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"I am puzzled" began the new Master Mason, "over a matter on which I have vainly sought light among my brethren. None gives me a satisfactory answer. We are taught that Masonry teaches through symbols; I want to know why. Why do we not put our truths into plain words? Why do we employ one thing to stand for another thing? Wouldn't Masonry be stronger and better if it was plain instead of 'veiling in allegory' its principles and ethics?"
"Like so many questions which can be answered regarding Masonry,' answered the Old Past Master,' this one may have several answers, all correct."
"Well, what is your answer?" demanded the new Master Mason.
"You will surely admit without argument," answered the Old Past Master, "that man is a triple nature; he is physical, mental and spiritual. He has a body, and senses which bring him into contact with, and translate the meanings of, the physical world of earth, air, fire and water, which is about him. He has a brain and a mind, by which he reasons and understands about the matters physical which he is surrounded. And he has a "Something Beyond"; you may call it Soul, or Heart, or Spirit, or Imagination as you will, but it is something which is allied to, rather than a part of, reason, and which is connected with the physical side of life only through its sensory contacts.
"Your soul or spirit, my brother, comprehends a language which the brain does not understand. The keenest of minds have striven to make this mystic language plain to reason, without success. If you hear music which brings tears to your eyes and grief or joy to your heart, you are responding to a language your brain does not understand and cannot explain. It is not with your brain that you love your mother, your child or your wife; it is "Something Beyond"; and the language with which that love is spoken and understood is not the language of the tongue.
"A symbol is a word in that language. Translate that symbol into words which appeal only to the mind, and the spirit of the word is lost. Words appeal to the mind; meanings not expressed in words appeal to the spirit.
"All that there is in Freemasonry, which can be set down in words on a page, leaves out completely the spirit of the Order. If we depended on words, or ideas alone, the fraternity would not make a universal appeal to all men, since no man has it given to him to appeal to the minds of all other men. But Freemasonry expresses truths which are universal; it expresses them in a universal language, universally understood by all men without words. That language is the language of the symbol, and the symbol is universally understood because it is the means of communication between spirits, souls, hearts.
"Indeed, when we say of Masonry that it is 'universal,' we mean literally; it is of the universe, not merely of the world. If it were possible for an inhabitant of Mars to make and use a telescope which would enable him to see plainly a square mile of the surface of the earth, and if we knew it, and desired by drawing upon that square mile a symbol, to communicate with the inhabitants of Mars, we would choose, undoubtedly, one with as many meanings as possible; one which had a material, a mental and a spiritual meaning. Such a symbol would be the triangle, the square or the circle. Our supposed Martian might respond with a complementary symbol; if we showed him a triangle, he might reply with the 47th problem of Euclid; if we showed him a circle, he might set down 3.141659 (the number by which a diameter multiplied, becomes a circumference). We would find in a symbol a language with which to begin communication, even with all the universe!
"Naturally then, we employ symbols here for heart to speak to heart. Call it soul, mind, spirit, what you will, imagination is its collection of senses. So we must appeal to the imagination when speaking a truth which is neither mental or physical, and the symbol is the means by which one imagination speaks to another. Nothing else will do; no words can be as effective (unless they are themselves symbols), no teachings expressed in language can be as easily taught or learned by the heart as those which come via the symbol through the imagination.
Take from Freemasonry its symbols and you have but the husk; the kernel is gone. He who hears but the words of Freemasonry misses its meaning entirely.
"The symbol has many interpretations. These o not contradict each other; they amplify each other. Thus, the square is a symbol of perfection, of rectitude of conduct, of honor and honesty, of good work. These are all different, and yet allied. The square is not a symbol of wrong, or evil, or meanness or disease! Ten different men may read ten different meanings into a square, and yet each meaning fits with, and belongs to, the other meanings.
"Now ten men have ten different kinds of hearts. Not all have the same power of imagination. They do not all have the same ability to comprehend. So each gets from a symbol what he can. He uses his imagination. He translates to his soul as much of the truth as he is able to make part of him. This the ten cannot do with truths expressed in words. 'Twice two is equal to four' is a truth which must be accepted all at once, as a complete exposition, or not at all. He who can understand but the 'twice' or the 'equal' or the 'four' has no conception of what is being said. But ten men can read ten progressive, different, correct and beautiful meanings into the trowel, and each be right as far as he goes. The man who sees it merely as an instrument which helps to bind, has a part of the meaning. He who finds it a link with operative Masons has another part. The man who sees it as a symbol of man's relationship to Deity, because with it he (spiritually) does the Master's work, has another meaning. All these meanings are right; when all men know all the meanings the need of Masonry will have passed away.
"To sum up, the reason we must use symbols is because only by them can we speak the language of the spirit, each to each, and because they form an elastic language, which each man reads for himself according to his ability. Symbolism is the only language which is that elastic, and the only one by which the spirit can be touched.
To suggest that Masonry use any other would be as revolutionary as to remove her Altars, meet in the public square or elect by a majority vote! In other words, Masonry without symbols would not be Masonry; it would be but dogmatic and not very erudite philosophy, of which the world is full as it is, and none of which ever satisfies the heart!"
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Last modified: March 22, 2014