By M. Ex Comp. Rev, C.T.F. Goy.
One of the greatest aids to human thought is the use of symbolism. It reveals itself to us every day of our existence – it is engraved into our ordinary life. We know that the right place for a sceptre is in the hands of a monarch, for it is the emblem of regal power and dignity.
We all use the handshake as a mode of greeting, for it is a sign of goodwill and friendship. What would Christmas be like without its symbols – its Christmas trees – its candles – its steaming holly-bedecked pudding upon the richly laden table. When the bridegroom stands beside his blushing bride in front of the altar, he reverently places a band of gold on her waiting finger, for that is the symbol of an unbroken wedded love. Watch the brave 13th Battalion rushing ashore “midst a hail of death” on that glorious Gallipoli morning, and the gallant bearer of the flag, with charmed life, leads the way up those withering slopes. Maybe, one of our most inspiring symbols is that piece of bunting we call the Union Jack. I repeat, that every day, in a hundred different ways we make use of the ancient art of symbolism.
Nowhere, however, is symbolism used more copiously, nor more perfectly, than in this great institution, to which we have the honour to belong. Right at the very beginning of our Masonic career, we are taught that “Masonry is a peculiar system of morality, based on allegory, and illustrated by symbols”. It cannot fail to be anything else, for its very foundations are rich in symbolism. Most of its ritual is based upon the building of that magnificent Temple at Jerusalem. Every stone, every beam, every pillar, every door, every ornament and every piece of furniture was significant with meaning and rich with symbolical import.
But the supreme foundation upon which the Order is based is that book dear to the heart of every true Mason, the Volume of the Sacred Law. Greatest of all works in the realm of literature, it is saturated from beginning to end with wonderful allegory, metaphor and symbolism. I have often wondered if the metaphoric uses in connection with the Divine character of the Most High have ever been listed.
He is a Rock, a Fortress, a King, a Shepherd, and so on. The Psalmist sings about “lifting up his eyes to the hills, from whence came his aid”. The valleys, the sea, the mountain peak, the rolling plains, the clouds, the sun, the moon and stars, the storm, the hurricane, and thousands of other things known to all men are profusely used with symbolical interpretation. In the Volume of the Sacred Law, metaphor is serenely and divinely captured from end to end. No wonder then, with such basic foundations, the genius of Freemasonry expresses itself so inspiringly and so artistically in symbolic form. Having established that fact, I now come to what is the very heart of my lecture on this occasion.
Symbolism is undoubtedly an art, and like other arts, only the true artist is able to use it to full advantage. Every real Mason must become an artist and see with an artist’s eye. Behind the material thing lies the spiritual. Hidden beneath the tangible objects are truths eternal.
One of the most telling quotations from the Volume of the Sacred Law is this: “We look not at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal”. Unfortunately it is not everybody who has the eyes to see, and the heart to comprehend. Two men stand gazing at a lovely landscape, one is unmoved while the other is thrilled beyond words. Two men sit listening to the same lovely music, and while one is listless and unemotional, the other’s heart is throbbing in unison with the exquisite melody. Two men see the same painting; one sees only daubs of colour on the canvas, but the other is transfixed and inspired as the soul of the master artist is clearly revealed to him.
The attendant in one of the world’s most famous galleries uttered a greater truth than he thought when he broke up a group of visitors, loudly criticising a world masterpiece with these words:
“My friends, the pictures in this gallery are no longer on trial it is the visitors who are on trial”.
How true that is! How true of Masonry, for it is no longer Masonry which is on trial. For centuries it has bared its proud bosom to the midnight storm, like the great mountain, and today it holds a tremendous place in the hearts of men. No, it is not on trial. It is we Masons of today who are on trial. Have we really seen its wonders? Have we really understood its great truths?
We lay a heavy emphasis upon the correctness and quality of our ceremonial, and upon the work in the Lodge room. Admittedly that is important as all our work must be done well. But if to become expert ritualists, and super correct ceremonialists is the highest wish of our hearts, surely we have sadly missed the point. The greatest emphasis must be placed on interpretation, on seeing the invisible. Tennyson sings, as he gazes on the blossom in his hand: – what you are to see “The flower plucked from the crannied wall, if I could tell ot and all, and all in all, I would know the secret of God and man”. That is what we need the artist’s eye, and the poet’s heart. There is one prayer, though not found in our Masonic rituals, should be on the lips of every Mason: “O God, Most High, give me the eyes to see; the ears to hear; and the heart to understand”.
Now I am endeavouring to draw near to the main object of this address. If we have the eyes to see we shall observe the big things beyond the small things and our Masonic horizon will be broad and deep. We shall see beyond the less important symbols to the greater ones beyond the palette, the brushes and the pigments, to the finished canvas to the completed picture. We soon become aware that Masonry is divided into Degrees. We are instructed that “there are several Degrees in Freemasonry, each kept separate and distinct, with peculiar secrets restricted to each”. That is quite true but each Degree can never stand by itself.
Rather, it is like an exquisite piece of coloured glass, which when fitted into its proper place makes a perfect whole. It is the full stained glass window we would now behold. There is unity in our system the whole fits perfectly together, and our task is to find that unity. Strange as it may seem, there are but few places where that unity is referred to.
One, is when the Second Degree Candidate studies the position of the square and compasses. But the outstanding reference to this unity is found in that gem of literary expression the history or retrospect in which we are invited to consider the Degrees through which we have passed. In that jewel of our ritual we have a glimpse of the whole picture. It is really an enlargement of that well known portion, which I now present. The Masonic canvas is a painting of an ideal human life. There it is expertly portrayed in symbols from beginning to end.
The Ashlars, which lie in open Lodge for us to contemplate upon, are illustrative of this great fact. They give a true statement upon every worthy life, the humble beginning and the splendid end, the rough start and the polished finish. Who will ever forget the stirring words of London “Punch” on the occasion of the burial of David Livingstone in Westminster:
“Open the door and bear him in.
To sleep with King and Statesman, Chief and Sage,
The missionary come of weaver kin,
But great by works that brook no lower wage,
He needs no epitaph to guard a name,
Which men shall prize while worthy work is known.
He lived — he died, for good; be that his fame,
Let marble crumble — this is Livingstone”.
There is the story of the Blantyre factory boy, buried in highest honour. It is a life like that depicted for us on the Masonic canvas. Look at it from the humble start to splendid finish from rough to perfect, the ideal experience of man’s career on earth.
Let us trace it then in this picture of our mystic art. The First Degree is undoubtedly representative of a life starting out. It starts as all life starts, without possessions. Masonry has never laid stress on gold. We often sing, “The man himself’s the gold”. It likewise lays no stress on status, or fame, or even academic qualifications. Never shall I forget, when accompanied by a timid fellow student at the Sydney University, we were waiting on the garden party guests with afternoon tea. One celebrated lady engaged us in conversation, during which she remarked, “I only recognise one aristocracy and that is the aristocracy of learning”. My timid pal, as quick as a flash, turned and said, “not quite right, Madam, the only aristocracy in all the world, worth the having, is the aristocracy of character”. How I admired him that day. That is what Masonry teaches us at the very beginning. But knowledge is essential, and the young life is eagerly searching for it.
Watch the poor Candidate knock on the Warden’s shoulders – he is knocking on the door of enlightenment and beseeching that it be opened unto him. As he proceeds he needs the higher type of knowledge – that of moral life. Just as with the primitive man, there came the great moment, when conscience awakened and sprang into action – just as in the life of our young man comes the greatest moment in his Masonic history – when he first sees the light. “Let there be Light” whoever can forget it? He is still only an apprentice, but he is an Entered Apprentice for all that. The Volume of the Sacred Law is to become the rule of all his actions through life, and here he gets his first lesson about the great part in his experience played by G.A.O.T.U. let us hope he will never forget that fact.
From Denmark comes a fine old fable about a spider which built its web away in the dim recesses of a Church roof and suffered a long, lean period, until one day, letting himself down a silken thread, he came to the open spaces and sunlight. Here he built a magnificent web, and from then on prospered and grew sleek and fat. But long afterward, when walking around his web one day, he chanced upon this silken thread stretching away above him. “What’s that for?” he cried, and, reaching up, he snapped it. His forgetfulness cost him dearly, for down came his lovely web, and great was the fall of it. The lesson is obvious, and the man who through prosperity or maturity forgets his God will meet with similar disaster and sorrow – as the Mason is early taught that the Volume of the Sacred Law is to be his guide through life not merely at the beginning, but right through to the end.
Watch him now as he enters the Second Degree. In spite of a frequent indifferent attitude of this Degree, it is of utmost importance. It is really the major part of any life it is the time of labour and represents that long period of a man’s lifetime work. He is now a Craftsman bearing the heat and burden of the day. It is the only Degree in which the Candidate has full light all through – not the dawn not the eventide but the full light of day.
In it, a man gains his greatest experience, the hidden mysteries of Nature and Science are unveiled to him. He is warned to distinguish the shibboleths of life to separate false from true. He is enjoined to watch his character once again – for he is bound by every tie, both moral and divine, to act upon the square towards all mankind. Above all, he is taught to make progress, to go step by step, up the winding stair onwards to that great middle chamber, where the sacred symbol will remind him of one, in whose integrity he can place the utmost reliance, and from whom he can receive his wages without scruple and without diffidence.
Here, of course, should come that wonderful Mark Degree. In Scotland there are four Degrees with the Mark between the Fellowcraft and Master Mason. Those who know it will easily recognise how one who faithfully fulfils his task according to the Divine Plan of the G.A.O.T.U. will in the end see his work acclaimed, and his good name assured. Thus life goes on, ever by square conduct, level steps, and upright intentions, until the end is in sight. The lovely Third Degree is obviously the closing Chapters, bravely as he lived, bravely must he die. As the ritual says: “It speaks for itself”. It is most interesting to observe that the emphasis is on character. Even though near the end, he is warned of the danger which our hero faced of betraying the trust reposed in him.
After all there is a danger, even at a late hour. One adage goes; “No fool as great as an old fool”; or, as one writer puts it. “The perils of youth are only superseded by the perils of old age”. Have we not all seen splendid lives go to pieces in the end. For one thing, maturity has to handle the problems of success, and success was the undoing of the spider. No wonder the candidate for the Third Degree is warned on the very threshold “to keep his passions and his prejudices within due bounds”, and is instructed once more, in such an appealing way, in the lesson of fidelity.
Can you not see the picture, then, of that ideal life in our Masonic picture? Can you not see the unity of our system? The very names, Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason prove such a contention. The words go forth in strength to establish until you reach stability, are suggestive. The ear of wheat represents a full life, while just as Tubal Cain was a great artificer, so does everyone who is earnest finally qualify. Even the import of “worldly possessions” is there, for a man slowly gets together home, wife, children, and material comforts.
What of the tools? He starts with the 24″ gauge, the chisel and common gavel, for measuring and rough work are at the beginning. As he goes on there are tools requiring the skill of an artisan the square, level and plumb rule; but in the end it is with the pencil he records on his memory the good things he has done, as he runs out the skirrett over the way he has come, and with the compasses describes the circle of his influence and achievements.
Finally, the system is not complete without the Holy Royal Arch Degree. Here he is ushered right into the presence of the Most High. Substituted things now give way to the genuine, for here it is that all secrets are at last disclosed. The great thrill in the hearts of all Royal Arch Candidates is but a glimmer of that gladder and more wonderful experience of every true man when at last he goes beyond the veil into that Holy presence. Now can you visualise the whole picture in that lovely stained glass window, which is built out of the exquisite parts of our Masonic symbolism. Now can you see why we all need to be artists with eyes that see the invisible. Above all, can you not see how much we need to hold close to the great teachings of our Order, so that the story of the ideal life contained in our Masonic system, may become the real life story of each and every one of us.
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March 25, 2917