Myosotic arvensis– from the Greek, meaning “Mouse’s Ear,” after the shape of its five petals. These little blue flowers are perennials, springing up again year after year. They grow widely in Europe, Asia, America, even as far as New Zealand. In most languages, however, this flower is known by its much more common name; the forget-me-not.
They symbolize true love, enduring memory, and faithfulness. It’s where we get the phrase “True Blue.” At the start of its flowering season, flashes of blue display dazzling proof to the world that though it may have appeared dead through the long cold winter, it was only dormant, and come spring it bursts to life, its color begging the world not to overlook this tiny flower.
There are many legends surrounding the origins of the forget-me-not, and its name. One legend says that when the creator had finished giving out the colors to all the flowers, he heard a tiny whisper, “forget-me-not!” All he had left was a tiny bit of blue, which the little flower was delighted to wear. Other legends say that the flower cried out “Forget-me-not!” to Adam and Eve as they fled the garden of Eden.
Others claim that the Christ child created the flower for his mother Mary, so the world would never forget the color of her beautiful blue eyes. Given that Mary was a middle-eastern jew, that story seems doubtful.
Others say the name comes from its leaves, that they taste so bad, if you eat them you’ll never forget it.
In Germany in particular, the forget-me-not has a strong history. According to German legends, when the Creator was naming all the plants, the flower cried out “Forget-me-not!” and he decreed that that should be its name.
Another German legend tells of a knight, who was walking along the riverbank with his true love. He bent over the bank to pick her some posies, but the weight of his armor caused him to fall into the river. As he was drowning in his heavy armor, he threw the posies to his love on the shore, and shouted “Forget-me-not!” And there the flowers grew.
The Forget-me-not has always been a symbol of remembrance. In Canada, it is worn every July 1st to remember those who died in World War 1. It has also symbolized true love and steadfastness. Its perennial cycle has also been used to symbolize a long awaited return; Henry the fourth used the forget-me-not as his symbol during his exile in 1398, and retained it after his return to the throne. Those symbols of remembrance, dormancy, and rebirth became closely tied to Masonry in Germany during World War II.
Following the First World War, Germany was plunged into a terrible economic crisis. In 1926, at their annual communication, the Grand Lodge of Germany gave its members a forget-me-not pin, to remind the brethren of their charitable obligations. The pin became widely used throughout Germany as a sign to remember the poor and distressed. Thousands of masons wore this pin in the years before world war 2, performing acts of service and charity to their many destitute fellows. This charity was vital during Germany’s depression.
However, that same economic crisis which called those masons to charitable action also propelled Adolf Hitler into power. By 1934, it was clear that Freemasonry was in danger. Hitler decried it as a conspiracy with the Jews to suppress national self-preservation. Goring stated “In National Socialist Germany, there is no place for Freemasonry.”
The German Ministry ordered the disbandment of all lodges, and confiscated all lodge property. They even staged exhibitions to display all the masonic regalia they had seized. Masonic brothers were eventually confined to concentration camps, and forced to wear the inverted red triangle of a political prisoner.
Similar persecutions took place in Italy and other Nazi states, and Freemasonry was officially outlawed in the Nazi empire. The number of Freemasons executed during World War 2 is unknown, but estimates place anywhere between 80,000 and 200,000 killed.
But masonic legend tells that in the midst of the war, the German Grand Lodge of the Sun adopted that little blue forget me not pin, not as an emblem of charity, but as a substitute for the square and compass. The flower was used a sign of recognition for the brethren, reducing their risk of exposure to the Nazis. During the ensuing decade of Nazi power a little blue Forget Me Not flower worn in a Brother’s lapel served as one method whereby brethren could identify each other in public and in cities and concentration camps throughout Europe. The Forget Me Not distinguished the lapels of countless brethren who staunchly refused to allow the symbolic Light of Masonry to be completely extinguished, even under penalty of death.
It was a symbol that masonry, like the flower itself, was not dead, but had merely gone dormant to weather the decade long winter. It was a symbol to its members not to forget each other, or their masonic vows, until spring had come again and the blue of masonry could flourish once more.
In 1948, after the war ended, at the first Annual Convent of the new Grand Lodges of Germany, a few hundred forget-me-not pins were made. They began to hand them out as a Masonic symbol wherever they went. The pins exploded in popularity, and became widely used to remember the sacrifice of masons during the war, and the perseverance of a brace few.
The accuracy of the story of the forget-me-not has been called into question. There is little evidence that it was ever worn as a secret symbol of recognition among German masons during the war. In fact, it seems unlikely, given the strict Nazi laws barring any kind of pin or emblem not sanctioned by the party.Masons did wear the flower as a symbol of charity before the war, and a symbol of remembrance after, but its use in the midst of the war is questionable, and there is no evidence of it being worn in concentration camps. However, this lack of evidence could merely be proof of the effectiveness of the secret symbol, as believers hold that the secret remained unbroken for the duration of the war.
Regardless, today the forget-me-not it is an interchangeable symbol with Freemasonry. Some use the forget-me-not to remember those Masons who were victimized by the Nazi regime. Some use it to remember the legend of those who wore it in secret, refusing to allow the light of masonry to go out, even in the darkest days of the war. In modern Freemasonry it is now commonly worn to remember those that have died as a symbol that while they may be gone, they are not forgotten. Worldwide, tens of thousands of brethren display it with meaningful pride.
The history of the forget-me-not is laden with legend and symbolism. And quibbling over historic accuracy merely clouds the true intent of the story. Legends like these are not told to teach us historical fact; they are meant to teach us enduring truth, or even truths, plural. And the truths of the forget-me-not are these; we must never forget our duty to the poor and distressed. We must never forget to persevere through troubled times, as light and life will always spring anew. We must never forget those who have come before us; the sacrifices they made, and the love that they shared with us. We must never forget our duty to honor their memory, and continue their legacy of brotherly love, relief, and truth. Amor fraternus, levatio, veritas. Forget. Me. Not.
(If you missed it, checkout Part 1: Why I Became a Mason – Part 1
So, as detailed on part one, I was on a quest to discover what it meant to step above the adolescence that plagues my generation and find out what it meant to be a man in the modern world, while somehow connecting to the values of previous generations. Masonry seemed the perfect fit.
A Truly Open House
The first thing that really sold me on Masonry wasn’t the people, who were all nice and courteous as I sat through the informational meeting at the open house; it was the building that made an impression. The moment our tour group entered the Lodge room proper, I was sold. It took my breath away. You could feel the significance of every object in the room, carefully selected and placed, each with its own particular story and history, as well a clear symbol of some lesson of Masonry, as yet unknown to me. Masonic knowledge was all around, and I wanted it.
After a brief overview of Masonry and tantalizing tour of the building, it was time for lunch over a bowl of C.J. Littrell’s famous chili. I saw the real power of Masonry at work. I sat at a table with three men with an age range of 50 years between them, yet I was treated as an equal, without a hint of patronization or condescension.
As a teacher, I’m accustomed to a bit of age-ism. I’ve practically made a career out of being the new guy, the upstart with all the crazy ideas. (Read: young punk.) And as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been terribly good at socializing with an all-male crowd (at least, not outside of the comic shop.) But here I was, with three me n who dwarfed me in age, experience, and knowledge of Masonry, but I felt their instant respect. There was no gap, no divide, no sense of the self-importance you might expect from a tight-knit group of older men, ushering a younger one into a society full of tradition and secret knowledge. For a closed order, they were all remarkably open. From the moment we sat at the table, the conversation flowed like we’d known each other for years. There was no warming-up period; I was instantly a part of “the group.” For a guy who’s spent years trying be in “the group” and never learning the knack, it was incredibly refreshing.
Therein lies one of the powers of Masonry; for a society built on rules and rituals and guarded secrets, it would be the easiest thing in the world for its members to act as the ultimate in-crowd, swollen with their own specialness and position in its ranks. (Like most of the frat buys I knew in college.) Yet all the masons I met were immediately open and approachable, making no distinction between past master and petitioner, octogenarian and eighteen-year old. This is no accident: it is carefully cultivated, one of the core values of our order. We meet on the level.
I was also surprised to see how young a lot of these guys were. The scenes I had imagined of a bunch of old farts huddled around card tables was dead wrong. While we have our share of distinguished gentlemen, there was a healthy crowd of urban professionals, a few young punks like me, and a surprisingly large group of men from other countries. The masons had the diversity that I valued, an open and accepting attitude, and an intense mutual respect built on true brotherly love. I was hooked, and brought home a petition to discuss with my wife: after all, a lifetime commitment is not something to take lightly. But I wanted to belong with these men; more specifically, I wanted to be like these men, and Masonry promised to help me be exactly that.
That Mason-y Stuff
Another big draw of Masonry was its secrecy. Who doesn’t feel the need to discover what others try to conceal? The secrets of Masonry are open to any good man who can fill out a petition, but they are secrets all the same.
For the uninitiated, Masonry is divided into three levels, or degrees; the Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. When you receive your third degree, you are a full member of the he order, with all the rights and privileges of a brother mason.
Each of these degrees is conferred in its own specific ceremony. It’s a little hard to describe without going into specifics (for obvious reasons) but these three ceremonies are designed to instruct you in the moral values of that degree, through a mix of symbols, speeches, and rituals. (After all, these degrees were crafter to teach men who at the time were mostly illiterate laborers.) The degree ceremony itself is a bit like a play, where each brother has a part to play and lines to speak, and you are ushered through ritual as both participant and sole audience.
To a guy who studied theater and Shakespeare in college, this was all terribly cool and mysterious. Each degree has a feeling of potency and power, of an ancient act that has been passed down unchanged for hundreds of years. To understand what it’s like, imagine that you’re going to your first graduation, but you’ve never seen one before. Now also picture that this graduation takes place in the 1700’s. You might think everyone looks a bit odd in his or her robes and hoods and sashes and funny square hats. The language might seem a bit strange confusing, and you might wonder why everyone moves those tassels from one side to the other. Masonic degrees are formal ceremonies, like weddings or communion, laden with symbols and their own specific language. The difference is that by keeping these ceremonies closely-held secrets, they have remained relatively unchanged for the past few centuries, preserving the power and potency of the lessons they teach.
The impact of these three degrees is lasting, and mine were some of the most memorable experiences of my life. There is a great honor in seeing your brothers perform their craft, playing the parts and speaking the words that they have painstakingly studied and practice, solely for your benefit. It is rewarding, enlightening, and humbling.
Hard Won, Hard Earned
In modern society, information is everywhere. The internet makes knowledge easy and cheap, in more ways than one. In Masonry, the idea there was a knowledge that must be earned with hard work and dedication was an appealing one. It creates a mindset that refutes that consumerist instant-gratification society we live in. Masonry and its ideas are not cheap, or easy, and certainly not for sale. You must work to obtain them; and in that journey lies one of the cornerstones of Masonry itself, the idea of industry. That noble works are noble because of the work involved.
Masonic light cannot be bought. It cannot be bartered. It cannot be read about on Wikipedia. Masonry requires the ultimate spoiler warning. I’m sure the unscrupulous fellow could find someone willing to break his oath and share all the secrets of Masonry, but even with a complete knowledge of the symbols and rituals, that person would still remain in metaphorical darkness. For to truly understand the work of the Masons, you must work as a Mason. After all, masons at their core were men of labor.
To fulfill the promise of Masonry and become a better man, a man must be willing to work. And there you have the first lesson in Masonry, delivered here by Theodore Roosevelt:
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
Or, put more simply, “Nothing in this world worth having comes easy.”
Unique in the Herd
I’ve said before that I’m not a “joiner,” and this much is true. I’ve never contented myself to do things simply because that’s the way everyone else does them, an approach which tends to isolate me and ruffle some feathers. Joining the world’s largest and oldest fraternity seemed to be at odds with that sentiment, at first. But the more I looked, the more I saw that masons were unique. Becoming a mason sets you apart, and identifies you to the world as a man who is special and different: A man who operates under a higher code; a man who is dedicated to the precepts of his faith, and those of his brotherhood. It carries the burden of being worthy of that distinction, to ever walk and act in accordance with those principles. Being a mason marks you as a higher sort of man; so you darn well better be one.
There are few feelings in the world quite like going to lodge on Tuesday nights. We joke that we should have a “baggage check” sign halfway down the stairs to the dining room, because every brother you ask will speak of the feeling of relief that comes as you enter the lodge, the almost palpable sense of the worries of the week falling from your shoulders. Entering a room where everyone man respects you and treats you as an equal, even before they meet you, creates a sense of a second home. It is a place where you truly belong, where you are all bound together by brotherly love and affection.
Masonry is not a network; it is a community. Networks are anonymous. In a community, you are known and noticed; your actions carry weight and consequence, and your contributions are valued. If you leave a network, your absence will not be noted. If you stop attending lodge, there will be brothers contacting you, asking where you’ve been, if everything is alright, if there’s anything they can do to help. People update their status in a network, casting out a thought or a word to see if anyone picks it up in the torrent of information. A community is personal; when a brother asks “How are you doing?” it isn’t empty small talk, but genuine concern and affection. So if you’re missing that old-fashioned feeling of community, and wondering why everyone seems so isolated these days, maybe it’s time to stop networking and go to lodge.
Non-masons- Masonry is a unique and special organization. You will not be lost in a herd, and it is not another line item to add to your resume. It is an honor and a distinction, and you will be expected to act with honor and distinction, and degree work will teach you how. Degree work is one of the most unique and extraordinary experiences you will have in your life. It will require effort and dedication, which is an essential part of the process of making good men better. A better man is willing to dedicate himself to his work. And along the way, you will be aided and supported by men who have all been through the same experience, who are open and accepting, all willing to lend a helping hand. You will find yourself amongst a diverse and unparalleled group of equals, all acting on a foundation of brotherly love and mutual respect.
Masons-Always remember the honor that you carry as a mason. Remember to act as such. The square and compass denote a man who is a step above, who is literally enlightened. It is not a badge to wear with pride, or with sense of self-importance. It is a call to action, a reminder to strive to be worthy of the ideals that it represents. Remember to treat your brothers with respect, overlooking their flaws and always giving the benefit of the doubt. We may work with stone, but we are all men of clay. We fracture and break. We must do our best to fill the cracks that appear between us with the mortar of brotherly love. We must remember to maintain our equality, and our openness, with new brothers as well as old, and never allow personal slights or grudges to divide us. As a mason, we work with our hands, and must always be willing to extend it across the gap, even to those who seem unwilling to accept it.
It Was All My Wife’s Idea
No, really. I’m sitting on the couch one day after work, blissfully immersed in my Netflix queue, when my wife leans over and says, “Honey, I want to show you something. But don’t laugh, I want you to think about it…” Then she hands me her phone, open to a Facebook post.
“Freemasonry?” I reply, with a hint of incredulity. Images of National Treasure, Dan Brown novels, and the Simpsons flicker through my mind, but I know my wife well enough to know that she’s probably been thinking about this privately for days, carefully considering it before bringing it up, so I check my initial reaction.
“Yeah. I think it might be good for you, and I think it might be what you’ve been looking for.” I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for anything, but as usual, her insight would prove to be spot-on.
A friend of hers from grad school had posted a link to the Millersville Open House on Facebook. He was a cool young guy, with some amazing tattoos, and it was clear we had a lot in common from Doctor Who to a passion for learning. She told me how she had a lot of respect for him, and he seemed like a really good man, and that was what masonry seemed to be about: Taking good men and making them better.
Not a Joiner
I’ve always been a bit of an outcast, lone wolf, maverick type of guy. (Read: nerd.) I can be socially awkward, and it can be difficult to maintain a circle of friends, especially since moving away from the few I had left from college. I also prided myself on my individuality, on being “different,” not a “joiner.”
So I had honestly never given Masonry a single moment of thought, any more than I’d considered the Knights of Columbus, the Rotary Club, or any of the other clubs on the “Welcome to Plainfield” sign. The only clubs I ever joined were Latin Club, Ballroom Dance, and of course, my old D&D group. When I heard the term “Fraternity”, I thought of all the alpha males who wanted to shove me in my locker in high school. Not a strong seller.
But right away, I could see masonry was different. First, not everyone could join. These guys had standards. Moral standards. Secondly, while requiring a spiritual foundation, they were open to all different faiths. That caught my attention. As devout Presbyterian, I had no problem with Christian organizations, but that sort of rigid institutionalized tolerance bespoke a different breed of men, with open minds and serious intellect.
As a history nerd who dabbled in Shakespeare, the ritual aspect really caught my eye as well. It was refreshing to think that in our world where information is free and easy and ever at your fingertips, there was knowledge out there that must be earned, wisdom that could only be obtained through hard work. And yes, the secrecy was incredibly captivating.
The more I looked, the more I liked. Masonry seemed like it might fill a hole I had not even realized I had. As a fifth grade teacher, I spend most of my day surrounded by women and children. As a card-carrying nerd with no interest in sports, I frequently feel uncomfortable socializing in large groups of men, and always had better friendships with women. But the idea of this sort of manly comradery really spoke to me on a deeper level, and I hadn’t realized how much I had missed those kind of relationships.
Our first child was only a few months old, and none of my friends had children yet. Having a place where I could be around other men, talk with them, learn from them, receive mentorship and guidance; my wife was right. It was what I’d been looking for.
As a devout reader of www.theartofmanliness.com, I’d become fascinated with the idea of old-fashioned, classic manhood. I’d started shaving with a brush and a double edged razor, and had been reading up on Teddy Roosevelt. It seemed a refreshing change from the extended adolescence and “dude-bro” nature the rest of my generation seemed afflicted with. I was 27, with a wife, a baby, and a promising career; I was sick of guys. I needed to be a man. So, the world’s oldest fraternity, dedicated to true manhood? Alright, sign me up.
Non-masons out there, especially ones of the millennial generation, you might feel like you don’t fit into the mold of the free-wheeling, no-responsibility manchild you see in every Judd Apatow movie and sit-com. You might be ready to take something seriously, to shoulder some responsibility, to work and earn something valuable. You might find yourself looking at past generations, wanting to incorporate the values and resilience of your grandfather’s era, but struggle to combine it with the sensitivity and open-mindedness of the modern age. Like me, you might be wondering how to be a man in the new millennium, but aren’t quite sure what that means, and without role models to show the way, you may feel like you’re stumbling to blaze your own trail. But you don’t have to; masonry is there to light that path.
Masonic brothers, remember the example you provide at all times. My journey through the degrees of masonry began with a man I’ve never even met in person; but there was something different about him that made my wife take notice, something that earned her respect, so much so that I wanted other people to speak about me the way she was describing him. We must bedifferent. We never know where our light might take hold, so we must shine our brightest in all aspects of our lives, to walk uprightly on all our paths, for the benefit of all mankind.
Read PART TWO