Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Search of Smooth Ashlars

The internet has afforded me the opportunity to meet a great deal of wonderful men that I am honored to call my Brother. Worshipful Brother Damien from Lodge Devotion #723 in Melbourne, Australia is one who is among the top of that list. This entry was written by Brother Damien and posted on the Lodge Devotion website. It is reproduced here by gracious permission of the author.

At our January meeting, Lodge Devotion was honoured to have W Bro Alex visit us and expertly deliver the First Tracing Board Lecture with a preamble on the history of the Tracing Boards of Freemasonry.

I often notice additional and significant points within the Ritual of the Craft the more I hear it. Indeed it is said ours is a "progressive" system with interrelated and equally important parts - and that these must be understood with a keen bird's eye view of the entire ritual - although pieces of it do stand-alone. The more you listen and consider the Ritual of Freemasonry, the clearer it becomes that there is much to comprehend.

Upon hearing the First Degree Tracing Board Lecture last meeting - certain points came to the forefront of my mind and deepened my understanding of our "progressive science". One was the section of this Lecture that speaks of the importance of the Smooth Ashlar. The Smooth Ashlar is often represented as the goal of the Freemason. He starts as an unrefined Ashlar. Rough and Irregular. Needing further work in order to be perfect himself. However, becoming a Smooth Ashlar it not just a goal. The Smooth Ashlar is also an important tool - and one often missed. As explained in the subject Lecture, the "experienced craftsman" uses the Smooth Ashlar to test his square on. The Square represents morality and conduct and in the simplest of terms should guide all our actions and "inculcate the purest principles of piety and virtue". It is also one of several tools to transform the Rough Ashlar, symbolising a Freemason whose personality and character can be further improved, toward becoming a Smooth Ashlar.

The significance of testing your Square against a Smooth Ashlar should not be lost. Indeed, I think is often is. If the Ashlars represent the character of a Mason, rough moving to smooth, and the square is the tool to achieve perfect symmetry, then identifying the right "Smooth Ashlar" to test your Square on and emulate is critical. We must carefully choose the role models on which we copy ourselves. We must rigorously examine the example we strive to emulate.

Today, it could be said the many of the stones held as exemplars are shiny rather than smooth. They are faulted, and in copying a faulted example, our work too is doomed to be faulted. Not Square. Not Regular. Not Perfect. Let's both be cautious in the Ashlars we attempt to copy, and in the Ashlars we offer to others to emulate and test their moral square on.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Watch yourself, the task is hard"

This was too good not to share. I am a member of the Masonic web-forum "The Sanctum Sanctorum" - a treasure trove of information. This exerpt was a web posting by a Brother in response to the topic "The Purpose of the Journey."

Working in stone is no easy task.

It takes years upon years of careful study and practice to develop the skill necessary to put chisel to stone and learn to chip away the flaws and imperfections which reveal the wondrous work of art within. During this time of practice, the apprentice will wear his hands to the bone, the delicate skin giving way to painful blisters, that in time will form the callouses possessed by Masters.

Many times he will contemplate the meaning of his toil. "Is all this agony really worth it?", he may ask. At times he'll miss his mark and whack his hand and cry out in pain, "Enough!", as he throws his tools across the room. He does not toil alone in his endeavors. No, he is always under the care of the watchful eye of the Master. When his tools go flying, the blood pours from his hand, the thought of giving up enters his mind, this is when he learns of the patient love of the Master. He binds the apprentices hand to stop the bleeding, picks up his tools, and says "Rest, I'll show you how its done". Then the Master approaches the stone and works the tools with a patient grace delicately removing every unwanted flaw and imperfection.

Upon the stone, the once hard and lifeless surface, the delicate features emerge. It is but an eye, the apprentice's eye, perfect in shape and form.The Master returns the tools to the apprentice, with a loving smile and says, "Watch yourself, the task is hard". With a caring nod of approval, he sets the apprentice back to work.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Another Thought on the Ashlars

It has been awhile since I have posted and I have been feeling a bit guilty of late about that. I started graduated school a few weeks ago and I must be honest, my cable tow has never felt shorter. On the upside, in thinking about my studies I have been considering some of its connections to the Craft. The connections are more personally impacting to me, but I think that there may be some light from which other Brothers may benefit.

It has been 20 years since I completed my undergraduate studies and I have decided that it was time (mostly because I am not getting any younger) to return and attain my Master's Degree. The process was a bit intimidating as I had to undergo some inspection before they would permit me to continue. You see, I am a student of the University of Pittsburgh's Social Work program and the process to become a part of it required some work. I am glad to say that I was found to be "true work" and was accepted.

The process and subsequently some of my studies that followed have had me reflecting on the subject of the ashlars again. So, I went back and did some reading on their symbolism. The Masonic Dictionary had this to say:

"...[T]he general purpose of the symbolism has been the same throughout - a reminder to the Candidate that he is to think of himself as if he were a building stone and that he will be expected to polish himself in manners and character in order to find a place in the finished Work of Masonry."

This is a pretty standard definition. As I read a little further down, I found this statement:

"The Ashlar is the freestone as it comes from the quarry. The Rough Ashlar is the stone in its rude and natural state and is emblamatic of man in his natural state - ignorant, uncultivated and vicious. But when education has exerted it's wholesome influence in expanding his intellect, restraining his passions and purifying his life, he then is represented by the Perfect Ashlar which, under the skillful hands of workman, has been smoothed and squared and fitted for its place in the building."

Now, while I found that passage to be quite fitting (especially in the subject of education), it also made me think about things a little further.

We have been taught that the ashlar is symbolic of a man in Masonry. The man is the stone - to be worked on and perfected by the proper application of the working tools. I have always thought that there is one ashlar (me) and that I was working to have it placed into the "building" (the Lodge/the Craft). But I have begun to wonder about our personal "building". Perhaps there is not one ashlar, but many - each with its own purpose and its own stage of readiness. Perhaps the quarry is our own soul and personality and that we select the proper stones to become ashlars in our own spiritual temple. Each of these stones whether they be education, happiness, anger control, becoming more spiritual or whatever else it is that we choose to include, are particular to each individual and each are necessary to the building of our own particular edifaces.

So, my Brothers, I am off again to continue work on this rough ashlar. I would like to leave you with this thought:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery