June 4, 2007
By asking questions, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates taught that most opinions are really only surface deep and he cautioned against living superficial lives made empty by being filled with opinion instead of knowledge. Tonight, we'll scratch the surface of the Fellowcraft degree a little bit and test a widely held opinion about it. And that is: Of the three degrees, this one is the shortest in ceremony and it seems to be, on the surface, the least powerful in terms of its spiritual impact. Fellowcraft is the middle child of Masonry; it lacks the wonder of the first degree and comes nowhere near the profundity of the third. It is the degree that a Candidate can't wait to get to and even more so to get through so that he can get on to becoming a Master Mason.
Now, that's an entirely subjective valuation of Fellowcraft Masonry; it's an opinion based upon superficial knowledge - but that's how opinions are usually formed, isn't it? You mix some facts and some feelings together and - presto! - you have an opinion. We all know as much about the Fellowcraft degree as the next Mason and probably have some similar feelings about the degree, so now we have an opinion to think about.
Forming the opinion was easy; the hard part is testing it. We now have to deal with Socrates' ghost. Let's review a few facts that lead to a few questions about this opinion and what we really know. The first fact is that for a couple of centuries in recent history few Masons became Master Masons; most Freemasons were Fellowcraft. Knowing what we know about the three degrees it seems hard to imagine enjoying the totality of Masonry without having been raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason. But, there you have it, most were not.
This fact talks directly to a question we discussed in our session about Rhetoric, the second of the Masonic liberal arts and sciences found in the second degree: "Can all degrees enjoy the same Masonic way of life, or is full enjoyment dependent upon being a Master Mason? and, can a lesser degree enjoy a lesser Masonic way of life, and is there such a thing?" We dodged the answer in that session because the object then was to focus upon the art of critical thinking. But now, maybe, we should look at the question. Is full enjoyment of Freemasonry dependent upon being a Master Mason?
If we had to answer in the here and now, we'd probably have to answer, "Yes, one must be raised to the sublime degree in order to fully enjoy Masonry." And, it is not as though we have an option in this: we are required to complete all three degrees or face suspension. But the here and now must have been different in the past, else, how could so many Masons have remained at the Fellowcraft degree and still maintained a brotherhood of Freemasonry that was strong and vibrant enough to continue into our centuries? The easy way to accept that idea is to support it by saying to ourselves, "Well, they had different rules then."
Now, rules are the reflection of how we wish to live and form the due boundaries for our actions. We're pretty good at making rules; we're taught from an early age about rules and we spend a lot of our time learning the boundaries of what we can do. It seems we spend more time on addressing those boundaries than in exploring the area enclosed by those boundaries. Nor, it seems, is there a definitive guide for fully understanding the area of our life, our worldly actions and interactions within those due bounds. It's an open question: What do we do with ourselves within those due bounds? Are we living unguided, moving through the area of our lives in random motion, a Brownian movement of the soul within a four dimensional Pachinko game?
I think not. The moral science of Masonry provides guidance to us for our explorations. The first degree gives us the tools to explore the life area within ourselves. The second degree gives us the tools to explore the life area outside ourselves. And both degrees teach us to appreciate the spirituality in life and living, to illuminate the colors within and celebrate the rainbows without. Far from being the least spiritual of the three degrees, the Fellowcraft points to the world around us and encourages us to explore and learn and appreciate the Divine's universe. We find logic and order, rules and boundaries, and yet, we also find the infinite deep inside the atom and the infinite of an expanding universe, both of which defy all bounding. And through it all, from the infinitesimally small to the infinitely large, we grasp the spiritual thread strung through all by the Divine.
Fellowcraft Masonry, the second in our progressive moral science, teaches us that the world is not opinion subject to our prejudices. Rather, it teaches us that the world is fact, subject to our questions, in the answers to which, we find the Divine.
This now answers some questions about how Masonry could have been, in times past, sustained with so proportionately few Master Masons. With the companion strength of an active and pervasive religious life, it was truth then that a lesser degree was not necessarily a lesser Masonic life. The focus of Masonry in times past was an intense search within the self and the encompassing world for understanding of the spirituality in all things. Accompanied by the strength of religion in their lives, and made possible by the social emphasis on independent study, Masonry back then provided sufficient guidance in the first two degrees for that exploration; Masons could lead a full Masonic life as a Fellowcraft.
Today, full exercise of Freemasonry may be dependent upon being a Master Mason, but it is we who have mandated those rules for these times. From the context of living the world within and without in a moral and upright manner, full enjoyment is as accessible to us now as it was in the past; it requires only that we ask the questions of ourselves and of our world. This degree is about the other half of the self. If, to us, the Fellowcraft degree seems to be the least important of the three and of least value in its spiritual content, then we have formed an opinion without doing our homework. The content and spiritual value is there if we look for it. Our understanding of the exterior world is as essential to being whole as is our understanding of our interior world. We need both to be complete, we need both to be balanced, and we need both to fully appreciate the spirituality in the third.
It's easier to form an opinion than it is to think, but, that too, is only an opinion and subject to the Socrates in each of us.
Br. Stephen C. Harrington