The Silver Matchbox – The Dream and The Story of My Quest
Note the engraving with W. Bro. Neal’s name
The words ‘Silver Matchbox’ when working Emulation are ALWAYS whispered in awe
ONE OF OUR OWN
The Fascinating Story of W Bro. Neal Avery, PAGDC quest for the prestigious Silver Matchbox
The words ‘Silver Matchbox’ when working Emulation are always whispered in awe.
This is a reference to the pleasing custom in the Emulation Lodge of Improvement of presenting an engraved Silver Matchbox to any Past Master who completes from the Worshipful Master’s Chair an entire ceremony faultlessly in both word and action.
Let me emphasize, the entire ceremony has to be faultless without a single prompt.
The statistics are staggering, the competition brutal
In its first 150 years, 364 members of the Emulation Lodge of Instruction (ELoI) have received a Silver Matchbox for working a chosen Degree error free. I write with near incredulity that 145 of them have also met the far more daunting task in all three Degrees. Lest our District Masons are acquiring dry throats and weak knees at the very thought, the Emulation LoI does meet weekly in London throughout eight months of the year. One can learn fast in that competitive environment!
The District Grand Lodge of the Eastern Archipelago is proud to publish this detailed and personal account of our own W Bro. Neal Avery’s quest for the Silver Matchbox and how Masonry has changed his life for the good. His story is not only an inspiring one for all Freemasons, it provides a unique recipe for success for any challenge that life may present.
The Silver Matchbox – the dream and the story of my quest
By W Bro Neale Avery , PAGDC
The night of my Initiation on the 6th of August 1997 into the Table Mountain Lodge No. 6824 E.C. in Cape Town Africa not only changed me as a person, it reset my entire outlook on life and my relationship with the English language. As ‘clichéd’ as this may sound the memories of my Initiation that evening are as real to me today as they were on that cold winter’s night in August 1997. Little did I realize that the events of that evening would not only shape my future but also be the beginnings of a most incredible journey.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, I was presented with a First-Degree Ritual book and I recall that once I arrived home of reading it over and over to myself. Amazed by the words and phrases, and though having little comprehension or understanding of the meaning behind the writings at that time, I clearly recall being mesmerized by the beauty and precision of the language it contained.
I knew then that Masonry would become a huge influence in my life.
Looking back, I see that I was extremely fortunate to have a Proposer W. Bro. Kenneth Paul Marcus, whose dedication to the Craft was absolute, and from the beginning, he made it very clear to me that becoming a Mason came with responsibility, dedication and expectations.
Even more so, I was fortunate to have been initiated into a Lodge where there was a strict emphasis on the Ritual, and particularly the delivery thereof, as a collective goal. From the beginning, I was particularly inspired by those Brethren who took part in the Ceremonies with such a sense of dignity and sincerity. These attributes still remain with me today.
Shortly after being appointed to my first office, that of Inner Guard, I started to be more aware and felt far more involved in the Ceremony. This naturally led to an enhanced focus on the Ritual and Rubrics. Becoming more excited about of the meaning behind the words, I made every effort to link the connection between the symbolism and words while witnessing the ceremonies on a regular basis.
In 2003, I was fortunate enough to visit the United Grand Lodge of England, London for the first time. This not only cemented my positive views on Freemasonry, but also introduced me to the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, (ELoI), which meet each Friday evening in London.
VISIT TO THE EMULATION LODGE of Improvement
Personally I would encourage every Brother to visit www.emulationloi.org to read about the history and story behind the Silver Matchbox, which is fascinating and should you ever have the opportunity to attend a meeting on a Friday evening, I urge you to do so.
What I do remember is being unusually nervous about visiting the Emulation Lodge of Improvement. However, my Proposer had assured me that I would be able to sit in the columns and observe, rather than being required to take an office or play a part in that evening.
Looking back, it was the night I decided that the pursuit of perfection in the Ritual is a possibility. Although in the bigger picture this did not appear important at that time; it ultimately became my personal goal.
My first visit to the Emulation Lodge of Improvement led me to believe that I could earn a Silver Matchbox. The Brethren in attendance that evening were motivated, supportive, precise, passionate, and committed, and I wanted to be just like them. The thought of delivering a Ceremony without prompt or correction was daunting to say the least and knowing that I was nowhere near the required standard. Yet, I was hooked and from that moment on, the prospect of earning a Silver Matchbox was my goal and never far from my vision.
BUILDING MOTIVATION AND CONFIDENCE
Yes, I fully understand and recognize that the pursuit of the Silver Matchbox is not for everyone. However, for those who choose to follow the path, the reward is incredible and leaves one with not only a sense of pride, but the knowledge that, on at least one occasion, perfection was achieved. Suffice to say, the quest for a Silver Matchbox requires a love of the ritual, its symbolism, and the pursuit of perfection. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that only 364 Silver Matchboxes have been achieved since 1897.
Most importantly, unlike a promotion or preferment, (which is conferred by someone of a higher rank), the Silver Matchbox has to be earned, and no latitude is asked for, or indeed given. It is this simple fact that makes the allure of taking the Chair on a Friday evening in the Emulation Lodge of Improvement such a thrilling prospect.
Shortly after my initial visit to the ELoI, I learned that the ELoI holds an Annual Festival in February and a Preceptors’ Festival in late June each year. These occasions mark the start and end of the Emulation ‘season’ and are attended by ritual enthusiasts and supportive Brethren. In order to take the Chair on such an auspicious occasion, one requires an invitation from the Emulation Committee of Preceptors. In 2005, I was honored to receive an Invitation to occupy the Chair at the Preceptors festival in June 2006. Initially. Initially filled with doubt that the Ceremony to be worked that evening was the Third Degree, generally accepted by many as the most difficult ceremony, spurred me into action for I immediately sat down to discuss the matter with my Proposer.
During this discussion, not only did he support the idea but also mentioned that no one outside of England had ever achieved a Silver Matchbox. This fact became a huge motivation for me in the lead up to the attempt.
Once the decision was made, together with my Proposer, we put into place a strategy that would hopefully prepare me for the Chair on that evening.
In order to create a sense of pressure and achieve accuracy, my Proposer purchased a regular box of matches which he brought to each practice session. Every time I made a mistake, a match was removed from the box and placed in front of me. This made me critically aware of the need for accuracy, perfection, and precision, and furthermore, it was a visual representation that nothing, but flawlessness would be acceptable.
Living alone, I was also able to re-arrange the furniture in my living room in a way that represented the layout of a Lodge. This allowed me a sense of orientation and association for each and every part of the ceremony.
In addition, on a regular basis I would randomly select a line or phrase from the Ritual and proceed to narrate from that sentence to the end of the ceremony. Further I also learned to deliver the ceremony in reverse order, a practice which resulted in my being comfortable with the words as simply words.
It has always been my belief that there is a big difference between ‘knowing the words and delivering the ritual’. By this I mean that there is a far better chance of delivering a perfect ceremony if one has an inherent understanding and appreciation of the meaning and symbolism behind the words. Therefore, I worked on the delivery and pace of the ceremony in an effort to maintain the sincerity with which I had been inspired during my early years in the Craft. To help me, I broke down the ceremony into component parts, and this allowed me to further examine and understand the true impact and profound nature of the Third Degree. In doing this, the flow of the ceremony became the focus and, once again, I was able to better appreciate what I was seeking to achieve.
One of the more lighthearted methods I used in my preparation, was what I referred to as ‘Masonic Tennis’. With the help of other Brethren, one Brother would start at any point in the ceremony by delivering a random line from the Third-Degree Ritual. In response, another Brother would then recite the next line and place the ball back in the court of the initiating Brother. This would then continue until a mistake was made, or the completion of the ceremony. Simplistic as this may appear, it created a level of confidence and comfort with the ritual, and over a period of time, the ceremony started to feel like ‘second nature’.
In January 2006, the reality of the Festival being only six months away, I started to feel the pressure and experienced some real self-doubt. At that stage my biggest fear was the fact that I had taken on the Third Degree and found myself constantly asking why I had not perhaps started with one of the other traditionally more ‘straight forward’ ceremonies. A lesson I had learned when I had visited the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, was that constant exposure inevitably resulted in a heightened sense of awareness for the ceremonies.
My concern was that being in that environment on a regular basis automatically motivates one to strive for perfection, and worried that as hard as I was working at delivering to my best, I could not help but wonder if my best would be good enough on the night.
Preparing for an attempt at the Silver Matchbox from 9,673 km away was not the perfect scenario, but that was the reality and one that I clearly needed to accept and manage. Knowing that self-doubt and loss of confidence was part of the process, instead of succumbing to these hurdles I started to believe that if others had achieved the Matchbox before, so then why not me this time!!! Seeing the ceremonies over and over and taking in the enthusiasm and dedication of the regular attendees at ELoI is infectious caused concern that this might be the missing ingredient in my quest.
The financial implications of making the attempt were significant, and very aware that this meant that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The percentage of Brethren who attain a Silver Matchbox is small, but the number of those achieving it at the first attempt is even smaller. The odds were against me, the preparation from afar was difficult, but the desire to achieve was ever present. The thought of financing the attempt, going all that way and then making a mistake was daunting, and this was possibly the greatest pressure that I faced and felt.
In the months leading up to the Festival, I was lucky enough to be invited to take the Chair in a few Lodges in my District of South Africa (Western Division) to deliver the Third Degree in open Lodge. Although preferring to keep my attempt as quiet as possible, the support that I received from those who were aware was truly Masonic and will forever be appreciated and never forgotten. My Proposer led the support charge. Without his assistance, none of this would have been possible.
Knowing this I gained more confidence, and although I made some errors, it was at this stage that I started to believe in myself. By this time, I was reciting the entire ceremony at least ten times or more a day, and anxiety gave way to faith, trust, and belief. As the number of errors reduced and my delivery became more consistent, I reflected on the hours of preparation, the journey thus far and the months of commitment and repeated ceremonies. An especial awareness set in, that I carried with me the hopes and expectations of my proposer, my District Grand Master RW Bro Peter Ransom Duckworth, my District of South Africa (Western Division) and each and every one of my fellow Brethren. The pressure I felt was real, it was intense and ever present. Yet by the time I departed for London, I was filled with a firm but humble confidence and, moreover in my heart, I knew that I was ready.
LONDON FIVE DAYS BEFORE THE FESTIVAL
Arriving in London five days before the Festival my program for the week had been carefully and methodically scheduled as I tried to maintain focus on the task at hand. Shortly after my arrival, I was able to meet with a Matchbox holder from the ELoI, with a view to gaining absolute clarity regarding certain parts of the Rubric. This was the one issue that had always been in the back of my mind. Any error in movement is an automatic fail, and I needed to be 100% sure that what I had worked on was in fact correct.
In hindsight, this meeting turned out to be a crucial moment in my preparation. Recalling quite vividly as I progressed through the ceremony with him, he appeared to be surprised. At the conclusion of our session, there was a momentary pause, punctuated by one simple remark. He leaned forward and said, “You have got this, I am convinced of it”. His few words not only filled me with confidence but were the exact words that I needed to hear at the beginning of the week and this too from someone who had already achieved it. From that moment on, I allowed myself to relax on occasion and, for the first time started to anticipate the Festival with a sense of confidence.
In addition to the ELoI, there were two other Lodges of Instruction which worked on a weekly basis in London. The Kirby Lodge of Instruction met every Tuesday night and the Campbell Lodge of Instruction met on Wednesday nights. These Lodges not only presented Brethren with an outstanding environment for a daily advancement but are also supportive and able to assist in the process of trying to earn a Silver Match Box.
In fact, if a Brother wishes to apply to occupy the Chair at ELoI, it is considered well worth it to attend one or both of these Lodges in order to gain a better understanding of how far along the path one actually is. Taking the Chair in either of these Lodges of Instruction is as close as one can get to the ELoI experience. The Preceptors apply the same standards, the Brethren are extremely supportive. To achieve at this level can certainly instill a great sense of confidence;
being able to occupy the Chair at both these meetings, I made one mistake on each occasion. Once again, the roller coaster of confidence became apparent, and I naturally experienced some negative thoughts and self-doubt.
The day of the Festival
Time seemed to drag on like never before. Each minute that passed was filled with excitement, concern and anticipation. Making the decision to spend the day alone, and as time ticked slowly by, I promised myself that from 2 p.m. onwards there would be no running through the ceremony again. Placing complete faith in my hard work up to this point I trusted the fact that ‘Lady Luck’ would be on my side.
Arriving at Freemasons Hall that afternoon, it felt like everyone was looking at me. People seemed fascinated by the fact that I was from South Africa, and many were extremely surprised that Emulation Ritual was practiced in a District so far from London. The Festival was attended by Brethren from all walks of life, all ranks and many different Provinces and Districts. There was an atmosphere of anticipation, and the enormity of the task that lay ahead in the coming hours was all too apparent. As the Lodge room started to fill up, the reality of the situation hit home. However, I was overcome by a sense of serenity which to my believe is only to be found at Freemasons Hall.
The meeting was called to order by the Preceptor in charge for the evening. The Brethren in attendance were welcomed and at the appropriate time, those daunting words were uttered in my direction…… “When you are ready, Worshipful Master”.
The moment I had worked for had finally arrived. The adrenaline immediately kicked in as I began to work the ceremony in the manner prepared for. It was the only way I knew how.
As the ceremony progressed it became increasingly aware that the team of Officers around me believed in what I was doing. The silence in the Lodge grew ever ‘louder’. On recall when looking around the lodge everybody was looking at me with support, hope, and encouragement. Never in my life had the phrase, ‘you could have heard a pin drop’, been so relevant. This silence brought with it a sense of terror. My most ardent supporters had gathered in the North East Corner, and I could literally “feel” their support throughout the meeting.
WHEN A MISTAKE IS MADE
When a mistake is made, or a prompt is required, the method of informing those present that the attempt has failed, is for the Preceptor in charge to gently touch the left arm of the Brother in the Chair. This is done quietly and without interruption. Sadly, it indicates that a Silver Matchbox is no longer achievable, but equally, it reminds the Brother of his responsibility to complete the ceremony.
Working my way through the ceremony, while passing each element of the working, it became apparent that I had not yet felt the ‘hand of doom’, and whilst this was most encouraging, time once again felt like an eternity. On reaching the start of the Working Tools and thinking to myself that despite everything I was enjoying myself and finally doing exactly what I had looked forward to for such a long time.
Oddly enough, I wanted the meeting to continue as the whole situation just felt right. The Silver Match Box attempt ends with the conclusion of the Working Tools, and it was at this point that I could finally relax, albeit with a heart rate well above normal.
A muffled cheer was to be heard from the NE Corner, a cheer which was met with a look of disdain from the Preceptors’ bench.
I HAVE DONE IT
It is at this stage in the proceedings that the Preceptor in charge huddles with the other Preceptors to confirm a successful attempt. This is a brief interlude but the silence in the room reaches a palpable level.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the Preceptor in charge turned to the Secretary and gave the sign that each and every Brother in the ELoI Chair dreams of -- the Preceptor’s nod.
I had done it! The dream was now a reality. By achieving the Silver Matchbox, I became the first Brother outside of England to do so. Yes, all the hard work had paid off. My faith in myself had been validated.
On calling off the Lodge for the customary break in proceedings, I was flanked by well-wishers and support. The second half of the Festival was a demonstration of the Ceremony of Installation, however in all honesty, although I was sitting in the columns, my mind was miles away. It is a feeling that is hard to describe, but the word elation seemed appropriate. The cocktail of emotions gave way to the realization that it was over, but in truth, another journey was just about to begin.
FAMILY FIRST, THEN BRETHREN
Once the Lodge was closed, I scrambled to call my Parents. Although Masonry had skipped two generations in my Family, the support from both my Mother and Father has always been a significant component of my Masonic journey. Despite not having any detailed knowledge about the Ceremony, they were patently aware of just how important this quest was for me, and although geographically apart, as a Son, I had never felt closer. The point is Brethren, include your Family, it is vital to our ongoing success.
The other phone call I made was to my District Grand Master. As his District Grand Treasurer at that time, he had followed the preparations with interest. I knew that he would be extremely happy to have the profile of the District enhanced by the events of the evening. It was a short conversation, but emotions ran high.
Finally, sitting down with my Proposer, like we had done on so many occasions in the past, we reviewed the ceremony at length, - the difference this time however, - there were no matches to be removed from the box!!!!
The relationship between a Candidate and his Proposer is of huge importance, but that evening I realized that, apart from the night of my Installation, this was the one achievement that I would be most happy with. The two of us sat in silence, just taking in the enormity of what had just happened, it was a moment that I shall never forget.
RECEIVING THE SILVER MATCHBOX
One of the biggest surprises that evening became apparent at the Banquet. On entering the dining hall, I was ushered to my seat, a seat at a table occupied only by Silver Match Box holders. What an awesome feeling, what a sense of belonging, what an amazing experience. The celebrations went on long into the night, yet when I returned to my lodgings, I assume, out of pure reflex, I went through the Ceremony just one more time. Sleep was in short supply, I revelled in the night’s events, and I looked forward to returning home.
A most wonderful aspect of the evening was the fact that VW Bro Graham Redman, the senior member of the committee of the Emulation Lodge of Improvement was in attendance. He had been invited to visit the District of South Africa (Western Division) and although this visit was to be in a private capacity, he very kindly offered to ascertain if he could secure the delivery of my Silver Matchbox before his departure and if possible, he could then personally present it to me in my Mother Lodge.
True to his word, VW Bro. G. Redman presented me with my Matchbox in the body of my Mother Lodge in Cape Town, which was a thrilling experience. As an additional bonus, I was privileged to work the First Section of the First Lecture with VW Bro. Redman, whilst on a road trip through the District, what a thrill it was.
The flight home was long, but it allowed time for thought, and whilst like most, aware that the achievement meant little to anybody else, to me it meant the world. It was on that inbound trip that came the realization for the first time that the journey through Masonry is unique. Thousands have walked the path before you, thousands will walk it after you, some will walk it with you, BUT Brethren, nobody can walk it for you. In this simple mantra, I discovered my Masonic destiny.
Although 2006, and the Preceptors Festival of that year is a long in the past, I still wear the Silver Matchbox with pride and I will always take solace in the memories of that evening; just as importantly, the preparation process.
Times have moved on, the Craft faces new and many challenges, but despite all this, we remain important, relevant and a beacon of hope for all men. We just need to find better ways of communicating our message.
The Ritual is important, in fact it is our foundation. In the Installation Ceremony, the newly Installed Master is handed a copy of the Book of Constitutions and told that ‘there is scarcely a case of difficulty can occur in the Lodge, where that book will not set you right’ Whilst this may be true, these words are more relevant, and should also be applied to the Ritual. Let me explain. The Book of Constitutions is simply a document whereby our collective membership to United Grand Lodge of England is confirmed. It contains the rules underlying this membership. The Ritual however is what makes us men and what makes us Masons, a clear and important distinction. There is nothing within the Masonic context which cannot be resolved by one or several of the various ‘charges’ contained in the ritual. Simplistic, it may be, but true? Undoubtedly.
Masonry is truly Universal. I have had the fortune to be a member of more than one District. Since moving to South East Asia, I have travelled extensively, and broadened my Masonic horizons and have met so many wonderful Brethren, their Partners, and their Families. This has not only shown me the universal appeal of the Craft, but it has filled me with hope. Hope for the future, a belief in what we are doing, and a confidence that Freemasonry will continue to shape the society we all embrace.
My deep admiration and respect for those Brethren who practice the Ritual in a language other than their mother tongue. This aspect of Masonry is completely overlooked. Yet, I have seen some of the most passionate and sincere renditions of the Ritual by these Brethren and I salute them and pay homage to the example they set. You are all heroes to me.
Embrace the Ritual: No matter what Ritual your Lodge uses. It is only by understanding the words that we can confidently attract new Members. We cannot expect those around us to believe in something that we ourselves do not advocate and put into practice.
Each and every one of us has at least one Brother who has been an inspiration. This is a vital part of Masonry. It ensures continuity. When you think about those Brethren who have inspired you in the Masonic context, never forget that you yourself might just be an inspiration to someone else. What a powerful thought, what a motivation, there is no nobler reason to become a better Man.
Find your comfort zone in the Craft, do not let others dictate what you should or should not do. We all join for various reasons, we all progress at different rates and we all gravitate to those aspects of Masonry that we are most comfortable with. There is nothing wrong with this system, every Lodge, indeed every District, needs individuals who excel at administration, Charitable fund raising, Financial abilities, Organizational skills and last but not least, Ritualists. Each one of these disciplines is required to form a successful Lodge and where you wish to play a part is your decision and yours alone.
Be respectful of our elder Brethren. Remember that our elder Brethren were members at a quite different time in our Masonic history. They miss the ‘good old days’ of Lodges being filled to capacity, of promotions being few and far between, of long journeys from Inner Guard to the Chair, of days when attention to the Ritual was of paramount importance, and most importantly, when being invited to become a member was, without question, an honor and a privilege. In these days of falling membership, struggling Lodges, an expectation of instant gratification and a scarcity of time, please spare a thought for the enormous change they have witnessed in the Craft over the years. Take the time to listen Brethren, for our elder members have a story to tell, a story of days gone by, but a story of no less relevance. It is their story which should become part of our story, and at the very least we owe them our time. Without their footsteps in which to follow, without their efforts of days gone by, we would have nothing with which to aspire to, nothing to emulate and nothing to hold so dear. Time immemorial is defined as ‘the oldest memory of the oldest member in your Lodge’, make the time to find out in whom time immemorial resides within your Lodge, find him, listen to him and together make a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge.
SO, what did earning the Silver Matchbox achieve?
So, what did earning the Silver Matchbox achieve? In the grander scheme of things, probably nothing. It was a journey that taught me so much about myself, about the Craft and about life.
As I mature there is no doubt that I feel more pressure when participating in a ceremony. There is a feeling that if I make a mistake it is often viewed by some through the prism of perfection. A rod made for my own back? Definitely, but that does not discourage me from taking on the challenge. It could be considered an unfair judgement, as sincerity and passion should always rank higher than the perfection of words. I still try just as hard, I still learn from the Ritual, I still embrace every opportunity to talk about the Craft and I still derive so much joy from attending Lodge meetings.
The Silver Matchbox opened some doors, it stimulated conversation and hope it serves as an inspiration to someone out there who might be contemplating making their own quest. It exists to challenge those of us who are looking for something out of the ordinary, for those of us who want to push ourselves further, but it’s true value is the tribute it pays to those Brethren who had the foresight all those years ago to lay down the challenge for those to follow. What a wonderful and noble sentiment. What a tremendous legacy.
Most importantly, the lessons I learned, by and large, remain with me today. Is that not the very essence of what we in Masonry are trying to achieve? We embark on a journey which promises nothing, presents challenges, pitfalls, hurdles, and disappointments, but equally gives us a unique opportunity to grow, learn and improve. To become better than yesterday but aspire to be better tomorrow is the special message that the Craft delivers, I urge you do not let the chance pass you by, the journey is worth every step.
It is said that every cloud has a Silver lining, but in my case the lining came in the shape of a Matchbox.
In closing, I would like to pay special tribute to my Parents, who, without doubt continue to be the biggest influence in my life. They continue to inspire, lead by example, and their support is unwavering. I am so blessed.
W. Bro. Kenneth Paul Marcus, PSGD, my Proposer, my Mentor, my Brother, and Friend, without whom none of this would have been possible. Thank you for the faith you showed in me, the encouragement, the support, and the advice.