I am at present ascending the ladder of my lodge, to the Chair this year. I bring to Masonry many years of study and experience of the wisdom traditions of the world. It all started from an impulse in childhood to get at what is beneath the surface of things, developing into uncovering the Truth at the heart of matters, that which is indicated by the Delphic maxim Know Thyself, or the expression Thou Art That from the Upanishads. I see in Masonry the embodiment of the same essence, although I also see that many Masons seem near to blind to that essence. I have no doubt that any institution can benefit from examination by a fresh eye.
This was in fact appreciated early in the Christian centuries, when St Benedict composed what became the centrepiece of Benedictine Monasticism, the Rule of St Benedict. He enjoined the Prior to allow the monks to hear the view of the novices, before they became influenced by the established ways of the institution, before they discovered what could not be done.
This ‘fresh eye’ came into play at my interview by the lodge committee, before I was accepted as a candidate, and as a result I was cited, although not identified, in an article in Freemasonry Today before I was ever a Freemason. I was asked, as I knew I would be, ‘Do you believe in a supreme being?’, and I answered ‘Well, it depends what you mean by ‘believe’ and what you mean by ‘a supreme being’, and I mentioned the implausibility of a bearded old man sitting in the sky (which generated several nods of agreement!).
I had not long before read a book on ‘Faith’ by the then Dean of Exeter, for whom I had given a talk on the spiritual nature of Gothic architecture, and he said of faith that it was not so much a matter of an intellectual acceptance of an hypothesis, but a way of living. This also is how I consider ‘belief’ – I believe you when you tell me your address, and I believe that there are penguins in the Antarctic, but profound matters of philosophy the concept of ‘belief’ is simply inadequate.
What then of ‘a supreme being’? What do you mean by that? What do I understand? I had occasion to invite the Regius Professor of Divinity to give a talk (on ‘God’!) a couple of years ago, and I told him this story. He fell about laughing, and said ‘C.E.M Joad – the ‘Brains Trust’ - First define your question!’ (The Brains Trust was a radio programme a few decades ago.) This came up again recently, when I asked an avowed atheist ‘What is it that you do not believe in?’, and she replied ‘Well, all right then, perhaps I am actually an agnostic.’
Well, in the event, the committee and I agreed on a formulation acceptable to both, and the matter was concluded. I felt that there had been no dissatisfaction that the matter had been raised.
Of course an easier solution was suggested in a belated letter responding to the report, in a quite recent issue of Freemasonry Today, saying ‘Why didn’t the candidate just lie? I did!’ Well I certainly considered the easy option of just saying ‘yes’, and depending upon what ‘supreme being’ meant to those present, that might have been true, but on such an issue I am not willing to lie, although I might not tell the truth if you ask me whether I like your tie or hat!
I now turn from that early moment to what I have seen since. As I said, I have had a good deal of experience of wisdom traditions, and it is my general view that there is one Truth, which is just differently expressed in the many traditions. This view is not original to me: I recall it being wonderfully put by the late Father Bede Griffiths. I see this same truth explicit in Masonic ritual.
With respect to secrets, in 1932 Maurice Maerterlinck (author of the very wise play The Blue Bird) wrote a book The Great Secret, in which he set out that there was a perennial idea that there was a secret which each needs to uncover, but added that the secret was never hidden, always available, the only snag being that acceptance requires a sacrifice which few are willing a make, a sacrifice related to ego. I see this within Masonic ritual, unseen, apparently, by most, and including the idea that the secret cannot actually be put into words, which merely express a substitute for the secret.
When I attend church, or many another form of event, I ask myself ‘Can’t they hear what they are saying?’ because in so many ways the expressed truth is not enacted in life, or even uttered with conviction. This I also find the case within Freemasonry. For Heaven’s sake, listen to the ritual. Not only listen to it, but participate with attention: attention to the living moment can bring penetrating insight. This I experienced a year or so ago during an installation: the ritual was perfect both in form and in expression, and these came together into something very profound.
I repeat: Pay attention to the ritual!