Friday, March 13, 2015

The Friday the Thirteenth Address

“ . . . I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
~ Major League Baseball legend, Lou Gehrig

It was dawn, Friday, October 13, in the year 1307 when the armies of France sprang into action on the order of King Phillip IV. As Masonic author John J. Robinson writes, “ . . . almost every Templar knight, priest, sergeant, and servant in France was arrested and put in chains . . . The date was ever after regarded as an ominous time, but although for the rest of the world it might become an amusing superstition, for the Knights Templar that Friday the Thirteenth was the unluckiest day of that or any other year.” (Dungeon, Fire & Sword, pg. 434).

No one can say with certainty that this singular event is the origin of that longstanding superstition. In fact, even the Masonic connection to the Knights Templar is based on speculation and very little historical evidence. Yet perception often becomes reality and if we choose to see portents of ill fate every Friday the thirteenth, then we are bound to limit ourselves based on a perceived potential for bad luck.

But is that how you choose to see the day? Reliable history aside, Freemasons look at Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay, who was burned at the stake for refusing to confess to the false accusations against his Order, as a symbol of truth and honor in the face of political and religious persecution. The misfortune of the Templars has given us a means by which we may search for deeper spiritual and philosophical meaning in the adversities that befall us on a daily basis.

Lucky for us.

This reminds me of an old Chinese proverb:

Once upon a time, there lived an old farmer. This farmer, like his father before him, had spent his entire life working his crops. Then one day, his horse was startled by a snake in the field, bolted, and ran away. Upon hearing the news, the farmer’s neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said.

“Bad luck; good luck; we shall see,” replied the old man.

A few days later, the farmer went outside to find that not only had his horse returned, but with it three other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Good luck; bad luck; we shall see,” replied the old man.

The next day, the farmer’s son decided that he would try and ride one of the wild horses. He was quickly thrown and broke his leg. “Such bad luck,” said the neighbors.

“Bad luck; good luck; we shall see,” replied the old man.

Now it just so happened that the government had recently declared war on the neighboring province and that very same day, military officials arrived in the village to conscript every able-bodied youth into the army. Seeing the son’s broken leg, they deemed him unsuitable for service and passed him by. “What tremendous luck,” said the farmer’s friends.

But the old man merely replied, “Good luck; bad luck; we shall see.”

The message in this story, as well as the Templar legend, is this: we should avoid judging events over which we have no control. None of us has the ability to see all ends and our own interpretations may not be mutually shared by others. However, the ability to recognize this fact and exercise tolerance and self-control should be one goal of every Master Mason. We should endeavor to open our minds and seek the Truth in those events that impact our lives each day. Recognize that every man faces an internal struggle. Some of these struggles are motivated by politics, religion, race, ideology - but how we choose to interpret and address such issues can have a tremendous impact on those around us.

Good luck; bad luck; we shall see.

As the Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi wrote:

“Welcome difficulty.
Learn the alchemy True Human Beings know;
the moment you accept what troubles
you’ve been given, the door opens.“
(excerpt from “Undressing”)

Every man comes to the Masonic fraternity blind to what awaits him. Many who choose not to seek paths of enlightenment that lie open before them still wander in that blindness. I prefer to seek the path of enrichment, sharing in the learned experiences of all those around me, the wisdom of those who have come before me, and the guidance of the Great Architect, who knows me better than I know myself. Am I immune to the pitfalls of adversity and sorrow? Sadly, no. But I, like you, can move ever forward knowing that difficulties teach us to be even more thankful for the perfect things in our lives.

And for these things, and for each one of you, I am truly blessed; and right now, on this Friday the thirteenth, in the words of the great Lou Gehrig, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Upon the Checkered Pavement

“The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.”
~ William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV, Scene 3)

On February 2, 2014, a man died.

This in and of itself is not especially astonishing as I’m certain that many people passed away on that very same day. Of these many people, I’m also certain that most had families and friends who felt the pain of their loss and anguished (some still) over their departed loved ones. On the other hand, it stands to reason that there were those who gave no pause at all at the death of these people. Why? Perhaps they didn’t know the deceased; perhaps they didn’t care; or perhaps the way the individual passed simply did not touch the right nerve to illicit an emotional response.

Still, as I said, on February 2, 2014, a man died.

However, this man did not pass unnoticed or without an emotional response from both those who knew him as well as those who did not. Such is the way of celebrity. This particular celebrity was Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Academy Award-winning actor and family man. Despite his fame and notoriety, however, he struggled with and eventually succumbed to an addiction to drugs. Immediately following Hoffman’s death, the airwaves and social media were awash with expressions of sympathy for the tragic loss of this gifted actor. Also present were the horribly graphic (though no less accurate) descriptions of his passing at home due to an overdose. Some in the celebrity community lamented the loss and called for greater attention to the problem of substance abuse in our society. Others quickly dismissed the media’s eulogizing as sensationalism and hype in light of a bad person engaging in a reckless and selfish act and reaping the reward for his foolishness.

Both are right.

Unpleasant as the thought is, both viewpoints have merit, and remind me of how frail we can often be as individuals. I am also keenly aware of how equally insensitive we can be to the struggles of others. It all depends on your perspective.

Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
In a Masonic Lodge, this perspective is symbolized by the mosaic tile floor, or black and white checkered pavement. We see it illustrated in books and on tracing boards, but do we ever pause to consider its significance? In the Lexicon of Freemasonry, Dr. Albert Mackey notes that “the variety of colors in the pavement, is a fit emblem of human life, a mingled scene of virtue and vice, of happiness and misery; today ‘our feet tread in prosperity, tomorrow we totter on the uneven paths of weakness, temptation, and adversity.’” (p. 309). W. Kirk McNulty sees the checkered tiles as representing “the universe as it appears to us who are incarnate in the physical world; alternate black and white, active and passive, easy and difficult - at best complimentary, often seeming to be in opposition.” (Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, p. 18). In Masonic symbolism, these black and white squares are set to remind us that the world is indeed full of both light and dark, good and bad, and that as fallible human beings, we are capable of both.

However, as Freemasons, are we not also given the means to guide us through such conflicting influences? The Plumb is that working tool that admonishes us to walk uprightly before God and man, even though we travel daily upon the checkered pavement. Simply said, we are to remain honorable and upstanding as we carefully navigate both the good fortune and hardships that we are bound to encounter during our lifetimes.

The Chinese see this as balance - yin and yang - opposing forces in the world, both of which are necessary. In fact, Freemasonry suggests that both of these forces are present in all of us and that we must constantly be aware of that internal struggle between what is right and what is wrong. We must find the balance in ourselves and strive to see the balance in the world. If you see only tragedy and strife, what outlook do you have? What emotional influence do you think you are offering those with whom you come into contact? Only seeing the negative in the world will leave you with a lonely existence. 

On the contrary, only seeing the happiness and goodness is unrealistic and leaves you at risk of not being able to cope with tragedy when it appears. The cycle of the day has both dark and light. Existence is comprised not only of life, but also of death. They are opposites, but necessary to complete the balance in nature. As Masons, we are reminded of the three lesser lights, the sun (day), the moon (night), and the Worshipful Master (the Lodge). The sun governs the day, the moon governs the night, and the Worshipful Master (in essence, us) governs the Lodge. The Great Architect has given us the sun and moon to govern the light and dark aspects of time. We, as Worshipful Masters of our own internal Lodges, govern the light and dark aspects in ourselves, keep them within due bounds, and maintain the beautiful balance that the Creator established in the natural world for us to follow.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Maybe You're Doing It Wrong

Freemasonry: It’s a tricky concept full of both mystery and meaning with interpretations as varied as the men throughout the world who make up this ancient order. In fact, Freemasonry is practiced in many different forms across the globe. But as members of the Craft, if we’re not all practicing the same ritual and forms, then how can we know if we’re doing it right? What makes up the “free” in Freemasonry?

Is it a physical freedom? Doubtful. As Bro. Julian Rees points out in his book, The Stairway of Freemasonry, we give up many of our basic freedoms the moment we set foot in an open Lodge. We enter blind and under the strict guidance of a strong hand, giving up our ability to see and choose our own path. We are bound by a cable tow to remind us that refractory behavior (that which is stubborn or unmanageable) may result in our removal from the Lodge. Officers tell us when to sit, how to stand, and where to go throughout the initiatic experience and even what to say when addressing the Worshipful Master or after the close of a prayer.

But if Freemasons have such limited freedoms, then what’s the point we’re missing? Are we doing it wrong?

Perhaps the answer isn’t in our physical freedoms so much as in our mental acumen. The physical restrictions only help to define both the pathway toward inner enlightenment and the mental freedom to pursue a more moral existence. They free us from the interference of pettiness and selfishness, thereby allowing us to grow and improve inwardly. The symbolism in the Great Lights - the Holy Bible, square, and compasses - is a perfect example. As we travel down the pathway toward enlightenment, we should govern our actions and interactions with others with the guidance of the sacred writings of our faith; the reminder of the square, that we should treat others as we would like to be treated; and the lesson of the compasses, that we are always responsible for maintaining control of our passions when dealing with all people, particularly our Brethren in Freemasonry. 

If you find your Masonic experience is lessened because of a specific dress code or the fact that you owe dues by a certain date, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. If you find your Masonic experience unsatisfying because you cannot reject a man’s petition simply because you don’t like him, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not concentrating on improving your ability to listen and understand alternate points of view, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. If you find yourself unable to focus on perfecting your own actions and attitudes toward all men, then maybe you’re doing it wrong.

However, in the midst of any of these mistakes, there is hope. The Ancient Charges at Initiation, Passing, and Raising, as well as those used at the opening and closing of a Lodge, give very specific instructions on our moral duties as Freemasons. Look to your Brother for comfort, relief, and truth; look to those in authority for guidance and wisdom; and look to the Great Architect for compassion and strength. Free yourself by digging deep and chipping away at those rough corners that prevent you from fulfilling your potential. Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable; but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” We should all continue to refine the rough stones of our own inner temples, so that one day, when our labors are complete, the Master will find our work plumb, level, and square. Then we’ll be able to say, “Maybe we did do it right.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Good in the Bad

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s the story of a man, but begins with a boy. One day, several years ago, a young boy - he was about ten years old at the time - was kidnapped from his middle-class parents’ home. There were no news crews with bright lights; no outcry of social media. The perpetrators took the boy very quickly and very violently from his home in Britain and sold him into slavery in another country. The child was put to work tending livestock for unforgiving masters in a foreign land. He was made a shepherd, this young boy, and forced to live and work with limited human contact in a bitterly isolated area.

Think of yourself at that age, being faced with such a situation. The thought that “life’s not fair” seems to be a bit of an understatement. But that’s pretty much the point, isn’t it? Life is rarely what we expect it to be and even less often is it what we think we deserve. However, instead of lamenting “if only this had been better,” or “that had been different,” the question we ought to be asking is, “What can I do with what I have?”

Back to the story: if you were expecting this incredible difficulty somehow to turn into an incredible blessing, then good for you. The boy looked inward for his strength, meditating and controlling his thoughts, fears, and emotions. He had not been raised in a religious family, but he quickly found focus and peace of mind through prayer. So he prayed, and prayed, and prayed; and six years into his forced captivity, he heard an answer.

The boy, now a young man, heard a voice, and that voice told him that a ship would take him home. Sometimes that’s all we need - a little direction. The young slave escaped his captors, made his way cross-country to a seaport, and convinced a group of sailors to let him board their ship bound for Britain and home.

But things were not the same. He was not the same. The boy who was taken from his family had returned home a changed man - a spiritual man. He devoted his energies to his new calling and entered the priesthood, all the time determined to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary. Several years later, he got his wish when Pope Celestine I consecrated the priest, Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. The year was approximately 431 A.D..

During that period of history, Ireland was considered “a land outside of time.” It was a culture of semi-nomadic, illiterate, Iron Age warriors, whose wealth was based on herding and slavery. For centuries, the Roman Empire had expanded its control and ideas of civilization from Africa to Britain, but they had never conquered Ireland. So how did the slave-boy turned bishop plan to turn an island of warring Celts into a literate and peaceful people? He began by teaching people to read. And amazingly, when students became teachers and spread throughout the land, they also brought the knowledge of how to turn sheepskin into paper, and paper into books. Copying religious manuscripts became a major activity among the growing number of Christian monks on the island. Monks spent their entire lives copying books, and not only the Holy Bible. They reprinted the great works of Roman culture, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts; grammar; the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Homer; Greek philosophy; math; geometry; and astronomy. When the Roman Empire finally fell, the accumulated knowledge contained in these copied manuscripts was not lost to the Dark Ages that followed. Bishop Patrick had turned his suffering into purpose, helped to introduce culture and civilization to a pagan people, nearly eliminated the practice of slavery on the island, and for his efforts, he was made a saint - Saint Patrick.

“Quite a story,” you might think, “but what’s that got to do with me?”

Just this: there will come a time when you will find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable and subject to circumstances not necessarily of your own making. When you face these issues, what are you going to do? You may not have all the answers or a solution that you even partially like, but keep in mind that these issues that are causing you so much grief may turn out to be the very motivation you need to turn a bad situation into something good.

Hundreds of years after the time of Saint Patrick, a Persian poet named Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi came to a similar conclusion when he wrote:

“The Guest House”

This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, 
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. 


“St. Patrick.” 2014. website. Apr 13 2014

Khan, Adam. “A Slave to His Destiny.” 2014. After Hours Inspirational Stories website. Apr 13 2014

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

Rumi, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad. “The Guest House.” The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition. Tr. Coleman Barks. New York: HarperCollins. 2004. Print.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fooling Yourself

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist." 
~ French poet Charles Baudelaire/The Usual Suspects (1995)

So, who knows this Brother: "Well, you did okay, I suppose, but this was wrong, that was late, and I don't know where you learned that?" I know that guy. On the other hand, did you ever run into Brethren who would pat you on the back and tell you how great your ritual work was after you delivered huge sections of dialogue out of order or omitted something important? Tell the truth - whom would you prefer to talk to after the meeting?

I usually take both with a grain of salt, but am really more cautious of the latter, the careless compliment. There is nothing quite like performing really good ritual work, be it the regular business of the Lodge, exemplification in the school of instruction, or doing degree work for a candidate. You know it when it happens and usually, so does does everyone else in the room. But many Lodges aren't accustomed to exemplary ritual work. Let's be honest - it takes time, effort, focus, and practice - things that are becoming less common in this fast-paced world. What I believe we encounter more often than not, are Brothers who do good work, comfortably accept the accolades of those who are grateful of their efforts, and then quit trying to improve. This is where the trouble begins.

There is an old saying: "Good is the enemy of great." Think about that. How can "good" and "great" be problematic for anyone? Well, they can, particularly when "good" becomes "good enough," and that's sufficient for you, your candidates, and your Members. Don't let yourself be fooled into accepting something less than great, simply because it takes less effort to prepare or maintain. It's much too easy to become lax in your work by convincing yourself that being good will do the trick. Think this line of reasoning stops with ritual? Guess again. Ignoring problems in your Lodge, much like ignoring flaws in your ritual, doesn't make them go away. Making issues "somebody else's problems" just isn't a solution.

So, does this mean we all turn to nitpicking each other's efforts from the sidelines? Nope. I suggest encouraging one another to keep improving, striving for excellence, and aiming to be great - not just good. Apply this theory to everything you do: ritual, membership retention, community service, even challenging yourselves to pursue the Grand Master's Award. Much like sterling silver, your work will inevitably lose its luster and become dull over time if you do not make the effort to constantly polish and give it the care and attention it requires. Keeping your Lodge together and running smoothly isn't always easy, but it is inevitably rewarding. It's the same with excellence - good enough may work, but is it really what you want to be known for?

In the movie A League of Their Own, Geena Davis portrays an all-star baseball player who decides to quit her team right before the championship playoffs. Her reasoning? As she tells her coach, Tom Hanks, "It just got too hard." Hanks stares right back at her and unflinchingly responds: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great." Don't you trade great for good. You're better than that and you deserve the things that greatness brings, whether you're at home, at work, or right there in your own Lodge. No fooling.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

We Could Be Heroes

Michael A. Halloran, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, provides a description of a Masonic oath that reads: “Whenever I see the grand hailing sign of distress given, or hear the words accompanying that sign, and the person who gives it appears to be in distress, I will fly to his relief at the risk of my life, should there be a greater probability of saving his life than losing my own.” (p. 162-163). The quote, attributed to one William Morgan, a man of questionable character and equally dubious Masonic affiliation, is nevertheless accurate in its intended message. We, as Masons, have a moral duty to help our Brethren in times of great need or dire emergency. But even though this particular passage has been used by anti-Masons both past and present to illustrate preferential treatment among members of the Fraternity, I believe that in it lies a higher directive, when we recognize that we are charged as Masons to render aid to all those who may need it, Masons or not.

The Volume of the Sacred Law tells us that a man once spoke to Jesus about the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. “But Teacher,” the man asked, “who is my neighbor?”

“In reply, Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” (Luke 10:30-36, NIV).

There is no doubt in my mind that we owe first responders everywhere a tremendous debt of gratitude. They commit unimaginable feats of bravery and compassion giving hope, comfort, and protection to people who may never know their names, but will never forget their deeds. I know of fire fighters who have taken extra care to try and save a Brother’s Masonic belongings from his burning house; police officers who have gone out of their way to check in on a friend’s family who found themselves in a potentially dangerous situation; and medical personnel who have quieted violent hospital patients with a few whispered words. But not all of us are designed to pursue the unjust, enter a burning building, or treat a devastating injury. 

The majority of us may never warrant the label “hero,” but we are capable of great feats of decency and human kindness. I have known men who have organized efforts to repair and even build houses for the indigent. I have known men who take their 4-wheel drive vehicles out in snowstorms and offer assistance to stranded motorists, all without the thought or want of compensation. I have known men who regularly care for their elderly neighbors’ yards, home repairs, and quality of life issues. I have even known a man who received a call from a Brother in Puerto Rico who requested that he check on his mother, who lived in the area but had recently been involved in an accident. Such examples of selflessness may not rival the actions of the emergency personnel who regularly protect us, but they are no less important to those who find themselves in need. 

So keep that in mind when you donate your loose change to a worthy cause; when you help that fallen person to his feet; when you comfort that frightened child. You may never have occasion to save a life by risking your own, but you certainly may have occasion to change the minds, hearts, and lives of the people around you just by acting as every good Mason should. And in that respect, even we could be heroes, if just for one day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

To Help, Aid, and Assist

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” 
~ Brother Theodore Roosevelt

As Master Masons, we obligate ourselves to a number of fraternal duties of a “high and ennobling character.” One of the simplest, it may seem, revolves around offering aid and assistance to our “poor and penniless” Brethren approaching us in their time of need. This seems fairly uncomplicated. We all understand that financial hardship can befall any of us without warning and that our Brethren will support us to the extent that they are able. But what about the “poor” in this phrase? You might think it an intentional redundancy or a way to emphasize “penniless.” Clever alliteration, perhaps - or is it something more?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘poor’ initially as you might expect - lacking sufficient money or currency to maintain a certain standard of living. However, I find the alternate definition to be more enlightening: “worse than is usual, expected, or desirable; of a low or inferior standard or quality; deficient or lacking in.” This suggests that our fraternal obligation encompasses more than just monetary assistance. It means we are all charged with helping one another when our souls are in need.

A kind word or compliment may change someone’s outlook on the entire day. Sometimes a Brother with a problem is simply looking for an attentive ear, a good listener. The new member trying to learn his work seeks the positive reinforcement of a mentor, or the guidance of a teacher. The widow or child of a Brother may relish a fond recollection of their loved one. The visitor, willing to attend, but feeling out of place, may be comforted by a friendly smile and handshake. The time spent at dinner with the Brother you haven’t seen in a while may bring him back to Lodge more often. In fact, such things cost us little more than our own efforts.

The heart of providing help, aid, and assistance in accordance with our obligations isn’t so much in the financial aspects of relief, but more so in the act of doing. When you notice someone in need, help them. Offer your time; your attention; your knowledge; your strength; your compassion; and as we are all charged, “do this in a cheerful spirit, for our Great Master has said that he loveth a cheerful giver.”

Think of these things when, during the course of the Masonic year, you pause to honor those Brethren who have given their time and energy to serve Freemasonry and your Lodge. Think of our Pennsylvania brother, Samuel Davis of Keystone Lodge No. 271, who, in the early 1900’s, established an endowment that exists to this day for the purpose of providing relief to the minor children of deceased Freemasons. Think of the help, aid, and assistance these Brothers have provided over the years and continue to inspire in us even today. Think of these things and then do something yourself to make even the smallest difference in someone else’s life. It may cost you very little, but the rewards are bound to be priceless.