In a fascinating essay written in 1896, the Freemason J.E. Thomas of
South Africa wrote:
To assist in the ceremonial duties
of the Lodge without seeking
to unfold the symbolism, is to remain satisfied with the externals
only, those husks which envelope and protect the grain.
is to ascertain the internal truths of which symbolism is but the
index. For instance, to what extent are the fraternal relations
between my fellow Freemasons and myself different to those which
I hold with my neighbours and friends?
With these words, the author places brotherhood firmly at the centre,
both of our masonic existence, and of our initiatic quest.
Brotherhood, the bonding between human beings, exists of course on
different levels and in different spheres of human experience.
In the profane world, brotherhood may be more often relied on in times of
danger and distress than in the hour of ease and comfort.
There is ample evidence of bonding between men on the field of battle, or
between those caught up in a natural disaster.
And after each of the world wars of the twentieth century, the numbers of
lodges and consequently of Freemasons increased substantially, testament to the
search for fraternal comradeship in their daily lives by men who had experienced
it so dramatically in war. But the
answer to Brother Thomas’ question above may be to say that masonic
brotherhood transcends danger or necessity, and requires that we exercise the
same selfless qualities towards our masonic Brethren in everyday life and in
everyday situations. I should be
towards my Brother such a mainstay that my own pillar of strength should mirror
his own in any situation in life, whether that situation be a negative or a
positive one. But I believe that,
to practise true brotherhood masonically, it is a prerequisite that I first
learn to practise it in respect of myself.
Let me explain.
If I am to achieve the desired close bond of brotherhood with men and
women of any group, it requires that I fully understand my Brethren.
And to understand them, to know them, I first have to know myself, to
achieve true gnosis as the Greeks call it, most accurately translated as
the Act of Knowing.
If I can come to truly know myself, and therefore to understand myself,
with all my virtues, vices, merits and failings, then I can begin to validate
myself, to acknowledge my uniqueness as a part of the Creation, a part of the
Cosmos. Through this validation, I
achieve some measure of self-esteem. This
is neither pride nor prejudice; it is being still at my own centre, and knowing.
‘Man, know thyself, then thou shalt know the universe’ wrote
Pythagoras. So it is with
Brotherhood, since only at that centre of my own being will I be able to look
outwards, and be able to esteem my Brother or Sister, to experience their
humanity alongside my own.
In this context, it is also important to understand the principle of
tolerance. In today’s world, in
religion as in philosophy, what is true for me may not be that which is true for
my Brother. The plumb-rule, one of
the most important symbols in Freemasonry, denotes correctness on many levels,
and through that it strives to denote that which is true.
Truth however is elusive. What
was shown to be scientifically true in previous centuries has been superseded by
advances in scientific research, and is now no longer true.
It was once deemed impossible for men to explore space.
Advances in material science have superseded that.
On the other hand, a mathematical equation formulated many hundreds of
years ago is still true – one has only to think again of Pythagoras.
Our task, as Brethren, is to achieve a ‘fusion point’, where the
religious or philosophical truth held by my Brother, a truth mutable or
immutable depending on the individual viewpoint, becomes united with that truth
held by me. This has less to do
with sacrificing my own strongly-held beliefs than with acknowledging the
parallel truth of the belief held by my Brother.
Correctness is transitory – truth ought to be absolute, and brotherhood
rests on us being tolerant of many truths.
When a person comes to a lodge for initiation, he is basically saying
‘I am going to be your Brother, and you will be my Brethren’, a commitment
as basic and profound as any that can be made by a human being.
It is the oneness extolled by Buddhism.
But the tolerance required to do this to perfection is not a passive
tolerance. We are required to
practise tolerance actively, in making sure that the brotherhood is
all-inclusive. In a lodge I visited
there was a very disputatious Brother. One
of the members expressed the view that this Brother had been sent to us, in
order to test our tolerance.
Let me give you an example of how tolerance can be engendered by close
companionship. There was an
offensive confrontation some years ago in Belfast, in an area where a catholic
school is situated in a predominantly protestant area.
At that time, for the catholic mothers to take their children to school
in the morning, they had to run a gauntlet of hostile protestants, shouting
abuse and menacing them, adults and children alike, shameful behaviour by any
standards. Some time later, a
television company, in the ‘reality television’ now so popular, devised a
programme in which adults from both sides of the sectarian divide in Belfast
spent some time, outside Ireland, camping in a desolate and mountainous area,
where they had to come to terms with their primitive surroundings.
This environment required that they all worked together in some sort of
harmony, without which their day-to-day endurance would not have been possible.
The participants were obliged to cooperate in all their activities,
simply to ensure survival. They
were subjected to the severest tests of fortitude and inner strength. Among them were two mothers – one a parent of a child at
that school, the other a mother who had shouted abuse. These two had come on the programme in ignorance of each
other’s part in that episode, but as their relationship to each other slowly
developed, they became aware of their previous confrontation, and began to learn
to accommodate their differences. They
had begun better to understand the sterile ‘blame culture’, that barren
landscape lying between, and alienating them from, each other. Towards the end of the programme, these two women were teamed
together in an abseiling exercise, the protestant woman suspended over a very
frightening sheer rock-face, paralysed by fear. The catholic woman, her former antagonist, paid out the rope
from the top and, to encourage the other, called out the words we all long to
hear from time to time when we feel abandoned or helpless, the words which
resonate to us from the memories of our mother in our childhood. ‘Trust
me,’ she said, ‘I won’t let
you fall’, among the most evocative words one human being can speak to
another, spoken here by a woman to her former enemy.
This was active tolerance at its best, in extreme circumstances.
Mutuality without tolerance is an unstable building.
Mutuality requires not only physical closeness, but closeness of spirit,
impossible if tolerance is missing. The
verb ‘tolerate’ is of course latin in origin, meaning ‘bear’,
‘carry’ or ‘support’. This
aspect of mutuality is illustrated by Laurence Dermott, the first Grand
Secretary of the ‘Antients’ Grand Lodge, who wrote in his seminal work Ahiman
For human society cannot subsist
without concord, and the
maintenance of good offices; for, like the working of an arch
of stone, it would fall to the ground provided one piece did
not properly support another.
The integrity of such an arch is often said to depend on the keystone,
but in fact its integrity depends on every stone, the smallest and the
newest, together with the largest and the most important.
It is of course in this respect like a chain, whose efficacy depends on every
constituent link, and not only those links perceived as the strongest or most
important. This is what we mean
when we speak of equality among Brethren.
At the time when I was initiated into Freemasonry, it was commonplace for
the senior members of the lodge to say, with a certain amount of
self-importance, ‘When you have been in Freemasonry as long as I have, you
will be qualified to express a view on it’.
The implication was, that I should simply listen and learn, and not say
too much. That is, of course, not a
valid standpoint, however much humility is needed.
There is a tendency in some masonic jurisdictions for masonic rank to
play a large part in our activities. Grand
Rank awarded as an active, administrative rank, awarded in respect of merit or
achievement, is necessary and laudable, but the awarding of past ranks in
profusion can only lead to corrosion of brotherhood. One younger Brother ironically described this aspect to me as
‘masonic graffiti’. The joy of
hermetic thought was that the teacher taught, and the student in time became
himself a teacher, qualified to teach others.
This did not place him on a higher plane, and those who do so place
themselves, are hindering themselves on their masonic journey, since the
equality we experience as Brethren is what makes the journey possible.
In today’s world, I hope to learn from a new aspirant as much as, or
more than, he may learn from me. It
is true that I can instruct him in the form
of ritual, allegory and symbol of which he may not yet be aware.
But if I fail to take note of how he invests those forms with his own
unique interpretation, I shall be the loser, and Freemasonry will lose not only
its diversity, but its vitality as well. From
this it follows that, as a member of my lodge, however ‘experienced’ I may
be, I am dependant on the most newly-initiated Brother. This
is true. If I claim, as some do,
that I have nothing to learn from a new, ‘inexperienced’ Freemason, then I
am making a grave mistake, for myself as well as for the Brotherhood.
But central to all of this is the notion that I must first attend to my own
moral progress. A manuscript was
discovered in 1696 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, setting out the purported
examination of a member of the masonic fraternity by King Henry VI:
Do Masons love one another mightily
as is said?
Yes, verily; and that cannot be otherwise, for the better men are,
the more they love one another.
And can we come nearer to understanding the nature of this brotherly
love? Many masonic jurisdictions
world wide lay great stress on the practice of charity to those in need, a
charity which most often expresses itself by financial assistance.
In those jurisdictions Freemasons of course also support those of their
own members who need assistance, often believing that the exercise of brotherly
love requires no more. The
brotherhood of Freemasons, to be perfectively effective, does require more.
It requires the seizing, daily, of opportunities to cultivate a spirit of
true brotherhood in those ways that do not involve financial assistance, by
lightening a Brother’s burden, by gladdening his heart, by gentle words of
Paradoxically, although the pursuit of self-knowledge and moral progress
and development is an individual pursuit, to engage in it within a group such as
a lodge or other masonic
fraternity, increases its effectiveness, as though the force of the whole is
greater than the sum of its several parts.
It is as though each member of the group acts as a catalyst for the
transforming power of Freemasonry
for all of his Brethren. It is this
that truly sets Freemasonry apart from other fraternal pursuits, and this is
possibly the best answer to Brother Thomas’ quotation cited at the beginning.
If the pursuit of brotherhood with my Brethren requires first a pursuit
of that brotherhood, that humanity, which is individual to me, then I need to
look at that centre from which that humanity springs, the centre within myself.
I am reminded that different jurisdictions in Freemasonry use different
words for this centre, if not different concepts.
For too long, the question of belief in a Supreme Being has tragically
divided Freemasons, when it is indeed that essence which ought to unite.
How does my new-made Brother view his own humanity and his place in the
cosmos? In my own masonic
jurisdiction, a belief in a Supreme Being is a sine qua non of
membership, an immutable condition. An
aspirant came before my lodge committee for interview, and was asked if he had
such a belief. After a long pause,
he said ‘It depends what you mean by “believe”’.
He told me afterwards, without irony, that it was like asking if a wave
believed in the sea. He regarded
himself as a part of the Creation. How
should he question, therefore, the very life-force of which he was himself a
I believe that, in this sense, Brethren from different jurisdictions,
so-called believers and so-called unbelievers, might like to examine this
question in a common discourse. We
might like to consider whether it is simply language that divides us.
Pierre Mollier, Grand Librarian of the Grand Orient of France, remembers
a senior member of the Grand Orient saying to him, ‘Pour le Grand Orient, le
vrai athéisme n’existe pas’, and if we can, collectively, come to
acknowledge the spark of Being – divinity or humanity – within
ourselves, we will already have made a great leap forward.
Brotherhood, I believe, requires that, in the process of validating each
other’s humanity in the way I have spoken about, we seek out that spark in our
Brother which does make him unique and estimable.
We call ourselves Free-Masons. In
the same way that we need air to breathe, we need to be free, and that freedom
exists, for Freemasons, on so many levels.
It can be freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom from dogma,
freedom of positive purpose, freedom of speech, freedom from political or
ideological coercion. I believe
there is another freedom, perhaps the most important of them all, and that is,
the freedom to serve our Brethren. According
to tradition, there was supposed to be an inscription on the Round Table of King
Arthur which read:
In seeking to serve others, we