Celebrating 300 years

What Should Freemasons Reveal?

Wednesday, 01 September 2010
The Revd. Neville Barker Cryer On The Advantages of Openness

On the day before I sat down to write this article the choir of my local church led us in singing a hymn the words of which I had never been aware of before. It went like this:

    As Jacob with travel was weary one day
    At night on a stone for a pillow he lay;
    He saw in a vision a ladder so high
    That its foot was on earth and its
    top in the sky.

The picture that this conjures up is one that is soon familiar to every candidate for Freemasonry because such a ladder is shown on every tracing board of the first degree. A mason soon learns that this is called Jacob’s Ladder.
     In early representations of this ladder there were only three rungs on which there were the letters F, H and C, the initials of Faith, Hope and Charity. In time the letters were replaced by a female figure: one portrays Charity by showing a group of small children being protected and cared for; another image depicts an anchor on which a woman is resting and relying, representing Hope; whilst a third is offering a cross or a chalice as a token of Faith.
     While those were by far the most usual symbols there was also another symbol that appears on a similar tracing board and that has its own special message. This was a key hanging from one of the rungs usually between Charity and Hope. Its presence at this early point in a mason’s career emphasises its importance alongside the other tokens that also illustrate Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. In the ritual lectures that followed the Act of Union by the two Grand Lodges it was considered so important that it is mentioned in the first section of the First Lecture.

    That excellent key, a Freemason’s tongue, which should speak well of a Brother present or absent, but when unfortunately that cannot be done with honour and propriety, should adopt that excellent virtue of the Craft, which is silence.

That is wise counsel and like much else that we say and teach as masons, it reflects parts of what is recorded in the Volume of the Sacred Law that lies open among us every time we meet. In what is called the Letter of James we read this:

    Our tongues are small and yet they boast about big things...The tongue is like a spark. It takes only a spark to start a forest fire. The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that can soil the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from the infernal regions...My dear friends, with our tongues we speak both praises and curses. We praise our God and Father and we speak evil of folk who were created to be like God, and that is not right.

The advice we get as Brethren to be silent if we cannot speak of good things about others is wisdom indeed.
     Silence is a fundamental feature of our whole institution and the Latin words, Aude, Vidi, Tace (pronounced ‘owday’, ‘veede’, ‘tahkay’) which are displayed prominently in many masonic halls taught me, and no doubt many others, the need to be careful about what we reveal and share of what we do and say in our masonic meetings. Sixty years ago it was made very clear to me that the best course to follow was to enjoy one’s Freemasonry but to keep it to oneself.
     The result of that policy was to engender an attitude of suspicion in nonmasons and the conclusion that what otherwise respected men – judges, policemen, clergy, doctors, scholars and teachers – were engaged in was suspect. Of course, Freemasons were caught in a trap.
     They might have wanted to enlighten their critics by sharing something of what they did but then they might be accused of trying to curry favour or advantage by revealing their membership of the Craft and so they were again charged to keep silent.
     Happily, as Freemasons today soon discover, there is now a new approach and a pride in being able to share with our families and friends so much of our history and practice. As one Roman Catholic lady who was mayor of her town said to me after a lecture for Brethren and their families, ‘Thank you, I have been most usefully informed this evening. I shall go to mass on Sunday and tell members of my church to stop telling false stories about masonry. I shall go to my town council and tell them to stop being suspicious about masons or wanting to target them as undesirable. And I shall never complain again about my husband being a Freemason and going to his meetings.’ That lady mayor confirmed for me the rightness of the new, more open, policy that is now permitted by our United Grand Lodge.
     But there is still one aspect of masonic silence that has to be thought about: if we are going to mentor our initiates or enlighten those who are not – or not yet – masons, it is important that we know that what we share with others is correct. Just because we have been used to neither speaking nor explaining we are in danger of conveying ideas that we once heard but which are sadly incorrect.
     If we are going to have a more informed and satisfied generation of Freemasons then it is essential that what they are told and can pass on is correct and verifiable. ‘When [however] that cannot be done with honour and propriety [Freemasons] should adopt that excellent virtue of the Craft, which is silence.’

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