What is Freemasonry?
Freemasonry is a charitable and social non-profit organisation, which promotes the moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth of its members.
It is a fraternity of men who feel that honour, respect, equality, and morality are of high importance. They have a belief in a Supreme Being, even though each Freemason may have a different idea of who or what that Supreme Being is.
A gathering of such men often creates an environment of harmony and religious tolerance. To maintain this harmony, religious and political discussions are banned at their meetings, as they are considered to be the two great dividers of men.
Freemasons correctly meet as a Lodge, not in a Lodge, the word "Lodge" referring more to the people assembled than the place of assembly. However, in common usage, Masonic premises are often referred to as "Lodges". Masonic buildings are also sometimes called "Temples" ("of Philosophy and the Arts"). In many countries, Masonic Centre or Hall has replaced Temple to avoid arousing prejudice and suspicion. Several different Lodges, as well as other Masonic or non-Masonic organisations, often use the same premises at different times.
Lodges within a jurisdiction are represented administratively by a Grand Lodge. Grand Lodges are independent and sovereign bodies that govern Masonry in a given country, state, or geographical area. There is no single overarching governing body that presides over world-wide Freemasonry; connections between different jurisdictions depend solely on mutual recognition.
Inside the Lodge
A Masonic meeting is normally composed of a business part, a ceremonial part, and a light meal afterwards refered to as the "Festive Board".
The business part of a Masonic meeting is not unlike the business part of a meeting of any other club or organisation. The minutes of the previous meeting are confirmed, the Secretary informs the members of any inwards or outwards correspondence, the Treasurer reports on the Lodge's finances, and motions are put forward and voted on.
The ceremonial part of the meeting is where the Lodge instructs the new Candidate in the teachings of Freemasonry. The lessons of Freemasonry consists of three "Degrees" which are delivered via an initiatory system, meaning each lesson builds upon the last one. To ensure the effectiveness of these lessons, the Candidate is kept in the dark about further Degrees until he has mastered his current one.
This is one of the main reasons Freemasons conduct their meetings in private. As well as the necessary confidentiality any organisation would ask for concerning its business meetings, Freemasons don't want to spoil the journey of their three Degrees for those who have yet to participate. It would be a bit like someone telling you how a movie ends when you're only half way through watching it.
In these lessons, Freemasons use the metaphors of stonemasons' tools and implements, against the allegorical backdrop of the building of King Solomon's Temple, to convey "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."
Masons do have secret modes of recognition. They could hardly be considered a mystery in this day and age, with various exposés which spell them out being publicly available. So why do Freemasons bother to swear to keep them a secret, if everybody already knows them? Its a mark of honour, proof that you can keep a promise. Even though these secrets are practically common knowledge, a Mason swears never to be the source of this information, as proof that he can keep his word.
The Festive Board is the social part of the evening. Members usually socialise over a light supper where it is common for toasts to be proposed, ocassionally brief presentations are given, and often there will be a raffle.
Outside the Lodge
Freemasons will often meet up outside of their regular meetings for social events, just like any group of friends would. This helps to strengthen the bonds between the members, as well as provide an avenue for the members' partners and families to get involved.
Quite often Freemasons will organise to raise funds for a charity of their choice. Charity is one of the most important aspects of Freemasonry, and the charitable collections and community work serve as a great way to help the community and socialise with one another at the same time.