Learning & Memorizing Ritual

Discussion in 'General Freemasonry Discussion' started by Blake Bowden, Sep 7, 2009.

  1. Blake Bowden

    Blake Bowden Administrator Staff Member

    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. Hippie19950

    Hippie19950 Premium Member

    Thanks Bro. Blake, this is very good information, especially for someone like me. I am still new, even though I've been a Mason for over a year now. Much of this is like my Instructor taught me, and the way I try to learn new things. I don't know that I will ever get the lectures down, but when I get to that point, I'll give it my ery best. I found myself asking a few questions about things in the work as I studied, but my Instructor was very good about explaining most of it before I asked. Makes a lot of difference. Some find him to be too picky about things, especially pronunciation, but I tend to be a little picky myself on other things, so it all worked for me. Bro. Joe just wants all of us to have it as perfect as WE can get it, and working with him, I know getting it right just takes a little extra time to learn it and do it right... Again, Thanks.
  3. drapetomaniac

    drapetomaniac Premium Member Premium Member

    I think knowing what you're saying is often overlooked. It made it so much easier to understand what I was memorizing and what I doing when there was context other than uttering words.

    I often thought a good lodge program would be to have dinner-talk with people in their various new degrees to drop memorization for the night and simply talk through and discuss what is being memorized.

    I think it's good for what is being memorized ot become more applied to the individual.
  4. Payne

    Payne Registered User

    Bumps this back to the top... I just found this and think it's a great topic
  5. tom268

    tom268 Registered User

    Just to add my few Cents from over the pond. In most continental european traditions, the ritual is not memorized but read from the book. That has several advantages and disadvantages.

    A bad reader can spoil the ritual just like a bad learner, but the amount of prompting (espeacially loud and wrong prompting) is minimized. Of course many WMs "speak into the book" and do not look at the candidate as it would be necessary.

    As I said, advantages and disadvantages.
  6. drapetomaniac

    drapetomaniac Premium Member Premium Member

    I meant to post this when I first saw this thread - this is an excerpt fro a book about a rather large literary and religious corpus from the ancient traditions of Nigeria. How ancient oral traditions persist.

    from - Ifá: An Expositionof Ifá Literary Corupus, by Wande Abimbola

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the annual Molé festival and the other congregational assemblies of Ifa priests is the chanting of Ifá texts which is referred to as ìyèrè. The chanting of ìyèrè is a well-developed art among Ifa priests and it is usually done in choral form, led by someone who is a good chanter.

    To every complete sentence chanted correctly by the leader of the chant, the other Ifá priests chant han-in, meaning ‘Yes, that is right.' However, if the leader has chanted a sentence wrongly, the other priests inform him of this and tell him to correct his mistake. If he makes another mistake, he might be shouted down and another priest who is sure of himself immediately takes over from him.

    Where a priest makes serious mistakes while chanting and refuses to stop chanting in defiance of the expressed wishes of the congregation, he might even be thrown out of the meeting in shame.

    By this rigid insistence on the correct recital of Ifá texts, Ifá priests, have made it almost impossible for spurious passages to appear in the Ifá literary corpus.
  7. Bill Lins

    Bill Lins Moderating Staff Staff Member

    Having an instructor like yours was one of the best things that ever happened to me- Bro. Jim INSISTED on getting it right. It's SO much easier to learn it correctly the first time than to have to go back & correct what you learned incorrectly!
  8. Bill Lins

    Bill Lins Moderating Staff Staff Member

    Excellent post, Bro. Blake! The only thing I would add would be to SLOW DOWN! Most Brethren, especially when giving the Lectures, tend to blast through them- some, to the point that I can't understand what they are saying, & I know the words! What chance would the candidate, who has never heard those words before, have of understanding what was being imparted to him?

    I know it is hard to make yourself slow down- I had to really work at it myself, but it's worth the effort. The ritual comes off much better when your audience can understand what it is you're saying.
  9. RedTemplar

    RedTemplar Johnny Joe Combs Premium Member

    One thing I try to stress to Brothers learning the ritual is to be themselves. Don't worry about being as good as someone who has been performing for 20 years or more. The first piece of degree work I ever did was the apron lecture. Why? Because I liked it and I made it my own. My mentor taught me to emphasize the parts that meant the most to me. Over time, this method has served me very well because it has given me the confidence that I know what I am doing. The apron lecture led to conferring the EA degree as the Staircase Lecture led to conferring the entire FC degree..... And when you know what you are doing, you will enjoy it and others will as well.
  10. rhitland

    rhitland Founding Member Premium Member

    I concur Brother Bill when I first gave the lecture I gave them auctioneer style, I still catch myself from time to time speeding up but delivery is probably 75% of what you are doing up there. It was and is tough to slow down but I see this work put into properly memorizing something bleeding into my everyday life and speech.
  11. JEbeling

    JEbeling Guest

    The problem with Texas Masonary ritual is that the questions and answers are too long.. ! When Grand Master Jack Kelly made the second and third sections of the EA optional it helped a lot of brethren and a lot of lodges... !
    and before everybody starts with I have done it therefore everybody should do it.. ! I listen to all the brethren stand at Grand Lodge that year and get emotional about shorting the work..? it was almost as bad as the debate about making the Master stand an exam..? some how or some where we have gotten away from Masonary and become a club of ritualism.. ! way to much influence from the committee on "Hope and Change" .. ! and after listening to how bad the lodges will fall into disrepair because the DI's are not there to police them makes me believe that we are defending this work as if it is life or death ... ! when very few Grand Lodges in America have near the work we do.. ! does that make them lesser class masons..?

    Yes.. ! Masters of lodge should be able to open and close lodge.. ! but should he have to open and close the Master Masons Lodge of Sorrow...? then why include it in the test what its just a matter of adding a few words that only confuses the issue... ! when in most cases the funeral master can do it..?

    One on the first papers written for the Texas Lodge of Research is a paper on the evolution of our work.. ! what I am doing is going back and looking at the Texas work for a paper for the Texas Lodge of Research.. ! the question I am trying to answer is what work did Sam Houston use to open the first Grand Lodge..? what were the requirements for the EA, FC or MM..? What are the Requirements for these degrees in the other Grand Lodges in America..? So far reading thru the First Grand Lodge Meeting was very interesting .. ! the things that concerned them and the items that came up for vote..? compared to our GL today...?
  12. Bill Lins

    Bill Lins Moderating Staff Staff Member

    Now that's funny right there! :lol:

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