Everyone knows Freemasonry has been around for centuries, but many have little or no idea just that being a Freemason entails, what Freemasonry stands for or what the very word means.
Freemasonry, in its most general terminology refers to groups of fraternal organizations. The very term, Mason derives from what we might consider an early form of labor union, or guild. The importance of the work of stone masons at the time was so great that only the most highly trained and qualified masons might become full members. Castles and cathedrals were built of stone and the workmanship had to be unsurpassed. The lower walls of the Tower of London for example are some twelve feet thick to ward off invaders and protect those inside its confines.
Although we don't attach as much importance to the art of masonry today, it was long one of the most necessary and important building tools available throughout the world.
The road to becoming a Mason was long and rocky. A young man would begin as an apprentice to a master craftsman. Often in early times, these apprentices began at ages as early as ten. This as it turns out, was probably an excellent age to begin an apprenticeship, providing one was interested in learning the trade. Just as a musician cannot begin to study and practice too soon if one hopes to become an artist.
In the early days, apprentices generally lived in the home of the master and providing they adapted themselves to their craft after perhaps some seven years of apprenticeship, they might acquire the title of journeyman. Most of these were inspired to continue to learn and improve in the hope that they too, one day would become a Master Mason.
The Masons constructed lodges where they might meet and conduct Freemason business rather than meet in public houses as did so many in early times. There they were able to initiate new members, confer titles and as was so often the custom in the earliest days, Freemasons, to protect their interests developed a system of passwords, etc. which became a universal way for one Mason to know another, not merely because he claimed to be a Mason, but because he too knew and understood the proper greetings, and therefore Masons were able to recognize a brother thus bringing strength and solidarity to all.
As time went on, many degrees developed as well as systems of charity. We all know the wonderful benefits of institutions such as the Shriners' Hospitals for Children and the importance of the work that goes on there. Although the Shriners are not strictly Masons, they must be Masons to become a Shriner.
But because of their solidarity and what some considered secrecy of operation, many decided, and even today, some believe that Masonry is somehow anti-religious, that Masons deviate from established Christianity or wish to create their own religion. In truth, many Bishops of the Church of England have from early times been Freemasons as have been many of our world leaders both abroad and here in the United States.
The fact is that according to their own code and rules, Masons, when they meet do not discuss religions nor politics. These are subjects that are proscribed by the Order and for good reason. Religion and politics generally are more divisive than conducive to good relations.
The Catholic Church has traditionally condemned Freemasonry, but despite this sort of distrust, Freemasonry is not nor has it ever been, a religious organization. There are no priests, no pastors, reverends or bishops. At the same time however, agnostics and atheists are turned away. A Mason can belong to any religious organization of choice, but a true Mason must believe in the holiness and power of God.
Freemasonry, like so many groups, be they social or religious gatherings, respect and make use of symbols. Symbols represent a way for us to absorb an entire idea at once rather than having to read a discourse upon the subject.
For example the acacia tree, without words, tells the visitor that a Mason lies in this place.
The dollar bill has long intrigued many, and the very presence of symbols has created much speculation and many theories. The All-Seeing Eye symbolizes God watching over us. A constant reminder to those who believe. But the all-seeing eye, the pyramid and other symbols to be found on the dollar bill are not Masonic. These are symbols that pre-date the birth of Masonry by centuries and can hold meaning to anyone who chooses to read meaning into them.
Today, foolish people dream up ideas designed to create doubt, aversion or even hatred against organizations. Someone came up with the idea that a certain brand of beer had the number "33" on its label to indicate the 33 degrees of Masonry. The latest evidence indicates that the number "33" got on the label completely by accident and has no meaning at all!
Today Masons have an array of jewelry that is not only becoming but a symbol or badge they proudly wear that the entire world may know the pride they take in belonging to this storied institution.
We have rings, watches, and much regalia that is only displayed in lodges. Often upon the death of a loved one, the family is uncertain what to do with these precious artifacts. While a non-member may wear a Masonic ring that belonged to his father or uncle, it is not considered to be in good taste.
A family may place this regalia such as apron, lapel pins, watches, caps, etc. in a glass case to display in the home. The family may donate the collection to the decedent's lodge or if so-minded, it is perfectly permissible to sell any valuable jewelry on the open market.
Remember however, these artifacts were important to the loved one who has left them behind. They weren't important because of their intrinsic value but symbolized a sign to tell the world around them of the principles that they took great pains to uphold during the visit to our earth here below.
Hopefully this little discourse will help explain some of the myths as well as meaning and acts of Freemasons. If you have further interest, help is never far away.