G. K. Chesterton once said that "the world would never starve for wonders, but only for the want of wonder."
Once upon a time, there was this great and admired fraternity called the Freemasons. The Masons did incredible things, attracted the best and the brightest, proudly made a difference in society, and were the very pillars of their communities.
Everybody knew it.
They also built magnificent Temples that stood the test of time which were the most splendid clubhouses anywhere.
Take the Masonic Temple in the photo above. It was built at the height of the fraternal building boom in 1927, and there were hundreds of them all over the country that looked just as sturdy and impressive. In those heady days, the Freemasons had to compete with the Woodmen, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of Columbus, and scores of others for the hearts and minds of fraternal-minded Americans. So they constructed these landmark Temples to rise above, to stand out from all others, and to make sure there was no one in their community who wasn't aware of just who and what the Freemasons were and where they were located, right in the heart of their town. It was built to impress, to inspire both non-Masons and Masons alike, and to make a statement that the Freemasons were the best of the best. It told the whole world that great things went on inside, and that great men believed in Masonry and being a Mason. It didn't look like any other sort of building. It was designed to make passersby stop and look. It was awe inspiring. It was stable. It was immovable. It wan't temporary. And it sure wasn't cheap.
Well, it's not 1927 anymore. There's no competition anymore. The Masons in this particular town have sold their Temple building recently to a Buddhist Temple. All of the usual reasons were cited: dwindling membership, rising maintenance costs, too much space to heat and cool. So the Masons got $425,000 for it, and I'm sure they felt like they were lucky not to have to pay anyone to take their white elephant off their hands. "Phew! That was lucky!" I'm sure someone said, as they cashed the check and fled.
Today when all of those imaginary "young men" who are supposed to "save the fraternity" come driving through their town looking for the lodge to join, where can the Masons be found now? Where have they moved to now? Where are the Freemasons of this town who used to be so prominent in their community? Are they in a proud new Temple that impresses, that equally proclaims their pride, their noble stature, their legendary heritage and the promise of an equally legendary future, just in a slightly smaller but equally magnificent edifice?
Not a chance.
They're right here. Inside of a generic office building that looks like a medical office.
Or a real estate firm.
Or an accountant.
Or insurance company.
Or anything besides a Masonic Temple.
When the local paper interviewed one of the the Masons for a story on the sale of their old Temple, the most enthusiastic thing that he could find to say about their new location was that it has "better parking."
But hey, I'll bet the elevator works flawlessly and the roof doesn't leak. What more can anyone want? Perhaps someone will even put their lodge names on the office directory in the lobby.
For a fraternal group that so mythologizes its origins among the most storied and legendary builders and architects of the Biblical and Medieval worlds, how can we as Masons now accept the most banal mediocrities as being suitable for our Temples, which are supposed to be our sanctuaries from the chaotic and mundane world around us?
The most grotesquely misunderstood and abused phrase in all of Freemasonry is "it is the internal, not the external qualities of a man which Masonry regards." That phrase has been used as an excuse to accept, condone and perpetuate mediocrity. It's used to excuse sloppy dress and personal appearance, to excuse bad public behavior, to excuse generic pole barn Temples, to excuse poor ritual performance, and worst of all, to justify the failure to provide a quality lodge experience to our own members. We don't have a new member problem, we have a retention problem. New members flee today almost as quickly as we make them Masons because they are disappointed by our lodges and the experience we gave them. And we have no business bringing another new man into this fraternity until our existing members love it, cherish it, believe in it, practice it, and make it the very best it can be. Those sort of Masons don't leave.
The good news is that the Buddhist Temple folks DO believe in the value of their former home of the Freemasons. They recognize it's still an important landmark in their town, and they are treating it accordingly. They are repairing it, cleaning it, heating and cooling it, and are happy and proud to be its new owners. So at least it won't be razed and scraped from the face of the Earth as so many others have been. And will continue to be, as temple after temple shambles down this same, dreary, future path.
It's hard to find the resources and strength and resolve to keep these irreplaceable places, to think creatively, and to involve the community, so we all don't lose them forever. Because one thing is certain: we Freemasons sure won't replace them with anything better these days.
Not by a long shot.
Tomorrow, people will drive past this still impressive and beautiful Temple with its new owners. Someone will undoubtedly ask "What was that place, anyway?"
And someone else will undoubtedly answer, "Once upon a time, there was this great and admired fraternity called the Freemasons...."