(This is a paper I amended for presentation at Beacon #190 some years ago. The original author was Dan Doron and was found on-line: Bro. C. Johnston PM)
From time to time it’s not a bad idea to stop and think a bit. This is what I’d like to do this evening: to share some random thoughts with you.
We are all familiar with the definition of Freemasonry as ‘a peculiar system of Morality, veiled in allegories and described by symbols’. This definition is so wide, that although it sounds meaningful it needs some clarifications. Do we, indeed, have a moral system, or is it a Philosophy of Life, which centers on moral principles? What makes our system unique is not these principles of morality but the method by which we transmit these principles through symbols; – actually these are physical objects to which we accord moral meanings.
With these symbols we have a rather unique system of education in at least two aspects:
First of all, we put the stress on the personal responsibility of each Brother, who is at one and the same time is both the trainee, and the trainer, as well as his own judge. Looking at our system in this manner makes one wonder how it still works after 300 years! …
Secondly, symbols are a sort of a shorthand language. Every human society makes use of emblems to transmit its principles and moral values to the young. We use emblems as symbols of abstract ideas. The ‘things’ we use as symbols have no intrinsic symbolic meaning. It is we that accord this symbolic meaning to that ‘thing‘ we call emblem. What is important is that symbols are part of every human culture and that they give rise to emotions in us. A flag is but a piece of cloth with a certain design and colors. Yet as soon as I see or hear the word ‘flag’ I immediately see in my inner eye a very certain flag; my flag. The feelings aroused in me express my identifying with the group I belong to. The more I feel I belong, the deeper will those feelings be. This emblem is just a trigger to deep meanings and feelings in me, which are part of my culture and nationality. Just like the bell to Pavlov’s dog, only he connected it with food and his biological needs; with us it is not a reflexive system but a response imbedded in our super-ego and an expression of our value-system.
Now think how difficult a task it is for newly made brethren: they have to learn which emblems we use and what each one of them signify. This is the learning of data. Before the data itself is absorbed and made part and parcel of their concepts, they have to acquire the data. They will start to have a symbolic meaning only after these young brothers have gone with us a mile or two; until they will begin to react emotionally, not mentally. We often forget how difficult this process is. Moreover: we often forget to tell these newer brethren that they should have patience with themselves in this process of assimilating the data and its meanings.
I would like to pause here for a moment to get your opinion as to what is THE symbol of freemasonry or when you think of Freemasonry – what symbol do you think of?
(Hopefully most will say the S&C) – Public perception – all encompassing
Why are Square and Compasses more important than other Symbols or working tools?
Without compasses, no accurate square can be made: without a square no building can be erected. Square and compasses are universally the symbol of a Master Mason; of Freemasonry.
Symbolists have read many meanings into both these tools of a Mason. Both symbols are much older than Freemasonry; Chinese manuscripts give them a Masonic significance (although there was no Freemasonry in that country) two thousand years ago. No symbols in Freemasonry offer so many possible interpretations. But many symbols mean different things to different men; each interprets according to his best light.
In modern Masonic rituals, the compasses are “dedicated to the Craft” and are emblematic of the restraint of violent passions. Here “passions” refers to any over-emotional lack of control. It is passions in the larger sense; intemperance, temper, unjust judgment, intolerance, selfishness, that the spiritual compasses circumscribe. The positions of the square and compasses in the three degrees are universally symbols of light, further light, more light.
I would propose to you that the S&C is in reality the “Corporate” symbol of Freemasonry or that symbol which defines the overall philosophy of the organization. It is the “Public” symbol,
I would like to suggest that the symbol of Freemasonry – that we, as individuals, should think of is not the S&C, but rather the immovable jewels described in the EA initiation – The Rough and Smooth ASHLERs.
What is the symbolism of the Ashlars?
In architecture, an ashlar is a squared stone. Masonically, the ashlars are “rough” – not dressed, squared, or polished – and “perfect” – ready for use in wall or other structure. The information given in most rituals is scanty and does not include the greater meanings which symbolists find in these two stones. Students direct attention to the fact that the perfect ashlar is made from the rough ashlar entirely by a process of taking away, removal of unwanted material. Nothing is added to a rough ashlar to make it perfect. The analogy to the Mason, who is a building stone in the spiritual temple of Masonry, is that the perfect man is within the rough man, and that perfection is to be obtained by a process of taking away the “vices and superfluities of life.”
Every beautiful statue ever carved from stone was always within that stone, needing only the tool of the artist to take away the material not wanted and leave the statue, which was there since the stone was first formed.
Therefore I would like to change the name of tonight’s paper to:
Working on My Stone
When asked: what is Freemasonry? One might say that it is a human organization which adopted the tools and ideas of Mediaeval stone masons, in order to educate its member’s moral principles. It seems a far better definition of what our Craft is than ‘a unique system of Morality…’
What is implied in this definition is the uniqueness of our educational system: we give our new Brother working tools and tell him to work on his Rough Ashlar, which he himself is. Actually, this is an educational system void of any remuneration or physical recognition. Although in closing the lodge the Senior Warden says “after seeing that every Brother has had his due” – what we receive is also symbolic. We don’t even give the new brother a real measuring-rod by which to judge how well he worked on his stone. Nor do we have any system of sanctions which can be applied during his learning period. What I’m trying to say is, that herein lies the uniqueness of our system; it is the difference between leading the candidate to educate himself, as opposed to training him.
Can you see the difference?
As I said before, we put before a newly initiated brother a rather difficult task: we expect that he absorbs our value-system and turns it into a part of his personal Philosophy of Life, that he will be his own censor, and that even the need to work on his stone will come from within him. I’m sure that when you look at it in this way you can well realize how high this fence is we put before our new Brethren. Actually it is high even for every one of us…
We often say that “Freemasonry makes good people better”. Another statement I’m not fond of. After all, Freemasonry is not a living being and therefore it has no willpower, nor the ability to ‘do’ anything. Only we men can make anything.
Also, and this is the crux of the matter: our educational system transfers the onus to the brother himself; so, it is not Freemasonry but only the brother himself who can make himself better. Then, of course, ‘better’ is comparative. Better from what? Better in what? I hope you’ll agree that this phrase is just a platitude which sounds meaningful but signifies nothing.
Now we come to the real issue: in daily life, how can I know that I have actually turned the principles of Freemasonry into practice – made them a part of me? How do I know that I’ve succeeded in this self-educating? How do I know that I have worked on my stone well? I don’t mean empty slogans or philosophizing; I mean a real application of humanistic and moral values to my daily life.
Every case of offence towards a fellow man can be a topic for consideration of these principals! Every injustice. Am I applying the moral principles of the Craft in my daily life? Are they my measuring rod? Or am I just going to the lodge but come out empty; just going through the motions? When I pass a man on the street corner do I feel the need to search for a coin in my pocket? Have I phoned a sick brother? Does any offence against a fellow man or an act of injustice stir me? And what about my tolerance? Does it exist or doesn’t it? And how do I act with my family?
The bottom line is the application of the principles of Freemasonry. It is true that it does not always come naturally; I know I need constant working on my stone.
Where does this journey begin? It seems to me that the Charge in the N.E. corner puts the stress on the vital aspect needed for this self-education: sensitivity to the needs of my fellow-men coupled with a constant awareness of my behaviour and attitudes, overcoming the natural egotism imbedded in each one of us. It is a constant aspiration towards an ideal which may never be fully achieved, but just like my early days in the Boy Scouts: “I promise to do my best…” which in our case is the principle of Freemasonry.
My brand of Masonry does not involve active promotion. I feel we are not missionaries of our Craft. We wait until a man turns to us. This is important because we want candidates to have the urge to fill their life with a value-system. Without this urge there is little chance that after having become a Mason they will work on their stone.
Furthermore: our Freemasonry does not get involved in politics – as an organization – but if each of us works on his stone properly we will contribute to a higher standard of morality in all the circles of our life. We hope that just like the ripples created by a stone when it falls into water, so will we influence the pond we live in. Indeed this is a bit idyllic, but I do not know of any other system which will make us constantly aware of the need to work on our stone, leaving the onus on us to do so.
Finally, I’d like to turn our eyes to the issue of making new Masons: do we prefer an elite minority or should we aspire to make as many Masons as we can? In my view the criterion should be: only those who feel the need to make their lives more meaningful. They don’t have to be rich; they don’t have to be philosophers; they only need to have the need to add that little bit of meaning to their lives.
- Will we succeed in turning ourselves into a perfect ashlar?
- Most probably a goal we will not fully achieve!
- Am I satisfied with my own work on my stone?
- Certainly – well most of the time – but not always. – I’m still working on it
- Is it worth the effort?
- I certainly believe it is!
- What do you think?