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What is Masonry
part III - interpretation
WHAT, then, is Masonry, and what is it trying to do in the world? According to one of the Old Charges, Masonry is declared to be an "ancient and honorable institution: ancient no doubt it is, as having subsisted from time immemorial; and honorable it must be acknowledged to be, as by natural tendency it conduces to make those so who are obedient to its precepts. To so high an eminence has its credit been advanced that in every age Monarchs themselves have been promoters of the art, have not thought it derogatory from their dignity to exchange the scepter for the trowel, have patronized our mysteries and joined in our Assemblies."
While that eulogy is more than justified by sober facts, it does not tell us what Masonry is, much less its mission and ministry to mankind. If now we turn to the old, oft-quoted definition, we learn that Masonry is "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." That is, in so far, true enough, but it is obviously inadequate, the more so when it uses the word "peculiar" as describing the morality of Masonry; and it gives no hint of a world-encircling fellowship and its far-ramifying influence. Another definition has it that Masonry is "a science which is engaged in the search after divine truth;" 1 but that is vague, indefinite, and unsatisfactory, lacking any sense of the uniqueness of the Order, and as applicable to one science as to another. For surely all science, of whatever kind, is a search after divine truth, and a physical fact, as Agassiz said, is as sacred as a moral truth--every fact being the presence of God.
Still another writer defines Masonry as "Friendship, Love, and Integrity--Friendship which rises superior to the fictitious distinctions of society, the prejudices of religion, and the pecuniary conditions of life; Love which knows no limit, nor inequality, nor decay; Integrity which binds man to the eternal law of duty." 2 Such is indeed the very essence and spirit of Masonry, but Masonry has no monopoly of that spirit, and its uniqueness consists, rather, in the form in which it seeks to embody and express the gracious and benign spirit which is the genius of all the higher life of humanity. Masonry is not everything; it is a thing as distinctly featured as a statue by Phidias or a painting by Angelo. Definitions, like delays, may be dangerous, but perhaps we can do no better than to adopt the words of the German Handbuch 3 as the best description of it so far given:
Masonry is the activity of closely united men who, employing symbolical forms borrowed principally from the mason's trade and from architecture, work for the welfare of mankind, striving morally to ennoble themselves and others, and thereby to bring about a universal league of mankind, which they aspire to exhibit even now on a small scale.
Civilization could hardly begin until man had learned to fashion for himself a settled habitation, and thus the earliest of all human arts and crafts, and perhaps also the noblest, is that of the builder. Religion took outward shape when men first reared an altar for their offerings, and surrounded it with a sanctuary of faith and awe, of pity and consolation, and piled a cairn to mark the graves where their dead lay asleep. History is no older than architecture. How fitting, then, that the idea and art of building should be made the basis of a great order of men which has no other aim than the upbuilding of humanity in Faith, Freedom, and Friendship. Seeking to ennoble and beautify life, it finds in the common task and constant labor of man its sense of human unity, its vision of life as a temple "building and built upon," and its emblems of those truths which make for purity of character and the stability of society. Thus Masonry labors, linked with the constructive genius of mankind, and so long as it remains true to its Ideal no weapon formed against it can prosper.
One of the most impressive and touching things in human history is that certain ideal interests have been set apart as especially venerated among all peoples. Guilds have arisen to cultivate the interests embodied in art, science, philosophy, fraternity, and religion; to conserve the precious, hard-won inheritances of humanity; to train men in their service; to bring their power to bear upon the common life of mortals, and send through that common life the light and glory of the Ideal--as the sun shoots its transfiguring rays through a great dull cloud, evoking beauty from the brown earth. Such is Masonry, which unites all these high interests and brings to their service a vast, world-wide fraternity of free and devout men, built upon a foundation of spiritual faith and moral idealism, whose mission it is to make men friends, to refine and exalt their lives, to deepen their faith and purify their dream, to turn them from the semblance of life to homage for truth, beauty, righteousness, and character. More than an institution, more than a tradition, more than a society, Masonry is one of the forms of the Divine Life upon earth. No one may ever hope to define a spirit so gracious, an order so benign, an influence so prophetic of the present and future up-building of the race.
There is a common notion that Masonry is a secret society, and this idea is based on the secret rites used in its initiations, and the signs and grips by which its members recognize each other. Thus it has come to pass that the main aims of the Order are assumed to be a secret policy or teaching, 4 whereas its one great secret is that it has no secret. Its principles are published abroad in its writings; its purposes and laws are known, and the times and places of its meetings. Having come down from dark days of persecution, when all the finer things sought the protection of seclusion, if it still adheres to secret rites, it is not in order to hide the truth, but the better to teach it more impressively, to train men in its pure service, and to promote union and amity upon earth. Its signs and grips serve as a kind of universal language, and still more as a gracious cover for the practice of sweet charity--making it easier to help a fellow man in dire plight without hurting his self-respect. If a few are attracted to it by curiosity, all remain to pray, finding themselves members of a great historic fellowship of the seekers and finders of God. 5 It is old because it is true; had it been false it would have perished long ago. When all men practice its simple precepts, the innocent secrets of Masonry will be laid bare, its mission accomplished, and its labor done.
Recalling the emphasis of the foregoing pages, it need hardly be added that Masonry is in no sense a political party, still less a society organized for social agitation. Indeed, because Masonry stands apart from partisan feud and particular plans of social reform, she has been held up to ridicule equally by the unthinking, the ambitious, and the impatient. Her critics on this side are of two kinds. There are those who hold that the humanitarian ideal is an error, maintaining that human nature has no moral aptitude, and can be saved only by submission to a definite system of dogma. Then there are those who look for salvation solely in political action and social agitation, who live in the delusion that man can be made better by passing laws and counting votes, and to whom Masonry has nothing to offer because in its ranks it permits no politics, much less party rancor. Advocates of the first view have fought Masonry from the beginning with the sharpest weapons, while those who hold the second view regard it with contempt, as a thing useless and not worth fighting. 6
Neither adversary understands Masonry and its cult of the creative love for humanity, and of each man for his fellow, without which no dogma is of any worth; lacking which, the best laid plans of social seers "gang aft aglee." Let us look at things as they are. That we must press forward towards righteousness--that we must hunger and thirst after a social life that is true and pure, just and merciful--all will agree; but they are blind who do not see that the way is long and the process slow. What is it that so tragically delays the march of man to-ward the better and wiser social order whereof our prophets dream? Our age, like the ages gone before, is full of schemes of every kind for the reform and betterment of mankind. Why do they not succeed? Some fail, perhaps, because they are imprudent and ill-considered, in that they expect too much of human nature and do not take into account the stubborn facts of life. But why does not the wisest and noblest plan do more than half what its advocates hope and pray and labor so heroically to bring about? Because there are not enough men fine enough of soul, large enough of sympathy, sweet enough of spirit, and noble enough of nature to make the dream come true!
There are no valid arguments against a great-spirited social justice but this--that men will not. Indolence, impurity, greed, injustice, meanness of spirit, the aggressiveness of authority, and above all jealousy--these are the real obstacles that thwart the nobler social aspiration of humanity. There are too many men like The Master-Builder who tried to build higher than any one else, without regard to others, all for his own selfish glory. Ibsen has shown us how The Pillars of Society, resting on rotten foundations, came crashing down, wounding the innocent in their wreck. Long ago it was said that "through wisdom is an house builded, and by under-standing it is established; and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with pleasant and precious riches." 7 Time has shown that the House of Wisdom must be founded upon righteousness, justice, purity, character, faith in God and love of man, else it will fall when the floods descend and the winds beat upon it. What we need to make our social dreams come true is not more laws, not more dogmas, not less liberty, but better men, cleaner minded, more faithful, with loftier ideals and more heroic integrity; men who love the right, honor the truth, worship purity, and prize liberty--upright men who meet all horizontals at a perfect angle, assuring the virtue and stability of the social order.
Therefore, when Masonry, instead of identifying itself with particular schemes of reform, and thus becoming involved in endless turmoil and dispute, estranging men whom she seeks to bless, devotes all her benign energy and influence to ennobling the souls of men, she is doing fundamental work in behalf of all high enterprises. By as much as she succeeds, every noble cause succeeds; by as much as she fails, everything fails! By its ministry to the individual man--drawing him into the circle of a great friendship, exalting his faith, refining his ideals, enlarging his sympathies, and setting his feet in the long white path--Masonry best serves society and the state. 8 While it is not a reformatory, it is a center of moral and spiritual power, and its power is used, not only to protect the widow and orphan, but also, and still more important, to remove the cause of their woe and need by making men just, gentle, and generous to all their fellow mortals. Who can measure such a silent, persistent, unresting labor; who can describe its worth in a world of feud, of bitterness, of sorrow!
No one needs to be told that we are on the eve, if not in the midst, of a most stupendous and bewildering revolution of social and industrial life. It shakes England today. It makes France tremble tomorrow. It alarms America next week. Men want shorter hours, higher wages, and better homes--of course they do--but they need, more than these things, to know and love each other; for the questions in dispute can never be settled in an air of hostility. If they are ever settled at all, and settled right, it must be in an atmosphere of mutual recognition and respect, such as Masonry seeks to create and make prevail. Whether it be a conflict of nations, or a clash of class with class, appeal must be made to intelligence and the moral sense, as befits the dignity of man. Amidst bitterness and strife Masonry brings men of every rank and walk of life together as men, and nothing else, at an altar where they can talk and not fight, discuss and not dispute, and each may learn the point of view of his fellow. Other hope there is none save in this spirit of friendship and fairness, of democracy and the fellowship of man with man. Once this spirit has its way with mankind, it will bring those brave, large reconstructions, those profitable abnegations and brotherly feats of generosity that will yet turn human life into a glad, beautiful, and triumphant cooperation all round this sunlit world.
Surely the way of Masonry is wise. Instead of becoming only one more factor in a world of factional feud, it seeks to remove all hostility which may arise from social, national, or religious differences. It helps to heal the haughtiness of the rich and the envy of the poor, and tends to establish peace on earth by allaying all fanaticism and hatred on account of varieties of language, race, creed, and even color, while striving to make the wisdom of the past available for the culture of men in faith and purity. Not a party, not a sect, not a cult, it is a great order of men selected, initiated, sworn, and trained to make sweet reason and the will of God prevail! Against the ancient enmities and inhumanities of the world it wages eternal war, without vengeance, without violence, but by softening the hearts of men and inducing a better spirit. Apparitions of a day, here for an hour and tomorrow gone, what is our puny warfare against evil and ignorance compared with the warfare which this venerable Order has been waging against them for ages, and will continue to wage after we have fallen into dust!
Masonry, as it is much more than a political party or a social cult, is also more than a church--unless we use the word church as Ruskin used it when he said: "There is a true church wherever one hand meets another helpfully, the only holy or mother church that ever was or ever shall be!" It is true that Masonry is not a religion, but it is Religion, a worship in which all good men may unite, that each may share the faith of all. Often it has been objected that some men leave the Church and enter the Masonic Lodge, finding there a religious home. Even so, but that may be the fault, not of Masonry, but of the Church so long defamed by bigotry and distracted by sectarian feud, and which has too often made acceptance of abstract dogmas a test of its fellowship. 9 Naturally many fine minds have been estranged from the Church, not because they were irreligious, but because they were required to believe what it was impossible for them to believe; and, rather than sacrifice their integrity of soul, they . have turned away from the last place from which a man should ever turn away. No part of the ministry of Masonry is more beautiful and wise than its appeal, not for tolerance, but for fraternity; not for uniformity, but for unity of spirit amidst varieties of outlook and opinion. Instead of criticizing Masonry, let us thank God for one altar where no man is asked to surrender his liberty of thought and become an indistinguishable atom in a mass of sectarian agglomeration. What a witness to the worth of an Order that it brings together men of all creeds in behalf of those truths which are greater than all sects, deeper than all doctrines--the glory and the hope of man!
While Masonry is not a church, it has religiously preserved some things of highest importance to the Church--among them the right of each individual soul to its own religious faith. Holding aloof from separate sects and creeds, it has taught all of them how to respect and tolerate each other; asserting a principle broader than any of them--the sanctity of the soul and the duty of every man to revere, or at least to regard with charity, what is sacred to his fellows. It is like the crypts underneath the old cathedrals--a place where men of every creed who long for something deeper and truer, older and newer than they have hitherto known, meet and unite. Having put away childish things, they find themselves made one by a profound and childlike faith, each bringing down into that quiet crypt his own pearl of great price--
The Hindu his innate disbelief in this world, and his unhesitating belief in another world; the Buddhist his perception of an eternal law, his submission to it, his gentleness, his pity; the Mohammedan, if nothing else, his sobriety; the Jew his clinging, through good and evil days, to the one God who loveth righteousness, and whose name is "I AM;" the Christian, that which is better than all, if those who doubt it would try it--our love of God, call Him what you will, manifested in our love of man, our love of the living, our love of the dead, our living and undying love. Who knows but that the crypt of the past may become the church of the future? 10
Of no one age, Masonry belongs to all ages; of no one religion, it finds great truths in all religions. Indeed, it holds that truth which is common to all elevating and benign religions, and is the basis of each; that faith which underlies all sects and over-arches all creeds, like the sky above and the river bed below the flow of mortal years. It does not under-take to explain or dogmatically to settle those questions or solve those dark mysteries which out-top human knowledge. Beyond the facts of faith it does not go. With the subtleties of speculation concerning those truths, and the unworldly envies growing out of them, it has not to do. There divisions begin, and Masonry was not made to divide men, but to unite them, leaving each man free to think his own thought and fashion his own system of ultimate truth. All its emphasis rests upon two extremely simple and profound principles--love of God and love of man. Therefore, all through the ages it has been, and is today, a meeting place of differing minds, and a prophecy of the final union of all reverent and devout souls.
Time was when one man framed a dogma and declared it to be the eternal truth. Another man did the same thing, with a different dogma; then the two began to hate each other with an unholy hatred, each seeking to impose his dogma upon the other--and that is an epitome of some of the blackest pages of history. Against those old sectarians who substituted intolerance for charity, persecution for friendship, and did not love God because they hated their neighbors, Masonry made eloquent protest, putting their bigotry to shame by its simple insight, and the dignity of its golden voice. A vast change of heart is now taking place in the religious world, by reason of an exchange of thought and courtesy, and a closer personal touch, and the various sects, so long estranged, are learning to unite upon the things most worth while and the least open to debate. That is to say, they are moving toward the Masonic position, and when they arrive Masonry will witness a scene which she has prophesied for ages.
At last, in the not distant future, the old feuds of the sects will come to an end, forgotten in the discovery that the just, the brave, the true-hearted are everywhere of one religion, and that when the masks of misunderstanding are taken off they know and love one another. Our little dogmas will have their day and cease to be, lost in the vision of a truth so great that all men are one in their littleness; one also in their assurance of the divinity of the soul and "the kindness of the veiled Father of men." Then men of every name will ask, when they meet:
Not what is your creed?
High above all dogmas that divide, all bigotries that blind, all bitterness that beclouds, will be written the simple words of the one eternal religion--the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the moral law, the golden rule, and the hope of a life everlasting!
1 Symbolism of Freemasonry, by Dr. Mackey.
2 History and Philosophy of Masonry, by A. C. L. Arnold, chap. xvi. To say of any man--of Socrates, for example--who had the spirit of Friendship and Integrity, that he was a Mason, is in a sense true, but it is misleading. Nevertheless, if a man have not that spirit, he is not a Mason, though he may have received the thirty-third degree.
3 Vol. i, p. 320. The Handbuch is an encyclopedia of Masonry, published in 1900. See admirable review of it, A. Q. C., xi, 64.
4 Much has been written about the secrecy of Masonry. Hutchinson, in his lecture on "The Secrecy of Masons," lays all the stress upon its privacy as a shelter for the gentle ministry of Charity (Spirit of Masonry, lecture x). Arnold is more satisfactory in his essay on "The Philosophy of Mystery," quoting the words of Carlyle in Sartor Resartus: "Bees will not work except in darkness; thoughts will not work except in silence; neither will virtue work except in secrecy" (History and Philosophy of Masonry, chap. xxi). But neither writer seems to realize the psychology and pedagogy of secrecy--the value of curiosity, of wonder and expectation, in the teaching of great truths deemed commonplace because old. Even in that atmosphere, the real secret of Masonry remains hidden to many--as sunlight hides the depths of heaven.
5 Read the noble chapter on "Prayer as a Masonic Obligation," in Practical Masonic Lectures, by Samuel Lawrence (lecture x).
6 Read a thoughtful "Exposition of Freemasonry," by Dr. Paul Carus, Open Court, May, 1913.
7 Proverbs 24:3, 4.
8 While Masonry abjures political questions and disputes in its Lodges, it is all the while training good citizens, and through the quality of its men it influences public life--as Washington, Franklin, and Marshall carried the spirit of Masonry into the organic law of this republic. It is not politics that corrupts character; it is bad character that corrupts politics--and by building men up to spiritual faith and character, Masonry is helping to build up a state that will endure the shocks of time; a nobler structure than ever was wrought of mortar and marble (The Principles of Freemasonry in the Life of Nations, by Findel).
9 Not a little confusion has existed, and still exists, in regard to the relation of Masonry to religion. Dr. Mackey said that old Craft-masonry was sectarian (Symbolism of Masonry); but it was not more so than Dr. Mackey himself, who held the curious theory that the religion of the Hebrews was genuine and that of the Egyptians spurious. Nor is there any evidence that Craft-masonry was sectarian, but much to the contrary, as has been shown in reference to the invocations in the Old Charges. At any rate, if it was ever sectarian, it ceased to be so with the organization of the Grand Lodge of England. Later, some of the chaplains of the order sought to identify Masonry with Christianity, as Hutchinson did--and even Arnold in his chapter on "Christianity and Freemasonry" (History and Philosophy of Masonry). All this confusion results from a misunderstanding of what religion is. Religions are many; religion is one--perhaps we may say one thing, but that one thing includes everything--the life of God in the soul of man, which finds expression in all the forms which life and love and duty take. This conception of religion shakes the poison out of all our wild flowers, and shows us that it is the inspiration of all scientific inquiry, all striving for liberty, all virtue and charity; the spirit of all thought, the motif of all great music, the soul of all sublime literature. The church has no monopoly of religion, nor did the Bible create it. Instead, it was religion--the natural and simple trust of the soul in a Power above and within it, and its quest of a right relation to that Power--that created the Bible and the Church, and, indeed, all our higher human life. The soul of man is greater than all books, deeper than all dogmas, and more enduring than all institutions. Masonry seeks to free men from a limiting conception of religion, and thus to remove one of the chief causes of sectarianism. It is itself one of the forms of beauty wrought by the human soul under the inspiration of the Eternal Beauty, and as such is religious.
10 Chips from a German Workshop, by Max Müller.
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