THE ROUGH AND PERFECT ASHLARS
Taken from an address by Rev. J.T. Lawrence M.A. Past Asst. Grand Chaplain, England
THE INSTALLED MASTERS ASSOCIATION OF ALBERTA
The rough and the perfect ashlars are two of the immovable jewels of the Lodge, always there for the brethren to moralise upon. Masters may come and masters may go, but always in full view of every one in the Lodge are the two emblems we are about to consider. The one representing man in his early stages of culture, and the latter illustrating what he may become under the refining influences of education, assisted by the secrets of our Masonic Art.
Some years ago, I was in a lodge where an attempt had been made to supplement the teaching of the two ashlars. In the East there was a small representation of a stone-mason's yard. There was a rough unhewn block, without form and void, surrounded with chips and litter, and the working tools, not the silver-plated variety, such as the Worshipful Master produces from a velvet lined mahogany case, but the actual implements of labour. This it appeared was to indicate the material in its first stage, as, say, it appeared at the rising of the Sun in the East. At midday, with the sun at its meridian, it had approximated to its final state, requiring but the final grinding and polishing, which was only attained at sundown, in the West, at the close of labour.
I admit the ingenuity of the idea, but like all other innovations which ingenious brethren have tried to graft on to it went away from teaching altogether. We do not admit absolutely rough unhewn material into our Lodges. Our working tools are not the pickaxe and the drill. We demand that a candidate shall have undergone the preliminary processes before he presents himself to us. Freemasonry does not profess to convert the rough block into a thing of beauty. And so we expect that the candidate shall have been reasonably well educated, that his motives shall be as to do him credit, and that his character shall be open to investigation.
The first working tool that we apply is the Gavel, which knocks off superfluous knobs and excrescences. And so the rough ashlar, as we see it, is approximately a cube.
Regarded as a symbol, the perfect ashlar is the 'summam bonum' of Freemasonry. Everything else in Freemasonry leads up to it and stops there. The V.S.L. describes it, the working tools are to fashion it, the Square and Compasses try it, and it is that alone which T.G.A.O.T.U. can work up into the temple made without hands. And therefore as a symbol I think it worthy of more consideration than possibly any other presented to as.
First as to material. Ashlar, according to the Dictionary, refers to a freestone from the quarry. Some think this means a stone that is laminated or stratified, and therefore easily worked. I do not agree with this because it would exclude the most valuable of all building materials, such as marble or granite or limestone. Moreover the laminated stones cannot take the finish of say, marble, and therefore the efficiency of the symbol would be impaired. Whether granite or marble, whether gentle or simple, the Craft demands that genuine material shall be presented to it. We will take the rough and try to make it perfect, but we cannot profess to turn base material into good.
The Craft will GIVE a brother what he has not, but it cannot MAKE him what he is not. That is the function of religion. We do not make unreasonable demands. As far as constitutional tests are concerned, the test is his ability to sign his name to his declaration. His motive must be free from mercenary taint, and as for anything further he must be an exceptional person if Freemasonry cannot make something good of him. Unless his motives are intrinsically bad, Freemasonry will ennoble them. Suppose him to be moved to join us by curiosity, well in due course he will seek to explore the symbolism, the history, and the jurisprudence of the Craft. It may be love of good fellowship, and in that case he will not have been long with us before he notices that in our symbolism, the cornucopia is always bounded by the compasses, the emblem of restraint, and he will not enjoy the social side of the order any the less because of the necessity of keeping himself within due bounds.
Let us now assume that the material has passed all necessary tests as to its composition, and has submitted to be tried by the square and the compasses, and it now lies before you ready in the good time of the G.A.O.T.U. to be incorporated into the Temple made without hands, and we proceed to moralise upon it. We note first of all those features that are most obvious. We note that it is perfectly symmetrical. Wherever and however we place it, whether placed carefully or thrown down anyhow, it at once becomes upright. Is it necessary to insult your intelligence by deducing the moral?
In every circumstance of life, and however placed there, uprightness is the distinguishing characteristic of the Freemason. Note next that it does not matter to the builder, which of the six sides of the perfect ashlar is placed outside. All sides are exactly alike. There is no right side out and there is no right side up. A most valuable moral lesson follows. Most of us possess a right side out, and too often it depends upon small accidents of time and circumstance. We present one face under a certain set of conditions, and execute a right about face when those conditions change.
How frequently we hear it said of one whom we know, "You never know where to have him." But the perfect ashlar teaches us to present the same dignified exterior, the same courtesy, the same equanimity and fortitude on all and every occasion, whether of sorrow or of joy. It is this feature of character which ceases the Freemason to be regarded in the language of our ritual as "one to whom the troubled heart may pour forth its sorrows and find consolation, and, to whom the distressed may prefer his suit and f ind relief."
The perfect ashlar is a perfect cube, that is the most stable body in existence, but, by itself, it is of little use but for stable moralising upon. For this purpose we find it admirable, and the somewhat questionable English employed by the Worshipful Master, when he tells the candidate that we "apply these tools to our morals may serve as here. There are only three regular geometrical shapes which will combine so as to fill up all the space that may be available, these being the hexagon, the triangle, and the square, and of course, their derived solids.
Now if we combine hexagons they do not form a continuous straight line or surface, and if we combine triangles, every alternate one is resting on its apex and has to depend upon its neighbours on either side to preserve its stability. But the cube will stand by itself, will form a perfect surface in combination, and will fill up all the space available. But one or even two cubes are of little use. Their value appears when laid side by side or superimposed. Hence we may gather that the purposes of Freemasonry have not been fulfilled when they have made for the excellence of one or two brethren. The lodge is the temple and every constituent must be of uniform excellence.
Nowhere in our lectures is a brother likened to the perfect ashlar. An absolute perfect cube is unattainable. If such a thing could be fashioned it would adhere to its fellow by atmospheric pressure without mortar or cement. None the less does the faithful workman, undeterred by the impossibility, strive to get as near it as possible.
And so the faithful brother among Masons must ever keep the fair and square ideal of character in view, and not be content with an approximation. Perfection will never be attained, for the law of evolution decrees that what we think is perfection, when it is attained, is found to be but a step towards an even higher ideal. However a man work, he can never say his life's work is complete. Life is always unfolding, it is a continual pressing forward to a goal which for ever recedes. We sometimes read of finishing schools, and now and then we hear those who say they have finished their education. How can this be? How can a man's education be finished as long as nature holds one undiscovered secret; how can his mortal training be complete as long as there remains one passion not under perfect control, one grace not yet achieved? When we hear of a man who has done all that was in his mind, we can only regret he should have so small a mind. It is only the unaccomplished in life that possesses any real charm. It is part of the wisdom of T.G.A.O.T.U. that there is always something left to achieve in character. If you ask what to the ultimate goal, none can say. It is the property of everything really great that it eludes definition. What is music? All we can say is that it is the perfection of sound. What is poetry? All we can say is that it is the perfection of langauge. Eloquence? The perfection of speech. Beauty? Still we are without definition and can but reply that it is the perfection of form. And that of which the perfect ashlar is for ever reminding as and to which it is ever bidding us press forward, is the music, the poetry, the eloquence and the beauty of moral character.
Note next that the perfect ashlar bears no mark of any tool upon it, nor are there any chips or litter of debris suggested. What we have produced is the perfect man, not the perfect Freemason. Freemasonry is the means to an end, and when the end is achieved, when the Temple, to vary the metaphor, is built, the working tools are put away and the scaffolding pulled down. Still there are those among us who seek to perfect themselves as Freemasons. And there is only one reason why they should not make this a pursuit, and that is that, regarded as the end and not the means, Freemasonry consists of a series of blind alleys, and does not afford room for the infinite expansion that the law of evolution demands. Let me illustrate this by conducting you down some of these blind alleys. Some of them come to a dead end very soon. The accumulation of degrees for instance.
Perhaps I was wrong in calling this a blind alley, for degrees will accumulate as long as any brother can be found to pay for the jewellery. The two rites of Memphis and Mizraim alone confer 182 degrees. But still, although degrees may continue to trickle. I do not think any brother will regard their pursuit as soul-satisfying.
Then others regard public Masonic distinction as the end. This means in one word, the purple, whether of the Lodge or of Grand Lodge. Here it is a painful fact that which was intended to stimulate a brother's usefulness too often turns out to be its grave.
Somewhat nobler is that conception of the whole duty of a Freemason which puts charity in the forefront. Here I want to digress and make one or two remarks that may be unpopular. First, Freemasonry is not a charitable organisation. The charities are but an incident and a regrettable incident, for there are many excellent brethren who cannot look beyond the charity box. Lavishness of charity may attract those to the Order whom we do not want but may find it difficult to keep out. A man who regards the Order as something which will provide himself or his widow with a pension and educate his children on the scale of a big public school, may well say, and with perfect truth, that his wish to join us is inspired with the highest and noblest motives.
Coming a little higher many of our brethren, and they include the most eminent among us, regard the study of Masonic antiquities as the principal reason why they were born into the Masonic world. Are the Freemason's eyes for ever to be set in the back of his head? Now the ordinary Freemason is not an antiquarian, though he is often afraid to admit that disgraceful fact. It requires special gifts to be able to "enthuse" over an old apron or, even an old charge. We admit that a genuine antiquarian, when one comes alone, is a most delightful person with whom to converse. He possesses special powers of discernment, and of course it is a great gift to possess such and to be able to see further than the uninstructed and popular world.
In the course of his progress through the degrees the candidate was told that hidden mysteries of nature and science were now open to his exploration. If this means anything, it means looking forward, for past history is no longer a mystery, nor is it usually hidden. It means primarily the study of the seven literal arts and sciences, and does not exclude anything of a scientific nature. One thing the Freemason has a chance of learning is the art of Rhetoric; and the toast list, the tracing board, the charges, plus an audience that has no option but to listen, furnish the brother with abundant opportunities.
It may be interesting to know whence we came, but is it not vastly more important to know whither we are going. Darwin spent a good deal of time in seeking for the missing link that was to establish the connection of the human race with the jelly fish; but every chain has two ends, and there are missing links at the farther end, links that when found will unite the race with the throne of God.
Once more let us contemplate the perfect ashlar. It is perfect, a word that has two meanings. It means complete and it also includes finality. In the former sense it was used by Jesus Christ, "Be ye therefore perfect", etc., and again, "It is finished, or perfected, the Greek word being the same. The perfect Freemason will therefore pay every due attention to the cultivation of every excellence of character, and not alone to one or two. Most of us have a favourite virtue, and the virtue that doth so easily beset us, is nearly as bad as the sin. There is for instance the Temperance enthusiast to whom the whole Decalogue is summed up in the injunction to give a cup of cold water. Specialising is all very well in business. The man we want and the man who gets on is the man who can do one thing and do it well. If you require the services of an electrician, for instance, you are not concerned whether or not he can play the organ, nor would his possession of a theological diploma recommend him to us. As we enter a train, we are not concerned with the moral character of the engineer. If he can drive a locomotive we are satisfied. But these considerations do not apply in character. We do not allow of specialising there. We look for all the virtues. Truthfulness would not excuse laziness, and punctuality would not be allowed to condone dishonesty. The fact of a man being a good husband does not absolve from the consequences of being a liar. In the band, if but one instrument be out of tune, it spoils all the others, notwithstanding that they may be in perfect accord.
Perfection next means finality, going on to the end till everything is accounted for that to set about to perform. The lives of most of us are littered about with loose ends, the debris of half accomplished tasks, ideals abandoned, books half read and so on. To avoid this we have to be increasingly alert. Just as a piano has to be kept at concert pitch or it irretrievably runs down, similarly we need to be always at concert pitch or we lose our powers when we find we most need them. The perfect ashlar is not a modern symbol. In every known language the word square and upright have always the same significance. In other words, the principles of morality are the same in every age and in every country where there is a belief in one God. The Freemason thus learns that the broad principles of right and wrong are immutable. There is not one standard for home and another for business.
It is very interesting to watch the process of converting the rough into the perfect ashlar. At every stroke of gavel or chisel, the mass decreases in size, as first of all, the knobs and excrescences fly off, then the smaller chips as the finer tools are used, and then the dust. Nothing is added, but much in taken away.
It has been well said that much of the education of life consists of unlearning. Every block of marble contains within it the form of a Venus or of an Apollo. All you have to do is to remove the superfluous material. And similarly every such block contains within it the perfect ashlar, and it is the purpose of Freemasonry to remove the superfluous material, first with gavel and chisel and finally with attrition by association with his fellows.
Our occupation in life is but a training whatever it be, for God will ask at the judgement day, not what we did for a living but how we did it. The arena in which we play our small part is but the stone-mason's yard resounding with the noise of gavel and chisel, subject to continual measurements, surrounded with the debris and litter of that which has been found unsuitable.
And as we judge of the building, not by the extent of the scaffolding nor by the extent of the unfinished material lying about, which serves oft times but to hide it, so the true brother will emerge from the accidents and the circumstances of life and in the light of God to presence the parity and beauty and comeliness of true character will be revealed.