Vol. XXXVII No. 6 — June 1959

Masonry’s Twentieth Century Mission

Rt. Rev. Philip F. McNairy, D.D., Gr. Orator

This address was delivered to the Grand Lodge of Minnesota on March 18,1959.

Freemasonry must answer a searching question. Is Masonry today a vital force or a dying institution?

Let me take you back to the historic cradle of Masonry — back to the Negeb desert — back to the ruins of a civilization, yea many civilizations, where once men of the stature of Solomon reigned in glory and splendor. Where once majestic cities stood and groves of olive trees waved in the breeze, there reigns today the relentless desert, its shifting sands covering and uncovering the lowly remains of the pride of the past.

Archeologists have queried: “How could such an arid waste ever have produced even a single sprig of acacia?” They have sought and found the answer. There are supplies of water in this forlorn terrain — springs, which sparkle for a moment in the withering sun, and then plunge down into the unrecording sands, only to be drawn to the surface once more and then to be swallowed by the earth, benefiting nothing and no one.

Archeologists have discovered that always, though frequently somewhat removed from these actual supplies of water, lie the ruins of cities. In seeking to solve the mystery, their excavations have disclosed hard channels of mud brick leading from the spring to the city yonder, which once were the conduits that carried the life-giving fluid to those who needed it in order to live. Life is not automatic. It is the fruit of struggle. Survival is a matter of channeling the life-giving spring. What of Masonry today? Is it a vital force, or a fitful spring in the desert?

What are the symptoms of a dying organization? A group is already dead spiritually when it exists merely to perpetuate itself. Are we securing new members only to enjoy vicariously a repetition of the ritual? Are we interested merely in numerical growth? Are we satisfied just because we are solvent?

Life anywhere is spoiled by those whose narrow concept of it is to take out as much as possible and to put in as little as possible. There is an old legend of two brothers who met annually to celebrate their relationship. Each would bring a little bottle of wine, which they poured together into one flagon and from which they then would drink a toast. As the anniversary drew near, one brother mused that it would be a good joke on his counterpart to bring, in his particular bottle, a quantity of colored water that he would mix with the other’s wine, and thus save himself a little money. The evening came; the wines were mixed; the goblets filled. Suddenly some of the joy went out of the celebration, for the brothers toasted their family relationship — in the colored water that both had slyly provided!

An organization is far from vital when it is having attendance problems. Either it has no clear objective, or it makes no claim on the loyalty and devotion of its members. I am constantly amazed and concerned at the bait that is offered to attract a good attendance at meetings: songsters, humorists, movies, magicians, travelogues, turkey and roast beef! In contrast, service groups, with even a minor service program, are on the increase attendance-wise. Church membership has increased 70% in one generation.

Real vitality is to be found, however, in the more vigorous mass movements or in the forces that control men’s lives today. Consciously or unconsciously they have stumbled onto a great truth about human nature. Much as man may talk about the fact that he wants to be let alone, or wants to be alone, what he really wants is to be possessed by something. He responds to that which presses on him a total claim. In the western world we have been trying to make membership easier and more pleasant for our constituents; but communism and fascism are dominating the world simply by pressing a total claim. They demand (and get from many) loyalty of mind, means, and body, even the surrender of freedom and of life itself! Simultaneously, where men have been pleased and pampered, boredom has driven a good many of them into the “lotus cults” of alcoholism, drug addiction and atheism, which are variant forms of self-worship.

The fellowships of the world that are alive are characterized by their outreach. Their members are self-giving, seeking, winning others. They are, in short, missionary in their attitude toward others. Service is their motive (or its more vicious substitute, the urge to dominate and control).

We cannot help but remember the high-sounding phrases in which a Mason’s obligation of service is defined. Yet upon closer scrutiny, what seemed idealistic and broad turns out to be restrictive and confining. It is directed toward “Master Masons, their widows and orphans.” This is a noble sentiment, but what about the rest of the human race?

Our fraternity also prides itself on another tradition that may need re-evaluation in the twentieth century. Our membership comes from the ranks of those who ASK to become members and, after investigation, are found acceptable by certain standards. I am not for one moment questioning those standards. On the contrary I believe we should promote them and require them with a passionate dedication in every area and category of our society.

But the world of today is being won by those who, with a terrible intensity, Seek, Persuade, Convert, and Win persons into membership in a “fraternity that turns out to be slavery, and whose ideals are submerged in ruthless oppression, however blatantly its propaganda distorts the truth about freedom, democracy and brotherhood. Yet, critical as we may be of their real objectives, the communist movement is a missionary movement. It is winning the loyalty, the hearts and the minds of people by the millions.

Masonry and religion find themselves in a world that has declared them “enemies.” We shall meet this threat, not by crushing it from without, but by converting and winning it from within, that is, by winning men’s hearts, wills and lives.

Masonry has a great deal to offer the world in its idealism. Unfortunately for too many of us, our “labor” has become listening; our “refreshment,” freeloading. We are smugly pleased by our statement of belief in the Brotherhood of Man; but too often what is so beautifully phrased in ritual, never becomes even a brotherhood of brothers.

Brotherhood is not based upon intellect, but upon experience and the conviction that follows. For example, children are bom, in a sense, mortal enemies. They learn to love one another within the family and eventually in the wider circle of human relationships, as they gradually discover that they are loved with an equal love by the same parents. The only really valid reason for the concept of the Brotherhood of Man is the discovery that we are all loved with an equal love by the same God. But even this exalted concept is not enough. There must be motive. Someone requires understanding and compassion of us; that need strengthens us and motivates us to incorporate them in human relationships.

The 1958-59 bestseller, Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, has this to say:

Now you can’t advance in this direction without a certain faith. You can’t make such discoveries without spiritual equipment. And the basic elements of this equipment are the Gospels. What are they? To begin with, love of one’s neighbor, which is the supreme form of vital energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and spend itself. And then two basic ideals of modern man (without them he is unthinkable) the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice.

The great G that confronts us in the East is not specifically meaningful to enough of us. Geometry supplies no motive power whatever. The fact of a Supreme Being does little more. Ironically, the caveman and the twentieth century intellectual have this in common, that they both have made the discovery that at the center of the universe “There is something there. It is only when we grapple with the question, What kind of a something?” that results are forthcoming. The primitive envisioned a power to be kept at bay. At least his was a quest and not a status quo. There was some action, however barbaric his response of human sacrifice may have been. But the sophisticate’s admission of a “First Cause” is as devoid of motive as is his belief that he himself is clever.

When the wise man is wise enough to turn to the research of the centuries of men searching for God, even as he turns to research in other fields of knowledge, he finds that those with a genuine and deep-seated motivation for brotherhood have tapped a power that springs from the conviction that at the heart of the universe is Purpose, Power, Love. These are the men who have made history and have themselves outlasted it. When I know that God is more than “G,” that He has an unselfish concern, purpose, (love if you will) for me, and for all humanity, then my reaction is so great that it spills over into other lives. I accept as my obligation the privilege of treating all for whom God cares as brothers.

When a man is asked why he wishes to become a Master Mason, his expected reply is that his reason is spiritual. He is looking for some spiritual benefit, some spiritual growth. He is directed toward the three great lights of Masonry — the Square, the Compass, and the Holy Bible. Having been introduced to them with certain formal statements, he thereafter sees them relegated to the position of symbols in the ritual; yet the reality behind these very symbols, incorporated into life, might be the means of transforming Masonry into one of the most dynamic forces for good the world has ever seen.

We are exhorted to square our lives by truth. A carpenter’s square is graded and scored to near-exact measurements. When a man builds a house he cuts the rafters from one pattern, which has been put to the square, lest his roof become a crescent instead of an approximately straight line. When an engineer builds a bridge, he makes the most exact calculation possible so that the great structure will be able to carry its load of traffic for years to come.

In contrast, the sportsman has now contrived what is called a fisherman’s rule — usually about six inches in length, but scored to read one accurate inch, followed by one foot in the next two inches, and three feet in the next three. This device is supposed to keep a man from being called a liar when he tells the size of his catch.

The paradox of our time is that we apply the square or slide rule to the material side of life, and a sort of fisherman’s ruler to the spiritual side. Instead of searching for an absolute where truth is concerned, we have chosen to dismiss all authorities except the authority of self. A man says, “I know right from wrong.” By what standard? How much has “right” varied to suit our present behavior?

The most brilliant, the best-educated man may be swayed by emotions of fear or hate until his thinking is distorted. Prejudice can and frequently does take the place of reason. Popularity often overrides right. Convention outvotes character and honor. Rationalization surmounts reason; that is, we initiate a course of action, or form a habit, and then find reasons to justify our action. But where is truth?

What better service could be rendered by at least some of the members of a lodge than to spend a year, or two, or ten, finding and applying spiritual truth to Masonic service and action? Only by seeking shall we ever come close to the truth. Swift and Company used to circulate a pyramid-like chart among their employees that was designed to show the pattern for the development of life as we like it in America. At the top of the pyramid was self — the individual — his rights and freedoms. The next layer down consisted of human responsibility, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and human relationships. Beneath this were man’s values: compassion, mercy, trust, understanding, forgiveness, love. At the base of the pyramid, writ large, supporting the entire structure, was the single word, God. Precisely! This is the solid rock upon which the house must be built if it is to withstand the currents and the storms of life. On any other foundation the house will fall.

We have learned in Masonry that the compass teaches us to “circumscribe our passions,” by which is implied self-control. A wonderful virtue — self-control. Unfortunately it is not an attribute of human life. It is not built in. It must be acquired and painfully developed, at considerable cost to our egos.

Dr. Robert Preston, of the Department of Mental Health of the state of Maryland, has employed the illustrative circle effectively and clearly in his little book, The Substance of Mental Health. On one page he has drawn two circles. The first is the face of a baby, its arms, legs and crowned head completely filling the area of the circle. This cartoon is called “Immaturity.” The second circle is vacant, except for the vertical and lateral lines and the outline of continents that enable one to recognize it as the world. The human element in this second cartoon is outside the circle — a group of persons who together are lifting the world. The title of this second drawing is “Maturity.”

Here is a lucid description of the nature of life and its growth. We are born into the small circle, little gods in the world of the cradle and the playpen. What is a natural and harmless state of life in infancy, if projected into later years, is troublesome at teenage, a threat to others in the twenties, and a menace to the world and to society in adulthood. The gangster, the dictator, the self-centered person, are nothing more than underdeveloped persons spiritually, who find some false security in continuing to dominate their little world, and delight to play god with their opinions and decisions and passions. Nothing in the world is big enough to free us from the infantile circle of self-worship except the worship of God, with heart, soul, mind, and will. It takes a mighty compass to draw a world-size circle. The compass of speculative Freemasonry, whether we recognise it or not, is the Word, the Wisdom of God, made plain for us as a necessity: by a Maryland medic, by the prophets of old, and by a few men of great mind in every generation whose wisdom was deeper than their own intellect.

As a symbol on our altars, never read, never opened except to one page, the Bible is as worthless as a paperweight. Treated and used as a library of knowledge, as the accumulation of the research of those who sought for the meaning of life, and found it, it is of tremendous value. The Bible is the record of the growth of man’s understanding of the kind of God that is at the heart of the Universe. Human ideas about God are all there from the concept of the primitive little demon, to the storm god, to the Great Judge, to the Heavenly Father.

God has not changed. It is man who through the centuries has grown in capacity to understand the truth. The Bible is there — to give strength to the weak, hope to the faltering, wisdom to the ignorant, but most of all to keep potentially great men from being satisfied to be mediocre. Just as a man in chemistry or medicine would be considered a fool, who turned his back on the research of the centuries to conduct his own experiments, so the man who ignores what centuries of seeking, dedicated men have discovered about God and the meaning of life is no less a fool.

The Square, the Compass, the Holy Bible! These three great lights are but the reflection of the Greatest Light in the East. Do they really cast light on the trestleboard of speculative Masonry? As custodians of the truth, we need to foster a great sense of responsibility to let that light shine through our work, through our fellowship, through the quality of our lives. Masonry can stand as a bastion against the forces of atheism that would destroy our values, our way of life and our humanity. Or we may cling to tradition and platitude and confine ourselves to impotent ritual and be discarded in the ruins of a once glorious way of life. The question of the hour is this: Is Masonry a vital force, or a fitful spring in the desert?

“God has given us our choice, to turn the world into a garden, or reduce it to wilderness.” The designs are on the trestleboard. Craftsmen, there is work to do. The Great Architect of the Universe calls us from refreshment to labor.

The Masonic Service Association of North America