A long time ago, I heard a Freemason tell another that they “should not be friends” with their Brothers. It was a strange comment to me, as I thought that when I joined Freemasonry, I would find like-minded people who I could spend time with, conversing and changing the course of the universe, all of us achieving amazing and lofty ambitions. These are the things you do with people you like. And don’t you like your friends?
Later on, once I moved into the higher degrees, another, more experienced Freemason said the same thing, adding, “it is a lonely path, being in these higher degrees.” While I might have doubted before, I did not doubt now. I have seen too many things go awry to question that wisdom. My quandary, though, was trying to figure out what the difference between Freemason and Friend is all about? Why can’t a Brother also be a Friend? Why shouldn’t a Brother be a Friend? How do I communicate that to others, who have stumbled into some awkward and emotionally disturbing situations? How do I avoid them, too?
Let me preface this with saying that this discovery, this understanding between friend and brother, has been a long journey. I have learned a lot about myself, as Freemasonry is wont to provide to a person on its path. I am the type of person who tries to have a pleasant demeanor and be welcoming. Call it being a Libra, a caretaker, eldest daughter, or whatever you will; my personality is to bring in as much hospitality as possible with my attitude, thoughts, and feelings so as to create a circle of warmth, trust, and authenticity. I feel it’s the only way to communicate well with people, and how I want people to communicate well with me. Being open gives me insight into who they are. Many people mistake this for friendship; I think in general, people from the United States mistake quite a bit for friendship, but that might be a topic for another time. Being nice does not equate to friendship. Being nice is, well, simply being nice. I have had this issue all my life and it’s something I understand about myself. While I attempt to be clear, I sometimes do not see the forest for the trees. I struggle to see how being nice may cause misunderstanding. Let’s call it knowledgeable naivete.
A friend is someone who you have created a bond with, someone with whom you know and have a mutual affection. Someone once said to me, you win friends. They are created through experiences of trust, sharing, and having someone with which is common. You might or might not provide some kind of support for a friend; it might be emotional, mental, or physical support.
Different friends have different levels of engagement and meaning. A friend might be someone with whom you share events throughout your life or someone with whom you only share coffee once in a while. There are no expectations in overall friendship; each relationship creates its own boundaries and ways of thinking and being together. In Europe, acquaintances are not friends. You may know someone for 20 years, but they are not your friend. They are someone you know. We have less distinction about that here in the United States. We rely a lot more on others who tell us what we should be. Friends are necessary for everyone; they provide us a window to the world and an ear to speak to when we need that confidant, that supporter, that person who knows us best.
A Brother is very different. While we choose our Brothers in Freemasonry, it’s a very democratic and discussion-heavy process. Brother, it should be clear, is a title. It may mean a fellow Freemason, but it is also a title of someone who is a Freemason. For someone to become a Brother, there is a lengthy and stringent process, where the requirements are spelled out based on the Masonic organization or body. For example, one has to be just, upright, and free, of mature age, sound mind, and strict morals. They don’t have to meet my morality; they have to demonstrate a morality that upholds the tenets of Freemasonry – for example tolerance and prudence. As a Freemason who makes a judgement about an applicant, I can say with authority that this isn’t a popularity contest: the applicant must meet the criteria and the majority of the Lodge members agree to the membership. While it’s nice to have people get along, it is certainly not a requirement unless something is seriously disharmonious. Some Masonic groups do not admit the other gender, or some do not admin non-Christians. Whatever the rules are about entrance, they are tightly controlled by the overarching organization.
In my opinion, the more diverse the group of Freemasons, the better the growth of the human and humanity. What better way to gain a better understanding of the self than to rub up against those people with whom we don’t particularly fit well? Think… rock tumbler. We like to think we have no rough edges but all rocks in a tumbler are pokey. If you catch on someone else, it’s not because your surface is super smooth. You have bumps, like we all do. That is how we get better. By working them out. We’ll talk more about this later.
Selecting who becomes a Brother is only one part of answering the question, what is the difference between Brother and Friend? The second comes from repeatedly working in Lodge together as Freemasons. Human beings are normally drawn to one another as they perceive common interests. In Freemasonry, many Brothers travel together or offer their homes for visits and boarding. In the outer world, the non-Masonic world, this indicates or implicates friendship. For someone who is not clear about their Masonic boundaries, this kind of interaction can be misconstrued. Being nice isn’t being a friend; being nice in Freemasonry is expected and hospitable. Conversely, as I noted above, agreeing with someone isn’t a requirement to be or remain a Freemason. We all don’t have the same thoughts, same views, nor would we want to. Debate and rhetoric are things which create better humans, and Freemasons value the well-informed, opinionated debate. If you can’t discuss topics of importance with your Brothers, then you may not have success as a Freemason. In other words, disagreement or debate isn’t cause for hate or strife. It’s a cause for growth.
There is a code of conduct that Freemasons have in interacting with one another that is fairly formal and is intact whether they are in a Lodge meeting or out in public or at a non-Masonic event. No Freemason would dream of striking another physically, calling names to them or their families, or treating them with anything but human decency. There is a respect for them as a human being but even more so, they have earned respect because they have the title Brother. There is also a respect for the hard work someone has put into their Masonic Order, whether it be from years of service, traveling to instruct or mentor, hours of meetings and committees, or other volunteer time. There is a respect of position, formally granted by the Lodge to that person who must spend their time coordinating, planning, instructing, and fostering further Masonic influence, as well as that Lodge’s officers who carry out the work. There’s respect for memorization, degree work, and one hopes, for the execution of the ritual. All of these require a sense of honor for fellow Brothers and a real dedication to support what they do, even if we don’t want to, can’t, or are not able to do it ourselves. We respect merit and ability. This respect is backed up by rules and regulations that demand respect, and a jurisprudence that enforces those rules.
I think this is where the waters become muddy. In the non-Freemasonic world, we bestow respect by our own credo. We win friends by living by our own ideals and sometimes we compromise those ideals for the benefit of having those around us who share our proclivities. We tend to choose our friends because they think like us, not because they think differently. We choose friends with our egos, generally. In a society that is increasingly polarizing, we need our armies around us to make us feel better. In a society that increasingly insular, we mistake the slightest hint of personal niceness as being hit on or being courted for, well, becoming a courtier. It can’t be stated enough that we don’t bring the outside world into Freemasonry and expect it to adapt. Likewise, we shouldn’t misconstrue the hospitality and fraternity of Freemasonry for friendship.
As you move through the path that is Freemasonry, your responsibilities, duties, and obligations become greater, wider reaching. Your duty grows, and your mind must be set to think of not only your own Lodge but your District, your Grand District, and perhaps your entire Order; it may even grow so far as to be responsible for the growth of Freemasonry itself. While a true, authentic friend would never ask you to compromise your avocation for them specifically, it places everyone in a precarious balance if you mix responsibility, duty, and obligation with going out for a few beers on a Saturday night with a single Brother. One has to be very careful where one boundary ends and another begins. How one comports themselves is in direct relation to how they have obligated themselves to a position within Freemasonry.
The largest and most difficult challenge is being “friends” with people early in your Masonic career and then weighing that with greater obligations as you grow. As we change, sometimes our friends do not. Maybe we don’t go out for beers any longer but stay home and enjoy a good study group online. There may be a bitterness about placing Freemasonry above friendship. There might be sadness because you spend time with a Lodge instead of a single person. I know of one person who became the head of their local Lodge. When that happened, people flocked to her to place them in positions of seeming importance in the Lodge, offices they desired. She succumbed to putting them in these positions and the Lodge suffered because of it because they weren’t equipped to do the jobs they desired; she thought of their desires and not the needs of the group. Friendship above Freemasonry. She learned a valuable lesson that first year.
In some cases, maybe you never were friends and simply Brothers, but that is where the niceties and hospitality of Freemasonry confuse with the outside world. When you first enter into Freemasonry, maybe you are looking for friends or even family. You might be looking for those like-minded people and hope for friendship. Going and getting coffee and talking about esoteric subjects may be something you do with friends or with Brothers; it is the building of the relationship, and context, that makes the difference. It is not impossible to be a friend with a Brother – not by a long shot. Yet, what I see work is when Freemasonry is the basis of the relationship and that takes precedence. I can think of many instances where the reverse does not work.
In Co-Masonry, there is the added, extra challenge of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and other family members becoming Freemasons, sometimes in the same Lodge. This seems to take the modern familial relationship and make it even better. You have the common purpose of becoming better people, together, with a deeper grasp on your relationship. Perhaps it is because that “friendship” relationship never existed between siblings or parents – after all, it’s family. It was family first, even if the adults are friends, too. Freemasonry, in its familial format, supports those ideas and relationships deeply and helps them, in my opinion, become richer. I have seen whole families join Freemasonry and it creates a very strong, lifelong bond.
I have seen more than a few people who have given their entire adult lives to helping Freemasonry grow, and it is not an easy path. They are on the phone from 6:00 to 18:00, backed up in emails and meetings, planning and executing all the time. If they are lucky, they are able to carve out time for family and some close friends, some travel, and laughter. They have raised families who were nearly all Freemasons and have maybe raised some who were bitter about Freemasonry’s influence. Some have worked for decades to improve the lives of all Freemasons, with no thought to their own service or sleep. It is all a choice, and that sacrifice can be as hard as those that give up their individual lives to raise a family or a flock of parishoners. For these dedicated few, they have very few friends but many, many Brothers. For them, that is satisfying and healthy, and it helps them create the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in the world.
So, Friends? Or Brothers?