The Bricklayer Lecture

W. Brother Cameron MacKay

An Operative Bricklayer builds a Speculative Wall

1 Introduction

This is not a Masonic Research paper. The ideas and interpretations of Masonic symbolism contained herein are not based on authorities—they are simply the personal reflections of bricklayer who became a Freemason.

Today, I propose to illustrate the connection between the practices of a bricklayer or stonemason with the symbolism of the Craft. Today, I hope to dispel the idea that Freemasonry is an idealistic set of principles which require modification to be applied in the outside world. Conversely, I hope to instill the thought that the symbolism, principles, and practices of Freemasonry are derived from human experience and human activity and are not solely derived from abstraction and academia.

Tomorrow, I hope you will reflect upon the connection between the Royal Art and your own particular avocation—be it Accounting, Banking, Business, civil servant or teacher. Tomorrow, upon due reflection, I hope you will see Freemasonry as a practical set of principles and values; the distilled wisdom of the ages; and the repository of critically and intellectually analyzed beliefs adopted from untold number of philosophical schools. Through that reflection, I respectfully suggest you will see the Craft as a vibrant force to effect good in Society and not simply a ritualistic celebration of virtue. If you draw that conclusion, you will see the wisdom of that simple phrase, coined by our Grand Master, "Lets do it."

2 The Point of Commencement

From the outset it is evident that the bricklayer's task in constructing a building is not a random or fleeting activity performed in isolation with no consequences to the outside world. He must ensure his building is in harmony with the surrounding buildings—that it is constructed within the property lines—that it complies with the municipal set back regulations. Every building then, irrespective of size or shape commences from the determination of finite point on the face of the planet.

Now in Freemasonry we are taught that "The 24 I.G. Is the first implement put into the hands of the workman, to enable him to ascertain the EXTENT of the work he is about to engage And on the construction site the first tool employed by the bricklayer is in fact the 24 I.G. As he needs to determine the point of commencement. To choose this finite point the bricklayer must first determine the property boundaries—which are determined from the survey post—which are determined from the longitudes and latitudes which in turn are determined by measuring the position of the stars in the heavens. From the outset his very initial task links him to the whole cosmos. Now to determine this point of commencement, the bricklayer simply measures the appropriate set back from the north boundary and draws a parallel line. He then measures the appropriate set back from the East boundary—and this is the point of commencement.

It can be seen then that like the Speculative Mason, the bricklayer is confronted with the Ancient Landmarks from the very outset. It is simple to understand the "Ancient Landmarks" as physical survey posts which delineate the outer boundaries of the property. The intriguing question is : "What are the Ancient Landmarks in a speculative sense? Time does not permit a full discussion of that topic in this paper. For those who are interested in the topic, there is an interesting and informative paper called "landmarks, landmarks!, landmarks? By R.W. Bro. Gibbs which can be found in the volumes of Vox Lucis published by Fiat Lux Lodge of Research 1980. However, let me give you one thought to ponder: To a speculative Mason the Ancient Landmarks represent the outside perimeters of Masonic thought—beyond that boundary it is no longer Masonic thought. Using that definition one can compile a list which may include the following:

2.1 A belief that I exist as a separate entity and so do other people;

2.2 A belief that there is a material world which is perceptible and operates on some set of rules; {i.e., objects fall down…they do not fall up)

2.3 A belief that there is a Supreme Being instrumental in the creation and governing of our Universe;

2.4 Good and evil exists

2.5 A system of morality is essential for human beings to be able to operate within the context of a society;

2.6 Happiness is attained through adherence to a system of morality which represents the pursuit of good and the avoidance of evil

2.7 The search for truth and good is assisted by a speculative system of symbolism and allegory derived from the operative builders art and science.

2.8 A belief that the search for truth and the practice of goodness are virtues and that no man is ever in possession of the ultimate truth or is the constant practitioner of good;

If a Mason does not accept the foregoing as part of his system of assumed truths, he has stepped outside the bounds of Freemasonry. He has developed some other philosophical system—but it is not Freemasonry. It is for this reason that it is beyond the powers of any Mason to alter the Ancient Landmarks.

3 The Laying Down of the Plan

It is from this finite point that the Bricklayer begins to lay down the lines for the exterior walls. If we assume a rectangular building—the bricklayer must now begin the process of "finding the square." The way to approach this problem is by 3 steps—the first of about 9 inches—the second of 12—the third of 15 inches, commencing down the left line. {The Freemason will note that in the Canadian Rite—this formula—A2 + B2 = C2 is reversed. It is as if our forefather's wanted to arcanely hide Pythagorous' Theorem in the First Degree}

This process is repeated in the S.E. Corner—and the lines extended. The third step is to find the square in the S.W. Angle—and its extension forms the extent of the work is about to undertake.

As you are no doubt aware Speculative Masonry spawned at the time the Age of Enlightenment was in full bloom. Hence the approach to the alter by Pythagorous theorem can be interpreted as a committment to the principles of Reason and Science and a rejection of the superstition, animism, and magic which pervaded the Middle Ages.

It can be seen that from a very early stage in the process geometry comes into play—and for the bricklayer "geometry is the basis of his art". For the speculative Mason Geometry is also the basis of his art—but for an entirely different reason. Geometry is the depiction of objects spatially and the measurement of the objects. The human mind by the very nature of its operation -- thinks in terms of perceptions measured in time and relative to other objects in space. No cognizant thought can exist in the human mind unless it is formulated into a perception This perception, whether it be of an object or a concept is bounded in space and time and measured relative to other perceptions. Hence, like the Bricklayer, geometry is the basis of our Masonic art.

4 The Stonemason's Tools

Lewis Mumford in his famous book Technics and Civilization draws a distinction between tools and machines. "The essential difference between a machine and a tool lies in the degree of independence in the operation from the skill and move power of the operation."

"In general the machine emphasizes specialty of function, whereas the tool indicates flexibility: a planing machine performs only one operation, whereas a knife can be used to smooth wood, to carve it, to split it, or pry open a lock, or to drive a screw." The bricklayer or stonemason, with the exception of the modern brick saw works exclusively with tools. The quality of his work is not dependent on whether he can afford an expensive saw or fancy lathe. The quality of a bricklayer's work depends on the skill and assiduity of the Craftsman. In like manner the principles and lessons of Freemasonry are tools and the skill of the Craftsman dictates the quality of the human being.

The tools of a bricklayer then are very simple, few in number, and with the exception of a few clips and blocks to hold his string, are identical to the tools described in the Ritual. A carpenter shows up at the job site with a truck load full of machines and tools—in may day the European brickees would show up at the job site with all their tools in a haversack. Yet despite the simplicity of their tools—the greatest of architectural monuments could not have been constructed without these simple tools. In like manner the most commercially viable and sophisticated societies cannot be built without the simple principles of truth, justice, compassion, integrity, and a sense of fair play one to the other.

It is noticeable in the Canadian Rite that the tools are grouped in the three degrees with some forethought.

4.1 1st Degree—24 I.G. Common Gavel, and Chisel

These 3 tools are the critical tools used by a stonemason to shape the stones which form the stones which form the building material of his structure. As a group they signify that the Apprentice Mason is to work on self—removing personal defects and making self improvement.

4.2 2nd Degree—Square, Level, and Plumb Rule

These 3 tools are tools of measurement which the stonemason makes use of in the squaring of the stone and the construction of the building. For the Craftsman they allude to moral principles which are critical in our relationship to others -- namely to Man and to God. The level being the symbol of equality encompasses all these ethical principles which are necessary for a healthy relationship between Man + Man. The plum rule, being a measurement of gravitational pull comprehends the qualities of a relationship with the spiritual dimension. The square—which combines the level and plum rule—symbolizes that union of the earthly and spiritual qualities.

4.3 3rd Degree—Skirrett, Pencil, and the Compasses

These are the tools of design of future plans. They are the tools of a master architect and are suitable for the Master Mason's degree. The compass which is so critical in the forming of squares, circles, and every geometric form is particularly suitable as the emblem of the Grand Master.

5 The Laying of the Cornerstone

To commence the construction the Bricklayer must first lay a cornerstone. Traditionally this was done in the N.E. Angle although you can start in any corner. The way to lay this block is by three distinct steps:

5.1 You take a small pace forward with your left foot and place the level in its hollow.

It is in this position that you acquire information as to whether the block is plumb in the East.

5.2 You take a small pace forward with your right foot and place the level in its hollow. It is in this position that you acquire information as to whether the block is plumb in the North. You make the necessary adjustments.

5.3 Since the stone is squared, there is no necessity to determine whether it is level.

If it is plumb on the sides it, by definition, is level on the top. In a speculative sense, this may refer to the religious doctrine. That if your spiritual well being is in good order…You will find your relationships with your fellowman will axiomatically be in good order. The third step is to determine whether this cornerstone is following the chalk lines. To do this you take a small pace forward with your left foot and place the right foot in its hollow thus forming a square. You then site down both chalk lines and make the necessary adjustments.

6 The Laying of the Corner

As a standard procedure, the bricklayer will lay up one corner—then proceed to lay up a corner at the second angle—and then set up a string so he can fill in the wall. Thus his progression from the N.E. Angle to the S.E. Angle parallels and reflects the journey of the candidate in Speculative Freemasonry.

Customarily he will lay up 7 courses as this is the number of rows which the man of average height can work. To lay a 7 course corner he will start with 4 and 3 blocks forming the bottom course. Whether this has any connection to the proposition that it takes 7 to hold a lodge I cannot say—but it is an interesting coincidence which holds some symbolic significance. It is at this point that block, trowel, mortar and mason come together. I will now lay a few blocks to demonstrate the technique.

6.1 The Grip

The way to grip the block is by having the hands slide down the outside of the block in order that you may exert a distinct pressure on the block. It is essential to understand that a bricklayer, although he uses his eyes visually to determine the correct positioning of the block. Feel is also critical. As you gather experience in the trade you can feel when a block is plumb and level. In the speculative sense this not only suggests that it was a natural evolution for speculative Masonry to develop certain grips. It also alludes to the fact that many moral issues are not completely resolvable by logic. The Speculative Mason after years in the Craft develops a sense of feel for what is right and what is wrong and what is not worth pursuing.

6.2 The Trowel

Although mentioned in the Ancient York Rite as emblematically representing the dispensing of brotherly love—it has no express mention in the Canadian Rite. I always think of the trowel as being symbolic of the Freemason himself. The trowel consist of it apex which is called the toe, the handle which is called the head, and the rod portion which is called the neck, and finally the blade which is called the soul. It is after all the Freemason who dispenses brotherly love, relief, and truth.

6.3 Mortar

One of the problems for the layman is how to get the mortar to stick to the trowel. I suggest that the Masonic Ritual itself is symbolized by the Brickie's mortar. The mortar serves to bind the individual stones—to form a common wall. The Ritual forms the common bond which unites and binds individual masons -- of different religions and different political parties in the mystical system called Freemasonry. Like a skillful bricklayer the Freemason has to take the time to memorize his Ritual work so that it sticks to his sole and can become a useful tool in everyday life.

But there is a second property of the mortar which tends to symbolize the Ritual. The mortar is a semi-fluid and the brick or stone floats in the mortar until it solidifies. If you tap on one end—it goes down—and the other rises. In like manner—a Freemason who studies, understands, and makes an honest attempt to apply the principles found in the Ritual will find his life seems to find an balance and be on the level and on the square.

There is yet another reason why the mortar is a fitting symbol of the Ritual. Just as no two persons are equal or perfect—no two stones or bricks are perfectly square. By joining them with mortar—the stone mason has a medium which tolerates these imperfections in the building material and allows him to continue construct a wall which is square, level, and plumb. In like manner the Ritual is the common bond which both unites the Brethren with a common bond and at the same time preserves their individuality. In this way the mortar symbolizes the tolerance which is a virtue to be mastered by every Mason.

6.4 The Knocks

You will notice in the laying of the blocks you always hear the ringing of the trowel. This is music to the Brickie's ears since it indicates bricklayers at work which means money, security, and the good things of life. In like manner the knocks in a speculative lodge when heard outside the door indicate that the speculative masons are at work. There is a certain rythem to the knocks. In the first degree they always remind me of the pound pound pound of an apprentice .... But by the time they get to the Third Degree they carry the sound of Mozart's Magic Flute. And have the characteristic of a Master Mason lightly touching the block into its appointed place.

6.5 The Perambulation

When a man first joins the Craft the habit of perambulating the Lodge is often considered strange and awkward. However, if you think of a construction site and the normal movements of a stone mason you recognize that he is always moving up and down the wall. For the majority of Bricklayers, (being right handed) the natural and preferred method of laying is from left to right. Thus forming a clockwise motion. Clearly once the building moves above 7 courses and the scaffold are erected…The preferred movement is around the outside…Since stonemasons…Unlike Worshipful Masters who are presiding over their last official meeting. Cannot walk on air.

6.6 The Plumb Rule

As the bricklayer gets above 3 or 4 courses, he has to change the use of his plumb rule. In these cases he places his knee against the level, leans forward and grip the level. And as he leans over he can see the Mark Well.

7 Closing Comments

At the outset I had suggested that by looking at the symbolism and lessons of the Craft in a practical manner, Freemasonry can then find practical application in our lives. In closing let me attempt to provide an example.

If the constructed wall symbolizes the Lodge and the blocks of the wall symbolize the members of the Wall, we have a situation in which all are united in a common cause while at the same time they preserve their individuality. The mortar which binds the stones allows for a degree of difference which is tolerated within the system. However, that degree of difference cannot be of such an extent as to defy the laws of gravitation and cause the whole wall to come down. Hence the concept of Masonic toleration has built into it the idea that the toleration is within reasonable limits.

Either this fall or next spring we are promised a federal election. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition are suggesting that this election will be about values. No doubt on the Prime Minister's side he is going to speak about the great Canadian tradition of being tolerant of other people. However, that statement is meaningless unless you define the limits of the tolerance. After all, if one tolerates the actions of the Khmer Rouge on the basis that this is a cultural practice and one is tolerant of other people's cultural practices. One has now condoned genocide. In the Liberal's case they appear to tolerate homosexuals as having the same status as a heterosexual family. Yet they can't tolerate law abiding citizens having a shotgun to shoot ducks.

On the other side of the floor, we have the Alliance freedom train who urge the population to tolerate and fund private religious schools. But on the question of abortion they are not prepared to abide by and tolerate the decision of the girl, her parents, her spouse, doctor, and Minister on what is the best choice for her in that situation.

I am not bringing up these issues to enter into a debate on partisan politics. I am bringing them up in order to raise the question. When our politicians speak of tolerance. Are they talking about a tolerance based on principles which has clearly defined limitations as to what is and what is not tolerated. Or are they simply using the word to promote those causes which they like while at the same time rejecting other causes which they do not like?

Possibly they should look at the example of a block mortared into the wall. The mortar does allow for some imperfections so that each block does not have to be perfectly square. But on the other hand, the blocks must not deviate so much from the norm that they break the rules of gravitation and cause the whole wall to come tumbling down. Where that line is drawn, of course, is a matter for each individual Mason in their journey through the Craft.

© 2002 by W. Brother Cameron MacKay