One of the most common laments among freemasons suggests that we should be doing a better job of guarding the West Gate, the implication being that we are admitting a steady stream of unworthy men into our fraternity. You can wager with absolute certainty that any discussion of whatever is deemed to ail freemasonry at any particular moment will eventually result in someone insisting that the root of the problem lies in our failure to guard the West Gate. This is immediately followed by a chorus of nodding heads and various exclamations of assent. Honesty compels me, and likely you as well, to confess to pointing a finger at the West Gate to explain away our troubles on more than a few occasions. Let’s examine this old bromide to determine if there is actually any truth in it.
Freemasonry demands that its initiates be of good repute before the world with a strong moral fiber. There are other organizations and fields of endeavor with similar demands. How does freemasonry match up against them? I would say that we are doing much better than the public service and political arena and at least as well as doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, and the clergy. Do some men of weak character and low morals slip through the cracks and become freemasons? It happens, but rarely, and they are more often than not found out and expelled. We are a fraternity of mortal men who are as subject to human nature as anyone else. Good men sometimes make bad decisions and when they are freemasons, the cost of their poor judgment is usually their membership cards. The preponderance of the evidence indicates that we are pretty good judges of character.
So who are these allegedly unworthy men that are sneaking through the West Gate? It depends upon who you are asking. Ask one brother and he will tell you that they are bologna sandwich-eating Neanderthals who dress poorly for lodge, cover their lapels with pins, don’t read, cannot comprehend the true lessons of freemasonry, hold fish fries in their lodges, and think the entirety of freemasonry is contained within the ritual. Ask another and he will just as boldly aver that they are snooty, wine-sipping rich guys in tuxedos who read boring books, attend highbrow lectures, eat expensive food, could find Masonic symbolism in a chainsaw, and can’t go more than a minute without expounding upon the wonders of the kaballah and alchemy. One faction bemoans anti-intellectualism and the other screams elitism and the true spirit of brotherhood that we are obligated to extend to every freemason gets lost amid the bickering.
I see this debate, which often devolves into serious arguments, played out on social media, in Masonic discussion forums, and in parking lots after lodge. There is a somewhat humorous element attached to this. If you ask any individual brother, he will swear to Heaven above that he is upholding the tenets, traditions, and requirements of freemasonry and that it’s the other guys who are letting the undesirables pass through the West Gate. It occurs to me that the common ground we should be searching for is easily discovered if each of us thinks back to the time when we first knocked on freemasonry’s door.
Before we were initiated, we were all asked in one form or another if we sought the privileges of freemasonry based on, among other things, a desire for knowledge. The path that leads to knowledge is laid out in the Fellowcraft degree where we learn about the power of the human mind, which, with the aid of our five senses, enables us to seek and store knowledge. We are given a mini-course in architecture because speculative masonry, the building of a spiritual temple, corresponds so closely to operative masonry and the construction of temporal buildings. We are introduced to the liberal arts and sciences because all of the knowledge we attain falls within the realm of one of those arts or sciences. From that point on, freemasonry becomes a very personal journey and we are each entitled to pursue knowledge and further light by following a path that we choose for ourselves.
James R. Dillman, FMS
President, The Masonic Society