Monday, August 18, 2014

Guest Article: John Helcl, II, "Within the Gates"

Sir Knight John Helcl, II
The original Order of the Templars met their demise by the suppression, a foul action by outside forces
beyond their control. Sir Knights, are we are under the looming shadow of a modern suppression of our order, a suppression that is not from some nefarious source hiding in the dark corners; but within our own ranks? This is not to say there are dastardly actors or forces at work, but to ask are we the victims of our own actions or inactions? To you, Sir Knights, I propose this critique- not in opposition of our Order and its principles, but as a call to action to revisit the pillars of our past and perhaps, to engage in some organizational introspection.

Many factors are at work in this suppression, but I will skip what members think of first- money. Hopefully, I’ll be given the opportunity to write further upon that subject. The membership effects caused by being a cost-prohibitive, uniformed organization deserve its own notation (and let’s be honest, Commandery isn’t for the light of purse).

I have read in this very magazine submissions to the national editor that have been, to put it mildly,
religiously divisive (and often completely incorrect). Thankfully all the voices have been from outside our noble State, but it brings light to a pressing issue. Is Templary is drifting apart from Craft Masonry? From local units up to the Grand Encampment, are we fissuring our collective ashlar? And if so, why has this happened? Within the Commanderies throughout our country, why are there are Knights that take off their apron (literally, and in spirit) who then don the Templar uniform and become some strange hybrid of Patton and Torquemada? The inclusiveness, tolerance, and Brotherly unity that we are all obligated to practice gets left in the sock drawer alongside the Lambskin of these members. Conversely, among us there are members of our Order that are the embodiment of Knighthood whether in or out of uniform, but when it comes to inclusion and the policies of the Grand Encampment, they are the voices in the desert. These Knights remember, and live, each and every obligation from Entered Apprentice to Sir Knight. We should all be so lucky to act like these men- or at least to know them among our ranks (and in Minnesota, there are many).

The original Order gained the ire of their crusading peers for their open acceptance and working dynamic
between themselves and the Jewish, Druze, and other communities in Jerusalem- even the Muslims of the realm (provided they met off the battlefield, of course). Sir Knights, the iron-clad edicts of the Grand Encampment have left Commanderies no choice but to continue an institutional disservice to our Brothers by engaging in the exclusion of a Brother based solely upon his specific faith or belief in a higher power that is outside of Christianity; thereby violating one of the cornerstone tenets of Freemasonry. This is not only contradictory to our obligations as Craft Masons, but is an equal and opposite deviation from the practices of the original Order whom we seek to emulate. Perhaps it is an organizational mindset that can’t be hurdled. Or perhaps it’s as simple as bringing back the triangle apron as a uniform requirement- both to function as a physical manifestation of our unbreakable connection to the Craft, and as a constant reminder of the binding tie of our obligations as Master Masons.

We can, and should, remain a Knighthood of Christian values and principles, assembled humbly in the
name of Christ while still welcoming our brothers of all noble faiths to join us. We should never forget to love all of our Brothers and welcome them as both Jesus and the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon would.

We can defend the travelling pilgrims of all faiths, defend the faithful of all flocks, their widows, and
orphans as the original Order did. In doing so not only can we continue to remain in accord with the spirit of
Templary and the teachings of Christ, but become better Knights, Commanderies, and Brothers because of it.

Every Mason of profound faith, from every faith, that seeks to make their world better should be a Knights
Templar, and join us in the noble crusade of defending the widow, orphan, and the peaceful pilgrims of all faiths.

Semper Servitus,
S.K. John E. Helcl, II (O.Cist.Tertiari)
Eminent Grand Standard Bearer, Grand Commandery of Minnesota

Monday, August 11, 2014

Toward a Stronger, More Vibrant Freemasonry (Guest Post on the Burning Taper, October 2008)

Well, dear readers,

I started to get a little nostalgic. Okay, I was full on nostalgic and I started to look through old papers of mine and came across this one. The Widow's Son, who ran a very controversial but often great blog, the Burning Taper, asked me, back in late '08, to write a guest piece for a series on Masonic harmony, unity, and discord. I've decided to repost it on my blog because I still think it has value. Enjoy!

The Judgment of Paris, Capodimonte porcelain 

All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.
Alexander Pope

Before I begin with my analysis of the theme, Masonic harmony, unity and discord, I would like to thank the Widow's Son for giving me this opportunity to take part in this wonderful and insightful series of essays. 

Let us begin, what's the problem with discord? It is my simple belief that although conflict may promote the problems of Freemasonry, it can also carry the hope of our Fraternity's future. In fact, through the promotion of both discord and harmony, in equal measures, we, as a Fraternity, can grow stronger and more vibrant. While studying conflict and human societies (particularly Freemasonry), it is essential that we look to history and the modern research in Conflict Studies to fully understand this subject.

The word “Discord” originates from the Roman goddess Discordia who had a counterpart in Greece named Eris. In Greek, the name Eris means “strife.” Strife was commonly regarded in Greece to have two different personas. The first was equally abhorred and praised, as she caused harm but also strengthened the constitution of men. The second was feared and involved the murderous killings of war and was the sister of Ares. The most famous incident involving Eris was when she threw the Apple of Discord amongst the three major goddesses in the Pantheon, Aphrodite, Athena or Hera, when she was uninvited to a banquet for Peleus and Thetis’ wedding. Inscribed on the Apple was the phrase, “καλλιστι” or transliterated, “Kallisti” meaning “for the Fairest.” As Zeus did not want to get involved, he gave the choice to Paris. As we all know, this choice eventually led to the Trojan War. This little trinket, a single apple, led many men to suffer and die.

As is always the case in the pantheon of Greek Gods, Eris had an opposite named Harmonia; in Rome, she was Concordia. As her name implied, she was the goddess of Harmony and represented a love for civic order and unity. And as always seems the case in Greek mythology, she was to be cursed. As a wedding gift, she was given a necklace, a necklace which brought misfortune to all who wore it.

We, as Freemasons, seek to receive the Golden Apple only to find it is out of our reach or in the hands of someone else. We become jealous with our neighbor, and find faults to take away from him what we believe rightfully belongs to us. Yet, this will to strive for what is better or what we deserve is not, in and of itself, an evil characteristic. Also, at times when we are given gifts, we become complacent which attracts misfortune. In fact, conflict occurs everyday and it is how it is dealt with which determines if it is constructive or destructive. Conflict is actively explored in academic circles to understand its origins and quell its harmful effects.

While attending law school, I participated in the Dispute Resolution Institute's certificate program. One of the required classes was Theories of Conflict. Theories of Conflict explores these themes of harmony and discord, separate struggles and unifying causes. The underlying theme in the course was not if conflict was inherently bad; it was the exploration of controlling conflict, especially when conflict becomes escalated. 

According to Pruitt and Kim, authors of the book, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, conflict is a “perceived divergence of interest.” Conflict is not merely a battle between parties, with winner takes all as the goal, but what we perceive as a divergence that leads to a zero sum game. This divergence gives parties the impression that there is only one solution, “mine not yours”.

Sometimes conflict is very constructive. The best, current example is the presidential election. Both candidates disagree on certain issues and we, as citizens, must decide who we believe will do the best job as president. We may yell at the TV during the debates and chastise the attack ads, but we all agree that a President must be chosen and our emotions must be in check once the election is over.

Conflict involves both physical and psychological aspects. So if, as a Freemason, we find a policy unacceptable, for example, PHA recognition, we perceive a divergence of interest with the brother on the other side. We become physiologically shaken and psychological shocked by what our brothers say, but we may still live in relative peace. It is when a conflict is escalated, that it can become more destructive and lead to acrimony among the parties, and can quickly get out of control.

Escalation is the concept whereby one party begins to use stronger tactics to put increased tension on the other party. During a conflict, parties regularly use tactics to “win” a conflict. However, as these tactics become more and more contentious, the parties will increase the type of tactic used to match or beat the other's tactic. This trading of barbs slowly turns into a spiral of escalation until the conflict reaches violence or another factor has begun to slow the climb and halt its progress.

Escalation is incredibly common in Freemasonry. Every person, from regular Mason, irregular Mason, and anti-Mason, uses power and stronger tactics to attempt to win a Masonic argument. We may attempt to ingratiate a person to come to “our” side. We may attempt to belittle the other side. However, it is often the case that these arguments begin up the spiral of escalation. I, myself, have been wrapped up in these fiery debates throwing words as darts instead using them as tools. As the Masonic conflict continues, we become less concerned with the disagreement and more concerned with “winning”. It is at this time, that we become entrenched and it is only by deescalating the situation that we can keep Masonic harmony. But how do we deescalate this contentious situation?

We can deescalate it by remembering the precepts of our Fraternity: Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. When we get into an aggressive argument, we lose our fraternal bond, we become less concerned about relieving his suffering and we lose sight of what the truth is. So, what can we, as Masons, do about all this discord? Here is my advice: to those that believe that discord only brings destruction and suffering, remember that it is only through chiseling into a block and destroying its original character that we create something beautiful. And to those that believe that harmony must always be continued, at all costs, why is your gavel and chisel laying on the ground? The work is not over and you are behind schedule. We may have a disagreement with how we are working but we all agree that we are building a better society. Only by understanding both discord and harmony can we appreciate the unity that Freemasonry gives to all of its members.

Our life is full of discord; but by forbearance and virtue this same discord can be turned to harmony.
James Ellis

If you liked to read the full series of paper, click here.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Masonic Roundtable Discusses CIVL #190 with Special Guest, Nick Laine

As many of you have seen over the years on this space and on others, I am a CIVL evangelist. CIVL, or Castle Island Virtual Lodge, is the world's first lodge to meet online. (You could read more about my first visit here.)

I was fortunate to invite my friends, the knights of the Masonic Roundtable, to attend a meeting. I think each of them experienced a profound re-imagining of what Masonry is. We were also very blessed to have CIVL's current Lodge Education Officer in attendance to explain the specifics of the lodge for our viewers. You can get the full scoop, including their thoughts, by watching the video below.

You can read the show notes here.

I really love each visit to CIVL. I love it so much that I think I will seek plural membership in the future.

What do you think of CIVL? Do you love it? Hate it? Are somehow indifferent? Leave a comment below.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

KT mag Limits Letters to the Editor

The Seal of the Templars
I just received my newest issue of the Knight Templar magazine. I do enjoy a number of topics that the magazine touches upon and I'm quite happy when I see it arrive in my mailbox.

I begin reading through the magazine and came upon this statement from the managing editor:

I am informed that the content of the letters to the editors is beginning to reflect badly upon our institution and have been prevailed upon to limit these letters accordingly. Therefore, I am changing the editorial policy for letters to the editor as follows: Beginning with this issue, I will only publish letters to the editor which I am absolutely certain will not offend anyone.

For a long while, I would skip through the letters, skimming as quickly as possible because of a few very uncomfortable letters. Some of the opinions expressed I would consider not in keeping with the Masonic ideals and teachings all of us receive. But I'm also a little sad as I think there was some meaningful dialogue.

It's hard for a number of us. There are as many Christian denominations as there are zip codes. And most of the time, we can be very provincial in our way of thinking, especially when we forget that each denomination, and each Christian, believes in a different way the Law and Gospel and how they apply to us.

Masonic Templary bridges the gap not because of its sectarianism but its lack of sectarianism. There's no talk of justification, no encouragement to ask for intercession, no prohibitions against it. It is just a place to avoid that sectarianism.

I'm saddened that the letters will be fluff, devoid of all controversy. But, let's face, far too many fraters were just not getting it into their heads that Christendom is not united in all believes. Yet, there are things that can unite us. Perhaps this is just a cooling off period. If that's the case, I hope all Sir Knights can begin looking outside their province and reach their hand of friendship across the sectarian fence for just a moment. Let us remember the seal of the Templars, riding together on the back of one horse.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Continuum of Freemasonry

I've been in Freemasonry for nearly a decade now. Since my first day as a Mason on a cold day in early February, I have been learning and growing, talking with other Masons online and in person to get a sense of what Masonry is. What I have learned from all these years is that Masonry is not one thing but many things.
I was feeling a little nostalgic so I started looking at old blogs that I used to frequent during my own early years as a blogger and arrived at Thomas Munkholt’s excellent Grail Quest site. I have been reading a lot about the Swedish Rite lately because 1) I really like it and 2) because I wish I could bring it to my jurisdiction. (That’s a subject for another day) I started reading comments and ran into this one by Chad Simpson:

“I read your comments regarding the concern of some Freemasons for the exclusively Christian nature of the Swedish Rite.
Having shared that concern at one time, I can only say that Freemasons at their best are traditionalists and at their worst are provincial.
Because of the emphasis that Freemasonry places on tradition, it is very easy for the untraveled or unread Freemason to believe that every Lodge is just like his own.
In fact, it is often a shock for a Brother when he finally realizes that Freemasonry is as diverse as are Freemasons themselves.
Though universality is an essential element of Freemasonry under most Grand Lodges, it is understandable why the Swedish Rite has developed as it has.
Though I enjoy studying the various forms of Freemasonry–variety being the spice of life after all–I must confess that I enjoy most a familiar dish.”

I think the commenter is onto something. I think we, as Masons, even with our ability to travel, like to stay within the familiar. I find this most especially on sites like the Freemasonry subreddit. Nearly every day, brothers will tell other brothers that what they are doing, whether it be mouth to ear ritual education or some other subject that is different from their own jurisdiction, is wrong. That’s right, just plain wrong.
It makes sense why these feelings exist. We are usually laboring in the quarries in our own jurisdiction. Sure, the random business trip may take us to a place where a lodge is actually meeting that night and that we have the good fortune to have remembered a business suit to be able to attend but, for the most part, we stay within the walls of our own Masonic experience.

I think the most common topic, the one that generates the most heat on nearly every forum I’ve ever been a member, is how religion, in particular, how Christianity, should fit within the Masonic system. Because of our history, the nature of religion (especially Christianity) and the Craft is very important to understanding development of the Craft degrees, the various side degrees, side orders, rites, and even the youth groups. It is very misunderstood as it varies among all the jurisdictions.

I think the best way to think about the varying viewpoints is to place them on a continuum. I choose a continuum because, it is most basic, using a continuum presupposes that all data in the set share some common theme, in this case, the fact that all of them are Masonic. On the left most side, we will place the Swedish Rite. On the far right side, we will place so-called “Adogmatic Freemasonry”, of which the Grand Orient of France would be an example. Between these two points, we can arrange the various rituals. Preston-Webb would be near the center as would Emulation and its many variants. In fact, most, including the Swedish Rite, would be clustered near each other.

My supposition is that wherever you are on the continuum, both based on your own experiences in Masonry as well as in which jurisdiction you were raised, will affect how you view other practices of Freemasonry. If you believe that God (or a Supreme Being) is an essential aspect of Freemasonry, any practice that does not recognize His importance in the work will not be considered regular in practice. And depending on how far you are away from another practice will likewise determine how uncomfortable you are with a Masonic practice. That’s why, at least in my opinion, many brothers within Preston-Webb will denounce Swedish Rite as unMasonic. And this is even more pronounced if that brother is not Christian. Of course, this always means that compared to Swedish Rite, some brothers may feel more comfortable with “Adogmatic Freemasonry” than to any practice that restricts membership to Christians. You’ll find statements like, “why can’t we use a blank book?” to be common with the compelling argument of having it represent all VSLs.

I point out this continuum because I think we, especially we Americans, get lost in the world. Most of us, including myself, have never traveled to a foreign location in our lives. It’s sad but true. Because of that, we become, just as the comment states above, provincial in our way of thinking and we shut ourselves off from the wider Masonic world. Universality within Freemasonry was not a given and even Anderson backed away from perfect universality when he released his revised 1738 Constitution. It’s difficult. Universality is just one of the goals of Freemasonry and it wasn’t, and has never been, universally accepted.

The Antients disdained the Moderns and that grand body’s rejection of nearly all Christian allusions. Even at the merger, the Antients felt it important to insert language acknowledging the chivalric degrees practiced by so many Antient lodges and chapters; "[t]his article is not intended to prevent any Lodge or Chapter from holding meetings in any of the degrees of Chivalry, according to the Constitution of said Order." It’s a tug of war match between those that seek to acknowledge the Christian origins of the degrees and those that would like to remove them for a new universal philosophy. And that tug of war continues.

These feelings manifest themselves within a jurisdiction. The most apparent example in my jurisdiction is Commandery. Commandery is decidedly Christian and has a long history. Yet, many brothers will denounce it as unMasonic, placing it somewhere between Freemasonry that allows women in and whatever Leo Taxil had in mind when he wrote his hoax. It’s one of the few bodies that I've seen actively derided. I used to be bothered by this but then I thought of the continuum.

I don’t find the Commandery or Swedish Rite or Rectified Scottish Rite as offensive because I am a Christian. Yet, I can also understand why some Masons may have a problem with it. It’s restrictive by its very content. The Crusades were a destructive series of events in the Levant. Yet, the chivalric degrees are also very much Masonic. They are both historically and traditionally relevant within the body of Masonry.

Masonry is vast. If our lodges symbolically extend into the deepest core of the Earth all the way into the Heavens, then it will most assuredly pick up all those practices and styles. Knowing where you are on the continuum is the first step in seeing the wider world, understanding which practices make you comfortable, which practices or styles make you uncomfortable and ultimately understanding why. For me, I cannot accept Adogmatic Freemasonry as regular because I feel that Masonry is a Deity adoration society. By first knowing where I am on the continuum, I am forced to articulate reasons for why I don’t like a practice, in this case, the removal of God from our ceremonies. It also gives perspective as to why another person may accept some practice with which I don’t agree.

I don't think we need to accept every practice in Masonry but we should at least know why a practice, qualification, or some other Masonic tic that differs from our own may not be totally unMasonic. The Commandery exists, it has Masonic roots, and even though it restricts membership to only those adhering to the Christian religion, I would consider it Masonic. The Rose Croix, as it’s called in England, only accepts Trinitarian Christians, unlike its counterparts in the United States; I would also call it Masonic. The Grand Orient de France removed mention of the Great Architect of the Universe from its constitution; I would consider that practice to be irregular but I think analyzing the reason why Frédéric Desmons, a Calvinist Priest, instigated its removal is important.

Masonry is vast. Yet, within its vastness, it’s still held to the aforementioned continuum. Try for yourself. I've found that by arranging Masonic rituals in this way, I've learned tolerance for all of Masonry’s windings.

What do you think? Where are you on the continuum? Where is your Grand Lodge on the continuum? Does the continuum help you? Leave a comment below.