“Are you a traveling man?” is a well known Masonic inquiry. The origin, meaning, and correct response to this question is not appropriate for this essay. I intended this article to focus on the meaning of Travel within Freemasonry, I started to expound upon the specifics of visiting lodges, the process etc. The importance of broadening your purview of what Masonry is, in all its forms and the wonderful differences from district to district. However, I soon realized the best way to express the beauty of traveling would be to recount a personal experience.
This is an account of one of my first experiences traveling to a lodge outside of California, a lodge in NYC, my hometown, where I was born.
I was invited by a brother I only knew from the internet, and I knew little else of this lodge's history or traditions. I think this lack of expectations added to the amazing experience I had that evening. The lodge met in a large Masonic center, where some 70 individual lodges meet throughout the year. Upon my arrival to the lodge, I was invited for a refreshment at the tavern next door. The bar was bustling with men in suits, tuxedos, and they were easily identified as Masons. After a quick beverage and many introductions, we traveled to the lodge room at 7:00 pm, making way through many dozens of men who were all attending various lodges or functions that evening.
I was greeted by the Tyler, a Jewish man in his 80's, wearing his Kippah and telling amazingly bad jokes in a very thick NY accent. I immediately felt welcome. We swapped stories of who we are and where we’ve been. As we spoke, men of many ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds flowed into the lodge. They greeted each other with sincere hugs, handshakes and the occasional brotherly jab. I also recognized several Prince Hall brothers joining the group, who were apparently old friends of many of the members of this lodge.
I was warmly greeted and admitted. The overall form and function of the lodge was very familiar, but as expected there were some jurisdictional differences in how things worked. It became clear to me that this lodge had a unique maritime history, replete with tools of the lodge resembling tridents and seafaring equipment. I quickly noticed some additionally unique items that I had never seen in an open lodge before, including a table set with the objects often found in a “Chamber of Reflection.”
The brethren set to work. With clear and confident voices, the lodge was opened in full, long form. We were welcomed by the master, who then read personal letters from each brother that could not attend that night, expressing their fraternal apologies and reasons for missing lodge. The lodge was then prepared to admit a brother to prove his proficiency in the work he learned in the second degree of Masonry. His work was delivered impeccably; in full, long form. There is no condensed version allowed in this lodge. The lodge was then arranged to admit all brethren of any degree, and the mysterious addition of those macabre symbols of the Chamber of Reflection became clear. A brother gave a 45 minute, detailed lecture about the Chamber and it’s uses, digging very deep into it’s Masonic and alchemical symbols and history, and the specifics of how it is used in their own ritual.
Apprentices and Fellowcrafts were then excused, and we once again prepared to work in the third degree. Business was handled swiftly, but effectively. Ballots were cast, reports and communications were given, and that night’s minutes were read.
We then closed elegantly in full and proper form. The meeting had been so full of purpose and education, that I hadn’t even considered the time. It was only 9pm. The entire meeting was completed in under two hours. This is exceedingly efficient considering the content and amount of business conducted.
But, the night was not yet over! I was then invited to their “festive board” or traditional dinner. We adjourned the lodge to room next door, set with china, silverware, fine glassware set on beautifully covered tables set in the shape of a “U.” Anyone who has attended a Table Lodge would recognize this format. The food was excellent, and abundant; turkey, stuffing, gravy, cornbread, roasted corn, and… a curiously strong “Navy Rum Punch.” The night of agape was off to a fine start. Dinner was similar to a table lodge, with it’s own ritual and toasts. I was completely taken by surprise, as I was told this was just their monthly dinner, held at every stated meeting.
Because of it’s history as a lodge of seafaring men, this lodge had its own particular Maritime themed dinner ritual. The format resembled other table lodges, but incorporated naval terms such as the “port and starboard” sides, where as usual, canons were charged and good fire taken. Century old ships oil lamps were lit, and ceremonial toasts were made. Allusions to Noah, his sons, and his skills at building were present in their ritual. In some ways this made the unique terminology of a table lodge make a bit more sense. It made me wonder whether there might be more to this maritime connection then just this lodges history.
As I spoke to these brothers about their impeccable performance in lodge, their solemnity, efficiency, and dedication to education; even at a humble stated meeting, they revealed a few things about their lodge structure and tradition. On average, a member spends a minimum of 6 months to a year attending dinners, helping in the kitchen, setting up meals, working with charities, before a petition will even be considered. Once initiated, The average time for advancement between degrees generally about a year. It’s rare for someone to be raised in much less than three years. Apprentices were required to work in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, setting up the festive board, allowing them to put on this fabulous event every month at little cost to the lodge.
As the rum punch flowed, and the toasts were made, the feeling of genuine brotherhood was palpable in the room. These men were more than friends. They were family. I was greeted with yet another surprise. An officer of the lodge, I later learned was a professional singer. Walking around the room, swinging glass of rum in hand, he sang a traditional sea shanty, complete with a call and response for the brethren to participate in, the sort of song that sailors would sing while laboring together. I later learned this song was written for their lodge and has always been a part of their tradition.
You might wonder, after reading this epic tale of unique ritual, dedication to traditional and esoteric practices, emphasis on attendance, structure, taking the time to understand and practice your craft; was I visiting a “Traditional Observance Lodge”, or perhaps a “European Concept Lodge”, or maybe a lodge of French origin? No. This was good ol’ fashioned, pure and antient Masonry, my dear readers. No labels, no class distinctions, no unique identifier or outlier status. These brothers managed to practice Masonry and all of it’s pure, noble and fraternal intentions without the need to align to some pre-specified list of rules or regulations. Their unique bond, through tradition and dedication set them apart from many Masons that I have met in my short time as a member of this fraternity. I have never met a more diverse and dedicated group of brothers, and that is saying a lot hailing from what I would say is the most diverse and dedicated lodge in Los Angeles.
I believe that while not all lodges are nearly 200 years old, or meet in big fancy buildings, or have a particular affinity; we can still strive to emulate these principles. I believe we can achieve this level of excellence in our craft, without having to resort to hanging a sign that labels us as anything other than Free and Accepted Masons.
In summary, as Master Masons, the ultimate rite and benefit bestowed upon us is that of the right to travel. So many masons rarely travel outside of their own lodge, never mind their own jurisdiction, state, or country. Whenever I am down about the inevitable politics or struggles in my own lodge, I try to remind myself of the great experiences I have had world round, and that this Fraternity is truly global. Most importantly, I try to remind myself that while traveling has exposed me to so many wonderful aspects of Masonry, I've also seen a reflection of the good, bad and ugly that we face in the day to day. This connection is a reminder that we are all faced with similar challenges, and have to use the tools given to us, including TRAVELING! to improve our Masonic experience.