In five minutes on the Internet, you can find all of the Masons' passwords and secrets," said Brent Morris. "But I'm not going to tell you. It's a matter of honor."
Don't expect to glean such Hollywood-hyped tidbits from Morris' coming presentation and book-signing at the central Howard County library in Columbia at 7 p.m. Thursday. But do prepare yourself for an authoritative discussion of Freemasonry, as outlined in Morris' new book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry.
It is the latest in a litany of accomplishments for Morris, 56, a former longtime resident of Columbia (he now lives in Laurel) and a past Master of the Patmos Lodge No. 70.
Morris worked his way through college and graduate school as a magician, earning master's and doctoral degrees from Duke University in mathematics and another master's in computer science from the Johns Hopkins University.
He holds two U.S. patents on computers, has been a U.S. representative to the International Standards Organization in computer security and for 25 years was an executive of the Cryptologic Mathematician Program at the National Security Agency.
Morris is managing editor of The Scottish Rite Journal -- a bimonthly publication of the Scottish Rite Masonic organization, perhaps not an expected position for a math person. But Morris' mathematical path reveals a constant passion for the history and tradition of Freemasonry.
Morris has been a Mason -- a member of the Ancient, Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons -- for 35 years. The Masons are the world's oldest and largest fraternal organization, dating to the late 1600s. Their widely recognized symbol -- the compass superimposed on the square -- reflects the organization's roots as a craft guild for stonemasons.
Interest in Freemasonry has been heightened by the publication of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which mentions the organization in connection with the Knights Templar, a separate group under the umbrella organization.
"Everything involved in The Da Vinci Code is generating interest," Morris said. "Freemasonry is mentioned about a half-dozen times, as an example of a hierarchical organization that preserves secrets and advances people after they prove themselves."
Freemasonry has been accused of being satanic, organizing World Wars I and II and aspiring to dominate the world. Morris said he hopes his book helps to clarify what Freemasonry is all about.
For example, he said, the secrets of the early Masons fell into two categories, trade secrets and membership secrets. Cutting stone and making mortar are examples of the former.
"There's even some evidence that one [secret] was the geometry required to make a right angle," Morris said.
Under the guild system, an apprentice had to work up to master mason status over a period of years. By the time he attained it, he probably would have to move to find work. Passwords and handshakes evolved to prove craft competency. "It was like showing your union dues card," Morris said.
Between the 1600s and 1717, the organization made the transition from a craft guild to a gentleman's club. The three basic organizational levels -- apprentice, fellowcraft, and master Mason -- were retained. But the literal tools of the past -- the square, compass, plumb, level, gavel and trowel -- became symbolic tools. The symbols are used to teach moral and ethical values; for example, "squaring your actions by the square of morality."
Masons proceed through the three basic levels, or degrees. "In the U.S., it takes about six months," Morris said. "In England and Europe, it can take two to four years."
Morris describes the Masons as a social organization. In his book, he writes: "Freemasonry appeals to men who want to have fellowship with other men with high ethical and moral values, and who acknowledge the importance of God in their lives."
In 2005, there were 1.7 million Freemasons in the United States.
"Some members come for the pie and conversation after the meetings," Morris said. "One of the things I like about a lodge event is that it's sort of a brief asylum from the outside world. There are a set of rules; it's an orderly universe. Of course, I know that 10 feet away, just outside the door, is reality. For me, a lodge meeting is very relaxing."
Active Masons may choose to join the Scottish Rite, which offers extensive education beyond the first three levels, from the fourth degree to the 32nd degree, up to an honorary 33rd degree, which is awarded for exceptional service.
Morris has attained the 33rd degree and, in 1999, was awarded the 33rd Degree Grand Cross of the Court of Honor, the highest honor given (by the Southern Jurisdiction) for service to society at large or Freemasons.
President Gerald R. Ford was awarded the Grand Cross in 1975.
Becoming a Mason "becomes a shared experience," Morris said. "But it's an experience that I have shared with George Washington, with Robert Burns, with Bob Evans."
Brent Morris will discuss Freemasonry at the central library, 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, at 7 p.m. Thursday. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org.