The Religion of Masonry
Bro. Joseph Fort Newton, Litt. D.
Chapter II. The Builders
AS HAS been said, it is not the purpose of these pages to deal with the attitude of Masonry toward organized religion, but to study our Craft as itself an expression of religious faith, life, and hope. If religion, as here interpreted, be a great solidarity, a sense of a vast Kindred-Life, in whose near-neighborliness and far-friendliness we, and all men, live in a fellowship of duty and destiny, then surely, Masonry is one of its myriad manifestations; a part of the organized spiritual experience of the race, a form of the Divine Life upon the earth.
By the same sign, to know the meaning of Masonry, in any real sense, it must be studied in the context of the universal spiritual history of humanity, of which it is a unique and significant aspect. Otherwise it will remain not a mystery, but a riddle, as unintelligible as if it had been the work of men of another planet, having no place in our estimate of the spiritual possessions of the race. Here lies the value of the work of Edward Waite, to whose clear vision and rich learning every student of the Craft is so deeply in debt. He sees that the spiritual life of mankind is one quest and conquest, no matter how many forms it may take or what different rituals it may employ — Masonry being one of the three really great rituals in which man has sought to surprise in art and embody in experience the mystery and meaning of life.
Such an insight into the unity of the life of the soul ties things together and gives us not only a wise tolerance, but also a patient sympathy with, and a clearer understanding of, every form the search for God has taken, alike in Christian and pagan lands. It does not mean that all forms of faith are of the same depth, or degree of development, or value for our guidance, much less does it deny the reality of that revelation of moral law and spiritual truth which shines upon our path, a light to lead our wayward feet, in the Book of Holy Law. But it does help us to see and understand how and why,
Answering unto Man's endeavor
Truth and right are still revealed,
lifting our aspiration into realization, making our spiritual dream come true; and that while religions are many, Religion is one — perhaps we may say one thing, to use once more the words of Henry Scrougall who, dying in the morning of life, told us that religion is "the life of God in the soul of man."
UNLESS we see Masonry in this setting and tradition, we miss its real beauty and infinite suggestiveness, as well as the wonder of its symbolism. It is unique indeed, not so much in the truth it teaches or the experience it seeks to realize as in the spirit and method in which it leads us in the greatest of all adventures. It is in fact, for those who understand — and, dimly, for those who do not see its full splendor — a thin shadow of something very great, something ineffable and memorable. It holds a certain extremely simple and profound secret, for which words were never made, and which can only be hinted in symbol and drama; and that is why it speaks to us in
The picture writing of the world's gray seers,
The myths and parables of primal years.
WHAT, then, is Masonry? One thinks of the answer of Augustine to a like question long ago, when he said: "I know until you ask me; when you ask me I do not know." There is something unique in Masonry, a tie unlike any other, uniting men of all ranks, types, temperaments into a closely-knit fellowship; something deep and tender — one would call it mystical, if the word had not been so badly used — which all of us feel, but which no one of us can analyze. No one cares to analyze it. We sit in lodge together, each knowing exactly what will come next; we meet upon the level and part upon the square — old and simple and familiar symbols — and somehow, no one knows how, a tie is woven light as air yet stronger than steel. It is very strange, very wonderful — to attempt to analyze it is like trying to draw a rim round a perfume.
None the less, as we have set ourselves the task of expounding, as best we may, something of the deeper meaning of Masonry, we must attempt some kind of a definition — or, better still, a description — of its spirit and purpose and form. It will help us, perhaps, if we bring together a number of definitions, none of them perfect, as those who made them would be the first to admit, each one emphasizing one aspect or segment of the many-sided, far- ramifying wonder of Masonry; and all of them together showing at once the necessity and the futility of trying to define it. Each man, as will appear, sees in Masonry the thing nearest to his own nature and need, his own heart and thought, but there is much more than he sees, Masonry itself, like its symbols, being a benign and beautiful mystery which many behold, each from his own angle and point of view, but which no one exhausts. Thus we may read:
The definition of Freemasonry that it is "a science of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols," has been so often quoted that, were it not for its beauty, it would become wearisome. This is its internal character. Its ceremonies are external additions, which affect not its substance. — A.G. MACKEY.
Freemasonry is an ancient male society, having secret methods of recognition, teaching by symbolism (in part esoteric) a moral philosophy based upon Monotheism and inculcating the brotherhood of man and belief in immortality — M.M. JOHNSON.
Masonry is 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. — A.C.L. ARNOLD.
Masonry is the science of life in a society of men, by signs, symbols and ceremonies; having as its basis a system of morality and for its purpose the perfection and happiness of the individual and the race. — G.F. MOORE.
The word carries with it, through all the variants known to us, the idea of unity. From this view it appears that Masonry is the building together of various units, such as stones, bricks, wood, iron, or human beings, into a compact structure. When we apply it to Speculative Masonry, we mean the building morally of humanity into an organized structure, according to a design or plan. — A.S. MACBRIDE.
Life separates man from man; to unite him again with man needs an art; a means to this art, not the art itself, is Freemasonry. Freemasonry is, therefore, the medium of an art which strives to mold people whom life has separated so that they can enter a new communion with one another. — OSKAR POSNER.
Masonry is an art of the Brotherhood of Man, a code of ethical laws and revelations impressing all men with its candor, justice and faith; commending its members to extend justice to all mankind; instructing its students in an open mind, strength in the right and cleanness of heart and body; inculcating love of God, home and country, and respect for the rights of a brother. — R.W. ABBOTT.
Masonry is the subjugation of the Human that is in man by the Divine; the conquest of the appetites and passions by the moral sense and the reason; a continual effort, struggle and warfare, of the spiritual against the material and sensual. That victory — when it has been achieved and secured, and the conqueror may rest upon his shield and wear the well-earned laurels — is the true Holy Empire. — ALBERT PIKE.
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. — GERMAN HANDBUCH.
SO MUCH for definitions, if indeed they ought not to be called descriptions instead, all except the first which is taken from the Book of Constitutions, the second which might stand in a court of law, and the last which entitled us to be called the Builders. The rest are true and beautiful, the words of Pike being a memorable picture of the passion, purpose and prophecy of every religion, the effort of all the higher human life, in nowise peculiar to Masonry, save as we see and interpret Masonry as a part, or expression, of the common spiritual aspiration and endeavor of mankind; one with the old eternal quest of God, however unique its symbolism may be. Once, somewhere down the years, I tried to sum it up in one sentence, to which may be added a like saying by a master Craftsman:
Let us rather say that Masonry, as we see it in our dream and seek to realize it in our fellowship, is like one of the Cathedrals which our brethren built in the olden time: Faith its foundation, Righteousness its cornerstone, Strength and Wisdom its walls, Beauty its form and fashion, Brotherly Love its clasped arches, Reverence its roof, the Bible its altar light, Mysticism its music, Charity its incense, Fellowship its sacrament, Relief its ritual; its Symbols windows nobly wrought, half-revealing and half- concealing a Truth too elusive for words, too vast for dogma, and too bright for eyes unveiled, and only hinted to us until we are ready and worthy to behold it with other and clearer eyes than now we know:-
Masonry is not a Temple of Mysteries, nor a Repository of Rituals, nor a Reformatory of the Fallen, nor a Branch Office of a Benevolent Society, but the happy and restful, refined and intellectual home of men of good-will and good sense; Brethren not Bondsmen, men of brain and brawn, young men and mature men, drawn and conciliated together by some magnetic affinity of association far more than mere gregariousness; just average men in a world of motion and emotion, of aspiration and purposeful progress, men who discover one another and realize themselves in close and familiar association, and who have realized that the Brotherhood of Man begins with the Manhood of the Brother.
There, in one shining sentence, the thing all of us feel, love and try to express, does get itself said, giving us a thrill of recognition and joy. It is a perfect description of the atmosphere in which Masons live and the spirit in which they work — a spirit gentle, joyous, free - held together by a magnetic and creative affinity, seeking the truth without envy, discussing it without rancor, and striving to make it effective in private life and public service. For Masonry is Truth, Charity and Service — the truth by which no man was ever injured, the charity without which no dogma is worth holding, and the Doing of Good which is the finest art known upon earth and among men.
THERE is, then, a Religion of Masonry — old, simple, wise — as profound as it is practical; a religion of faith, freedom, and fellowship, taking the truths of faith and revelation, but allowing each man to read and interpret those, truths as his heart elects, thus avoiding the envies and debates which so often disfigure the religious life. It is not a theology in the technical sense, nor a philosophy like the philosophy of Plato or Kant, but, rather, a living wisdom, a practical moral mysticism, so to name it, veiled in allegory and illustrated by signs, symbols and dramas. One may take the words of Jesus as describing its Degrees: "The Way, the Truth, and the Life"; the way of moral rectitude and fraternal righteousness, the truth of a moral order and a spiritual law as exact as geometry, and a life everlasting discovered and lived in time.
However, let us remember that the Religion of Masonry, be it ever so simple and profound, just because it is a spiritual interpretation of life, rests upon the same basis and is subject to the same tests as all other such readings of the meaning of life. As such, it is open to denial by sceptical criticism and brute facts, open to persecution by the accidents of life and the menace of death, to say nothing of things darker, by far, than death can ever be. It behooves us, therefore, at least to state the faith by which we live as men and Masons, as over against those blind thoughts we know not nor can name, and the blight of cynicism at whose touch all the finer values of life fade, like flowers in a frost. There is no need to give reasons for our faith, if only because the profoundest faiths of man are deeper than reason, and are the basis of reason itself — as deep as infancy and old age, as deep as love and death.
Masonry, like all the best life of man, rests upon the faith — which can neither be demonstrated nor refuted by logic — that life has meaning and value, and is not an accident to be lived at loose ends and to no purpose. Such a faith, because it is healthy and sane, makes the venture that life is real, sane, and worth while, and acts accordingly. It is not a mere opinion we hold, but a passion that holds us:
It is an affirmation and an act
That bids eternal truth be present fact.
As SPARKS ascending seek the sun, so this high, heroic faith of man rises above the things that deny and finds its confirmation and its consecration in God and His life of law and love: a truth never stated more nobly than in the words of Richard Hooker, a fellow of Shakespeare and Bacon and Milton, one of the amplest minds of his age, who, dying at forty-nine, left us a passage famous alike for its sweep of thought and its stately, old-world style:
Wherefore, that here we may briefly end: of law there can be no less acknowledged, than that her seat is in the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in Heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power; both angels and men and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different sort and manner, yet all with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and their joy.
THAT is to say, Masonry, rests upon I and lives and builds in the assurance, to which human experience and Divine revelation alike bear witness, of the existence of a universal moral and spiritual world, whose laws are as real, as reliable, as the laws of the physical order in which we live; a vast, potent, living, beneficent order, more radiant than we can yet imagine, of which the symbolism of the race, in the scattered letters of a lofty language, gives us hints and gleams; and the seeker after reality recognizes his own — and understands. Otherwise our symbolism means nothing at all, because there is nothing to symbolize. Nay, more; if this be not so, human life is a flash of glory against a dark background — a flash doomed to fade and be lost in a void. As a protest against so dark a philosophy our Masonic faith stands immovable, a Temple covering the holy things of life with an abiding protection. Its faith may be stated briefly, in more detail, as follows:
(1) Faith in the universe as friendly to fraternal enterprise. Our Craft believes that the world in which we live, in spite of facts apparently contradictory, was made for Brotherhood. At first sight it may not seem so. Nature appears to be constructed on contrary lines, "red in tooth and claw," careless of the higher values. For many the seeming indifference of Nature to the higher ideals of man is terrifying, and to dream of a brotherly society in such a world seems futile. It is indeed a daring act of faith, a challenge to the courage of man, and Masonry accepts the challenge. It affirms, in spite of appearances, that man was made for man. If there is a law of the Struggle for Existence, there is also a law of Mutual Aid, without which man would have perished long ago. Slowly, surely, the higher, gentler law triumphs over the lower, lesser law — includes it, indeed, and fulfils it. Man himself is a part of Nature, and because he has a hunger for fraternity, he believes that the universe is not against his faith.
(2) Faith in man as a spiritual being. Man is an animal, but if he is nothing else, religion and fraternity are thin fictions: he would live by the law of the jungle. But man is more than an animal; he has "thoughts that wander through eternity." He is a citizen of two worlds, and the glory of his life is the art of living in two worlds at the same time. No fraternity built on the baseness of man can endure. Only the spiritual tie can unite men in the bonds of brotherhood. Nothing else holds, in the end, against the brute forces in ourselves and in the world. Any other tie of fellowship is a rope of sand, weak as water. All fraternity is founded on faith in man as a moral and spiritual being, capable of disinterested fellowship, service, and sacrifice.
(3) Faith in the power of spiritual ideals. If man is fashioned by Fate, if his higher ideals are at the mercy of his lower instincts; that is, if self-interest is the only motive strong enough to move him to fight, or serve, or suffer, then fraternity, of the kind we seek, is impossible. The history of human heroism refutes this cynical philosophy. The devotion of man to the great disinterested ideals of liberty, justice, mercy, truth, is overwhelming testimony to the power of spiritual influences over him. These cannot be simply human aspirations; they must be divine inspirations. They sway man in his nobler hours, touching his life to finer issues, and shaping him after a Divine pattern. This threefold faith underlies the grand affirmations of Religious Masonry: the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherly Life, the Geometry of Character, and the Life Everlasting.
SUCH is the faith upon which Masonry builds — the faith which underlies and upholds all the higher life of man — uniting the flickering rays of the old Light-Religion with the brighter revelation of moral law and spiritual truth as it shines in the Book of Holy Law. The three Great Lights of the lodge give us the clue to the Religion of Masonry, the Holy Bible supporting the Square and the Compasses — symbols of Revelation, Righteousness, and Redemption; teaching us that by walking in the light of Truth, and obeying the law of Right, the Divine in man wins victory over the earthly. Thus Earth and Heaven are brought together in the lodge — the earth where man goes forth to his labor, and the heaven to which he aspires.
Indeed, the Religion of Masonry is Universe Religion, in which all men can unite: its principles are as wide as the world and as high as the sky. Nature and Revelation blend in its faith; its morality is rooted in the order of the world, and its roof is the blue vaunt above. The lodge, as we are too apt to forget, is always open to the sky-overhung by a starry canopy by night, lighted by the journeying sun by day-whence come those influences which exalt and ennoble the life of man. Symbolically, at least, it has no rafters but the arching heavens, and the business of man is to reproduce in his life the. law and order of the far-shining City of God. Of the heavenly side of Masonry the Compasses are the symbol, and they are the most spiritual of all its working tools — the law of Nature and the light of Revelation being the two points of the Compasses within which our life is set under a canopy of Sun and Stars.
While we hold a view of the world very unlike that held by our ancient brethren — knowing it to be round, not flat and square — yet their insight is still true; the whole idea being that man must imitate the order of the world in which he lives. That is also our dream and design, our labor and worship. Any man has a right to build a house to suit himself; but if he expects it to stand and be a shelter of his home, he must obey certain laws of physics in building it. By as much as he obeys those laws his home will stand; if he disobeys, no. Nor is it otherwise with the moral laws which rule the building of character. If the laws of architecture are moral laws, as Ruskin taught us, just so moral principles are laws of spiritual architecture. In short, the basic idea of Masonry is that the moral order, like the physical world, is a realm of law, order and beauty, where obedience is liberty and stability.
Upon this fact Masonry erects its noble and beautiful allegory of human life in al its varied aspects: the lodge a symbol of the world in which man lives on a checker-board of nights and days, joys and sorrows — over-arched by the sky, at its center an Altar of obligation and prayer. By the same sign, initiation is our birth from the darkness of prenatal gloom into the light of moral and spiritual faith, out of a merely physical into a human and moral order; into a new environment with a new body of motive and experience. The cable tow is like the cord which joins a child to its mother at birth, nor is it removed until, by the act of assuming the obligations of the moral life, a new, unseen tie is woven, uniting, its with our race in its moral effort to build a world of fraternal goodwill.
IN THE First Degree we learn morality and charity — two things always to be kept together; if counted worthy we pass, in the Second Degree, out of youth into manhood with its wider knowledge and heavier responsibilities; and finally, if we have integrity and courage, we discover, in the Third Degree, that we are citizens of Eternity living in time. Thus we have portrayed, in a sublimely simply and eloquent allegory, an ideal world ruled by wisdom, strength, and fellowship, in which we are set to do our duty, build our character, and win our destiny. It is a great day for a young man when Masonry reveals its meaning to him, unveiling its plan of life, its purpose, its prophecy of a Temple of Brotherhood, into which he may build his life and thought and aspiration, so that whatever immortality this human world shall have his character and personality shall have a share in it.
IN ITS modern form at least, our Masonry is a symposium of symbolism in which three streams or strands of faith unite, by which man is a Builder of a Temple, a Pilgrim in quest of a lost Truth, and, if he be worthy and heroic, a Finder of sublime Secret of Life. He is, first, a builder, taking the rough stones of the world and shaping them into forms of beauty, building upon the will of God, by His design, with His help, in His name; nay, more, building together with his fellow men, as our Brethren built the cathedrals. He is, second, a seeker, a pilgrim journeying from the West, a land of sunset and death, toward the East, the place of sunrise and life; a pilgrimage of the soul, affected, at least in this state of its journey, in the sandals of Human Nature — a long, weary road. He is, finally if he be worthy, a finder of the greatest secret man may know, whereby he is reborn to Eternal Life here and now, while walking the dim paths of earth and time. O my soul, remember, strive, persevere, and rejoice!
TELL me, Brother Man, if in all the world of wisdom and prophecy, in science or philosophy, you have found a faith more profound, a plan of life more noble, a task more challenging, a hope more enchanting! One thinks of the Sonnet by Carl Claudy, who asked of Masonry her meaning, and answers the question in words that set our souls singing:
What hath thy lore of life to let it live?
What is the vital spark, hid in thy vow?
The millions learned, as thy dear paths they trod,
The secret of the strength thou hast to give:
"I am a way of common men to God,"