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Editor's Interview: MAKING LIGHT
In this book Making Light - a Handbook for Freemasons Julian Rees shows many largely unknown aspects of the Masonic symbolism. The Editor asked the author: "Isn't esoteric talk of this kind going to put some Freemasons off?"...
A Seeker After the Inner Meaning of Freemasonry

A Collection of Ten Short Papers

W. Bro. Julian Rees is a PM of Kirby Lodge No. 2818, London
Past Junior Grand Deacon, United Grand Lodge of England.

Holbein-Ambassadors Hiding the Reality 

That beauty is not, as fond men misdeem,

An outward shew of things, that only seem.

Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599

            Travelling around as much as I do, I am constantly being told ‘Mind the gap between the platform and the train’. The phrase recently became mutated in my brain into ‘Mind the gap between the pretence and the reality’, reminding me how much and how often we substitute the semblance for the real thing. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht said that reality is not about the way things really are; it is about the way real things are. There’s an important difference. If we try to represent the way a thing ‘really’ is, we are bound to invest it with our own interpretation. If, instead, we stand back and consider what is real, what is true, what is beyond controversy and beyond debate, we have the chance to arrive at something of real value.

            The famous painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein depicts two men standing nonchalantly, surrounded by emblems of wealth, prestige, substance and power. If we had not been told the title of the painting, we would merely see two men of the Elizabethan era, vaunting their own self-importance, eager to show their best side to the world, keen for the painter to show them in the grandest possible light. Once we know the title, we see them as specific personages, representatives of their monarchs or their states. Their power and significance is inescapable, and seems permanent.

            But Holbein is more clever than we at first realise. He has introduced a third level of meaning. Painted at the feet of these men is a dark smudge which seems incongruous, until we turn the picture to one side and view it from an angle: the smudge becomes a skull beneath their feet, and is a reminder of the transitory nature of human existence, of what the first degree lecture means when it says:

            A time will come, and the wisest of us knows not how soon, when all

            distinctions, save those of goodness and virtue, shall cease, and death,

            the grand leveller of all human greatness, reduce us to the same state.

            Holbein thus gives us a real, bleak reminder, of how unimportant worldly pomp and glory are; it is a real memento mori.  ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ it seems to say: thus passes the glory of the world.

            How often in life we seek to promote a self-chosen image of ourselves. For some people, a great deal of time and energy is expended in forming a construct of the person they would like to be seen as, when the real person underneath may be far more estimable, far more lovable than the image projected. At the end, this construct remains just that: an image without substance, without essence, a bit of stage scenery like the woods in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, behind which the real characters can hide, showing only that side of themselves they choose to.

            This applies as much to Freemasonry as it does to us as individuals. We are constantly being told that Freemasonry is not a religion. What interests me is, not so much what that phrase says, as what it hides. We feel the need to continually repeat that mantra, as though somehow we need the security of being reminded. Freemasonry is indeed not a religion, but by repeating that to ourselves, we obscure the reality, that genuine spiritual benefits flow from self-knowledge, from enlightenment within. The readers’ letters in this magazine, claiming that Freemasonry is not a spiritual pursuit, seem to be an attempt to clothe our Craft in unsuitable attire, in clothes that don’t quite fit.

            A friend once described the danger, in masonic practice, of what he called ‘displacement activity’, that is, engaging in activities that divert us from the true aim. Concentrating on the appearance of masonic practice – rank, precedence, minor detail, hierarchy and structure – may cause us to lose sight of what real Freemasonry is, what Freemasonry can do, what it surely must do in each one of us, in order to be effective. Some will say that this is too serious, that it takes the fun out of Freemasonry, but I promise you, the rewards are immense, and they ensure that we will never again need any constructs in our lives. It can ensure that, in amongst the wood, we will begin to see real trees, and chart our progress by the way we interpret each one of them.

            We should not be fooled. We should mind the gap, stop it becoming wider, try to bridge it, to give our Craft a greater sense of its true aim, and through that to find our own path to Truth.

Freedom in Trust 

Ere man’s corruptions made him wretched, he

Was born most noble that was born most free:

Each of himself was lord; and unconfin’d

Obey’d the dictates of his godlike mind.

Thomas Otway 1652-1685 

            I continue to be fascinated by this contradiction: before initiation we are a part of the bedrock, not yet removed from the quarry. As a result of initiation we become an individual, a rough ashlar. And yet initiation makes us part of the lodge, an element of the greater whole. A seeming paradox, this, and one for which I am grateful to W. Kirk MacNulty.

            Let me put this paradox another way. An initiation, although principally for the initiate, is not only for him. We all join in it with our hearts so that the brotherhood of the many can contribute to the enlightenment of the one, that second freedom which the initiate is about to experience. So it’s a collective endeavour. Yet it’s also an individual undertaking. The initiate takes the step freely. Only he can do it. Nobody else can do it for him. And he can do it for nobody but himself.

            Before we attain to the freedom granted by initiation, we need to be free in ourselves, a sort of two-tier freedom. I suppose many thousands of words have been spent searching for the exact nature of this basic freedom which the ritual requires before initiation, and many interpretations have been put on it. I think of it like this: we talk about trusting the initiate that he will ‘become a true and faithful brother among us’ but in fact he does not know where he is going or what will happen. It is he who places a greater trust in us. True freedom then is in trusting those around you. It is a trust in which the first bond is forged. It is like a leap into the unknown because you trust those who have brought you to this place, no matter what the outcome, good or bad. And as Michael Baigent points out, you have to have insight into what’s happening in order to be truly free, not blown about by every passing wind. The ceremony of initiation comes as something new, yet the initiate must have a sense of impending dawn, a spiritual birth, an awakening, a focus for all his aspirations.

            Now, we are going to use the words of the ceremony to initiate this candidate. In another article, I suggested that in learning the words and actions of the ritual we are merely sharpening the carving tools, imitating the operative craftsman of old. We are not actually carving the stone. The words and the learning of them are the form of our vocation as Freemasons, not the content. Of course the carving tools should be bright and sharp. But endless repetition of the words of ritual does not lead us to self-knowledge, enlightenment, spiritual growth or moral development. So how are we to go about this, what is the secret of meaningful rendition of ritual?

            The answer lies in one word: Heart. We need to feel what we are doing, or the effect will be blunted. Let me give you an allegory. Some years ago a friend taught me some of the principles of woodturning. The piece of advice that has stuck most firmly in my mind is ‘Just rest on the chisel, don’t put pressure on it – let the wood do the work’. It’s certainly true of woodturning, as I found. I think it’s probably also true of masonic work.

            The relationship between the initiate and the lodge is a very special one. The individual is out on his own, in a sense carried along by the collective, borne forward on the wind of goodwill, harmony and love. Fanciful? I don’t think so. We are living in a wicked world, where all kinds of disharmony and evil are seemingly allowed full rein. By turning aside for a moment from the jarring sounds of war, injustice, suffering, chaos, disagreement and discord, and concentrating on real values in ourselves and in our collective pursuit of spiritual advancement, we gain real strength, real inner nourishment. Here is a flight path we can follow, leading us ‘even to the throne of God Himself’ where nothing is required of us, either as initiate or as a participant in the initiation, except goodwill, harmony and love.

            As regards your rendition of the ritual, don’t worry too much about the effort you put into it as long as you know the words in essence. Feel the principles of what you’re doing, the heart, the light. Let them do the work.

Freedom and Constraint 

None can love freedom heartily but good men;

the rest love not freedom, but licence.

 John Milton 1608-1674 

            In my experience of Freemasonry, we often ask ourselves about the nature of freedom in a Masonic sense. In former centuries we were known, not as Freemasons, but as Free Masons – a subtle distinction you may say, but an important one. It implies that some Masons in those days were not free. Of course, in the language of stonemasons, that meant that some were not yet free of their apprenticeships, that they had still to work, first as Apprentices and then as Journeymen or Companions, to become free, to become Master Masons, free and responsible for their own work and experts at it. And in the language of speculative Freemasons today, this means that, although we call our most newly-made Apprentice a Free Mason, such a freedom is an indicator of what he may attain to, what he will attain to, once he has passed the second and third degrees. Then he will be a Master Freemason, mastering his own self and being freely responsible in a moral sense.

            Freedom goes hand in hand with its opposite – constraint, restriction, delimitation. You, the readers of this short piece, are limited, delimited in your own Lodges: you are members of your own Lodges, and others, who come to share your companionship and love, are not members, but are members of their own Lodges elsewhere, delimited by that unit of which they are members. But of course your visitors to your Lodge are guaranteed absolute unity with you who are members. You open your hearts to invite them to be one with you in this spiritual endeavour.

            And this is where freedom, in the Masonic sense, begins. You close the doors of your Lodge before you begin your proceedings. You shut off the outside world, in order to delimit yourselves, to contain the spiritual power, the energy, that is generated by all of you, in opening the Lodge. But that can only be done by opening your hearts to each other, in a real way becoming free. So, in a paradoxical way, we have to limit ourselves, to close the door of the Lodge, in order to open our hearts, to be free.

            The real question posed by the first degree is, to what extent I will allow myself to be shaped by my own selfish impulses, and to what extent shaped by the new life offered through Freemasonry. When I am able to say ‘my impulse is to go this way, but I am being asked to give up selfish impulses, so I will go that way instead’, then that offers a real freedom, a freedom from selfish indulgence. In the ritual in my own Lodge, a candidate comes to the door to be admitted. The Tyler announces him with the words:

            A poor candidate in a state of darkness, who has been well and worthily

            recommended, regularly proposed and approved in open Lodge, and now

            comes of his own free will and accord, properly prepared, humbly soliciting to

            be admitted to the mysteries and privileges of Freemasonry.

            The Master then asks the Tyler:

            How does he hope to obtain those privileges?

            and the Tyler replies:

            By the help of God, being free, and of good report.

            In another passage of ritual, from the first degree lecture, we hear the following exchange:

            Question: Why are we called Free-masons?

            Answer: Because we are free to, and free from.

            Question: Free to, and free from, what?

            Answer: Free to good fellowship, and ought to be free from vice.

in other words, the search for moral improvement, in concert with our Brethren, frees us from material attachments, leaving our spirit free to ascend.

            What freedom is not, is illustrated by the quotation above from that greatest of English poets, John Milton:

            None can love freedom heartily but good men;

            the rest love not freedom, but licence.

            If an individual exercises freedom to pursue his own selfish ends, and if by doing so he restricts or impairs the freedom of those around him, then that is not freedom: it is slavery. A terrorist is a slave to an ideology, an ideology perhaps falsely supposed to be supported by religion. Treacherously, it feels like freedom, because he no longer has to take responsibility for his thoughts and actions.

            No, my Brethren, real freedom is very far removed from the idea of individual freedom, an individual freedom exercised in such a way as to harm society at large. Real freedom, in this sense, is well expressed in the words of another great English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley :

            ... that sweet bondage which is freedom’s self,

                        And rivets with sensation’s softest tie

                        The kindred sympathies of human souls ...

            In Free Masonry, at least, we give up aspects of the Self on initiation, in order to attain to a greater freedom, the freedom of the heart, and that freedom can be our real strength as Freemasons.

Chaos and Harmony 

            In an issue of Freemasonry Today I wrote an article Sanctifying with Grace in which, on the fifteenth anniversary of the disastrous explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, I turned the spotlight on what happens when we act purely on material and scientific data, ignoring our gut instinct, our inner conviction that ‘something isn’t right’. And we often find, don’t we, that faced with two options, with apparently no logical reason to choose between them, if we then pick one because our instinct tells us it is the right one, it turns out to be right.

            In the following issue, and prompted by the Concorde crash in Paris, in an article entitled Vision With the Song I gave the subject of disaster a slant, by comparing and contrasting the effects of chaos and complexity. I spoke in that article about disasters caused through the interreaction of complex forces – the Selby crash, in which, no matter who was blameworthy, a motorway system came into conflict with a railway system, two unrelated systems, which cannot coexist without stringent safeguards. The Concorde crash too appears to have been the result of ‘competing’ forces or elements. We surround ourselves with complexity. The disasters it provokes are something we do not need. Chaos, by contrast, is a product of unpredicted and largely unpredictable forces, such as earthquakes, storms and meteor strikes.

            When I wrote that second article, I could not, in my wildest dreams, have foreseen the events of 11 September 2001. Actually, so unbelievable was it, that I watched it unfold on the television screen (the sound was off) and marvelled at the lifelike special effects of such a horror movie, or sci-fi, I wasn’t sure which, until I saw the caption ‘breaking news’, which had a doom-laden ring to it, and I realised to my absolute horror that this was real.

            To keep my own personal gyroscope upright in that nightmare situation, I had to talk myself through an analysis of tragedy. Immanuel Kant the eighteenth century philosopher proposed that tragedy comes in three different forms. There is the tragedy which can befall ordinary people leading ordinary lives engaged in ordinary pursuits, not committing any great evil act or a particularly good act come to that. ‘Man out walking dog killed by falling tree’ comes to mind.  In that type of tragedy there are no human agents perpetrating anything. Then there is the tragedy we visit on ourselves, by recklessness, greed, hatred or fear. It is a bit oblique, because the main purpose of our action is not our own detriment or destruction, but nonetheless we cause ourselves harm by, for instance, trying to swindle the tax authorities for our own gain, and ending up in prison. High-profile examples would be Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer.

            And the third category is the tragedy visited on us by others, again out of greed, hatred, fear, ignorance. Ignorance plays a large part in this. The Israelis and Palestinians are, they would both admit, largely ignorant of the other’s aspirations, so preoccupied are they with their own. They can’t look over the parapet unless it is to unleash more hatred and violence. In Northern Ireland, the situation regarding the Unionists and the Nationalists was the same. Looking over the parapet to assess the needs of your enemy is not high on the agenda. But greed and insecurity play an equally large part. My son is a teacher who started in a new school in September, teaching ten-year olds. He described his sense of pain and unease seeing the children in his new class, faced with a pile of new pencils, each grabbing one for her or himself lest there should not be enough to go round. He devised a new pencil distribution system, in which each child first had to ensure that the classmate to her or his left and right had taken a pencil before taking one himself. This resulted in no pencils being taken at all, so busy were they making sure their classmates had one first – we all know, don’t we, that we can’t all be first! –  until the children hit on the idea of picking up two, handing one to the classmate on her or his left and then keeping one herself. A silly example you may say, but it did wonders for the sin of greed. And, please God, may that small example go out into the world, and play some small part in stopping us always grabbing since, for sure, the events of 11 September were caused either by someone grabbing or being grabbed against, someone being in ignorance or fear from the person next to him.

            So much for the lesson in morals, to illustrate the Chaos side of things. But I can hear you asking, what has all this to do with freemasonry? The answer to that question lies in one word – HARMONY. In the current Year Book there are no less than thirty-seven lodges whose names start with the word Harmony. And Harmony, on a personal level, is the surest and most masonic route back from the chaos and tragedy which inhabit the world. What do I mean?

            In previous ages, in times of tragedy, we would have got down on our knees in church and prayed to the Almighty to spare us. If he did then spare us, that was proof of his infinite mercy. If he did not, that was proof of his infinite wisdom. In our secular age, when we largely do not credit him with the power or the willingness to stay disasters, and where the proportion of the population who practise religion in any form is so small, we often have nowhere to turn. Therapists couches have never been so full. Sales of Kleenex tissues are booming, largely to these same therapists. The good news is that freemasonry offers a DIY alternative. Think first about these well-known words, from the little square booklet issued by Grand Lodge Freemasonry – an Approach to Life, where we learn that ‘freemasonry teaches moral lessons and self-knowledge’.

            So, if someone will show me how, I need to get to know myself. Here’s a start:- ‘Endue him with a competency of Thy divine wisdom, that he may the better be enabled to unfold the beauties of true godliness’. Whose godliness? If we believe in the Second Degree lecture, regarding the Corinthian Column, then the answer must be that, since beauty adorns the inward man, I am in the business of unfolding the beauties of my own true godliness, the God-in-me principle, or what I referred to in my article as Grace. We do have one thing in common with the therapists – we believe that I need to be with myself, to own myself, with all my weaknesses first, and to get to esteem myself as a unique creation of God, without which it’s not easy to esteem others. Where did I get that from? Let me tell you. What is the place of a Master Mason? Answer – at the centre. The centre of what? The Centre. Just that.  The Centre. Not the centre of England, or the centre of the lodge, or the centre of attraction, just – The Centre. It’s the nearest you can get to being with yourself, and therefore (back to the UGLE booklet) KNOWING yourself. Chaos, if I may quote my own article, doesn’t only reside outside us. We all have to contend with inner chaos – depression, self-doubt, despair, pain physical and mental, bereavement, anger and low self-esteem are all part of the same cosmic chaos. The good news is that, especially as freemasons, we can answer it with a corresponding cosmic awareness, growth and enlightenment and harmony.  Look at the first degree tracing board : 

            In all regular, well-formed, constituted Lodges there is a point within a circle

            round which the Brethren cannot err;  this circle is bounded between North

            and South by two grand parallel lines, one representing Moses and the other

            King Solomon;  on the upper part of this circle rests the Volume of the Sacred

            Law, supporting Jacob’s ladder, [an allegory of our aspirations in life – who

            are we?  where do we want to be?] the top of which reaches to the heavens …

            in going round this circle we must necessarily touch on both those parallel

            lines, likewise on the Volume of the Sacred Law;  and while a Mason keeps

            himself thus circumscribed, he cannot err. 

            To be with yourself consists of, first of all, being alone. I recently discovered the etymology of the word ‘alone’ – we are not talking about ‘lonely’. ‘Alone’ means ‘All-One’, the state of relationship where your existence is all existence. You get to be with yourself, without which, as I have said, it’s sometimes hard to be with others.

            There’s a rather nice fact about Edward Elgar which I want to share with you.  When the music was slow to come to him, or would not come at all, he went out into the country to be with himself, away from the complexities of everyday life, to discover himself and own himself, in his case to discover the song inside him, away from the chaos, whether inner or outer.

            Read that tracing board lecture again.  And study also the principles of where YOU are in the teaching of the third degree.  After Adam had sinned and went missing in the Garden of Eden, God called out to him, not ‘Where ARE you?’ but ‘Where are YOU?’. So cross that barrier. Be with yourself and find the song inside you, your true self.

Deliverance Offered From the Darts 

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete;

it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web

of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness,

and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. 

Henry James, 1843-1916 

            It has always puzzled me why, when two aircraft just miss each other, it is called a ‘near-miss’. Surely it would be more correct to call it a ‘near-hit’, and we have recently had a tragic demonstration of what happens when a near-hit becomes a direct-hit.

            As I write this I am sitting in the garden surrounded by evidence of life. I can see a butterfly fluttering round a bush. I can hear a bird showing off his vocal range. I can feel my own heart beating. I am not a fatalist, but I do recognise that at any moment the butterfly may stop, the bird fall silent and my heart seize up for ever. 

            Some of us, without flying in aircraft, have had first-hand experience of near-hits, either for ourselves or for those close to us. I am thinking of a heart attack caught in the nick of time, of a stroke which, mercifully, leaves no pronounced long-lasting effects, of an apparently fatal disease cured against the odds, of a near-hit on the motorway, of other near-terminal situations.

            If you can, you may want to go somewhere quiet now to read this, in calm and tranquillity, to relate fully to it. I want to look at what happens to us in these situations. A person who has been involved in a near-hit very often knows that it can be followed by something wonderful. He has been granted a reprieve. Previously, he may have been always busy with the everyday things of life, the seemingly important matters, his job, his house, his car, his material well-being and advancement, even affairs in his lodge. But after such a near-hit he sees life with a cleared vision, a different level of consciousness. The relative importance of different aspects in his life undergoes a seismic change. His job – there’s nothing so important that he can’t afford to walk away from it. His house – now he comes to look at it, it’s far nicer than he thought.. At the same time, the value assigned to other things becomes hugely significant. He finds he is driving too fast on the motorway – no need for that. He finds time to take some physical exercise, time he never had before. He manages his working hours much better, paces himself. It is as though a veil has been lifted. For myself, whether or not I finish this article is not a life-threatening matter. Sitting here in the garden, I can relate to so much that really matters anyway.

            And my friend in the example above is re-born. In addition to his new view of himself and his place in the scheme of things, his relationship to those around him also is thrown into sharper focus. He may instantly recall those moments in his life or in the life of a loved-one which had real value, moments which in themselves seemed insignificant before. A morning spent sitting looking at the sea in bright sunshine, during which he and his loved-one were in perfect harmony; some silly object they laughed at together in a junk shop. In themselves meaningless episodes, until invested with the richness of a personal relationship of depth and value, greater depth and greater value than perhaps he would have suspected before the near-hit. I submit that such a man, at such a level of conscious awareness, is at the centre.

            For those of us who have been spared the trauma of a near-hit, and even for those of us who have not, a few minutes with the third degree every morning can be very rewarding. Remember Edward Elgar’s device for freeing himself from chaos?  He went out into the country to be with himself and to find his own song, in other words to be at the centre. Liberated in this way, he could die to his material self, to be re-born to a different awareness, able to perceive greater richness and beauty than before, able to own his Corinthian column, in his case the beauty of music, but in our case perhaps to perceive the beauty of existence, reprieved from the fate that so short a time before stared us in the face. Freeing ourselves from the constraints of materialism, bringing our real nature to the fore and validating the goodness and the beauty in each one of us, thereby reaching a different level of consciousness, has to be the most richly rewarding masonic experience that can ever touch us. It’s worth the effort.

Straight in the Strength of Spirit 

But there are

Richer entanglements, enthralments far

More self-destroying, leading, by degrees,

To the chief intensity: the crown of these

Is made of love and friendship, and sits high

Upon the forehead of humanity.

John Keats 1795 - 1821 

A relative of mine from Texas has the happy knack of defusing quarrels by saying ‘Now don’t y’all go gettin’ bent outta shape!’  Like all the best sayings, this one is marvellously descriptive, and very effective.  It makes me think about our shape, our attitude.  It’s easy to lose the integrity of our real shape, to fall off our perch, to let the personal gyroscope tilt sideways, and part of our ‘real shape’ is of course our approach to those around us.

There is a principle you might like to consider in so-called ‘reality TV’ (I actually prefer to call it ‘unreality TV’).  Big Brother and Survivor invite and require the participants (and even the television audience) to choose the least-liked or least-able person and to vote them off, as does The Weakest Link.  Apart from the reaction of us, the television audience, you could also question why the participants themselves seek to take part in this, except of course for the money.  I think the answer is that we have acquired a sad and rather unedifying penchant for humiliating the least able in our midst.  I don’t want to get too heavy about this, but it’s not what I think of as upright behaviour towards those around us. It’s a symptom, isn’t it, of the massively uncaring society we seem to have become.

Uprightness?  Well, we often speak of a man as a ‘pillar of society’ and comment on how he is ‘upright and decent’, terms originally of admiration and esteem which have become pejorative, indicating someone who is full of his own self-importance, complacent and convinced of his own rectitude.  He’s not the sort, you would say, to be guilty of ‘humiliating the least able’.

In his compelling play Andorra, an allegory of his native Switzerland, Max Frisch paints the picture of a stable society, peace-loving and apparently at peace with itself, in contrast to the fascists over the border.  ‘Nobody is more loved than the Andorraner’ says the doctor, in that complacent and self-satisfied tone we sometimes adopt.  The boy Andri doesn’t quite fit in, seems somehow ‘different’, and is treated with condescension and something approaching scorn.  When those over the border threaten to invade, Andri, the least able, the weakest link, who may or may not be Jewish, is sacrificed on the altar of appeasement, and the good, noble, upright citizens of Andorra sleep easy, convinced they have done the right thing in defence of their good, noble, upright society.

Our society ought to know more about uprightness than this.  We ought to know that the outward appearance means nothing if the inner shape is distorted.  If we are, in Shakespeare’s words, true to ourselves, we cannot be false to any man.  This truth, I maintain, subsists in maintaining a certain straightness in our lives.  But mark this –  uprightness is not something distinguishing us as a man better than other men.  Uprightness is only achieved in humility, when we are not bent out of shape, but being straight with one another, being with ourselves for a moment, where we know our own weakness and failing, where we learn that the good of those around us is of paramount importance and where, unlike the righteous citizens of Andorra, we learn humanity and compassion in regard to our fellow men.

And Crown Thy Good With Brotherhood 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good
Alfred, Lord Tennyson   1809-1892 

Have you read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  recently?  It’s what they call a cracking good tale.  But there is a passage which, for many years, I found profoundly depressing.  It is this: 

‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’ 

I found in these words a huge measure of despair.  They are certainly true of such as Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler or any serial murderer.

My youngest son read Julius Caesar for A level English Literature, and I told him then how profoundly nihilist I found this statement.  He disagreed, pointing out that Mark Antony, or Shakespeare, was in fact expressing no more than a deeply-held irony (how much we do learn from the younger generation!).  From that moment, I became convinced that good is greater than evil.  If we accept the responsibility for our thoughts and actions that being an individual free spirit invites us to assume, then we can – we must – continue to reject the tragic nonsense we so often see being perpetrated in the world.  And, as that very individual, we can do it on our own, whether or not those around us are on our side.  The fluttering of a butterfly in South America may well induce a storm in Alaska.

But at the same time, action undertaken collectively with others is so often more purposeful and effective than individual strivings.  I have been reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.  I won’t spoil the story if you have yet to read it, but in the first chapter there is a situation where six men try to hold down a helium balloon to prevent it soaring away with a small boy marooned in the basket.  While the six hold on, there is a chance the balloon may not break free, but in all their minds there is doubt; doubt that the six of them may not be enough to hold the balloon down, but also doubt about each one’s physical ability to hold on.  A nice dilemma.  The first one to let go effectively scuppers the rescue attempt of the remaining five, four of whom then let go, one after the other.  The last, who perseveres on his own, only lets go when he can physically hold on no longer, by which time it is too late and he falls to his death.

I need hardly spell out the moral for you.  Not only can we achieve collectively far more than we can individually, but an endeavour may only be attainable if we don’t let go, if we work together and in harmony of purpose and action.  Freemasonry allows us, encourages us, to conduct our campaign collectively.  We can’t afford to let ego or self-interest intrude.  As a brother once reminded me, speaking of a lodge where two of the brethren were at loggerheads, ‘When all is said and done, the lodge is greater than the sum of its several parts’.

This principle was codified by Laurence Dermott, the first Grand Secretary of the ‘Antients’ Grand Lodge, who wrote, in Ahiman Rezon, part of the Book of Constitutions: 

For human society cannot subsist without concord, and the maintenance of mutual 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 keystone at the top is not called the ‘key’ for nothing – remove it and, no matter how big the other stones, or how many there are, the arch collapses.  Is this to be interpreted as simple mutuality – help others in order to help myself?  Well, I do prefer to remove the ‘myself’ from that equation.  There is a lodge in London, and this is not an isolated example, whose members are working tirelessly to fund a hospice for the terminally ill in southern India.  I know these brethren personally, and I know that none of them is doing this in the hope of some sort of recognition – it would be an insult even to suggest it.

No, I prefer to say, without being a utopian idealist, that by working with one’s brethren towards a better world we can reach for the stars.  We can create, through our precepts and the richness that is real Freemasonry, true goodness and harmony and light.

Let’s realise our own potential, and see what a whirlwind we can, together, raise in Alaska.  The sparks of divinity within each one of us were not put there for nothing.

And Hold Me Lest I Fall 

All nature is but art unknown to thee,

All chance, direction which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good;

And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Alexander Pope, 1688-1744 

I must be watching too much television.  Recently I criticised television programmes such as Big Brother, The Weakest Link and Survivor and now, again on television, I have witnessed the perfect antidote to all this ritual humiliation.  In April ITN’s Trevor MacDonald hosted a Survivor-type programme in which Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland were placed together in close proximity on the Isle of Man in an endurance test, physical endurance, endurance of cultural difference, endurance of reciprocal prejudice and mutual distrust.

Half way through the programme it was truth time – a Protestant woman telling how close relatives, brothers and cousins, had been killed by Catholics, and breaking down as she told it; Catholics relating stories of equivalent indignities visited on them by those of the other side; scenes from the Belfast so-called ‘peace line’, likened to the Berlin Wall.  But we saw too a group of people who, being billetted together in a strange environment, neither permitted nor tolerated physical violence against each other, drawing back even from verbal abuse.  Catholics and Protestants had been deliberately teamed together to do the cooking, to work together to sort out difficult situations, their cooperation made necessary by force of circumstances.

Two women, one Protestant and one Catholic, had previously taken part on opposing sides in the Holy Cross School confrontation in Belfast, in which parents and children from one side of the divide hurled abuse at and threatened violence to children and parents from the other side. They had come on the programme in ignorance of each other’s part in that.  In the unfolding programme they became aware of their previous confrontation, learning to accommodate it.  They had begun better to understand the sterile ‘blame culture’, that barren landscape lying between and alienating them one from another.

These two were teamed together towards the end of the programme in an abseiling exercise, the Protestant woman hanging over a scary-looking rock face, paralysed by fear, the Catholic woman, her former antagonist, paying out the rope from the top and, to encourage her, calling 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’.  At this point I must confess to having a problem with my spectacles misting up.  ‘Trust me – I won’t let you fall’ are probably amongst the most evocative words one human being can speak to another, spoken here by someone to her former deadly foe.

As Freemasons we have many instances of our unique organisation over-arching cultural, political, racial and denominational differences.  I have myself sat in a lodge with Jews and Muslims and in another with Irish Catholics and Protestants.  That is after all one of the main reasons we exist as an Order.  Did you know that in the list of lodges in our year book over forty lodges have names starting with the word ‘Harmony’ or ‘Harmonic’, and many more have the word ‘Harmony’ in their titles?  It’s no accident.  Harmony is as indispensable to our masonic profession as meditation is to our religion.  Harmony, best rendered by music or painting, can also be rendered by a word, a gesture or a look.  Harmony can be equated with peace, inner and outer, where no strife and no differences are present to upset the balance of our senses, the balance of our spirit.  Disharmony and discord are similarly represented and have as their roots the ignorance, fear, distrust and active hatred which so easily cause them.

When we talk of building I think we also mean building such harmony and brotherhood in a spirit of community.  We too easily forget that, historically, Freemasonry has been a refuge for those fleeing disharmony, discrimination and persecution.  It has been – and still is – a refuge for those seeking liberty of conscience and freedom on many levels, not least freedom of speech.  We can promote that freedom, that liberty, and we can perhaps do so surrounded by our three lesser lights, Ionic, Doric and Corinthian, equated with Wisdom, Strength and Beauty.  Wisdom, closely allied to correct or upright judgement; Strength to carry out our chosen task as Masons against malevolence and obstruction; Beauty, the third member of that trinity, adorning the inward man, representative of that harmony which comes closest to our own spirit if we will let it.  Trust harmony – it won’t let you fail.

A Divinity That Shapes Us 

A creed is a rod

And a crown is of night

But this thing is God

To be man with thy might

To grow straight in the strength of thy spirit

And live out thy life as the light.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837-1909 

            A candidate came to be interviewed by the lodge committee recently, a man who was already well-known to many of the lodge members.  One of the questions he was asked was ‘Do you believe in the Supreme Being?’  There followed a long and expectant silence, at the end of which the candidate said: ‘It depends on what you mean by believe’.

            In my view, he was right to hesitate.  The question might have been taken to mean ‘do you believe there is a Supreme Being who orders all our lives and without whom we would be powerless?’   I know a lot of people for whom the statement implicit in that question is not tenable.  To that question, for example, the candidate might have answered ‘No.  But I do have a concept of a Supreme Being, which does not match that at all.’

            For an organisation which is not a religion, we certainly talk a great deal about the Deity.  Do we believe in a Creator-Spirit ‘from whom all blessings flow’?  If so, what is His nature?  Is it perhaps our own nature?  How is He manifest?  Do we accept, as many religions do, that God is manifest first and foremost in us individually?  Do we say, with St Paul, ‘not I, but God in me’?  This statement is certainly true for many Christians, and for many Freemasons.  We are going very close here to that region where, as Freemasons, we are supposed not to trespass, namely religion.  This candidate was in effect saying: ‘By which religious definition do you ask me whether I believe?  I must ask you first to let me define the nature of my belief’.

            In the event, a fudge was invented which satisfied the candidate and the committee and he duly used the words the committee wanted to hear – I believe in the Supreme Being.  After he got home that evening, he emailed a friend who had been on the committee and told him: ‘As usual, I thought of the answer too late.  I should have said “I know He exists!”’ (and if the committee had put the question ‘do you believe that a Supreme Being exists?’ there would have been no problem).

            There you have it.  I know He exists.  This candidate is a man who thinks deeply, who is already a Freemason in his heart.  When he says ‘I know He exists’ he is expressing the nature, the essence of self-knowledge, since divinity can serve us nothing unless we own it, take it to ourselves and be with it, ascending, if only for a moment,  ‘to those blessed mansions whence all goodness emanates’.

            Proceeding out of that is our whole approach to the Deity, and our sometimes perfunctory addresses to Him in our masonic ritual.  Take for instance that part of the closing of the lodge which is supposed to be a prayer.  ‘Brethren, before we close the lodge, let us with all reverence and humility express our gratitude to the Great Architect of the Universe for favours already received.  May He continue to preserve the Order by cementing and adorning it with every moral and social virtue.’  With the greatest respect, it is not a prayer.  It may be an exhortation to the brethren (to whom after all the words are addressed) to go away and say such a prayer.  That prayer might then be rendered in the following words, with eyes closed, head bowed and the sign of reverence: 

Almighty Architect, we give thanks to You in reverence and humility for the favours You bestow on us.  We beseech You to preserve our Order by cementing and adorning it with every moral, social and spiritual virtue 

            So, while we do refer frequently to the Deity, and since divinity is a central part of ourselves, we ought to take care that we do so purposefully, meditatively, with a sense of wonder.  Will you allow me another bit of  paraphrasing? 

Divine Creator, may we always remember that wherever we are, and whatever we do, You are with us, and Your all-seeing eye observes us.  May we continue to act according to the principles of masonry, and may we always give You praise, with fervency and zeal. 

            Let me know what you think.  And let us come closer to a realisation of the divinity we talk about, and to allow it to take its right place in our lives and in our being.  And let this be celebrated in our rituals.

Kindle With Celestial Fire 

A student mind is a fire to be lit,

not a vessel to be filled

Plutarch c. 45 – c. 125 AD 

It seems to me that we expect a lot from our candidate for initiation.  He should of course have an idea of the basic principles of Freemasonry – it would be wrong to initiate him if he hasn’t.  But what does he know of the lodge in which he is being initiated?  What does he know in detail of what will be required of him?  Not a lot I would guess.  That is no bad thing, but it does mean he will have to put a lot of trust in us.

I had already learned early on from my proposer, that the lodge in which I was to be initiated was a lodge of ritual perfectionists, a lodge which still boasts the largest number of holders of the coveted Emulation Silver Matchbox award for conducting a ceremony without need of correction.  Soon after my raising therefore, I got hold of the book of the ceremonies and started to learn.  I was very keen.  I spent many waking hours memorising the degrees and the Emulation lectures.  The book was always in my jacket pocket, and I remember wondering if, by some magical osmosis, the words might seep through my jacket into my bloodstream, so that, even without knowing it, I was learning something as I went about my daily business.  You can see how fanatical I was.

Of course I don’t believe that happened, but after about six years of attending Lodge of Instruction more or less on a weekly basis, I had mastered the words with a fair degree of accuracy.  Then something very strange happened.  Just when I thought I knew it all, I started reading, I mean really reading the words, working them out, not just memorising them.  And then I realized how little I really knew.

Our lodges, as I had read in the fourth section of the first lecture, stand on holy ground.  But now I really was beginning to listen.  The next time I went into a lodge, I actually reminded myself – ‘here, you stand on holy ground’ – ground sanctified by the aspirations and intentions of generations of Freemasons who had conferred degrees and worked masonically on it.  The next time I was privileged to be present at an initiation, I was able to remind myself that we were there better to enable the candidate ‘to unfold the beauties of true godliness’ in himself.  Therefore the candidate’s mid- to long-term aim was just that – pursuit of divinity, and the time needed for the fulfilment of that promise would probably far exceed the forty-five minutes of the degree ceremony itself.  When listening in lodge, I was able to ask myself, ‘What do they mean by the mysteries of nature and science being hidden?  And what is it that makes them mysteries in the first place?’  The flood gates were open, and I had at last started on my masonic path.  Bit by bit, I began truly to understand what the painstakingly-learned words were about.

One of the next stages in my masonic education was to visit lodges in Germany.  There, the ritual is not learned by heart, but read from a book.  I found myself deeply impressed with the dignity and the sincerity of the Master as he conducted the ceremony; liberated by not having to exercise his memory, he was able to render the words with infinitely more meaning and sincerity.

It’s not for me to make a case for or against learning the ritual by heart – individual preference may dictate that.  You could argue that a thorough command of the words will enable the Master to relax and to put expression into the ritual.  You could also argue that the adherence to rigid forms is stifling in itself.  But there is another dimension, and it is this.  Are we ‘talking at’ the candidate too much?  At what stage do we light his spark?  At what stage do we set aside rigid forms of ritual, so that the knowledge he is gaining changes from static knowledge to dynamic knowledge?  Ought we to require as much input from him as he is getting from us?  Do we know what he thinks of the ritual – have we explored what the ritual means to him?  If we do stop and engage him in this way, rather than sending him to lodge of instruction until he knows the words, we may find the results rewarding for both of us.

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