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Shhh! Your Man on the Street Meets the Masons

g and compass

Philadelphia Weekly Press

Shhh! Your Man on the Street Meets the Masons

November 24, 2004

By D. Victor Christoff

g and compass
A Mason ...

They were there when George Washington crossed the Delaware. They are here now. Many people think they were here, there and everywhere since time out of mind.

But what your man on the street wanted most to know, as he retraced the steps he took as a boy, bagging school and hanging out in Center City, is exactly what those secretive Masons do inside their big old building at 1 North Broad Street?

In those days, I was content to fantasize they were the descendants of ancient peoples from around the world doing something too hush-hush for me to know. But mostly I saw them as direct descendants of the mysterious warrior-ascetic Knights Templars who fought in the Crusades, because that's what I wanted to be - a shining Templar fighting for glory alone. How exciting it was to see them in their gleaming armor charging without fear into the magnificent army of the immortal Saladin. What honor they had. What courage they embodied in their society of the manly arts. What deep secrets they held about humankind's most profound esoteric arts!

Heroes, mystics, men larger than life and legends all, ah, those were the days.

Funny. The more things change, the more they stay the same. These days the Masonic Temple still holds its many secrets - and its Templars too - but they are nothing like what I had thought them to be at that time. Considering the research done on this world-wide and, at times, suspiciously regarded organization, they are nothing like I think them to be now. Or are they?

Even Kenneth W. McCarty, 62, Director of the Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania, doesn't know how many lodges exist without consulting an outdated, and therefore inaccurate, lodge directory book. In his tastefully furnished office, which I probably could not find with an 'X marks the spot' map, the distinguished and eloquent administrator further admits that each lodge has its own autonomy and rules, including the one in Fidel Castro's rabidly communist Cuba.

Cuba? The Masons in Cuba when most Americans cannot go there without clearing a papery blizzard of government regulations?

Given even this startling tidbit of a secret, I think, who amongst the uninitiated could know anything at all about the Masons? Who could deny they are really not secretly running the world, as suggested in various antiMasonic tracts sent down through the centuries (some of which I have researched before entering these hallowed and labyrinthine halls)?

Who could know, for example, why George Washington insisted his entire officer corps be Masons? What can be inferred when learning almost all the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons? Or that our own member of the so-called "Iluminati", Ben Franklin, took up the secrets? Or that most American presidents have been Masons and insisted their inner circle be drawn from the Ordersā ranks? Or that men from varied backgrounds such as J. Edgar Hoover to Jesse Jackson have accepted its precepts? And these are just Americans. Who could deny each of their respective lodges have not interpreted the Masonic code to suit an agenda opposed to our way of life?

No one. In fact, Benedict Arnold was a Mason, too.

No matter. All this proves is just that men will always be men. And in the society of men, there will always be those few who are just plain rotten.

In no way, however, did I notice this to be the case inside Philadelphia's lodge. Everyone I met was clearly honest in their dealings and conversations with me. If I sought to put a difficult question to anyone, it was answered with absolute candor. When any potentially disruptive subject was broached, it was given a fully rational and cogent reply. So, in anticipating my gentle probes regarding Freemasonry's ultimate aims, I readily accept that in no way are the main objectives in Freemasonry ever violated.

"We are here to make good men better," says McCarty, and to pursue a life of good works and philanthropy.

That Masons play and have played a significant role in American life is not denied either. "We even have Masons operating in churches (without knowledge of church officials)," says McCarty, who likewise admits members of military, Veteran's organizations and unions are in the Fraternity.

As regards claims against the restriction of creeds, McCarty is quick to answer that men of all races and creeds are accepted into Freemasonry. Jews, Muslims, Christians - no one is denied entry. "Belief in a supreme being- that's all we ask."

Modern Masonry, in fact, discourages any divisions because of faith and political persuasion. This is why, on Temple grounds, no discussion of religion or politics is accepted. Neither is drinking or smoking allowed. With these rules, the Masons "keep civility of society" uppermost in their conduct and, as such, are respected by friend and foe alike for their consistency, says McCarty.

For my own part, I can see why the Masons have survived throughout the years despite what McCarty acknowledges is a declining membership because "the value of how people use their time changes over time." He lists television, travel, the invasive demands and tempo of American society to illustrate his claim.

In contrast, the fundamental Masonic philosophy does not change, I think. Like a persistent memory, it embraces the good in men and will not cease in its efforts to make that goodness their accepted norm. Masons can be trusted, a fact not missed by those in public life and the heads of business corporations and public institutions. Hence, the Masons will continue. Always there will be those who seek a sound firmament. Always will there be men needing fraternity with others who share that moral ground.

As I am taken for a guided tour through the lodge, these and other statements McCarty has made grow in significance. The fabulous interior of the Temple grips me, this is true. From the splendor of the vaulted entranceway to the various, themed rooms, a staggering feast of beauty and symbolism unite to form one of the most impressive displays of art I have ever witnessed. My eyes cannot take it all in, my mind cannot absorb it. Although I mentally note for readers to especially pay attention to the Ionic and Egyptian Halls, I am somewhere else really. I am thinking about the Masons and their good works.

They build hospitals. They donate to schools. They fund organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They provide academic scholarships. They underwrite financial assistance to the needy. They do all this without the general public knowing it.

Every Shriner, for instance, is a Mason, something McCarty lets me know only in passing, as if even the Masonic association with this benevolent organization is a secret, a secret that demonstrates how men working together can build a better society without louding and lording it out: how ego can be replaced with egalitarianism- the assertion of justice and equality for everyone: how trust and courage can be built up and into men- any man, every man- who follows his conscience.

Hell, I want to believe these guys. They are just good people. They are my shining Knights Templars in suits and ties.

As I prepare to leave, McCarty explains how one becomes a Mason. "Just write me a petition explaining your intentions. It will be considered. If the vote is unanimous regarding your character, you pay a fee, usually $250 to $300, and your training begins."

That's it. Bingo.

Of course, by this time I am sure that there's a lot more to it than that. I am surer than George Bernard Shaw's salted bagels there's more to it than that. After all, these guys are everywhere, right? They are in the White House, right? They are even in the... but shhh - I mustn't tell. I must get used to being secretive about things.

Outside, I compare the things said to me along with notes from my research, the sum of hours of research journalists gather for an interview. It's all too much, good, bad, good, bad. I conclude one must make one's own decisions concerning all things in the world that effects him or her. Yet, no matter what else, this also must hold true:

Sure, there a lot else that happens behind those guilded doors. By all means do these men sitting in splendor have influence and get to high spaces far beyond the knowledge of the general populace, and in no way does mere fraternity shape the ultimate intentions of some of those men. But in the same threshold of thought, I also know, completely know, that they are also, ultimately, men of good will. They are in this life to live it with conscience and camaraderie.

As I again retrace the steps taken around their big old building as a boy bagging school, I find in myself respect now I know what's happening inside of it. Only, I wish I were a boy again. I wish I could re-live my fantasies of those valiant Knights Templars as they lowered their lances for a charge into holy battle.

As for my bagging school? Well, that's not really something I should reveal, right? I mean, not to you guys.

But since I already have, let's just keep it our secret.

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