The following article comes from the book Alberta Workshop which is a compilation of the theme speeches of the first 25 years of the Masonic Spring Workshop held each April in the Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta. Bro. Tom Jackson (Pennsylvania) called this the best workshop available to rank and file Masons anywhere.
WHAT IS OUR MASONIC PURPOSE
1. Within Our Peaceful Walls
Bro. Justice J. H. Laycraft
The theme of this 14th Workshop asks of each of us a searching and all-embracing question. So we are Masons: What is our Masonic Purpose? Tonight I will ask you to reflect with me while we search for the answer to that question in our activities within the peaceful walls of our Lodges. Why do we meet? What is it we seek? What is it that we study, and to put the question in a form which is at once the simplest and the most difficult; What is Masonry?
Tomorrow I will ask you to journey with me beyond the sanctuary which is the Masonic meeting to ask the same question in a wider context. In this world in which we must all play our part: What is our Masonic purpose?
The usual answer — the quick answer to our question will be given by any young Mason. He will respond at once that we take good men and make them better. If you go further to ask What is Masonry, he will reply with a portion of the ritual with its reference to allegory and symbol. We can moreover, find clear and eloquent dissertations which bear repeating on the subject of what Masonry is not. On this very platform, just a year ago, a great and justly renowned Mason, Dwight L. Smith drew to our attention some things that Masonry is not and I will make some reference to that, later tonight.
Over the changing centuries, Masons of many lands have toiled in a long and hard pilgrimage toward truth. They have sought to learn and to understand the essential philosophy of the Craft. That pilgrimage is, for Masons, a search for the definition of our philosophy, so far as the mind of Man may do, and a search for the response to the very question we have posed for ourselves this weekend.
In one of his Masonic stories, Rudyard Kipling has one of his characters — a British Army Sergeant-Major serving in India — say in a Lodge of Instruction:
“We could do much with Masonry in the interest of the brethren not to replace religion, but as an average plan of life”.
These are the words of a simple man and the words are unadorned. Masonry is for him “an average plan of life”. But of course the words do not explain what that average plan is to be, and in any event we see at once that there is nothing unique in that goal. Many voices will speak of an “average plan of life”. As a definition it gives no answer to our question.
Another definition, written in the same generation, this time in North America by the masonic philosopher Brother A. C. L. Arnold defines Masonry this way:
It 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 men to the eternal law of duty.
That definition contains more of the essentials of Masonry though it has a curious reference to the “prejudices of religion”. Probably he intends that phrase to describe sectarianism rather than religion; a sectarianism which is bigoted and opinionated. But again Masons may not claim friendship and love and integrity as their own... That light has shone from many lamps held by many hands to vanquish the shadows from our path. Freemasonry is but one of those lamps.
Let me turn to the German Freemasonry of two centuries ago. That was an era and a locale of our Craft which inspired many things we have come to recognize as milestones in Man’s journey. The genius of Mozart flowered under its teachings as did the thinking of many of the philosophers who formed so much of the structure of western culture. A masonic document of that era says:
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.
That definition mentions our symbolism and then for me comes closer to the beating heart of the Craft than do the two definitions I quoted earlier — the Mason works “for the welfare of mankind striving morally to ennoble himself and others”. It has a further element which, in the sense of creating political institutions, is not part of modern Masonry. We might speak today of the hope of Masons for a “universal league of mankind” in the sense of universal brotherhood but not in a political sense.
Let me quote one more definition of Masonry, this time by a Canadian writing in our own times. I quote a portion of a well known passage from a speech by M.W. Bro. W. N. Ponton, Past Grand Master of The Grand Lodge of Canada in Ontario, who uses in his definition the symbolism of the medieval cathedrals:
Masonry is like one of the cathedrals built by our ancient brethren — Faith is its foundation, righteousness its cornerstone, Strength and Wisdom its walls, Beauty its form and fashion, Brotherly Love its arches, Reverence its roof...
And he goes on in the same address to say some things that Masonry is not:
Masonry is not a temple of mysteries, nor a repository of rituals, nor a reformation of the fallen, nor a branch office of a benevolent society, but a happy and restful, refined and intellectual home of men of good will and good sense.
We must recognize one fundamental of Masonry. It is not a religion and it does not by its teachings CREATE a belief in God; that is so because each Mason had that belief when he came to the Craft. Masonry has nothing in it of revelation or of redemption from sin. If a man seeks such things in the Craft, he is doomed to profound disappointment and of course he demonstrates fundamental misunderstanding of our teachings. For each Mason those things come from the organized Religion to which each subscribes, from which each came to the Craft and to which each must return. In all their diversity of thought and belief, Masons are left each to his own religion. But while Masonry is not a religion, in a larger sense it is religion — a worship in which all good men unite. Masonry expresses the natural and simple trust of man that there is a power above himself and within himself.
A Masonic document, more than 250 years old, from which appears to be derived the first of the ancient charges says this:
Masons must be obliged only to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves: That is to be good men and true, men of honour and honesty by whatever denomination or persuasion they my be distinguished whereby Masonry becomes the Centre of Union.
I have a good friend and brother who believes strongly that we do not pay sufficient attention to the General Charge which most of us hear only once each year at the installation of the new Master. It is perhaps a shame that this noble portion of our ritual must compete with so much else that takes place on that particular night. I am sure each of us has vivid memories of that scene. The newest Past Master has moved to the left. The new Master honoured, but in a panic of nervousness, sits before his brethren wondering if after all the years of preparation, he will have the wit left in him to get the Lodge closed when the time comes. Other officers have been placed in their positions, and then comes what is to me the most perceptive selection in our ritual — the General Charge.
If you have never don so, I urge you to examine the General Charge at a quieter time of the year and read carefully through it. Better yet, learn it and become sufficiently familiar with it that you are able to repeat its majestic language without effort... Your reward will be the insight and inspiration derived from generations of Masonic thought. My brother, of whom I spoke, whose vocation requires frequent travel, says it is a fine thing to declaim to yourself when you are alone in the car and the road seems to have no end.
Let us consider some of the thoughts which are set forth in the General Charge as being the essentials of Masonry:
— that the wide range and noble object of Freemasonry is the cultivation and improvement of the human mind — that Masonry inculcates principles of the purest morality — that Masonry widens the sphere of human happiness.
The General Charge speaks of the teachings of Freemasonry within the lodge and the mission it carries from that sanctuary to the wider world beyond its walls. We are told that within the Lodge the chief occupations are:
— A calm enquiry into the beauty of wisdom and virtue and the study of moral geometry — that moral instruction and social intercourse are the two-fold objects of a meeting in Lodge.
Then you will recall that after the description of activities within the Lodge, come those marvellous paragraphs which portray for us the ideal of a Freemason — of his qualities in the wider sphere of his life outside the walls of his lodge as a man, a subject, a husband and a father.
If any Master is ever at a loss for a lodge program, single paragraphs of that beautiful Masonic essay will provide the inspiration for many superb meetings of true masonic meaning.
There is one statement in that General Charge which might, at first glance, seem puzzling. We are told that the chief point of Freemasonry is to endeavour to be happy ourselves and to communicate that happiness to others. You might say: surely that is a selfish thing. In a world whose problems seem overwhelming to the point of despair, surely there are things more important than personal happiness. Yet I venture to respond to that statement is the most perceptive of all the noble statements in the charge. For personal happiness cannot be achieved without the personal perfection which is at the end of the Mason’s pilgrimage toward truth.
Happiness comes from within and rests on goodness, on purity, on good character, on good conscience. Religion I believe to be essential to it, though perhaps I am not wise enough to refute the cunning arguments of those who assert it is not. But this I know: no one will gain happiness without a personal philosophy resting upon ethical principles. That personal inquiry will come from a calm enquiry into the beauty of wisdom and virtue and the study of morality. Selfishness is the enemy of happiness and tomorrow we will consider what that entails for a Mason.
As selfishness is the enemy of happiness, so is cynicism, the darker side of man’s nature which, if he does not guard himself will destroy all that is positive in him. The cynic always seems to be with us. He sneers at sincerity. He denies that there is or can be goodness in human nature. The cynic admires nothing; he enjoys nothing. The curious thing about him is that though he knows everything, he believes nothing. In all the lamentable catalogue of human frailty, the cynic’s vice can be the most destructive.
Happiness requires both the activity of accomplishment and the tranquillity for reflection the first step of which is self examination. In many places in Masonry you are directed to that examination of yourself. But above all happiness comes from a foundation of ethical principles. Thus when we are told that the chief point of Freemasonry is to be happy ourselves and to communicate that happiness to others we are given a formula that includes within it all that is good and just and right in man. Joseph Newton in his Masonic book The Builders said it this way:
What are needed are better men, cleaner minded more faithful with loftier ideals and more heroic integrity; men who love the right, honour 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.
There was in the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts a great and good man, a great Mason M.W. Bro. The Reverend Dr. Roy. We in Alberta were privileged to know him when he came as the speaker to our 1964 Annual Communication. He was then nearing the end of his long ministry in the Christian Church. Dr. Roy tells of a visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York. In the rotunda of that fine building the walls are covered with writings by sages from all the centuries of man’s history setting forth in many languages the lodestones of the wisdom of mankind. Dr. Roy says one simple statement seemed to leap out at him from all the rest:
In the affairs of men and of nations the decisive factor has always been CHARACTER.
Often in this world there seems to be nothing that is absolute, nothing that is unchangeable, nothing that stands out from the shadows as a sure haven in our journey. As Dr. Roy said:
Things are no longer true or false; they are no longer lawful or unlawful; they are no longer right or wrong. They are convenient or inconvenient, pleasant or unpleasant, popular or unpopular, expedient or otherwise.
On mission of our beloved Craft is to re-establish the verities so that truth stands forth in radiance and evil is clearly seen to be evil. “In the affairs of men and of nations the decisive factor has always been Character.”
Character is the focus of the person. Every thought creates character; every act reflects character; every decision reveals character; every hard choice test character. Every habit is either a pillar of its structure or the crumbling sand which will bring it down in ruins. Character is the spiritual force from which comes greatness; from its achievement will come the happiness which our General Charge commands us to attain.
in every noble character there is still another bulwark without which it cannot exist. That bulwark is COMPASSION, which in Masonry is covered by the word “relief”. Compassion is the quality of man which is the gift to him alone of all creatures. Compassion makes him unashamed to shed a tear for his neighbour’s plight and sends him forth if need be with risk and with sacrifice to relieve his distress.
In my vocation of the past few years, it has seemed to me in the criminal courts in which I must take a part, that the quality lacking in each of the offenders against our laws is that of compassion. There stands condemned by society the man who had no compassion which would prevent him from harming his neighbour — nothing of pity to draw him back from the theft, or the violence or the fraud by which he hoped to benefit himself without regard for harm to others. When there has come for me the bleak duty of expressing society’s condemnation by a sentence, I have often thought that if by some divine gift, I could but instil in the offender a sense of compassion for others, none of it would be necessary. Compassion is the bulwark of character.
There is in the Hebraic tradition, a parable by which a learned and profoundly wise Rabbi taught compassion. There came to him a man who had gathered riches without regard for those around him without pity for their wants without compassion for their needs or feelings. As his life drew to its close, he saw that in all the village there was no one with whom he had a close human relationship. No one was his friend. He said to the Rabbi “What have I done to be so lonely? Why am I despised?” The Rabbi drew him to a window and said: “Tell me what you see?” The man described the sunshine and the children playing in the flowered fields by the village street. The Rabbi drew him to a mirror and said: “This too, is but a piece of glass. Tell me what you see.” He said: “Why myself”. The Rabbi replied: “When you add silver to almost anything, all you will ever see is yourself.” Compassion is the bulwark of character.
So as the General Charge instructs us, the chief point of Freemasonry is to endeavour to be happy ourselves and to communicate that happiness to others. We will achieve that happiness by personal perfection, by the strengths of character, with the bulwark of compassion all of which is comprehended by the masonic words “Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth”. That is the goal within the peaceful walls of our Lodge; that is the strength which will send us forth to serve. For beyond our peaceful walls its required of each of us that we take part in the affairs of our time at the risk if we do not of being judged not to have lived.
Let me return now to our Alberta Lodge of Freemasons to say that there are some dangers which lie in ambush beside the path of our pilgrimage toward truth. There are some side paths which lead to darkness. That is so even within the walls of our Lodge.
I think at one time or another, every dedicated Mason has become so bemused by the beautiful forms and rituals of our Craft that he is in danger of passing by their meaning which he concentrates on their form. He confuses form with force illustration with teaching and symbol with reality. The rituals of our Craft are a superb heritage. They give beauty to its teachings. They capture the mind with majesty of language and the striking aptness of symbol. They teach the lessons with a clarity that could not be achieved by any other means. But we must never forget that it is the lessons which are important and not the rituals by which they are taught.
The rituals have been at times for me personally, the principal joy and attraction of the Craft. For many years when I studied masonry I studied symbolism. I do not discount such study and, indeed, I encourage it. I do say though that the rituals and symbols must never take the place of the lessons they teach. When we over-emphasize ritual we confuse form with force.
I believe that this confusion of the rituals with the lessons they teach has often led the Craft in modern times to an over-emphasis upon secrecy. Indeed it is said against us by our critics that Masonry is a secret society and therefore unworthy of the attention of thinking men. It is assumed by some persons outside our Craft that the secrets of Masonry have to do with its policy or its teaching. In fact you and I know that nothing which Masonry teaches is secret. If I venture to say to you as I have tonight that Masonry teaches us to be happy and that that depends upon purity, upon good conscience, upon right actions, upon character — well there is nothing secret about that. Our principles are published abroad in our writings. The purpose of the Craft is knows. An electric sign shows the place where we meet. Neither the place of assembly nor the lessons taught there are secret.
What is secret in Freemasonry are the symbols by which the lessons are taught and the dramatized presentation of those symbols. Our ancient brothers were wise in this. They knew that lessons so taught will have a dramatic freshness an impressiveness they would not otherwise possess. The great truths may seem commonplace because they are so old and so often repeated. Ritual shows their value in wonder and then in explanation. sometimes though we may do the Craft a disservice when it is not the symbols we keep secret but the universal lessons of Masonry.
Still another path may lead to darkness and it is precisely the most dedicated members of the Craft who face the greatest danger — the members who will always be found doing the jobs of drudgery or tedium. That is the danger that we will become so pre-occupied with the physical housekeeping in the Lodge that we will cease to remember its Masonic purpose. The Lodge building or the physical running of the Lodge may engage our energies and time to the exclusion of all else. When that happens we come as individuals to resemble the Lodge which holds business meetings so it can enact the budget which will enable it to raise money so it can hold another business meeting so it can enact a budget — well you get my meaning.
The physical work-a-day parts of lodge government are of course, necessary for the survival of the Craft. The brothers who do that work serve a most useful function and deserve our thanks. But that is precisely why the danger is so great. let us make certain that we keep our priorities in order; that the housekeeping of Masonry does not replace our teachings. We must not confuse form with force.
The danger of concentrating on things and not on thought has always beset great spiritual enterprises. It is told that St. Francis of Assissi, while praying in his chapel heard the voice of God saying to him: “Go now and rebuild my Church which is falling in ruins.” He heard the command in wonder. How could one man raise a great structure? Where were the ruins to which he was assigned and anyway why was a mere structure so important? But he obeyed and he went nevertheless to his poor and meagre stock of materials. There hangs in Rome a great painting which depicts him at this moment of his life. There he works puzzled distressed making his bare beginnings, carrying stones and mortar.
Suddenly there burst upon him the true meaning of God’s command. It was not the structure, a thing, roof and walls, he was to build --- it was a renewed and purified Church to capture the minds and hearts of men. So he left his structure and went forth to a life of service. For Freemasonry too the structures are not all-important; it is the great lessons of Freemasonry we are commanded to teach.
What then do we seek within our peaceful walls? What is our Masonic purpose? For me all that I have learned in Masonry is brought to my mind when I hear one particular phrase of the ritual. That is so because of the particular associations of time place and speaker which it calls to mind. Probably every Mason has a favourite line or sequence within our ritual. That varied appeal is one of the great riches of the Craft.
For me one of the most moving moments of my masonic life was the moment when I stood before the Altar of my lodge surrounded by my brothers, about to be installed as the Master of my Lodge. The Director of Ceremonies was a man in his seventh decade a man whom I greatly admired as a person and as a Mason of more than fifty years in the Craft. As has been done with all Masters he gripped my arm and said that great phrase which I am sure you all recall in which he referred to me as his “worthy brother”. I hoped then, I hope now that I might aspire to merit such a title from such a man.
If we seek the purpose of our activities within the Lodge perhaps that brief and wonderful line from our ritual may be the summary of all we seek. At the last and with service done, may it be said of each of us “He is my worthy Brother”.