– tradition and renewal in an American lodge
Last summer I spent three months in California. I had several positive Masonic experiences, but the best by far was Academia Lodge in Oakland. This piece, describing my visits, was just published in a Norwegian Masonic magazine.
I arrived with my prejudices in the suitcase: expectations of a more “down to earth” Freemasonry, centred on barbecue rather than spiritual work, less formal, less dignified. And yes, the approach is markedly different; it does reflect American open-mindedness; in the same way that you might say that reticence and conservatism is typical of our own Freemasonry, because that is who we are as Scandinavians. Like I said: prejudice. I guess the important lesson here is not to tar everyone with the same brush. Which brings me to Academia.
Academia is a new lodge, a mere four years old, which has been permitted to work according to the principles of “Traditional Observance” (TO). On the website of Masonic Restoration Foundation (MRF) we read that »Traditional Observance Freemasonry is not a Masonic Rite, but rather a best-practices model. In many ways, TO Masonry is a response to some of the negative trends experienced by North American Freemasonry in recent years, aimed at reversing those trends and restoring the strength and dignity of the American Craft.« MRF offers some standards that must be met, before you have a TO lodge. But it is important to understand that the TO lodges are still working within the existing tenets of their grand lodge.
It is a curious thing trying to describe Academia as something unique, because coming from Denmark this was in many ways what I have been used to from home – but it was also strikingly clear that this was something “new” in the States. These are just a few key points: The brethren are dressed in tails or tuxedo, and as guests it was explained to us how we were to enter the lodge in procession, and that we were to remain silent during the ritual. The lodge room is lit by candles, and Academia has introduced a Chain of Union as well as a Chamber of Reflection, as it is known in many continental, particularly French lodges. In addition lectures are given, and there is a full sit-down meal after the work. All this is familiar to us, but not a given standard “Over There”. Academia typically have 10-20 Brethren present (attendance is compulsory), but often has just as many guests wanting to look in on what they are doing there. I couldn’t help but appreciating the privilege of being a member of an Order that takes these things for granted: tradition, Masonic education, lectures, beautiful rituals and solemn fraternal conversation.
As soon as I arrived at Oakland’s beautiful Scottish Rite Temple (build in the 1920’s, and, very Californian, with sun panels on the roof), I had my first surprise. I was greeted by the founder of the lodge, Br. DC, and he wore a lodge jewel from St. John’s Lodge Kosmos in Elsinore (just north of Copenhagen)! The “Academians” are still waiting for their own jewels, but for now Kosmos was the one that came closest; but other than that there was no relation.
I also met Br. DM, an “old hippie” – in the best sense of the word – with whom I had been in contact over the Internet, and with typical Californian hospitality he vouched for me before the Brethren, once he had checked my passport and credentials. My host for the evening though was Br. AK, and when he finally escaped the San Francisco traffic he gave countermand, insisting on examination. At this point I had already been escorted into the lodge room, so there was a brief moment of apprehension, when the Marshal came to bring me back out. Br. AK and some of the other Master Masons clearly found the experience quite interesting, for there was hardly a single gesture or word on which we could fully agree. But by the end of it, everyone was satisfied. There was an Initiation on the program, and the ritual work was first rate; all lines were memorised and given with great solemnity. There was also a lecture – education is something Academia sees as a priority – as well as fine dining, with wine and toasts.
Before we said our goodbyes, we had a quiet moment on the balcony overlooking Lake Merritt in the centre of Oakland – it was like being transported back in time, for the temple has retained its wonderful view over a city that has seen some rough times, but is slowly finding its feet again.
The Grand Master on the sideline
A few weeks later I was back. It was a special evening as the Grand Master of California at that time, Melvyn B. Stein, was there as a guest. He had invited himself over to see what all the fuss was about. At the same time Academia had invited the Past Grand Orator of Arizona, John T. Shattuck, who himself had helped start a TO lodge. And he gave a lecture that gave off sparks! He had some hard words for the direction American Freemasonry had taken – in his opinion it could barely be called Freemasonry any more – and the words carried an additional edge with a leading representative of the existing system as a listener. But when taken together with the exemplary work of the lodge, these were not just empty words, and the following discussion over dinner was uplifting: Every guest, including the Grand Master’s retinue, expressed that this was Freemasonry the way they had dreamed it would be; or, in the words of one guest, this was his best experience in 46 years as a freemason. So the will to go back to the roots is definitely there (and apropos of roots: Freemasonry in California traces its roots back to Denmark via the pioneer Peter Lassen, but that’s a different story).
I spoke on a few occasions with Br. AK while I was in the city, and he told me that Academia was in essence a symbol: If they couldn’t carry their responsibility and prove its worth, it would be a huge setback for Traditional Observance in all of California, so there was a lot at stake. But his commitment – and that of his fellow Brethren and founders of Academia – offers hope that they will still be around, when I return one day.