What's It For?
M.W.Bro. H. D. Donnelly
As we open our Conference and prepare for the discussions that will follow, I am keenly aware that I stand in a noble tradition. Brethren who were great in soul and intellect — some no longer with us — have fulfilled the duty now assigned to me. It is therefore with mingled pride and humility that I present my thoughts on the subject I have selected.
Some time ago a young man came into our Library in the Masonic Temple in Winnipeg. He had lately completed his degrees and was looking for further information. I suggested some books for his reading, and we talked about Freemasonry for a little while. Then he asked me a question that caused me to do some rapid thinking: "What's it for?" I am afraid that my impromptu reply was not entirely satisfactory either to him or to myself. But the question has stayed with me, and there has been a recurring desire to explore its implications. My purpose this evening, therefore, is to attempt, however inadequately, to suggest some possible answers to it.
Usually, when we want to determine the purpose of any organization or movement, we try to go back to its beginnings, to discover, if possible, what were the motives that prompted its founders, what conditions called it forth, and what were the hopes of those who originated it. Speculative Freemasonry, however, offers little opportunity for such research. The immediate foreground of our Masonic history is clearly discernable, but as we try to look into the distance, the outlines of events begin to blur, until they fade into a misty haze. Here and there one will stand out like a distant mountain peak, but all details are lost. Thus, while we do have some hints of what was done by our brethren during the time of transition from the Operative to the Speculative Craft, we have practically no clear indication of WHY they began to meet as non- operative Masons.
What were our ancient brethren seeking as they met in public taverns or as an occasional Lodge in a private home, without any governing authority to direct or control them, and with no material advantages to reward them? These were not mere illiterate labourers, for there were included among their number men of culture and learning who. I feel, had more influence in shaping our Speculative Craft than we realize. It was a movement which had no precise beginning; it came as a slow growth without any definite planning, and its purpose, if our brethren thought of it at all, was vague. You will remember that in Scotland, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, men who were not masons by trade joined Lodges of working or operative masons. In England, in that period, the general practice seems to have been for gentlemen interested in Masonry to associate in non-operative Lodges, or Lodges of "accepted" or "adopted" masons. These groups in England, though they included operative masons, were not concerned with the direction of the masons' trade. Men from many other trades and professions joined with them. A copy of the Ancient Charges was their Charter and their Constitution, but they had nothing to do with trade regulations or conditions of work. Neither, at that time, did they have any system of moral teaching based on symbolism, such as characterizes our modern Craft.
There must, then, have been some other interest or need which brought them together in fraternal association. It may have been the wish to share in a secret. Possibly an interest in architecture formed a common bond, as a knowledge of it was regarded as an essential part of a gentleman's education. In part, it may have been the desire for convivial society, common enough in that age when the flowing bowl and the long-stemmed pipe were necessary accompaniments of such gatherings. Yet I feel there was something more, some groping in the hearts of men which, consciously or not, led them to seek this fellowship. Speculative Masonry was the product, not only of the centuries-old traditions of the Operative Craft, but also of the times in which it began to emerge.
The first recorded admission into a purely non-operative Lodge was that of Elias Ashmole in 1646 at Warrington, just two months after the close of the great Civil War which divided England between Parliament men and Royalists. This century was a time of strife, dissention, revolution and bloodshed. In the latter half of it the upheavals caused by the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the struggles between King and Parliament disrupted the whole country. Along with these were religious bitterness, and persecution in turn by Puritans and Anglicans, wars in Europe, intrigues and venality in high places, and through it all "the common man went about his simple daily affairs ruled by the customs and laws of his time, by events at home and abroad, some of them little known to him and less understood." He was sharply aware of the danger's to himself and his possessions, He was beginning to feel the stirring of the fresh wind of freedom; to realize he could stand up among his fellows and think of himself as an individual and not a mere chattel, with a growing conviction that he should have some say in the ordering of affairs of state. Thoughtful men, weary of strife, were catching a vision of a society in which bitterness and hate, lawlessness and squalor, would not be accepted as the normal condition of things, a society in which education would not be only for the privileged few, and where men could associate with each other without mutual distrust. Such thoughts were in the minds of honest men, and some of them I feel found a refuge in Masonry. We know that this movement attracted men of diverse interests and opinions. Ashmole was a Royalist, and Randle Holme. a well-known writer and genealogist, who also became a Mason, was a Parliament man. Scholars, antiquarians, merchants and skilled craftsmen met as equals in Lodges at a time when divisions and classes were rigidly fixed.
Surely it would not be unreasonable to think that some would turn to this association of masons, who, out of their long tradition's of noble achievement and mutual dependence provided an atmosphere of helpful friendliness. Here they could close the doors against bitterness and suspicion, and in this retreat forget that they were divided by their religious and political rivalries. Not that these brethren had any prepared plan for the reformation of society, rather they looked for something that would lift them above the intolerances of religion and politics, so that each could see in his fellow man, not someone to hate and quarrel with, but one with whom he could share a feeling of friendly trust. If there be any truth in such speculations it could give us a hint of what men hoped to find in Masonry.
We, of course, feel that we have advanced far in overcoming the ignorance and narrowness of the 17th century. But are there not today conditions of life in which we just as surely need a place of quiet harmony to moderate the stresses of present-day living? We are still not free from bigotry and mistrust. There are still tyranny and injustice in the world. We are beset by fears and anxieties. Fierce competition drains our energies. Thoughtful men need some influence that will help them, not to forget, but to recognize such conditions as imperfections and to catch a clearer vision of what man ought to be. Our ancient brethren had no thought of using their Masonic associations to remake the world about them. We, too, shall not set forth any schemes for the reformation of society. Rather, we shall try to renew man's faith in his fellow man, and in the atmosphere of forbearance and mutual trust, come to see "how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." The Lodge, then, shall be a centre of light from which men go forth with a sense of rededication to the ideals of society justice.
That light can be borne only by the individual Mason as he carries on his daily activities. By his sincere desire to live out the principles learned in his home and in his church, strengthened and made more definite by the lessons taught at the altar of Freemasonry, he will be fulfilling the great purpose for which our Speculative Craft came into being. Thus, quietly living out such truths as he moves among his fellow men, he will be helping to bring the hopes of our early brethren a little nearer realization.
As Freemasons we can do no more than this. Yet with our ideals of brotherhood and our understanding of man's responsibility for his brother man, we can help to create the atmosphere in which men will be receptive to the principles of righteousness and justice. If this be what Freemasonry was for in its beginnings, and if this is what we find in it today, then ours is an institution which will have an honourable place in the world.
But there were. I believe, even amid the upheavals of that time, other influences at work in this 17th century which were preparing a favourable climate for the growth of this tiny plant of Freemasonry. Out of the Renaissance and the Reformation had come a new spirit of inquiry and an attitude of questioning that was refusing to accept old traditional concepts. Men were beginning to look with new eyes on the world of physical science, religion, polities, and the relationship of man to his environment. The dead weight of the past was being rolled away, and alert minds were beginning to re-examine the accepted beliefs of their day. There was being kindled a flame of inquiry by whose light men sought for truth.
This was the century of discovery, both in scientific and moral truth. In it appeared Galileo and Kepler who were laying the foundations of astronomy, Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, Boyde and Halley, whose names are still familiar to us, and many others who were contributing to the general fund of knowledge. Overshadowing all was the mighty intellect of Isaac Newton. Such men were changing man's whole concept of the universe. Also, it was in the latter half of this century that the Royal Society for the advancement of science was founded, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was established. Through them were made the first real attempts to understand the laws of nature by experiment and observation.
This sceptical and experimental temper of mind told on every phase of the world around it. It ventured into the realm of religion, and even questioned the validity of some widely accepted dogmas.
In such an atmosphere Speculative Masonry began to appear. It was, I feel, another result of that inquiring spirit which marked the Renaissance throughout Europe. There was still, of course, much superstition and Credulity. But the windows of knowledge were being opened, and a fresh breath of inquiry was beginning to dislodge the dust of ignorance accumulated over the centuries. Masonry had always attracted men of learning and vigorous intellect, and in the period of transition it still drew scholars of historical and antiquarian interests, Here was a loose organization which reached back over hundreds of years, evidence of whose achievements were visible in every part of the country in stately buildings, whose members were bound together by some strong secret tie, and whose customs and traditions had been built up through long years of unhurried labour and a noble conception of their work. These were the permanent elements of Masonry that survived the decline of the operative craft, and it was in these that thoughtful men of eager restless minds were interested. They came to seek, desiring to learn what it was that had held these groups together in a loyal fraternity. They wanted to know what was the truth behind all these practices. It was another manifestation of the adventurous questing spirit of the time.
Do not men still come to Freemasonry for this purpose? True, there are some who seek admission for less desirable ends. But with a few exceptions, our petitioners approach Freemasonry from a favourable opinion of the institution and a general desire for knowledge. Those of us who have had the privilege of gaining the confidence of these candidates in our Lodges know how eager practically all of them are to learn and to understand. As in the early days of the Craft, men feel that there is something here which will open out a wider vista of truth, something that will challenge their intellects. and lift their thoughts to a contemplation of the meaning of life. That, I believe, is how many of its votaries thought of it in the beginning, and that is still what it is for.
The tragedy of it is that too many of us lose our sense of wonder and inquiry. Our eyes, at first keen and alert, become dimmed and unobservant; our ears. tuned to the beauty and harmony of our ceremonies. begin to find a flat dullness as we become carelessly familiar with them; our minds, that were eager to know, grow weary and discouraged in the search, because the quest is long and the inspiration fades.
We shall do well to remind ourselves that our very coming together in this Conference is for the purpose of renewing within ourselves that sense of the depth and wonder of Freemasonry. We do not bring an unthinking acceptance of its principles and practices, nor do we merely take for granted the dignity and the orderliness of our Craft. Instead we bring to our discussions the questing spirit, accepting the challenge to delve again into the meanings and applications of our ceremonies and teachings weighing and testing with that divine discontent that urged our brethren of long ago to seek and to find.
It is only when man stands up and looks clear-eyed into the hidden mysteries of nature and science that he will attain unto the stature of the man God meant him to be. And if we do not become weary in our seeking it may be we too shall hear the voice of God, as Ezekiel heard it in an earlier age, "And God said unto me. Son of Man, stand upon thy feet and I will speak unto thee." In no other way can we hear the message of Freemasonry. True, what we can hear is only the faint echo of the music of the infinite. But we shall know that there is always something beyond for which we must ever reach.
Yes, this is an ideal that would seem to have little place in a practical everyday life, and perhaps few will wholly respond to its call. Nevertheless, whether here in this Conference or within the tiled doors of our Lodges, where men of common purpose are moved by a desire to find the truth, we must become even more keenly aware of the ever widening horizon of knowledge and understanding that awaits our exploring.
Lord, I believe
Man is no little thing
That, like a bird in spring,
Comes fluttering to the light of life,
And out of the darkness of long death,
The breath of God is in him,
And his age-long strife
With evil has a meaning and an end.
Though twilight dim his vision be Yet can he see Thy Truth,
And in the cool of evening, Thou, his friend,
Dost walk with him. and talk, (Did not the Word take flesh?) Of the great destiny
That waits him and his race.
In days that are to be, by grace
He can achieve great things,
And, on the wings of strong desire
Mount upward ever, higher and higher;
Until above the clouds of earth he stands,
And stares God in the face.
— "Short Talks on Masonry" by J. F. Newton
What I have attempted to set out so far as reasons why men were first attracted to Masonry, has been based on speculation rather than on recorded fact. The desire for a place of peace and harmony amid turmoil and bitterness, and the awakening urge to question even the common experiences and to discover the truth behind them, could have been influences that drew men into this fraternal association. But there was another element in the non-operative Craft, even in its earliest period, that definitely appealed to men of all classes. This was the atmosphere of good companionship in their gatherings. True, this often became conviviality. But this was general in those times, and Masons were certainly no worse than others, and undoubtedly were more restrained than the usual custom. They found in these meetings the simple enjoyment of each other's company, and the satisfaction of taking part with their fellows in certain brief, ordered ceremonies. What these were we cannot be certain, but there would be some formularies, with set words, expressions and movements which carried the tradition of a still earlier age. The Lodge, then to them was a gathering where they could enjoy a relaxed harmonious fellowship, and share in forms and practices inherited from the ancient Craft.
We, too, realize. even though we stress the more serious aspect of Freemasonry, that the happy fellowship, the dignity and moving beauty of our ceremonies help to satisfy a deep human need. After all, it is not necessary that an activity or an interest be strictly utilitarian to be worth while. Things that are simply lovely and of good report, entirely apart from any elaborations of moral truths or ethical principles, are of infinite value in their own right. Too often we judge an organization by its practical achievements alone. Thus, outsiders, and even members themselves sometimes ask, "What is Freemasonry doing as an organization," "What project of practical benefit to our communities has it undertaken?" Certainly many Lodges and Grand Lodges have made valuable contributions to community and public welfare. But it was not for this purpose that Speculative Freemasonry came into being, though such projects are undoubtedly an outgrowth of the old operative's concern for his fellow worker.
My mind goes back to the old Presbyterian "Shorter Catechism" in which the first question was, "What is the chief end of man?" and the answer, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Enjoyment is not something tacked on to life, it is a fundamental clement in man's development. Freemasonry, besides providing a training in moral and social principles, and an incentive to seek for truth, in meant to give us this enjoyment. If we miss that, we are missing one of its greatest blessings.
There is much In the world about us that is not intended for the discipline of our minds or for admonishing us to be diligent in our duties. It is given by a wise and beneficent Creator that we may grow in appreciation of the pure and lovely, and out of it gain a rich satisfaction that sweetens life. How will you estimate the practical worth of the hummingbird as it darts from blossom to blossom, hovering with indescribable grace, or the bright golden flash of the oriole's wing? What price will you put on the varied colors and shades of a lovingly tended flower garden? Who of us will stop to count the practical values of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or the "Hallelulah Chorus?" Try to analyze them or attempt a systematic explanation of them, and their elusive beauty can easily slip away from us. Above all, they bring to us a deep sense of joy and an enrichment of the spirit. May not Freemasonry be serving a noble purpose just by its simple beauty? Surely we can say that this, too, is what it Is for.
It can held to satisfy the heart's longing for what is fine and clean. It would teach us
".....delight in simple things
And mirth that bas no bitter springs;
Foregiveness free of evil done,
And love to all men 'neath the sun."
In it we may learn that friendship and merriment, touched with solemnity, are gracious things which we will cherish, and which will draw us back. again and again, to the happy companionship of our brethren.
If this be so, we shall be ever more conscious of the need to protect our gentle Craft from every unworthy motive, and from every defilement that would mar its purity. We shall not regard it cynically, or use it for selfish ends. Nothing coarse or unclean will be allowed to touch it, for the dedicated thought of countless unknown brethren has gone into its fashioning.
I well remember my own introduction to Freemasonry, now over forty-one years ago, in a small country Lodge in Saskatchewan. I have not a very clear recollection of the Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft degrees, but I was deeply impressed by the Master Mason degree. I was Raised by a brother who had been many years in the Craft and evidently loved it. At the close of the ceremony I felt that I had been in touch with something sacred, and when, after the Lodge meeting, I was asked to speak briefly, I expressed my feeling that I had had an experience whose memory I wished to guard against anything that would spoil or hurt it. It was this, I believe, that gave me the desire to continue in Masonry, and which set the standards I hoped to maintain. No doubt many of you have had a similar experience.
Let us not forget this, that while those who enter Freemasonry are favourably impressed by the moral principles which it proclaims, their interest and their affection for it are first aroused by the emotional appeal of our ceremonies. If a candidate takes these lightly, or if they are spoiled by slovenliness or insincerity, then it will be much more difficult for him to be influenced by the moral truths we seek to convey. The beauty of our ritual and the atmosphere of the Lodge are but the outward expression of the basic ideals which Freemasonry tries to teach. Ceremony and symbolism are, indeed, a means to an end, but in themselves they are of infinite worth. It is by them that we may open a man's heart to receive the truths found by our brethren of long ago. They are the attractive and inviting pathway which leads to the inner sanctuary of righteousness and truth.
Many generations have loved Freemasonry and found it good. Men may wander in distant ways, and their Masonry be buried under neglect or be almost forgotten in the crowded events of life, but if they have once been given a glimpse of its loveliness, it leaves a sweet memory of something fine and true that can never be effaced.
Some of you no doubt have read Kipling's "In the Interests of the Brethren." The scene of the story is London during the first World War. The author, through a chance acquaintance, learns of a Lodge of Instruction held regularly each week for the benefit of Masons on leave from the Front or detained in the city by wounds or sickness. He was invited to attend and to help in proving the visitors. After examining a number of the brethren from widely separated parts of the world he relates: "My last man almost broke me down altogether, everything seemed to have gone from him. 'I don't blame yer,' he gulped at last. 'I wouldn't pass my own self on my answers, but I give yer my word that so far as I've had any religion, it's been all the religion I've had. For God's sake, let me sit in Lodge again, Brother!"'
He describes how the Lodge was worked by the visitors with the inevitable errors and prompting by the more experienced brethren, then continues: "The one-footed Royal Army Medical Corps on my right chuckled. 'D'you like it?' said the Doctor to him.
'DO I? It's heaven to me, sittin, in Lodge again. It's all coming back now, watching their mistakes. Yes, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols, the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man: an' what more in Hell DO you want?"'
Brethren, whatever may be the truth in what has been given here, this still remains, that you and I, if we are to make our Freemasonry effective, must, each for himself, find the answer to the question, "What's It For?"