BROTHERS and BUILDERS:, The Basis and Spirit of Freemasonry.
BY: JOSEPH FORT NEWTON (Litt.D.)

CHAPTER 1.

THE ALTAR.


A MASONIC LODGE is a symbol of the world as it was
thought to be in the olden time. Our ancient Brethren had a
profound insight when they saw that the world is a Temple,
over-hung by a starry canopy by night, lighted by the
journeying sun by day, wherein man goes forth to his labor
on a checker-board of lights and shadows, joys and sorrows,
seeking to reproduce on earth the law and order of heaven.
The visible world was but a picture or reflection of the
invisible, and at its centre stood the Altar of sacrifice,
obligation, and adoration.

While we hold a view of the world very unlike that held by
our ancient Brethren - knowing it to be round, not flat and
square - yet their insight is still true. The whole idea was that
man, if he is to build either a House of Faith or an order of
Society that is to endure, must imitate the laws and
principles of the world in which he lives. That is also our
dream and design; the love of it ennobles our lives; it is our
labor and our worship. To fulfil it we, too. need wisdom and
help from above; and so at the centre of our Lodge stands
the same Altar - older than all temples, as old as life itself - a
focus of faith and fellowship, at once a symbol and shrine of
that unseen element of thought and yearning that all men
are aware of and which no one can define.

Upon this earth there is nothing more impressive than the
silence of a company of human beings bowed together at an
altar. No thoughtful man but at some time has mused over
the meaning of this great adoring habit of humanity, and the
wonder of it deepens the longer he ponders it. The instinct
which thus draws men together in prayer is the strange
power which has drawn together the stones of great
cathedrals, where the mystery of God is embodied. So far as
we know, man is the only being on our planet that pauses to
pray, and the wonder of his worship tells us more about him
than any other fact. By some deep necessity of his nature he
is a seeker after God, and in moments of sadness or
longing, in hours of tragedy or terror, he lays aside his tools
and looks out over the far horizon.

The history of the Altar in the life of man is a story more
fascinating than any fiction. Whatever else man may have
been - cruel, tyrannous, or vindictive - the record of his long
search for God is enough to prove that he is not wholly base,
not altogether an animal. Rites horrible, and often bloody,
may have been a part of his early ritual, but if the history of
past ages had left us nothing but the memory of a race at
prayer, it would have left us rich. And so, following the good
custom of the men which were of old, we set up an Altar in
the Lodge, lifting up hands in prayer, moved thereto by the
ancient need and aspiration of our humanity. Like the men
who walked in the grey years agone, our need is for the
living God to hallow these our days and ve2rs, even to the
last ineffable homeward sigh which men call death.

The earliest Altar was a rough, unhewn stone set up, like the
stone which Jacob set up at Bethel when his dream of a
ladder, on which angels were ascending and descending,
turned his lonely bed into a house of God and a gate of
heaven. Later, as faith became more refined, and the idea of
sacrifice grew in meaning, the Altar was built of hewn stone -
cubical in form - cut, carved, and often beautifully wrought,
on which men lavished jewels and priceless gifts, deeming
nothing too costly to adorn the place of prayer. Later still,
when men erected a Temple dedicated and adorned as the
House of God among men, there were two altars, one of
sacrifice, and one of incense. The altar of sacrifice, where
slain beasts were offered, stood in front of the Temple; the
altar of incense, on which burned the fragrance of worship,
stood within. Behind all was the far withdrawn Holy place
into which only the high priest might enter.

As far back as we can go the Altar was the centre of human
Society, and an object of peculiar sanctity by virtue of that
law of association by which places and things are
consecrated. It was a place of refuge for the hunted or the
tormented - criminals or slaves - and to drag them away from
it by violence was held to be an act of sacrilege, since they
were under the protection of God. At the Altar marriage rites
were solemnized, and treaties made or vows taken in its
presence were more holy and binding than if made
elsewhere, because there man invoked God as witness. In
all the religions of antiquity, and especially among the
peoples who worshipped the Light, it was the usage of both
priests and people to pass round the Altar, following the
course of the sun - from the East, by way of the South, to the
West - singing hymns of praise as a part of their worship.
Their ritual was thus an allegorical picture of the truth which
underlies all religion - that man must live on earth in
harmony with the rhythm and movement of heaven.

>From facts and hints such as these we begin to see the
meaning of the Altar in Masonry, and the reason for its
position in the Lodge. In English Lodges, as in the French
and Scottish Rites, it stands in front of the Master in the
East. In the York Rite, so called, it is placed in the centre of
the Lodge - more properly a little to the East of the centre -
about which all Masonic activities revolve. It is not simply a
necessary piece of furniture, a kind of table intended to
support the Holy Bible, the Square and Compasses. Alike by
its existence and its situation it identifies Masonry as a
religious institution, and yet its uses are not exactly the same
as the offices of an Altar in a cathedral or a shrine. Here is a
fact often overlooked, and we ought to get it clearly in our
minds.

The position of the Altar in the Lodge is not accidental, but
profoundly significant. For, while Masonry is not a religion, it
is religious in its faith and basic principles, no less than in its
spirit and purpose. And yet it is not a Church. Nor does it
attempt to do what the Church is trying to do. If it were a
Church its Altar would be in the East and its ritual would be
altered accordingly. That is to say, Masonry is not a Religion,
much less a sect, but a Worship in which all men can unite,
because it does not undertake to explain, or dogmatically to
settle in detail, those issues by which men are divided.
Beyond the Primary, fundamental facts of faith it does not
go. With the philosophy of those facts, and the differences
and disputes growing out of them, it has not to do. In short,
the position of the Altar in the Lodge is a symbol of what
Masonry believes the Altar should be in actual life, a centre
of union and fellowship, and not a cause of division, as is
now so often the case. It does not seek uniformity of opinion,
but it does seek fraternity of spirit, leaving each one free to
fashion his own philosophy of ultimate truth. As we may read
in the Constitutions of 1723 :-

"A Mason is obliged, by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law;
and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a
stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in
ancient Times Masons were charged in every Country to be
of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet
'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that
Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular
Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or
Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or
Persuasions they may be distinguished; whereby Masonry
becomes the Centre of Union, and the Means of conciliating
true Friendship among Persons that must have remained at
a perpetual Distance. "

Surely those are memorable words, a Magna Charta of
friendship and fraternity. Masonry goes hand in hand with
religion until religion enters the field of sectarian feud, and
there it stops; because Masonry seeks to unite men, not to
divide them. Here, then, is the meaning of the Masonic Altar
and its position in the Lodge. It is, first of all, an Altar of Faith
- the deep, eternal faith which underlies all creeds and
overarches all sects; faith in God, in the moral law, and in
the life everlasting. Faith in God is the corner-stone and the
key-stone of Freemasonry. It is the first truth and the last, the
truth that makes all other truths true, without which life is a
riddle and fraternity a futility. For, apart from God the Father,
our dream of the Brotherhood of Man is as vain as all the
vain things proclaimed of Solomon-a fiction having no basis
or hope in fact.

At the same time, the Altar of Masonry is an Altar of
Freedom - not freedom from faith, but freedom of faith.
Beyond the fact of the reality of God it does not go, allowing
every man to think of God according to his experience of life
and his vision of truth. It does not define God, much less
dogmatically determine how and what men shall think or
believe about God. There dispute and division begin. As a
matter of fact, Masonry is not speculative at all, but
operative, or rather co-operative. While all its teaching
implies the Fatherhood of God, yet its ritual does not actually
affirm that truth, still less make it a test of fellowship. Behind
this silence lies a deep and wise reason. Only by the
practice of Brotherhood do men realize the Divine
Fatherhood, as a true-hearted poet has written

"No man could tell me what my soul might be;
I sought for God, and He eluded me;
I sought my Brother out, and found all three."

Hear one fact more, and the meaning of the Masonic Altar
will be plain. Often one enters a great Church, like
Westminster Abbey, and finds it empty, or only a few people
in the pews here and there, praying or in deep thought. They
are sitting quietly, each without reference to others, seeking
an opportunity for the soul to be alone, to communicate with
mysteries greater than itself, and find healing for the
bruisings of life. But no one ever goes to a Masonic Altar
alone. No one bows before it at all except when the Lodge is
open and in the presence of his Brethren. It is an Altar of
Fellowship, as if to teach us that no man can learn the truth
for another, and no man can learn it alone. Masonry brings
men together in mutual respect, sympathy, and good-will,
that we may learn in love the truth that is hidden by apathy
and lost by hate.

For the rest, let us never forget - what has been so often and
so sadly forgotten - that the most sacred Altar on earth is the
soul of man - your soul and mine; and that the Temple and
its ritual are not ends in themselves, but beautiful means to
the end that every human heart may be a sanctuary of faith,
a shrine of love, an altar of purity, pity, and unconquerable
hope.
 

 

         

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