If you are a regular and active Mason, you are probably repeating many, many things.
- Degree work
- The structure of a stated communication
- The opening & closing of a lodge
This post is about why we repeat things, the good and bad parts of dealing with all of that repetition, and how we can use it to improve our Masonic practice.
Do you remember when you were first learning your catechisms and how awkward the language felt? Key phrases just feel like a jumble in the mouth, because they are so far from how modern English is spoken. Practice it 100 times, and it begins to feel as though it couldn’t be any other way.
In the article How Talking Changes our Beliefs and Minds, we explored the ideas of conviction and fixity. We looked at how the sheer act of saying something can make us believe it more strongly.
Repetition legitimizes in this way and makes even strange wording feel more normal. In fact, as they say: “Repetition is Persuasive, so is repetition“. Encountering an idea again and again knocks all of the strange feeling off of it, leaving a feeling of familiarity to creep in.
The shared experience of ritual, and the comfort of it always occurring in a particular way is not a problem or annoyance, it’s a core facet of the Craft. The way you get a society of friends and brothers with common beliefs & experiences is by practicing and reinforcing those things, and that means repetition.
At this point in the post I’ve said “repetition” so many times, you might start to feel a little bit numb at its mention. This is the second key facet that impacts Masonry:
Ritual is a way to show faith, but when it becomes habitual, it robs the ritual of its impact. Ruts are not easy to get out of (behavioral, emotional, and cognitive)(Paraphrase of something that David Bacon said at Masonic Esotericon 2020)
So what’s the difference? Why is it that sometimes we repeat things and grow closer and understand them better, while other times repeating things leaves us bored, numb, and disengaged?
The difference is what’s happening between the ears of the Mason. Any repetition may be seen as a set of mechanical sounds & motions. Numbness comes when those sounds & motions become detached from meaning. They become … nothing but sounds and motions.
The Craft is symbolic and nature. Every tiny little thing in a lodge room is a symbol of something else; does your lodge room have burning tapers, or does it have representatives of the Three Lesser Lights? There is no rock up in the east by the Master, but there is a rough ashlar. If Freemasonry is “illustrated by symbols” these symbols require a certain mindset and work, to worry their meaning out of them over time, rather than to accept the simplest, most face-value explanation of a symbol.
Looking at Masonic ritual as a set of motions and sounds is like looking at the rough ashlar as a “big rock”. Correct in only the most shallow and uninteresting ways.
If you find yourself losing interest – this is only human. Tending to our perspective is actual work, and fresh perspective isn’t automatic. I’d offer the following ideas, with the hope that they would open up new perspectives and help you continue the best parts of the work of being a Mason, and alleviate boredom as well.
- Parse each word, look closer. When you come to the “obvious meaning you’ve known for years”, look again harder. You have changed in those years: chances are, the work’s meaning for you has too. A simple example here is the question asked of the Senior Warden, “What induced you to become a Master Mason?” as the answer appears on the surface to be clear, but is meant to be interpreted by you. What does it mean to travel in foreign countries? What kind of speculative work are you doing?
- What if it were different? Imagine a bit of ritual going differently than it always does. What would be gained? What would be lost? Why?
- This repetition we share is part of the shared identity. As a Master Mason you participate in a kind of Sanctum Sanctorum. What do you do just prior to coming to lodge? Do you arrive with dread or hope? Distracted or focused? Before the work begins, what do you arrive with?
When done with the right mindset, the repetition does not numb, but strengthens the mystic tie, and invites us to go deeper into the meaning of the ritual and its impact on ourselves. Metaphorically, if the trowel is an instrument used to spread the cement of brotherly love and affection – then we might think of repetition & ritual as some of that actual cement.