If the ceremony of the North-East Corner which we practice to-day is not the lineal descendent of a most ancient ceremony, that ancient ceremony is at least its prototype and is something which has been done for thousands of years.
As far back as written history goes, men associated religion with their shelters or homes and long before Temples to the gods were even dreamt of we find ceremonial rites performed at the erection of every roof-tree.
The ceremonies are always of a propitiatory nature, calling for the blessings of the gods on the home to be, for prosperity for the inhabitants of that home and for the fruitful yield of the fields about it.
IN different lands, governed by climatic conditions, the ritual and ceremonies varied to a very great extent and it is not until we come to the Babylonian and Egyptian builders in brick and stone that the corner-stone ceremony begins to take form. At first it appears to have been a kind of prayer meeting when lengthy invocations to the gods were offered and extensive purifications of the site of the proposed structure were performed by pouring about the ground quantities of wine, water and oil.
With the growth of the sinister worship of Baal however, darker practices began, and it was common to bury human sacrifices in the North-east corner to propitiate this malevolent deity. From the ceremonial killing of a man, so that his body could be buried as sacrifice to the gods, the next step was the burying of a man alive, in the corner of the building, and there are cases on record where several virgins were buried at one time in this way as propitiation and sacrifices to malevolent gods, for the success of the building under construction.
But with the advance of civilization and culture these barbarous practices gradually died out and among the Greeks and Romans we find more elaborate ceremonies than ever, but the sacrifice of human life is gone. The sacrifice is now represented by statues of the gods themselves and the importance of the building was marked by the lavish use of precious metals and jewels in these statues.
Still later in the march of progress we find the custom of building precious caskets into the corner of the structure. The contents of these caskets were jewellery and written propitiatory prayers, and from them has come the modern custom of building a copper box containing historical trifles into the corner stones of present day edifices.
Truly it has been and still is, the custom to "lay the first stone of all important buildings in the Northeast corner." And the representation of the ceremony by placing the Initiate in the North-east corner (or North-east angle) is filled with symbolic meaning to Freemasons.
The Mason is taught that the North is a place of darkness, and the East the place of light. Midway between them, neither East nor North, we place the initiate, subtly suggesting that he has left darkness, is moving to the light, but is not wholly disassociated from the one nor wholly a creature of the other.
Then we proceed to teach him one of Masonry's finest lessons, and in a way that, can he grasp the inner significance as well as the obvious intent, it will be a lamp to his feet as long as life shall last.
But how often is the ceremony of the North-east corner degraded to the point of a mere practical joke. Notwithstanding the fine phrasing of the ritual itself and the peculiar manner in which all preparations are made leading up to the test, there are far too many occasions on which the incident is made to appear merely a fine chance to embarrass a man in an unusual position. Then we go on to tell him what a fine thing is Charity, and unless he is above the average in analyzing a situation, he gets the idea that the whole lesson is merely a penny-in-the-bowl affair, designed to teach him that he should give his brother a little financial assistance when that is needed.
I have no desire to disparage that phase of Charity but I may be pardoned if I try to draw your attention to its effect on our modern scheme of living. The milk of human kindness runs strong in the breasts of most people and there are few indeed who will refuse to respond to the real call for help. But calls for help to-day have become so mechanical that they are not only a burden but kill all the fine re-actions in the mind of a man when he performs an altruistic act in sympathy and without hope of reward.
The word "Charity" has been prostituted to the point where its flavour is that of mechanical giving and through organizations and institutions, with all the sweetness and gentle sympathy removed from the act. I have often wondered if Masons would not be well advised to drop the word altogether, as do some Hebrew Lodges in the United States, and substitute the word "Humanity."
Of course there are many of us who believe that Charity of this form is merely treating a symptom of instead of the root of the disease, but while economic conditions are such as they are, we must be, apparently, contented to be our brother's keepers to the extent of helping him over financial rough roads when his feet are sore distressed. That is the face value of the lesson of the North-east Corner. But there is a far deeper, if less apparent symbolism than that.
Consider the practice of Charity of the mind. "If ye speak with the tongue of men and of angels, and have not Charity, ye are as a tinkling cymbal and a sounding brass" says the prophet. And Charity in this sense goes far deeper than the penny in the bowl.
Many and many a time it is not a dollar a man needs but understanding. A kindly word is often more precious than rubies, and yet most Anglo-Saxons will refuse to speak that word from some deep buried reason of being afraid to wear their hearts on their coat sleeves.
The practice of sympathy is one of the deeper lessons of the North-east corner. A man or a brother acts in a way we do not understand. Promptly we condemn him. And it isn't always from reasons of ill-doing. The country bred man sneers at the city fellow and the city fellow in turn sneers at the rustic. Is this Charity? No, my brethren, it is lack of understanding. Again the fellow who excels at games sneers at the man who prefers a book. Again lack of understanding, the greatest of all barriers between man and his brother.
Masonry is presumably an educational institution, in that it endeavours, by precept at least, to teach men to know themselves and their brethren. Surely then, we should endeavour, as Masons, to understand our brother. Let us not sit in judgement of a man and a brother from heresay or superficialities.
Petty gossip is a curse of our age and yet we are all prone, on occasion, to indulge in it. It is at best a thoughtless practice and at worst the refinement of cruelty. "They say" has killed many a noble aspiration, and "I hear" has lowered falsely, many a proud head in the dust. One lesson of the North-east Corner is an old one expressed in words you have often heard — "If you can say no good, say nothing."
And when ill-fortune takes a man and he steps off the path of rigid convention or lapses from orthodox conduct, it is not our province to sit in judgement. Remember above all things, the cardinal principles of British justice — "A man is innocent until proven guilty." And if in the course of human events he is proved guilty, be gentle, remembering the spirit, if not the lines, of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, himself an ardent Freemason:—
"Gently scan your brither man
Far gentler gentle sister woman,
For though they gang a'kennin' wrang
To step aside is human.
Then at the balance let's be nute
We never can adjust it,
For though what's done we can compute
We know not what's resisted."
or as another poet, a living one, and also a Freemason, Douglas Malloch, known as the Lumberman Poet, has it:—
"We none of us are perfect — in
The judging of another's sin,
Another's error, saint or fool,
There is but one impartial rule —
Let us demand no more, yes less
Of good, than we ourselves possess."
There is still another lesson in the ceremony of the North-east Corner which may be condensed into the phrase:—
"Give honour where honour is due."
It is part of a Mason's duty to speak a kindly word of praise, not only when he sees a task well done, but when he sees honest effort. We are prone to take things very much for granted, and very much disposed to measure attainment by our own standard, and so when a problem is attacked from a new angle, whether it be solved or not, we grumble because the thing wasn't done according to our lights. Very human, brethren, but lacking in the greatness of true Charity.
One last phase and I have done. Let me illustrate the point with an old story. A "Drunken reprobate, the terror of his family and of the neighbourhood, has passed to his reward. On the day of the funeral, the Parson was lauding in kindly words what little good there had been in the deceased. Perhaps he went farther than was really necessary for, as he spoke, the widow leaned to her eldest boy, who stood beside her, and said in a hoarse whisper:—
"Jimmy, look into the coffin and see if the man there is really your father."
I need not labour the point, brethren, we are all given to eulogy of the dead and while it may sound wisdom to speak well of the dead, it is better far to pass the kindly and encouraging word of the living. The thought is aptly put in verses you have likely heard, but they will stand repetition as a closing note in the harmony of the North-east Corner.
"If with pleasure you are viewing any work a man is doing,
If you like him or you love him, tell him now.
Don't withhold your approbation till the parson makes ovation
And he lies with snowy lilies on his brow.
For no matter how you shout it, he won't really care about it;
He won't know how many tear drops you have shed.
If you think some praise is due him, now's the time to slip it to him
For he cannot read his tombstone when he's dead.
More than fame and more than money is the comment kind and sunny,
And the hearty, warm approval of a friend;
For it gives to life a savour, and makes you stronger, braver,
And it gives you heart and spirit to the end.
If he earns your praises, bestow it, if you like him let him know it,
Let the words of true encouragement be said;
Do not wait till life is over and he's underneath the clover
For he cannot read his tombstone when he's dead."