When I was in the Army, I attended training to learn to be a Cryptanalyst; one who decrypts encrypted information. I saw a picture of William and Elizabeth Friedman and their team that broke the Japanese code “Purple” during World War II. On the wall behind them was a sign that simply said “Think.” This always struck me; whatever we are engaged in, we should think. I can’t say that I have always lived up to this, but I try and it has helped me in my vocations and avocations. Sometimes my thinking got me in trouble, I used to think of ways to blow my boss’s plan out of the water, I always told him that it was to help him build a better plan; but sometimes it was just to be a jerk.
I like to bring this level of thinking into my Freemasonry as well. I try to think about why we do certain things; this has led to moments I like to call, “Oh wow.” When something finally makes sense, you finally ‘get it.’ We are told that Freemasonry is “a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” We can never fully understand the lessons embodied in these symbols and allegories, if we do not think about their meaning. The most fascinating and well-balanced Masons I know all have one thing in common: they think about Freemasonry. They do not just hear the words of the Ritual and wonder how long the meeting will last. They ponder the meaning of the words that are spoken. They use Active Thinking to make their Masonic experience more meaningful.
Our thinking is either Active or Passive. Passive thinking goes on without much effort; in Freemasonry, the ‘familiar’ does not require thought…we know the ritual. Our memories aid us in letting these lessons pass by us without giving them much thought. We go through our meetings in a fog, perking up only when someone gets the words wrong, and then we pay attention. We wait, almost eagerly for the business portion of the meeting, even though that is not why we are there and we complain about it taking too long. We can learn by Passively listening to a lecture, the repetition can help us to ‘remember’ maybe even ‘understand’ but it will not help us with higher level skills, applying what we have heard or learned. We can even look at learning our catechism for Proficiency as Passive Thinking; while we had to memorize the words spoken, we did not necessarily actively think about the meaning of these words. We accept whatever we hear, our goal is to memorize answers. What do we have to know to pass proficiency? Catechism = brain dump.
Active Thinking involves questions. What does the Ritual mean? What is the goal of the lessons inculcated in the three degrees? How does this information guide me in transforming myself into a better man? How might I use this information in the future? Active thinking is a form of critical thinking. It is analyzing information that is being projected to the individual by external stimuli. This is much deeper than passive thought. Rather than letting something pass by unexamined, sent to the subconscious, Active Thinking permits us to analyze the thought or situation. The result is that we truly understand ourselves and our ritual.
I challenge you to listen critically to the Ritual; think about the things said. Ask why, ask what, and think about what things mean. What lessons should we learn from the Three Great Lights? What is the meaning of our Working Tools, why do we do the things we do? Once you have learned to do this and subsequently learned the lessons of our Craft, you can continue to build the structure you began when you stood in the Northeast Corner of the Lodge as the youngest Entered Apprentice Mason. When you have taken the time to ponder the Ritual and the meaning of all we do, you can sometimes rest from your labors. Sit back and let the words of the Ritual wash over you without thinking about their meaning, you don’t need to think, you will know.