Masonry is a great teaching organization, but it differs from all other teaching institutions by the method it employs; indeed, it differs from them so radically that its method is unique. Where they use books, set statements, speeches, lectures or school-room methods, it uses symbolism. Consult your own experience: in school you studied text books; in the church you hear sermons, Scripture Readings, and recite creeds; in your political party you adopt platforms; almost everywhere you encounter such methods; but in Masonry you are not taught out of a book; you receive no course of lectures; there is no official statement or creed; everything is conveyed to you by symbols. Without these symbols Masonry is deprived of its voice and can say nothing, because it has no means to say it; can do nothing, because it is deprived of its only Working Tool. The soul of it, the mind of it, the heart of it and the message of it are all in its symbols. For this reason there is nothing else in Masonry, and there can be nothing else so important for you to understand as its symbolism.
The very fact that elsewhere you do not receive your ideas in symbolical form may lead you to consider Masonry in general and - the Ritual in particular as a queer, strange, unprecedented kind of thing. Its peculiarity may be your greatest obstacle in understanding it. Your mind is not in the habit of thinking by means of symbols, and it is difficult to form a new habit. And since you are accustomed to receive all authoritative utterances in the form of words or plain commands, you may be tempted to feel that our symbols are not quite as binding on you and not to be taken quite as seriously as a statement in plain words. All such considerations prove how important is the present subject.
What is a symbol? First, a symbol is itself a thing which is used in some literal way. A carpenter's try-square, rule, plumb or hammer, a letter out of the alphabet, a geometrician's circle, square, angle or straight line, a coffin, a setting maul, an hourglass, a beehive, a book, a hand extended; each of these is a thing like any other and has its own direct, immediate uses. But in the second place, the principle, or use of any one of these things, is found in operation in many different forms and under many other conditions. A carpenter's rule, for example, is an instance of the principle of measurement. This principle may operate in countless forms: music may be measured by beats, a liquid can be measured in a cup, time can be measured by a clock and so on. The moment any such thing as a rule is not used for its first, immediate and usual purpose but is made to stand for a general purpose, or use, or idea, it becomes a symbol. When the carpenter uses his rule to measure a board, the rule is not a symbol; but when the same rule is hung on the wall to represent all kinds of measurements, the very idea or principle of measurement itself, then it becomes a symbol. The rule as a symbol is not less real than the rule as a tool, but more so; is not less definite in its measurement, but more definite; expresses not a smaller truth, but a larger one; does not make less demands on the mind, but more. It is a mistake, therefore, to suppose that symbols are vague, uncertain, indefinite as compared with things in their familiar use; the exact opposite is the truth.
When, therefore, you encounter a Masonic Symbol, such as the Square, the Compass, the letter G, etc., you are not to suppose that it is a hazy, vague thing that may mean anything or nothing and that you can be indifferent to it; on the contrary, its meaning is perfectly definite, and that meaning is quite as binding on you as a Mason as if it had been expressed in a written statement.
The old notion that Masonry hides, or disguises, or conceals its plain teachings behind symbols is the exact opposite of the truth. Symbols do not conceal the meaning of Freemasonry; they reveal it. Symbols do not obscure the teachings; they make them perfectly clear. If our Craft were to write down officially all its teachings in the form of words, those teachings would not be one bit clearer or more definite or more understandable than they are now. Men differ about the meaning of symbols, you may say; yes, they do, but men also differ about the meaning of words. It is hard, you may argue, to understand an allegory or a ritual; it is also hard to understand a book or a creed or a lecture.
Perhaps you will say to yourself, 'This is doubtless all true; but after all, it doesn't tell me how to go about studying these symbols for myself; it is very well for Masonry to use symbols, but why doesn't it go on to explain them afterwards?
The answer to that question leads us to one of the central secrets in the whole art of Masonry, and that secret is so vital to you that we may be pardoned if we urge you to use all your power to grasp it firmly with every faculty at your command: One of the greatest purposes of Masonry is to set a man to the task of understanding these symbols for himself.
We talk much about the art of Masonry. What do we mean by that art? We talk much about the Masonic life. What comprises that life? One of the principal things in that art or life is just this task of understanding these symbols. You have a whole lifetime in which to do it, but that isn't too much time. You must think for yourself; that will make your mind grow. You must overcome many difficulties; that will sharpen your intelligence. You must conduct your own search; that will develop your understanding. You must translate these symbols into practice; that will strengthen your character. You must exercise patience, use imagination, have insight. All these will cause your soul to grow and your spirit to develop. In the very process of understanding the symbols of Masonry you will develop into Masonic manhood.
Others will assist you. You can read books and you can use your own powers of observation. Watch, reflect, think, follow the clues; note how one symbol helps to explain the other. See how each one is the part of the larger system and helps to explain another. Do all this, and in good time the whole, great, profound, inexhaustible, incalculably-valuable wisdom of Masonry will.
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