From the east Right Worshipful Master.
Worshipful Senior Warden, whither directing your course?
Towards the west, Right Worshipful Master.
Worshipful Junior Warden, what inducement have you to leave the east and go to the west?
To seek for that which was lost Right Worshipful Master, which, by your instructions and our own
endeavours we hope to find.
As you may know, Freemasonry this side of the Atlantic views with a good deal of dismay the practice of some Grand Lodges in the United States of mass initiations. I say mass initiations rather than the term they use, ‘one-day classes’, as that tends not only to mask this infamous practice, but to lend it an air of respectability, which it certainly does not deserve. Many Grand Lodges in the United States have not adopted this means of boosting membership, and in the interests of obtaining a broad view of how this practice is treated by all United States Grand Lodges, we conducted a straw poll of all of them. Some did not reply to our questions at all, knowing that we are against the practice, and doubtless not wishing to give us further ammunition. Some of them who are in favour, gave detailed, intelligent reasons why. But many Grand Lodges, opposed to this, let us have their views in equal detail. One of them gave a good and reasoned reply, and it was the concluding line that struck me:
‘It is the journey, not the destination, that gives our degrees their value.’
The simple truth of that statement has stuck in my mind as a touchstone for all that we aspire to. Journeys are in themselves valid. No need to ask me in detail where I’m going or why. I don’t have to justify my journey. It’s enough simply to be a Journeyman or Fellowcraft. As Robert Louis Stevenson said; ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour’. According to the quotation at the top of this article, we go out from the Temple to seek, east to west. Having set out, and experienced life on the way, symbolised by the perambulations in the lodge, we find our way back to the east, back to ourselves, to the centre, that which Michael Baigent calls the ‘still point which lies deep within ourselves’.
‘ … and the true success is to labour.’ Can we apply this also to our masonic journeying? Why, of course. The mistake so often made is in telling an aspirant for a degree, ‘Just relax, and enjoy the ceremony’. Our degree ceremonies, or what comes immediately after them, should require effort on the part of the aspirant. He is the one who needs to work, to smooth his rough ashlar, no matter which degree is being conferred. He is the one for whom the mysteries of nature and science are still hidden, and it is in his own work, unveiling, revealing, disentangling, decoding, that the beauty of his masonic pursuit will come home to him. The true Journeyman, journeying through life and growing from youth to mature manhood, reminds me of William Wordsworth:
The youth, who daily further from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended …
Freemasonry should be there to ensure that the aspirant is indeed attended by a vision. We won’t be travelling very far unless we have one. We can feed and clothe ourselves, but our spirit has to be nourished too. Of those American brethren who have lost the way, one of the justifications for mass initiations, and the truncation of instruction for the aspirants, or even its removal altogether, is that many of them are busy men whose lives and careers won’t permit laborious study and learning. How much they are missing! How will they find the way to the centre? What journeys, rich in symbolism and in experience, are denied to these poor aspirants? They might actually be more fulfilled in a social and philanthropic organisation of some sort.
What is growth, if it is not the natural consequence of the passage of time, experience, and nourishment in all its senses? When we are young, setting out on our careers, we garner experience like a farmer harvesting crops. We gather it to ourselves, and use and re-use, work and re-work, fashioning our livelihoods and our lives until, rich with experience, we are able to make some progress, some sense, ripen some harvest of our own. Then, probably only then, can we say ‘I have gained some knowledge; some insight; perhaps even some wisdom; some tolerance, some compassion.’ How are we to say that without a journey, without some work?
And why should Freemasonry be any different? The answer is, it isn’t different at all. At the end, if we are fortunate, we are able to say, with George Eliot
Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been, makes us what we are.
First published in Freemasonry Today in January 2005