At the conclusion of each degree, we ask that a Brother demonstrates proficiency in the preceding degree before he may progress to the next. This practice hearkens back to the days of old, during the time of active and operative Lodges, which were very much involved in the building arts. Accordingly, proficiency, in a manner of speaking, takes the place of the Operative practice that once consisted of 7 years in an apprenticeship. After such a time, and if completed successfully, one might be Passed as a Fellow of the Craft. In the days of building Cathedrals, Castles, or other great structures of stone; indeed, even if the structure were only a small residence, the importance of quality workmanship was paramount. If a workman were to somehow advance to the level of a Fellow of the Craft, who might at any given time, be the Master of that project, without possessing the necessary knowledge, then the project, the Lodge, and the community as a whole might be in danger, should the structure collapse. Indeed, proficiency in the knowledge of Masonry was, and is, of the utmost importance.
Our Speculative Craft, in the modern day, is no different from the practices and cautions used by our Operative forefathers. However, for the sake of expediency, laziness – or perhaps both; the Freemasonic Institution has slowly whittled away the determining factors of proficiency into something reminiscent of a paint by numbers booklet. Even those among us, from the youngest Entered Apprentice in the North East corner of the Lodge, to he who presides in the East, as Worshipful Master, are not tested in proficiency as they should be. Those jurisdictions that utilize ciphers for the memorization exercises, with some exceptions, have inadvertently overstated the importance of knowing only the lecture; as opposed to learning the knowledge and guideposts held within the lecture, which historically was given by the instructive tongue, and received by the attentive ear. The all too common one day classes, though necessary for some, have made it possible for many to become Initiated; Passed; and then Raised; without EVER having set foot inside their respective Temples. The Brethren are told that such practices are done in attempts to increase our membership, perhaps by making the “Work” of Masonry less cumbersome, if not completely non-existent.
Yet, our numbers on the membership rolls still decrease. The “retention rate” of our Brethren is dismal and declining. How can this be, if we are rolling out the red carpet, as it were, welcoming new Candidates? Membership, retention, attendance… the payment or non-payment of dues. These are all nothing more than semantics, symptoms of an underlying problem; a problem that few have the answer for, or even the proper questions to ask. Freemasonry’s dwindling numbers have little to do with “keeping the Brethren interested”, or of having an entertaining Stated Meeting; even the old standby of good food (and plenty of it) has failed us!
In today’s Lodges, a good deal of Masonic education that is offered consists only of timed filler– “fluff” material which is hardly informational, and definitely not enlightening. We labor under the notion that if Lodge is “fun”, Brethren will attend, and our membership will grow. And yet, even if it does, under the circumstances laid out prior, how will that new “structure” of Freemasonry stand? If it is built without proficiency, without the proper knowledge of the Arts, the structure will not stand and it cannot stand. The Freemasonic structure, built hastily and for the wrong reasons, is akin to a very tall stone wall, a wall built without cement. The cement is meant to bind the wall, and acts as the same symbolic cement which binds the Brethren. In short, the wall without a basis for binding, will fail. The basis for binding is knowledge, founded in proficiency; as such the answer lies not in how fast to build, but how to build properly.
The answer lies in proficiency.
Simple memorization of the catechism is not enough. A young child can memorize a nursery rhyme and still not comprehend what the nursery rhyme really means. The adult who reads the story to the child is responsible, in many ways, for deciding when a new story, a progression, is appropriate. Who among us has not witnessed, or been guilty of, finding that a particular children’s book is not “exciting” enough for the child. If this is the case, it sometimes makes little difference if the book teaches a good lesson, or if the message provides possibility for growth in the child; if the child is not interested, we simply choose a different, more interesting, though possibly less informative book to read from. And thus, our dilemma is solved. The child is being read to, eventually learns to read, and we call that success. However, the child will, at some point, suffer as a result of not being made to tough it out and work through the difficult material. Masonic Mentors face some of the same pitfalls and challenges with their
charges, even though this is not to mean, in a literal sense, that Candidates and Brethren are “children”. However, in either case, the Mentor must insist that patience and a pathway towards learning remain THE central theme.
In Masonic life, the trials and lessons of our Apprenticeships and learning processes prepare us for the challenges we will face as time passes, and as degrees are conferred. It is often times that the difficult material is the most valuable material. That the monitor and ritual were written down upwards of 200 + years ago means that we should learn and review those materials carefully, often times with a dictionary encompassing that time period. To learn the Work, we must first understand the Work. Thus, a solid knowledge of the language, the long words in many lectures that some Brethren call the “$500 Words”, are very often the most important ones to know!
The Ritual serves as a guide, yes- a blueprint, if you will. Our Monitors are the same thing. Neither one is infallible, and save the Ancient Landmarks (which are nearly the same throughout), many Jurisdictions have considerably different language. Yet, all point to a central location, which is the betterment and personal growth of each individual Mason. The volumes printed and circulated are but hints of someone else’s thoughts, of their perceptions concerning our Craft. These are useful tools, but are only tools; they are guidelines and possible roadmaps for the attainment of Masonic Light.
However, the attainment of ANY Light depends on that individual Brother finding it for himself. My Light will not be the same as your Light, or of anyone else’s Light. All Light is relative to a Brother’s particular situation, and to the progress he has made in the mystery of the Order. Each of these forms the parameters which guide and allow for that Brother’s individual growth. Concerning those parameters, proficiency, in large part, helps to form the foundations! While it is true that Masonry is a progressive, and at times, a solitary journey, each block laid in our Masonic edifice must rest upon something. Indeed, even the foundation must rest upon and become anchored in a solid surface. Proficiency serves as that mighty substrate. Proficiency, a Mastery of the basic working tools of the profession, provides a basis for all else and allows the builder to build.
Without Proficiency, the builder is left with tools; is left with a rough blueprint; is left with materials with which to build; but is left without the knowledge of HOW to build. Without
proficiency, the builder will construct recklessly. His structure will rise out of balance, sway upon its moorings, and will collapse against the winds of this life. It is for these reasons that a mentor is so very important to the Candidate and Brother. After a certain period, the individual Mason begins to build. As he builds, and if he builds with proficiency, the Brother’s edifice will rise expertly and squarely. This individual structure will be combined with the multitude of structures built by others, thus forming our Institution. If, through proficiency, such an Institution is built, it will stand… whether the membership numbers 1,000,000 or 100.
I have often reminded those whom I have mentored that “Lodge is important, but you don’t have to go to Lodge to be Mason”. And that “Masonry is right there, in YOUR heart- that’s where it began, right?” The question then very quickly becomes: do we desire a large and unstable Institution; or would we prefer to have a manageable sized, strong, and robust Institution? How important are Grand Master’s awards for membership drives? Are we retaining members, and if so- are those members proficient; are they indeed worthy and well-qualified? Have we done our Level best to ensure that a Brother is good, strong, and proficient before recommending him for the next degree?
The future of Masonry, and even of the Freemasonic Institution, does not rely upon numbers, but upon individual hearts of the Brethren.