Vol. XLII No. 7 — July 1964

Let’s Unshackle the Spirit of Freemasonry

Conrad Hahn

This Short Talk Bulletin is an address by the executive secretary of The Masonic Service Association delivered in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the 175th anniversary communication of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire, May 20, 1964.

I have been re-reading Ralph Waldo Emerson lately. To those of you who know your Emerson, that statement may sound like a warning! Perhaps it is. Two quotations from the writings of that famous nineteenth century American moralist supply the text or theme of these remarks:

THINGS are in the saddle
And ride mankind.[1]

First men build a house, and then
they imprison the spirit in it.[2]

Obviously, those statements are aimed at a point of view, a philosophy, which is commonly called materialism. Such an attitude is characterized chiefly by a preoccupation with things, with substances that can be seen, touched, felt, heard, handled, tasted, measured, and so on.

But don’t get me wrong. I am not unappreciative of the values that are produced by a materialistic approach to life: adequate shelter, nourishing food, suitable clothing, mechanical devices to reduce the effort required to achieve such desirable comforts — as well as a host of scientific discoveries, like those in medicine, which have made the physical conditions of life easier and less burdensome.

The crassest expression of this point of view is probably found in the scientific statement that “the chemical components of the human body, if reduced to their pure elements, would fetch about two dollars and a half on the open market.” When I was in high school, the price was ninety-one cents. Inflation has made even the human carcass more expensive.

This point of view finds frequent expression in humor; as for example, in the statement that “I have reached the ‘metallic’ age. I have gold in my teeth, silver in my hair, and lead in my pants.”

Only a spiritual snob would deny the necessity of some materialistic solutions to the problems of living. A starving “untouchable” in a Bombay gutter has little strength and no inclination to lead a life of spiritual fulfillment. He’d gladly settle for a daily handful of rice and a thatched roof over his head.

So long as man is basically an animal, he requires things to nourish his body, to protect his health, and to fashion those creations that his imagination makes possible. He has to be a materialist, so let’s not deride that philosophy or sell it completely short. You and I just wouldn’t be here today if materialistic achievements hadn’t been as remarkable as they are.

Honestly, however, you didn’t come here today for any materialistic reason, did you? If you were an out- nd-out materialistic thinker, you would have stayed at home. You could have had a better breakfast there (more suited to your taste, that is), more comfort and relaxation in your favorite robe and slippers, and more time to dawdle over the sport page — right?

And it’s just that thought that really bothers me — for if you came here for some thing more than I have indicated, it must have been some touch of fellowship or inspiration that you have been led to expect. Some bit of inspiration is probably the thing that I’m supposed to supply — but it’s a disturbing thought. I have just as much trouble waking up in the morning as you have; I have just as much desire to just sit back and relax after breakfast as anyone else; I’m just as “uninspired” and “uninspiring” in the morning as my next door neighbor.

But it’s really true that “things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” as Emerson observed. Most men are preoccupied with gadgets and devices, with ways and means, with techniques, with money and the things that money can buy. As one wit summed up, “What this country needs is a moderately priced power mower that can be operated by remote control from inside an air-conditioned living room!”

We no longer purchase only what we need for food, shelter, clothing, and necessities; we buy more and more “to keep the economy expanding,” and too often the appeals to induce us to buy more than we want are directed at our snobbish fears that we won’t keep up with the Joneses. We dread becoming Emersonian non-conformists who fail to present a successful materialistic image to our neighbors. It is this aspect of our culture that has been most scorned by some of our neighbors abroad. It is this kind of excessive materialism at which Ralph Emerson was shaking his finger.

As a philosophy, materialism is never a complete answer for the problems of living and especially for a search far truth; because materialism concerns itself with means and techniques, not ends or goals or purposes. Man’s intellect, however, can grasp a why as well as the hows of living; this is what really distinguishes him from other animals. Once you have all the things that you thought you needed, you discover that’s an illusion. You can never have enough things if it takes things to satisfy you. For many of us the process of acquiring things is the exciting satisfaction that keeps us forever interested in things; in a few others it’s envy that prevents them from ever being really content.

Freemasonry in its purest form, however, is concerned with ends, not means; so the spirit of Freemasonry, which grows out of a search for the why of living, may suffer when its votaries become too concerned with things or techniques, rather than with its tenets and with Truth.

The power of speculative Freemasonry lies not in physical assets; it lies in the symbolic meanings of the stonemason’s tools to inspire men to live and act for certain moral and spiritual goals. The operative Mason needed an actual trowel to spread the cement that unites a building into one common mass; a speculative Builder needs only a mental image of that tool and its uses to spread the cement of brotherly love and affection, at any time, in any place, under any circumstances. Freemasonry is, therefore, a spiritual activity directed to the achievement of spiritual ends. It depends for its effectiveness on individuals who have learned its purposes and skills and who seriously try to achieve them in their personal, individual fives.

If this philosophic introduction has done its job of preparation, let us now ask ourselves a few questions, not because there are any final answers, but because they may help us to realize that among the problems of the Craft today one of the most serious may be the need to unshackle the real spirit of Freemasonry.

The more we have organized Masonic groups and activities, the more we have institutionalized our benevolent projects and charity, and the more we have set up programs and criteria for evaluating them, the more concerned and disturbed we seem to become over the results of our fraternal activities. May it be that we have concentrated our energies so largely on things, on the means for achieving our goals, on techniques rather than ends, that we have bound up the true spirit of Freemasonry to the point of ineffectuality?

What is the real spirit of Freemasonry? According to the tenets of our profession, it is the love of one individual for his brother that shows itself in words and acts of benevolence, kindness, understanding, and helpfulness. To understand his brotherly relationship to every human being, the individual Mason searches for the truths of morality and love. The real spirit of Freemasonry, therefore, expresses itself only through individuals. When enough such brothers act together, they produce a harmony of purposeful good will that enriches whatever society they live in.

But is the application of spiritual force as easy as words make it sound? Most of us know the story of Jesus preaching in Capernaum, when the crowd was so great, that four friends of a palsied man, a paralytic, had to lower him through a hole in the roof in order to get him close to the Master.

Jesus was so impressed by the faith of these men in His power to heal a physical maladjustment that He told the paralytic to “take up thy bed and walk”! Most of those who witnessed the event marveled at the cure and glorified God — because they had seen a physical miracle with their own eyes! But, except for the speed and immediacy of the marvel, modern psychiatry and psycho-somatic medicine make that outcome seem much less miraculous. It happens frequently today.

But spiritually Jesus did something much more daring and significant than telling the cripple to pick up his bed and walk. Before He healed the man, He prepared him spiritually for it, by saying, “Thy sins are forgiven!” For this the scribes murmured against Him in their hearts, labeling His words a “blasphemy,” because they sincerely believed that only God can forgive a man his sins.

Jesus read their minds, and even before He healed the palsied man, He reproved them with a question: “Which do you think is easier to say, ‘Thy sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Take up thy bed and walk’?” That’s an excellent question for us moderns to ponder. In a materialistic age that seeks to define all sinfulness as a problem of social maladjustment, the personal responsibility of the individual gets lost and every individual’s need to forgive and to be forgiven is suffocated by indifference.

In one sense, have we not imprisoned the real spirit of Masonic benevolence in our excellent homes and hospitals? Please don’t misunderstand. I have visited a lot of them. I am a great admirer of the practical and the spiritual achievements that they represent.

In the Masonic home and hospital that I know most intimately, we are blessed with a Superintendent, a genuine healer, whose concept of his work is to make the last ten years of a brother’s or sister’s life as much of “an adventure in living” as the first ten, or the second ten, “The rosy springtime of youth.” Consequently, he recognizes the limitations of his medical skills in the care of the aged and the sick.

Believing that the fear of death hampers man’s spiritual development in every period of his life, but most acutely in “the twilight years,” that Superintendent employs all his assistants and trains them in the understanding that they are co-workers with God in a great labor of love. Clergymen, speech therapists, recreation directors, teachers for the deaf, teachers of hobbies, physical therapists, nurses, yes, even orderlies are given an insight into the part each one plays in “the grand design.”

But why must this genuine spirit of brotherly love and reliefbe confined within the walls of an institution? That its influence is so shackled is revealed by the indifference of so many brethren to “what goes on at the Home,” or by the grudging payment by some of their annual per capita to support the institution.

What have we done to the real spirit of Freemasonry by the administrative “busyness” which we impose on masters of big lodges and especially on grand masters? While there’s no such thing as “an average grand master,” (every grand master has to be more than an average Mason) it can be said that the average grand master in the United States today is an extremely busy executive who is heavily shackled by the responsibilities of a big business enterprise.

Usually he is on the board, often as chairman, of the Masonic home and hospital — a large undertaking today. He has to supervise the financial affairs of grand lodge, a big enough job even if he had no other. He has to be not only the president of the board, but the corporation counsel too! He has to devise and organize a program, and sometimes the program carries him away like a whirlwind. On top of this we tend to regard him as Ceremonial Pooh-Bah No. 1, who must grace every meeting and Masonic festival we can think of and schedule.

On every such occasion he is expected to give us “good and wholesome instruction.” For what? In a mad gallop hither and thither to keep his multitude of appointments (often boasted of like “a new record”), he falls back on his “program” to give his instruction. But programs are means, not ends; they are techniques, not goals.

When does the average grand master have time to think deeply about the ultimate realization of Freemasonry’s great dream of brotherhood and truth? We build remarkable edifices of grand lodge organization, but may we not be imprisoning some of the real spirit of Freemasonry within them?

A master, and a grand master especially, should be the principal source of inspiration and guidance for his brethren. He can only lead by the spirit that he arouses in individuals, who follow him “of their own free will and accord.” Too much grand lodge legislation and programming may be imprisoning the real spirit of Freemasonry in local lodges that have come to depend too much on others for ways and means of putting their Masonry to work.

What am I talking about? About the spirit that is in you, and you, and you — the free spirit of the individual Mason who is committed to improving himself (not someone else) by the symbolic application of the builder’s tools to his conduct through life.

Where does it come from? From within, where it was nurtured by others who guided you and tried to give you Light. Can you not remember some vivid moment at your mother’s knee, when suddenly the warmth of pure disinterested love enveloped you because of her words of comfort and encouragement? Or perhaps you can recollect an afternoon with your father, when the spirit of camaraderie bound you close together — it may have been on a hike through the woods or when he taught you how to hold a baseball bat — when suddenly you sensed what it was to be a man and you silently vowed to pattern your life after the image of that hero?

Maybe it was in school, when one of your teachers spoke a word or phrase that momentarily astonished you as a revelation of the limitless possibilities of man’s undying spirit, and forever afterward you treasured that saying as a powerful amulet? Need any Mason be reminded of those high and holy moments when he knelt at the altar of Freemasonry and was vaguely but powerfully stirred by man’s “ability to reach for the stars”?

Let the poet Sarah Doudney say for me what I’m trying to put into words:

From “Things that Never Die”

The pure, the beautiful, the bright
Which stirred our hearts in youth;
The impulse to a wordless pray’r;
Our dreams of love and truth;
The longings after something lost;
The spirit’s yearning cry;
The strivings after better hopes —
These things can never die!

Those stirrings, those impulses, those dreams and longings and strivings — those are the sources of what we so ineffectually call the spirit of Freemasonry. But those are the things within ourselves that we must touch and quicken into life in every individual brother, if we would really unshackle the essential spirit of our gentle Craft. So mote it be.

⁎  ⁎  ⁎

  1. R. W. Emerson, “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Charming.”
  2. This quote could not be found with a Google search (2015).

The Masonic Service Association of North America