Vol. XLV No. 4 — April 1967

“Watchman, What of the Night?”

Walter M. Macdougall, PM

This challenging Masonic meditation is the work of Worshipful Brother Walter M. Macdougall, a past master of Piscataquis Lodge No. 44, Milo, Maine. Brother Macdougall authored the June 1965, Short Talk Bulletin, “Our Masonic Purpose.”

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The night brings darkness. Men have always feared to go in the dark. That apprehension links us to our ancestors. We share their plight when we ask that haunting question, “Watchman, what of the night?”

In all ages men have feared some darkness in their lives and have tried to counteract it with the hope of a new day. This is a great human experience, the recurring chance for each generation to become men; for in every generation there appear those who ask, “What of the night?” not in fear, but with courage; not in apprehension, but with expectation.

Man must continually challenge the darkness lest the hope of a new morning be lost. Freemasonry, a venerable antagonist of darkness, must be vitally concerned with the shadows of the night. We must ask our watchmen what problems threaten and what enemies attack the great tenets of our Fraternity, for those tenets are the beacon lights of humanity.

Put all the problems of Freemasonry on the scales and one outweighs all others. Ask the watchmen of the night and one answer is sure to return. We see too many newly-raised Masons closing the door on their Masonic experiences. What the watchmen tell us is a fact all too often observed. It is for us the question in our moment of history. Why do they close the door?

Some of us try to put this question aside. After all, it isn't a new problem. It may be growing, but it has always been with us. We might observe that Masonry does not appeal to everyone. We make some and lose others. We could assert that there will still be a faithful nucleus to keep the light flickering until better times. Nevertheless, the question comes at us again. As Masons, it will not leave us undisturbed. The problem reveals a serious loss for the individual and for the Craft. There is something lurking underneath all this lost interest and lack of commitment, something of darkness, something of the most serious consequence to the healthy development of Freemasonry, and darker still for the concept of mankind as a growing expression of God’s universal creativity.

We cannot be satisfied by any rationalizations that may be put forth to evade this issue. When was it in keeping with the spirit of our order to wait for better times? When, indeed, did better times ever materialize from procrastination? When was Freemasonry ever content with a stone now and then fit for the builder’s use? When were the tenets of our Craft ever less important to mankind than they are in this day and age? Still the disquieting question persists. Too many new Masons leave the lodge without the realization that Masonry has for its mighty purpose the forward thrust of humanity. Why do they close the door?

Is there something significant in the candidate’s motive for application — something that casts the die from the very first?

  1. One may suspect that some knock on our doors to become Masons in name only. Of course this is really impossible; a man cannot be a Mason in name only. Either he becomes a Mason in heart and soul — a newly emerging personality — or he is not a Mason at all. But we cannot blame the new applicant for not realizing this fact. He can only observe what he sees on the outside; and, sad to say, he will see men who only wear the ring and know little about Masonry. The new applicant may feel that membership in Masonry is a symbol of status and a source of material benefits. Such feelings may be natural; but unfortunately, they are misconceptions.
  2. Curiosity, another motive, is certainly not uncommon. It is a motive engendered by the nature of our order. Joining is an honest way of finding out what Masonry has to offer. Very few Masons could say that they had no feeling of curiosity when they first stood outside the lodge door.
  3. Respect is a third motive. Many men are led to apply through a feeling of admiration. They see men who are Masons, who are admirable, who reveal something of worth. They see in these men a living testimony. Occasionally this feeling of respect may extend to the Craft as a whole. I remember asking my father why Masonry is important. He answered that always in all places and in all times the order has stood for freedom and the integrity of the individual. To a small boy those wise words could not bring their full import, yet I am sure that even then they impressed me and kept acting deep inside my mind. Some men come to Masonry because of what they see and have heard.
  4. In this age, which looks suspiciously at noble feelings, a fourth motive that brings applicants to Masonry may be often overlooked. I believe that many come to Masonry searching for something lasting — something of truth. It is implanted in man to search for the "pearl of great price,” and this despite any modern notion that a search for the “Grail” is for unsophisticated knights of a “square” table.

Young men are supposed to sit around growing long hair and shouting rebellion to tired winds. Such is the fad built upon the natural disposition of youth to search. More discouraging is the present inclination to express a feeling of being lost, of lacking purpose. Many young men seem to enjoy saying:

I, a stranger and afraid,
In a world I never made.

But such a feeling is unnatural for men. If young men go away from our Craft lodges disillusioned and wandering in lonely paths, it is indeed a tragedy; for they travel away from what they sought, from what might have made all the difference to their modern doubts and perplexities.

These four motives are sufficient to illustrate a point: we cannot find the answer to our question in the motives that lead men to apply for the degrees.

Even the poorest of motives, that of wanting to be a Mason in name only, is not an answer to our insistent question: why do they close the door? Of course, those who come searching are more apt to find. Those who apply out of respect for the lives of Masons or of admiration for our Craft are more apt to seize upon those principles that enrich men’s souls, but despite the motives that may activate the applicant, the important fact is that men do apply. We may (and should) investigate their character, for our mission is not one of salvation. It is the building of a spiritual temple among men, but more than such inquiry we cannot do. A man’s true motives remain his own.

Perhaps a happy thought has already occurred to you. We might lay this question at the feet of our committee on lodge education. If our lodge were more active in Masonic education, if it could impress the purpose and nature of Masonry upon the hearts of new candidates, we might hope for better results. Certainly we are prone to allow candidates too easy an advancement. We might take note that in the days of the operative craft it took seven years to work out an apprenticeship. Even after a man became a Fellow of the Craft, there was much to learn. Few would advocate such a time requirement today, yet it is nevertheless true that it is easier to master the working of stone than to master the art of speculative Masonry. Certainly the candidate’s brief experience with our ritual cannot be relied upon alone to give him all the art and knowledge he will need.

Just when it seems that we have finally cornered the culprit, that villain whose fault it is that newly-raised Masons close the door on their Masonry, we find our old question still intruding. We have merely been doing the truly modern thing. We have been trying to appoint a committee to tackle and solve the problem.

Just what are we to tell the committee on lodge education about subject matter? Are they single-handedly, by some miraculous feat, expected to blow the breath of life into a purpose that is supposed to permeate the whole Craft? Unless they can do this, the candidate will see any program of education for just what it is — a tour through an old cathedral in which the ashes on the altar have long since grown cold. Far better that the candidate should see upon the face of each brother that light that shone upon the countenance of Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up, his train filling the temple. Such an experience, a contagious feeling of high purpose, is worth all the education we might hope to instill.

The persistent gnawing of this question, which asks why newly-made Masons fail to perceive the light in the East, must finally become unbearable. We who are Masons must face the problem. When we do, we must meet ourselves — never a pleasant experience. We find ourselves searching deeper for the reasons why.

Historians of Freemasonry tell us that at the end of the seventeenth century our Craft was badly off. Operative Freemasonry, which had risen to its height during the era of cathedral building, had all but come to an end. For centuries the Craft had been more than architects of temporal towers of stone; they had kept a noble faith and a spiritual hope. The Craft has been the heirs of great Hebraic and Greek truths. The Craft had been servants of one Almighty God and the transmitters of moral dignity. Still, their reason for fraternity and for activity had been their operative building, and now that driving force was gone — a victim of changing patterns of world culture.

It was a time of change, a time when craftsmen probably feared the end. It was a time of dark foreboding, a restless night for the men on watch. Yet the Craft did not die. What seemed like a fatal winter became a blossoming springtime.

There were new movements afoot. The night wind whispered of morning when the light of freedom and the love of one’s fellow men would dawn. New voices were rising against the bigotry of doctrine and the provincialism of sectarian thought. There was a revolt against immorality that blights the creativity of men. Hearts that were aflame and searching came to Masonry, not as workers in stone, but as workers in ideas about the Brotherhood of Man. They came, they stayed; and as they grew in wisdom and in stature, so did the Fraternity. They found in Masonry what was for all ages and for all places. They found an operative expression of truth. They found that what is spiritually true is true forever, because it is of eternity. It was not just a matter of old truth kept alive, but the truth revitalized in the present purpose of men. They made a new covenant with God.

We might, as Masons must have done during that great period of transformation, look wistfully backwards at a time when the order was “going great guns.” There was a time not so long ago when fraternities of all kinds abounded. It was an age of “joiners.” Some critics still believe that modern Freemasonry is only a vestigial, useless appendage of that era — one of the last examples of what “sophisticates” love to call the tribal aspect ofyoung, rural America. They assert that our order represents an infantile desire for snobbishness and the chance to parade in colorful regalia. What they say is of little importance; it is based upon ignorance of Masonry and therefore of history. It is true, however, that those factors that led to the fraternal boom at the turn of the 20th century are no longer active. This is really a godsend for Freemasonry, whose purposes were never suited to the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.”

The analogy between our situation and that of the early 1700s is closer than we might first think. Again we are in an era of ferment, and in the fear it creates, dogma and sectarianism, bigotry and nearsightedness are abroad. It is a time when religious institutions should be climbing the high road, keeping pace with man’s intellectual grasp. Alas, too often their spokesmen only babble.

Why do men come to Masonry and then go away, closing the door on their Masonic growth? The answer is that the Craft needs to come alive once more. It is time for a new covenant — a new commitment, not to what is dead but to what is living — not to what is fashionable for one era, but to what is vital in the pulse of human existence. We must accept the burden that comes with the realization that Masonry was meant for such a task. Thus did our Masonic forebears do, and thus must we.

This does not mean the discarding of landmarks, the re-writing of ritual, or the revamping of Masonic philosophy. Quite the contrary. Change is an inevitable consequence of life, but change for the sake of change has no validity. The progress of humanity is an ongoing process; it shows a pattern developing not from the present alone, but from the truth discovered by long past experience. Masonry is like a tree with its roots sunk into the soil of past living. We must lay no axe to the root of that tree. But Masonry, like a tree, must also be a growing thing, reaching out and up toward the light. We must not accept change simply for the sake of movement, nor can we accept the static merely for the sake of momentary security. Our faith is too wide for this; our hope too broad and too great.

With unflinching stand we must push forward our belief in one Eternal Intelligence, our belief in brotherhood, our belief in the intellectual and moral ability of man. What speculative Masons found in Freemasonry over three hundred years ago is still as real and meaningful as it was then. Masonry has within its philosophy the greatest of all possibilities, that of growth — the growth of a God and Man relationship made significant and eloquent in man’s relationship to man.

But why do newly-raised Masons close the door upon such an opportunity? Sooner or later that relentless question forces us to stand. We feel it probing deep inside our souls. Then, just as we have been afraid it would all along, the question changes. It asks us why we close the door upon our own Masonic experience. It asks us if the new brother went away because he saw no living testimony in us, because he did not see the Craft at labor, or because he felt no confidence in our labors. Where are the daring Builders who mount the scaffolding of our enterprise, who confidently demonstrate the divine plans of the master workman, who radiate the joy of their certainty that Light will shine in the darkness.

“Watchman, what of the night?”

The answer comes: “Winds are rising and fanning the flame. Awake, for the hope of morning must be made real in this darkness.”

The Masonic Service Association of North America