Vol. XXIX No. 7 — July 1951

Cathedrals and Masonry

No one man was responsible for the development of Gothic Architecture, nor was it invented or discovered in any one year.

This method, plan and arrangement of stone structure in the cathedrals of the world, came into being from the aspirations of religious men, from the learning of architects and builders who discovered that the flying buttress and the pointed arch permitted the erection of structures with the minimum of wall and the maximum of window space, with great height, breadth and spaciousness without central columns, and from the devotion and artistry of the builders who were the ancestors of the Freemasons of today.

Cathedrals were not built to be finished by a date, nor to be constructed by the expenditure of a specified sum of money. They were erected with the hope of perfection, as nearly as possible to be attained by humans, and with the idea (the stronger that it has been more implied than expressed) that God would be constantly approachable in a building which, as beautiful as man could make it, would set forth his longing for communion with his Maker.

A quarter of a century ago Oliver Hoyem expressed this in a paragraph which might well be printed and hung in every Masonic lodge:

Cathedrals were built when the great Masonic Guilds of the Middle Ages were at the height of their development, when in the cathedral centered all the arts of a nation, when men believed that if they builded beautifully and well, God would come to dwell with them in their cathedrals, when every stroke of the mace was a prayer, when philosophers and mathematicians contributed symbolism and mystic proportion to the temple erected to the glory of God. It is not surprising that men wanted to perpetuate the spirit of that great cathedral age. When they perceived that the cathedral era was passing they perpetuated its symbolism in the lodges of Speculative Masonry. The spark has been kept alive and continually finds new expression.

Many lovely Masonic Temples have Gothic interiors to inspire reverence in the conferring of a degree, just as the same effort in Gothic cathedrals sets the spirit of the worshipper free to soar.

If the cathedral building spirit is strong enough, its results can be felt in any lodge room no matter how unpretentious, or, indeed, under the vaulted arches of trees in a forest with no other covering than the clouded canopy.

The spirit which built a cathedral is also that which preserved the memories, the teachings, the symbolism and the spiritual beauty wrought by actual builders in stone in the speculative Freemasonry of the last two and a third centuries. It has never been confined to arch or clerestory or apse or nave or stained glass window. It may be present in any lodge; poor the gathering of brethren in which some reflection of its purity is not to be felt.

It is not possible to say of any cathedral either that it is perfect or that it is imperfect, for no human mind has conceived a set of cathedral standards which must be reached if “perfection” is to be achieved. Cathedrals are as beautiful and therefore as “perfect” as the minds of those builders who erected them could visualize. Some builders found in loftiness of interior and height of exterior their greatest inspiration. Westminster Cathedral in London throws its spire at the sky; York is a structure of windows and space; Rouen is a mass of stone lace and spires. New York (St. John) and Washington put great emphasis in plan on large areas for congregations. Which of these is “perfect” or “imperfect”?

What is possible to say of most; if not of all the great cathedrals of the old world and the three of the new, is that each has represented the perfection of the cathedral spirit as its builders experienced it. And it is that “perfection of the Masonic spirit” in Speculative Masonry — as its devotees knew it — which has kept the Craft alive and transmitted to us moderns — so be it we have the clear vision to see — the soul of the builders who wrought in stone for the uplift of men of the here and now who build in character.

Cathedrals are not built in a year or ten years. Many of the greatest cathedrals have been half a century, often more in the making. The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul (Washington, D.C.) was begun in 1907 and is not yet half finished. Amiens was built between 1218 and 1269. Exeter required ninety years (1280-1370) for completion. Salisbury was built between 1220 and 1260. The German Gothic (slim and high) is beautifully expressed in Erfurt, built between 1349 and 1370.

Some inner compulsion drove architects, artists, sculptors, engineers, quarrymen to build cathedrals over half a century or more. If a great structure required so much time, even when the hundreds who worked upon it were all enthusiasts, should modern Speculative Masonry not be patient if its efforts take time to perfect its labors and complete its gentle task of building character?

It may come as a shock to learn that many of the old cathedrals were designedly made less than geometrically perfect that they might appear perfect; that error was intentionally committed that truth might be apparent.

To the human vision parallel lines meet if long enough or high enough. Look up any straight, high shaft such as the Washington Monument, and the sides appear to “lean in” much more than they actually do. Stand at the foot of a tall ladder — the sides appear to meet at the top — very high walls seem to lean towards each other unless a little “out of true.”

The cathedral builders knew this and compensated for it in building. Curiously enough this “secret” — one brother has called it “the lost word in cathedral building” — was rediscovered some sixty-five years ago by an American, William Henry Goodyear, Curator of Fine Arts in the Brooklyn Museum. On successive visits to Europe’s great cathedrals, he proved that in many of them the walls actually lean outward, in one case (Rheims) by as much as eight inches. Any curious visitor may stand at the bottom of the southwest pier at the crossing of nave and transept of St. Quentin and see that it is “out of true” at the top. There are leaning windows in Notre Dame. The ancient Temple of Juno has steps which are not level — higher in the center than at the ends. The Parthenon exhibits a similar “out of levelness.” Modern architects construct lofty pillars which bulge slightly in the center, lest they appear concave to the eye.

Our ancient brethren must have possessed great wisdom to know that the feeling of spaciousness, restfulness, peace and ease in a great cathedral interior were made the greater by a deliberate sacrifice of mathematical exactness, in order that the laws of perspective (which are a matter of the human eye) might be satisfied!

Is there a correspondence between the engineering marvel brought into the cathedral building by the spirit of the builders and modern Speculative Masonry?

According to the laws of all grand lodges a brother of the Craft must pay a certain sum to his lodge which his lodge transmits to grand lodge. According to the bylaws of all Speculative lodges a brother must pay a sum to the lodge every year for its support. These are laws, not fancies. They are universal, not occasional. They correspond to the straightness of a pillar measured by a hanging plumbline, the perpendicularity of a horizontal line measured by a level and proved by a square.

But let any brother be so situated that he cannot pay and the lodge pays for him. The law is set aside. The perfection of the Masonic spirit - child of the cathedral building spirit — requires that no brother be compelled to sever his connection with the Craft because of a law which he cannot obey. The cathedral builders built crooked steps and pillars and vaulted arches out of true that they might appear true to the eye. Speculative Masonry puts aside its own law for the greater law of charity and mercy.

The late great Brother Bishop James E. Freeman once said:

Men are still susceptible to that which expresses the noblest ideas of life, and there is nothing that so completely appeals to their imagination as a mighty building whose every line suggests prayer and devotion. As a state cannot exist without well-ordered government, and as well-ordered government implies fit centers for its administration, so religion demands not only well-conceived and dignified forms for its expression, but fit and noble buildings in which to give this expression its noblest and finest setting.

Early Speculative Masons met in inns and taverns. The essentials at first were a roof, walls for privacy, food and drink. But early Speculative Masons were close to cathedrals from the loins of the builders of which they sprang. As Masonry spread outward over the world, there was felt the need for meeting places more expressive of the ideals of the craft. During the last hundred years Masonic Temples have grown greater in size, more beautiful in design, more spacious in interiors.

Whether in the lovely Temple in Philadelphia with its almost out-of-the-world decorations in its lodge rooms, the magnificent Temple in Detroit which is cathedral-like in size and proportions which suggest the lofty aspirations of its builders, or the smallest Temple, constructed by the lodge members with their own hands because they have not money enough to employ builders, the cathedral spirit is evident; the attempt on the part of those who build to express, no matter how humbly, their love of their craft.

The cathedrals of Europe were built with love as well as skill; Masonic Temples are conceived in affection, financed with unselfishness and constructed with hope and happiness — as true a cathedral spirit as that which erected St. Peters in Rome or St. Paul’s in London.

All great cathedrals are filled with symbols, the majority of which are of something connected with religion, doctrine, creed, belief, story from the Bible, character, saint, etc. But here and there, now and then, are symbols which are obviously Masonic — and how should they not be, when Freemasonry as we know it came from the builders of the cathedrals of religion as we know it?

In Peterborough Cathedral, which dates to the fourteenth century, is a carving which might have been made from life of a Fellowcraft taking his obligation. There was no Fellowcraft Degree at the time but there were consecration and obligation and the figure in the carving is being obligated and consecrated.

In the Cathedral in Washington are three, five, and seven steps in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. The high altar is built of twelve perfect Ashlars from the quarry outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem, where stones for King Solomon’s Temple were hewn. And, as was true of the Temple, stones for the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul come precut from the quarries and the stone yards and are set in place as the stones of Solomon’s Temple were set:

And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building, (1 Kings 6:7)

In and near Washington are three hills: Capitol Hill, on which stands the cathedral of democracy, the United States Capitol; Shooter’s Hill, in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, on which is what may not inaptly be denominated a cathedral of Masonry, the Memorial to George Washington; and Mount St. Albans, on which is being erected the mighty and beautiful Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Oddly enough and by pure coincidence, its elevation is 400 feet, which was the elevation of King Solomon’s Temple above the Kedron.

While the inspiration of the one was love of country, of the second love of the great Mason who was first President, and the third, love of God, all three, any two visible from the third, are manifestations of the cathedral spirit which puts worship above life, beauty over utility, aspiration beyond self.

Every brother who can should worship in a cathedral, at least once in his life. In this country he may choose between one in Washington and two in New York. Abroad he may find a large number. The particular creed which was responsible should make no difference to Mason or profane who there goes for inspiration. The cathedral spirit is far above sectarianism. Whether you stand in St. Patrick’s in New York, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, St. Paul’s in London, St. Basil in Moscow or St. John the Divine in New York, the effect is the same.

The magic of the cathedral is that in it its spirit makes itself manifest to the beholder, be his faith or lack of it be what it may.

And in a lesser and much more humble way, the Masonic spirit — which is the heir to the cathedral spirit — raises the eyes and the aspirations of its devotees towards the Great Architect.

Let us give thanks that we are such heirs.

The Masonic Service Association of North America