Vol. XLIV No. 7 — July 1966

The Shadow of a Man

Eugene G. Beckman

This address is the work of Reverend Eugene G. Beckman, R.W Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina, who has graciously consented to its publication as a Short Talk Bulletin. It was originally delivered at the religious exercises that opened the 229th annual communication of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina, held in Columbia, April 28, 1966.

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There is a fascinating story in the New Testament about a man named Peter. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts we see a throng crowded into Solomon’s Porch to hear the testimonies and to witness the wonders that were being performed by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a remarkable day of teaching and healing.

In the fifteenth verse we make an intriguing discovery: “. . . they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” These needy people believed that the shadow cast by this great and good man had a healing and mending power. They were convinced that if they merely brought their helpless friends and relatives under the influence of this man, they would be made whole again. Peter had done so many good deeds, had spoken so many kind words, was so simple and genuine in his entire makeup, they believed there was a certain miraculous healing quality in his very shadow.

We do not expect physical healing or moral blessing to come from having the physical shadow of anyone, however great or good, fall upon us. Science has driven that mystical way of thinking from most of the world. Yet in Eastern lands today, the literal shadow of a man has far greater significance than we in the West accord it. In India a Brahman will throw away his food if the shadow of an outcast has passed over it.

On the other hand, observers tell us of having seen men and women on the streets maneuver themselves so that the late Gandhi’s shadow might fall upon them and bring them a blessing. It is difficult for us to understand how people anywhere could believe that the shadow of a person’s body may bring a blessing. There is, however, in this matter of a man’s shadow something relevant and important to our thinking today. A man’s shadow is the symbol of his character and influence. In our thinking we need to emphasize the place of the ordinary individual in the healing and reconstruction of a broken world.

The record does not show that any sick people were actually healed in this way. That is expecting a good deal from a shadow. But the very fact that they did it was a splendid tribute to the quality of the man. It was their testimony to the power of a thoroughly good life. The people believed in him and felt that something helpful would emanate from him and reach these sufferers even through his shadow.

Henri Becquerel, French scientist and Nobel Prize winner, in his famous lectures on radioactivity, often compared the mysterious radiation of radium with the emanation of perfume. He made the assertion that one milligram of musk will continue to give out scent for 7,000 years without being entirely disseminated. Then he said that one milligram of radium continues its influence for 75,000 years.

Physicists today may disagree with some of the details of those statements; but if there is any truth in them whatever, can we fail to ask with Henry Drummond whether the radiation of souls can be less penetrating and persistent than that of musk or radium, in a universe that God has made as an earthly home for His children? Are we not forced to the conclusion that human life is more wonderful than we have thought, that human influence will outlast musk, radium, and even the stars?

Let us think together on this matter of the shadow of a man.

Influence (shadow) is always good or evil; it is never neutral. The shadow of a man either helps or hurts, builds up or tears down, blesses or curses. One’s influence is either a stepping-stone or a stumbling block. Many people deceive themselves by assuming that in moral and spiritual matters they can be neutral. The plain truth is that if a man does not champion what is right, he thereby throws his weight on the side of wrong, by silently condoning it. A true builder must not make the mistake of believing that he can find comfort in neutrality, assuming that if he does not bless the world, at least he will not injure it. The shadow that we cast will either ennoble or debase those upon whom it falls.

Another important thought about influence is that it is, for the most part, irrevocable. In George Eliot’s Adam Bede, the carpenter was right when he said of sin, “It is like a bit o’ bad workmanship — you never see the end o’ the mischief it will do.” Some people would even give a right arm to be able to undo the wrongs they have done in the past.

The day Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree was the beginning of a new life for that public official of Rome. After he had come under the influence of Jesus, Zacchaeus offered to restore fourfold to those whom he had wronged. Granting that he was financially able to do this, Zacchaeus could not thereby make restitution for the years of dishonest, selfish, loveless living among men and women and young people who had been hurt by his shadow. It was absolutely impossible for him to recall and erase the effect of his shadow upon little children and young people whose characters had been debased as they looked upon this “successful” man of Jericho.

Shakespeare’s Mark Antony was right when he said in his oration at the death of Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them.” Look at the evil that flowed from the shadow of Hitler in Europe and over a large part of the world. His shadow was still affecting people in 1966, as seen when a German prince married a princess of the Netherlands.

Another sobering thought about the shadow of a man is that we cannot manipulate influence. A man cannot say to himself: “Today I am going to exert a good influence.” Peter was unconscious of the fact that people were bringing their sick ones into the streets that his shadow might fall on them. Power to lift and to heal never comes from a person who is always thinking of the impression he is making, always trying to appear as something other than what he really is.

Goethe said:

Influence is like fragrance; it depends upon the flower. It is like the ray of sunlight; it depends upon the sun. No artificial device of the will of man, no trick, can produce a healing shadow from an evil life. It matters little what a man may do. The man himself is more important than anything he produces.

Emerson said: “What you are thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” Jesus put the matter plainly and bluntly when He said that you cannot gather figs from thorn trees or grapes from a bramble bush. Influence depends upon the quality of a man’s inward life. “For the good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil.” (Luke 6:45)

A person’s influence depends far more upon what he is than upon what he has. Phillips Brooks was right when he said: “No man or woman of the humblest sort can really be strong, gentle, pure and good without the world being better for it, without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.” Much more important than genius, or riches, or cleverness is the healing shadow of a good life. In the last published writings of the late Dr. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, this statement is found: “When all is said, the chief way for each of us to bring about a better world is the simple one of living a better life — more honest; more pure, more self-controlled, more generous.” We can do that, with the help of God, if we are willing.

The diary of David Brainerd was published by Jonathan Edwards. In 1742 Brainerd was dismissed from Yale College because of a sectarian quarrel, but then began a career as a missionary to the American Indians. There, because of privations and hard work, he contracted tuberculosis. Seeing that his condition was hopeless, he gave up his missionary work and took advantage of Jonathan Edwards’ hospitality so that his last days might be spent in the home of a kind friend who offered to care for him. He died in that home.

Brainerd, whose life ended before he was thirty, thought himself a failure. But God placed another valuation upon his life. During those lonely days and nights as a missionary, he recorded his thoughts and aspirations in a private diary. After his death, Edwards edited and published these meditations. This diary found its way to a cobbler’s bench in England where William Carey, greatly influenced by it, decided to dedicate his life as a missionary to India. This same diary came into the hands of Henry Martyn at Cambridge, and he went as a missionary to Persia. The same diary fell into the hands of the great Murray McCheyne, and he was instrumental in establishing fifty missionary societies. Only God knows how many lives have been touched by the noble aspirations and sterling character of one stricken servant of God. What an eloquent testimony to the power of a good life!

The influence of a person depends in large measure upon the extent to which he invests himself in others.

The great Boy Scout movement in America is a monument to a Chicago business man who was helped by a Boy Scout in London. The worldwide work of the Salvation Army is a monument to William Booth, who invested his life in serving others. Alice Freeman Palmer, President of Wellesley College, said: “It is people that count. You want to put yourself into people; they touch other people; these others still, and so you go on working forever.”

Isaiah wrote: "A man shall be . . . as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” (Isaiah 32:2) He had in mind the fact that a human life, like a mountain, may have a leeward side where people may go for refreshment and strength. Is there a leeward side to your life?

One other thought: there can be no shadow without a light. A tree casts its shadow because of the light of the sun. A man casts a healing shadow upon others because of the light of God in his heart. As a Mason you should have the light of Masonry in your heart. Every Masonic Temple and every Mason is dedicated to God, to Freemasonry, to Virtue, and to Universal Benevolence. What a blessing our great Fraternity would be to a broken and bleeding world if our lives were wholly dedicated to these things!

Albert Schweitzer said: “The way in which the power of one’s life works is a mystery.” As a Mason you are casting a shadow daily upon everyone who comes in contact with you. God grant that your shadow may be a healing and helpful one. For as Bayard Taylor has said:

The healing of the world is in its nameless saints. Each separated star seems nothing, but a myriad scattered stars break up the night, and make it beautiful.

The Masonic Service Association of North America