Category: Freemasonry

To learn

To learn

I’m not going to turn this into a Masonic blog, but this year I’ll be doing a lot of study in Freemasonry, so it’s going to pop up here from time to time with lessons to generalize to all of us.

Because we don’t write stuff down, there is occasionally a debate — sometimes running for centuries — as to what something means. The phrase, “to learn to subdue my passions and …,” is one such piece that causes confusion.

The question concerns whether there should be a comma after “to learn” — are we instructed “to learn to subdue our passions,” or are we instructed to learn and to subdue our passions? I didn’t finish the phrase above (Masons will know how it finishes), but is it a two-item list, or a three-item list?

The arguments are interesting, particularly the more recent writings. Those who believe it is a three-item list tend to have an argument along the lines of, “Of course we’re instructed to learn! How else could we improve?” while the people on the other side have an argument along the lines of, “Of course we don’t need to be instructed to learn! How insulting to think we would need to be told that!”

There’s a clear admonition, then, from people on both sides: Learn.

The word learn has been with us for a long time. Since Old English, in fact, which was very much like German and was spoken in England until the Norman invasion led to the Great Vowel Shift of 1066.

Put simply, to learn means “to acquire knowledge.”

Almost everything we do is, in some way, learning. We take in new information all the time. Even driving the same road to work every day, you pass different cars parked along the route, trees missing their leaves, houses being painted, grass being mowed along the highway, you get the idea. We take in new information, we process it, it’s something we’ve learned.

But does it make us better?

If we’re always looking to improve — and it’s my opinion that we should — we should seek to learn more.

Some people say make your strengths stronger; some say shore up your weaknesses. I say it doesn’t matter. Be curious. Learn new things. If you come across something unexpected you enjoy, go deeper. Use your library. Spend some time on YouTube. Sign up for The Great Courses Plus or Udemy or get yourself enrolled in some MOOCs.

Get smarter, get better.

Friday the 13th: What is the origin myth of our calendar horror?

Friday the 13th: What is the origin myth of our calendar horror?

Sometimes I dive into topics and get disappointed. Mention Friday the 13th to any Freemason, and you’re going to hear about Jacques De Molay and the Knights Templar.

The Templars — formally, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, were founded in 1119 as the military arm of the Catholic Church. They were central to the Crusades, and as they grew in fame, they grew in power. As they grew in power, they became less of a military organization — though they remained elite fighters, at the height of the Templars’ power fewer than 10% of their numbers were part of their forces.

They became protectors of the people, and then protectors of the people’s stuff. They created complex financial systems and eventually grew a little too powerful for the comfort of sovereigns in the area.

As the Muslim world started to overcome the Crusades, the Church and rulers throughout the Christian world started to come down hard on the Templars. In 1305, Pope Clement V took over. He was based in France, and he brought Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay there to discuss a merger with another organization, the Hospitaliers. The grand master of that organization was delayed by several months and de Molay asked King Philip IV to reverse some older charges against a Templar.

On Friday the 13th of October, 1307, King Philip IV ordered the Templars arrested, de Molay included. The grand master would be executed seven years later.

The boys organization related to Freemasonry is named after de Molay, and there is a rumored link between modern Masons and the Templars.

Many people believe the Friday the 13th raid on the Templars was the beginning of the legend of Friday the 13th as a day of bad luck, but alas, it appears it’s nothing so dramatic.

So how did paraskevidekatriaphobia come about?

It seems fear of the number 13 has been around some 2700 years or more.

Hesiod warned against sowing on the thirteenth of the month.

The 13 guests — with the traitor Judas Iscariot being the 13th — at the Last Supper are thought to be reminiscent of a story in Norse mythology when Loki causes chaos as the 13th guest.

Legend holds that if thirteen people meet in a room, one will be dead within a year.

Chaucer declared Friday to be a day “of misfortune” in The Canterbury Tales.

In his 17th century play A Match at Midnight, William Rowley wrote about “A plague of Friday mornings — the most unfortunate day in the whole week.”

Snopes lists an array of Friday-related ills, from warnings against starting a new job on Friday (even before we had weekends off) and the disposition of children born on Fridays.

But none of these bodes for an unlucky Friday the thirteenth.

Where did it come from? A novel by Thomas Lawson called Friday, the Thirteenth, published in 1907.

That’s right, the mythos of Friday the 13th dates back barely over a century, and it was a work of fiction.

In the novel, Lawson — a stock trader in his own right — invents a trader who intentionally crashes the market on Friday the 13th.

Yep, that’s it. That’s the origin of the Friday the 13th bad luck myth — sort of. I mean, one novel that’s basically been forgotten to time is no basis for a myth of that proportion.

A year later, Sen. Robert Owen of Oklahoma introduced 13 bills on Friday, March 13, 1908. The New York Times declared there was no hope for any of them.

There you have it. One year, a novel about someone intentionally crashing the stock market, and the next year, a senator filing a bunch of bills unlikely to pass.

Suddenly, people are calling the 13th floor the 14th floor, even though it’s clearly the one after the 12th floor, and seven decades later, Jason is slaughtering camp counselors.

So disappointing.

Hey, at least Alfred Hitchcock was born on a Friday the 13th.

Where Flag Day comes from

Where Flag Day comes from

June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. On June 14, 1777, the Stars and Stripes were adopted by the Second Continental Congress, and a series of pushes led President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim the anniversary as a celebration in 1916, and in 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill into law declaring it an annual day of recognition.

Not that anyone takes the day off or anything. But it’s on the books.

The city of Hartford, Conn., celebrated Flag Day on June 14, 1861.

In 1885, a Wisconsin schoolteacher named Bernard Cigrand suggested a celebration, and then he went on tour, bringing his Flag Day idea with him. In 1894, at his suggestion, some 300,000 people in Chicago celebrated Flag Day in public parks around the city on the third Saturday of June (chosen so that schoolchildren could attend).

In 1888, William T. Kerr founded the Flag Day Association of Western Pennsylvania.

In 1893, Ben Franklin’s descendant Elizabeth Duane Gillespie pushed for an official recognition of Flag Day in Pennsylvania. In 1938, it became the first state to recognize Flag Day as a holiday.

In 1907, Elks lodges in America began recognizing Flag Day each year, and it was from this celebration that Wilson made his 1916 proclamation.

Flag Etiquette

In a few weeks, it will be Independence Day in the U.S. People will have cookouts, and will eat hamburgers and hot dogs on paper plates with a flag design on them, then wipe the mustard off their upper lips with paper napkins similarly decorated. They might even arrange sandwiches on platters with toothpicks in them with small flags waving off the side.

All these things are against flag etiquette:

The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use.

Other rules, according to

  • The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
  • The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speakers desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

That means that all the football and baseball games we watch around patriotic holidays during which players put flag patches on their uniforms? Also against flag etiquette.

It’s meant to be a solemn symbol, not something to cheer for.

Let’s end, then, with John J. Daly’s Toast to the Flag.

Here’s to the red of it–
There’s not a thread of it,
No, nor a shred of it
In all the spread of it
From foot to head.
But heroes bled for it,
Faced steel and lead for it,
Precious blood shed for it,
Bathing it Red!
Here’s to the white of it–
Thrilled by the sight of it,
Who knows the right of it,
But feels the might of it
Through day and night?
Womanhood’s care for it
Made manhood dare for it,
Purity’s prayer for it
Keeps it so white!
Here’s to the blue of it–
Beauteous view of it,
Heavenly hue of it,
Star-spangled dew of it
Constant and true;
Diadems gleam for it,
States stand supreme for it,
Liberty’s beam for it
Brightens the blue!
Here’s to the whole of it–
Stars, stripes and pole of it,
Body and soul of it,
O, and the roll of it,
Sun shinning through;
Hearts in accord for it,
Swear by the sword for it,
Thanking the Lord for it,
Red White and Blue!

Bringing conversation back into our lives

Bringing conversation back into our lives

Aristotle was...pretty good at conversing.
Aristotle was…pretty good at conversing.

One of my favorite things about Freemasonry is what many organizations (including churches and the like) call “fellowship.” In modern-day English, we call it “hanging out.” When we’re not in a formal meeting (or sitting formally at prayer, for instance), we’re still gathered with like-minded folk, eating, drinking and, most of all, talking.

As someone who works from home and communicates with my coworkers via an online chat if we need to (sometimes we just sit around independently and work for 45 minutes or so without saying anything), I don’t have an opportunity to grab lunch with a coworker or chat with someone at the water cooler or coffee pot.

And, in fact, in turns out, even people who do work in offices together aren’t talking to each other as much as they used to. Same with people who sit around the dinner table, staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.

Author Sherry Turkle has been writing about it for a while now. She has a new book called Reclaiming Conversation, which is about bringing conversation back into our lives.

It’s an extension, really, of work she did for another book on being alone, even if we’re connected. Here’s her TED talk on it from 2012.

She talks more about the new book on the Art of Manliness podcast.

In the lessons of the second degree of Freemasonry, we learn about the seven liberal arts and sciences we should really study to become well-rounded humans. Of the seven, three really relate to conversation: logic, grammar and rhetoric.

I won’t go into detail here, not because there’s anything secret in the ritual, but because practicing the art of conversation is so much more important than sitting by yourself reading this. But if you want want to learn more, The Masonic Roundtable has great discussions on each:


Working the tools: The gavel (cutting out the excess)

Working the tools: The gavel (cutting out the excess)

Via Leading Change in Freemasonry on Facebook.

While this post will ring a little louder with Masons, I think it’s important for everyone. Masonry is, after all, designed to make us better people.

In the first degree, one of the working tools we’re given is the common gavel. It is used to trim the excess from our lives. It really is one of the hardest things in our lives: recognizing the stuff that is keeping us from doing the important stuff.

Taking Facebook quizzes instead of turning off the lights and getting to bed early enough for eight hours’ sleep before your alarm goes off; binge-watching “Modern Family” instead of opening that biography you’ve been saying would inspire you to greatness; shopping for shoes on Zappos instead of launching that new business you’ve been talking about — these are the excesses we face every day, the things that keep us from reaching our potential.

Not to say that those things are bad, nor that sometimes they’re a welcome diversion. Sometimes you need to zone out in front of the TV, and sometimes you wear a hole in the sole of your sneakers. Sometimes Facebook is the best way to be in touch with friends and family.

I’ve been starting to use my gavel more and more. I’m saying no to projects that aren’t either fulfilling or worthwhile from a financial standpoint. I’m making progress on some projects that have been on my plate for a long time. I’m making sure I connect with people it’s important I stay connected to. I’m writing more.

I feel good. I’m sure there’s more I could do, but baby steps are so much better than no steps. Or giant leaps that don’t stick.

Bonus: The Masonic Roundtable discusses balance.

Working the tools: Six months with the Craft

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 deciding whether to sell it to a real estate investment company (read more on how that works here) or whether to start going through the process of trying to get it rented. Whichever we choose, it will help us to figure 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

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?

Becoming a Freemason

Becoming a Freemason

One of the more interesting and worthwhile endeavors I’ve undertaken recently is becoming a Freemason. I’ll be raised to Master Mason (3rd degree, for those not in the know) on April 15 – any brothers reading are certainly welcome to visit for the degree ceremony (meeting at 7 p.m., Lodge details here and the usual visiting rules apply, of course).

I have a family connection to the Fraternity: both of my grandfathers were Masons. While I didn’t really know my paternal grandfather, Milton Shear (he died when I was 2), I was close with my maternal grandfather, Bernard Tuttle, who I knew growing was a Shriner, but I didn’t recognize his connection to Masonry until he died. He was a 32nd degree Mason, and I was recently sent his degree certificate, which is an interesting artifact, as well as an heirloom, which I’ll of course have framed.

I also have, through Freemasonry, a connection to some great people throughout history, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, a total of 52 signers of the Declaration of Independence and at least 16 U.S. presidents (including Gerald Ford, who was a 33rd degree Mason, the highest degree).

Groucho Marx is famously credited as having said that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him for a member, and when I was at the other end of that spectrum – looking for a club to belong to that wasn’t actively seeking me as a member – I went looking to the Freemasons.

I first wrote to my local Lodge in application over a year ago, in March of 2013. I didn’t hear from them for a couple of months, when several Lodge members came to the house to interview me, and then I didn’t hear from them again for almost six months, when I was told the initiation ceremony for the first degree (Entered Apprentice) would take place in December. After being initiated, it was again six weeks before I was contacted, and mentored through the degree work; I was passed to Fellowcraft in March of this year.

There seem to be few things, these days, that take preparation, time and work, and largely take place through the mail and in people’s living rooms.

Since I’ve told some friends that I’m undertaking this endeavor, there are two questions I get a lot:

(1) Didn’t you at one time actually have to be a mason to become a Freemason? and
(2) Aren’t the Freemasons a secret society? Why are you telling me?

To answer the first, yes. Operative masons – people who built buildings – were the first Freemasons, and Speculative Masonry, which is what Freemasonry is today, can be traced back, at least on paper, to 1717, and still uses as spiritual tools common operative masonic tools, like the square and compasses, which are prominently displayed on Lodge buildings and pretty much everywhere throughout the Freemasonic world.

To answer the second, well, kinda sorta not really. Question mark? You can always tell a Lodge by the square and compasses on the side of the building. Masons are not asked to keep their membership a secret. Many of their works are public, from appearances in parades to Shriners hospitals and circuses to (in some states, like New York) the Child Identification Program (CHIP) to places like the Masonic Care Community in Utica.

And there’s plenty of information on the Web, and of course in books, many of them written by Masons, so they’d know.

Some people look at the names of Freemasons – Washington, Franklin, Adolf Fredrick (18th century king of Sweden), Salvador Allende, both Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, James Naismith, Gene Autry, Count Basie, Simon Bolivar – and think with all that power and celebrity, there must be some conspiracy at hand. I looked at the list of Freemasons and said, hey, if all those great people wanted to be a part of this, I want to be a part of it, too.

Anyway, that’s the long version. But it’s one of the things I’m up to these days.