Alice, feeling lost, looks up at the cat and asks: I was just wondering if you could help me find my way.
Cheshire Cat: Well that depends on where you want to get to.
Alice: Oh, it really doesn’t matter.
Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.

Unlike Alice, a major lesson I have learned from life is that it really does matter which way you go.  And the decision is easier if you have a strong underlying philosophy to guide you.

As a young man near the start of my journey through life, I was faced with the decision of whether I should become a Freemason, or not.  I had a good job and lots of friends.  The male role models in my extended family were all Lodge members, and I admired the manner in which they conducted themselves and cared for others.  But there were many other men in my circle of acquaintances who were not Freemasons, and who also appeared to me to be managing their lives in an exemplary fashion.  I was looking for an edge.  What was Freemasonry offering that could convince me to join.  My Masonic family waited patiently, understanding my dilemma.  Eventually it dawned on me.  Observing my father and my uncles, I realised that the Masonic advantage is double edged.  Firstly, there is the confidence that comes from knowing that you can totally trust a stranger once he identifies himself as a Freemason.  And secondly, Freemasons have endless opportunities for supporting others in all facets of their lives.  I asked if I could join.  My family rejoiced.

That was more than fifty years ago.  Shortly after becoming a Master Mason my job took me to a country town, where I was a total stranger… but only for the first three weeks.  Then I attended a Lodge meeting, and was made to feel right at home.  Friendship, trust, respect, contentment, and social contact with like-minded people were suddenly on my doorstep. This was living Freemasonry. I flourished in that town, and continued to do so whenever I moved into a new environment or context.

So let us consider how Freemasonry is able to engender such comfort and emotional strength in harmonious living.  My Masonic journey has taught me that these advantages are not simply conferred; they must be earned.

By way of illustration, let us consider for a moment some parallels between Freemasonry and the traditional culture of Indigenous Australians.  A young Aboriginal boy, when his elders considered he was ready, was taken to a special place and subjected to tribal rituals, the content of which had remained unchanged for thousands of years.  As a result, the young man then had an elevated status amongst his peers, and possessed new information which would stand him in good stead as he moved forward in his life; for example, hunting skills, geographical knowledge and kinship laws.  This information was conveyed by means of allegorical stories about mythical ancestors who lived long ago in the Dreamtime.  The candidate could easily remember the stories, because all around him were symbols representing the characters in the stories, as well as the results of their exploits – rocks, mountains, rivers, gorges, deserts, stars, planets, plants, birds and animals.

This education continued throughout the man’s nomadic life, enabling him to travel across the land with accuracy, always finding water, hunting successfully and linking with a wife. He also came to understand his responsibilities towards the environment, and more importantly, towards his fellow human beings. At each stage of his journey, body markings were added as badges of progress.  Through a diligent practice of these principles, and by working hard, a man gradually earned the right to become part of the team responsible for transmitting the rules and ideas to the younger men.   In some traditional Aboriginal languages the word for ‘wise man’ translates simply as ‘one who knows many stories.’  There is evidence that this ‘harmonious living’ existed unchanged on our continent for more than seventy thousand years until it was interrupted by the arrival of a different culture in 1788.

In many respects, the Masonic journey is similar.  Upon indicating a desire to join the Craft, a man faces a series of challenges to determine his readiness.  He is invited to an interview with some experienced Masons. His name is read out in Lodges which meet near all the places where he has resided.  A secret ballot is conducted to give members an opportunity to block his recruitment.  Of course, any man who is ‘living harmoniously’ will find no obstacles in this process.  Once accepted, the candidate becomes the central character in a series of rituals through which he learns, by degrees, the Masonic philosophy for a happy life.  It’s not a secret.  As he gains experience, a Freemason gradually earns the right to take an active part in the rituals which transmit the philosophy to new candidates.

Through participation in a series of meetings, called degrees, new candidates are exposed to the moral principles inculcated in Freemasonry.  Very briefly, they are as follows.

The first degree illustrates that true happiness can be achieved with the right attitude.  It advises the candidate to use time wisely, and not neglect prayer, self-reflection, charity and kindly aid work.  He is encouraged to be even tempered, honest, and accepting of his position in the grand scheme of life.  Temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice are recommended as guidelines for all actions, together with truth, honour and goodness. The responsibilities of all Lodge officers are explained, and the candidate is invited to consider further Masonic research.

The second degree highlights the notion that every human being, regardless of rank or station in life, is entitled to courtesy, respect and appreciation.  Courage and integrity are emphasised as desirable qualities, particularly useful in times of hardship and misfortune. This degree also acknowledges the progress the candidate has made at this point in his Masonic journey, and invites him to assist others to follow a similar path.

The third degree challenges the candidate to take care with all actions, because poorly considered life choices will most assuredly have dire consequences.  Having reached this important milestone, candidates are reminded of their responsibility to protect the Masonic secrets and enhance the reputation of the organisation. Emphasis is placed on dignified behaviour, trustworthiness in relationships with others, and truth and fidelity in all things.  At this level members will exhibit a strengthened character and firm sense of purpose in life.  They will be in a position to be a living advertisement for Freemasonry, not only in their immediate circle of friends, but also in the broader community.

At every step in this process, a candidate is presented with a decorated apron which he wears whilst in Lodge to indicate his status to other members. All Masons are exhorted to attend their own Lodge regularly, and to visit others whenever possible.

Just like the traditional Indigenous Australian man who was surrounded in nature by the symbolic reminders of mythical ancestral adventures, a Freemason entering the Lodge room is immediately confronted with the symbols relating to the messages and the allegorical stories of Freemasonry.  Thus, each time they attend a Lodge meeting, Freemasons are reminded of those values which should underpin their thinking and govern their actions through life.

This is ‘living Freemasonry’.  It is a way of life.  It is taught by degrees, in order that candidates may have time to consider the ideas slowly as they adapt them into their lifestyles.

There is nothing secret about these moral teachings.  Honest citizens throughout the world are practising them daily.  What, then, are the Masonic secrets?  In essence they are the dramatic experiences, including an amazing initiation ceremony, which are used to highlight and transmit our philosophy.  Those activities are unique, satisfying and enjoyable.  That’s part of the attraction of the organisation.

‘Living Freemasonry’, then, simply means virtuous conduct and peaceful co-existence in nature and science.

Grand Master’s Literary Prize 2015

RW Bro Robert Hughes PJGW