THE VALUE OF SYMBOLS

By Bro Clive Herron

Marine Lodge 627 I.C.

At one time, when very few were literate, the use of symbolism was widespread. It was a form of “visual shorthand” which suggested abstract concepts. Symbols were easily recognized, and understood. It did not matter where one lived, one would recognise most, if not all, of the symbols, although there may have been some local variations. When a series of symbols were strung together, (as with hieroglyphics) they could be used to tell stories and record history.                                                               

Today in life we are surrounded by symbols, some exhorting us to drink Coca Cola, or buy a Mercedes, others define us as Christians, Muslims or Jews. There are symbols used to impose legal constraints upon us – we “Stop” when we see the red traffic light, we keep left or right on the road according to the sign or symbols. We use either the Ladies or Gents wash room. Chemicals are defined by symbols. Academically, symbols are given to students as a measure of achievement in an examination, and so we can go on. Then there are symbols that depict the abstract, for example, “love” is often symbolised by a heart – because you can’t draw love. A skull represents “Danger” (another abstract).

So what can we deduce from all of this? - A Symbol (usually a graphic depiction and not the written word have a meaning that can be clearly understood)

Marketers are quick to take full advantage of symbols to influence consumers. Companies spend fortunes promoting their logo or symbol. The connection is drummed up into the public through constant exposure and association because they realise that a symbol is a powerful substitute for many words.

The Dictionary describes Symbolism as

A representation (visual or conceptual) of that which is unseen or invisible. The value of a symbol is its ability to elucidate; to compress into a simple, meaningful whole, readily grasped and retained; to provide a center for the shaping of conduct and belief.

Let us now look at the use of symbols by using the VSL as the basis. There are many examples where symbols were used to illustrate morality, an exercise we engage in at all our meetings. The plumb line, a string with an attached weight for testing the perpendicular of a wall, is used half-a-dozen times in Scripture to illustrate the lack of uprightness displayed by the people and their deviation from that which is straight. These metaphors borrowed from the builder's art were used by the Prophets Isaiah and Amos, and mentioned in the Book of Kings and Lamentations.

A study of the VSL will clearly show that the moral teachings contained therein run parallel with freemasonry therefore from these examples you can conclude that our symbols have a very real and similar meaning to that being used in the VSL.

Although not a religion, Freemasonry uses allegorical symbols to teach philosophy concerning the nature of the creator, and humanities universal destiny. We (as Masons) are instructed that our symbols teach a system of morality (just as they did in biblical times.)

(IF I HOLD UP A CAN OF COKE YOU WILL READILY RECOGNISE IT AS A SYMBOL OF REFRESHMENT AND DISTINGUISH IT FROM A PEPSI ALTHOUGH BOTH ARE COLAS)

The meaning is quite recognizable. In fact, some of the worlds most successful symbols, Coca Cola or the Mickey Mouse head are so universally known that they could be distorted, sawn in half and recoloured and still be recognizable.

For us in freemasonry, our symbols must be seen as a graphic representation of an abstract idea  - one that has no direct visual equivalent. Our symbols can take on many meanings depending on the context.

(IF I HOLD UP A SQUARE YOU WILL RECOGNISE IT TO BE AN EMBLEM OF MORALITY THE PROFANE WOULD RECOGNISE IT AS CARPENTERS TOOLS)

There are other examples outside of freemasonry where a symbol can take on a multi meaning - take for example a cross. A cross on a school exercise book means something entirely different from a cross on a ballot paper and a cross on a road sign has no relationship with a cross on a church.

Masonic symbols, take on meanings that are not always obvious. Our symbols are not regulated or defined in the way a traffic sign is. It is for this reason that we are encouraged to contemplate and study our ritual in order to take that personal message from each symbol and apply this towards our own perfection.

Our Masonic tools or symbols define such fundamental values as the individual’s relationship with God, his neighbour and himself. They cross cultural and language barriers, and are timeless, yet the message is simple and readily understood. They teach us to build upon a foundation of God, using the square of justice, the plumb line of rectitude, the compasses to restrain the passions, and the rule to divide our time into labour, rest and service

Freemasonry gives us the choice as to how we should use these symbols in our daily life so as to achieve our own perfection.

The definition of Freemasonry tells us that it is “ a science of morality veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols”

Our symbols illustrate for us the Mysteries of Freemasonry. The puzzle for some is why do we create the mystery?

Coca Cola and other brands go out of their way to display their symbols and spend millions advertising the underlying benefits to the consumer. The company would certainly dismiss any advertising agent who sought to veil their symbols or give them a random or double meaning.

There are however many answers to the question as to why we create mystery, but let us again be guided by the VSL. It is written “Do not cast your pearls before the swine lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”(Mathew 7:16) We are being warned that there is a genuine danger of sharing powerful information with those who are not ready for it or would abuse it. It is for the same reason that we hold certain matters confidential and in our heart, only to be shared with those who have been duly prepared.

Now if we were to disclose that Freemasonry is solely a system of morality and say exactly what we stand for we would be creating a fixed definition restricted by the use of words. This would impose a limit on our thoughts and we would not be able to discover the hidden wisdom of the lodge. The VSL tells us that we “must strive to enter through the straight and narrow gate” The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu likewise said “to see the Tao, one must walk through the gate of mysteries, mysteries upon mysteries” As freemasons we also enter the degrees of knowledge through the gate.

The steps we can take to uncover the mysteries is clear “Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it will be opened to you” This should sound very familiar to all freemasons.

Freemasonry is a science – a philosophy – a system of doctrines which is taught, in a manner peculiar to itself, using allegories and symbols

Freemasonry requires that we do a lot of seeking and much knocking through meditation in order to unravel the mysteries of our Order.

Let us consider

A, B, C. are alphabetical letters but they can also be used as symbols which when assigned values can give them different meanings

AN EXAMPLE

“A” could represent one exhibit in a legal case and “B” another etc. OR when set out as a formula “A”= length, “B”= Breadth, and we were to say “A” multiplied by “B” then “C” would be area and this could be in Sq. Inches, Sq Miles etc ON THE OTHER HAND assign numbers to “A”, “B” & “C” and they could take on varying meanings again. If “A” “B” & “C” were the points of a right angle triangle then

a2 + b2 = c2 or the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square on the other two sides (Pythagoras Theorem)

ANOTHER EXAMPLE

1)    You are given a blank signed cheque, - to some this could be a symbol of a free meal, to others it could mean a new car or boat. The symbol being the cheque. Now if I were to endorse that cheque “Not to exceeding R100” that would be to create a definition and place a limit thereon and restrict your imagination

In each of the examples I have given you the symbol has been defined.

Masonic symbols would be the same if we were to impose clear and undisputable conditions upon them. Anything that is defined is restricted to definite bounds. Masonic symbols are not restricted they give the individual the opportunity to place whatever meaning or value they so comprehend, the ultimate being that they symbolise true goodness as understood by that individual.

Consider this carefully:-

“Do you believe in God?”

“Define what you mean by God”, and when you have done so I will say

“No I do not believe in God, because a God defined is a God limited – and a limited God is no God at all”


So it is with all Masonic symbols, just as the Freemasons God, being the creator of all that has gone before and all that is to come cannot be limited by definition, He is the creator of the universe and the same God of all who acknowledge Him as the Supreme Being. We refer to the Deity symbolically as The Great Architect.

We as masons are moral, we were accepted as men of good repute when we entered -  but it is the acceptance of the meaning of our symbols that enables us to make ourselves better.

Today in the 21st Century, accepted morality can often be in conflict with Masonic morality. We are greeted with new moral and social issues each day in the newspaper and these bid us farewell on the evening news.

I refer to promiscuity, drugs, adultery, same sex marriage, abortion and the list goes on - so called RIGHTS

Freemasonry permits each individual to interpret and apply the lessons of the Craft as he sees best. It is this unique spirit of tolerance and freedom that frequently confuses opponents of the Fraternity. One mason places his interpretation upon a certain symbol or attribute of Freemasonry; another may take an entirely different view, and will cite evidence with which a third may be at entire variance; yet these three men can gather about our alters and in our Lodge together in perfect amity.

It is said that man has a triple nature; 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 that is about him. He has the brain and a mind with which he reasons and understands about the matters that surround him. He has a “SOMETHING” beyond; call it a Soul or Heart or Spirit or imagination, call it, as you will. Masonic symbolism is the tool of abstract thought, which develops the soul or imagination just as food develops the body. The human mind is endowed with power which no one may set limit we have the right to choose how we live our life. As Masons we know that we could seek no wiser foundation to build on, year by year, than a foundation in God using the Square of Justice, the Plumb Line of rectitude, the Compasses to restrain the passion and the Rule by which to divide our time into labour, rest and service to our fellows. Out of this flow those qualities of Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. Faith hope and Charity

Thus using symbols, Freemasonry becomes a great system of morality with which the individual Mason is encouraged to understand and interpret the true meaning and purpose of life.

To quote Albert Einstein – “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge itself is limited, imagination encircles the world.

Think of anything you may desire – knowledge may tell you that you can’t afford it but with imagination you can own it.

Freemasonry uses symbols because only by them can the Craft speak the language of the spirit, each to each, and because they form an elastic language, which each man can read for himself according to his ability to comprehend. Symbols form the only language, which is elastic, a vehicle of revelation, given during inspiration and used to interpret the experience. It is given to us at our initiation, when it appears as something new and take on a lasting significance through our journey as a fellow craft and master mason. They relate a man to that which should be of obvious concern.

Take from Freemasonry its symbols and but the husk remains; the kernel is gone. Freemasonry without its symbols would not be Freemasonry at all it would be nothing more than a dogmatic association that would certainly not have stood the test of time.  If you only hear the word of Freemasonry you will miss the meaning you must constantly live and learn from Freemasonry. Our symbols require interpretation, contemplation and study. As a Mason involved in labour you are encouraged not only to competently recite the workings of the Ritual, but also most importantly, reflect and apply their significance and meaning. “Brotherly love”, “Relief from suffering”, and “Truth”.

No man is perfect; our symbols help us on the path to perfection. But these alone are not sufficient. Initiation alone never did, nor ever can, make a man a true mason. These ceremonies only lay the foundations and without exploring the true meaning of the symbols and using these as a blueprint for our lives can the superstructure be raised.

Brethren look to our symbols – are they for you a source of light or darkness? The answer lays with you in the way you interpret them. We all create our own reality. What we expect from life is what we receive. The VSL tells us “as you sow so shall you reap” If we seek trouble, disagreement, doubt, negativity in situations that is what we will experience. Life does not always go smoothly and so if we do not seek to really understand and put into practice what is taught by our symbols we cannot expect our path as freemasons to be smooth. We have been given the meaning and the tools – it is our response to these that will truly define us.

Initiation alone never did nor ever can make a man a Mason it only lays the foundation. The true mason is made when he studies, interprets and implements the meaning of the symbols in his daily life.