Freemasons: Three degrees of revelation

Hume Weekly, Australia/September 22, 2011

For years people across the world have regarded Freemasons as being part of a club shrouded in secrecy. Freemasonry is the oldest and largest existing fraternity in the world. Its members say it is neither a religion nor a cult. It has more than five million members worldwide and numbers continue to grow. Charlotte Azzopardi unravels the secrets behind the mysterious group.

"People seem to think it's a secret, but it's not," says John Burgess, a freemason for 50 years.

"There's little bits and pieces of it that are distinctly peculiar to Freemasonry that only freemasons know. But if you go on the internet you can find whatever you like about it."

But it wasn't always like that. Rumours that it was a secret cult, religion or world government were whispered behind the backs of men who gathered, dressed in identical clothing, for reasons no one knew.

Today that's something freemasons laugh off.

"It's a shame people think like that," says Darley resident Gary Vaughan. "I've told people I'm a freemason. Some of them are intrigued and some people say I'm in a cult. It's not a cult. It's nothing like that. It's not about religion either."

Freemasons promote a way of life that brings like-minded men together in a brotherhood. The principles are based on tolerance, equality, charity, honour, morality and self-development.

Mr Vaughan, 34, is relatively new to Freemasonry, having just completed the three degrees required to become a master mason — the entry level rank in the lodge.

But it's something that he grew up knowing about. His uncle, cousins and brothers are freemasons in England.

"It's something I always thought I wanted to do...I'm interested in the history side of it and the so-called secrets were intriguing to learn. They're not hardcore secrets, just a way of identifying fellow freemasons."

"My older brother is quite proud that I've joined. I'm going home [to England] in March and he wants me to see his lodge. We've got a lot of respect for each other as freemasons. It's not the sort of thing people do every day."

At monthly meetings men gather at the lodge, practising ceremonies for upcoming initiations, teaching younger freemasons, and listening to their colleagues deliver speeches on chosen topics.

The idea behind the requirement to deliver speeches — known as "charges" — in front of the lodge to fellow masons is to teach members how to speak publicly, sometimes in front of hundreds of people.

Freemasons are benevolent people. They have raised thousands of dollars for charity. It's just they don't talk about it. It's there to benefit the community, through freemasons' homes, hospitals and aged care places.

"It teaches good men to be better," Mr Vaughan says. "You're surrounded by good people who have done the same initiations as you and the same work. It keeps you in check with yourself and you learn from good people."

Conclusive records on the beginnings of Freemasonry don't exist. Some scholars argue that it can be traced as far back as the 1300s. The most widely held belief is that modern Freemasonry evolved from the stonemasons' guilds in 17th century England.

The theory suggests that guilds started the movement to admit non-craftsmen to help spread moral and spiritual ideas.

That is how Rob Hamilton, from the Zetland lodge in Kyneton, explains the layout of the lodge room.

"Tradition says that the lodge is where the masons came to get their instructions for their work of the day. The master of the lodge would have been the chief architect. There were two guards on the door and they had to be given a password for people to come in. It's where they also came to get paid so if they didn't have the correct password for their level they wouldn't get paid...This is really a work site administration."'

All lodges look the same inside. Talismans, statues and symbols adorn the walls, but they're covered by small curtains when non-members enter. The middle of the floor is decorated with a striking black and white check carpet.

New freemasons enter the lodge as an entered apprentice. It takes 12 months to move through what are called ''degrees'' to become a master mason.

The worshipful master of the Zetland lodge is 76-year-old Bill Allen, who was initiated as a freemason 45 years ago.

"You get to know each other and you rely on each other. You've got to be able to rely on the bloke next to you. Wherever you go there are always freemasons. Certain phrases give them away or you might go down the street and there's a certain manner in them, you can tell by that."

Geoff Ralph, 40, joined the Melton lodge six years ago and has since worked his way up to the role of worshipful master.

"The more you get exposed to it the more you want to learn. It's steeped in history. My great grandfather was a freemason for 40 years. It intrigued me. I've looked back through all of his army records and wondered why he joined."

Freemasonry is suffused with symbolism that goes back centuries. The most obvious is the clothing masons wear. At monthly meetings each man wears a dinner suit, bow tie, apron and white gloves.

"The gloves came about so no one could tell what job you did. Whether you were a labourer or a surgeon, if it's covered no one knows. Everyone is treated on what we call 'the level' — equal," Mr Ralph says.

The identical dinner suit is for the same reason.

"The apron is very symbolic of stone masons. You'll start off with a plain white one and that's the first degree."

Most freemasons are following in the footsteps of a brother, father or grandfather. But not all. Hoppers Crossing resident Oliver Hodnik moved to Australia when he was six and he had never heard of freemasonry. He's the first person in his family to join a lodge.

"I like the idea of something exclusive. It's a club, that's what it is, a club of people and a club of friends. There's a lot of networking and a lot of friends to be made. I like that aspect because I haven't had much of an older person's influence in my life. I grew up without my grandparents because we've always been separated so it's nice to get around with some of the old blokes and all the knowledge you absorb from them."

At 73, John Burgess is celebrating his 50th year as a freemason. He wears his uniforms and medals with immense pride, having been introduced to the group by his grandfather.

"My grandfather was a great influence in my life. He used to talk about all sorts of things. We'd sit down, just a couple of blokes yapping away. When I'd just turned 18 he asked me if I'd like to join the freemasons."

Mr Burgess of Subury, didn't take up the offer until he was 21 and he wore his grandfather's apron at his initiation ceremony.

"Freemasonry is a good thing to belong to. There's nothing sordid about it. It's absolutely amazing. You'll be standing around at an event and someone will say one word and GOTCHA! It's like a code, you've got to be aware of what's being said and there it is, you've met another mason. Some people think it's a little bit old world, and it is old. But that's the beauty of it all too."

"Secrets and mysteries make it interesting. It's when you know all about it that the gloss wears off. But in my case it's become a lifelong thing."

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