Learning and Memorizing Ritual

Discussion in 'Masonic Education' started by My Freemasonry, Mar 7, 2017.

  1. article-memorizing-a-poem.jpg

    By: Wor. Mark Waks

    Ritualist's Corner

    One of the problems that most often plagues Masonry is poor ritual. By this, I don't just mean getting the words wrong -- I mean ritual that is drab and uninspiring, which fails to actually *teach* a candidate. Ritual is often mediocre, and it doesn't have to be; anyone can do ritual well, provided he knows a little about acting.

    It isn't hard, actually; it's mostly a matter of knowing how to do it, plus a lot of practice. This article is intended to impart some guidelines on how to do Good Ritual. It doesn't demand a lot of time, or any particular talent, just a little drive to do well. Read it and play with it. With some practice, you should be able to use these techniques to good effect in your Lodge. The course is specifically aimed at dealing with the longer speeches, but much of it is also relevant to shorter pieces; I commend it to junior officers.

    This is adapted from a lecture that I worked up for my own lodge; having done that, I figured I should try to spread these tips around for the common weal of the Craft. (Caveat: I do assume that you have some kind of cypher book, with encoded ritual. If your jurisdiction doesn't use this, you'll have to adapt these lessons.)

    1: Figure out the Words

    The first step of learning any ritual is to know what you're saying! This should be obvious, but is often overlooked, because brethren are afraid to admit that they don't already know the right words. Don't be afraid to admit your own limits -- I've never met *anyone* who gets every single word right every time.

    Start out by listening to someone say the speech, preferably several times. (You should be doing this the entire previous year, listening to your predecessor.) Listen carefully, and make sure you understand what's being said; ask questions if you don't. (After Lodge, of course.)

    Next, go through your cypher or code book carefully, and see how much you can read. Mark words that you can't figure out, or that you're unsure of -- this is the point to catch any mistakes you may be making. Then call or get together with a Ritualist or a reliable Past Master, and talk through it, reading out of the book slowly. Have him correct any mistakes, and fill in the words you don't know. Take notes (preferably somewhere other than in the book), because you will forget the corrections as soon as you're on your own.

    2: Understand the Speech

    This step gets overlooked even more often than the previous one. Read through the ritual a couple of times, and make sure you really grasp it. Don't just know the words -- know what it's talking about. Find out who the characters being talked about are. Again, ask questions.

    Now, start trying to understand the speech structurally. Any ritual is made up of components, separate pieces that are linked together. For example, a section may be talking about symbols, with three paragraphs per symbol: concrete meaning, abstract meaning, and purpose. Figure out what these pieces are -- you'll use them later.

    The next step is especially useful for long speeches -- visualize the speech. Any speech can be thought of in terms of movements, places, rooms, stuff like that. Words are hard to remember in order; places are easy. The canonical example is the Middle Chamber Lecture, which walks through King Solomon's Temple. That's no accident -- that path is easily visualized, and makes a good example of how to learn ritual, which is probably why it is the first major speech an officer learns. This is why we use symbols in the first place: because they are easy to learn and internalize. Use them.

    3a: Small-Scale Memorization

    This is never anyone's favorite part; anyone can do it, but no-one finds it simple. It's considerably easier if you do it right, though.

    Start out by reading the speech over and over. Don't move on to the next step until you can read it from the cypher quickly, without breaks or hesitation. Read it *out loud*, when you get the chance. This step is particularly important, and skipped more often than any other. Don't skip it -- this is how you get your brain and mouth trained to the words. It may sound silly, but it really matters -- the mental pathways used to talk are distinct from those used to read.

    Now, start trying to learn sentences. Just sentences. Read the first word or two of the sentence, then try to fill in the remainder from memory. Don't fret if you can't do it immediately; it will probably take at least 5 or 10 times through before you're getting most of the sentences. You'll find some that are hard -- hammer those ones over and over (but don't totally neglect the rest while you do so). Again, get to the point where you're doing reasonably well on this, before going on to the next step.

    3b: Large-Scale Memorization

    Once you've got most of the sentences, try to move on to paragraphs. Again, some will be easy and some hard. Try to understand exactly why this sentence follows that one -- in most cases, the ritual does make sense. An individual paragraph is almost always trying to express a single coherent thought, in pieces; figure out what that thought is, and why all the pieces are necessary. Keep at this until you're able to get most paragraphs by glancing at the first word or two, or by thinking, "Okay, this is the description of truth," or something like that.

    Finally, start putting it all together. This is where the structural analysis in Step 2 gets important. You visualized the speech, and figured out how it hooks together; use that visualization to connect the paragraphs. Make sure you have some clue why each paragraph follows the one before. In almost every case, the next paragraph is either a) continuing this thought, or b) moving on to a related thought. In both cases, you can make memorization much easier by understanding why it flows like that. Convince yourself that this paragraph obviously has to follow that one, and you'll never forget the order.

    4: Smoothing It Out

    You're now at the point where you've got pretty much all the sentences down, and most of the paragraphs, and you're able to get through the whole thing only looking at the book a few times. Now, start *saying* it.

    When you're driving in the car; when you're alone at home; pretty much any time you have some privacy, try saying it all out loud, at full voice. Trust me, it sounds very different when you actually say it aloud. You'll find that you stumble more, and in different places. Some words turn out to be more difficult to pronounce than you expected. Try it a few times.

    Start out by trying to do this frequently -- once, even twice every day. It'll be hard at first (and it's a real pain to pull out the cypher book while you're driving), but it'll gradually get easier. When you're starting to feel comfortable, slow down, but don't stop. Practice it every couple of days, then every week. Don't slow down below once a week. If you feel up to it, see if you can speed up your recitation. (But do not ever speed-talk the ritual in open Lodge -- that's for memorization and rehearsal only.)

    5a: Mindset

    Last part. You're now at the point where you pretty much have the ritual memorized. Now, the trick is learning how to perform it well. Very nearly everyone has some amount of stage fright; us acting types often have it even worse than most. The trick to overcoming it is control of the nerves.

    Now that you're comfortable reciting the ritual, observe how you do it. By now, you're not thinking about it so much; your mouth is doing almost all the work, with the conscious mind simply making a few connections between paragraphs. That is the right state to be in. Think about how that feels, and learn it.

    Before you go in to "perform", do some basic acting exercises. Take a few deep breaths; concentrate on not thinking. I think the ideal is a little light meditation, but it takes a fair bit of practice to be able to drop into that state on demand; for now, just worry about being calm. Being calm is far more important than anything else. If you're calm, you're unlikely to screw up too badly; if you're tense, you're far more likely to. Some people like to exercise the body a bit, to relax the mind; you should do what works for you.

    5b: Acting

    Now the final nuance, which separates merely competent ritual from the really good stuff. Now that you're able to let your mouth do all the talking, start listening to yourself. Think about the ritual again, but don't think about the words, think about what it means. What are the important bits? Emphasize those. How could you use your body or hands to illustrate a point? Try talking *to* the person in front of you, not just *at* them -- look them in the eye and make them get the point. You are teaching important lessons here; try to capture a little of the emotional intensity of that importance.

    Think of your "performance" as a melding of two parts. Your mouth is providing the words, your mind and heart the emotion. Again, nothing beats practice. This is what rehearsal should really be for -- taking a dummy candidate in hand, and learning how to really get the point across. Don't fret if you find that you need to change "modes" now and then -- here and there you will need to think about the words briefly, when you change paragraphs or hit a hard sentence. That won't throw you, though, so long as you keep track of what you're saying; you've already figured out why each part leads into the next, and that will guide you when you stumble.


    Don't expect to get all this down instantly; it takes most people a few years to really get good at it. Just try to advance yourself bit by bit. Learn the transitions and pieces first -- if you have that, you can get through the ritual. Next time, work on memorizing more thoroughly. The time after that, work on getting it really smooth. After a while, you can build up to the point where you have the luxury to act. And at that point, you will find that you start doing the kind of ritual that Masonry is meant to have -- both moving and interesting, enough so that the candidate (who is, remember, the whole point) actually *learns* what you're saying, and what it actually means. And if you really do it well, you'll find that you come to understand the meaning of the ritual a good deal better yourself...

    Wor. Mark Waks
    Master, Hammatt Ocean Lodge - Saugus, MA
    Mostly known on the Net as Justin du Coeur
  2. Keith C

    Keith C Registered User

    Great advice. I have just begun to learn the charges as my first step in memorizing the ritual. This process will help immensely!
  3. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    Great article and advice. I was 58 years old when I joined and thought that I would have a really hard time doing the memorization work. Luckily and happily this was not the case.
    R. Kalise Wiggins and Bill Lins like this.
  4. sean602

    sean602 Registered User

    Great advice, thank you Brother.

    Sent from my iPhone using My Freemasonry
  5. BullDozer Harrell

    BullDozer Harrell Registered User

    Spot on! I tend to think that maybe Ritual is boring and becomes hard to memorize because of the 'parrot approach' many Brothers take to learning it.

    Personally that's never worked for me in my 46 yrs on this planet and going through primary, secondary and post-secondary schools.

    It's like trying to remember the Gettysburg Address verbatim simply because the teacher graded me on how well I could parrot President Linclon. Needless to say, i've always failed. That's not my style of learning.

    I guess i've learned Masonic ritual by thinking of it as a scripted set of lines from one actor to another. Especially the Opening & Closing parts of the ritual.

    Essentially the identities, stations and lodge duties of the officers are stated. An omission of a word or phrase here & there shouldn't be a big deal.

    But obviously opinions do vary and that's when an inordinate amount of stress is placed on 'parroting' the Rituals word for every word. That sucks.
    Pepe Marques likes this.
  6. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    Same here. Luckily my mentor taught me the meaning of the obligation as I learned it.
    Bill Lins likes this.
  7. jermy Bell

    jermy Bell Registered User

    I know several brothers that can bring the 2nd section of the 3rd come to life in ways that's hard to explain. There's one brother that can draw you in and make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, another brother that can scare the hell out of you thinking he's really gonna do what he says. I always try to attend when I know they attend lodge. I only wish I can be as good as their are when it's my turn to perform.
  8. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    I know a man just like this. Each year he does the officer installation for my mother lodge.
  9. imxbx

    imxbx Attach the Stone of Triumph Premium Member

    I recently purchased Learning Masonic Ritual by Rick Smith as I'm receiving my EA Degree early next week. Haven't actually started it but hopefully it helps although memorization has always been somewhat of a strong suit for me.

    Sent from my iPhone using My Freemasonry
    Warrior1256 likes this.
  10. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    Congratulations and the best of luck.
  11. Brother JC

    Brother JC Vigilant Staff Member

    Save it till after your Third, and congratulations on having your petition accepted.
  12. LK600

    LK600 Premium Member

    Thanks for posting this... I have a feeling it's going to come in handy fairly soon.
  13. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    I am currently memorizing the parts of Captain of the Host for the Chapter and Captain of the Guard for the Council. Talk about overload, lol.
    thomasmanno likes this.
  14. euchertank

    euchertank Registered User

    I have always been horrible at memorization, and now since we where off for the summer. I am scared to go back cause I feel I have already forgot it. Back to trying to refresh. Congrats on being accepted and Good luck, and here's to more light.

    Sent from my SM-N920V using My Freemasonry mobile app
  15. Glen Cook

    Glen Cook G A Cook Site Benefactor

    I agree with the article.
    I would reinforce saying the ritual out loud.
    I don’t move to the next section until I can repeat it three times.
    I also try to practice in the room and when not there, visualise the scene.

    For most of us, it isn’t easy. Don’t give up. It takes hours. The drive to my Chapter on Wednesday was about eight hours. I practiced and practiced. And practiced.
    dfreybur likes this.
  16. dfreybur

    dfreybur Premium Member

    Have you heard that Masonry makes good men better, but have wondered how we do it? This is one of those ways.

    People can memorize, including the ones who think they are bad at it. It's a self imposed limitation. Our proficiencies blow away that self imposed limitation.

    One day you'll face an opportunity. You'll think you are horrible at what it takes for that opportunity. You'll remember back to your proficiencies. And go for it.

    None of us here will say it's easy. But you definitely can do it. Even if you think you can't.
  17. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    Agreed! I was 58 years old when I joined and was scared to death of the memorization aspect. Guess what? I discovered that I am good at it. I now hold 6 offices and do a lot of memorization work and love it!
    Bill Lins likes this.
  18. Dow Mathis

    Dow Mathis Premium Member

    Great article!

    One thing that has helped me to learn the work better is teaching the work, or even discussing it with other masons. An example: Recently I had the honor of attending a lodge in Colorado. After the lodge closed, I was visiting with a few of the officers, and one of their PM's asked how the work differed. Without even realizing what I was doing, I went through the JW, SW, and WM parts of the opening, pointing out the differences between the work in Texas and what I saw in Colorado (for the record, the CO working is much more involved). Anyway, I surprised myself with how well I knew the work. Even though we go through this every time we open a lodge, it's really refreshing to realize that you have a good, solid, full command of it, especially out of context, as it were.

    As an aside, If you ever have the chance to travel and visit lodges in different jurisdictions, then do it. It's a great experience!
    Bloke and Bill Lins like this.
  19. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    I've had similar experiences. When discussing something with Brothers I sometimes surprise myself by having more knowledge than I thought, lol.
    Bill Lins and Dow Mathis like this.

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