I detest it when English-speakers misuse the word “whence.” In very basic terms, it means “where from” or “from where.” Yet, English speakers and writers, even the highly educated, continually use the word “from” with “whence.” You will hear “from whence did it come?” Argh. We are being redundant. “From where from” is improper English grammar, people. Stop it.
Why the grammatical rant? Because I think that we Freemasons are faced with many archaic English words and we have no idea why they are in our rituals. How many times have we heard someone say “in-da-fa-tee-gable.” No. It is “in-de-fatiglble.” We modern Masons struggle with these words falling out of our mouth, trying to make them give the ritual heart and meaning. Why these archaic words and what purpose do they serve? Can’t we just “fix” it?
Ah, that is the Freemason’s contradiction: to follow Landmarks and never make innovations to the ritual, and yet understand that the ritual has been altered and changed dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times over the course of time. Think on it: every Grand Lodge, Supreme Council, or other Supreme Freemasonic order has their own Blue Lodge or Craft ritual. Between antients and moderns, between schisms and amalgamations, the Freemason’s ritual has changed dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times. Yes, I said it – changed. It has changed words, symbols, colors, officers, and clothing. Even Landmarks, which are those items that help us identify what Freemasonry is have changed. Here’s one set. (Side note, interestingly this one does NOT prohibit Freemasonry with women…) You should read your own, if you’re a Freemason.
Did these landmarks spring out of thin air, in 1717? Well, no, actually, they did not. After a loose confederation of Lodges got together in 1717 and called it “Speculative Freemasonry,” there was a need for codification of that which distinguishes Freemasons from other groups, and creates some sort of recognizable body and organization. Membership of Lodges within this confederation was optional but in order to be recognized as a Freemasonic Lodge and body, rules and regulations were necessary. Reverend James Anderson was one of the first, and certainly is the most recognized, person to have created a constitution applicable to Freemasonry. If you’re not familiar with it, I encourage you to read it. I am not going to get into a long and lengthy discussion of the origins of Freemasonry. Truth is, no one really knows. We speculate. It’s what we do. However, we can trace some of these documents to our own rituals, by way of the words used, the ritual form and substance, and the legends that come out of it.
Knowing the origins of the documents that have led to a basis of modern Freemasonry, we can understand the words that pop up in our ritual, why they are archaic and odd-sounding on our modern tongue. So, why don’t we just change them? Why won’t our Freemasonic leaders just “get with the times,” and revise what needs to be revised? I think the answer lies in what ritual is, what specifically the Freemasonic ritual is trying to convey.
Ritual is important to the human being, as many scientific studies have concluded. It helps the human focus on whatever is at hand, alleviate many of the concerns that creep into everyday lift, and perhaps provide us a way to continue on a healthy journey through life. Freemasonry’s use of ritual is perhaps an embodiment of ritual for how to “be” in the world. Freemasonry, as one fellow member has often told me, doesn’t tell you how to think; it teaches you how to be. There is a richness within the ritual of Freemasonry that provides us individuals guides in our life situations. We can see or not, as we are able. An interesting essay entitled Ritual – Its Importance and Meaning by Wor. Bro. Victor Popov, says “Our Freemasonic ritual conveys important truths and is a rich and a valuable portion of every Mason’s journey toward light.” I think the words that our forefathers brought to the table is one way those truths are conveyed.
It’s interesting to note that of those organizations who have revised their ritual significantly from the earlier Masonic periods (> 200 years ago), there has been a distinct drop in membership numbers. In fact, many Lodges and Masonic orders are striving to repair their rituals to an earlier age, become more in line with what their forefathers were doing in Masonic Lodges. Some of that is embracing the “weird” words we find in Freemasonry? Why?
Words do have power. They have the power to make us think, to reflect, to trigger an emotion, and to dream. They spark the imagination. If nothing else, they force us to go the dictionary and learn what they means. Humans communicate on many levels: to me, the way our ancestors and teachers of the past communicate to us is via words. How can we learn their lessons without learning the words that they used to communicate? “Whence” becomes incredibly important, not because of its current meaning but because of how our Masonic ancestors used it. “Whence come you?” has a very different rhythm and flow than “Where do you come from?” – not to mention, the former is proper English. By understanding these archaic words, we learn more history, grammar, language, and symbolism, and perhaps these will guide us in our journey of self discovery. You will probably not walk up to your co-worker and say “hey, whence come you?” I think that is the point – Freemasonry lifts us out of the mundane and helps us to think differently. Do we really want to bring that mundane world into Freemasonry? If the answer is yes, I would ask towards what ends?
Brother Popov, from his essay noted above, I think brings the idea of the importance of ritual to bear in this statement: “I tend to think that when most of us enter the Craft we respectfully submit to the demands of membership and its unusual ritual without immediately reflecting upon its meaning. Few ever make the effort to realize the historical and philosophical dimensions of Masonic ritual or what it may impart to an individual. I submit that this is most dangerous, especially when desire to change ritual, caused by our fast paced culture to make it easier to memorize or deliver more ‘effectively’ may harm the essence of what the ritual is- Freemasonry’s heart, mind and spirit.”