Published 12:00 am Monday, October 28, 2013

SALISBURY — When you first hear about 18th century classical music playing, the burning of incense, the candlelight setting and the periods for meditation, you might ask whether the Masons’ new Sophia Lodge is filled with flower children.

Even the lodge’s meal after the regular meeting is called the “Agape,” the ancient Greek word for love, and it’s enjoyed within the backdrop of brotherly love.

But the Sophia Lodge — the first “Traditional Observance” lodge in North Carolina — is anything but laid-back. It actually offers its members a harder-core version of Freemasonry that Lodge Master Larry Thompson says isn’t for everyone.

The lodge dues are much higher. There’s a dress code in which tuxedos are encouraged — a minimum requirement is a black suit, white shirt and black tie.

The Agape, always catered and usually held at a local restaurant, is filled with formal toasts steeped in the tradition of Freemasonry and discussions of papers presented during the regular meeting.

Those papers might touch on topics such as symbolism, initiation, ritual, metaphysics, philosophy and art and their relationship to Masonry.

These are not lodge meetings devoted to the reading of minutes or payment of bills. There are no discussions about social activities or upcoming charity fundraisers.

Rather, the Traditional Observance lodge tries “to create an atmosphere where members can learn the lessons of Freemasonry and how they can be inculcated into their daily lives,” says Dennis V. Chornenky, president of the Masonic Restoration Foundation.

N.C. Grand Master Dewey Preslar says the Sophia Lodge could be for Masons who feel like they’re missing something at their local lodge.

Masons from across North Carolina — many of them high-ranking leaders within the fraternity — met in Salisbury last week for a ceremony signifying the Sophia Lodge’s establishment.

It is not yet considered among the state’s 371 chartered Masonic lodges, but Thompson says if everything goes as planned, North Carolina’s grand master will charter Sophia Lodge by September 2014.

The Masonic Restoration Foundation, which provides education and support for Traditional Observance lodges, lists only 39 of these kinds of lodges in the United States.

The name “Sophia” comes from a Greek word for “wisdom.”

As of now, Sophia Lodge has 34 members with another application in the works. Preslar — the state’s first grand master from Salisbury in 75 years — is a member, as are five of nine Grand Lodge officers in Raleigh.

North Carolina has roughly 44,500 Masons.

The ceremony last Thursday night drew 51 Masons, reflecting how important this kind of lodge is, Preslar says.

“It’s generating a lot more interest than we thought,” adds Thompson, who first became a Mason in 2000 as a member of Blackmer Lodge No. 12 in Mount Gilead.

Though all the current Sophia Lodge participants belong to lodges elsewhere, Sophia Lodge eventually will be initiating men new to the Masonic order.

“This could be your only lodge, if you wanted it to be,” Thompson says.

The Traditional Observance lodges are characterized by a much more solemn, ritualistic approach. Members and officers are quiet as they ceremoniously march into the lodge room and take their seats.

Traditional Observance calls for periods of silence and meditation. A Tibetan singing bowl resonates during one time of reflection, when the Masons are contemplative and trying to push their everyday thoughts and worries from their minds.

As part of the schedule, the classical music played is meant to reacquaint the members with its relationship to Masonic traditions.

Thompson says Traditional Observance emphasizes the use of the five senses — a reason, for example, for the singing bowl, music, low lighting and burning of incense. The focus also is on introspection, “trying to be the best we can be,” Thompson explains.

After the lodge meeting is formally closed, Traditional Observance calls for the members to gather at the altar for a ceremony known as the Chain of Union.

Chornenky says it is “meant to symbolize the common commitment to Masonic ideals and connection with other Masons from all over the world.”

Besides the presentation of papers at regular lodge meetings, Sophia Lodge will be scheduling guest speakers on other dates through the year.

Those speakers most likely will be authors and lecturers on Masonic observances, Thompson says.

The demographics behind Masons look to be getting older. The average age of Freemasons in North Carolina is 60.5.

Maybe surprisingly, a younger age group seems to be drawn to the Traditional Observance lodges such as Sophia, whose average age is 51. The youngest member is 33; the oldest, 72.

“This type of lodge is growing across the country,” Preslar says.

As grand master, Preslar has constituted two new lodges this year. Sophia is the second.

Preslar’s year as grand master winds up Dec. 7.

“We’ve had a great year,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or