Friday, January 16, 2009

Masonic rituals live on

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His Masonic gavel is on display at the Capitol Visitor Center. Until this inauguration, Washington's Masonic Bible - on which he swore his obligations as a Freemason - was used for the presidential oath of office. President-elect Barack Obama will use Abraham Lincoln's Bible.

The worshipful master administered the Masonic oaths. This was adapted to the president vowing to serve his country in an oath administered by the top justice of the Supreme Court.

I learned all this from Garrison Courtney, a 30-something government worker who gives Masonic tours of the District in his spare time. He is worshipful master at the Cincinnatus Lodge in Georgetown. Contrary to public perceptions of Masons being older white guys, current local membership is a racially and religiously mixed group of Gen-X men, he says.

They have, he adds, gotten a bad rap as a secretive organization.

"If people have questions, we will tell them," he says. "We're pretty open as an organization."

Calling themselves a "spiritual organization," Masons need only believe in a Supreme Being. Masons have grown nationally in recent years, he said, with 38 lodges in the District alone.

The late President Gerald R. Ford was the last presidential Mason.

"We actually had a Masonic procession to his casket while he was lying in state at the Capitol," Mr. Courtney said.

The inaugural parade, he tells me, began as a Masonic procession [a parade of Masonic notables] from the still-unfinished White House to Capitol Hill, where Washington traveled on Sept. 18, 1793, to lay the cornerstone for the Capitol. Lafayette Park was the site of a makeshift Masonic lodge, in which the Scottish stonemasons - then working on the executive mansion - lived.

Washington also ensured the boundaries of the District - each 10 miles along - formed a perfect square, which symbolizes ultimate virtue in Masonry.

"The whole idea behind the building of Washington was to convey the message about the new experiment, a new way of thinking the Founding Fathers had in mind," said Akram Elias, past grandmaster of all the District's lodges.

Whole books have been written about the Masonic imagery on buildings around the District. Many of their cornerstones were laid with Masonic ceremonies involving oil, wine and corn.

"All five statues in front of the White House are Freemasons," Mr. Courtney said. "Every single one of the statues on Virginia Avenue are as well. Masonry is ingrained in the city and in the American culture."

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