Sunday, October 04, 2009

Masonic Secrecy


If there was one phrase I could expunge from the lips of every Mason (and especially, with all due respect, grand masters) it is "We have no secrets, except a few funny handshakes." That is not true, and it does terrible disservice to the fraternity. Yet I keep seeing it in story after story that appears in the press about the fraternity.

Somehow we've come to the conclusion that secrecy is a bad thing that makes the public suspicious. It makes reporters suspicious. It makes suspicious people more suspicious. Nevertheless, it is one of our most treasured possessions that makes us different from the Rotary, the Lions and the American Legion.

Please, brethren, STOP SAYING WE HAVE NO SECRETS. We have secrets. We have lots of them. And it really is okay to say, "I'm sorry, there are things I just cannot tell you."

Masonic secrecy is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the fraternity. Freemasonry teaches its philosophy to its members through symbolism, and secrecy is actually a symbol of honor.

Originally, the medieval stonemason guilds kept the practices and knowledge of their skilled trade as closely guarded secrets, to protect the value of their livelihood, and to ensure only qualified men were employed. Likewise, passwords and secret signs were developed so members of the guild in different parts of the country could recognize each other, even if they had never met.

These traditions have been retained by the modern Freemasons. If a person can’t be trusted to keep a simple secret like a password or a handshake, his word isn’t really trustworthy. He is not an honorable person.

There are other secrets, besides these modes of recognition. Some have to do with the specifics of Masonic rituals and ceremonies of initiation. Others are more personal, and different for each Freemason. Most of all, like all initiatic experiences in the world, the real secrets of Freemasonry are the effects its teachings and ceremonies have on the individual, and how he applies them to his life.

From The Meaning Of Masonry by W.L. Wilshurst:

"We know that even the elementary and superficial secrets of the Order must not be communicated to unqualified persons, and the reason for this injunction is not so much because those secrets have any special value, but because that silence is intended to be typical of that which applies to the greater, deeper secrets, some of which, for appropriate reasons, must not be communicated, and some of which indeed are not communicable at all, because they transcend the power of communication."


(Image: Own your own "Shhh" plaque as a reminder: from Atlas Signs and Plaques.)

14 comments:

Gingerman said...

Amen. There is a trend everywhere to be accepted. To meet the least common denominator. This isn't where we should be coming from.

47th Problem of Euclid said...

Thank you! I bristle every time I hear that phrase. Every time I talk to another mason, some aspect of masonic secrecy comes into play, if only because a brother honors the confidences of his brothers as if they were his own. I may not have any reason to keep things secret, but I don't know that my brother doesn't have good reason for me to keep our conversation secret.

I feel the same way about group therapy, 12-step meetings, company discussions that involve intellectual property, things my girlfriend tells me in private, things I would work on if I had a security clearance with the Defense Department, and other such confidences. A mason is a man you can trust with what you tell him, and the degree to which he is a mason is the degree to which you can trust him. I have no trouble telling my older brother, my father and mother, and my girlfriend, "That's a secret. I can't talk about that."

I blog, and I talk about masonry a lot, but I know what I can't talk about, and I don't betray my obligations to my blue lodge, to the Scottish Rite, nor to the Shrine. This is a character issue, and trivializing it trivializes the fraternity.

Mark Koltko-Rivera said...

Thank you for giving a straightforward explanation of Masonic secrecy. We need to embrace this, not be embarrassed by it.

Michael said...

There's a scene in one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels where Susan asks Spenser not to hurt someone. "I won't hurt him," Spenser says. "Do you promise?" Susan asks. He replies, "I just did."

That's what it's about.

Masonic Traveler said...

So does that make us a Secret Society, or a Society with Secrets? Or a society with some secret things.

To many years of to diluted a message is hard to overturn with yet another message. I whole heatedly agree with you Chris, but once you set the brand message, its like turning a cruising ocean liner.

Now, if only we could start acting like we have secrets, them maybe the lesson will sink in.

Tom Accuosti said...

I see this as related to the move to change our usage from Masonic Temple to Masonic Lodge.

Jim said...

Chris, great article.

On one of those History Channel / Learning Channel / Discovery Channel shows, a Freemason stated, when asked about the secrets of Freemasonry, something along these lines...

"You can go online or into just about any bookstore or library and uncover the secrets of Freemasonry. But I made a promise not to reveal them, so I will not."

That pretty much sums it up for me.

George said...

Great article, WB Hodapp! I really enjoyed this one. By the way - I check your blog for new articles just about every day.

When I was reading one of the comments, I had a thought... We (as qualified and learned brethren) should know what we can and can't talk about with the profane and obviously there is a line that can't be crossed. Is there an easy way to remind yourself???

For example, I tend to think of it this way - any ritual that is conducted in a tiled lodge meeting is secret. But at the same time, I have no problem telling my wife, "We've got an initiation next week so we're going to have a practice on Sunday."

Brent said...

I'd also like to see the removal of topics in Masonry that imply secrets where none exist, such as references to Goats.

Rutgers University Alumnus said...

I'm just wondering if Jim and I read the same article. The whole point is that there are secrets beyond the ritual ciphers and exposes that are available online or in books. Firstly, not every Masonic rite has had its ritual betrayed fully in the public domain, and then there are some where the rubrics are missing entirely, rendering them useless. Besides all that, the point again is that there are real secrets kept by various sectors of Masonry. There is mystery, intrigue and the experiential part of the ritual experience can (much like sex) never be betrayed.

I would assert that the majority of the Masonic world already does act like they have secrets. It is North America that has been going through an identity crisis for the last 5-7 years. Many of those parts of the World where the government has been oppressive and/or totalitarian (Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America) there is a great deal of conspiracy, politics and there are economic variables at play with the control of universities, control of political agendas and influence and other issues at play.

Brent, as for the goats, a brother of mine was just a few weeks ago in a PHA lodge where there was actually a live goat. It is clearly used to build anxiety, but there were some references thrown out by one brother regarding the astrological path of Capricorn and the West gate.

David said...

I'm am so glad to see that we are no longer made to feel ashamed of having secrets. This together with the article about secrecy from the last Masonic Society Journal will be synthesized for my next lodge Masonic education report.

Justa Mason said...

I agree with those people who say the secrets are the modes of recognition, etc.

I certainly do not say that because of shame, political correctness or what some doofus thinks. I don't buy into others' guilt trips. I say that because that's what my ceremonies told me. I doubt I've been lied to by the Masonic ceremonies.

All Masons the world over are obligated to keep some things secret except at certain, well-defined times.

However, what we do have is private matters. And perhaps I'm being pedantic, but I see a real difference between "secret" and "private."

We are under no obligation to keep private things secret, as we are with our passwords, and so on. A Mason chooses to keep them private because he feels that is best. What is private is up to the individual Mason to decide, and does not involve a promise on a Holy Book. Look at the way some people shriek and gossip on blogs about other people's Masonic business. At one time, prudence would have dictated they were internal, private matters. Or "secret" in your parlance.

The problem we've had with "secret", in my estimation, is not anti-Masons. It's the fact members keep being told there is more to secrecy than mere passwords so they react by not saying anything about it.

Justa

Eric said...

I think it is a case of horses for courses...yes it is true that we have lots and lots of secrets, but to an outsider most of those don't have a whole lot of meaning until one becomes a Mason. I usually say (and did on our local NPR affiliate) that we have secrets in 4 categories: Modes of recognition, which are pretty inconsequential, except that it is a token of good faith: we promise not to reveal them and so it demonstates we are as good as our word; contents of our degrees, because Masonry is experiential and part of that experience is that you go through it not know what is coming next; content of meetings and our member lists, because it is a private organization and none of your business and finally there is stuff we can't talk about because we don't really have the language to talk about it. It's an experience, a powerful shared experience and it is one of the reasons we are a brotherhood and not a club: we are bound together by a powerful experience that can be felt and shared, but generally not talked about.

So yeah, we have secrets, and I'd love to be a secret society like the Brotherhood that guards the Grail, or S.H.A.D.O. or something like that, but we really aren't. i find that by being straightforward with what is secret and what isn't, people "get it" much more readily than if we try to be inscrutable or if we just chalk it up to a bunch of "funny handshakes."

Chris Hodapp said...

S.H.A.D.O.
I want to belong to S.H.A.D.O.