This story was written a while back, but it is all true. It got published, but in a publication that no-one – not even my mum – reads. Against the odds, people apparently come to my blog though, so I might as well get some extra eyes on it. And you know you want to find out what happens in a lodge. Enjoy…
It is fair to say that the Freemasons have an image problem.
For such a secretive organisation, the associations fly thick and fast when the Freemason name is evoked. Secret handshakes, bizarre rituals, connections with the occult, high-profile members, anti-Catholicism, the “Stonecutters” parody in The Simpsons; the Freemasons occupy a curious space in popular culture. Many people can recall their father or grandfather disappearing to the local lodge every Tuesday night, black satchel in hand. This routine was never, ever discussed. More recently, the Masons have been unwillingly thrust back into the limelight courtesy of The Da Vinci Code, a sprawling novel of grand religious conspiracy that has become staple travel fodder in airports the world over.
Despite the generally light-hearted ribbing that the Freemasons take in popular culture, it is worth noting that many sections of society take a genuinely dim view of the organisation. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches periodically issue edicts warning of the dangers of Freemasonry. The most recent of these, issued by the Sydney Anglican Synod in 2003, warned that Freemasonry and Christianity were “fundamentally and irreconcilably incompatible” and that Freemasonry “teaches and upholds a system of false religious and spiritual beliefs”.
Every day I pass the local Masonic lodge on my way to the train station. It is an innocuous building that my pop-culture packed brain has unwittingly imbued with dark overtones of plotting and scheming. Surely it is in this building that the powerful meet. After all, the Masons have infiltrated everywhere haven’t they? Men who exchange furtive but knowing glances, safe in the knowledge that they are part of a global elite, pace the corridors of power.
Then one day recently, my overstimulated, rambling mind was rudely interrupted by a real estate board propped on the front fence of the lodge:
The secret is out – we’re not a ‘Secret Society’! The emphasis is changing as Freemasons open their doors more and more to the community at large, their families and friends. Please come to an open night on Friday 20th February at 7.30pm.
That’s right, the Freemasons are going the way of many of their commercial counterparts and “rebranding” the product, repositioning themselves in the marketplace.
Unknown to them though, they had left the metaphorical door ajar, and my size fourteen foot was now firmly wedged in the gap. An open night would be the perfect opportunity for me to infiltrate the lodge and reveal to the world the full breadth of the Masonic conspiracy – whatever that might actually be.
The first shock comes as I arrive. Expecting maybe a dozen people to be shuffling through the shadows to the entrance, I am stunned to see men, women and children streaming in through the front door. In the front yard I am greeted with the surreal scene of two swarthy bikies, their ruddy faces bordered by enormous beards tinged with yellow around the mouth where their whiskers had acted as a second filter for their daily diet of cigarettes. They are resplendent in leather trousers, leather waistcoats and neatly pressed white shirts and black bow ties. What is going on? Surely these are not the drivers of my as-yet-unidentified global Masonry conspiracy.
Slightly rattled, I pass under the interlocked compass and square rule logo over the front entrance, absently noting its resemblance to the pentagon, and all of the pagan symbolism that it entails.
All of the guests are corralled in the reception area by two desks that have been carefully arranged (in the same shape as the compass of the Freemason logo I notice) to leave only a small gap that leads to the inner sanctum of the lodge. On the tables are sign-up sheets and name tags. I hadn’t counted on providing details of where I live, and I feel distinctly uneasy about doing so. But laying bare secret organisations comes at a price, so I step up and bravely provide a false address. What was going on anyway? So far the night had felt more like a Pentecostal recruiting drive, signing up anything that showed any sign of life. It was certainly not an insular world of murky shadows and secrets. Name tag in place, I squeeze between the desks and into the lodge.
I am greeted by a room that has at least one hundred people in it. The conversation rises and falls, oscillating as each group competes with the rest of the room to be heard. The walls are lined with promotional photos of novelty-sized cheques being handed over to various charities. A stand proffers glossy brochures with titles like “Why Freemasonry?” and “What is Freemasonry?” Hoping to make an early exit, I search without success for a brochure titled “Freemasonry: The Conspiracy Explained”. Trying unsuccessfully to look like I haven’t come along by myself, I am approached by my first Mason, a man whose name tag tells me his name is John.
This is more like it. Of the hundred or so people in the room, at least seventy look like John; fifty to sixty years old, greying hair, immaculate in tie and dinner jacket, clean shaven and at some stage earlier in the day submerged in bad aftershave, which I subsequently decided is to the Masons what incense is to the Catholics. Far from a room full of celebrities and senior politicians, these Masons look like non-offensive middle management; competent, but not ambitious; well groomed but non-descript.
Roger, John’s guest for the evening, is immediately abandoned as John senses my uncertainty about the surrounds. “Welcome!” he booms. “What do you know about Masonry?”
Well, not much actually John.
“I suppose you’ve read The Da Vinci Code?” he asks, arching an accusing eyebrow at me. I reluctantly confess that I have – am I still allowed to join?
“Freemasonry is much more than that. You will never meet a Mason who is not proud to say he is a member. We are men who share a belief and interest in living a moral and ethical life.”
So what first drew him to the Masons?
“I was invited as a guest, and I have been here for 10 years now,” he offers, a little cryptically.
Having regained my composure somewhat though, I move to the tough questions; who are the influential Freemasons?
“Well, Ron Barassi is a Mason.” Oh. No politicians then?
John leans forward and his voice drops almost imperceptibly.
“Do you know Steve Bracks?”
“Steve Bracks is a Freemason?”
“Well, no. But his father was.”
We are marshalled upstairs before I can fully comprehend how disappointed I am by this revelation. Twenty minutes in and the secrets of the Masons are proving harder to crack than I had first thought.
At first sight the upstairs meeting room of the lodge looks like a cross between a courtroom and a church. The room has the feel of a cold empty scout hall. A fading Australian flag hangs in one corner. Strangely, a wizened old organist ekes out a watery version of something from the musical The Phantom of the Opera.
Three rows of dark-stained pews line the perimeter of the room. At set intervals there are larger seats of increasingly grand stature. Next to each of these seats is a column; later I learn that these are Doric, Corinth and Ionic columns. Suspended from the ceiling is a large letter ‘G’, which looks as if it was carved from cardboard and spray-painted gold in a suburban primary school. There are numerous shutters that teasingly suggest there is even more to be revealed. Dominating the centre of the room is a carpeted court area. The pattern on the carpet suggests a cropped chessboard; the black and white squares are there, but unlike a chessboard the pattern is rectangular, not square. Everywhere I turn symbolism spills forth; all-seeing eyes, pyramids, more pentagons, strange patterns. Dan Brown would be drooling.
Another man of the immaculately-dressed middle-aged variety takes to the carpeted area, carefully avoiding the intricate chequered pattern in the centre as he paces the floor. He pauses and tugs at his cuffs, drawing them out of his dinner jacket. He is Allan, Worshipful Master of this lodge. My skin crawls, and after a moment I realise that the name sounds suspiciously like a Ku Klux Klan title.
“Did anyone see where the goat went?” he opens. The audience laughs obligingly. Allan and the other Masons chuckle like it is the first time they have heard the line.
“There are no goats sacrificed here. There are no anti-church conspiracies.” This is sounding bad.
“What there is is a group of men who are committed to their families, their careers and living their lives in a manner they can be proud of. We are heavily involved in community and charity work. We are the second-largest provider in Victoria of accommodation for the elderly. The largest is the State Government.”
Allan works the room like a seasoned game show host. His hands move constantly and decisively, motioning, directing and cajoling his audience. I wonder for a moment if he is a contractor, someone with a title like “Change Manager” or “Image Consultant”. I have to hand it to the Masons, they are successfully selling ice to the Eskimos. Allan walks us through the intricacies of Freemasonry; its connections with the stonemasons who built the churches and cathedrals of Middle Ages Europe, and how secret handshakes were used to identify if an individual was “qualified” as a skilled stone worker. He tells us of the importance of symbolism as a means of telling stories. The Doric column I had seen earlier represents strength, the Corinth column represents beauty, and the Ionic column represents the balance of the other two. The chessboard carpet represents the sandpit at the ancient cathedral building sites, where plans would be drawn into the sand – hence his traditional reluctance to walk on the chequered carpet.
He emphasises the importance of placing your family and religion ahead of the Masons. Every point he makes is carefully crafted. Allan is one step ahead of his audience, shoring up his arguments and snuffing doubts before they can ever become properly articulated thoughts.
I still have some problems though. Firstly, where are the women? Even the Catholic Church allows women to at least be members. Notably there are women in the room, but Allan reminds us that this is only so they will know where their men go.
He hurriedly ventures some dubious comparisons with the Fernwood women-only gym. It is clear that the recruiting campaign has its limits. I am left in no doubt Freemasons still believe that a woman’s place is in the home, preferably preparing a plate of sandwiches for the lodge.
Secondly, given that it is plainly obvious that no-one in the room has ever cut a stone in their life, what new secrets do the Mason handshake now protect?
“If I told you, that would give away the secret,” I am told paradoxically. I probe further, but to no avail. Fair point though.
Once again we adjourn downstairs. As guests and Masons sip tea, converse and swap business cards, I decide that it is time to leave. The experience has genuinely enthralled me, but Masonry is not for me. I weave through the circles of men, squeeze past the desks in the front entrance and lean against the heavy doors. They don’t budge. I notice a big deadlock, the bolt rammed firmly home. For the third time tonight I feel panic creeping through me. I ignore all laws of physics and rattle the door harder. Is this how they recruit? I wonder if their PR person knows about this. I turn to face the room; I must have seen something. What do I know? What did I discover? I prepare to plead that I don’t remember anyone’s face, that I won’t tell. John sees me and heads in my direction.
“There are other young ones,” he tells me, desperation creeping into his voice. “Don’t leave. The others weren’t here tonight, but they will be.”
“Thanks John. I have your card.”
Finally the catch on the lock gives way and I collapse out into the world again.
Reflecting on the evening, one thing is obvious: if Freemasonry has any secrets of significance, most of its members don’t know them. Like the Lions Club or Rotarians, I have a sneaking suspicion that the networking and socialising aspects of Freemasonry are the main drawcards. All of the Masons that I met were unfailingly polite, engaging and good-humoured. I wonder if my Mason experience is a particularly Australian one. Unlike their ancient European counterparts, I suspect that Australian Masonry is too young, too naïve or just too plain lazy to play its part in a global conspiracy. Mostly they’d just like to have a bit of a chat and a cup of tea.