Here is my own definition of Masonry: Freemasonry is a fraternity that uses ceremonies of initiation to teach symbolic lessons about philosophy, morality, and character. Now let's unpack that definition, phrase by phrase.
"Freemasonry is a fraternity ...": Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that has been in existence for centuries. Members meet in lodges, which can be found in all major cities and hundreds of towns in the United States, as well as in many major cities internationally throughout the free world. (For example, Masonic Hall in New York City is home to dozens of lodges.) Masonry is open to adult men of good character who believe in a Supreme Being. It is built around the ideas of the development of character, personal growth, responsibility, duty, service to God and humanity, and fellowship. Freemasonry is not a religion, but it is spiritual in nature.
"Freemasonry ... uses ceremonies of initiation ...": In brief, wherever initiatory ceremonies are found, initiation is a ritual activity through which men are imparted certain teachings confidentially, are made part of a group, and become people who are in some way different from who they were before initiation. A Masonic initiation ceremony is called a "degree"; there are three of them in basic Freemasonry, and dozens more are offered by 'high degree' organizations.
Through the initiatory experiences of Freemasonry, a man learns certain philosophical and ethical truths in a dramatic fashion. He obtains membership within the international fraternity of Masonry. The new Mason learns certain signs by which he can identify himself as a Mason to other brothers whom he meets in his travels, even when these travels take him around the world. In addition, the new Mason places himself under obligation to keep these signs of recognition secure, and to live according to certain high ideals.
In many cultures, around the world and throughout history, initiatory experiences have been a part of life for adult men of good character. Unfortunately, in the modern industrialized world, opportunities for real initation are few. By contrast, Masonry's ceremonies of initation have a history measured in centuries.
"... ceremonies ... [that] teach symbolic lessons about philosophy, morality, and character": Within the initatory experiences of Freemasonry, a man is exposed to many symbols that offer insight into several important issues: how men should live; towards what ends they should direct their efforts; the way in which people should relate to one another; their relationship to God.
This is Freemasonry. It conveys initiatory experiences to today's man, giving him a context in which to reflect upon his roles and his life in today's society.
To Learn More About Freemasonry
In a few months, readers should be able to purchase my book, Discovering The Lost Symbol, which describes Freemasonry in detail; also, a new edition of my book Freemasonry: An Introduction should be available soon. In the meantime, the following books are a good place to start in learning about Freemasonry (very roughly in the order in which someone determined to read them all should read them):
- W. Kirk MacNulty (2006) Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance (New York: Thames & Hudson).
- Christopher Hodapp (2005) Freemasons for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley).
- S. Brent Morris (2006) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry (New York: Alpha / Penguin).
- W. Kirk MacNulty (1991) Freemasonry: A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol (New York: Thames & Hudson).
Now--on to the clues!
[The image above is a somewhat unusual depiction of a central symbol in Freemasonry, showing a square and a quadrant, within which is an eye in a triangle, denoting that the Eye of the Divine Being is always upon us. The image was obtained from the website of the Masonic Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, which maintains one of the best websites in the world for information regarding Masonic history and other subjects related to Freemasonry, including anti-Masonry.]
(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)
(Portions of this post are modified from the first edition of Freemasonry: An Introduction, copyright 2007 by Mark E. Koltko-Rivera.)