The Unwritten Work, a Memento of a Distant Past
“Don’t you get tired of it all?” a member asked me. “What?” I responded. “People who chant things no longer relevant just because in the distant past it still had meaning” he said. I laughed a little. “Some people find comfort in the past”. I said. “Not me,” he replied, “I only find that it’s in the past.”
That’s how I, and the member I was speaking to, feel about the unwritten work. I know to some this may seem integral to the Odd Fellows, but to me it has faded to a tradition only now practiced by a very few of us. To those who don’t know, which is probably many of our new members, the unwritten work is a lengthy document that all members at one time were tasked to memorize and recite at our annual sessions. Members were given degrees of proficiency for their ability to recite this. I have a real problem in grasping the significance of anything wherein we are forced to recite anything by memory. In fact, if anything, this is indicative of the symbolism people see when they think of any group as being cult-like. If we are forced to recite something, and rewarded for our ability to recite in loud and clear voices passages and texts written far before our births, there is not much disparity between our order and a cult. This begs the question how do we progress, or, are we really interested in progress? Some feel that our history is not only sacrosanct but also inviolate; in other words, impossible to change or adapt. If this is truly the case, then we as an order are dead already, since failure repeated will not suddenly turn around and build into success. The deeper question is how do we advance our order – could it be that committing lengthy passages to memory may somehow by themselves rejuvenate an antiquated order? I personally don’t believe so, since if this were the case, the unwritten work would have done so by now, and the other indicator would be where else in life are you tasked in today’s world to reel off passages from memory without truly understanding the words’ relevance? The simple response is nowhere else. Only in fading fraternities, religions, or cults do you still find members chanting words without meaning. If we prefer ourselves to be a cult, let’s regress totally and at least do it perfectly, and if we are not a cult, let’s change enough to be the first generation of our group to do something new and different.
This begs the question, what is the “unwritten work”? 150 years ago, many of our members were illiterate, working people. Committing passages to memory was the way to conduct oneself in lodge without appearing illiterate. Rote memory was impressive to fellow members, who also would memorize their parts in our ritual to prove themselves efficient in their positions. So, if memorizing passages was common, the clarity with which one could recite them was to be admired. The substance of the unwritten work was admirable but why keep anything admirable hidden? Because they felt part of a secret fraternity, somewhat more inviolate because of shared secrecy.
Of course, this is not a statement deriding history. History is important, integral to any group, institution, company, or religion. Yet, we know from sheer reality that history can’t repeat itself. Ford Motor Company came out with the Model T car, but if they never progressed from there, they would have died an early death. Gold mining, prevalent in 1849, would be close to useless today. Even religious doctrine has adapted to merge with today. History must assume a place in our world but can’t become our entire world. Those of us who try to repeat history are only trying to sanitize history, for those times were much harder than today, rampant with sexism, racism, hatred of wide variety. Chanting an old axiom may seem soothing, such as a Gregorian chant, but it surely can come as close to mindless as we can get. If we want to attract the young, we can show them history, but let’s show how we can improve upon history.
I, for one, would rather the unwritten work evolve to be known as “the historic classic work”, a passage we can all enjoy and share and no longer sequester in cryptic notes and phrases.
In Friendship, Love, and Truth, Rick Boyles