The following was presented January 19, 2021, by Education Officer Joe West.
Masonry comes with ritual, and many men care about getting that ritual word-perfect. This gives rise to the “prompter,” the person who helps or corrects another Mason reciting ritual. The prompter suggests the next word if you’ve forgotten, or corrects you if you make a small error. Prompters seem to me a part of the culture of Freemasonry; how the Craft keeps its ritual correct over a period of time.
They’re also the subject of endless jokes. This post is about the goods and the bads of prompting, and what I have found works well. Older more experienced Masons may be nodding their heads along, and may find this obvious. Younger Masons may find some useful tips.
Do We Even Want Prompters?
Yes, we definitely do. The ritual is important to the identity of Freemasonry. The word placement and order matters, and in some jurisdictions it is taught mouth-to-ear, and so repetition and memorization is the only way to preserve and transmit the ritual. Prompters actually have two purposes:
1. To help the speaker learn;
2. To reinforce for the entire lodge that correctness does matter.
The culture in a lodge that tries to get ritual right, is in my view more important than whether you get it right this time. Remembering the perfect ashlar, perfection is not the point. Effort applied and improvement is.
The jokes show though that prompting regularly goes wrong, and it really does. So let’s take a look at 3 big problems, and 2 simple solutions.
Problem: Too Many Prompters
This is the first main problem. Speakers get easily confused when corrected multiple times by different people. It gets even worse when the prompters’ memory isn’t perfect and their recommendations disagree (this has happened to me several times). The real problem is that these extra people are self-appointed.
Solution: When practicing or performing ritual, your lodge should name one prompter who knows the ritual well. Everyone else should be silent. It’s that simple. Self-appointed prompters do not have a role in the ritual and they should not invent one for themselves.
Problem: Aggressive Prompters
An aggressive prompter needs to hear every word correctly as soon as humanely possible. They are like a taut bow string, personally invested in your errors, and demanding perfection. They are not friendly, and they are not there to help the speaker. Perhaps they want to make an example of someone. Aggressive prompters don’t provide speakers space to recall a word, or take a pause. A prompter shouldn’t be personally invested in the speaker’s errors, you want him to be invested in the learning process and the ritual.
Solution: Ritual knowledge isn’t the only thing that matters in a prompter. In our lodge, we want to appraise one another of our errors and aid a reformation, but to do so “in the most friendly manner.” Who is chosen as the prompter matters, and needs to be a friendly and approachable because they are acting as a teacher to the speaker.
Well that’s a problem for all of us throughout our lives most likely, but it comes up with prompting a lot. Why are you prompting someone else? Is it to get the ritual right, to teach that person something, or to show everyone else how smart you are? I find that the “Grumpy Past Masters” who are the most aggressive, and also the newest guys who just learned their catechism and want to show off what they know are some of the worst prompters. In both cases, it seems to me they’re a bit wrapped up in themselves and prompting ritual work is just how that comes out.
Solution: None. Putting your ego in its proper place is a task for every Mason at all times. In the interim, try to pick the friendliest knowledgeable prompter as your one go-to.
Bonus Round — How to Handle Prompting Situations
What happens if the prompter gives the speaker the wrong prompt?
My advice is to let it go in the moment, to avoid breaking up the ritual with a disagreement and "going meta". Everyone blanks sometimes, knowledgeable prompters too. If it happens frequently, you have the wrong prompter. But otherwise let it go. Remember: perfection isn’t the goal, effort applied and improvement to the lodge is.
What happens if a more serious error is made, or a piece skipped?
Some of Masonic ritual has been likened to a kind of a stage play. What do thespians do when a serious mistake happens? Do they go back and repeat the scene? No, they roll with it and keep moving. Keeping people in the moment of what’s happening is important. Prompting a few words is fine, redoing a section is not. The main lesson here is to know who is ready to perform the ritual in the first place.