Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Performing Ritual

Freemasonry is an initiatiac experience and I think, as such, it needs to be experienced. No matter how poorly it is performed I think that for it to be the most effective it actually has to be "walk around the altar - get hit on the head" experienced. Just reading it or watching it on film would not be the same thing.

When you attend different Lodges you see the Ritual performed in ways that are just a little different. Now the "Custodians" (makes me think of janitors) of the work might not agree with me but that is just fine with me. As I have said before. "My blog, my opinion. If you don't like it you can start your own blog or leave a comment.

As I said the Custodians might be laboring under some idea that, because of their work, the ritual is performed the exact same in every Lodge in the state. (OK, I know they don't think that. they are intelligent after all or they would not have memorized the entire ritual - or is that a sign of intelligence?) But for purposes of this post we all know that isn't true.

The degree I see tomorrow night will be different from the last second degree I saw. For one thing, the staircase lecture will be given by a different person. It might not even be the same lecture because it is "monitorial" and there are several versions of the lecture that are given. Even work that is ritualistic is done differently by different people.

In one lodge I attend the 3rd R gives his work so fast that the candidate probably doesn't even feel threatened. Later another character who is supposed to be expressing regret has little emotion in his voice at all. This is just not the best experience that the initiate could have but it is still better for him than showing it to him on a TV would be.

In one lodge I attended the King (Solomon) was really dramatic. You could tell he was upset. In most of them you don't even understand his motivation. It is done differently in each Lodge.

Some years ago the "Virginia Craftsmen" came to Iowa and performed the Third Degree for Iowa at the Consistory Building. They read an "admonition" to the craft about "unnecessary horseplay or talking" during the degree. (Theirs was the most boring Third Degree I have ever seen.) Shortly thereafter Iowa adopted the reading of the admonition before the second section of the Third Degree. I think it was a disservice to the craft. Not because it is a bad thing to admonish against horseplay but because it is interpreted as meaning there should be no drama in the mystery play. And that is what it is. The Masonic Third Degree is a mystery play.

I became involved in theater in High School in Gilbert, Iowa. I participated in two plays of such tremendous literary caliber as "Granddad Steps Out" - (Note it is still being performed occasionally some 50 years after we put it on in high school) - When attending college I became involved in College Players and during my first years of teaching I was a member of the Cedar Rapids Community Theater and later A.C.T.O.R.S. here in Ames. As such, I saw good acting in everything from Comedy to Drama. The mystery play that is the Masonic Ritual should also be "performed" dramatically but if it isn't it won't hurt the experience for the person being initiated. He comes to us not knowing what to expect. Whatever happens to him will impress him.

That does not mean that we should not give him our best - we should - it is what he deserves. Our best is what he paid for. But if it is not performed dramatically he will still have his experience. And he will see it many many times. But he will only "experience" once.

I just don't think you can get that experience by watching a movie or video of the initiation. In addition, the fashions, hair styles, etc. all change. We in Iowa use videos as a part of the education for the candidate. They are frequently criticized because of the pedantic style of talking and the clothing which the "actors" wear. The information is still good. The videos are simply outdated. That would happen with the Initiation videos.

The initiation in a Masonic Lodge needs to be "experienced." It is the obligation which makes a man a Mason. Living up to those obligations is what makes "good men better." But it is the experience of the initiation ceremony - actually participating in the ceremony which fulfills the promise of our fraternity and binds him to us. That binding needs to be the best it can be and I maintain that you can't get that by watching a video.

There is a really good comment below.  Click to read one brother's feelings about this,  I can't argue with what he says about the York and Scottish Rite except to say that at least in Des Moines you see really good ritual.  Thanks to David Dryer and Co.


JOHN said...

OK, Bro. J., I'll grant you all of that and then some. With a big "however."

I agree wholeheartedly that Masonry involves initiation, and that initiation in Masonry involves ritual. I also agree that Masonic ritual varies greatly from Lodge to Lodge, and from degree to degree, even in Iowa, and even in the same Lodge. I agree that it would be a disservice to Masonry were we to abandon our Masonic theatre for passive watching.

Here comes the "however." While Craft Masonry in Iowa is at least beginning what I hope will be an upswing in interest and even in membership, there are other Masonic groups--appendant bodies, we call them--where this is NOT the case.

Let me deal with only two, because they have similar problems: the Scottish and York Rites.

Each of these bodies confers several--as many as 30--additional Masonic degrees. In Iowa there are five Scottish Rite centers, and many more York centers. In the good old days when membership in both Rites was (a) numerous, (b) 40 to 50 years of age on the average, and (c) enthusiastic about learning the work, each of these centers performed many or most of these degrees with admirable skill and precision. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

I've attended Craft AND Rite degrees all over the state, as have you. By and large, all three Craft degrees can at least be recognized as such in virtually any Lodge in the state. Not so with the York and Scottish degrees. So far as I know, none of the five Scottish organizations confers all of the 29 usual Scottish Rite degrees every year, and, in some Consistories, some of the degrees haven't been exemplified for decades.

While the Chapter, Council, and Commandery degrees of the York Rite ARE exemplified from time to time in virtually every York location, they are regularly performed only with the assistance of neighboring bodies, and sometimes so poorly that they may be worse than meaningless.

I think there is a middle ground.

If well-performed, well-costumed degrees were available in high quality DVDs, they COULD be used while NOT removing the individual perambulation of a candidate and the individual obligation of a new Brother in each degree. It would require a skillful hand on the DVD player--someone familiar with the work AND the performance--but that might be easier to find than someone who tries to learn the Commander's role in the Temple Degree in two days, or an 85-year-old Commander in the Scottish 18th Degree who can't speak above a whisper.

And, so far as costumes are concerned, I don't know about the Ames York Bodies or the Des Moines Scottish Bodies, but in Cedar Rapids and Marion, our costumes are certainly more than 40 years old...

While the experience for a candidate would indeed be different if we had really GOOD recorded performances available (and we do not presently have them), it might in fact be better than the slipshod work sometimes presented now. And that work is not generally improving from Reunion to Reunion or from Festival to Festival.

I know. I'm being a miserable contrarian. And of COURSE I'd rather see really good, live theatre in Lodge, Chapter, Council, Commandery, and Consistory!

I ALSO learn something every time I see a degree. But then I ALSO learn something every time I hear a performance--recorded OR live--of a Beethoven symphony or a Shakespeare play. I KNOW these are different in kind from Masonic degrees, but I WOULD submit that there is something initiatory about Beethoven's Ninth or King Lear...

OK, Bailey. My seven doggies need to go outside now.


Jay Simser said...

Yes and I guess I would have to agree that when you have a large class and most of them sit and watch it isn't much better than watching a good DVD. But I still like the idea of the candidate experiencing the experience.

Anonymous said...

I agree with John's comments, at least as far as the York and Scottish Rite degrees are concerned. A high quality DVD, coupled with the appropriate obligation would be immensely better than the extremely amateurish attempts at theatre that we often see (or fail to see) at these functions. I would, perhaps, agree that the same could be used for the LECTURES in the Craft Degrees. But the participatory nature of those degrees (except of course for the One Day Class events) demands that these degress be performed, rather than recorded. But that that does not mean that they should be performed poorly. Quite the contrary.

Anonymous said...

This is a quiz. In what state was the cartoon drawn? Or perhaps I should say country. Three clues: (1) the Bible is directly in front of the WM, (2) there is a candle beside the WM, and (3) the aprons are incredibly ornate.

Anonymous said...

How 'bout the GLoE?