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THE SOUND OF THE GAVEL
The long summer days are gone, Autumn is here and the world takes up its tasks. The judge returns to his bench, the preacher to his pulpit, the man of affairs to his desk and the teacher to his/her school - the boys and girls following with no quick step. To some it is a joy, to other a grind; but, all return to the work appointed them to do.
Last, but not least, the lodge is opened, tiled and tested; and the sound of the Gavel in the East calls the Craft from refreshment to labor. Soon the noisy quarries will be busy, making ready the stone for a living Temple slowly rising without the sound of hammer or ax; built by the faith and labor of good and wise men as a shrine of fellowship and a shelter for the Holy things of life.
The Common Gavel, it is a symbol both of labor and of power. As the square is no doubt the oldest instrument of our science, so the Gavel is its oldest working tool - some trace it back to the rude ax of the stone age. How simple it is - just a piece of metal with a beating surface at one end and a cutting edge at the other, with a handle for better effect in use. Every Mason knows by heart the explanation of its meaning, given him in the First Degree:
"The Common Gavel is an instrument made us of by Operative Masons to break off the rough and superfluous parts of stones, the better to fit them for the builder's use; but we, as Free and Accepted Masons, are taught to make use of it for the more noble and glorious purpose of divesting our minds and consciences of all the vices and superfluities of life, thereby fitting ourselves as living stones for that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
The words are simple; their meaning is plain - searching, too, when we think of the rough and superfluous things which need to be broken off and polished away from the best of us, before we are fit to be used by the Master of all good work. Alas, the words are so familiar that we, too, often forget how pointed and practical they are, teaching us the first necessity of the Craft - its need of clean and square men.
As we listen to those words for the first time, we did not realize how much meaning they held. No one can. There are so many delicate touches in Masonry, so many fine arts, that time is needed to see and appreciate them. Its business is to build men, taking the raw stuff of us and shaping it into forms of beauty and use. Before us it holds an ideal and plan of a Temple, into which it seeks to build our lives as stones. So it begins by using the Gavel, cutting away rough edges and breaking off ugly vices. Any man who knows himself at all knows how much it is needed, if he is to be a true man.
Nor did we notice, in the surprise of initiation, that the Gavel is also used by the Master of the Lodge. With it he opened and closed the Lodge; with it he ruled. It is the symbol of his power. It is wonderful, if we think of it, how the humblest tool is put into the hand of the highest officer. So rough an instru-ment, the commonest in the quarry, hardly seems to typify a ruler. Yet in the three principal offices of the Lodge it is the symbol of authority. The Lodge is ruled not by a Square, still less by a Scepter, but by the sound of a common Gavel - only Masonry could have thought of a thing so beautiful.
Nor it is to wondered at, because no tool in the kit of the Craft is used so often, and in so many ways, as the gavel. Yet, as some one has observed, in all its variety of uses it remains the same. It is like a moral principle; it changes not. When the trough ashlar is first taken from the quarry, the first tool applied to it, in the process of making it fit for its place, is the gavel. Later, when the chisel must be used on the stone, the Gavel - is employed to carry into effect the design of the worker. The Gavel is used in breaking large stones, or for chipping off tiny fragments; and it is equally effective for both ends.
While the Square, the Level and the Plumb has each one use and office, the Gavel is used in many ways, either by itself or with other tools all the time. Cutting, chipping, driving and setting it is always busy, always close to the hand of a Mason. Alike for suppression and for construction,. its work never ends. It is the first tool of the Craftsman, and the last he uses as Master of the Lodge, if he is counted worthy of that honor by the merit of his labor and the trust of his Brethren. The Gavel is capable of doing great work, or of spoiling good material; it is at once the test and the triumph of a Mason.
So, naturally, the Gavel is an emblem of power. It is an emblem of the power for good or ill in the hands of each man, being the commonest of tools; and also of the power of the Lodge in the hand of the Master. If wielded roughly, it means ruin. If wielded weakly, it means failure. If wielded wisely, and in the spirit of brotherly love, it is a wand of magic and a scepter of good will. Man is tempted and tested by power as by nothing else. Few are the men able to use it and not abuse it. No man is a Master Mason, or fit to be the Master of a Lodge, until he has learned to use the Gavel with dignity, self-control and gentle skill.
Since the Gavel is a symbol of the power both of Masons and of Masonry, it behooves us to ask how it is being used. Is the Gavel only an emblem and nothing more, like many another? Do we actually use it to cut away the vices and superfluities of life which unfit us for the use and service of the Master Builder? Or, to put it otherwise, do we take our Masonry seriously, as a way of learning noble ways of thinking and living? Or is it a thing of rote, to be neglected when anything gets in its way - just another order to belong to? In short, is Masonry the power it should be in our lives and in the service of mankind?
As the Gavel sounds in the East, calling us to another year of Masonic Labor, each of us ought to ask himself such questions as these, and answer them honestly in his own soul. What kind of a Lodge would my Lodge be if all its members were like me? What value would Masonry be to the world, if every one of its sons made the same use of it as we do? Do we answer the signs and summons sent to us by the Lodge, as we vowed to do at its Altar? If not, what is a Masonic Obligation worth, and what does it mean - nothing? Such questions tell us where we are in Masonry, and why we do so little with it. Surely it only fair to ourselves, as well as to the Craft, to ask ourselves such questions point blank. The Lodge opens on a new year, and we need to take stock of our Masonic life and duty. What we lack more than anything else in America today, as citizens and as Masons, is a sense of personal responsibility for our laws and institutions, which enshrine the spirit and genius of our nation. If Masonry had a great place in the early days of the Republic, it was because Masons gave it a great place by serving the nation in its spirit. Truth wins if we are true to it and make it win.
Just now cynical writers in Europe are saying that American Democracy must fail - that it cannot win. Of course it has not failed, else there would be more kings and more slaves in the world. But American is still on trial, and it will win only in as so far as the village church, and the Lodge over the store, become real centers of brotherly love and neighborly cooperation and good will. When this sort of friendly and practical fellowship is abandoned by more than half of us, then our American Democracy will fail and go to pieces, or else be only a shadow of itself.
Hear now some amazing facts which ought to make us ponder. Less than half of our people ever attend, support or are in any way associated with any kind of church - a fact to make a man stop and think, if he is aware of what happens to society when the influence of religion fails or grows dim. Not less amazing is the fact that hardly fifteen per cent of the Craft ever attend Lodge, or pay any heed to the sound of the Gavel in the east. It is appalling, such sheer neglect, by indifference and carelessness, of matters so vital to the well-being of the nation.
The remedy, so far as Masonry is concerned, is not far to seek. It lies not far away, but nearby, asking each of us to take a new vow in his own soul to make his Masonry more real, more active, more in earnest both in his Lodge and in his life. Any other way there is none, and it must begin with you and me. It is not Masonry that is at fault, but Masons who forget and fail of their duty. It is time for each of us to take up the common Gavel, the first tool of a Mason, and divest our own soul of its apathy, ignorance, lack of zest and zeal.
What can we do to help the Master of our Lodge in the Masonic year now opening? At least we can go to Lodge and be a worker in the quarry; and our presence will increase, by so much, the influence of Masonry, and it will teach us to be helpers in the encouragement of brotherly love and fellowship. No man knows how far a simple act may go, gathering power as it goes. Our loyalty may be a tower of strength to fifty men who otherwise may lose heart and fall away. Our faithfulness will be an inspiration to the Master, who is human like ourselves, and pledged to bear many burdens in his heart. If each does his part, the sum of our labor will be very great, and the craft will increase in usefulness and power among men.
At the end of the day, when the lodge of our life is closed, and the sound of the Gavel is heard no more, the one thing no man will ever regret is that he lived in the fellowship of our gentle Craft, and labored in its service. Our life here amid sun and frost has meaning to ourselves, and worth to the Master of all Good Work, only as we invest such power as we have of light and leading to make the hard old world a little kinder for those who come after us.
The New age stands as yet Half Built against the sky, Open to every threat Of storms that clamor by. Scaffolding veils the walls And dim dust floats and falls, As moving to and fro, their tasks The Masons ply.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014