Friday, September 18, 2015

Grand Oration of 2015: The Importance of Ritual

For the last couple of days I've been in Pocatello (SE Idaho) attending the 148th Annual Communication of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free & Accepted Masons of Idaho. Having served the last year as Grand Orator it was my pleasure to deliver my Grand Oration at the Grand Banquet tonight. Here is a copy of that lecture:
To the Most Worshipful Grand Master, Most Worshipful Past Grand Masters, Grand Lodge Officers, Distinguished Guests, Brothers, Friends and Family all:
I’d like to start off by thanking Brother Art Shoemaker for appointing me as Grand Orator for this last year. I’ve enjoyed your friendship over the years and you have always been an example which I seek to strive for. For those who don’t know, I followed Bro. Art through the officer line in Oriental Lodge No.60 and this relationship has also resulted in gaining a second mother – the First Lady Sandy Shoemaker. I will say, before proceeding, this is one of my shortest lectures, but for those who don’t know me, I follow in similar trend as Bro. Jay Leonard, a short lecture for me can be anything that ends prior to midnight.
Freemasonry has been described in a number of ways; one of the most common is that Freemasonry is “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory, illustrated by symbols.” You have no doubt heard Bro. Monte and his “30-sec definition.” Well, Bro. Monte, I do apologize, my speech tonight will be slightly longer than 30-seconds, but it is my hope that it will leave a deep and lasting impression with you. Freemasonry is, first and foremost, an initiatic order whose rituals attempt to transform men both spiritually and morally. The ritualistic initiation is what separates Freemasonry from the other fraternal and philanthropic organizations such as the Kiwanis or the Rotary. Note that I am not trying to denigrate any of those organizations, but Freemasonry is not just a social or philanthropic group. My speech tonight is going to focus on ritual and its importance in our modern world.
So much of our world was affected by the counter-culture revolution that occurred in the 1960’s where much of the youth rejected the institutions, traditions, and rituals of their fathers and grandfathers. Even our fraternity was affected and today we see a generational gap as a direct result of this, which itself has caused a variety of problems in our fraternity. Today we are seeing more and more young men seeking out the fraternity because something is lacking in our modern world where certain rituals have been abandoned, or have become less effective, and there are fewer and fewer rituals practiced that instill a sense of belonging.
With so many “Millennials” left wanting, Freemasonry would seem to be an obvious solution, but struggles with membership, active membership, are still a reality. In my travels around the United States and even communicating on social media websites, many new Masons seem to be still left wanting, both in ritual and in education. There are some problems and misconceptions concerning ritual in Freemasonry today. Ritual is important to Freemasonry -- it’s the very basis of our order, but I think because of the proliferation of ritual in Freemasonry we have often failed to comprehend and understand the importance and purpose of our ritual. Many refer to the early to mid-20th century as the “Golden Age” of the fraternity because of the intense growth in membership, but I look back at it as an “age of the factory Lodge.” This is not an attack on those members, but to point out that most Lodges became so busy that attention was drawn away from the true understanding of ritual and many began to believe that it was simply the recitation and repetition of words and actions that mattered. If Lodge officers simply parrot the ritual of our order it will be weakened and seem disingenuous to the candidate thereby preventing the transformation and betterment. If the ritual work is poorly done or treated with such disregard, it could cause a negative reaction with the candidate where it could be perceived the ritual is a meaningless and hollow gesture continued by the Craft for the sake of continuing it.
Ritual isn’t just important to Freemasonry; it is an important aspect of society and human existence. There are a number of categories of rituals such as social rituals, military rituals, celebratory rituals, worship rituals, funerary rituals, bardic rituals, and initiatic rituals. Freemasonry is filled with a variety of rituals, but the most notable is the initiatic or initiation rituals. Rituals remind us of what is important as well as providing a sense of stability and continuity in our lives; it educates us in the values of an organization, allows for knowledge to be passed from generation to generation unchanged, and binds the members together, not just in the Lodge, but across time and space. Masonic rituals attempt to impart values and lessons through symbolism which can have an effect at the subconscious level. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, said that man's mental health needed to be refreshed which required an occasional return to the sense of Self, the unification of all aspects of one’s personality and psyche, which was facilitated by myths and initiation rituals. An interesting point is that Carl Jung represented the Self as a “point within a circle.”
For clarification, I will define ritual as “dramatic, planned sets of activities that bring together aspects of an organization’s culture in a single event” often through the use of symbols and, in regards to Freemasonry, ritual is the physical enactment of our central myth—the Hiramic legend. Concerning the term “myth”, it is a popular notion that myth equates fiction. In reality, myths can be both fiction and non-fiction, but the origin of the use of myth is in oral traditions, which is the telling of stories and legends were passed down through the generations via storytellers. Written myths often came about centuries after an oral myth originated. The validity aside, oral myths did not stay consistent, but were used to help explain an event or philosophy to a largely illiterate people. To contrast rituals and myths, scholars like Edward Tylor, argues that ritual stems from and is secondary to myth; that myths give birth to rituals.
The history of rituals demonstrates there has been an intimate part of human existence. In 2006, scientists discovered evidence in Botswana that humans were practicing rituals around 70,000-years ago. The scientists discovered in a cave, a pit filled with arrow heads that had been burned next to wall paintings and believed that the ritual surrounded the creation myth that man was descended from a python (which was depicted in one of the paintings). Persians, Egyptians, Romans, and Grecians, in ancient history, had organizations such as mystery cults who met in secret and used initiation rituals to bestow upon candidates philosophical and moral knowledge as well as the modes of recognition.
Initiation rites and rituals help mark the passage of time, from one stage of life to the next. Sometimes they can be referred to as “rites of passage.” Informally, these rites of passage could be a young man killing and packing out his first deer. Formal initiation rites, while they will vary in myth and exact practices from group to group, still have common themes. Many initiation rituals attempt to teach a lesson of humility either through symbolic destitution or through some kind of struggle. This practice isn’t meant to embarrass, but to clear the path back to the Self, to get rid of the attachment to materialism. Another theme is the concept and reflection on death and/or rebirth. Whether or not this is a part of the central myth, this concept is to signify the moral and spiritual transformation.
In many aspects, the modern world has lost some sense of its rituals and in that way Freemasonry has the ability to offer something meaningful to our young men, as well as young women in other Masonic bodies, through the transformative initiation rituals or rites of passage. As Freemasons we owe it to our candidates that the ritual is performed in such a solemn and impressive manner that it may leave a lasting mark, but this can be only done when those performing the ritual have an understanding of that ritual. Brother Robert Reid out of the Grand Lodge of Scotland put it best when he said, “Ritual is weakened when the manner in which it is practiced is divorced from the reason for it being practiced.” Brothers, as we separate and finish with Grand Lodge, I challenge you to look back at your journey through Freemasonry to those memorable moments which has influenced and inspired you. I’d like to share with you two memories that stand out most: The first was when I was I Raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason and the second was when I was dubbed and created a Knight Templar. Bro. Art, you were the one who knighted me and that scene has remained with me as vivid as it was then. I know for me the reason these two events have resonated with me so is that those involved in those rituals put their heart and soul into it. In closing friends and Brothers, let us live up to one of the talking points of our Fraternity, that of “making good men better” by putting our heart and soul into our Fraternity and our ritual. 
Fraternally submitted,
Barry E. NewellWorshipful Grand Orator
In writing this I took the advice of the Most Worshipful Grand Master of Montana when he said that a speech should be like a skirt: long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to keep your attention. It was a humbling experience and I'm thankful for it.

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