The 30th anniversary of my initiation into Masonry occurred several days ago. So over the past few months I’ve been reflecting on our most fundamental experiences of the Craft, and reconsidering some of the foundation stones of our Masonic labors. If you’re interested, I’ll share memories of brethren who were very important to me in those early years, reconsider how they helped me become the Mason that I am, and highlight some specific elements of the Craft I learned back then that I think are sorely needed in today’s world. Be forewarned, what follows is over six pages long. (But that’s kinda like five years’ worth of reflection per page!)
As I reflect on my Masonic foundation, I recall many brothers who played important roles in my early Masonic life, especially a few brothers who have entered the Celestial Temple. I doubt many of you, if any, will know them, but I would bet you have known or now know brothers like them. So I trust your thoughts and feelings about important brothers in your life will connect with my thoughts and feelings about the ones upon whom I reflect.
I’ll start with the recently departed Worshipful Brother Hector Garcia, who was Master of Haltom City-Riverside #1331 when I entered in 1988. He made it clear that he personally welcomed and valued my particular interests, which were and still are the philosophical, psychological, spiritual, and contemplative aspects of our Craft. Bro. Garcia was a great advocate of education, and he made sure our lodge supported it with scholarships to local high school students.
Worshipful Brother Eugene Sabo, also comes to mind. He served in all three of my degrees. I learned a great deal of the ritual from him, and he modeled a strong commitment to proper performance while also keeping a light heart about our very human potential for making mistakes with it. That lesson about bringing together both serious focus and relaxed good humor, giving each its rightful time and place, and knowing that sometimes they weave together in the same moment, has been important in many other parts of my life.
I’m thinking of Worshipful Brother Robert Mann, who served as Treasurer of our lodge for many years. Robert was a member of my family’s church and a friend of our family long before I was born. In fact, he was like family to me. I have sweet memories from childhood about how kind he was, how he always showed interest in my life, and how he too encouraged me to pursue my own interests in Masonry. Robert was a great example of how a true gentleman is also gentle man.
And there was Brother Bill Haws, also a member of our church. Bill was my godfather, and he and his family lived across the street from us. I spent a large part of my youth in the outdoors with Bill and my dad, and joining with Bill in countless family gatherings in the Haws home or ours. With profound respect, I recall how Bill served as Chaplain, struggling with cancer of the spine, yet maintaining his sense of humor and his desire to be helpful to others.
And, of course, there was Worshipful Brother C.R. Dunning, Sr., who many simply knew as ‘Buddy.’ He was my father, and the man who raised me twice. I could take the rest of my time here, and much more, sharing with you all the ways he taught me to become the man and Mason that I am — actually, to be better than the man and Mason that I am. But there is something in particular that I want to highlight in the present moment.
Those who knew my dad well are surely aware of how different I am from the man and Mason he was. Although I am like him in many ways, my interests in Masonry have always been different from his, and what I have tried to offer my brothers has been different from what he offered. In this fact is one of the greatest lessons he taught me as a man and a Mason, which is that it’s not only okay, but that it is vitally important, for us to each strive to be more of the unique craftsman that is our own potential.
The significance of this lesson is even more meaningful to me because I am not just Chuck Dunning, but C.R. Dunning, Jr., the son of a man widely respected as not only a good man, but a respected leader in his church, in his trade, and in his fraternity. As I was growing up, it often seemed taken for granted by many people that my destiny was to fill his shoes, to become a copy of him in just about every way. That was an understandable vision, but that wasn’t what he most wanted for me. Even when I was a little boy, he was preparing me to be my own man when he said, “Son, your name has a junior on the end, but don’t you ever let anyone call you ‘Junior.’” Think for a moment about what he meant by that, about why he wouldn’t want people calling his son ‘Junior.’
This is all meaningful enough as part of a relationship between a father and son, but I actually think it held some of the first and most important lessons Buddy Dunning taught me about being a Mason. First of all, his desire and encouragement for me to become a unique adult man is a reflection of Masonic inclusiveness. As I’m sure most of you know, one aspect of that inclusiveness is ensconced in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, when it says:
But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.
We find an example of this principle of inclusiveness in our custom of prohibiting political and religious disputes in our lodges. To be able to do this, to truly welcome men as brothers despite very serious differences of opinion and belief about some of the most important things in life, requires humility. It requires acknowledging that our beliefs and opinions, no matter how strongly we may hold them, are not the only ones that intelligent, reasonable, compassionate, and morally concerned people can come to. It also means recognizing that we can be mistaken, even when we feel most certain that we are not.
Now anyone who knew Brother Buddy Dunning very well also knew that he was a proud man, and that he could be a stubborn man. He was a man of strong beliefs and opinions, and sometimes he could be insensitive to others as he asserted those beliefs and opinions. Nevertheless, at heart he was also a humble man, deeply aware of his own humanity and his inability to fully live up to his most cherished values and principles. I know that humility was a major factor in my father’s desire for me to be seen and known as something other than his ‘Junior.’
Deep humility like that also gives rise to a generosity of spirit, and so it is that charity is another virtue involved in the practice of Masonic inclusiveness. In everyday use, the word ‘charity’ typically means freely giving our money, goods, or services to people in need. But that is only one aspect of a more complete meaning for charity in a Masonic context. In Masonry, we are taught to practice the Theological Virtues, which are Faith, Hope, and Charity. They are taken straight from 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13, which in some jurisdictions is where the Bible is opened for the First Degree. Here is the last verse of that chapter:
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
That verse is where the Western world, and thus Masonry, gets its tradition of the Three Theological Virtues. So why do we use the word charity instead of love in Masonry? To answer this question, we have to keep in mind that 1st Corinthians was originally written in Greek. The Greek word was agape, which was then translated into Latin, caritas, and then caritas was translated into charity for some of the early English versions of the Bible, including the King James Version.
So what does agape or caritas mean? How is it different from what we usually mean by charity? To answer that, let’s hear the entire 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, which is Paul’s commentary on the nature of love as agape or caritas:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when completeness comes, what is partial disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know partially; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
If we listen carefully to Paul, we can hear him saying that agape, caritas, is the most selfless form of love. Not only that, but he’s saying that it is ultimately the thing that matters most, more than our pride, more than being right, more than keeping score, more than winning, more than prophecy and spiritual gifts, more than profound understanding and great knowledge, more than noteworthy acts of service. In short, he’s saying that kind of love is more important than everything else the ego and most of society urges us to regard as high priorities, and without that kind of love as our motive and our aim, whatever we do is worthless.
So I’m convinced Masonic charity in the fullest sense is that kind of love. It’s why Brotherly Love is one of our principal tenets, why Charity is at the highest rung of the Entered Apprentice Mason’s ladder, and why the final tool of a Master Mason is an instrument that symbolically spreads love and affection. Even the newest Entered Apprentice should remember that this kind of charity is the very cornerstone of what it means to be a Mason.
Charity, caritas, agape is therefore the most essential reason why Masons not only welcome and recognize men very different from themselves as brothers, but why we obligate ourselves to help, aid, and assist each other in becoming better builders of good character and good society, each in our own unique ways. So, to be a Mason is to do our best to serve love, and to keep going back to love as both our motive and our intention, over and over again.
Masonry can’t simply be about each of us receiving this kind of love. In fact, we cannot get the most from this kind of love if we aren’t also giving it. Yet none of us is equipped to give love in exactly the same way as others, and we shouldn’t be expected to do so. Nature and experience endows each of us with different talents, a somewhat different set of tools with which to work, so we should value each other’s potentials to bring different expressions of love to the world.
I was very fortunate to receive encouragement in developing my own ways of expressing love for our fraternity and my brethren. Of course, it wasn’t always the case that my interests and desires were met with open arms and unreserved support. In fact, over the last 30 years there have been many occasions in which brothers have scoffed at me for following a path in Masonry that is very different from theirs. But because of the brothers I’ve mentioned by name, and many others like them, I have been able to persevere. Without them, I doubt I would have continued to explore the contemplative aspects of Masonry, let alone publish a book and travel the country speaking about it.
So now I’ll talk about how the book came to be. When I came to the lodge back in 1988, I had already done a research project on Masonry for a college philosophy course, and so I knew the fraternity’s ritual and monitorial instructions taught the importance of contemplative practice. By contemplative practice, I mean intentionally using different faculties of the psyche, the heart and mind, to understand Masonry, to go deeper into its meanings, deeper into ourselves, deeper into our relationships with others, and deeper into our relationships with Deity. In fact, when the word speculative was first used to distinguish symbolic Masonry from operative Masonry, it had essentially the same meaning as contemplative. In short, Speculative Masonry is Contemplative Masonry, and vice versa.
For an example of how our tradition explicitly encourages this kind of work, consider this statement from the Texas Monitor:
Every candidate for the Mysteries of Masonry, at the proper time and in the appropriate manner, should be taught the truth that the rite of Initiation means much more than a formal ceremonial progress through the Degrees.
In fact one may receive the entire work, conferred under the most favorable circumstances, and by competent officers, and yet not perceive the true Masonic light, which the symbols and allegories are designed to conceal, as well as reveal.
Initiation is to be attained only after real labor, deep study, profound meditation, extensive research and a constant practice of those virtues which will open a true path to moral, intellectual, and spiritual illumination.
This is just one example of how our tradition repeatedly directs us to practice contemplation. I urge you to see for yourself that there are many more.
So, prompted by statements like those, I joined Masonry eager to find education and support in contemplative practice, but I’m sure it’s no surprise to many of you when I report that isn’t what I found. I did find many great things – beautiful and inspiring ritual, warm fellowship, service to others and to God, men trying to be more virtuous, and some of them doing scholarly research – but no matter where I searched within the fraternity, I didn’t find anyone taking a disciplined and systematic approach to the contemplative side of things recommended by our tradition. That was the kind of labor I most wanted to find in Masonry, because I knew all the great initiatic traditions of philosophy and spirituality regarded contemplation as vital to their aims.
So here is where I go back to another lesson that I learned from my dad, and one that I’ve found in Masonry as well. Both in words and by example, my father taught me that if there’s something you need or want, and nobody is providing it, then you have an opportunity, if not a duty, to make it happen, and to do so not only for yourself but for others, because whatever you need or want is bound to be something that someone else needs or wants too. That lesson spurred me on to learn more about contemplative practice from other sources, and to discover how it could be integrated with ordinary Masonic experience in a focused and intentional way, a way that could open our hearts and minds to more and more Masonic light.
Fortunately, I was already learning about contemplative practice from one of my college professors, Dr. John F. Miller, III, a philosopher who became my mentor and dear friend. I also began studying and practicing under the guidance of another man with an extensive background in the Western mystery traditions that so powerfully inspired the earliest ritualists and lecturers of Speculative Masonry. Furthermore, during that time I completed a graduate degree and licensure in counseling and psychotherapy, which provided me with contemplative practices that are beneficial to mental health and emotional wellbeing.
With all of those resources, and consulting with a few brothers I had found who had similar interests, I worked for more than a decade on experimenting with the application of contemplative practices to Masonic symbolism, rituals, and customs. Then I put together a workbook of contemplative exercises for Masons, and in 2000 I anonymously posted it online, with the title Contemplative Masonry: Basic Applications of Mindfulness, Meditation, and Imagery for the Craft. The three chapters of that workbook, one for each degree of the Blue Lodge, eventually provided most of the material for the last three chapters of the book published by the same name at the end of 2016.
In the new book, I have added two more chapters, the first of which explains the psychology of Masonry, or what our tradition has to teach us about how the human psyche works, and why attending to the psyche’s wellbeing and development is the core concern of Masonic life. The second chapter then draws on the teachings of our ritual and monitorial instructions to clarify five categories of contemplative practice that can benefit Masons, namely speculative thinking, discourse, study, meditation, and mindful virtue. And then, as I said before, the last three chapters deal with each of the Blue Lodge degrees. They provide specific instructions for exercises that can be performed, much like experiments, to see what further light can be received by the practitioner, what further progress can be made into the depths of Masonry.
Now I want to circle back to an earlier point, and that is the understanding that when we truly go back to the foundation stones of the Craft, we rediscover that Masonic charity, the selfless love spoken of as agape by the Apostle Paul, should be understood as the cornerstone of our Craft. That’s the key to our ability to meet on the level and be plumb and square with each other, even when we disagree on things that are deeply important to us.
Our Masonic legend illustrates this sort of relationship in the building of King Solomon’s Temple, when monotheistic Jews and polytheistic Phoenicians, subjects of two different kings, who spoke different languages and kept the customs of two significantly different cultures, nonetheless collaborated in peace and harmony to build a temple that was meant to be a holy place for all nations. In contrast, in the news these days we see story after story of people only clashing with each other as opponents, as irreconcilable enemies. Many different factions urge us to regard virtually everything in terms of one side versus another, of the really smart versus the really stupid, of perfect honesty and honor versus total deception and depravity, of pure truth versus pure falsehood, of absolute good versus absolute evil.
Our country and our world are more and more in need of Masonry’s kind of charity, caritas, agape. Looking for it, we may turn to our leaders in religion, big business, politics, or media, but if it is to be found among them it is in very short supply. On all sides, there are voices stirring up confusion, distrust, fear, anger, and hostility. Often in the name of love, those voices appeal to the very things that Paul said were not love, and they do so not for the common good, but to build their own circles of power, trying to convince us that it’s in our own self-interest. They want us to be their puppets, having knee-jerk reactions rather than being well informed, thoughtful, contemplative, human beings who can seriously disagree with each other yet still get along, who can even value many of our differences and find ways to cooperate for the greater good, just like the workmen did in the building of King Solomon’s temple. They want us to be more preoccupied with correcting and shouting down others than with working on ourselves. In short, there are many powers in this world don’t want us to be everything that Masonry does want us to be.
I’ll say it again, our world needs more of the love that we Masons call charity and Paul called agape. In asserting this I once again hear my dad’s admonition to take responsibility for providing what we know is needed. So, if spreading love is the labor we intend to perform, then as with any worthy task it’s wise for us to employ the very best tools and the very best skills with those tools that we can develop, and that’s one of the most important reasons for us to engage with the symbolism and teachings of Masonry, and with our candidates and brothers, as deeply, as fully, as contemplatively as possible.
Knowledge is attained by degrees, and cannot everywhere be found. Wisdom seeks the secret shade, the lonely cell designed for contemplation. There enthroned she sits, delivering her sacred oracles. There let us seek her, and pursue the real bliss.