Ritual Keeps Tradition Alive
By Most Illustrious Companion John D. Barnes
Past Most Illustrious Grand Master and Grand Treasurer, Grand Council of New Jersey
The Cryptic Vault
Tradition is not about guarding the ashes, but keeping the flame alive.– attr. Gustav Mahler
Masonic tradition is not about keeping the ritual alive. It is the ritual that keeps the tradition alive.
But it is not the mere recitation of the ritual that is important. A Mason should be able to do his ritual with fervency and zeal, with emotion, phrasing and appropriate gestures and staging. But if he himself does not understand the ritual, how can he pass it on to others?
The ability of the officers of any Masonic body to confer their respective Degrees and Orders is part of a well-run organization. No one wants to attend a group where, meeting after meeting, the officers stumble through their parts. People are more comfortable, and learn more, in a relaxed environment. But recitation alone only teaches others the words, not the meanings, not the lessons, not the traditions.
Our ritual extends beyond the Degrees themselves. In our openings and closings, the officers state their duties and acknowledge where in the room the next highest officer is located. Over time, those on the sidelines absorb this information, if only through hearing it repeated every meeting. It is good that this is so; it gives us potential officers for the future. But memorization alone is not learning. “Back in the day”, we had to memorize the times tables in school, but it was only through constant usage that we understood multiplication.
Masonic ritual is important. It is part of what makes us different from other fraternal organizations. It is the match that lights the fire within us. But it is the fire that is most important, not the match that ignited it. The fire sheds Light, and heat, and smoke. The Light is more than just an illumination for us to work by; it is a source of what is good and right. The heat does more than warm our bodies; it gives us the energy to continue our labors. And the smoke from the fire, like the fragrant wisps from the Pot of incense, rises like our prayers to the G. A. O. T. U.
As you look within the words of the ritual, you will find the lessons veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols. Many men have found that learning to recite the parts of our ritual that were encoded was easier than those parts that are in plain English. It is because you have to understand what is being communicated before you can learn to repeat it. Your mind has to work that extra bit harder to comprehend what is being said. You have to find the words within your heart before you can share them with others. And remember, a fire continues to burn only if you feed,
If you can learn it, teach it. If you can understand it, preach it. If you can live it, you will reach it!