Penguins are all that’s left of them

Last weekend, I say a production of Marjorie Prime, a play about death, the nature of memory, and the lies we tell ourselves and others about the past. (There’s also a movie based on the play). Maybe about half way through the play, there’s a discussion about an upcoming trip to Madagascar. The “prime”, a hologram that looks like a deceased loved one and to aid in keeping memories, notes that, while there are many species native only to Madagascar, sailors brought the penguins with them in the 17th century, where their penguin descendants remain to this day. She looks up wistfully and notes that “Penguins are all that’s left of them.” Fade to black.

I thought that was the most hilarious line of the play and couldn’t stop laughing even for a while after the scene change. The rest of the audience, for their part, did not share my sense of humor. However, to me, that line is the perfect summation of the net impact of the sailors’ lives. Penguins. It implicitly asks two questions: what we will be remembered for and how we want to be remembered. After the play, my wife asked me for what I wanted to be remembered. I said something along the lines of “a guy who did some stuff and then died.”

I don’t pretend that I will have an outsized influence on history, much less connected to stranded penguins half a world away. But Masonry says we should “live respected and die regretted.” For all things Masonry, I look to the basic values to figure out how to do so: friendship, morality, brotherly love, relief, truth (I’m sure I’m missing a few, and temperance was never my strong point). If we conduct our lives (and organize our Lodges) according to these virtues, we will pass on knowing we left the world in a better place than we found it.

You’ll note that nowhere in the previous litany of virtues is “ritual” listed. You’ll actually be hard pressed to find anywhere in the Wisconsin ritual anything about the importance of ritual except that certain portions of it must be committed to memory. “What makes you a mason?” is asked, and the answer is “my obligation.” What, then, makes a Lodge? Ritual is certainly necessary to confer degrees and obligate new Masons. But it is not nearly sufficient for an individual Mason, a Lodge as a whole, or the Grand Lodge jurisdiction.

That is my objection to stressing too much the importance of ritual. The Grand Lodge line is that the ritual is what separates us from other organizations. If that’s all that separates us, I’m not sure why I’d want to be a Mason. It would be like going to church for the ritual alone and not to participate in the sacraments. But then I hear things about (and have attended) Lodges that meet to perform the ritual and then disband — all without welcoming visiting brethren, fraternity before or after the meeting, or even really liking each other very much. If the ritual is all a Lodge is, I would contend that it’s not really a Lodge at all. I would worry more about the Lodges that are not practicing the virtues than the ones that have ritual books open in Lodge.

Our obligations to each other is what makes us Masons, and the practice of the virtues is what makes Brothers comes together as a Lodge. There are Brothers who have passed that I regret not for their perfect command of the ritual (although some had ritual cards), but that they supported and encouraged Brothers new and old and embodied the Masonic values. What I miss most about a passing Brother is that now there is an empty chair on the sidelines where decades of Masonic experience and encouragement used to be and will not soon be replaced. What I miss is commitment to growth, not of members, but of character and understanding. It would be a strange Mason who, on his tombstone, engraved “Here lies a man proficient in the Wisconsin ritual.” Make today better than yesterday. Or penguins will be all that’s left of us.


P.M. Erik Nielsen