One of the current ideas about Freemasonry - and this without any distinction of obedience - is that it should be a secret association.
Several meanings are attached to this. The most widespread idea is the one of an occult and mysterious organization striving after a hidden influence on the political events, on society, on the civic authorities.
Thus the XVIIIth Century Freemasons were unjustly held responsible for the French Revolution and a number of deplorable events are put down to the hidden action of the freemasons.
Some people, in their rich imagination allotted to Freemasonry a role which others reserved to the Jews or the Jesuits; this is an opinion which is typical of the European continent and caused many freemasons to be considered enemies and even gave rise to bloody persecutions.
With regard to the masonic secret others claim that Lodges are retreats of conspirators, a political mafia, where political intrigue and commercial tampering are matters of course. Finally, the Lodges are often viewed as related to immorality and social subversion.
The truth is much simpler and will perhaps disappoint those who are attracted by far-fetched or diabolic adventures and suspected secretiveness. The regular freemasonry has but one secret : an initiatic secret.
The masonic Constitution of the regular freemasons compels them to a genuine loyalty to their country and the legal authorities. Moreover, regular freemasonry abstains from any interference in present-day problems and disputes. It does not take any stand with regard to profane affairs, whatever they may be. So, it does not consider interfering in political disputes, overthrowing social or moral values, or bringing people to power who would realize its aims.
Regular freemasonry has but one care : playing its role as an initiatic association as best as possible. It exerts influence only on those who, by the initiation, by the ritual and the symbolism feel attracted to the spiritual progress that is inherent in the initiation itself.
Not a single secret is revealed to the initiates, not a single obscure plan for reforming the world, no theological instruction, no key to man or to the world. Freemasonry does not possess such a secret and consequently it would be unable to impart it to the members.
Yet, it has its secret, the secret of the masonic experience. But this Secret cannot be communicated because it is ineffable. Not a single book, not a single ritual, not a single evidence can reveal this Secret. For the initiatic message is received and experienced in a different way by each of us. So, a uniform description of this Secret is utterly impossible.
A French text of 1750 says : Le secret de la maçonnerie est inviolable par sa propre nature, puisque le maçon qui le sait ne le sait que pour l'avoir deviné. Il ne l'a appris de personne. Il l'a découvert à force d'aller en Loge, d'observer, de raisonner, de déduire. Lorsqu'il y est parvenu, il se garde bien de faire part de sa découverte à qui que ce soit, fût-ce son meilleur ami maçon, puisqu'il n'a pas eu le talent de le pénétrer il n'aura pas non plus celui d'en tirer parti en l'apprenant oralement. Ce secret sera donc toujours un secret.
Every freemason experiences the masonic secret in the deepest depth of his being. Even if he wanted to betray this Secret, he would not be able to. Just as little would he be able to show his own, intimate being, the mystery of his personality. After all, masonic life is lived in a special climate : the masonic fraternity creates moral emotions, which naturally are unknown to the profane person. The freemasons of the XVIIIth century knew that, when they sang:
Pour le public un Franc-Maçon
Sera toujours un vrai problème
Qu'il ne pourra résoudre à fond
Qu'en devenant Maçon lui-même.
Finally it should be pointed out that freemasonry is not a secret association, but a closed community, which is not accessible for just anyone. Moreover, discretion is the rule. Any freemason will be very discreet about his Lodge. This is a masonic duty. Why ? Not to conceal any plot, but because the nature of the masonic activity falls outside the public domain : one does not show off his most intimate feelings and experiences.
Moreover, in some countries, also through historical circumstances, not advisable to make one's membership of a freemasons' lodge known. There are still too many prejudices - traces of anti-masonic campaigns - and too many freemasons have fallen victims to dictatorial regimes to restore publicity, as it has always existed in some other countries.