Written and Presented by James Musgrave, GLNS
My Brothers, why is the delivery of ritual by memory so important in Freemasonry? Memory work is a key component of everything we do, starting with the ritual we learn as Entered Apprentices. From that point onward, committing ritual to memory is an integral part of our private and public masonic journeys.
Whatever a group cares to remember most, it entrusts to ritual. And our memorized ritual – our words, the positions of our hands and feet, our steps, and much more — is what sets us apart from every other fraternal and charitable society in existence.
Ritual work is the life-blood of Freemasonry. Our ritual contains the prescription for living life on the square and becoming a better man. It sets a standard to measure self-improvement through life, providing Freemasons with concrete values, morals and ethics that shape the man, and have shaped our world. It explains why we are here, why the Craft exists, and the nature of brotherhood. Our ritual lays the foundation upon which to build a righteous life.
We all know it is expected of us, but why? I hope to provide you with a glimpse into real answers to the question this evening.
In 1772, Brother William Preston wrote of our gentle Craft:
The tools and implements of architecture,
Symbols the most expressive!
Imprint on the memory wise and serious truths,
And transmit unimpaired, through a succession of ages,
The excellent tenets of this institution.
This idea of “imprinting on memory” is the genius behind Freemasonry. Imprinting solemn truth on memory using allegorical emblems is what Freemasonry is all about.
“Imprint” is an interesting word. The Oxford dictionary definitions are very visual:
“Impress or stamp on a surface”, or
“Make an impression or mark on”, or
“Fix an idea firmly in someone’s mind”.
An ancient word, and yet the word “imprint” is equally at home in a modern conversation.
A few key points should be made here about the process of imprinting:
First, Brothers, the process of memorizing ritual is, in itself, a lesson in discipline and by going through your ritual daily, you are also stimulating your mind and improving both your cognition and memory. More about this a little later on.
Second, if wise and serious philosophical truths are being stamped on the minds of the Brethren who are watching the ritual being performed, it must follow that the Brother delivering a memorized ritual has himself undergone intensive “imprinting” of his own. Logically, his “memory imprinting” should be all the deeper because he has taken the time over weeks or months to make the text his own.
Third, having committed the ritual fully to memory, smoothing out its delivery with every practice alone in the car or in the shower, the Brother delivering the ritual is effectively freeing himself from the constraints of his five senses and moving to a new place in his mind and heart. We know that words are merely symbols. How best to move from symbols to allegorical meanings than to master the symbols themselves? It is simply not possible to go to this new place in our mind’s eye without first commanding the ritual through memorizing. But don’t take my word for it…
Brother Claudy writes:
The body has its five senses through which the mind may learn; the mind has also imagination. That imagination may see farther than eyes and hear sounds fainter than may be caught by ears. To the imagination symbols become plain as printed words to the eye. Nothing else will do; no words can be as effective …; no teachings expressed in language are as easily learned by the mind as those which come by the symbol through the imagination.
He who hears but the words of Freemasonry misses their meaning entirely.
In a 2013 article entitled “From Perception, To Knowledge, To Wisdom”, Brother Fred Milliken writes:
[A]ll ritual memorization makes you is a parrot[,] and a parrot doesn’t think[;] it just mimics.
Knowledge comes from the art of contemplation that allows us … to internalize that which our senses have encountered.
When a Mason memorizes, he moves from perception to knowledge.
When that Mason uses that knowledge to govern his life and make himself a better person, he has stepped up from knowledge to wisdom.
My Brothers, this brings a renewed understanding for me of the words, “Learn by heart”.
In a piece on committing poetry to memory for the New York Times in 2013 entitled “Why We Should Memorize”, author Brad Leithauser writes:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.
And in a 2014 article entitled “How To Use Your Memory The Way Actors Do”, author Annie Murphy Paul noted that actors spend much of their memorizing time “mining” words for the underlying intention. She goes on to comment:
The emotions actors bring to their parts sear the words into their memories. Acting is no dry recital, but an evocation of actual emotion, physical movement, and the visceral feelings brought forth on stage make the words that go with them hard to forget.
One masonic writer – a Brother and a sociologist — has written:
The Masonic work we all do – particularly our active memorization – has a progressive impact upon who and what we are (e.g. think of it as smoothing the rough ashlar). What I’m suggesting is that we do not only memorize material, we gradually internalize it – from the outside in – and in so doing gradually act to change who and what we are in a more moral direction. Indeed, this shaping may be so gradual, changes in our actions and character can occur almost imperceptibly …
Jim Holt, in a 2009 New York Times article on memorizing poetry put it this way:
The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. … But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions.
Let us go deeper into this notion that memorization changes the Mason delivering the memorized ritual.
In the words of Most Worshipful Brother Everett Chapman:
Usually Masonic Ritualistic knowledge is garnered from schools of instruction, where no doubt the actual words are committed to memory, and regularly rehearsed. So far, so good. But have you grasped the import, open and concealed, of the whole, or parts, [of the] words, so that you can discard all self-consciousness, coldness of manner, and unconcern of mind, and enter into the very spirit and life of the ritual, and render it with sincerity and effect which will awaken responsive chords in the hearts of all who hear your effort? If you cannot do this your knowledge is incomplete, and you have much to learn, for, as it has been well said, words are instruments of music; an ignorant man uses them for jargon; but when a master touches them they have an unexpected life and soul. It is that life and soul which you will have to bring out of the words you may know so well.
The theme here is personal transcendence.
Our rituals were not developed just to pass on ancient legends, but also to teach Masonic philosophy and transform the character of those practicing them. Thus, the rituals’ worth does not just rest on reading and understanding the written word; it must move from the head to the heart to accomplish the purpose for which it was truly intended.
My point here is that the deeper and richer Masonic study required of the presenter, as he prepares, to achieve that touchstone delivery that touches the mind and heart of the listeners, leaves the presenter himself forever bonded to the text he internalizes. It is far more than an exercise in rote repetition. It is a deeper peering into the truth of the text before him, with a further understanding of its hidden or shadowed meanings; it is his unique glimpse into the unknown; it is his special window into a piece of wisdom that is now locked in a special moment in time for him, in his muscle memory, and in the core of his being. He is forever altered.
He may be able to recite the same memory work at the drop of a hat in the future, or not. But, the mental pictures he creates for himself in those seemingly endless repetitions in front of the mirror; those evenings with a dictionary deciphering the meaning of words; Saturday mornings over coffee reading more on the subject matter of the philosophy covered in the ritual he is memorizing; the moral lessons he learned; the wisdom he gained, well… they are his and will remain part of his DNA until he lays down the working tools of life.
He has tapped into the power of his imagination. Frances Yates has written,
[As such, the art of memory] has become man’s highest power, by means of which he can grasp the intelligible world beyond appearances through laying hold of significant images.
Modern science is beginning to validate the genius behind memorized rituals:
Weber State University researcher Paula Fiet discovered that underdeveloped short-term memory may be to blame for some students’ problems with mastering higher concepts in math and reading. Fiet explains, “[Y]ou need working memory to learn,” or to hold enough information in your mind to comprehend what you’re learning.”
Fiet’s research has shown that “children with poor working memories don’t get enough information in their minds at one time to make sense of what is coming in.” Students who complete exercises aimed at building short-term memory have seen improvement in their working memory and capacity to learn.
Educators have found that students who were required to memorize from an early age often go on to have more capacity to focus. As students spend time memorizing passages, tables, anything at all, they learn to find focus.
Just as a strong working memory is good for learning, working memory is important for creativity as well. Brothers, Dutch researchers found that semiprofessional cellists were able to perform more creatively with a higher working memory capacity. Their conclusion was that students who learn to focus and develop their working memory through memorization tasks, free their mind to become more creative.
A University of Minnesota research team led by Kathleen Vohs carried out empirical tests on whether ritualistic behaviour measurably enhances the experience of consuming chocolates; lemonade; and even carrots.
In one experiment, 52 participants tasted chocolate, before which they either did, or did not, perform a ritual. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: ritual or no ritual. The “no-ritual” participants were directed to eat a chocolate bar, and did so naturally. The “ritual” participants were instructed, “Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, breaks it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it.”
The participants in the “ritual” group reported enjoying the consumption experience more than the participants in the “no-ritual” group, savored the chocolate more than the control group, indicated a willingness to pay more for the chocolate bar, and found the chocolate more flavorful than the control group.
Similar experiments demonstrated that participants who first performed pre-set rituals enjoyed carrots more than those in the no-ritual control group.
Other experiments involving lemonade established that those who performed the ritual themselves, as opposed to having the ritual performed by someone else, reported that the lemonade tasted more flavorful. In the words of the study’s authors, “Merely observing a ritual was less effective in enhancing consumption than performing the rituals oneself”. They continued:
[W]hen people perform a ritual, their intrinsic interest increases, which in turn leads to more enjoyable consumption. Performing rituals heightens the involvement that people feel while consuming products, and feeling deeply involved [enhances] the experience.
The researchers report the following:
Although our results demonstrate that rituals can enhance consumption even in the absence of social factors, enacting rituals in a rich social context may have additional benefits – benefits that may extend beyond enhancing consumption. For instance, families that consistently enact ritual behaviors have children with better self-control and academic performance …
My Brothers, did you just hear in this last quote, the equivalents of “due bounds” and “more light in Masonry”?
I suggest that these results are not limited to consuming food and drink. Like food and drink, we are consumers of the “Masonic way”. I suggest that these clinical findings can be extrapolated, perhaps not perfectly, to the experience of existential fulfillment that derive from memorized ritual within the social fabric of the Lodge. While those who observe the well-executed ritual have their own Masonic journeys enhanced, those who actually carry out the ritual for their Brothers are themselves deriving significant and measurable benefits.
My Brothers, our ancients were wise indeed, to require good men to commit sacred words and other things to their conscious and subconscious minds. This is the true existential experience for the mortal being. They lay claim to him, slowly… inevitably. Enlightening him. Chipping at the stone, honing the rough ashlar. Building a personal temple. A glimpse preserved, into the infinite.
I argue that we have done a very poor job of explaining to our members why we value memorization. It isn’t just about memorizing so that you can deliver a lecture from memory. We know in the depths of our being that there is more to it. Indeed, in much of the world, including Lodges within our jurisdiction, Freemasonry very happily proceeds with officers reading lectures from books.
We memorize because the ritual — or at least those bits we really memorize — becomes a part of us. They are always there, popping up as we go about our lives and reminding us of the lessons we have (hopefully) learned. We memorize because it is a way of indelibly stamping the ritual on our minds and, hopefully, onto our souls. In this way, the ritual we memorize is not limited in its effect to the evening we deliver it in Lodge. We memorize so that when we are away from the Lodge, we continue to have access to the ritual. We memorize so that even in the darkest, loneliest, most desperate moments, the consolation of the words of our initiation, passing and raising may come to us. We memorize, in short, to make the ritual a part of us.
But, for this strategy to really succeed, we must memorize in such a fashion that we also understand. Merely saying the words — even perfectly, as if there were such a thing — doesn’t qualify. We must think about the import of what we are saying. We must struggle to find meaning and more meaning in these words. We must engage with the text and pull from it every drop of philosophy available to us. And then, the next day, we do it all again.
Memorizing enables the Mason to keep the ritual with him at all times, to think about it more deeply without having to hunt up a book, and to think of how it applies in his daily life. He can get something like it by reading the ritual out loud off the page or his I-phone, but the feeling for him is simply more powerful when the words come from within. With the words pouring out, his mind is freed to engage both his imagination and the emotional underpinnings of the text, and take a step closer to the Great Architect in that moment.
Think of it like driving your car to the parking area for your favorite beach, and walking from there. The car can only take you so far.
By internalizing the work, the Mason becomes better enabled to make connections he could not make before. Memorizing the ritual isn’t just about making sure meetings run effectively. It’s about much more. Memorizing the work enables each to really work at being a Mason in his heart. And that is surely worth the effort. He does it for his Brothers; but, as I hope I’ve shown, he also very much does it for himself and his own personal glimpse into foreign lands.
Thus, the art of memory remains an essential part of the Masonic journey, designed to teach us to build, and to live in, a temple of memory, a temple full of symbols that remind us of that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
[This paper was reprinted from the “Sunday Masonic Paper” June 25, 2017
Enjoy your summer Brethren and don’t forget your memorization. CJ]