Sunday, October 5, 2008

Images and Mirrors in Freemasonry.

This paper was presented at the 9th World Conference of Masonic Grand Lodges

By Diederik van Rossum, Grand Master
Order of Freemasons under the Grand East of the Netherlands

When man discovered the mirror he gradually lost his soul. He started to be more troubled with his image than with himself. Is this what happened to freemasonry in our different cultures? If society is our mirror did we, over three centuries of regular freemasonry, loose our souls and by this the spirit of masonry?

Did our ongoing effort to support ethical behaviour in civil society, to counterbalance fanaticism, intolerance and tyranny actually blind us for the duties and responsibilities we have within our Lodges and Grand lodges towards our own brethren? These questions I started to wonder about when I read the list of topics for this conference. I would like to address some issues that refer to masonry itself. From the mirror to the one who stands before it. What issues come from the mirror of the 21" century about our brotherhood? I only mention a few, often-heard, statements. Freemasonry is about:

• Conspiracy and danger
• Immature and naive boy scouts
• Old men filling their empty hearts with funny rituals
• Guardians of non-existing secrets
• Elite with extreme right-wing tendencies
• Revolutionaries sabotaging governments
• Outdated old-boys network
• Minority organisation without any social relevance
• A secret society with unquestionable dogma's

And last but not least it is an organisation that doesn't meet the requirements of current social values like transparency and equality between man and women and therefore a suspicious organisation. The decline in membership worldwide, with a few exceptions, might be caused by the lack of attraction that comes from an organisation, which is perceived as such.

It could also be the other way around. Maybe the very existence of freemasonry allows society to become aware of the loss of its own soul? Is there a hidden force manipulating society, disguised as democracy? Is the free world facing a manic mood disorder disguised as growth by its blind tendency to expand (economic) territory to control and maintain power? Is the free world on its way to forget that brotherhood of men and appreciation of differences is at the core of human dignity?

"The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind", good old Bob Dylan would probably sing to us as a response to these questions. So when it comes to the future of freemasonry I recommend another lyric, by the former Cat Stevens. "I listen to wind, to the wind of my Soul, I don't know where I'll end up, only God really knows"!

Out of the Past

So let's hold the question in our heart about who we are and who we want to become and continue listening to the wind that blows in and between our hearts. Let the future reveal itself and let's for a while turn our attention towards the past. Three centuries of freemasonry in the free world. Before we, as we man are so used to, go for the action I would like to reflect a little bit on the past with you. The future depends on asking the right questions, while the past provides us with answers that once were given. What answers did the past of freemasonry provide us with? As with my questions, I only mention a few:

• Hardly any and maybe no organisation in the world managed to survive for such a long time. The 252 years old Grand East of the Netherlands, that I represent here today, is older than any political party in our country and is even older than our Monarchy;
• During these centuries Masonic Lodges have been "safe" places for men of dignity and integrity because they remained truthful to their basic principles;
• The autonomous way masonry is organised has been an and still is an "Ideal Image" for how the world could be;
• Autonomy and individual responsibility of members in Lodges, of Lodges within Grand Lodges and among Grand Lodges all over the world without any controlling power over anybody is up to our days a unique management formula;
• Man of different times and cultures have proved to be able to be both supporters of their time in their responsibilities in society and at the same time managed to express Masonic values beyond time;
• By standing apart from politics and sectarianism the Masonic Lodge has always been a background for inspiration and support for its members. A background that stimulates every individual member to take moral responsibility for their membership in the world to the best of their understanding. This background is based on values and believes that are symbolically shared in our rituals, without imposing any particular time-bound action or particular body of knowledge onto any member;
• Through ritual, also known as 'symbolic action", Freemason's learn to value their inner world, they learn how important it is to use their insights in themselves to support their fellowmen and finally they learn to invest the best of who they are into the world without asking for reward;
• The Masonic ritual teaches us to take part in building a better world in an ambitious way without any attachment to perfection.

A place described as such is bound to be highly attractive. My brethren, I ask you: Can we say this is still true for our Lodges today? Especially in our time with its virtual realities on the screen of our computers, we see a tremendous increase of longing for authentic companionship, meaning and spiritual values. Do the real spiritual seekers come to our lodges or do they prefer to enter the world of Google to find what they are looking for, sitting behind the mirror of a computer screen. And when we manage to get them away from their screens and initiate them, do they find in the Lodge what they were initiated for? Is the Lodge a mirror that responds to this deep longing? Is the Masonic lodge really prepared for the young seekers of the 21st century? I don't think so, to be honest.

False gold and real gold

Three centuries of freemasonry has created a lot of false gold. We've build temples of stone, schools and hospitals. We impressed the world with famous persons who once were masons; we have spent a fortune on charity in our different societies. We practise our rituals in the way they were transferred to us. 0 yes, our ancestors really practised their understanding of masonry. Good men making the world a better place. We now live with the fruits of their endeavour in stone and in good manner, wondering what to do next. But where is the real gold of our time? For, "where there is false gold. there is real gold". Asclepius ( III 25) once gave Egypt this warning:

"O Egypt, Egypt! Of thy religious rites nothing will survive but fables, which your children's children will not believe. Nothing telling of your piety will survive, other than words incised on stone."

Rather then to move on blindly, hang on to and exaggerate the past I strongly suggest that it is up to us to reconnect to the essence of masonry and it's spiritual nature. It is my strong believe that we have to counterbalance the dangers of the time in our lodges by mobilizing the forces of renewal in every individual member before the fate of Egypt becomes the fate of masonry and our names end up as words incised on Stone. I'm sure that every individual mason is concerned with particular aspects of the current world situation. Yet, masonry itself doesn't aim to influence the world situation. I full heartedly agree with the Pro Grandmaster of the United Grand Lodge of England, who said in his address to the European Grandmasters meeting in November 2007, that "the only influence masonry should be seeking is over itself and its members". We need to use this influence in such a way that membership of a Masonic Lodge contributes to the quality of life of it's members with their particular personal and professional responsibilities.

Core business and Masonic education

First of all, we need to accept that today freemasonry is a minority organisation without any social relevance, step back from the mirror called society and step in front of the mirror called
'Masonic ritual. After all, initiation is our "core business". We don't only need to learn to practice our rituals but we also need to learn to see and to hear how our ritual is mirroring the essence of who we are and who we may become in our hearts and lives. Most of all, we need to learn to share our individual insights with each other in the Lodge. The Masonic Lodge of the 21st century needs to become the place where modem men support each other to reveal and practice this essence in their individual lives outside the Lodge and for the benefit of the world and its inhabitants. We can make this happen by making internal Masonic education in all its different aspects our highest priority for the next decade. Masonic education needs to become the key in our Lodges and between Lodges, in our Grand Lodges and between Grand Lodges. Being a member of a Lodge and going from labour to refreshment a few times a year is not sufficient any more. We have to create space in our Lodges for serious reflection and sharing. A space where we can deepen our understanding of what freemasonry offers with those who share the experience of initiation.

The modern mason wants to talk about what is meaningful for him in relation to his Masonic experience and the significance of this experience for his daily life. Not only in a virtual reality but also in the physical reality. The Lodge needs to become such a physical reality. And let's not forget the other way around: Masonry needs modern men to keep an ancient tradition alive in an ongoing changing world. We have never been with that many in the world but we already are in the world for a very long time.

Finally I would like to remind you that we are not human beings on a spiritual path but that we are spiritual beings on a human path.

The mirror of Freemasonry reminds you of both.

Order of Freemasons under the Grand East of the Netherlands,
Diederik van Rossum, Grand Master.

No comments: