Working the tools: Six months with the Craft

The night after we put the house on the market in April, I was raised, as they say in Freemasonry, to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. It was one of the more interesting and meaningful journeys I had taken to that point.

These have not been the easiest six months in my life. Not that they were particularly difficult, just stressful. We had a wedding, a planning process I was not prepared for. I spent three weeks laid up with poison ivy (they gave me steroids and everything). The house didn't sell, and now we're going through the process of trying to get it rented and figuring out our next chapter.

There are other things, too, perhaps more personal, that I won't get into. At any rate, things in the Shear household have been largely chaotic for a while, and to this point, the lessons of Masonry have been a good focus.

I have a long journey ahead in the Craft. I've delved into some local Masonic history. I've read some old books. I've held some old documents. Looked at the minutes of meetings of my Lodge from right about the time of the Civil War. I've spent most days this week at the lodge building, digging through the archives, sorting through piles of history that have been shoved in drawers and forgotten. I folded a flag with 45 stars (that puts it between 1896 and 1908). I hung an apron worn by a brother who was raised in 1912.

With the wind and the rain and the leaves and the cinnamon of the season, the dust feels warm, and being alone among the artifacts is a good reminder in a fast-paced, post-Empire world crying for novelty, adherence to ritual is just as important.

Without going too deeply into the more mundane details, Freemasonry, or speculative Masonry, uses the working tools of operative stonemasons to help us be better humans. The tools offer great lessons, and I've needed them a lot these past few months. The two-foot ruler reminds me to set aside time for the important things. The common gavel is used to chip away the stuff I just don't need. The square, to remember to be fair to everybody, especially in this time when we're trying to transact business.

"But what about your secrets?" I hear you cry. Here, give last week's Whence Came You? a listen. You needn't be a Freemason. You needn't want to be. I think it has great life secrets for all.

On ritual

We said our farewells to Fritz over the weekend. I don't expect you'll go read through his obituary, so I'll give you the gist.

Fred Mills, "Father Fritz" to his flock, was a reverend, a weightlifter, a hiker, and a Red Sox fan (a die-hard fan — literally — there was a Red Sox logo on the shroud covering his coffin at calling hours).

His family relationship to me is kind of tenuous on the surface. He is my wife's first cousins' stepfather — my wife's uncle and Fritz's widow raised a couple of women. Fritz had his own children coming into that marriage as well.

While Fritz's family stayed in New England (primarily Cape Cod), he lived in Central New York, and he was always at family gatherings. I met him first in 2010, five years after the stroke that ended his power-lifting days and his ability to hike on his own two legs. The three things I remembered from that first meeting were still true when I last saw him a couple of months ago:

• He had a crushing handshake. If you weren't ready for it, you risked taping up a couple of fingers for a week. And he held on for a lot longer than is generally deemed a social norm. One of his daughters inherited that grip and the hold, and I thought to mention it when we met.
• He looked you in the eye, not in a challenging way, but in a gentle, respectful way.
• He wanted to talk baseball. It was common ground, and since I grew up a Red Sox fan in Massachusetts, it was a good way for us to connect.

His funeral was at an Episcopal church. I don't really understand the inner workings, but strictly from a standpoint of observation, it's almost Anglican (Church of England), I guess. They take communion (so it's in a Catholic tradition), but priests can marry, they have female priests, and I didn't see any crucifixes (a cross being a cross, a crucifix having a crucified Jesus on the cross).

There were some rituals that were curious to me, an outsider (I'm Jewish). One was something they called in the program The Peace. It's a stopping point in the service during which you look around and wish those around you peace. The priest later explained the communion ritual (which I'm guessing changes a bit from church to church), but it was almost another half hour before the communion ceremony. Some of the readings began and ended with the priest elevating the bible above her head and making a declaration.

As I mentioned, these were curious to me, but they probably felt perfectly normal to someone else.

As some of you know, I'm a Freemason. One of the things that connects the fraternity to its past is its ritual, which can vary from place to place, but remains integral to every meeting and every degree ceremony.

The ritual is certainly unusual to an outsider, and was to me when I first saw it, but is now a mark of comfort that, no matter what else happens before, during or after the meeting, the meeting will open and close with ritual.

It's the same in many other organizations, including religious gatherings, fraternities, business, etc. People look to ritual to emulate others — do a search for morning ritual or rituals of successful people, and you'll get millions of options, some of them downright scary (like, say, Hunter S. Thompson's daily routine.

Watch some baseball players as they step up to bat. Some of them have elaborate rituals before they get in the batter's box, including touching different parts of their bodies, adjusting their uniforms or batting gloves, touching the bat to a specific point on home plate, etc.

Ritual guides us in practice, connects us to our past, and brings us a comfort of familiarity in unfamiliar situations.

What are your rituals?

Book Review: The Secret History of the World; also: The world will not end 12/21/12

Let's start with this: The world will not end on Friday.

The Mayan calendar ends then. Or maybe it's an Aztec calendar someone found in Mayan territory (because they were kind of in the same area anyway).

But you know what could happen? The sun could come under the influence of Aquarius.

Yep, I can hear you. "Josh, you've gone over the edge, man."

Nope.

I don't know what role the stars and the moon and the planets play in life. Maybe they don't actually play a role – maybe it's more of a reflective or predictive thing, if you know where to look.

But I'm certain, after reading Mark Booth's The Secret History of the World, that there's something there.

I was a fan of the Hardy Boys mysteries growing up. This evolved into a love for "Unsolved Mysteries" and later "The X-Files." It makes sense, then, that secret societies and their beliefs would appeal to me.

Booth's history stems from hobbyism. He's interested in esoteric thought, and he's sought it throughout his adult life, and he's declined initiation into secret societies because he wanted to write about what he's found. He didn't want to take an oath that disallowed that.

Say what you want about conspiracies, some of the great minds in history – Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, and many more – were parts of groups like the Freemasons, Knights Templar and Rosicrucians, among others.

Roughly every 2150 years, the sun moves into a new zodiacal constellation, and Aquarius is next. I think it's easy to understand this as true. The only real premise you have to accept is that based on Earth's orbital path and rotation, we get different views of the sky. If you need observational proof of that, go to a location with a view of identifiable buildings or landscape (trees, etc.). Take a photo of the sunset, just as the bottom of the sun hits the horizon (or disappears behind the buildings or landscape). Go back in three months and duplicate the photo, then in six months and then in nine months. You'll see the sun is in a different spot in relation to the markings. [Or you had to take the photo from a different point to get the sun in the same relation.]

Some scholars have narrowed the time frame of this astrological transition to sometime between 1980 and 2016. So why not the upcoming solstice? It's as good a date as any.

What does that mean for us and the next few generations? Who the heck knows? Life may not feel any different. But if it does, don't be awfully surprised.

Anyway, that's not the crux of this nearly 600-page book. It's really a look into spirituality (including a large section on Christian spirituality), Sun God myths (Jesus was only the latest in a long line of figures who was born of a virgin Dec. 25, visited by magicians upon birth, called things like "lamb," had 12 disciples, was sold into slavery or imprisonment by one of those disciples, and resurrected after three days), prophets, art, magic and influence.

Booth writes of the beginning of thought, the beginning of language, the beginning of love, and the beginning of romance, as understood in secret histories.

It's not light reading. It took me about four months to absorb it, and I certainly read other books and essays, sometimes putting Booth's tome away for four or five days at a time to let the information sink in.

The book is a wonderful look at a perspective that, in all likelihood, is different from the one of you've been wandering around with, and it's written by a man with a genuine curiosity for both the subject matter and for writing. While the subject matter isn't easily absorbed, the writing style is; you won't need a translator for it.

Highly recommended reading.