What is Freemasonry? Er…a charity? A chocolate digestive, maybe…?

February 12, 2014

We’re expected to know at least one answer to the above question pretty early on in our Masonic lives. Before we can be passed to the second degree we have to prepare answers to certain questions and, like everything else in Freemasonry, the questions are carefully thought-out and the answers are important for us because they help us to understand what it is that we are gradually getting into. So, it’s not a random question like, “If you were a biscuit, what kind of biscuit would you be?” I’m sure the answers to that would be very interesting and informative, but they wouldn’t help us much on our quest to understand Freemasonry.

So, when the question is asked: “What is Freemasonry?” The answer is, “A peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” There’s nothing in that definition about it being a social club or a charitable organisation. No, it’s a system of morality and the implication is very clear in that answer: that Freemasonry exists to make us better people by imbuing us with a sense of morality and, happily, at the same time it gives us a supportive framework of understanding which will help us put that morality into practice.

I’m always a little disappointed when I read or hear that someone in Freemasonry who is prominent enough to have a public voice describes us as a charitable organisation. It strikes me as both a missed opportunity to explain what we really are and also as something that feels (again!) like a sop to public opinion, as if we have to justify our existence by saying that we give lots of time and money to good causes.

I’m not saying that I’ve got anything against the fact that we do give a lot of time and money to some very good causes. We help our own and our connections when in need, true – but we give extensively beyond what might appear to be our immediate circle…and that’s the important point…well, one important point, anyway: because of the understanding and the morality that Freemasonry encourages within us, we know that there is no aspect of humanity that is beyond ‘our’ circle because we know ourselves to be one with all of humanity.

We believe in a Supreme Being and we acknowledge all of our fellow creatures to be children of that Being; we understand that we are all one family, bound together under God and it is that understanding of our interconnectedness that gives rise to our sense of charity and love.

Perhaps I’m nit-picking, but I do believe that it’s important to make the distinction. We are not a charity in the sense that we exist to raise funds and distribute them to worthwhile causes. That is not our primary function. But Charity is love-in-action and it spontaneously arises when we acknowledge our true relationships, with God and with each other. That is why we are so charitable…because we understand those relationships, not because we exist to give money to others…

And, of course, this all leads us – again – to the question: if our primary function is to cultivate morality, is that not, by implication, a Spiritual pursuit in that it forces us down the road of questioning why we are here, what we are for, where we are going and what we are?

Perhaps the biscuit question would be easier…

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