From The Mentor’s Mouth: Bro. Robert E. Burtt, PM

Robert Burtt

This is a second contribution from Worshipful Brother Robert E. Burtt, author of A Guide to Modern Freemasonry and A Pennsylvania Masonic Handbook, which is a cutting for the latter book. Although it was written for a Pennsylvania Mason, it should have sound advice for any newly raised brother.

Bro. Robert E. Burtt, PM was born in Du Bois, PA in 1954.  An alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh, he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Political Science, and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration there.  He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.  Although Bro. Burtt has done all of those things in life that one needs in order to become a writer, he still finds that he must depend on other work for his physical needs. He currently works as a minor functionary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Bro. Burtt was raised a Master Mason in Harmony Lodge No. 429, Zelienople, PA in 1995.  He is a Past Master of Harmony Lodge.  A member of Delta Royal Arch Chapter No. 170, New Castle, PA, he is Past High Priest.  He also belongs to Hiram Council No. 45, Royal and Select Master Masons, where he is Past Thrice Illustrious Master.  He was knighted in Lawrence Commandery No. 62, and is Past Eminent Commander.  He is also a Knight of the York Cross of Honor.
Bro. Burtt is also a Charter Member of the Pennsylvania Lodge of Research and a Companion Knight in Golden Triangle York Rite College No. 32, Pittsburgh, PA. Finally, he is a member emeritus of Antioch Conclave, Knights of the Red Cross of Constantine, New Castle, PA.
Bro. Burtt is the author of A Pennsylvania Masonic Handbook, and A Guide to Modern Freemasonry. His non-Masonic works include Wait Until Sunset, a study of the Japanese-American conflict in the South Pacific, and Rome: A Commonplace Book, a love letter to his spiritual home, Italy. He has also authored or co-authored several monographs concerning media and politics. These are of an academic nature and are chiefly useful to those unfortunates afflicted with insomnia.
Bro. Burtt is married to his wife, Grace and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with his two step-daughters, grandsons, and a dog named Ashes.


So now what?  You’ve gone through your degrees and become a Master Mason.  You’ve received a monthly notice and you’re looking forward to your first meeting as a full-fledged Mason.  What can you expect?  What is life like as a Freemason in a lodge?

First, be prepared for some sort of let down.  Think back.  Up until now, you’ve been the center of attention.  Your sponsor had you fill out a petition.  A committee visited your home and interviewed you and your family.  When you went to the lodge for your degrees, it seemed like everyone wanted to shake your hand and talk to you.  It felt like you were the most important man in the lodge.  You were.  That’s the operative word here: were.  Now, however, you’re just another member—and the newest one at that.

On the night of my first regular meeting, I arrived excited.  I wore my best suit.  Members straggled in.  There didn’t seem to be many of them—not like on my degree nights.  I filled out a members slip, tied on my apron, and walked into the lodge room.

It was interesting, confusing, and somewhat boring.  The ceremony of opening the lodge was eye-catching and solemn.  It was hard to follow though, what with the various officers moving around the room, but it held my attention.  Then came what could only be described as a typical business meeting.

Visitors were recognized.  Minutes of the last meeting were read and approved.  Minutes from an extra meeting were read and approved.  Letters, notices, and circulars were read.  Petitions for membership were read.  Committees were named.  Reports by committees already in existence were given and approved.  Trustees spoke.  Building association members spoke.  The Treasurer made his report and it was approved.  I started to get a little fidgety.  Finally, the meeting closed with ceremony and a prayer.  Walking out, I smelled coffee in the dining room.  Although the meeting had started at 7:30 and it was only 9, I felt like it had lasted a lot longer.  I was so punch drunk that I broke my no coffee rule in the evening.  The food consisted of doughnuts.  After a few minutes of small talk, I left.

On the drive home I asked myself: “Is this it?  Is this all they do?  They have 16 meetings a year.  Are they all like this?  Have I made a mistake in joining?”

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling this way.  What should you do?  Well, here’s a second thing to remember:  don’t panic.  Don’t give in to the bad feelings.  Don’t get discouraged.  Woody Allen once said that 90% of life is just showing up!  Go to meetings.  Let me repeat: go to as many lodge meetings as you can.   You can’t get anything valuable from Masonry if you don’t participate in it.  Remember, that from now on, it is up to you to actively seek meaning within the fraternity.  You are no longer the passive Candidate, receiving enlightenment.  You have some work to do.

The year I joined, I attended all monthly stated meetings, all extra meetings, and also went to the monthly school of instruction held by our district.  It added up to 30 meetings that first year.  I’m not suggesting that you must do what I did, but my point is that you have to make an effort to learn.  You’ve just spent several months, and a considerable sum of money, in order to become a Freemason.  How about an additional investment of patience and concentration?  Masonry is a gradual process.  You don’t get Enlightenment all at once.  Try to hold on to that thought.

Third: remember that Freemasonry is an eighteenth century institution.  The manners, the language, the procedures—in short, everything about it—are from the 1700’s.  In this day and age, people just don’t talk the way they do during Masonic meetings.  They don’t have the same mannerisms.  In many ways, attending a meeting is like traveling back in time.  It would be astounding if you weren’t confused at first!

Give yourself (and Masonry) some time.  What’s your hurry?  There is no prize for being the first to totally understand the Craft and all its inner workings and philosophy.  This is a lifetime project.  Again, let me repeat: take your time.

The Eighteenth century was the age of classicism, or rather an age that revered the classic mode of thinking.  It looked to the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration.[1]  One way of looking at reality is to divide human understanding into two distinct modes: classical and romantic.  Classical thinking perceives the world as consisting of underlying forms.  Romantic thinking is concerned with appearance and surface realities.

The romantic mode is thought to be inspirational, imaginative, creative, and emotional.  Feelings predominate

one’s perspective, rather than facts and rules.  Art is part of the realm of romantic thought—at least it often is. The appearance of things are what is important, not their underlying form. The classic perspective proceeds by reason, laws, and is mainly concerned with understanding the underlying form of reality itself.  In Western culture, law, medicine,

and science are classic modes of understanding.  Traditionally, they have been perceived as masculine, while romantic modes have been assigned a feminine label.

In the last century, the conflict between classic and romantic understanding has become more and more distructive.  They seem to be mutually hostile to each other.  Our popular culture seems to be mainly romantic, concerned with glitz, entertainment, and appearance.  For many men, work and its demands, seem to be a part of the world of classic under-standing.  Too many of us feel like we have to live mutually exclusive lives.  Many brethren I’ve talked to complain that Masonic meetings remind them of their jobs.  If they want dull, boring, formal, empty interaction, they can just stay at work.  Why should they come to a meeting for more of the same?

This is a fair criticism—as far as it goes.  My answer would be though, that if you feel this way, you’re only looking at a part of the Masonic program.  Freemasonry is an attempt to combine the classic and the romantic modes and invent an entirely new way of understanding human life.  The meeting is formal, without question.  There is a lot of ceremony, no doubt about it.  This is the ugly, boring, awkward side of the classical.  But combined with this formality is a rich use of symbol, myth, stories, costumes, and visual aids.  This is where Masonry attempts to appeal to the romantic side of human nature.

Freemasonry is designed to reach both our romantic, and intellectual natures.  I’m not sure if this was the original plan, but this is how it has developed.  The goal is to entertain, to teach, to uplift—in a word—to Enlighten its membership.  It’s an ambitious agenda.  Few in western history have attempted such a goal.  Don’t expect things to be easy.

Freemasonry teaches that you have four basic obligations in life: to God, your family, your profession, and finally, to Masonry.  Keep this order in mind.  Don’t neglect your responsibilites.  Keep them in balance.  I’ve known men who spent virtually 6 nights out of every 7 going to Masonic gatherings.  In the literature of Freemasonry there are many references to “Masonic Widows.”  Don’t contribute to this phenonmenon.

But the questions remain: “What do I do now?  How do I get involved?  What Direction should I follow?  How busy should I get?”  There are no easy answers.  Every lodge is different.  Every Brother is different.  We all have individual interests and talents.  We all have different needs.  What worked for me was first, an attitude of humbleness.  I asked myself: “what does this new organization that I joined—this Lodge—need?  What can I give to it?  What can I contribute, not for any personal reason…not because I’m going to get anything out of it.  What can I give, just to give?”

That was the way I started.  I was asked by the Senior Warden if I would oblige him and fill a minor officer’s chair the following year: Senior Master of Ceremonies.  I agreed but warned him that I didn’t know a lot of the ritual, and didn’t really understand much about meetings yet.  He said that was ok, and told me that no undue demands would be placed on me.  That was the beginning of my Masonic career.  I went to every meeting, listened, and learned.  At the end of every year, I was asked to fill a slightly higher position.  With each year, my commitment to the lodge grew and grew.  My fellow members got to know and trust me.  They could see the evidence of my desire to help.  At every step, I kept asking: “Am I doing this so that I can get recognition and personal prestige, or am I doing this to help the lodge?”  I can honestly say that had there been others willing to step ahead of me, I would have gladly remained a humble member.  After six years, I was elected Worshipful Master of the lodge.  I felt I had a pretty good year, but I’m sure others could have done better.  I was able to ensure that other Brethren were ready to take over in the future, so in that sense I think I was a success as Worshipful Master.

I didn’t plan this journey “through the chairs.”  It just happened.  During this time, I found other ways to help, and I found other members asking themselves how they could get involved.  We helped each other.  One humorous example involved the lodge building itself.  Our lodge had been built in the 1960’s.  The interior had never been changed.  In fact, things had just been allowed to deteriorate without any plan.  The lodge was pretty much bare of any decoration.  A few pictures were hung randomly.  The walls were cheap, dark brown, imitation wood paneling.  The Vestibule was crowded with old furniture.  The Preparation and Examination Rooms were used as storage spaces.  The Lobby was cut in half by a huge wood and glass display counter that was used to store Masonic products for sale.  It prevented anyone from mingling and talking before meetings.  The whole building was dark, cramped, and felt neglected.

One night after a building committee meeting, I was talking with a few members about how the lodge looked to us.  We all agreed that it was dark, depressing, and meanly furnished.  It wasn’t the kind of place that made you want to attend meetings.  One brother looked at the display case and said: “I’d like to get rid of that monstrosity!”  We decided we didn’t have the authority to get rid of it, but one of us asked: “why don’t we just push it out of the way against that wall?”  We looked at each other, and then started to push.  When we were done, all of us looked around uneasily.  I think we were secretly expecting some of the older members to appear in righteous fury and yell at us for touching anything.  But nothing happened.  There was no earthquake.  And then we saw that the entire lobby had suddenly changed.  There was space!  There was room to mingle, to breathe!  The whole geography of the place was transformed.  We went home happy.

At the next meeting, no one said anything about the change.  We realized that the sky wasn’t going to fall.  From that small beginning grew a lodge decoration project.  In the following years walls were painted, pictures put up, furniture moved, rooms cleaned out, and eventually our lodge became a showplace.  The moral of the story is, I guess: look for other like-minded men who truly want to contribute.  They’re probably right there in front of you.  Just open your eyes.  And if you find them, don’t neglect to try to learn something.  You aren’t the only one with ideas, and maybe someone else has a better way.  Freemasonry isn’t your own private preserve.  It isn’t a hobby either.  It’s more like a way of life.  Don’t expect to change everything just to suit yourself.  Also, don’t expect revolutionary changes.  Just because you personally think something needs to be fixed, don’t assume that everyone thinks that way.  Don’t assume you know everything!

Lodges are living organisms made up of imperfect men.  Like the proverbial snowflake, no two are alike.  The only difference between Masonic lodges and other organizations is that lodges are made of up members who are sworn to try to do right, to improve themselves, and to help others.  Go slow and look around.  Is there anything you can do to make your lodge better?  How is the food after meetings?  Are you a good cook?  Could you help there?  What about the committees for visiting the sick?  Are they full?  Does your lodge have a community outreach?  A fundraiser?  A special charity that it contributes to?  Does it need new candidate’s clothing or tuxedos for officers?  How about new paraphernalia?  Does the grass need to be cut?  Is attendance a problem?  Do you have ideas?  Once again, look around and see where you can contribute.

One last word.  Some lodges are in trouble.  Some seem to be controlled by a small group of old men who don’t want change, or any new ideas.  They don’t want to let anyone into their group.  They tend to hold on to most of the administrative and financial positions and will not loosen their grip.  Nothing moves in these lodges without their say-so.  Attendance is low, meetings are boring, and depressing.  There is no spirit of brotherly love and affection.  If you find yourself in such a lodge what can be done?

My personal advice is to try the methods I’ve already outlined.  Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem.  Maybe there are other members that you can work with.  Give it some time.  Try hard.  After a while—and everyone has a limit to the amount of patience they have—you might have to consider giving up.  In that case, my advice is to start looking for another lodge.  You can transfer your membership in Pennsylvania.  You aren’t tied to a lodge for life.  Don’t give up your membership in Masonry, just find another place to practice it.  It’s a big step, but one you should consider should you get to the end of your rope.

One final issue: the meetings themselves. They can be boring. This is an admission that many Brethren don’t want to really face. At least we can honestly admit the obvious. On one level, going to meetings is somewhat like paying bills and filing personal financial records.  Not real compelling, but necessary.  What can’t be expressed on paper is the stateliness, the dignity, the magic, if you will, of the meeting.  Masonic gatherings are filled with stylized behavior.  The language used by the officers, the mannerisms of the Brethren when they address the Master, the voting procedures—all are done according to a severe ritualistic code.  When entered into with understanding and an open frame of mind, one can briefly attain an almost higher state of being for the evening.  If you have never participated in a meeting, or run a committee, or spoken before groups, Freemasonry is a chance to test yourself and learn.  In modern life, too often we seem to be mere cogs in a large, impersonal system.  It sometimes doesn’t seem to matter if one contributes or not.  In Freemasonry, the individual truly is important, really can make a contribution, and make himself heard.  If you decide to “go through the chairs” and work your way up to Worshipful Master, the opportunities for leadership experience are great.

The year I was Worshipful Master, I was the head of a lodge with assets of several hundred thousand dollars, an annual budget of around $50,000, and 350 members.  For an entire year, I was involved in every aspect of the

organization.  The best part about the experience was that, due to the requirements for election, I knew that I had earned my way to the top.  How many organizations really promote solely on merit?  The lodge is one of the few that I know of.

As I’ve said elsewhere, give the meetings a chance.  Don’t tune out.  Keep coming to them!  Nothing good comes without effort.  Be patient and be persevering!

[1] The following is loosely adapted from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, New York: Bantam Books, 1976.  pp. 66-9.

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