My heart was pounding. Strangely, one of my trouser legs was rolled up to above the knee, and my shirt was unbuttoned to expose my naked chest. I sat in a small cloakroom, adjacent to Eden Lodge on Dominion Rd. I didn't know what was going to happen next, but when Cliff, the Tyler of this Masonic Lodge, pulled out a blindfold and secured it across my face I knew there was no turning back.
I sensed someone lean in close. He whispered: "A piece of advice. If you think you're going to fall off the goat, lean to the left."
My mind raced. A goat? What the hell had I gotten myself into? Every instinct said "run", but it was too late. From inside the lodge I heard a series of ominous-sounding knocks, a code that led to the lodge door being opened. A booming voice rang out: "Whom have you there?"
Cliff responded: "Mr Pickering, a poor candidate in a state of darkness who has been well and worthily recommended, regularly proposed and approved in open lodge, and now comes, of his own free will and accord, properly prepared, humbly soliciting to be admitted to the mysteries and privileges of Freemasonry."
So began my initiation into Freemasonry or, as my wife likes to call it, "secret men's business".
Freemasonry is one of the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood organisations in the world. Masonic conspiracy theories are so entrenched within popular culture that otherwise educated, rational people often hold surprisingly strange views on Freemasonry. My bemused father for example, himself a proud member of Rotary, delighted in telling me that Masonry was little more than a bunch of old men who enjoyed playing dress-up. Ouch. My father is, occasionally, a very perceptive man.
Conversely, any number of internet sites will tell you that Freemasons are secretly running the world, engaging in devil worship, plotting a one-world government or, my personal favourite, in cahoots with the Illuminati. Conveniently, such conspiracies usually add the caveat that such nefarious activities are hidden from all but a select group of high-ranking elite Freemasons.
Several years ago I watched a few documentaries, read the conspiracy websites, and I'm not ashamed to say my curiosity was thoroughly piqued.
Sometimes life has a strange way of conjuring up an unexpected moment of serendipity and, for me, that moment came in the benign surrounds of a Parnell cafe. I was there to meet a photographer who'd approached me with a view to producing a fashion editorial for Pilot, a magazine I publish. I was startled to notice a Masonic ring on his hand.
"What is that?" I asked.
"This? Oh, it's a Masonic ring," he explained, pointing out the obvious.
"Are you a Freemason?"
Call it what you want. Delicious serendipity or curious coincidence, it doesn't matter. The very week I was idly making my own investigations into Freemasonry, here I was, sitting with an actual Freemason.
The person in question is a 38-year-old filmmaker and photographer. He has asked me not to reveal his name. Over the next month, he and I met on a number of occasions. He patiently answered my questions about Freemasonry. He never invited me to join, so eventually I asked whether I could. He said there was no reason I could not.
One of the most common misconceptions about Freemasonry is that it is an exclusive secret society one must be invited to join, whether by family lineage, an old boys network or through the corridors of power. This is not the case.
District Grand Secretary Bruce McMurtrie, aged 78 and a member of the Eden Lodge for 46 years, says: "There are three requirements to being a Freemason. Firstly, you must be male aged 21 years or over. Secondly, you need to believe in a supreme being [a God. Whether you identify as Christian, Islam, Buddhist or Hindu matters not.]. Finally, you'll need to be a man of good standing in the community."
The latter two requirements are intentionally vague. A Mason is never asked to explain his beliefs. Am I religious? Not really. But I have beliefs and I'm comfortable they don't preclude me from being a Mason.
This is another misconception. Freemasonry is not a religion. It is instead, one of the world's oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations. Within Masonry the idea of a supreme being is referred to as the Great Architect of the Universe, a term of which I am rather fond. This enables Masons of all walks of life to meet as equals whatever their race, religion, or position in society.
Our small lodge counts two policeman, a social media consultant, a filmmaker, an architect and a large number of retirees including one who saw service in World War II.
Our immediate past master (he was Master of the Lodge last year) is 41-year-old Shane Farley, a senior account manager at a building supply company. Farley has been a Mason for six years. He became interested in Freemasonry after reading about it.
"It struck a chord with me straight away," he says. "In my opinion Freemasonry is more relevant than ever to today's world. I think people spend too much time in front of computers all day and then the TV all night. Where is the interaction with the wider community?"
Farley says he finds Freemasonry rewarding in several different ways.
"I enjoy the camaraderie, mixing with people of a similar mindset that I trust and respect. I find it mentally stimulating. In the same way that exercise stimulates the body, Masonic ritual work is a good mental exercise. It keeps me sharp."
At the start of the initiation degree (first degree ritual), the candidate is said to be "soliciting to be admitted to the mysteries and privileges of Freemasonry".
This centuries-old ritual implies that when you become a Freemason you gain access to secrets and advantages hidden from non-Masons.
In reality this is not true. Freemasonry is not a business network, you won't gain access to power or influence and you won't get off your parking tickets. Freemasonry is not so much a secret society but a society with secrets.
The secrets are mundane. They are the parts of Masonic ritual that are kept secret from non-Masons. These are the infamous secret handshakes and passwords. What exactly is ritual? A Freemason meeting is divided into two parts. The second part of the evening consists of a shared meal and conversation over drinks. The first, formal part of the evening takes place in lodge. We wear black suits, white gloves and Masonic regalia. Each meeting a different degree or ritual will be performed, one of the three Masonic degrees. The process of becoming a Freemason is the completion of these three degrees. The first degree is the Entered Apprentice, the second degree is the Fellowcraft, and finally, after taking the third degree, the candidate is a Master Mason, a fully fledged Freemason. Each degree has its own unique ritual that can take one or two hours to complete.
Depending on the degree, a blindfold and all manner of other strange props and symbols are involved. From an outside perspective, Masonic ritual is strange indeed, and all of it is available on the internet. But without proper context it is hard to comprehend.
If all this talk of blindfolds and secret handshakes sounds ominous, consider the following. Every Sunday, the pagan day of the sun god Ra, millions of God-fearing Christians kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture to consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh. In other words, wine and bread. The point is - all rituals are strange until they become familiar.
What then, is the point of it all? Every Mason gains his own satisfaction out of being a member. Masonry offers a chance to meet people, and it provides a means to give back to the community, through charity. The journey into Masonry and the progression through the ranks provides a means to challenge oneself.
McMurtrie was initiated in 1966. "I joined because a very good friend of mine [the late Worshipful Brother Roly Somerville] was a member and from the way he spoke of his involvement in the Craft, and the way he conducted his personal life, I believed that Freemasonry would be something I would enjoy. I've gained immense personal satisfaction out of my many years within the Craft and look forward to a few more yet."
Masonic Lodge meetings offer a deeply calming break from the real world. There is satisfaction to be had in the art of performing centuries-old traditions and ritual with the gravity and respect they command. Masonry demands commitment and patience, qualities that don't always mesh well with the bustle and demands of modern life. For this reason, Freemasonry is not the force it was. Freemasonry is struggling to attract enough new young members to keep lodge numbers anywhere near the heights they enjoyed 30 years ago.
That said, Freemasonry retains a powerful sense of mystery within popular culture. The 2004 Nicolas Cage film National Treasure and Dan Brown's 2009 novel The Lost Symbol both use Masonic ritual and symbols as central plot points, helping to inspire a resurgence in interest.
In New Zealand, in 1964, then Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake approved a concept design by Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence for what would become the Beehive. The Beehive is a Masonic symbol, and Holyoake was a well-known Freemason. Make of that what you will, conspiracy buffs.
To combat misinformation, Freemasonry's governing body, the Grand Lodge of England, has, in recent years, made an effort to engage more openly with the public.
McMurtrie says: "The impression of being a secret society stems from our secretiveness of 30 to 50 years ago. At that time the Grand Lodge of England knew that what we did was perfectly legal and simply refused to debate with those who would denigrate Freemasonry. I believe we were our own worst enemies in those days. Now we have a more enlightened outlook and are happy to talk openly about the Craft."
Yet many Masons are still reluctant to out themselves. Two of the more senior members of our lodge are Auckland policeman. One is retired and one close to retirement. Both are proud Masons with a wealth of Masonic knowledge, and act as mentors to the younger members of our lodge.
When I mentioned I was writing a newspaper article on Freemasonry, both made it clear they did not want to be included. I do understand their reasoning. The retired cop explained that during his time on the force he had been involved in a number of high-profile murder trials, and he had no wish to provide past antagonists with a method to find him or provide them with ammunition that might be used against him.
Similarly, the photographer who introduced me to Freemasonry declined to be named: "I was told never to mention Freemasonry around one of my clients because they have some strange ideas about it," he said.
I respect their wishes but it seems odd that the very act of being a Freemason still has the potential to compromise one's place of work. Apart from some gentle teasing, I've never had a negative reaction to the fact that I'm a Freemason, and neither has Farley. "I'm quite upfront about it," he says. "I take pride in being a Freemason and am always happy to discuss it with people. In my experience, people are curious and want to know more and I do my best to tell them what's it all about."
I am now in my third year as a Freemason and the journey has been challenging but rewarding and always fascinating. Oh, and that quip about the goat? It's an old Masonic joke.
Please be assured that no goats were harmed during my initiation into Freemasonry.
Set in stone
There are many theories about when and where Freemasonry began, but the most widely accepted view is that it started with stone masons who built castles and cathedrals when most people were illiterate.
As a mason gained experience, rather than give him a certificate that nobody could read, he was given certain words and signs to prove his level of experience when applying for another job. This is the origin of the secret words and handshakes that remain part of Masonic ritual.
Some time around the 1500s and 1600s operative Mason Lodges began to allow non-masons (or speculative masons) to join. Thus began Freemasonry as we know it today.
In New Zealand, Freemasonry exists under four constitutions. English (38 lodges), Irish (four lodges), Scottish (eight lodges) and New Zealand (261 lodges). There are approximately 10,000 Freemasons in New Zealand, down from a peak of 46,000 in the 1960s.
Each constitution runs its own charitable trusts intended to help fellow Masons in their time of need and the wider community at large. The Grand Lodge of New Zealand has two charitable funds, one being the Roskill Foundation that grew out of the Northern Masonic Association Trust Board that originally owned the Masonic retirement village in Hillsborough (now Selwyn Heights). This fund (Roskill Foundation) originated from the proceeds of the sale of the Roskill Village and is administered by all four Constitutions.
The Grand Lodge of NZ Grand Charity is solely administered by the Grand Lodge of New Zealand and, among other things, funds a chair of gerontology at the Auckland University.
In New Zealand at least three prime ministers have been Freemasons: William Massey, Sir Sidney Holland and Sir Keith Holyoake. New Zealand's national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, was written in the 1870s by Freemason Thomas Bracken.