The Initiatory Degree: A Love Story
I’ve been an Odd Fellow for 18 years and have taken every degree available to me. I have always appreciated the variety of different lessons taught in each and the unique viewpoint that each one brings on what it means to be a human being in the world. It is really the Ritual and the Degree Work of the lodge in particular which has caused me to fall in love with our Order, but most of all it has been the Initiatory Degree.
As the first experience our candidates have in the lodge room, the Initiatory Degree is the first impression that candidates have of what it means to be an Odd Fellow and in that, I was certainly no exception. I don’t remember every detail of what happened during my initiation, but I do remember how I felt and it colors how I feel about our Order to this very day. I initially felt some fear and trepidation, which is a normal and human response to the unknown, but these feelings quickly bloomed into others. I felt a sense of belonging and I felt a sense of mystery about what I was experiencing and what it all meant. Over time, I studied, I practiced and I learned everything I could about that degree and all the others I have taken since. The contemplation of that mystery has deepened my knowledge of myself and my place in the world. I have made it my mission to understand what I experienced on that very first day and to do my best to give others that same experience which has been so very valuable to me.
I have a great love of history in addition to literature and poetry, so I made it my mission to understand everything I could about the Initiatory Degree through that lens. I was gifted a copy of “The Improved Odd Fellows Manual” by Rev. A. B. Grosh by the elder Past Grand of my lodge and from that I learned that the degrees were once very different than they are today. I came to realize that the Degree I had received did not have everything in it that the degree once had and that the language had been simplified over time when careless editorial hands discarded wheat along with chaff. I longed to know what story that degree wanted to tell me and what hidden wisdom we were all no longer able to see.
I decided that it was time to restore the Initiatory Degree to its rightful place as a shining jewel in the diadem of Odd Fellowship. In this, I enlisted the help of my other love, my wife Linnea who is my partner in Odd Fellowship as in my life. In lodges within the United States, women have joined Odd Fellowship on an equal basis as men since the early 21st century and her literary and theatrical talents were a huge boost to my efforts, especially once I sat down to write. We searched far and wide and got our hands on every versions of the Initiatory Degree we could put our hands on. They came from a variety of places, primarily individuals who managed to have copies of one version or another. The oldest version we looked at was from the Patriotic Order of Odd Fellows, one of the antecedents of the Grand United Order and the Manchester Unity in 1797. We even consulted a version from Denmark which had diverged somewhat from the American script.
The basic approach was to divide up each version of the degree into its components. You may have noticed that the degree proceeds in phases, discrete stages where the candidate is given experiences and instructions with a different feeling or lesson to be imparted. We identified these stages and began to compare them epoch by epoch, tracing how the Ritual had come down to us through time. We learned that there were major symbols, so important to our Order at the time that the words could not even be printed in our ritual books, which were no longer present. These were removed early in the 20th century by an iteration of our Order desperate to seem less like a secret society and to appease the religious authorities of the time. This is also around the time when the Chaplain, an officer position which was optional for most of the 19th century and had no part in the Degree Work, was officially added and given some of the most poetic parts of the former Noble Grand’s Charge.
Once our analysis was complete, we began to write. We dealt with each stage of the initiation one at a time, seeking to fully understand it and immerse ourselves in it. By looking at the full sweep of history, we could start to divine what was intended originally and how to best express that truth. We encountered turns of phrase with a power to them well beyond anything in the 2003 version of the degree we had all been using. We gathered those up up and then wrote our own linking text to bridge the gap between the years that separated each one. We thought about our future audience, about the younger people who would be taking these degrees and what their lived experiences were. We wanted the degree to play the same role in their lives it had played for so many generations before: to help them understand and make the transition from dependence to independence to interdependence, a journey well-traveled by those who came before us. We wrote in language we hoped would speak to their hearts.
After we finished our draft of the full degree, what we call the “long form” we began on another with a different target audience in mind. Here in the United States, not all lodges love the Ritual as we do. These lodges often resort to using video versions of the degrees or to sending their members to be initiated elsewhere. We wanted to have a degree that even these lodges could love and which would contain all the core symbolism which is the birthright of our initiates. Thus was born the “short form” or the “Feast of Odd Fellowship” as it is also known. This abridged initiation takes place in the context of a banquet with the symbolism and drama intertwined with the meal. We feel that Odd Fellowship is a big enough tent for everyone and we want people from all walks of life to feel welcome and comfortable within our doors.
When the writing was done, the next step was to figure out how to put our work into the hands of the lodges so that the mysteries could be experienced the way they were meant to be. In this, we are indebted to Past Sovereign Grand Master Jimmy Humphrey who saw something in our work which he felt needed to be shared and worked together with Past Grand Master Chester Lapointe from New Hampshire and others to help us bring it to the Ritualistic Works Committee of the Sovereign Grand Lodge and get the long and short forms officially approved as part of the Ritual of the Order in 2017. The decision was made to retain the 2003 version as well as give lodges the option of whichever of the three they wish to use. It will likely be some time before the charge books will be reprinted, so in order to immediately get the new degrees into as many hands as possible, Sovereign Grand Lodge also followed up by passing a resolution allowing for the new degrees to be distributed electronically to the various Grand Secretaries for distribution within their own jurisdictions. We feel very fortunate that Sovereign Grand Lodge took this effort so seriously and has made it possible for Odd Fellows all over the world to put these degree rituals into practice.
It has now been several years since the new degrees became official and I have seen the new degrees performed many times. I have also received feedback from around my jurisdiction and elsewhere in the United States about how much they have loved these degrees. It is intensely gratifying to be able to share my love of this degree with others and feel their love for it in return. The work does not end here, however. There is so much left to be done to bring to light all the profound wisdom and deep mystery of the degrees from the Initiatory all the way up through the Three Degrees, the Encampment Degrees, and beyond to generations of new Odd Fellows, including those as of yet unborn.
I will leave you with a few final thoughts about the meaning of my journey and what I have learned from it. The lessons of our Order are immutable and unchanging. Some would even say they are universal to all humankind and that our particular manifestations of the mysteries only take the peculiar forms they do for reasons of our specific history and culture. Though the outer trappings may change considerably from one generation to the next, the inner core remains there to be discovered. It is the duty of every generation to discover its own connection to the wellspring of our Order and to bring that flow of eternal and hidden wisdom down in a form in which it can be understood by the initiates of that day and age. Thus is our legacy as Odd Fellows made manifest in society. Let us now go forward and bring the light of Odd Fellowship to a darkened world!
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One thought on “The Initiatory Degree: A Love Story- By Michael Greenzeiger PGM (CA)”
As I’ve been in degree work several decades in several lodges in Finland, I find this article most interesting. I’d love to get my hands on these old rituals if it was possible in any way.