Vol. XXIII No. 10 — October 1945

The Altar of Obligation

In the center or somewhat east of center of every American Masonic lodge is the altar. In English lodges and the homes of other bodies of other Masonic rites the altar may be in the East, but in the Blue lodge — Symbolic lodge — the altar occupies the most prominent and important place.

Its symbolism has been written often. But many prefer their own interpretations. Nothing more pregnant with meaning was ever compressed in a Masonic paragraph than is found in the ringing words of the great Albert Pike:

Masonry . . . follows the ancient manner of teaching. Her symbols are the instructions she gives; and the lectures are but often partial and insufficient one-sided endeavors to interpret those symbols. He who would become an accomplished Mason must not be content merely to hear or even understand the lectures, but must, aided by them, and they having as it were marked out the way for him, study, interpret and develop the symbols for himself.

Every Mason may indeed, “study, interpret and develop” the symbolism of the altar for himself. For some the altar is but a structure in the room on which lie the Volume of the Sacred Law and the Square and Compasses. These see it illuminated only by the Lesser Lights, with no more vision than they behold the Master’s chair or the benches on the side, illuminated by the lights in ceilings or on walls.

Such as these are to be pitied, for their eyes are not opened; they still wear the hoodwink, though its physical presence no more blinds them.

But to those with more imagination the altar seems what it really is — the center of union and friendship, the home of the greatest symbols Masonry has developed for her use, the Sanctum Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon, the seat of the Ark of the Covenant from which radiates the gentle glow of the Shekinah, the living representation of the immediate presence of the Great Architect of the Universe.

Authorities who might well have known better have declaimed that the Masonic altar should be cubical in shape and should have horns upon its corners. They as well say it should be made of unhewn stone, as were men’s first altars, because they had no means of hewing stone; later because it was considered sacrilegious to touch altar stones with man-made tools of iron.

It is not the shape, nor the size, nor the carving, nor the decorations, nor the embellishment of the Masonic altar which is important. It is important because it is the very focus and center of brotherhood, the center of lodge and Masonic life, and displays to all the Volume of the Sacred Law and the other Two Great Lights by which Freemasonry illuminates the hearts of men.

It is true that a cubical altar does continue the ancient symbolism that the cube, representing geometrical perfection, also represents the perfection of Deity. Ancient altars possessed horns, on which a man fleeing from his enemies might lay hold; while he held, he might not be taken by enemies or the law, thus giving him time to prove his innocence if innocent of whatever charge was laid against him he might be. Some Masonic altars do have horns — in King Solomons Lodge (properly spelled without an apostrophe as it was so written in its minutes when its name was adopted) of Woodbury, Connecticut, is a very old altar, each corner ornamented with horns taken from the first merino sheep imported from England.

Just as the Old and New Testaments bound together to form the Bible represent the Volume of the Sacred Law to any Mason, be his faith what it may, so any Masonic altar, of any shape or size of material, plain or ornamented, horned or not, represents the soul of Freemasonry.

So considered, it is a matter of moment to think through; otherwise the Mason misses something brave and beautiful in Freemasonry which wiser men have found precious.

As the altar is in the center of the lodge room, so is its use and teaching the center of Freemasonry. Essentially and primarily a Brotherhood of Many men, there is nothing private or personal about its altar — it is the altar of every brother who gathers around it. It is the heart of every Masonic degree. Every man present at any lodge meeting has knelt before it — or one like it in another lodge. It has shed its influence upon every Freemason, and every Freemason may see it as the very core of that Ancient Craft he cherishes.

The ballot is taken upon the altar. Alas, that in so many lodges, in what is supposed to be a courtesy, the ballot box is passed to officers and past masters — to save them the trouble, forsooth of approaching the altar, there to exercise the greatest right and privilege, wield the greatest power, do the greatest act which a Freemason can do in his lodge, save only the making of a Mason; decide who may and who may not have the privilege and honor of Freemasonry in his life.

If only — how many “if onlies” there are it life! — if only all brethren thought it through this casting a ballot upon the altar of Freemasonry, most solemnly dedicated and consecrate (to the Great Architect, would never result in a black cube deposited for small, unworthy, personal, selfish or spiteful reasons.

There is no phrase in any Masonic obligation which binds a brother to be just in the casting of a ballot. No man knows, none may seek to know, who casts a black cube. It is wholly between him who ballots and his conscience.

To blackball a candidate for worthy reasons: is a worthy act. To prevent an applicant from receiving the blessing of Freemasonry for any other reason is despicable, not the less so that no one can ever know. It was this that a singer of Mason’s songs had in mind when he wrote:

Promises false and pledges so fair,
 Coin of the realm in a wordly mart;
Which shall I lay on the altar there?

Covered and clothed or naked and bare
 Never a man may tell them apart,
Promises false and pledges so fair.

A serpent poisoning unaware;
 Faith that is given of lion-heart;
Which shall I lay on the altar there?

No one will know should I forswear;
 Lies of truth are oft counterpart;
Promises false and pledges so fair.

Sailing course plotted upon the square
 Or crooked the fines upon the chart?
Which shall I lay on the altar there?

The choice is secret. Everywhere
 A bitter world teaches the liar’s art!
Promises false and pledges so fair;
WHICH shall I lay on the altar there?

If all who ballot would but remember that the fact that the ballot box is upon the altar is a sign that ONE sees and knows, there would be less factious balloting and more honorable use of the right and power which the secret ballot puts in the hands of all brethren.

Not all see — but the altar supports the ballot so that any man may see, if he but will. The altar of course is in use every moment a lodge is open but it is during the high points in each degree that it becomes most vital.

The heart of Freemasonry beats in its obligations, and these are taken before her altar.

See to it, brother, that never from your lips come the words “the Masonic oath.” For oath and obligation are no more the same than are dinner and dessert, or day and year.

The three symbolic lodge obligations are infinitely more than oaths. An oath is an adjuration to its taker, and by inference to all men who hear, that the assumer of what is attested by the oath will keep the faith. The small boy affirms the truth of his statement “by golly” unrealizing that he uses a ceremony and a corrupted word hoary with age. His great ancestor a thousand generations ago raised his hand and swore “by gol” — meaning his hand — that should he fail in that which he promised, gol, or the hand, might be cut off. In courts of law a witness takes an oath; he states that he will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He ends “So help me, God” with his hand upon the Bible. What he promises is an obligation; he takes an oath that he will perform it.

Similarly, the Masonic obligations are pledges of certain things to be done, and certain acts which will never be done. They are literally pledges of duties, of performance or forbearance. But that which is an oath is merely the close, when each brother states that rather than fail in his promise he is willing to assume certain penalties.

Every Freemason knows what makes a Freemason. Without it no degree is complete; without it the Master Masons degree does not create a Mason. And this takes place on bended knees, before an altar erected to God and the memory of the Holy Saints John. The candidate’s hands are upon the Volume of the Sacred Law and the Square and Compasses; he assumes his obligation within the Holy of Holies; he makes his solemn pledges in the sight of the Great Architect and under the eyes of his brethren-to-be. The scene is illuminated by the light of the Lesser Lights; that it is effulgent and soft does not mean that it is not clarifying and searching. Under its rays there should be no secret evasion hidden; there can be in honor and in truth no mental reservation made; he who hears the solemn words from the austere Ups of the worshipful master and repeats them, be it never so haltingly, must do so without hesitation.

No compulsion has brought him here. Not once but many times during his slow progress from the darkness of the anteroom to the brilliance of being brought to light for the third time has he affirmed that his act was of his own free will and accord. No one has persuaded him; none has pleaded or begged or coerced him. What he does he does voluntarily, because he wishes, believing in the inherent rightness and the momentous importance of that which he says and promises to do.

A paragraph in Foreign Countries is germane:

Freemasonry brings to the initiate only that which is new to him. It is not new in reality; it is old, old . . . was old when Rome fell, old when the pyramids were built; aye, old when the first caveman sat him down, as did Rodin’s “Thinker,” to ponder the mystery about him; old when Lowell’s

. . . brute despaire of trampled centuries
Leapt up with one hoarse yell and snapt its bands,
Groped for its right with horny, calloused hands
And stared around for God with bloodshot eyes,

was written.

Psychology as an applied science did not exist when the obligations of Freemasonry were first phrased. But some man or some body of men had a keen appreciation of the value of building to a climax, of a slow climb from a low dead level to the heights of a living perpendicular; of the drama of solemnity and that which inspires awe combined with the shock of surprise.

There are three great moments in the obligations — the same in all three, and thus, perhaps, most dramatic in the first, but thought-provoking and affording much contemplation for the serious minded in all. And who is other than serious minded when he becomes a Freemason?

The first comes at the beginning of the obligation. For what does a candidate know of the ceremony in which he is to take part? Careless and unthinking brethren have told him of a “Masonic goat.” He is assured that he will “back down” rather than “take it.” Some have been so unkind and so coarse-minded as to laugh when they speak of seeing him take his degrees — as if there were goats and tortures and ridicule in a ceremony which a man first seeks by declaring his belief in God!

Nonetheless, the candidate knows nothing of what ceremony he is to go through, and there is little or nothing in the preliminary parts to foreshadow that which the obligations bring into being. Hence there is a high moment when, kneeling, he hears and must repeat that he is “in the presence of Almighty God.” Men start not thus who play a joke, nor partake of such a ceremony who find it without value!

The second comes with the removal of the cabletow. Up to this moment the candidate may be, if necessary, physically restrained. The hold upon him his brethren-to-be possess is of the earth, earthy. But when the last solemn word is said, and the oath which follows the obligation is taken, there is no more need of a material bond. Brethren are released from the cabletows because the brethren hold them by a stronger tie! What a beautiful conception that is! One moment an initiate — the next a brother. One moment a petitioner, asking, hoping — the next a part of the lodge, a participant. One moment but profane material in process of passing tests — the next belonging to their lodge, their lodge belonging to them.

The third and highest moment comes very shortly thereafter. The act of bringing to light the candidate “who has long been in darkness” is ever memorable. Never the brother who can forget that shock; when that which was mysterious becomes plain; when that which was hidden comes into view; when that which was secret is told. “And God said: ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” . . . eleven words in the Old Testament tell the story of creation. Eleven words in a Masonic degree tell the story of trust and faith and happiness of the brethren in him they thus make one of them. No, it is not to be forgotten.

The altar of obligation is the very heart and core of Freemasonry. From it and its Great Lights radiate that gentle light of brotherhood which has girdled and illuminated tire world. By its influence men compose their differences, forgive each other their wrongs, and form lasting friendships.

When at long last an enduring peace and understanding relationship shall come into being and continue between the peoples of the world, it will be because the power generated by this contact point between man and the Great Unknown has spread far beyond Masonic halls to encompass all mankind.

The Masonic Service Association of North America