only the first letter of every word is printed. To see the actual words, I would have to drive to Portland and ask the Grand Master to unlock his safe. By the time I got back to Eugene, I probably would have found another word I didn’t know, and would have to do the drive over. Instead, I call local Masons on the phone, and tell them I’m stuck on Page 52, Line 18, etc.
It’s a “Masonic offence” to make even a tiny pencil mark in a ritual, much less write the ritual out. A “Masonic offense” is even worse in Masonry than a mortal sin is in the Catholic Church, because Catholics aren’t ordinarily excommunicated for mortal sins, whereas Masons really are kicked-out for Masonic offenses.
Be that as it may, I learned my degree work from two wonderful men, and at least one of them had at least some of the ritual written down. I know this because when he couldn’t remember a word, he would turn his back to me and refer to a book that he kept in a drawer. I suspect the practice is common, and I interpret it this way. If you take a stretch of highway on which motorists can safely go fifty, and you post a twenty mile per hour speed limit, most people will ignore the law. They might not go fifty, but they will go over twenty simply because the law makes no sense. In the case of the Masonic ritual, you can find it on the Internet in a few seconds, and hardly anyone would want to read it anyway, because it would be—to use another Catholic comparison—like reading a mass. It’s an interactive affair—you have to be there to appreciate it.
Yet its attempt at secrecy does make Masonry more appealing. It’s not that Masons are hiding things because they are shameful or sinister, but because they are intimate and sacred. If just anyone could drift into a Masonic lodge, I would not be a Mason. There are no social connections, there are only private connections within a social context, and the secrecy of Masonry (along with its accompanying vows) facilitates that.
Masonry claims not to care what your religion is just so long as you have one, yet it requires its members to believe in one God, personal immortality, and the holiness of John the Apostle and John the Baptist. Well, so much for Hindus and Buddhists. Aside from this blatant hypocrisy on the part of Masonry’s Christian majority, I had to think hard about what these requirements mean to me. Could I in good faith affirm them so I wouldn’t be like my friend who got around Alcoholics Anonymous requirement that she believe in a Supreme Being by promoting her teddy bear.
I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I have no qualms about defining God as that which causes my heart to open—Peggy’s loyalty; Pachebel’s Canon in D; Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince; alpenglow on Diamond Peak; the kindness of strangers. These things I worship (and what a person worships is properly said to be his God). They’re as good as it gets, and they’re as real as it gets. When I pray, it is to the goodness within my own heart—a goodness that such things elicit. God is love and beauty. Love and beauty are God. Such is my religion.
Personal immortality posed a greater challenge. As with God, Masonry requires you to believe in it, but they don’t tell you what it is. Here is my problem. I am no longer the person I was when I was two, or ten, or even fifty. I even like to think that I am not the person I was yesterday, because yesterday was a lousy day. I ate nothing, drank too much coffee, and was pretty near psychotic by late afternoon. But being a tad psychotic from time to time is not always bad. Like LSD, it can show you the world through new eyes. Therefore the me who awakened this morning was, in a way, a different me than the one who awakened yesterday morning.
If Masonry meant by personal immortality that, if I died today, I would awaken in another realm as a white man with all his relationships intact, I would think them rather silly, but since they leave it to me to define personal immortality, I have to say that the personal (who I am at my deepest level) is unlimited in time or space. There is my ultimate reality, and there is my present incarnation, and the two are one. I am not a being but a passageway, within an indivisible whole.
Most Masons would shake their heads if they were to read this. Many might say that they can’t tell what the hell I’m talking about, and they doubt that I do. “But do you know what you’re talking about?” I might counter. “Do you know what you are talking about when you refer to personal immortality as if the next life were a perpetual family reunion with God carving the turkey? Do you truly believe that your existence is like concrete? Why even concrete is not like concrete; it contains atoms that are forever moving like an extremely slow river and, as Heraclitus said, ‘You can’t jump in the same river twice.’”
Personal immortality can only mean that we possess an inner core that is unchanging, and in this I believe. I just don’t believe that this core is synonymous with how I perceive of myself now/today/this minute or even this lifetime. “I” am bigger and older than that. So big that I see no end to me, and I am indebted to the Masons—and the Odd Fellows—for making me think about such things.