By Worshipful John Lawson,
Grand Chaplain of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington
In our third part of the masonic charge, we will look at just one line; “Remember that at this alter, you have promised to befriend and relieve every brother that shall have need of your assistance.”
You may notice as we move slowly through the charge, the emphasis and focus on gaining perspective. Not just a perspective of where you are or what the rules of the road are but a perspective of what is expected of you as a mason and a brother, a perspective on who YOU are. The first word in this sentence of the charge is to remember. That may seem obvious on its face but as with any transformation, there is a tendency to return to old habits and old behaviors and being inculcated many times is not just thorough but necessary as we go from being good men to better ones. All we have to do is look to nature and the laws of physics to observe this necessity. Take the master sword builders, free elements are forged together with extremely hot fire and the pressure of repeated hammer blows are combined in order for the folded metal to submit to its new and useful combination and shape. It is the nature of the elements to return to their natural state without firm and deliberate effort to change them. In the same way, the mind is a battleground. We begin with good intentions but often find ourselves returning to our previous undisciplined state.
All across the human brain are millions of gliocytes on the cerebral cortex. The literal meaning of gliocyte is “seen and heard”. This is the nuts and bolts of memory, this is where memory is housed and these gliocytes are connected by an amazingly complex network that we refer to as our neuronet. If we can think of the surface of the brain as vast map of interconnecting freeways, hiways, byways, and hiking trails of various sizes connecting these gliocyte destinations, we have a basic understanding of what memory looks like. This combination of flesh, electronic impulses and nerves stimulating these gliocytes and recalling what they have “seen and heard” makes up our “world view” and our minds operate within that framework.
Inside each of us, our subconscious operates independently in the background. The subconscious is like the attitude gage of a plane or a thermostat in your house. It takes in all the stored memory in the gliocytes and connected by the neuronets and determines what it must do to correct and maintain a comfort zone of what it believes our self-image is based on what it has collected. The subconscious becomes a gate keeper who maintains within us that comfort zone. When we move out of our comfort zone by some behavior that is “not like us”, we often manifest physical symptoms, nervousness, anxiety, a sour stomach, embarrassment, guilt, etc. the subconscious says, “Get back to where you belong” and in an effort to be comfortable, we most often comply. We have been told to “listen to the voice of our conscience and it will keep you from doing something wrong” and there is truth to that but unfortunately the truth of the matter doesn’t stop there. In the pages of the book of sacred law we are reminded that “whatever a man thinketh, so is he”. In other words, our self-image made up of all the thoughts recorded in all the gliocytes on the cerebral cortex of the brain directs our behavior and we act in accordance of who we believe we are and we are motivated to move in the direction in which we think is in harmony with that self-image. This thinking is referred to as teleological thinking and what we think about the most, wins in the end, even if those thoughts are NOT in our best interest.
So, what do we do, knowing that we are operating on millions of memories that make up our self-image that directs the course of our decisions and moves us? How do we forge our elements into the steel blade of a useful implement when our subconscious is telling us to get back to where we belong even when getting back is less than who want to become? How do we train the mind to move in a new direction when we have been asleep at the wheel but now realize that we need to take on a new direction?
The good news is that much of masonry teaches the mind through mnemonics. Great and noble philosophical ideals are written in symbol and allegory for the subconscious to comprehend and then it is repeated through inculcation until the mind finds new pathways that lead our thoughts to those nobler destinations. This is part of what we call the mystic arts and is indeed a science and an ancient language unto itself. We are asked many times to “remember” and as we do each time, those old but good neuro-pathways and small weak gliocytes become stronger and more efficient. We are asked to remember our obligations. We are asked to memorize copious amounts of ritual. This strengthens those pathways and helps prepare us on our journey to become a better man. Over time, new pathways that lead to better thinking open and old thoughts that did not serve us well shrivel and are replaced with new gliocytes that have strong memories of those noble ideals and we begin to “default” to those as we recall them over and over.
In this case, each and every time you are preparing to leave the lodge, you are asked to remember that at this altar, you have promised to befriend and relieve every brother who shall have need of your assistance. But what is unique about a masonic alter that we should remember in particular “this altar” Let me share with you this excerpt from Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood
In the center of the lodge stands the Altar. It should be cubical in shape, and about three feet in height, and it should have horns at each corner to suggest, in light of a hoary usage, that it is a place of refuge. On the East, the South, and the West should be placed one of the representatives of the three Lesser Lights, but never on the North, for that is the place of darkness. On its top, in due arrangement, should lie the three Grand Lights. Thus arranged it may well be considered “the most important article of furniture in a lodge room,” and the ground whereon it stands as “the most holy place.” Too universal in its use, both through space and time, to admit of our tracing its history here we must content ourselves with some reference to the ideas embodied in it. To this end let us remember, here and everywhere, that the Masonic life is not that which occurs in the lodge rooms alone, for that is but its allegorical picture, its tracing-board; but it is that which a Mason should do and be in all circumstances, under the inspiration of the Fraternity and its teachings. Thus understood the Altar standing in the center of the Masonic lodge is the symbol of something that must operate at the center of the Masonic life.
Often serving as a table whereon the worshipper may lay his gifts to God, the Altar may well remind us of the necessity of that human gratitude which leads us to return to Him the gifts He has showered upon us. This is that teaching of stewardship found in all religions to remind us that our very lives are not our own, having been bought with a price, and that our talents are held in trusteeship to be rendered again to Him to whom they belong. Thus stated, I know, the matter may sound bald and even unappealing, but once we encounter a man who lives his life as a stewardship held in the frail tenure of the flesh, we see to what high issues the character of man may ascend; such personalities carry an atmosphere about with them as of another world, and radiate influences that are light and fragrant. Surely, a man who denied this in his practices can never serve as a living Building Stone in Masonry’s Temple!
In its proper sense also the Altar serves as a sanctuary, a place of refuge, and this too has much to tell us, though I am aware of the dangers of moralizing. In the earlier centuries of our era, before the complete development of common law, the hunted criminal, fleeing from his pursuers, would escape to a church and there lay hold of the horns of the Altar; in that he found safety, and an opportunity to prove his innocence, if innocent he was. Out of this arose the beautiful customs of “sanctuary,” the chivalrous unselfish harboring of the weak, the sorrowful, and the afflicted. Is there not a sanctuary in Masonry? Certainly there is, for in the Fraternity itself, in the privacy of its inner fellowships, a brother will often find rest for his heart and relief from the bruising of the world; and a man is no true Mason in whose nature there is not at least one inner chamber in which the weary may find rest and the weak may have protection.
More than a table for gifts and a place of sanctuary the Altar has from of old served as the station of sacrifice, and this usage also is recognized in our symbolism, for therein we are taught that the human in us, our appetites, our passions, yea our life itself if need be, must be laid down in the service of man and the glory of God. How otherwise could Masonry remain Masonry if it is “the subjugation of the human that is in man, by the Divine?”
Of the Altar as a place of prayer we have already spoken, but in this connection we may well ponder a paragraph from Dr. J. F. Newton, composed of those lucid sentences of which he is a master:
“Thus by a necessity of his nature man is ever a seeker after God, touched at times with a strange sadness and longing, and laying aside his tools to look out over the far horizon. Whatever else he may have been—vile, tyrannous, vindictive—the story of his long search after God is enough to prove that he is not wholly base. Rites horrible, and even cruel, may have been a part of his early ritual, but if the history of past ages had left us nothing but the memory of a race at prayer, they would have left us rich. And so, following the good custom of the great ones of former ages, we gather at our Altar lifting up hands in prayer, moved thereto by the ancient need and aspiration of our humanity. Like the man who walked in the grey years of old, our need is for God, the living God, whose presence hallows all our mortal life, even to its last ineffable homeward sigh which men call death.”
With right understanding of the great nature of the alter before us and what it symbolizes throughout the ages of ancient masonry, it becomes easy to befriend and relieve every brother who has need of our assistance not as an act of pity or kindness alone but as a an act of worship.
May The Great Architect of the Universe add his blessing to this work,
Worshipful John Lawson
Free and Accepted Masons of Washington