PS Review of Freemasonry

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"We may accidentally stumble across the actual content of Freemasonry and discover truths in it of such poignant beauty and wonder, that we start to ask ourselves why we never realised it before."
by W.Bro. Julian Rees

Julian Rees - INDEX of 'Craft in Spirit' Column

Julian Rees - INDEX of Masonic Papers

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            I hope my readers will indulge me, if I give them a rather banal example of unity. It was an image, this spring, of about ten or twelve very small ducklings, who had been temporarily separated from their mother, and were wandering about fairly aimlessly, and at no small risk to themselves, near a busy road. Three things particularly caught my attention about this scene: the apparent lack of fear, the complete harmony of movement between the members of the group, and the fact that they maintained close physical contact at all times. An expert choreographer could not have devised a more intricate and coherent routine.

            The phrase that immediately sprang to mind was ‘safety in numbers’. As long as they stuck together, although one or the other individual might have been at risk, particularly the ones at the edge of the group, the safety of the group as a whole was sure. As human beings we see instances of such mutuality in many aspects of daily life. The very basis of society is that humankind acts in concert, adopting strategies and postures that defend the well-being of the whole, sometimes sacrificing the interests of the individual in order to do so. And it is in our genetic make-up, whether as human beings or as ducklings, that survival is best assured by mutuality. We employ egotistical strategies or fight amongst ourselves at our peril.

            My readers will probably think I am stretching it a bit to expect to find explicit references to this in Masonic ritual, but sure enough, there are some. One in particular springs to mind: it comes from the fourth section of the second Emulation lecture, concerning the five noble orders of architecture. This section of the lecture gives us more detailed information on the five orders of architecture and the seven liberal arts and sciences than any other part of the ritual.

            I am going to ask you to indulge me a little further while I digress. I often think it a pity that our Masonic forebears in England did not think to include, in the second degree tracing board, pictorial instruction in the five noble orders of architecture and the seven liberal arts and sciences. They chose instead to insert details of a battle between Ephraimites and Gileadites that has nothing whatsoever to do with Freemasonry as far as I can see. The five noble orders and the seven liberal arts and sciences are dismissed with a curt reference to five steps and seven steps – not much use, you may think.

            So to complete our education in the second degree, let us take a closer look at this section of the lecture:


            In the history of man, there is nothing more remarkable than that Masonry

            and civilisation, like twin sisters, have gone hand in hand. The orders of

            architecture mark their growth and progress. Dark, dreary and comfortless

            were those days when Masonry had not laid her line or extended her compass.

            The race of mankind, in full possession of wild and savage liberty, mutually

            afraid of, and offending each other, hid themselves in thickets of the wood or

            in dens and caverns of the earth … the Grand Geometrician of the Universe,

            pitying their forlorn situation, instructed them to build houses for their ease,

            defence and comfort …


            The lesson here of course is that acting on our own is not only of limited value, but can even lead to conflict between ourselves and our neighbours. The lecture then goes on to tell us about improvements to the round-form habitations and the development of square and even rectangular buildings:


            Horizontal beams were then placed on the upright trunks, which, being

            strongly joined at the angles, kept the sides firm and likewise served to support

            the covering or roof, composed of joists … Yet, rough and inelegant as these

            buildings were, they had this salutary effect; that by aggregating mankind

            together they led the way to new improvements in art and civilisation; for the

            hardest bodies will polish by collision, the roughest manners by communion

            and intercourse.


            I urge any of my readers who have not read the description and definition of the five orders which follow to get hold of a copy of The Lectures of the Three Degrees in Craft Masonry published by Lewis Masonic. It is well worth the small price. But the point of the quotation above is to demonstrate that those who devised our present-day rituals some three hundred years ago, wished us to recognise the indispensable nature of mutuality, and the benefits that flow from working together as a society, but also working together in Freemasonry.

            Working together is sometimes a matter of life and death. In the novel Enduring Love by Ian McEwen, a group of men are trying to hold down a hot-air balloon to stop it sailing away with a small child on board. Although there are many lines for the helpers to hold on to, the balloon has lifted from the ground, by a metre or two, enough to make those holding on lose their footing, so that the balloon and the helpers are floating just above the ground. As long as all the men hold on, there is a good chance of rescuing the balloon; if only one lets go, there will be a loss of stability making it difficult to anchor it. In the event, there are not enough men to hold on, and one by one, as the balloon rises, they all let go for fear of being carried so high as to endanger their lives. Only one man holds on until, too exhausted to hold on any longer, he falls to his death.

            The principle has been very elegantly given form by Laurence Dermott, the first Grand Secretary of the Antients Grand Lodge in England, in his seminal piece Ahiman Rezon – a Help to a Brother :


            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.  But the point is well made: each and every Brother is important, is needed in the effort to build the temple to humanity that we are all engaged in. But the moral of the balloon story is clear: work together for the survival of the group, or risk endangering not only yourself, but all those around you.

            I keep asking myself: is there not a lesson here for Freemasonry globally? Nobody is asking that all the diverse Masonic practices around the world should act in uniformity. God forbid. The broad and kaleidoscopic variety in the ritual and in the message is one of the most enriching elements of our Craft. We do not want the sort of uniformity that dictates, that preaches dogma. We have no desire to march along to the same tune, or even to wear the same uniform. But we do have the right to expect that the disparate Masonic systems around the world, whatever they view as the Great Lights, whether or not they operate a single-gender Freemasonry, whether or not they have a Volume of the Sacred Law/Lore open in their Lodges, we do have the right to expect them to talk to each other, and to cement in unity and Masonic brotherly love those features of our Craft which they all hold dear. There is no temple to humanity based on The International Order of Co-Freemasonry Le Droit Humain, or the United Grand Lodge of England, or the Grand Orient de France; there is one temple to humanity based on all these systems, and on many more systems besides.

            But working together in concert, maintaining cast-iron unity in order to further the construction of the temple: does that mean suppressing our own individuality? God forbid. I have learned more in Freemasonry by listening to those with unconventional views than I have by following well-trodden paths. No, the whole process of initiation is about validating our own personal characteristics. Let me quote from W. Kirk MacNulty’s The Way of the Craftsman:


            The Entered Apprentice Freemason is represented in the Craft’s symbolism as

            a rough ashlar. In the complete symbol, the body of humanity is represented

            as a quarry from which stone is to be cut to construct a temple to Deity.

            Ultimately, all the rock in the quarry is to be incorporated in the building.

            While the rock remains in the quarry, it is part of the mass and it experiences

            what the mass experiences. The candidate in the Entered Apprentice degree is

            about to separate himself out, and to undertake to live his life as an individual,

            to be a separate stone. It is a step which only he can take; and he can take it

            only for himself. When he has done it, when he has recognised himself to be an

            individual, as the rough ashlar cut from the mountain which will never be part

            of the bedrock again, the Entered Apprentice can never go back. To put it

            another way, when one has had an insight into his nature, when he has a

            glimpse of the fact that he really is, inside, at the core of his being the ‘Image

            of God’, he can never unknow it. When a person knows what he is, and

            acknowledges it, he is responsible for himself from that time forward. He will

            be an individual, with individual responsibility for the rest of his life.


            It sounds to me like ‘E Pluribus Unum’, one out of many, or we might say diversity in unity, the ultimate goal being, in the words of Hermes Trismegistus, ‘to achieve the wonders of the One’.

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