By Lisa Nuch Venbrux | praguepost.com
Society's leaders discuss future of fraternal order in post-communist era
From beneath the sloping roof of an ornate building in Old Town, a single eye watches Karmelitská street. Framed by a triangle on the building’s facade, the carving’s stony gaze reveals no secrets.
Yet its very presence speaks to a past forgotten by many. This symbol of an eye in a triangle adorns a building used as an 18th-century meeting place for freemasons.
The symbol of the eye in the triangle is used by some masons to depict a supreme being, or Grand Architect of the Universe. Photo: Kurt Vinion/The Prague Post
Woven into the fabric of this ancient city is a Masonic history that’s still being made.
Freemasonry is defined by the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), the world administrative center of regular Freemasonry, as a “society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values,” one of the oldest fraternal orders taught precepts through “ritual dramas.”
Recently, Masonic leaders from across Europe gathered in Prague to discuss the future of Freemasonry in Central and Eastern Europe.
“It was a very important event for Prague,” says the country’s new grand master, Hynek Beran, who was initiated into the elected post the same April weekend.
Indeed, to a layperson, the European Masonic Forum’s attendance of leaders from 24 masonic “obediences,” including 14 grand masters across Europe, seems momentous. In fact, European Masonic leaders have been meeting annually since the late 1990s, John Hamill, director of communications for the UGLE, told The Prague Post.
The meetings began in 1999, when the grand masters of Germany and Austria met in Romania to discuss the new lodges of Eastern Europe, according to Hamill. Grand masters, elected annually by ballot, head Grand Lodges, of which there is usually one in a given country.
Meeting in a different place every year since, Hamill says the gatherings have “greatly helped” the Grand Lodges of Eastern Europe. “Many of the East European and Balkan Grand Lodges are small and have little money, and one of the topics discussed is how they can adapt themselves to present circumstances.”
With an unbroken tradition dating back to 1923, Czech Freemasonry is among the most well-developed in post-communist Europe. Still, with 10 lodges nationwide, “regular” freemasons number just 360, compared to several thousand in neighboring Austria, Beran says. (“Irregular” Masonic bodies, which operate outside the “regular” tradition originating in the British Isles, claim fewer than 200 adherents here.)
Now, as the organization quietly gains members and momentum, its members are seeking ways to help Freemasonry grow, and show nonmembers that world domination and eating children are not part of its repertoire.
Kurt Vinion/The Prague Post
Grand Master Beran, a lively 45-year-old energy consultant from Prague, makes no attempts to shield his voice from other diners in a busy New Town café. He speaks enthusiastically about his hopes for Czech Freemasonry, revived in 1990 after more than 40 years of dormancy under communist rule.
“We do not want to be secret,” Beran says plainly. “We have a philosophy that should be offered to normal people.”
Though Beran, who was one of the first initiates into the newly reconstituted Czech lodges, would like to see Freemasonry develop here, this does not necessarily mean rapid growth in membership. Rather, he seeks to “build a positive image,” and to attract those interested in “real Freemasonry.”
This involves following three great principles — brotherly love, relief (or charity) and truth — articulated by the Grand Lodge of England after its founding nearly 290 years ago, June 24, 1717. (The origins of Freemasonry, though not specifically known, may date to the Knights Templar centuries before.)
Tolerance and equality are also part of the Freemason creed, according to Armand Muno, treasurer of the Czech Grand Lodge and recently installed worshipful master (or director) of the English-speaking Hiram Lodge in Prague.
“We’re not looking for the elites,” nor for anyone of a particular religion or ethnicity, says Muno, 47. Regular Freemasonry requires a belief in a supreme being, but not necessarily one from the Christian tradition, as well as a commitment to keep religion and politics out of the lodges. Consequently, Czech membership lists include people from several continents as well as from minority groups in the Czech Republic.
They also span the spectrum of religious belief, given some qualifications. “There are Buddhists, Hindus … scientists who don’t believe in any god but nature,” Beran says. According to Muno, religion disqualifies a candidate only when beliefs clash with the principles of masonry, as is the case with Muslims who follow Sharia law. “Muslims who do not abide by Sharia are welcome.”
Friendly professionals in pressed slacks contradict popular images of Masons as cannibalistic conspirators. Negative associations and suspicion, however, constitute a natural reaction to something little understood, says widely published Masonic scholar Robert Gilbert. “People are afraid of something they don’t understand,” he says. Still, Freemasonry “has to retain some mystique, or it has no appeal for people.
”This mystique is nowhere stronger than in places where totalitarian regimes have squashed organizations such as the Freemasons. Though Czech Freemasonry swung in and out of royal favor after its birth in Bohemia in the late 1730s, 20th-century regimes dealt dire blows to the order.
“Because Freemasonry embraces such principles as equality, fraternity and freedom of thought, it is not liked by dictators, of the right or left,” the UGLE’s Hamill explains.
During World War II, Freemasons were rounded up through membership lists and sent to concentration camps. Incriminating records from that time, Beran says, were burned by Masons themselves. Some Czechoslovak Freemasons managed to escape to France and finally England, where they set up an independent lodge in exile. “Comenius in exile is the only occasion in which England has recognized a Grand Lodge or lodge in exile,” Hamill says.
The communists adopted a different control strategy.
Èestmír Bárta became a Mason in December 1949, not long after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. His father, who was a Freemason, had been sent to Auschwitz. When the communist regime instituted a policy requiring government agents to attend lodge meetings, the Grand Lodge chose to go into dormancy rather than submit.
“It was obvious that there was no way of preventing infiltration, wiretapping and abuse of the information obtained by these means,” Bárta says. “Not even initiations were taking place during that period.
”Bárta was one of 28 Czech Freemasons who, through clandestine informal meetings, maintained contact with each other to eventually re-establish Freemasonry after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He later served seven years as grand master of the Czech Grand Lodge.
“Civil society had to … re-create itself again,” he says, noting the sense of importance surrounding the re-establishment of the order. “Czech Freemasons knew that creation of a normal democratic society was a question of at least one generation, and that the attitudes of Freemasons had great potential to support the process of humanization of the newly germinating civil society.”
Such lofty aims may be gaining appeal in lands now embracing democratic ideals, but Bárta admits there may be a long way to go. “People now usually don’t know what this is about, and they are not interested in it.”
Beran, meanwhile, takes a more optimistic view toward finding those drawn to this philosophy amid the chaos of modern life. “In globalization, everybody is looking for his history.”