Psst! Let's talk about Masons

Secret society » Dan Brown's new novel adds to fraternal order's mystique.
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Everyone likes to be in on a secret.

It makes people feel exceptional, even superior. Nothing is what it seems to be, many people believe. Only initiated insiders can discover hidden truths.

Gnostics preached Christian salvation through secret knowledge, the Kabbalah explores Jewish enigmas, Rosicrucians offer exclusive mystic awareness, and Mormons have their closed temples.

In recent years, novelist Dan Brown has made millions by tapping into that widespread yearning.

In his new novel, The Lost Symbol , Brown profiles one of America's most-secretive and least-understood fraternal orders, Freemasons. His hero, once again, is Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor of symbology featured in the previous best-sellers and films Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code .

The novel is set in Washington, D.C., where Langdon must follow Masonic clues and decipher codes to find a brutal, sadistic killer who is seeking the final key to understanding -- the "lost symbol." The dramatic action takes Langdon through many real structures, passageways and settings in the nation's capital, including the Capitol itself, the Masonic House of the Temple, the George Washington Masonic Memorial and the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center.

In Brown's telling, Masons represent the apex of religious tolerance and moral purity, free of sectarian infighting. They have, he suggests, been vilified by outsiders who are too conventional to understand the Masons' use of allegory, morality plays and symbols, their cohesion and fidelity and their grasp of eternal principles.

"In a world where men do battle over whose definition of God is most accurate, I cannot adequately express the deep respect and admiration I feel toward an organization in which men of differing faiths are able to 'break bread together' in a bond of brotherhood, friendship and camaraderie," Brown wrote in an Oct. 6 letter to the Masons of the Southern Jurisdiction. "Please accept my humble thanks for the noble example you set for humankind."

Sure, Freemasonry was once among the most common bands of brothers, where men met for "instruction" and networking. If it really is the humanistic haven Brown describes, why has the membership declined so dramatically in the past few decades? (It's down to fewer than 1. 5 million in the United States, from a high of 4.1 million in 1959, and fewer than 2,000 in Utah, from a high of about 6,000 in the mid-1960s.) Are its theatrical presentations, complete with bloodthirsty threats, really the way to enlightenment?

Legendary laborers » Freemasonry is the world's "largest, oldest and best-known fraternal organization," according to an online essay published by the Masonic Society, headquartered in Indianapolis.

Mythically linked to the builders of King Solomon's Temple in ancient Jerusalem, the group is believed to have emerged among Middle Age stonemasons who built castles and cathedrals. They lived in lodges near the building site, where they formed strong bonds. In a pre-literate society, they developed signs, handshakes and passwords to identify one another as they moved from town to town.

By the 1600s, educated gentlemen known as "accepted Masons" had joined the group and eventually outnumbered the practicing stonemasons. The first Grand Lodge was established in England in 1717. The movement spread to the American colonies. Many Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere, were Masons, as were Europeans Voltaire, Adam Smith and Lafayette. Fourteen U.S. presidents have been Masons (the most recent was Gerald Ford).

Each lodge, including the one on South Temple Street in Salt Lake City, boasts rooms meant to signify Solomon's temple. Sitting on the altar in the room's center is a Volume of Sacred Law, usually a Bible, but could be a Hindu Bagava Gita, Book of Mormon or Quran. Every room has a staircase, each step emblazoned with words such as hearing , seeing , feeling , smelling , tasting , grammar , rhetoric , logic , arithmetic , geometry , astronomy and music . Candidates climb the stairs to symbolize their increasing knowledge.

The point is to provide a moral education through role playing, explains John Liley, senior grand warden of the Grand Lodge of Utah. "It's the original finishing school for men."

In his 20s, Liley, whose uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather were Masons, joined the group because he was looking for that "elusive male bonding." He wanted a place where he could learn lofty principles as well as practical skills like public speaking. Now he is the group's spokesman and at ease before any audience.

In essence, Masonic ceremonies are "solemn affairs of drama and dignity," says Mark Koltko-Rivera, a Master Mason in New York City who has written extensively about the organization. "The initiatory rituals involve a symbolic journey to light."

There are three degrees, each named for a stage in the imagined professional development of a medieval stonemason: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. At each level, there are ritual challenges and trials, the imparting of information and the testing of knowledge.

"Pretty much everything -- the clothing, actions, words, placement of the officers, even the ceremonial walk around the lodge room -- has symbolic significance," Koltko-Rivera writes.

The purpose, he says, is to elicit ethical behavior, including honesty, charity, benevolence and the giving of aid.

And each ritual is protected by vows of secrecy.

Masons agree not to divulge, for example, passwords and hand grips by which two brothers may confirm their mutual membership. They are aware of "bloodcurdling penalties for transgressing these obligations," Koltko-Rivera says, "but it is God who would carry out these penalties, not Masons themselves."

Masons and the church » Freemasonry emerged during England's religious wars among Catholics, Protestants, nonconforming believers and Jews, Koltko-Rivera says. "Everywhere along the way, somebody was getting killed."

Masons provided a place where people of various faiths could meet safely; passwords and handshakes allowed them to identify fellow members. Though dominated by monarchies and the Roman Catholic Church, Europe also was awash in 18th-century Enlightenment ideas about reason, liberty and equality.

It is no wonder Masons met in secret societies to discuss these radical notions, says Dan Burstein, author and editor of Secrets of the Lost Symbol , due out in December. It is no wonder that as many as 26 of 55 signers of the U.S. Constitution, which incorporated so many of these ideas, reportedly were Freemasons.

It also is not surprising that Christians, especially the Catholic Church, saw Masonry as the enemy.

For starters, Masons swear allegiance to a Supreme Being, but do not have to be members of any particular faith nor believe in a particular deity. Some critics argued Masons essentially were Deists who believed in God, but little else.

"It was a real challenge to the church's powerful positions in society," Burstein says. "The Catholic Church declared it not possible for a Catholic to be a Mason."

Brown's book goes overboard in the rosy depiction of Masonry, Burstein says. "He is infatuated with their appearance of openness and tolerance to the exclusion of the problems and challenges typical of any movement."

Masons bar women from participation, for instance, although women have their own auxiliary groups such as Eastern Star. In the 18th century, African Americans created their own lodge known as Prince Hall because most white members refused to recognize them. Today all lodges are racially integrated, but Prince Hall continues on a separate path.

Despite the book's flaws, Burstein applauds Brown for writing a book about ideas.

The book's villain, Mal'akh, is a Mason who wants the final secret for himself and will do anything, even kill, to get it.

"He is almost more devoted to Masonic rituals and ancient mysteries than the Masons who claim to be keepers of the secret," he says. "He represents the danger of religious fanaticism and excess."

To Burstein, Brown seems to be saying the closer we get to deep knowledge, the more dangerous that can be. And that is a cautionary tale for everyone, even without the symbolic clothing and secret passwords.

Masons by the numbers

Between 2 million and 3 million worldwide

1.4 million in the United States.

1,963 members and 29 lodges in Utah.

Source: Masonic Service Association