President’s Message, Issue 32

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By the Exercise of Brotherly Love . . .
by Kenneth W. Davis, FMS

Here in New Mexico, the first-degree lecture lists the “Tenets of a Freemason’s profession” as “Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth”—doubtlessly not a surprise to Masons everywhere.

The lecture continues by defining brotherly love:

By the exericise of Brotherly Love, we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family—the high, the low, the rich, the poor—who, as created by one Almighty Parent, and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support, and protect each other. On this principle, Freemasonry unites men of every country, sect, and opinion; and conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.

In the US, the “perpetual distance” between people of different religious and political tribes seems large. Even in some Masonic lodges, religious and political differences among brothers are causing discord, even hatred. Young brothers are being told, for example, that Freemasonry is for members of only one religious tradition.

How did our Craft get into this situation, and how do we get out? One answer, although certainly not the only answer, may seem puzzling at first. I suggest there may be a correlation between true brotherly love and a deep devotion to our ritual—including lectures like the one I quoted above—and to what it stands for.

Freemasonry is often defined as “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” We live in an age filled with signs but almost devoid of symbols. In the sense I am using the word sign—a sense drawn from the science of semiology—signs have single, simple, explicit, surface meanings. An octagonal yellow road sign usually means stop, and nothing else. (Even those who choose to ignore that meaning acknowledge it.) In contrast, symbols have multiple, complex, implicit, deep meanings. The American flag is not just a sign, but a symbol, with a wide range of meanings around the world, positive or negative or both.

To complicate the matter, something can be a sign to one person and a symbol to another. To someone who lost a loved one because of a driver running a stop sign, the octagonal yellow road sign may call up a host of associations and feelings; it may become a symbol. And to someone in the world with no particular feelings either way about the United States (can we imagine such a person?) the American flag will be just a sign, simply identifying the USA. The fading Coca-Cola painted on the side of my childhood home (an apartment over our newspaper shop) can be seen as a mere sign, pointing to a particular brand of soft drink, or as a symbol, representing a whole cluster of economic and sociological and psychological and historical meanings.

In some earlier cultures, people lived lives surrounded by what they saw as symbols. A rock wasn’t just a rock; it was a part of the body of Mother Earth, or the residence of a god, or an emblem of solidity, or an instrument of punishment, or all of the above. Our culture, in contrast, has few symbols. We tend to focus on surface meanings. A rock is just a rock—or at best an example of granite or marble or sandstone. Most of us are “fundamentalists” in one way or another, taking what could be symbols and reading them as if they were merely signs, with simple, single, knowable meanings, religious or scientific. The literalist religious fanatic and the radical atheist have much in common.

The language and imagery of Freemasonry is remarkably rich in symbols, if we respect them as such. As Masons, we have the opportunity, in every lodge meeting, to move beyond our everyday world of signs into a highly charged, deep symbolic world.

In my mother lodge, one of my brethren was an ordained Gnostic bishop steeped in Western esotericism, while others declared—quite vocally—that they hold little truck with esoteric interpretations. From my Gnostic brother, I was reminded that the letter G in the east end of a lodge can stand not only for geometry and God (the latter mostly only in Germanic languages), it can also stand for gnosis, the inner sacred knowledge—light, if you will—that we Freemasons seek. For me, now, when I see the G, I recognize that it is not just a sign: it has at least three symbolic meanings for me.

So Masonic ritual, if taken seriously, is deeply symbolic. What’s that have to do with brotherly love?

My answer is that the way we see things as signs or symbols is reflected in the way we see people. In the industrialized, materialist West, too many of us—especially men, I think—see most other people has having simple, single meanings. One way we do that is through labeling: he’s a Republican, she’s a Mexican, he’s gay. By giving a person a neat label, we can avoid—we can’t not avoid—looking into the depths of meaning that person carries. Another way we attribute simple, single meanings to people is through seeing them as functionaries, as things that exist solely to serve a narrow function for us. As an unknown (to me) writer put it, “People were made to be loved. Things were made to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved, and people are being used.” We go through our days not really seeing the people who wash our cars, or clean our restrooms, or fight our fires, or teach our children.

A former colleague of mine who taught psychology was once leaving a ice cream shop near the University of Kentucky campus holding hands with his wife and carrying their young daughter on his shoulders. They passed two students heading toward the shop, then overheard one of the students whisper to the other, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that guy was my psych professor.” To that student, my friend existed only in the classroom; he couldn’t possibly eat ice cream, much less have a wife and daughter.

Because we men, especially, tend to look at other people in these ways, we find it very hard to develop close, initimate, deep male friendships. I suggest that a fundamental cause is our male tendency to dismiss other people as having simple, single, superficial meanings rather than complex, multiple, deep meanings.

When, as a brand new Mason, I learned that some of my brothers had partisan political views almost diametrically opposed to mine, I honestly questioned whether I had joined the right lodge. After all, I had spent much of my adult life avoiding relationships with “that” kind of people.

I’ve since learned how foolish that reaction was. (I was about to say “juvenile,” but realized that would be an insult to children.) I share with those brothers a respect for the deep symbolic language of our ritual, for its rich multiple meanings. Having this mutual respect, we are able to look past surface differences into the depths of each other’s being and respect what we find there. That’s not sappy sentimentalism, but a truth I’ve learned, to my great surprise, in my seventh and eighth decades of life. I believe I was a good man when I became a Mason at the age of sixty. Now, thanks to Masonry, I’m a lot better.

Millions of men in our culture are seeking that truth, without even knowing it. They are looking for deep symbolic meanings below the surface of things, and they are looking for deep male friendships. I suggest that those two yearnings are closely related, and that Freemasonry is uniquely positioned to fulfill them. Many lodges are finding that deep respect for ritual can lead to deep respect for one another.

In our time—with deep divisions among people and cultures that seem to remain “at a perpetual distance” from each other—the world desparately needs Masonic respect. It’s a gift Freemasons, in our daily encounters, can give the world. We call it Brotherly Love.

Kenneth W. Davis