This interview was conducted during and after the Inner Chamber Retreat, a capstone event for graduates of The Middle Chamber education program of the Grand Lodge of North Carolina. It was originally published in The Buzz… NC Mason’s E-News, November 2019 issue. Photos by Matt Parker.
I had arrived early on Friday October 18 at the Masonic Home for Children at Oxford to meet with Executive Director Kevin Otis to pitch an idea for a 5K race during 2020’s MHCO Homecoming celebration. My meeting ended with the arrival of Grand Master-elect Shaun Bradshaw, so I took my leave.
As I walked to my wife’s gas-efficient, Honda hybrid (heck, it’s 140 miles one way), I met WB Ben Wallace walking toward the main building with a fit, bearded, tall fellow, who somewhat resembled actor Tommy Lee Jones. Bro. Ben then proceeded to introduce me to author Bro. C.R. “Chuck” Dunning, Jr.
During a break on Saturday 19 October, I sat with Chuck and asked him how a one-time Texas electrician became an internationally respected author on Masonic Esotericism. Here’s a few minutes with Bro. Chuck:
Buzz: In your introduction yesterday, you mentioned you are from a blue-collar family of Texas Masons. Can you elaborate?
Chuck: I grew up in Haltom City, Texas, northeast of Fort Worth, which is, as you probably know, part of the Fort Worth-Dallas-Plano metropolitan area. My dad – an auto mechanic – was a Mason, but he was old school meaning he wouldn’t talk about Freemasonry. But what he did do was leave out Masonic books by such greats as Pike and Lightfoot. Even though Dad didn’t talk about Masonry, I was free to read these books, and that’s how became very interested in the depths of the Fraternity.
Buzz: Excellent, but electrician to esoteric author?
Chuck: [laughter] yes, I see how that doesn’t seem like a natural progression. I started college at Texas A&M, studying wildlife and fisheries sciences, but my heart and head just weren’t in it at the time. I withdrew and finally settled on becoming an electrician. I worked in that trade until I hurt my back. Being laid-up with my injuries, I spent a significant amount of time reflecting and contemplating the meaning and complexities of life. I got back into school, earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology, minoring in philosophy, and went on to earn my master’s degree in counseling.
Buzz: Ah, that makes sense.
Chuck: Yes, everything was coming into clear view. I started off working with substance abuse clients, and then in 1988 married my wife of 31 years, Susan, and also started my Masonic degrees.
Buzz: Chuck, you mentioned in our classroom sessions that you focused more on Scottish Rite than Blue Lodge.
Chuck: Yes. I was hoping to find the answers to my quest through the mysteries of Freemasonry. Unfortunately, at that time, there didn’t seem to be an emphasis on the esoteric side of Masonry, only the fraternal and philanthropic. I asked everyone and everywhere, even going so far as to write Manly Hall for advice and direction, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. In the Scottish Rite, and through works by Pike and others, I found a significant amount of the veiled stuff. So naturally I was drawn to the Rite. Plus, working in mental health has meant most of my evenings were tied up, which kept me from being active in Blue Lodge. By the way, it was through the Scottish Rite in Guthrie, Oklahoma that I met WB Wallace and other instructors of the Middle Chamber. Soon after that is when the Middle Chamber program began showing up on the national radar of Blue Lodge esotericists.
Buzz: Why do you think there is such a growing interest in the esoteric right now?
Chuck: First of all, we should clarify that in this context “esoteric” references ancient contemplative, philosophical, and experimental systems for understanding the deepest mysteries of the psyche, the universe, and the Divine. All across its history, Masonry has been a venue where men could share and explore these interests. After all, we say we are seeking light, which is to say we are on a quest for enlightenment, or deeper knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about every dimension of our existence. Our rituals are full of admonitions to do so, and many of us take those admonitions seriously.
What is different about our present moment in history is that the Fraternity’s numbers and coffers are dwindling, while the percentages are growing among candidates openly stating their interest in the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual depths of Masonic ritual and literature. One reason for this increased interest is that young men are discovering the shallowness, hollowness, and disconnectedness of popular culture. So, Masonry is collectively reviving its deeper spirit in order to best serve these men while also ensuring the Fraternity survives and thrives in coming generations. I refer to this movement as the American Masonic Renaissance.
Buzz: What are your thoughts on the benefits to North Carolina Masonry of this esoteric focus?
Chuck: Looking into the deeper, internal, hidden aspects of things is a natural human desire. We instinctively want to know the hows and whys of things. Think of little children who are just beginning to discover the wonder of their existence, so full of questions and desire for the meaning of everything. In fact, they often question the answers they are given, which can result in adults getting uncomfortable and even shutting down the inquiry. Sometimes children get the awful message that some questions are totally forbidden! Pretty quickly, many people learn to be more cautious and restrained with their questions, and to proceed with the assumption that they will be told everything they really need to know.
By contrast, Masonry’s ritual actually encourages us to be curious and inquisitive. We are taught to investigate things, including the workings of our own hearts and minds, the designs of Nature, and our spiritual beliefs, practices, and scriptures. The benefits to doing so are countless. Simply put, the more we know and understand things, the more empowered we are to act in ways that contribute to the well being of others and ourselves.
For example, if one of our aims as Masons is to excel in moral virtue, then it follows we need to carefully contemplate all factors of the many virtues we learn about in our rituals. Some of those factors are internal, or psychological, and have to do with how aware and skilled we are with our emotions and with making rational decisions. Some of those factors are external, or social, and involve empathy, communication skills, and observing how people relate to each other. As we dig into such things, it’s common to discover that we don’t understand and manage ourselves and our relationships as well as we like to think we do. We’re just scratching the surface here, but already we can see that the demands of excelling in virtue are much more complex than simply following a set of rules or feelings about what it means to be a good man. Similar discoveries and work can be done in every other part of our being.
But you asked about the benefits to Masonry, not just to individual Masons. The collective benefits include making the Masonic experience more vibrant, inspiring, supportive, and relevant to the things that are most important in our lives. Our fraternal gatherings are more likely to be what our ritual says they should be — opportunities for members to come together in a sacred space, joining in the search for more light, more wisdom, strength, and beauty, and supporting each other in applying them in our everyday lives. And, more specifically, North Carolina Masonry is becoming a national leader and role model in making this very important and timely changes.
Buzz: Earlier you mentioned the NC Grand Lodge’s Middle Chamber Program. What are your thoughts on this and our Grand Master-elect’s esoteric focus?
Chuck: Right Worshipful Shaun Bradshaw has my utmost respect for his leadership with the Middle Chamber Program. American Masonry has a history of Grand Masters who have, for one reason or another, avoided taking such responsibility. Brother Bradshaw, however, is both knowledgeable and courageous, and he humbly understands that this work is more important than his own ego. In that regard, it’s also very impressive to me that he’s not alone among his fellow Grand Lodge officers in North Carolina.
As for the program itself, I’ve traveled all over the USA meeting Masons and participating in noteworthy programs and events aimed at the kind of Masonic experience we’ve been talking about. There are many things that distinguish the Middle Chamber, and one of them is that it is not only sanctioned by the Grand Lodge of North Carolina, but is actually placed within the Grand Lodge’s structure and funding. Another is that the curriculum addresses the depths and whole nature of human beings, encouraging participants and providing them with tools to investigate these things for themselves. It is also sincerely pleasing to me that the Middle Chamber focuses on Masonry, with very little talk about other traditions. The program is rooted in the understanding that Masonry itself is a profoundly deep, revealing, and transformative tradition, if we will only work with it as such.
These things make Right Worshipful Bradshaw and the Middle Chamber groundbreaking examples for how Grand Lodges around the country can answer the growing demands for the Fraternity, living up to the ideals, and fulfilling the promises, espoused in its rituals. I believe history will remember their significance in the American Masonic Renaissance.
Buzz: Excellent. I appreciate your time Brother! Before we close, I know you have a new book coming and you’ll be at the 2020 Mid-Atlantic Esotericon. Can you give us a glimpse of both?
Chuck: My upcoming book is The Contemplative Lodge: A Manual for Masons Doing Inner Work Together. I’m hoping to see it in print before the end of 2019. The first book was focused on individual contemplative practice, but this one is about group practice among Masons. That’s a natural next step, and one that I’ve been repeatedly asked to take while speaking and facilitating workshops. There is a lot in our ritual about the importance and the benefits of working together. Just as working with others is obviously important for Operative Masons, Speculative Masons must also work together in order to achieve the greatest fulfillment of our purposes. The new book will also address the importance of contemplative leadership, which is to say the qualifications and actions of leaders who mean to serve a contemplative approach in Masonry. As with the first book, there will be plenty of practical instructions, including scripts that can be read aloud to guide groups of Masons step-by-step through a comprehensive variety of contemplative practices.
I should also mention that I was a contributing author to The Art and Science of Initiation, edited by Brothers Jedidiah French and Angel Millar. This book is an excellent collection of original essays on the topic of initiation and how it can facilitate personal transformation. It’s available now through the website of Lewis Masonic.
I will be presenting at the Mid-Atlantic Esotericon in 2020. My title is “Gnothi Seauton: You are the Mysteries.” I’ll be showing a parallel of intentions between Masonry and the Ancient Mystery Schools, especially focusing on the discovery and actualization of the deeper levels of one’s consciousness.
Buzz: Thank you Brother Dunning. I look forward to reading your next book and seeing you at the Esotericon.
Chuck: Thank you and the Brethren of North Carolina!