14 August 23
Within the body of a lodge there are three representations of the ashlar. In the northeast, we find the rough ashlar, in south east the perfect ashlar, and finally we have the perfect ashlar in conjunction with the lewis.
All have symbolic meaning and moral instruction on which to ponder and I wish to share my insights and learnings gleaned in my journey through the three degrees of Masonry. To best provide insight to Master Masons and those of a lower rank, this talk is in three parts so that it can be presented in each of the three degrees.
As an Entered Apprentice we are given some instructions in relation to the ashlars within the first degree ritual as well as in the presentation of the first tracing board. We are told in the North East Charge that ‘at the erection of all sacred and stately edifices it is customary to lay the foundation stone in the north east corner of the building’ and as a newly admitted mason we are placed in the north east corner to represent that stone. This is because it is the beginning of your journey as a mason. You have proven yourself to be a good and moral man. The tongue of good rapport has been heard, otherwise you would not have been accepted.
It is said that the rough ashlar as quoted from the first tracing board ‘is a stone, rough and unpolished, as taken from the quarry’. However if you look at the rough ashlar, you can see that this stone does not appear to be something just taken out of a quarry, but has the basic structure to that of a finished stone. It has rough edges, and still needs much work before it can be considered a perfect ashlar. But it is still in the shape of a cube. You are also told that ‘The Rough Ashlar is for the Entered Apprentice to work, mark and indent on.’ But why is it already a cube? The clue lies in the same charge ‘It represents the mind of a man in its infant state, rough and unpolished as that stone, until by the kind care and instruction of his parent or guardians in giving him a liberal and virtuous education, his mind becomes cultivated, and he is rendered a fit member of civilised society’.
So the reason the stone is a cube, is because it represents a man who is taught to live a good and moral life and embodies those principles. He has the basic principles or structure of what it takes to be a mason, and thus representative of a cube. He has a good foundation from which to build. He is then entrusted with the tools of this degree to further hone and work his own unique ashlar and take away those imperfections we all have, to always aspire to that of the perfect ashlar.
As we progress in Masonry, the teaching method changes. We are given directions, but not all the answers. We are instructed to seek out the hidden mysteries. However all we know of the ashlars is only taught to us in the first degree. As masons we are charged to speculate and to gain further insight by contemplating those lessons. As the Entered Apprentice, you were placed in the north east corner of the lodge, and then placed as a Fellow- craft in the south east corner. You were told this was to mark your progress in the science, but it also symbolises your journey from the rough to the perfect ashlar. This is not to imply you have obtained the characteristics of the perfect ashlar but merely aspiring to them, because in the first degree it is said that you represent the rough ashlar. However in the second degree you are not told you represent the perfect ashlar, but merely of your progress. Besides the journey within the body of the lodge, the Fellowcraft is also presented, as in the former, with a set of tools. These tools are to assist in working with your ashlar but their function has somewhat changed. They are no longer implements to shape and form, but rather to test and align. You are placed in the south east corner with the perfect ashlar, so that you may use it as a guide for your work. This is to ensure the tools with which you are to work can be tested to be accurate. This is also symbolic of the experienced master, who has been assigned to you as a mentor. He is there as your guide, and to make sure your progress is straight and true.
Masonry being a progressive science and a teaching method that relies heavily on discovering hidden and deep meanings, we find that each subsequent degree calls us to look even deeper. It also gives us better insight into the preceding degrees. Each lesson builds on the previous and uses its learnings to allow us to better understand new concepts. Just like the saying ‘you better learn to crawl before you can walk.’ A great Masonic example is the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences which are considered progressive, because without understanding the former lessons, you cannot achieve the next.
The seven liberal arts and sciences are broken into two parts. The first three are called the trivium, and the last four the quadrivium. The first refers to language and the latter to mathematics. For the trivium we have grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar is how we structure language. Rhetoric is the ability to be persuasive through language and logic is the use of persuasion to convey both reasoning and deduction. For the quadrivium we have arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Arithmetic deals with the properties and manipulation of numbers. Geometry is the ability to use those numbers to form calculations to work out distances in relation to earthly objects and literally translates to earth measurement. Music is the expression of numbers by use of pitch and rhythm, which is basically length with the addition of time. Finally, astronomy which encompasses the whole by use of distance and time, while adding the relationship of multiple celestial bodies to expand beyond the linear plane.
So now you understand that the ideas and lessons in Masonry are progressive in nature, we can apply this same reasoning to that of the ashlars. In the first degree we are shown the basics of how to work with the ashlar, and in the second we are taught how to measure it in reference to a greater plan or perfect aspiration. Finally in the third degree we are stood on the very brink of a grave and called to question what it is all for. How do we as masons fit into the greater picture of it all? We only have a limited time for which to toil on our ashlar, and we need to be able to measure up to that divine plan set out for us.
The third representation of the ashlar is depicted hoisted up on a lewis, which brings many symbolic revelations. The lewis is the son of a mason who is there to support his father in the declining years. But one must take this further and I believe it is our duty to support all those who do not have the strength to do so but not at the detriment of yourself, family or connections. Everyone’s cable tow is unique as is the ability or resources of the individual varies. It is also symbolic of us being raised to the third degree, not only as the representative of our Master Hiram Abiff, which gives us a stark reminder that our time here is limited and must be used wisely but also the raising of our thoughts and actions to that of a divine nature, so that our deeds will be worthwhile for the time we have been allotted.
The tools within this degree give further insight into the final ashlar. We are presented with the skirret, the pencil and the compasses. These tools are used to plan and design and are no longer concerned with the individual blocks. As Master Masons we need to look at where we fit into society, how we can better help our fellow man, assist others to fit into the greater society and how we as masons can better work together. But if we draw more on speculative teachings, we can interpret it in a slightly different manner. The tools teach us laws to live by, that the Great Architect observes all that we do, and whilst He has given us free will, we are in turn responsible for our actions. So if we render our stone fit for that Grand Lodge above, we may ascend to that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, where the world’s Great Architect lives and reigns forever.
Written by then, Bro Joe Sleightholme in the March 2019 Freemason Magazine