Masonry’s Aspiration: An Oration by the Reverend Brother George McClellan Fiske at the Dedication of the New Masonic Temple in Providence, Rhode Island, 3rd February 1886.
Providence, Rhode Island: no publisher, 1886.
THIS day’s event is one which will be kept for ever green in the annals of the Masonic Order within this jurisdiction. The expert craftsmen of Rhode Island have distinguished themselves in their day and generation by rearing this edifice, which will long remain to be at once a rendezvous for those at labour and a monument to those who shall be called, from time to time, from labour here to refreshment everlasting. In the rapidly developing prosperity of Providence, as she stretches out her branches unto the sea and her boughs unto the river, this temple rises, no insignificant memento of principles which keep the teeming city pure and sweet, with peace within her walls and plenteousness within her palaces. Well and wisely have you wrought here, my brothers, and in the completion of this fair and unblemished work we all rejoice.
Praise to that Father, in whose house are many mansions! Praise to the Lord, thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob! Praise to that Holy Spirit, who enriched your hearts with the inspiration of His counsel, and guided your hands to perform your heart’s desire! Praise, praise, thrice praise to that Thrice Holy One, under whose Almighty Shadow as a Column of Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night, we would, as Masons true, always abide!
With such ascription, first of all to the Supreme Architect and Master, and then, with every sentiment of congratulation to the august Fraternity assembled here—I greet you—counting it an especial honour, hailing as I do from a sister jurisdiction, the Grand Lodge of New York, to be present here and to be a spokesman at an hour like this. Were it not one of the landmarks of the Order that every Eastward, stepping traveller finds welcome awaiting him in every Lodge, I should feel as if the gladness of to-day were so entirely yours that unfamiliar voices should be silent as in the presence of that joy with which the stranger intermeddleth not. But as it is, the echoes of your rejoicings will send a kindred joyous thrill through all the Lodges far and near, and all Masonic work will be the better, the stronger, and the more enduring, because you have built solidly and well.
As we stand here together and survey the thronging Craft, sheltered beneath the canopy of this fine building, we cannot but be conscious that public attention is naturally attracted towards us in a new degree. Under these new circumstances we begin a fresh and larger epoch of Masonic life. We rise to a more exalted station before the eyes of the world. We come forward to the front on the platform of the civic life of Providence. Enshrined in its own imposing habitation, the Masonic Order invites observation, and provokes inquiry as to its mission and its message. Has it any noteworthy mission to fulfil? Has it any edifying message to deliver? A personage or an institution appearing in the arena of an industrial, inquisitive, and practical country, must have some definite aim and purpose to propose. To an age critical, incredulous and unsentimental, credentials of identification and usefulness must be shown, if respect, sympathy and admiration are to be commanded. What has Masonry to say for itself? What account of its past can it render? What promise can it hold out to us for the future?
We, of course, believe that the Masonic Order has a distinct mission to discharge, and a definite message to impart—a mission and a message pertinent to and needful for these times.
The Masonic Order, I make bold to announce and characterise it, faces the world as a prophet. A prophet, you will remember, was entrusted with two great functions—one was to urge and expound truth in its application to the present time, the other was to foretel the things which should be hereafter. Both of these functions the Masonic Order is, in a sense, concerned with. It is an exponent of that truth, divine and heavenly, which alone can beautify and irradiate our daily lives and make us truer men; and it continually holds up before us the prospect of the life of the world to come. In its own graphic manner, with its own dramatic eloquence, it admonishes us of death momentarily impending, of that resurrection victory, in which death is swallowed up, and of the eternal bliss which we shall know, face to face, when brought to light in the blazing splendour of that orient for which the heart of every Mason yearns, and whitherward his feet are ever bending.
Masonry stands ranged beside the Church of God, as one of the great interpreters and monitors of human life. It bears to that Divine Society a relation much like that which the Holy Saint John Baptist, whom Masonry ever delights to honour as a patron, bore to the Prophet of Prophets, Jesus, the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. It goes before the Church’s face, to prepare her way, to be a herald and forerunner of the fuller truth, and of the mightier office, of which the Church is the sole and only instrument, of reconciling human souls to God.
Masonry does not profess to make men saints. The Church does that. She is the preceptress, the mother, the alma mater of the saints. But Masonry can and does profess to inculcate that morality—not the cold, ethical abstractions of the philosopher—but that evangelical morality; that glowing religious morality—if I may use a term like that—which will prepare men for those transforming and sanctifying powers of the world to come, which the Church will bring to bear upon them. Masonry does a preparatory work in bringing men into a state wherein they will be more readily susceptible to the motives of the Spirit of the Lord, and the animation of the spiritual and supernatural life.
Addressing us then in such prophetic guise, in such prophetic speech, we next inquire,—Whence came this Prophet, dealing so aptly with the stern realities of the life that now is, and so earnestly predicting that which is to come? What is its nativity? Masonry is of ancient and venerable extraction. It is truly an offspring and descendant of the instincts and strivings of the human mind. Its lineage is most honourable, representing men’s best, most upward, and most enlightened tendencies. The probabilities of its origin declare how men began to esteem the triumphs of intellectual power above brute force, mere possession or animal gratifications. In reflection and invention they found something to charm them, something to really take pride in. Prizing their ingenuity and skill, and making the most of their gifts as artificers and artists, they shielded the processes of their achievements and acquisitions as secrets from the vulgar gaze and from idle curiosity. They kept their arts to themselves, out of honour to their avocations, and for the protection of their interests. The reputation which they sought and the fame which they held dear were based upon the excellence of the work which they produced. Masonry, in its inception, was the nobility, the knighthood of skilled and proficient labourers. Men treasured the conceptions of their minds, fertile in design, and their handiwork of rare and exquisite execution. Not every one could carve the column or lay the wall, or plan the roof, or cause the metal to bloom into life in delineations fit to cover the breast of an Achilles. Not every one could do these things. These were the arcana, the mysteries, the heritage of precious knowledge, belonging only to the few, and they were things, too, only to be acquired by persevering and severe apprenticeship. These organizations of the higher grades of labour perhaps were not the direct ancestors of our Order, but they were its historical precedents and analogies, and they furnished the suggestion, the similitude, and the image of the Order as it exists to-day. They were the roots of Masonry deep down in the past, from which this wide-spreading and fruit-laden tree of philanthropy and benevolence has grown. The associative instinct is no new faculty, and its instances, always abundant and innumerable, are found in large proportions in the sphere of the constructive arts. There was art and science and organised employment among the builders who did their work in the forenoon of the world. In Assyria, in Bashan, in Egypt, they have left memorials of their marvellous ability. The building of the ark, the erecting of the Tower of Babel, the orderly array of Tyrian and Jewish workmen on the Temple at Jerusalem, the Roman Collegia or Guilds—all these, apart from each other in time and place, were monuments which, though not concerted or unified, were so many protoplasms of their later Masonic life.
And then, as in the course of time the true religion dawned and lighted up the world, the workmen found that its teachings, its sympathy, its hope, its faith, its charity, its glorification of labour in divine injunction and by divine example, its common bond of life, could embellish and intensify their fellowships, so that religion came to lend tone and colour and sacredness to their union.
Under the consecration of the world-wide faith, we came into that almost weird and shrouded history of the mediaeval builders, knit together in societies wherein prayer and labour went hand in hand, and faith wrought with their works, and devotion breathing on all they did, made all their fabrics acts of worship and belief. The spirit of the Masonic Order, as it lives and speaks to-day, in grave and reverential ritual, in offices and precepts, is hereditary from that era. Let Masons all remember this, for it is the glory of our Order.
A distinguished writer says that the founding of Freemasons’ Lodges introduced a distinct style of architecture, the Italian-Gothic. It is not faultless. What human work is such or can be so? But listen to his description of the exceeding glory of that style. “The characteristic defects and excellencies of the style might be fairly illustrated, if any one had the heart to stand in the square at Milan and lecture on that glorious marvel, unawed by the four thousand glorious sentinels that keep their eternal watch upon the roof, through the bane of summer’s sun, the wavering gleams of the full nightly moon, which seems to multiply the shadowy figures, with her unsteady illumination. But Milan in the moonlight disarms criticism. When the moon’s full splendour streams on Milan’s roofs, and overflows upon its lofty buttresses; when the liquid radiance trickles down from the glory-cinctured heads of the marble saints, like the oil from Aaron’s beard, and every fretted pinnacle, and every sculptured spout ran with light as they might run with rain in a thundershower, who could dare to say there was a fault in that affecting miracle of Christian art?”
Remember, my brothers, the spirit which inspired a work like that is the spirit which by just inheritance ought to reign in this Masonic Temple; nay, more, in every Mason’s heart to-day. Let us not repudiate such a past, nor trifle with it, as if it were but a painted piece of histrionic scenery that forms a becoming background to our acting. Let us not do despite and dishonour to such a glorious past. Let us make something more of Masonry than a mere masquerade, which only looks like and talks about the past, while it really disowns the spirit which left in that past much that was glorious and divine.
Thus, the Cathedral at Milan, is but one instance out of the many trophies which our progenitors have left. They adorned the world, and brought succeeding ages as pilgrims to behold, to wonder, to believe, to adore, and to be taught by their mighty works.
Masonry was the brotherhood of scientific labour reformed and inspired by the power of the revealed truth of Almighty God.
To these traditions have been added the reminiscence of the lofty exploits of the Crusaders’ warfare, connecting with the arts of peace the heroism, the self-sacrifice and burning love of the Christian soldier. Those wars subsided. The palmer, with sandals, staff and scallop shell, was seen no more along the highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre. The Templar, with legs crossed and the crosshilted sword by his side, lay down in his last sleep. Masonry ceased to be a society of literal masons. But the order passed into another and sublimer stage. The spirit of Mason and Templar lived and still lives, and gathering together the golden threads of memory, the Order takes up the legend of craftsmen and of warrior, and retaining implement, weapon, habit, insignia and language, relates the parable of human life phrased in these outward symbols of the inner and imperishable truth.
These are the antecedents of Masonry—this Prophet which has so many followers in the swift current of our prosy modern life. It stands among men freighted with all this wealth of men’s best deeds for man and God. Its mantle is that of piety and its heart is a house of prayer. It is alive in this new world—on these western borders of the earth—still living because its creed of faith in God and of dependence on His aid and grace is the same now as when Masonry was operative—the same now as when its tools, the gavel, the trowel and the square were in literal use on material substances of stone and marble.
The occupancy of a temple of this magnitude is an evidence that Masonry is a force—a progressive force, keeping pace with other forces that surround it. It is a power—a. growing power. It is no antiquated or obsolete institution, which new thought or fresh activities have supersede or made useless. We are not compelled to seek for laboured eulogies of the Masonic Order. The uninitiated may smile or sneer as if Masonry were some solemn child’s play, some sombre farce, enacted with over-much varied ceremony. Such know little whereof they affirm. Masonry is not pastime, mere spectacle, or scenery, nor is it a society existing for the shallow reason of mere society. Masonry exists and flourishes in the vigour and the grace of an immortal youth because it has to do with eternal things. It does not treat of time entirely, nor does it bind its sons together to enjoy and use things temporal. It is ever pointing stedfastly toward the realities unseen, but for that reason all the more truly realities, because they are eternal. As the world grows in security, in comfort, in culture, in refinement, we do not find the Masonic Order retiring to the background or diminishing in interest or in numbers. It has and holds its place among the choicest buildings, wherein men garner carefully their material treasures and the jewels of their affections. Among the massive piles where commerce buys and sells and gains and loses; among the academic groves and porches where Art and Science calmly meditate in learned leisure; among the consecrated aisles where religion seeks and finds, and bends the knee before its God; among the costly mansions where men bestow their household gods and find the reposeful sweetness of domestic life; among all these are found, conspicuous for size and elegance, the fanes of Masonry. The exchange, the cathedral, the college, the mansion—as features in the grouping of the picture of a great town, are now incomplete without the Masonic temple. This means something. It means that Masonry has taken its place as one of the dignitaries, as well as one of the utilities of human society. It has become one of the representative interests of society—even as the forum, the university, and the workshops are interests of society. And society, admitting the Masonic Order into the circle of its great and most important interests, may indeed look on this noble Order with grateful eyes. I will now speak of the munificent benevolence of those merciful ministrations in which Freemasonry cheers and relieves the weak and suffering members of society.
These benefactions are known to all men, and need no sounding trumpet to proclaim them. I would prefer to call attention to a fact not so often heeded, viz.: the protection which Masonry affords society. Some of quick ear are thinking that they detect the mutterings of social revolution beneath the surface of our republican life and manners. If there be such menace, and if it be a determined or a formidable one—let him who discerns its signs or hears its curses—let such an one glance up at this Masonic Temple as he walks our streets, and read in its outlines of at least one antidote of Anarchy or Communism, or any other form of rampant and selfish individualism. Masonry is a guardian interest in society. It calls together men, the heads, the rulers, the leaders—the bone, the brain, the sinew and the muscle of mankind, and trains them to realize the meaning and the purpose of life, and how to discharge duty in the spirit of responsibility to God and man. Any agency which does this is an agency for good—au agency for good order and fidelity. Such a school of allegiance to law and constituted authority is the Masonic Fraternity. Such a school of obedience, and industry, and fraternal harmony and kindness is something to be valued, and as such ought to be cherished by the world, which enjoys and appreciates its fruits.
The perpetuity of Masonry is conditioned on its maintenance of its illustrious past—or rather on its loyalty to the spirit which has made that past illustrious. With its enduring influence before it—in its prominent position as an element of life, and with all the questions bearing on life, and thought, and character, and conduct, which this age is asking. Masonry has a mighty mission opening before it. If we would have the world outside our walls understand and estimate us aright, we must properly understand and estimate ourselves. Let us try to comprehend the gravity of the mission on which Masonry goes forth among men. She goes out in the name of God—as a religious institution. We ought to realize this fact, and live as if it were something that we thoroughly believe, and as if it were something profoundly worth the living for and the believing in. God forbid that one should use the name of God, as a form, as a convenient name to conjure with before the world, while we practically ignore it, and allow it no place or power in our thought or our affections. Let us use the Order in a high-minded way—as a missionary to the lives, the immortal lives, of men. Masonry, even as the Church, suffers from the intrusion of unworthy motives, and of glaring inconsistencies. It is used as a means of acquiring worldly influence—for the accomplishment of selfish ends, for the fading crown of a short-lived personal popularity.
Let us not, my brothers, so degrade this sublime society. It is a society of men. It is an apostle going out—sent out from the Holy Church of God, to persuade men to love God and love each other more. Let us so perceive the mission of the Masonic Order, and so labour in and for the love of God to win men—the manly nature—to God.
That, my brothers, I apprehend to be the real truth, the fullest truth as to the mission of the Masonic Order. It is embarked upon a mission to men—to preach true manhood, not the counterfeits and imitations of it, which pass for genuine in common circulation, but true manhood, that manhood which deems its greatest glory to be measured by its fear and love of God. Be Masons for the good which you can do by being such. Be Masons for the love of God, which you may thereby spread abroad among your brother men, making them men of faith, men of devotion, men of honour, men of charity, men of good-will, to whom the peace of God came in the accents of a song from heaven.
The Masonic Order is again a loud rebuke, a protest and remonstrance against the hard, materializing spirit of the age. The whole Masonic system of teaching, the records of its whole career emphasise the fact that there is a soul in things and an inner meaning within life, and in all we see and are, and have, and use—a higher lesson than the most facile mechanism of being successful in the struggle for subsistence—and a happiness superior to the low, terrestrial enjoyment, after getting.
Masonry has spiritualised the common fact of work, and taught that life is not to “nourish a blind life within the brain,” but, “knowing God, and lifting hand of prayer, both for themselves and those who call them friends.
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
Masonry had been suspected unjustly, and accused most falsely of hostility to the Church of God. Whatever grounds men may have for forming such opinions, those grounds were formed in individuals, and not in any avowal or disposition of the Order. The Masonic Order is the ally and the handmaid of the Church. Only in such a position can it do its work freely and as master workmen ought to do it. There is no rivalry between the two. There can be none. The Church is a society formed by God. Masonry is a society formed by men. When we have said that we have uttered the best possible disclaimer of anything antagonistic to the Church. Masonry is not a religion, and whoever would attempt to substitute it for the Church has misconceived its intention and its spirit, and will never rise into the strength and glory of its teachings.
A moment’s thought will tell us that the Masonic Order can be strong, and deserve and receive confidence only as it works stedfastly with the Divine Society. It owes so much to the Church. The boast of Masonry is that it takes the Bible for its guide. It founds itself upon those oracles of God, the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel. The Bible is the central object, and the chief illumination of the duly constituted Lodge.
But what institution is the guardian and custodian of Holy Scripture? Where can we find a witness old and reliable enough to assure the Masonic Order that there is a Bible, and of what the Bible is? There is no institution from whose custody the Masonic Order received the Bible—there is no witness which can be brought as a reliable one, as to what the Bible is, and as to the certainty of its Inspiration, save the Immemorial Church of God-the keeper and witness of Holy Writ.
Once again, the best writers upon Masonry tell us that Masonry in its present form includes as one of its especial ideas the idea of Cosmopolitan Brotherhood, and that this fact alone is enough to show that Masonry, as it now is, could not have been of very remote antiquity, because that idea of Cosmopolitan Brotherhood was unknown to and impossible in the ancient world. When and where, my brothers, did the world acquire that idea of Cosmopolitan Brotherhood on whose broad reputation Masonry has thriven? There is but one reply—on the day of Pentecost and from the Church of God. The idea of the Church, unlimited by race, or nature, or territory—the universal, Catholic body, embracing all the earth, and every creature, wherein was neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free. This idea is the teaching of the Christian faith which has levelled all barriers, and made the world to recognize itself as one flesh and of one blood, as sharing a common humanity; this idea, which the Church of God communicated to the world, has made the expansion of the Masonic Order a possibility and an actual fact.
My brothers, if the Masonic Order be true to itself—true to those influences which have made it great and good—if it continue to drink of that sacred fountain of its purest and sweetest inspiration, it will lose none of its beauty, its magnetism, or its energy It ought to be a mighty influence for the things which are above. It depends for the present on us to see that it give no uncertain sound, and that it rise to and act in the true sense of what it is, of what it has been, and of what, please God, it shall for ever be.
One of the greatest traces of Masonry in architecture is, we are told, the pointed arch. The pointed arch, my brothers, you all know, at first sight, means aspiration.
It points to heaven. It is the flaming upward of man’s heart and soul to reach his God. Let us keep that allegory of his Pointed Arch continually before us as the ever-to-be-repeated triumph of our art. The Pointed Arch!—Aspiration—towards heaven and God. Aspiration toward that hope which He holds out, Who said, “O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted, behold I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires; and I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones. And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord.” To that bright consummation will we aspire. Aspiration be our watchword amid all the storms and discouragements of life; aspiration beneath the heat and burden of the day; aspiration toward the perfect Masonry of the City which hath foundations, which lieth foursquare, and whose length is as large as the breadth; the city measured by the angel’s golden reed; the city wherein no temple might be seen because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple of it, and the Lamb is the Light thereof. To that we will aspire—
“As wheeled by
Seeing spirits towards the East—
Where faint and far,
Along the tingling desert of the sky,
Beyond the circle of the conscious hills,
Where laid in jasper-stone as clear as glass
The first foundations of that new, near Day,
Which should be builded out of heaven to God—
And second, Sapphire; third Chalcedony;
The rest in order—last an Amethyst.”