Freemasons in The Trenches

Freemasons in The Trenches

I recently attended an M.P.S. Meetup where the topic was “Has War Ever Led to Good?” The presenter had a distinctive bent: absolutely not. The viewpoint was of a passionate pacifist and could only see the negative in war time situations. I felt I should be looking at the bigger picture – how war affects humanity – and the smaller picture – how it affects the individual. While many see the horror of war, there must be something good to also be found, right?

After this M.P.S., I attended a bluegrass festival, John McCutcheon played “Christmas In the Trenches,” based on a letter written by a WWI English private named Edgar Aplin, this song depicts a moment in a bitter and bloody war where two sides came together for a beautiful moment of humanity. John’s song brings about that moment of clarity that everyone thinks about: we’re killing other humans that are just like us. In a tragic war that left millions affected, there is a humanity that we can remember. The lyrics to the song are found here.

Prior to the recent M.P.S. meeting above, and then again after hearing this song again, I looked for incidents of this occurring amongst Freemasons; after all, who else thinks about humanity and the perfecting of it more than Freemasons? Not many. There are many ways in which Freemasons make it known that they are brothers, and perhaps there are moments of “truce” that exist, even if they are not as famous as the U.K. Sainsbury Ad that idealizes the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Some of the most deeply moving stories of Masonic fraternity are from the American Civil War. Author Greg Stewart has written a wonderful article on the American Civil War and Freemasons, found on the Sojourners website. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in history or Freemasonry to read it. He does cite his sources, which is helpful.

In short, the American Civil War tested our country’s ability to fight for what we believed in and at the same time show compassion to our fellow human beings. While it brought out some of the worst fighting, it also inspired the greatest passion to ease the suffering of individuals. Masons strive to erase that which divides us as people. For the fighting Brothers of this war, the inner turmoil must have been great.

The annals of WWI do not have much to say about Freemasonry’s involvement. In an interesting article on skirret.com, we have one author’s exploration into the world and Masonic view of the War. In the article we are given much about how the Lodges felt about the war, but we see little in the way of anecdotal evidence that the war was anything but divisive within the Fraternity. From the loss of recognition to the outright revoking of charters and hostility, even within Lodges in America, we see the seeds of bureaucratic response to the war rather than a human response.

During WWII, Freemasons were one of the persecuted groups under the Nazi regime. A truly wonderful article on this is noted here. Not only does it talk of the secret meetings of Freemasons, after the disbanding of traditional Freemasonry in Germany, but it also describes one of the Lodges that existed within the wire fences of a concentration camp. Another paper, titled “Masons At War: Freemasonry During World War Two,” by Mark Stanford, also documents the Masonic Service Centers that came into being during the war, to care for Service Members at home and overseas. Freemasonry has solidly moved to the larger good works of caring for the members of the armed services, but we rarely hear about the individual’s experience. While acts of heroism show up in small ways by European Freemasons, some documented in various places noted above, the North American experience seems small in comparison.

In looking toward Vietnam, the only real evidence of Freemason’s involvement has to do with, again, the care of wounded soldiers and care packages to military overseas. Military Lodges having long been either frowned upon or banned altogether, there seems to have been very few during WWI and none during the Vietnam era.

From Vietnam forward to today, there seems to be no further evidence of widespread Masonic response to war time situations, either in the form of relief for troops or support of overseas military. While they undoubtedly exist, there is little to record their greater-than-local involvement in war efforts.

A first thought was that the Morgan Affair changed how Americans view Freemasons. It certainly changed how Freemasons viewed themselves and their fraternity. However, we find evidence of individual Masonic charity examples all over the American Civil War, which took place after the Morgan Affair. While anti-Masonic sentiment was still high at this time, it did not seem to affect the person relationships that each man had with Freemasonry and how it affected his actions during the war. Freemasonry overcame bitter rivalry and hatred, and still burned an ideal in the hearts of these men.

Co-Masonry has been in existence in one form or another since the end of the 19th Century, beginning in France and spreading throughout the world. While the numbers were high in its first few decades, Co-Masonry began to decline by the start of WW2; in fact, the decline might have been there for all of Freemasonry. During the war, when Freemasonry was persecuted in Europe, many different Orders originating in Europe found themselves under scrutiny. Those Orders established in France had gone into hiding and Le Droit Humain, a co-Masonic order, was one of these Orders. After the war, Co-Masonry had found itself taken deeper root in countries outside of France and there was an interest in its alternative thought: women could be Freemasons along with Men.

The world was and is decidedly different since WWII. Women in American culture and perhaps in all cultures around the world are more often included rather than excluded. A balanced mindset, toward gender and equality, was perhaps creating a different view of what was needed in the perfection of humanity. In the cultural and societal churn that might be called the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” the world may be looking for new types of leaders who are finally inclusive of all humanity.

Warfare itself has changed. Gone are bayonets and buckshot, hand-to-hand fighting where the soldier met the face of their attacker. Warfare has become impersonal drones sending air strikes on faceless dots on a pixelated screen. While Freemasonry is perhaps becoming more inclusive while war is becoming more impersonal: a struggle perhaps looking for balance?

It seems we find ourselves at an interesting point in history: where the facelessness of war impacts our ability to counter it with “good.” Freemasons may need to look beyond the conventional methods of the Craft employed in the past to not only support humanity but find those things which unite rather than divide human beings. Freemasons perhaps need to look beyond the “care package” or “pancake breakfast” for the troops and train for “civil disobedience.” I do not disparage the good works for the service men and women that many fraternal groups supply. They are necessary and selfless, and inspire hope when there is none. However, perhaps Freemasons can do more. As seekers of Truth and proponents of education, they are uniquely suited to combat ignorance, fanaticism, and hatred which is the heart of war.

There will be another war. We are humans, after all. It seems to be as yet in our nature. Deciding to be a pacifist will not stop it. Deciding to hide from it or ignore our leaders will not stop it. The question is how can we prepare for it and will Freemasonry be there to shed Light? Learning to speak Truth is a far greater skill that may be necessary to counter modern military thinking. Perhaps learning to be wise philosophers is more important to stopping war before it starts.

Brotherhood

Brotherhood

We are fast approaching the time when we share all those lovely good wishes for a happy holiday season. It seems that in general, people need the cold of winter and the idea of parties to bond together. In some ways, it is a sad affair – why do we wait until the end of the year to celebrate people with shallow displays? People in the U.S. have holidays galore, the UK has its bank holidays, and everywhere people get together in the summer for all kinds of recreation and relaxation. This, though, isn’t the same. We wait for Thanksgiving to ‘give thanks’ to our families and loved ones, then shower them with commercial ideas of a festive Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza. It seems to me there has to be something more, something that we just can’t quite touch with commercialism. It makes me question if we truly value our fellow humans or merely follow the conventions of our day.

I’m not a cynic. Stoic, perhaps, but not a cynic. I know that many people feel this same way, and are not sure what to do with it. We want something more, we feel it, and can’t seem to find it.

You might remember a song in the early ’90’s called “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blonds. There’s a phrase in the song that has always stuck with me:

“I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
For whatever that means.”

For at least 25 years, I’ve been searching, like the author, for “whatever that means.” I think it about it more at the end of the year, in the winter, when we want to bond together more, when we’re a hoping to be a little more full of grace and forgiveness, when everything we hope for is looking for softness and warmth. (This leaves aside the one place where there is no grace or forgiveness: retail parking lots at Christmastime. No, I won’t digress…)  Most of human history is not filled with this alien, modern way of living, in asphalt-covered cities and in high-rises; we are ensconced in concrete structures and shopping malls, where our every-need-provided mentalities take away that sense of brotherhood and even community. No one in American cities truly lives or works together. We exist closer together and yet are farther apart emotionally, and certainly farther apart from nature. We have no idea how to debate, discuss, or theorize because we do not socialize. Facebook is a poor human community, and it certainly is no brotherhood.

Nature relies on a collective to get through the autumn and winter, to live until springtime, when everything is renewed. Birds and insects migrate to warmer climates, communitybanding together to achieve their goal for the good of the “group.” Some animals, mice and squirrels, huddle together in enclaves to stay warm and keep out of harm’s way. Humans sometimes migrate to warmer climates; some humans gather in houses, staying warm and sharing food. We humans have corrupted some of this to follow a prescribed dogma of festivities, duties, and “musts” during a time when we could be more selective, more mindful of our fellow species. Nature has no dogma.

Brotherhood is a relationship between brothers, comrades – those who have a common association. A brotherhood is this created group of people, who may or may not be your family, where common interests are discussed, shared, and respected. The word “brotherhood” has certain characteristics in its reference; it implies a close relationship but not intimate, it implies something that is almost a blood-bond, but greater because its idealized, and it implies intelligent selection rather than genealogy. It reflects common purposes and goals, where brothers are dedicated to each other more than the rest of the world, and more perhaps than to family.

The idea of brotherhood is crystallizing ideals into personal goals that we share with others, with the idea that together we can achieve more than we could apart. It is, perhaps, about the survival of those ideas and ideals, and  that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We don’t expect those in the brotherhood to be perfect; we expect them to continue to work towards the prosperity of the all as best they can, with their own unique talents and skills. The human clans do not survive on only one type of labor, one type of mentality; human groups survive on the skills of the many flowing into the good of the whole. Uniqueness is valued as long as the purpose is shared.

Human beings need friendships (the tribe), community, and brotherhood. Friendships help us transcend loneliness and provide us greater insight into our personal nature. Friends help validate our thoughts and emotions and assist us to perfect our victor-hugo-author-the-human-soul-has-still-greater-need-of-the-ideal-than-of-therelationships with human beings in general. Community helps fulfill our very human need for connection without actually requiring a lot from us. It expects us to show up, be who we are, be present, and participate at the level at which we are able. Community attends to an almost physical, matter-related purpose; brotherhood is where we really shine.

As a community, we are able to meet a concrete need with action, and there’s little overlap into our lives. Brotherhood delves into the reasons we come together, the personal goals and aspirations of the individual, and binds us together in action for that purpose. The ideals of brotherhood, whatever brotherhood they may be, transcend both community and tribe. We need these latter two to take care of physical needs, protect us, perhaps provide us with a shared history with which to bond and form purpose.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I see brotherhood as something more, something chosen. We may not choose our tribe; we may not choose our communities, but we sure as heck choose brotherhood. And it must also choose us. We choose to be in these bonds of commitment, regardless of the diversity of our backgrounds. We choose, when entering a brotherhood, to focus on purpose rather than “who you are.” Brotherhood requires commitment; brotherhood has to be maintained. Constantly. For the rest of your life.  If you choose to stop adhering to the commitments you made, then you fall out of the idealism you value. Brotherhood is a privilege and a consciousness. Done right, brotherhood is extraordinary.

Brotherhood, to be clear, is not friendship, although brothers may be friends. Brotherhood transcends the personal affectations and affections. We may have many friends in our lives but we have few true brothers, few “comrades-in-arms,” if you will.

So, is “brotherhood of man” the entirety of the human race? What does that mean? Maybe it means that we’ve chosen to be part of the human condition, and we need to cloud-team-590x384start looking at each other, all of the people we encounter, as part of our ideal of a better condition in which to live. Taking from nature, we have to work together to survive the ugliness of the world, human-created and natural, in order to build a better place. I also think, though, that brotherhood of man is a consciousness of the human condition. The human brotherhood has chosen us, us, to fulfill the ideal of itself. It’s chosen every human to play their part; it’s up to us to choose to live in a way were our ideals are about the human condition, not simply our personal needs or desires. Being part of the brotherhood of man requires us to be constant in our consciousness. We want the human race to be better, no? Perhaps, that’s part of what Freemasonry also tries to achieve – this “brotherhood of man” that our 4 Non Blonds advocate.

As I write this, the outside world is filled with the gray of an early snowstorm; branches are laden with wet globs of icy powder, and the streets are soaked with the fast-melting flakes. Soon, the true winter will be on us, and we’ll be frantic yet again. Perhaps this year, we can be conscious of our human brothers and bond together, in some small way, that transcends the dogma of the season. Perhaps we can reach inside and chose to finally be part of that “brotherhood of man.”

[Note: I use the term brotherhood not to segregate or be divisive. I use it because in the English language, there is no gender-neutral better term. When I speak of the brotherhood of man, I mean all humans, regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender.] 

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