The Masonic Lodge
The Masonic Lodge is the basic organizational unit of Freemasonry. The lodge meets regularly to conduct the usual formal business of any small organization (pay bills, organize social and charitable events, elect new members, etc.). In addition to business, the meeting may perform a ceremony to confer a Masonic degree or receive a lecture, which is usually on some aspect of Masonic history or ritual. At the conclusion of the meeting, the lodge might adjourn for a formal dinner, or festive board, sometimes involving toasting and song.
The bulk of Masonic rituals consists of degree ceremonies. Candidates for Freemasonry are progressively initiated into Freemasonry, first in the degree of Entered Apprentice. Sometime later, in a separate ceremony, they will be passed to the degree of Fellowcraft, and finally, they will be raised to the degree of Master Mason. In all of these ceremonies, the candidate is entrusted with passwords, signs, and grips peculiar to his new rank. Another ceremony is the annual installation of the Master and officers of the lodge. In some jurisdictions, Installed Master is valued as a separate rank, with its own secrets to distinguish its members. In other jurisdictions, the grade is not recognized, and no inner ceremony conveys new secrets during the installation of a new Master of the lodge.
Most lodges have some sort of social calendar, allowing Masons and their partners to meet in a less ritualized environment. Often coupled with these events is the obligation placed on every Mason to contribute to charity. This occurs at both the Lodge and the Grand Lodge level. Masonic charities contribute to many fields from education to disaster relief.
These private local lodges form the backbone of Freemasonry, and a Freemason will necessarily have been initiated into one of these. There also exist specialist Lodges where Masons meet to celebrate anything from sport to Masonic research. The rank of Master Mason also entitles a Freemason to explore Masonry further through other degrees, administered separately from the craft, or "blue lodge" degrees described here, but having a similar format to their meetings.
There is very little consistency in Freemasonry. Because each Masonic jurisdiction is independent, each sets its own procedures. The wording of the ritual, the number of officers present, the layout of the meeting room, etc. varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The officers of the Lodge are elected or appointed annually. Every Masonic Lodge has a Master, two Wardens, a secretary, and a treasurer. There is also a Tyler, or outer guard, who is always present outside the door of a working lodge. Other offices vary between jurisdictions.
Each Masonic Lodge exists and operates according to a set of ancient principles known as the Landmarks of Freemasonry. These principles have thus far eluded any universally accepted definition.
Ritual and symbolism
Freemasonry describes itself as a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. The symbolism is mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from the manual tools of stonemasons – the square and compasses, the level and plumb rule, the trowel, among others. A moral lesson is attached to each of these tools, although the assignment is by no means consistent. The meaning of the symbolism is taught and explored through ritual.
All Freemasons begin their journey in the "craft" by being progressively initiated, passed and raised into the three degrees of craft, or blue lodge Masonry. During these three rituals, the candidate is progressively taught the meanings of the Lodge symbols and entrusted with grips, signs, and words to signify to other Masons that he has been so initiated. The initiations are a part allegory and part lecture and revolve around the construction of the Temple of Solomon, and the artistry and death of his chief architect, Hiram Abiff. The degrees are those of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason. While many different versions of these rituals exist, with two different lodge layouts and versions of the Hiram myth, each version is recognizable to any Freemason from any jurisdiction.
In some jurisdictions, the main themes of each degree are illustrated by tracing boards. These painted depictions of Masonic themes are exhibited in the lodge according to which degree is being worked and are explained to the candidate to illustrate the legend and symbolism of each degree.
The idea of Masonic brotherhood probably descends from a 16th-century legal definition of a brother as one who has taken an oath of mutual support to another. Accordingly, Masons swear at each degree to keep the contents of that degree secret and to support and protect their brethren unless they have broken the law. In most Lodges, the oath or obligation is taken on a Volume of Sacred Law, whichever book of divine revelation is appropriate to the religious beliefs of the individual brother (usually the Bible in the American tradition).