Vol. XLII No. 3 — March 1964

The Attentive Ear

Conrad Hahn

The attentive ear is one of the jewels of a Fellowcraft. This is another Masonic symbol that is intended to suggest ideas for moral instruction or speculative investigation. Mackey well said that the symbol of the listening ear admonishes the Fellowcraft not only to receive lessons of instruction from his teacher, but to treasure them in his breast, in order to ponder their meaning and to carry out their design.

An attentive ear is not just the ability to hear sounds; and it’s more than listening in the manner of “in one ear and out of the other.” The qualifying word attentive must be emphasized. To be attentive is “to observe carefully," “to give heed to.” Our modern word is derived from a Latin verb meaning “to hold to” or “to stretch toward.” Both ideas indicate a purposeful, determined activity.

Social gatherings suggest a concentration of attentive ears. A “cocktail party” of fifty to a hundred people may mean a collection of a hundred to two hundred ears, listening eagerly and attentively to some of the thousands of spoken words that create the hubbub at such a gathering. According to satirists of such affairs, there are very few attentive ears in the assemblage. Most of those present are trying to create an impression, not to learn something beneficial — unless gossip can somehow be made socially constructive.

Fora more appropriate image of the attentive ear we may turn to the adolescent in a high school classroom, listening with seeming interest to some explanation by the teacher about an historical event, a mathematical formula, or a scientific experiment. Even here, however, the attentive ear is sometimes more apparent than real.

The span of attention of the average student is surprisingly short. In the classroom situation he is continually bombarded by the distractions created by all the interacting personalities of his fellow students — even when they are in good order, and “listening attentively.” Awareness of others in a classroom is a very complicated condition, which results from impressions coming to each pupil through five different senses. Sight and sound are not the only stimuli that make one student aware of another.

An apparently attentive student can be listening carefully to the teacher’s explanation; yet without realizing it himself, he is not “holding on to” the instruction, because his olfactory nerves have become acutely aware of the odor of a new perfume being tried by the girl sitting in the next seat. His awareness has been transferred from the teacher to a fellow student. He has to bring that awareness to the level of consciousness and deliberately break it, in order to transfer it to the teacher and to “listen attentively” to him again.

Myriads of such conflicting stimuli are constantly at work in formal learning situations; but they are just as disrupting in a study period, even in the home, where the pupil is supposedly working under optimum conditions, alone in his own room, at his own desk, with no distractions from the hi-fi set, the radio, or the television.

Even the best students rarely exhibit a span of attention lasting more than two and a half minutes. Most important of the stimuli that cause these frequent breaks in attentiveness is the physical necessity of muscles to change their tension or position. Consequently, what really makes the difference between “good” and “poor” attention is the speed and the completeness with which a student can “recover” from the breaks in his span of attention, and refocus his interest on the task at hand.

Training an individual to “pay attention” is, therefore, as much a physical problem as a moral one involving the concepts of “duty" and "purpose.” Interest in a particular skill or area of knowledge is one of the most important stimuli to good learning; but the instructive tongue that ignores the physical stimuli splitting up a student’s span of attention will probably overlook the necessity for carefully arranged and well-executed repetition in his techniques of teaching.

Theoretically, a Fellowcraft is a Speculative Mason who has reached the peak of his powers as a symbolic builder because he has acquired the knowledge useful to that profession. This would imply that the instructive tongues of his Masonic teachers have deposited in his breast all the knowledge of the skills he needs to work on the temple of brotherhood by means of love, benevolence, and truth — and that he has the ability to hold on to those skills and to reach toward that ideal because his attentive ear has listened carefully and learned thoroughly.

If this is true, it must be admitted that Freemasonry once again is holding forth an ideal, a hope, rather than describing a reality. With no intention or desire to emulate a jesting Pilate, one may seriously ask, “What is Truth?” Of a brother one may also ask, “What is Masonic Truth?” The approach to an answer deeply involves the universal ideals and the future usefulness of the Fraternity.

One might first question the assumption that every Fellowcraft has really developed the “attentive ear” which helps to make him a real Speculative Builder. Much of a candidates instruction may go “in one ear and out of the other” because his mind has been distracted by other stimuli — sometimes the previous talk about "a goat” which arouses only a vague and distasteful dread of something unpleasant and unworthy.

Sometimes his attentive ear has been bent in other directions by the urgency with which some brethren ask him to join other bodies or organizations requiring membership in Masonry. How can he listen attentively to the qualifications he must develop as a Speculative Builder, if his initiation into the Symbolic Lodge is treated as an insignificant first step toward something else? To distract a candidate’s attentiveness during his first schooling in the “royal art” makes it easy to distract him in subsequent experiences. It also helps to cause him disappointments in his later fraternal affiliations.

What does it profit a man to acquire all the degrees of Masonic rites and bodies, if his ear has never been trained to be attentive enough to receive from instructive tongues the important knowledge of Symbolic Freemasonry that should be cherished in a faithful breast? The laws of learning are as applicable to Fellows of the Craft as they are to the pupils in a classroom. Masons must be helped to overcome the natural breaks in their attentiveness — by making instruction interesting, by repetition and recall.

The ideal Fellowcraft is, or becomes an experienced Builder. He has learned thoroughly the skills of his trade. In Speculative Masonry these are the moral principles symbolized by the working tools of his profession. He has become an exceptional, top-notch performer in the application he makes of those principles. He is an exemplar of the just and upright man. He is the center of union of those who strive to find harmonizing solutions to the problems of the community. He is one to whom the distressed and the needy instinctively turn for help and advice. He is trusted because he speaks truthfully yet compassionately. He has paid close attention to the tenets of his profession. He has mastered the skills he has acquired. He practices them faithfully.

In that idealized description a Speculative Fellowcraft typifies the mature man who reverences knowledge, especially moral knowledge, and seeks to acquire more understanding of it through an “attentive ear.” Speculative Masons become true Fellows of the Craft when they exemplify attentiveness to the application of useful moral knowledge, particularly in the areas of social and community affairs. A Mason cannot be a benevolent man merely with his lodge. He should be a man to whom his fellow citizens instinctively turn for leadership in benevolent undertakings. Only then does he really build on the temple of universal brotherhood.

But such labors may begin within narrower limits. They may develop into skills when they are practiced in every situation near at hand. The ability to understand another’s needs and to relieve his distress does not always require some substance of a metallic kind. The world needs “men of good will” who can give a generous thought as quickly as they contribute a dollar to a worthwhile charity.

An unhappy child is a person in need. In the emotional storms that sometimes blow up in family affairs, the real source of a child’s unhappiness often remains hidden or ignored in a cloud of recriminations and “righteous indignation.” This is one of the most immediate opportunities for applying an attentive ear to another’s needs; it is sometimes very difficult to do. Our own emotions are so deeply involved.

In this Age of Space, thousands of families are pulling up stakes and living in foreign countries for a number of years. Many such families are living in this country until they complete some training or assignment for the nation that sent them to be our guests. None need understanding and appreciation more than these. The attentive ear will teach the understanding heart to make such sojourners feel “at home” rather than like suspicious foreigners. It is not always easy.

Our attentive ear is quick to hear the call for help from a friend or brother out of work. We try to help him find a job, because we know how important it is to the support of his family and to his own self-respect. Yet in the lodge, how different the response to the need of so many members for speculative employment!

Our age is troubled by the technological unemployment caused by automation. Machines are taking the places of men; but Freemasonry has been suffering from speculative unemployment for a long time. The same forces that doubled our membership from two million in 1917 to four million in 1957 caused the Fraternity to overlook the necessity for really employing every new member in the labors of our lodges. When worshipful masters devote a serious exercise of their imaginations to finding “speculative work” for their new craftsmen, they will really be tackling one of the most pressing needs of Freemasonry today.

A true Fellowcraft will also acquire an increased understanding of useful Masonic knowledge. This will come not merely from the learning and delivery of ritual, or from involvement in the activities of lodge administration and procedure, although both are important for the craftsmen who will lead the lodge in the future.

Much useful (one might even say necessary) Masonic knowledge comes from the study of Masonic history, customs, jurisprudence, etc. By such means every craftsman may increase his appreciation of the rich fraternal heritage in which he shares. Such knowledge deepens his appreciation of the timeless value of Free- mansory’s teachings. These are really more important than any contemporary program or activity.

Building is the most ancient of man’s arts; it sprang from one of his elemental needs. The science or art of building, however, is more important than the creations of that art.

Even the words of the Masonic ceremony for the laying of cornerstones emphasize this fact, because they acknowledge the impermanence of any structure raised by the hand of man. Ruthless ignorance, the lapse of time or natural cataclysm, the devastations of war — any of these may lay waste the most marvelous product of man’s building skill.

But the knowledge, the skills, the methods by which it was erected may be transmitted unimpaired by means of attentive ears that have listened and learned from instructive tongues. This is the encouraging idea that has led so many Masonic historians to find a Masonic tradition that links our speculative society to associations of builders in ancient times — from the Comacine masters of the Dark Ages to the artificers who raised the pyramids of Egypt three millennia before Christ.

From this far-ranging idea we can easily draw a parallel: the future of our Fraternity in a large measure depends upon the attentive ears of craftsmen living today, who will transmit unimpaired the skills and knowledge of the order. Those speculative abilities in the areas of friendship, morality, and brotherly love must outlive any institution or program that we may create for the needs of our time.

The Masonic Service Association of North America