another masonic lecture

Music: David Sylvian: Gone to Earth (1985)

I am truly thankful for the words of comfort many of you offered about the loss of my companion Obi. It is nice to know that others have felt and feel similarly about their animal companions; it’s a love different from that of a person, and one that is deeply felt. Certainly it is a kind of projective love, but even so, there is something like “animal presence” that extends beyond whatever form we impose on their little beings.

By strange twist of fate—or Jungian synchronicity?—two Devons here in Austin need to be rescued and fostered. I was contacted this morning about the pair and agreed to help. Something about the timing of this rescue, huh? I’ll keep folks posted about this the more I learn.

Meanwhile, I’m editing and finishing-up a speech (or “lecture,” as they’re termed) that I was asked to deliver tonight to my lodge’s annual Festive Board. A Festive Board is basically a fancy, catered dinner where we toast each other, sing songs, and regale each other with accolades. It’s a nice ritual—though if you fill your shot or “firing” glass for every toast you won’t be able to stand up at the end. Anyhoo, owing to my scholarly interest in the Craft I was asked to give the after-dinner speech, which is supposed to be a hybrid “research paper” and celebratory speech. I thought I’d offer up a teaser here:

The Importance of Speech, or, Some Reflections on the First Degree and Psalm 133

Lecture Delivered to Austin Lodge # 12, 23 June 2008

Thank you, brethren, for giving me the opportunity to address you on this most festive of occasions, the annual festive board, a celebration our brotherhood through speech and nourishment. As no doubt my yammering on and on tonight will attest, I would underscore that our jamboree is frequently punctuated by speeches: speeches of thanks, toasts, songs, recognitions of honor, after-dinner talks by long-winded rhetoricians who should hurry up and get on with it, and perhaps most importantly, that communal petition to Deity that we term “prayer.” I said we have come together in speech and nourishment, but today I shall argue that these two nouns, speech and nourishment, are the same in Freemasonry. In other words, understanding how speech is food—and therefore the vehicle of life—is my timely topic, as you nosh away on your (just) deserts.

I will suggest to you today that the written word speaks death, that text as such is death, and that only the presence of speech can enliven it. Following the instruction of the First Great Light, we teach this lesson in the Entering Apprentice degree. When the candidate is caused to circumabulate the lodge with the Senior Deacon, he is blind. While in motion, his ear close to the measured breath of his conductor, he hears the song of the Degrees of David:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity: It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, that went down to the skirts of his garment: as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

The 133 Psalm of David speaks of the joy of gathering, presumably when the tribes were united; brotherly love is described as a permeating perfume and a quenching morning dew. More important, however, is the way in which this joyous meaning is communicated: it is a psalm, and therefore, a song—a sacred sonnet, to be more precise. The psalm is meant to be sung or spoken in melodious speech, which is precisely what the conductor does, into the passive ear of the candidate, blindfolded and seemingly helpless, led about from the elbow by some psalm singing shepherd.

I encourage you to remember your initiation, what it was like to be blindly led about, dressed in [deleted for the public]. Importantly, the sense that was deprived of you was that of sight.

So, on what did you rely? The answer is twofold: The firm grasp of your conductor and the speech of strangers. A grasp and stranger-speech. That is to say, you relied the on touch and hearing. Perhaps not coincidentally, I will tell you as an aside that in infancy the first senses to develop are that of touch and hearing; the entered apprentice degree is in this respect a reenactment of birth into the blinding light of creation.

Nevertheless, upon entering the lodge for the first time you were [deleted for the public] and made a promise: “Arise, follow your conductor, and fear no evil.” This is to say, after you declare your trust in Deity, a promise is made to you. Your declaration of trust is deemed well-founded, and the Worshipful Master makes a declaration of assurance in return: “you may trust your conductor, dear candidate, as no harm will come to you.” With the promise of your faith, you in turn are made a promise. In this respect you have made your first speech pact in Masonry—the precursor to another pact, the obligation.

Today I suggest to you that the whole of Masonic teaching can be located in this specific moment in the first degree. The nourishment of speech begins here, in the moment when the candidate declares his trust in something beyond his comprehension—Deity, the Great Architect—and the Worshipful Master’s return promise: “arise, follow your conductor, and fear no evil.” The key to understanding the importance of this moment is the presence of speech.

Voice unheard is province of the individual, the babble of solitudinous, an agency without an ear, or as we’re told of one of the saints John, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Speech, however, is the sound of community; speech implicates an ear. Unlike voice, which is given fullness in crying, speech implies an answer from another. Speech implicates not merely a person, but a people.

So, what does it mean to say speech implicates a people? It means that when I make a purposeful utterance, the ear of someone else—the Ear of the Other, if you will—is implied. Here I am making a distinction between VOICE and SPEECH.

Voice is the singular sound that exits the mouth of any one person. Speech, however, is voice as a vehicle of meaning. That meaning need not be word-borne; it can also be affective. One’s tone of voice can communicate meaning, and therefore be deemed speech. This is why the speech of song is more reliant on phrasing and timbre that words, a point to which I will return shortly in reference to the 133 psalm.

I recently compared the first degree of Masonic ritual to birth. Insofar as touch and hearing are our first senses, both infancy and candidacy are understanding of speech yet incapable of producing it. Consider, for example, the cries of an infant: A baby is perfectly capable of a voice—frequently a loud scream. But that voice is meaningless. That voice requires the presence of another individual, usually the mother, to give it meaning. The baby cries out almost automatically, without thinking, in response to his pangs of hunger. The mother interprets that cry as speech: “my child is hungry,” she says, or “my child is teething,” or perhaps just simply, “my child is loudmouth pain in the butt.”

Yet, by assigning meaning to the cries of the infant voice, the parent has agreed to speak for the child: “With this speech I will speak for you,” says the mother. “With my speech I will comfort you.” It is thus in infancy that our first speech pact was made for us over cries and lullabies.

Later in life, as we learn language, our voice takes shape in speech. It is then that we learn how to make demands on others: “I want a cookie,” is typical. Later comes the narcissistic phrase of toddlers everywhere: “mine!” Indeed, the phrases “I want” and “mine” are the province of the terrible twos, followed shortly by puberty and the slow recognition of something else much more meaningful. Or rather, the recognition of something horribly meaningless: death.

It is the recognition of sex that turns children into men and women; it is the recognition of death that turns children into adults. Often this realization only occurs in one’s teenage years, which is experienced as a chip in the usual invincible feelings that abide those awkward voice changes.

Indeed, speech, understood here as meaningful voice, only truly takes shape when confronting the darkness of death, the limit of some no-thing, a nothing, a silent silence. It is only when we are made to confront our own mortality that speech takes on a special status as the promise of life, that life exists. In speech that voice announces that it is, that I am. But without an ear such speech is really voice without meaning, not really speech at all, just a “me-me-me,” “mine,” or a “I want a Lollipop!” in the wilderness. It is only speech with a proximate ear that we are alive; only, in other words, are we something other than ourselves, a community.

Consider if you will the parallels between the first speech pact of Masonry and the psalm that succeeds it: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in community.” Recall that in Psalm 131 the tribes are not at peace, but in Psalm 132 a covenant with the Lord is made. David is chosen by the Lord to lead the united Judah and Israel in psalm 132. In other words, an agreement is made between the Lord and David, which is followed by a celebration of community and brotherly love in Psalm 133. Is not this covenant reenacted in the first moments of the Entered Apprentice degree?

[more later, perhaps. or not.]


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