George S. Eichhorn, 32
For good reasons, reticence is the very nature of a
family and of Freemasonry.
M uch has been said and written about the “secrets” of Masonry. Unfortunately, most recent discussions on that topic are confused or confusing. Historically, some Freemasons would share nothing about their Masonic activities, even with their families. Today, some assert we should have no secrets and become open about all Masonic matters. For reasons that have eluded most writers, neither extreme is appropriate. The reasons for this are found in the nature of our Fraternity and the essence of our moral instructions. Both contain the quality of reticence.
Reticence is the state or quality of being “restrained or reserved in style,” of being “inclined to keep one’s thoughts, feelings, and personal affairs to oneself.” It may seem odd for an international organization, such as Masonry, to be reticent. Upon a closer examination, that is the very nature of Masonry and its ceremonies.
George S. Eichhorn, 32
Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and largest fraternity. The first distinguishing characteristic of a fraternity is that members become like family, they become “Brothers.” Like family, the relationships enjoyed by fraternity members are personal and sometimes, in a different way, closer than bonds between members of a biological family. These relationships, both familial and fraternal, are matters of private, not public, concern.
The beginnings of fraternal relationships are the membership ceremonies. Those ceremonies are the common stories of all Freemasons. They connect each “Brother” with his fraternal family’s past, present, and future. Like certain family stories, they are to be sustained and savored by family only.
Reticence is a fundamental aspect of special relationships. Try to imagine being part of a marriage or family where every aspect is public. What would happen if one spouse told anyone everything about the other spouse? This is the very reason that reticence is important to fraternal relationships.
Reticence incorporates the idea that relationships can be destroyed by publication of information. For instance, when Charles Eliot Norton was asked to publish his personal letters from friends and poets, he stated: “I cannot take my readers, however worthy of my confidence they may be, within the inner circle of intimacy, of which the charm [of this friendship] would suffer were its sanctity violated and its seclusion disturbed.... And yet so often is this done that we are losing the sense of the sacredness of private life. We submit to the vulgarization of its loveliest enclosures, and we give prizes to the betrayers of confidence.” He also stated, “Portions of every man’s life are essentially private, and knowledge of them belongs only to those intimates whom he sees fit to trust with this confidence.” (See Rochelle Gunstein, The Repeal of Reticence (1996), pp. 40, 39, 42, 43.)
This is the type of relationship fostered and encouraged in Masonry. Masonry is designed for members to come together as “Brothers” in a family. Even though every member may not perceive the same matters as private, why jeopardize or potentially destroy valued relationships by making the basis of those relationships public?
To protect these relationships, Freemasons adopt a reticent approach. They willfully choose not to disclose the special aspects of their relationships or the forms and ceremonies of their Fraternity. “This injunction to maintain silence,... is no doubt the most alien aspect of the reticent sensibility to moderns who have been schooled in habits of relentless scrutiny of motives of both the self and others.” To the Freemason, such a disclosure “not only disgrace[s] the victim of the story [the Fraternity and its members] but trivialize[s] the meaning of those details.” (Gunstein, pp. 42-43) These are some of the strongest reasons for maintaining fraternal secrecy.
One of the touchstone aspects of special relationships is that they are private. If they become public, they become common. The relationship’s special aspect, maintained by reticence, is destroyed. What everyone sees is not special to anyone. Consider the antithesis of a Mason, the modern celebrity who shares every aspect of his personal life with the media. All is show and tell; nothing is private or personal or valued enough to protect with reticence. The idle public is tantalized by such revelation; the thinking individual is rightly disgusted. In exposing all, we devalue all and lose respect for the individual for whom exposure is a way of life.
The forms and ceremonies of the Fraternity reinforce a properly reticent sensibility. From the very first Degree, before they see the forms and ceremonies of Masonry, candidates are taught that their hearts should learn to conceal--in the sense of keep private and safeguarded--things of value. This is the language of reticence. This theme is reinforced by the extended Degrees of the Scottish Rite and York Rite.
Members are also taught that fraternal action should not be pursued for personal reasons such as worldly wealth, honor, or recognition. Their actions are to be for higher purposes--the Masonic tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth--which embody the deepest and noblest meanings in life. Again, this is a reticent approach to life.
To protect these special relationships, Freemasons formalize their reticence. They take oaths to protect their fraternal relationships. So it is with most fraternities. Preservation of the fraternity and its members requires reticence and privacy.
Interestingly, C. Bruce Hunter, author of Beneath the Stone, The Story of Masonic Secrecy (1992), observes that this reticent approach was present from Freemasonry’s beginnings as early as the sixteenth century. He notes “gentlemen Masons” reacted to charges that Freemasons were sinister men, secretly doing evil deeds, in the following manner: “Curiously, [their] response to this criticism indicates an attitude that is hard to understand. They were distressed not because they were being slandered but because their privacy was being threatened. It was the prying eyes, not the sharp tongue that was alarming.” (p. 185)
The sanctity of privacy was the Freemasons original concern for those prying into their “secrets.” Unfortunately, this original reason has seemingly been lost in today’s discussions. Instead, people fall into a common trap: the suspicion maintained by some that anything hidden is evidence of evil. C. Bruce Hunter falls into that very trap. His paragraph after the passage quoted above reads, in part: “The gentlemen Masons’ use of old legends and symbols might have been controversial. Their free thinking might have offended the more traditional of their neighbors. But what did they have to hide?” (Emphasis added.)
The comment is often posed “If you’re not guilty, you have nothing to hide.” Such an attitude presupposes that guilt or wrongdoing is the only reason for refraining from full disclosure. C. Bruce Hunter assumes that suspicion is natural: “The mere fact that a thing is hidden spurs curiosity. And an organization that actually flaunts its secrecy will certainly conjure up images of conspiracy and forbidden things.” (p. 2)
This suspicion of guilt ignores or denies that some parts of life lose their inherent qualities by becoming public. It doesn’t realize special relationships can be destroyed if not kept intimate. It doesn’t acknowledge that good and meaningful aspects of life can be lost by such an invasion of privacy. Again, it ignores the fact that what is dear, intimate, or even sacred can be trivialized.
Freemasons do not maintain secrecy over their forms, ceremonies, and signs of recognition to hide anything even remotely “evil.” There is no shame associated with a belief in one God. There is no guilt tainting a morality premised on Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. These are Masonic ideals meant to be displayed in every member’s daily conduct, personal and public.
Freemasons recognize reticence is the best and only way to protect their precious fraternal bonds. They join the Fraternity for special relations. They advance in the forms and ceremonies to be reminded of life’s deepest meanings. They refrain from disclosure to protect those unique relationships and experiences. Freemasons live reticently. They are more a reticent than a secret society.