Traditional Observance Masonry is a movement in the United States, and abroad, that purports to restore Masonry to an admirable place of excellence. While this seems like a good idea, in execution – at least in Colorado – it has been anything but.
When the “T.O.” movement first became known to me, like many others, I was an enthusiastic proponent. Here was something that seemed to promise the kind of Masonic experience that, as a new Mason, I’d been looking for. Candlelit lodge rooms. Ritualistic excellence. Philosophical exegesis. Even incense.
But what seemed worthy in intent, at least in Colorado it seems, soon became overcompensated in execution. Additional elements to the ritual (before and after Lodge opened) seemed hyperbolic and counterfeit, as if someone were attempting words with someone else’s voice. To precess solemnly into Lodge to dramatic effect with evocative music, and then stand on the sign of fidelity to await the Master’s stentorious declaration, dropped like stones into the dark silence between the white gloves, “Brethren be clothed, Officers repair to your stations and places!”, came suddenly redundant and without purpose. It was ineffective – even comical: We were already clothed, and everyone was actually at their stations and places because we’d all just precessed into the Lodge under the very important direction of the Marshall.
Don’t get me wrong, there are elements of the so-called “T.O.” movement worth keeping – or rather, should we say, exemplifying in Masonry as practiced in the 21st Century. The problem, though, at least as evidenced here in Colorado it seems, is one of pernicious self-aggrandizement, some abhorrent overcompensation that somehow creeps in. All of a sudden Brethren take to believing they know what is best for the Fraternity. They stop listening to Masons they denounce as “fish-fry Masons” and reinforce their opinions among the supportive and like-minded. They begin to pronounce cure-alls with dictatorial zeal. They become Masonic fundamentalists – zealots for an occultist religiosity that rusts the working tools of any truly observant Mason.
Perhaps worst of all, they make themselves up to be professional Masons. Self-appointed, their avarice becomes evident.
The Western Mystery Tradition (for want of a better epithet) has been plagued with this shadow for centuries. The system of degrees familiar to its methodology used to impart “wise and serious truths” is, perhaps, meant to elevate the worthy through a comprehensive system of revelation. Secrets are meant to keep the subject worthy, not the candidate. Each degree is meant to empty the candidate, until he becomes a vessel suitable, perhaps, for an indwelling of Deity. Too often, though, the reverse occurs – a candidate assumes titles of grandeur, takes pride in his secretive position above his peers, gets full of himself and runs amok.
This problem also exists in the Eastern systems of initiation. But there is a more pronounced attempt to deal with it up front. In the Mahayana mysteries of Tibet, for example, a candidate must complete 100,000 one-hundred syllable mantras, 100,000 protestations, and 100,000 offerings before he is prepared to receive the Tantric (essentially theurgical) mysteries. Even if practiced for several hours daily, that takes three to five years of solid commitment. The effect is to reduce the ego in devotion so that when power is given or attained, it is less likely to corrupt.
Masonry is filled with teachings similarly designed to subjugate the ego. But too often, it seems, these central teachings appear to be ignored.
We must recall the Temple is unfinished now. The working tools must be applied now, in every present moment, not adopted when the foundation has been laid bare by some odd attempt at demolition and personal ascension. Indeed, to make ready the working space for the completion even to begin, the working tools must be applied each and every day. If the end justifies the means, Brethren, then that means the end!
Don’t get me wrong, there have certainly been fantastic discussions your correspondent has enjoyed at “T.O.” Lodges, with worthy and well-informed Brethren. And in some instances the movement seems to work because the Brethren are sincere and have talent. But, all too often, ironical bemusement must predominate, as when a respected speaker, flown in to Denver to speak on Druidry for instance, asked with a quizzical air if the lights might be raised, at least during his talk, so he could actually read his remarks…. We were all just standing there in the dark. He poked fun at the deliberate solemnity, and warmed up the room even as he had brightened it.
One “T.O.” Lodge essentially became a recruiting ground for other, more “occult” groups – groups with secret knowledge and keys to many doors – doors, it seems, that ultimately led to someone’s pockets.… Unsurprisingly, initial growth there ended in implosion and overzealous egos.
The “T.O.” movement had a sudden fascination, perhaps, in the novelty of it all. But it soon became one-dimensional in cooption – every meeting was like a funeral…. But we’d all heard the eulogy before. Every banquet was affected, and conversation was forced. The brethren would pontificate, just the same old stories. The fun seemed to be leaking out. The meetings weren’t necessarily serious – but everyone took themselves too seriously anyway.
One must ask, do we even need this adjective for Freemasonry? Isn’t all Freemasonry inherently observant? If you want deep discussion in Lodge – which exists as a forum wherein any Brother is allowed to speak – come to Lodge with something to say. If you want more solemnity in ritual, learn a part! Be proactive, not detractive.
It’s worth remarking, perhaps, that the appellation “T.O.” is something of a misnomer anyway. If you look at Masonry as practiced in the early 18th Century during its formative speculative years, what is actually “traditional” might surprise you. While the philosophical element should never be discounted, it is undeniable that Masonry was exceedingly light-hearted as well. The most important part of Masonry must be fellowship – indeed, How good and how pleasant it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity….
All the above notwithstanding, Masonry is yet not just another social club. Freemasonry does indeed maintain allusions to an ineffable philosophy, a philosophy that can be transformative when properly employed. But how that employment is effected must be open to the apprehension of every individual Mason, respective of their own heritage and worldview. The plurality of opinions across members forges a unity of purpose more profound in proportion. What is good, right, and true, is all the more united by the different faiths, professions, philosophies, and opinions of the Brethren, accounted when in Lodge assembled. Where all these disparities overlap, something is revealed. Good is not divided in Lodge. It is united, despite these material differences. In a time when evil is united in simple opposition against the Good, nothing – nothing – can be more relevant.
Perhaps the greatest effect of Masonry, then, especially in the narcissistic 21st Century, is to render each individual a member of something much larger than himself. To maintain a schedule accommodative of the Fraternity. To make meetings and participate, on the level. To meet Brothers on the square, without regard for occupations or social status outside of Lodge. To “regularly approach the East”, without stooping, bowing, or genuflecting. To respect the majority opinion, and its right to move the Lodge, while maintaining the minority opinion’s right to be heard…. These are, in fact, great and noble purposes that engender transformation in any candidate able to accommodate them.
It’s not easy. Even without the Hermetic influences – the importance of which cannot be denied – perhaps these alone are enough?
One of the largest mistakes Masonry is in danger of making, and one of the catalysts for the “T.O.” movement – in fact, its clarion cry – is the supposition that Masonry is not just a charitable organization. Charity – that most important of the virtues (which is, in fact, “love”) – must emerge as the side-effect of Masonry’s good labors. Charity is the result, not the end, of our Fraternity. When Freemasonry is performed with acumen, Charity must be the inevitable result. Along with civilization, tolerance, egalitarianism, and instruction. But none of these things is the pursuit of Masonry per se, lest Masonry devolve to its subject and not, more importantly, engage its object.
What is the object of Masonry? I suspect it is very much what the “T.O.” supporters declaim it to be. But, I suppose, that object exists in Freemasonry regardless, even in the pejorative “fish fry” disparaged by most “T.O.” members. It is truly sad that, while in its meekest form, some Brethren fail to see Masonry even there. To see the world in a grain of sand… as William Blake once famously put it.
An example may serve. A relatively new Brother once asked me, “what are we doing in Lodge?” He likened Freemasonry to an automobile, and said, “it’s like we all get in the car when we open Lodge. The Worshipful Master is in the driver’s seat. The officers fill out the vehicle. The Master turns the key, and starts the engine. But we don’t go anywhere. We just turn it off, and get out. We talk about the engine, its modes and operations, but we don’t actually drive anywhere!”
I thought this a powerful analogy, and I reflected on it for a few days, because I felt I understood his point. It was a good one – a question I’d asked myself, in so many words. But upon due reflection, I responded by pointing out that, yes, Masonry is a vehicle of a kind. But, importantly, we are not driving Freemasonry. Rather, Freemasonry is driving us.
The Lodge moves its members, even while the members move the Lodge!
This subtle distinction is incredibly important. On the one hand, a Brother wants to make a difference. On the other, the difference is made in him. Then, indeed, he becomes more than himself.
Plato taught that “Man is the origin of his action”. When right action is made in man, when his own ends are subdued to the will of a majority assessed in deliberative assembly, what is larger than the small will comes to prosper. This alone is enough. To be a member of a deliberative body, where each member is granted equal opportunity to move the Lodge, wherein a peaceful transfer of power is maintained annually by the will of the assembly; in all this, great and material truths are exemplified in microcosm.
Ultimately, Masonry must be a system of deliberation, even while it is a school of instruction. It’s teachings are gentle. It’s mode is subtle. But contained in its arcane ritual are the greatest tenets of what man can be. Executed in Lodge assembled, these principles are made in fact.
It is therefore, at least in my opinion, a failure of the “T.O.” movement to relegate business to some separate meeting, a meeting at which a mere quorum of officers is apt to attend, and then keep a “main” meeting for everyone else where some “education” is unveiled. Masonry is an experience, yes, but it is also action. The transaction of business is an instruction worthy of any Mason. If meetings discussing business are boring, then chances are your officers are not doing their jobs.
In the end, if you need a new name for what Freemasonry should be, chances are you’re not practicing what Freemasonry is. Because, experience suggests, all the elements worthy of “T.O.” are not found in the darkened Lodge amid stolid oratory and relish:
They’re found where we were each first prepared to be made a Mason – in the heart.