I didn’t quite know what to expect when entering a local Masonic Lodge about four years ago. After years of watching the barrage of TV documentaries about the mysterious Masons and frequently driving by some of the Lodges, my curiosity peaked. I wondered if was indeed a secret society attempting to orchestrate history or more aptly a fraternity of men aimed at individual development and helping people.
My first Lodge visit engulfed me with a twang of mystique and intrigue, but not in the malevolent sense of a haunted house or a far-out, Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not experience. Masonic symbols did adorn the walls, and the meeting main smacked of a ritualistic site, but again nothing appeared to be offensive or alarming.
Every Lodge member I met treated me as an equal, so if any influential political or business leaders were present it never became apparent. As it turned out, no conversations about politics are allowed in a Lodge, and meetings aren’t for business networking. You must believe in some form of a spiritual God — atheists are barred from membership — but no talk of religion takes place. In a nutshell, Masonry, also known as Freemasonry, is dedicated to the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.
To become a Mason, hopefuls must contact a Lodge in their community or be recommended by a Mason. I filled out an application, underwent an interview and a home visit by a membership committee, and had a background investigation before the Lodge members (referred to internally as Brothers) voted on whether to accept me.
Once vetted, I received mentoring to help complete three degrees of Masonry — Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master — that taught me about the organization’s history and foundation. This included the origin of the symbols that began with King Solomon’s Temple and various spoken and unspoken methods of identifying another Mason outside the lodge.
But what about this business of being a secret society? If the objective of Masons centered on remaining a secret to the public, it would be a colossal failure. Masonic Lodges — there are more than a dozen in Pinellas County alone — clearly identify themselves as such. Masons regularly wear identifying shirts and hats in public as well as put bumper stickers on their cars to display their membership; endless books and TV shows depict Masonry; and Googling the word “Masons” will reveal millions of hits.
The Masons are not a secret society, but more aptly a society of secrets. These internal secrets are ritualistic in nature, and there’s absolutely nothing sinister about them — and no true Mason will divulge them.
Lodges sponsor plenty of activities open to the public. I’m a member of Clearwater Lodge 127, and non-Masons can attend a buffet breakfast every Saturday morning, watch a movie while munching on hot dogs every other Friday night, and attend outings such as bowling and golf tournaments. Visitors can tour the Lodge and see the meeting hall.
Masonry’s foundation reaches back to King Solomon in 970 BC and is steeped in fascinating history such as the Crusades and Templar Knights more than 700 years ago. It developed in medieval Europe as a guild for stonemasons and expanded as a social organization. The first Grand Lodge was erected in London in 1717, and regular Lodges sprouted in the U.S. beginning in the early 1700s. Lodges are grouped into districts, with each state having its own Grand Lodge, which in Florida is in Jacksonville. Clearwater Lodge 127 is in District 20 and received its charter on Jan. 20, 1892.
Some Masons indeed have been influential members of society and have made contributions to world and U.S. history. That list includes nine signers of the Declaration of Independence, 13 signers of the Constitution, George Washington and 13 other presidents. Other notable past and present Brothers of fame: Winston Churchill, Arnold Palmer, Davy Crockett, Ty Cobb, Clark Gable, Douglas MacArthur, Charles Lindbergh, Mozart, John Wayne, Eddy Arnold and J.C. Penney. But, like me, the overwhelming majority of Brothers are everyday people, totaling more than three million worldwide and two million in North America alone.
Women can join associated Masonic organizations such as Eastern Star. For teens there’s DeMolay (for boys) and Rainbow Girls. Other Masonic groups include the Shriners, who operate a network of hospitals for children where there’s a never a fee for treatment. The Freemasons of North America contribute more than $2 million to charitable causes every day.
My experience as a Brother, like the building of a matchstick house, began as a thousand scattered pieces, and it gradually evolved into an exhilarating and fulfilling path through the history and lore of Masonry that continues to this day. As I said, all it takes to become a Mason is to look up your nearest Lodge. Clearwater Lodge 127 is located at 705 S. Hercules Ave. Call (727) 447-5161 or visit clearwater127.com.