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Discretion and Secrets

Richard D. Marcus, George Washington 1776 Lodge, #337, F&AM, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

We live in a time that celebrates openness about one’s deepest feelings and worst foibles. The media enthusiastically report infidelities of community leaders. Newscasters tell us the lurid details of the lives of Gary Condit or Robert Blake. Our society's habit of public confession can even become brutal. On TV, Jerry Springer encourages people to tell all and thereby jolt their friends and family into outrageous action. Bluntly stating what you know regardless of the damage done is oddly praised as candor and forthrightness. It is almost a part of the American character to "say what you mean and mean what you say," without artful diplomacy or courtesy.

Yet we, in Freemasonry, continue to practice the art of keeping secrets. We learn in our posting that we can tell everything about Freemasonry except the modes of recognition. The question we will investigate tonight is why do we continue to keep some things secret?

Some have suggested that secrecy was needed because political and religious persecution has at times led to the death of Freemasons. Even so, the deliberately public announcement of the founding of the Grand Lodge in London in 1717 would seem to have ended the need for further secrecy. Nevertheless, we persevere in our attachment to secrecy.

Others have scoffed that secrecy is merely a sociological tool for holding a group together through a shared knowledge. Certainly specialized knowledge helps keep groups together: be it people who love to sing madrigals, those who reenact Civil War battles, or professional groups of engineers or architects. But secrecy is not essential to these groups.

The answer to why we continue to practice secrecy, it seems to me, is to achieve our goal of becoming better men in Masonry. Maintaining secrecy is a lifelong discipline. Practicing the discipline of secrecy makes us better at doing it.

We are likewise commended to keep of the secrets of a Brother, rather than gossip what we know to others. Lax discipline in secrecy within a Lodge is a source of disharmony. Perhaps a Masonic allegory can help illustrate the benefits of secrecy to our fraternity and our lives.

* * *

Adam Craftsman worked for several years in sales. His trips took him on long journeys to the North. Adam often returned dejected from these trips with more rejections than he'd want to tell anyone.

Pondering his life's path, he mentioned his dissatisfaction to his good friend Buddy Freeman. Buddy, a Master bricklayer, enjoyed his work out East.

"There is plenty of work for you as a bricklayer," Buddy said. Adam asked to join the other laborers. Adam worked hard, advancing to Journeyman and Master status under Buddy's expert guidance.

After a hard day's work, Buddy became more serious than usual. "I want you to keep this in strictest confidence," Buddy whispered. "It's been something I have wanted to share with you for some time. My son, Lewis, was actually adopted. My wife's family wants it kept a secret. Eleven years ago, my wife's teenage sister was pregnant. Since my wife and I were married, the whole family agreed that the baby would become ours to raise. But we are to keep it a secret."

Adam felt privileged to share in Buddy's personal secret. Adam congratulated his friend on his fine parenting skills, as he knew how well Lewis was doing.

A few days later, Adam shared his knowledge to another bricklayer, who later confided in another. The story slowly spread, each time in strictest confidence, eventually finding its way to Buddy's distraught sister-in-law and to Lewis.

Buddy's family moved away. Adam's best friend was thereby lost through his violation of trust.

* * *

Adam's violation of his obligation reminds us of the enduring value of keeping secrets. We should reflect on our promise not to reveal the secrets of our worthy brothers, except in the case of treason or murder.

Keeping some parts of our craft secret is surprisingly difficult. In our public gatherings, for example, we may slip by giving the due-guard and sign when we know that we should not. Secrecy maintains harmony. When we can keep one simple secret, we grow in strength to keep larger secrets revealed inadvertently at work or in our community.

The modern German tradition in Freemasonry tends not to refer to the Fraternity as being secret (Geheimnis) but as being discreet (Diskret). Discretion conveys a sense of being tactful or silent, rather than a sense of hiding things from others. How can we feel free to communicate frankly and to grow in our development if everything we might say would be aired in public? Our emphasis on secrecy should be relabeled as practicing discretion.

Since practice helps to perfect our actions, let us all live up to our promises in our obligation. We should continue to practice secrecy and discretion, not only in the modes of recognition but also in the secrets of everyday life that are daily entrusted to us. We need not say everything we know. As we remain faithful in keeping secrets and showing discretion, we will achieve our goal of becoming better men in Freemasonry.

Presented: June 18, 2002