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

CHAPTER VII

THE RITE OF DESTITUTION.

NOTHING in Freemasonry is more beautiful in form or more
eloquent in meaning than the First Degree. Its simplicity and
dignity, its blend of solemnity and surprise, as well as its
beauty of moral truth, mark it as a little masterpiece.
Nowhere may one hope to find a nobler appeal to the native
nobilities of man. What we get out of Freemasonry, as of
anything else depends upon our capacity, and our response
to its appeal; but it is hard to see how any man can receive
the First Degree and pass out of the Lodge room quite the
same man as when he entered it.

What memories come back to us when we think of the time
when we took our first step in Freemasonry. We had been
led, perhaps, by the sly remarks of friends to expect some
kind of horseplay, or the riding of a goat; but how different it
was in reality. Instead of mere play-acting we discovered, by
contrast, a ritual of religious faith and moral law, an allegory
of life and a parable of those truths which lie at the
foundations of manhood. Surely no man can ever forget that
hour when, vaguely or clearly, the profound meaning of
Freemasonry began slowly to unfold before his mind.

The whole meaning of initiation, of course, is an analogy of
the birth, awakening and growth of the soul; its discovery of
the purpose of life and the nature of the world in which it is to
be lived. The Lodge is the world as it was thought to be in
the olden time, with its square surface and canopy of sky, its
dark North and its radiant East ; its centre an Altar of
obligation and prayer. The initiation, by the same token, is
our advent from the darkness of prenatal gloom into the light
of moral truth and spiritual faith, out of lonely isolation into a
network of fellowships and relationships, out of a merely
physical into a human and moral order. The cable tow, by
which we may be detained or removed should we be
unworthy or unwilling to advance, is like the cord which joins
a child to its mother at birth. Nor is it removed until, by the
act of assuming the obligations and fellowships of the moral
life, a new, unseen tie is spun and woven in the heart,
uniting us, henceforth, by an invisible bond, to the service of
our race in its moral effort to build a world of fraternal
goodwill.

Such is the system of moral philosophy set forth in symbols
to which the initiate is introduced, and in this light each
emblem, each incident, should be interpreted. Thus
Freemasonry gives a man at a time when it is most needed,
if he be young, a noble, wise, time-tried scheme of thought
and moral principle by which to read the meaning of the
world and his duty in it. No man may hope to see it all at
once, or once for all, and it is open to question whether any
man lives long enough to think it through - for, like all simple
things, it is deep and wonderful. In the actuality of the
symbolism a man in the first degree of Freemasonry, as in
the last, accepts the human situation, enters a new
environment, with a new body of motive and experience. In
short, he assumes his real vocation in the world and vows to
live by the highest standard of values.

Like every other incident of initiation, it is in the light of the
larger meanings of Freemasonry that we must interpret the
Rite of Destitution. At a certain point in his progress every
man is asked for a token of a certain kind, to be laid up in the
archives of the Lodge as a memorial of his initiation. If he is
"duly and truly prepared" he finds himself unable to grant the
request. Then, in one swift and searching moment, he
realizes - perhaps for the first time in his life - what it means
for a man to be actually destitute. For one impressive
instant, in which many emotions mingle, he is made to feel
the bewilderment, if not the humiliation, which besets one
who is deprived of the physical necessities of life upon
which, far more than we have been wont to admit, both the
moral and social order depend. Then, by a surprise as
sudden as before, and in a manner never to be forgotten, the
lesson of the Golden Rule is taught - the duty of man to his
fellow in dire need. It is not left to the imagination, since the
initiate is actually put into the place of the man who asks his
aid, making his duty more real and vivid.

At first sight it may seem to some that the lesson is marred
by the limitations and qualifications which follow; but that is
only seeming. Freemasons are under all the obligations of
humanity, the most primary of which is to succor their fellow
men in desperate plight. As Mohammed long ago said, the
end of the world has come when man will not help man. But
we are under special obligations to our Brethren of the Craft,
as much by the promptings of our hearts as by the vows we
have taken. Such a principle, so far from being narrow and
selfish, has the indorsement of the Apostle Paul in his
exhortations to the early Christian community. In the Epistle
to the Ephesians we read: "As we have therefore
opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto
them who are of the household of faith." It is only another
way of saying that "charity begins at home," and for Masons
the home is the Lodge.

So, then, the destitute to which this Rite refers, and whose
distress the initiate is under vows to relieve, as his ability
may permit, are a definite and specific class. They are not to
be confused with those who are poverty stricken by reason
of criminal tendencies or inherent laziness. That is another
problem, in the solution of which Masons will have their
share and do their part - a very dark problem, too, which
asks for both patience and wisdom. No, the needy which this
Rite requires that we aid are "all poor, distressed, worthy
Masons, their widows and orphans"; that is, those who are
destitute through no fault of their own, but as the result of
untoward circumstance. They are those who, through
accident, disease or disaster, have become unable, however
willing and eager, to meet their obligations. Such are
deserving of charity in its true Masonic sense, not only in the
form of financial relief, but also in the form of companionship,
sympathy and love. If we are bidden to be on our guard
against impostors, who would use Masonry for their own
ends, where there is real need our duty is limited only by our
ability to help, without injury to those nearest to us.

A church, if it be worthy of the name, opens its doors to all
kinds and conditions of folk, rich and poor alike, the learned
and the unlearned. But a Lodge of Masons is different, alike
in purpose and function. It is made up of picked men,
selected from among many, and united for unique ends. No
man ought to be allowed to enter the Order unless he is
equal to its demands, financially as well as mentally and
morally, able to pay its fees and dues, and to do his part in
its work of relief. Yet no set of men, however intelligent and
strong, are exempt from the vicissitudes and tragedies of life.
Take, for example, Anthony Sayer, the first Grand Master of
the Grand Lodge of England. Towards the end of his life he
met with such reverses that he became Tyler of Old King's
Arms Lodge, No. 28, and it is recorded that he was assisted
"out of the box of this Society." Such a misfortune, or
something worse, may overtake any one of us, without
warning or resource.

Disasters of the most appalling kind befall men every day,
leaving them broken and helpless. How often have we seen
a noble and able man suddenly smitten down in mid life,
stripped not only of his savings but of his power to earn, as
the result of some blow no mortal wit could avert. There he
lies, shunted out of active life when most needed and most
able and willing to serve. Life may any day turn Ruffian and
strike one of us such a blow, disaster following fast and
following faster, until we are at its mercy. It is to such
experiences that the Rite of Destitution has reference,
pledging us to aid as individuals and as Lodges; and we
have a right to be proud that our Craft does not fail in the
doing of good. It is rich in benevolence, and it knows how to
hide its labors under the cover of secrecy, using its privacy
to shield itself and those whom it aids.

Yet we are very apt, especially in large Lodges, or in the
crowded solitude of great cities, to lose the personal touch,
and let our charity fall to the level of a cold, distant
almsgiving. When this is so charity becomes a mere
perfunctory obligation, and a Lodge has been known to vote
ten dollars for the relief of others and fifty dollars for its own
entertainment!

There is a Russian story in which a poor man asked aid of
another as poor as himself: "Brother, I have no money to
give you, but let me give you my hand," was the reply. "Yes,
give me your hand, for that, also, is a gift more needed than
all others," said the first; and the two forlorn men clasped
hands in a common need and pathos. There was more real
charity in that scene than in many a munificent donation
made from a sense of duty or pride.

Indeed, we have so long linked charity with the giving of
money that the word has well nigh lost its real meaning. In
his sublime hymn in praise of charity, in the thirteenth
chapter of First Corinthians, St. Paul does not mention
money at all, except to say "and although I bestow all my
goods to feed the poor, and have not charity, it profiteth me
nothing." Which implies that a man may give all the money
he possesses and yet fail of that Divine grace of Charity.
Money has its place and value, but it is not everything, much
less the sum of our duty, and there are many things it cannot
do. A great editor sent the following greeting at the New
Year:-

" Here is hoping that in the New Year there will be nothing
the matter with you that money cannot cure. For the rest, the
law and the prophets contain no word of better rule for the
health of the soul than the adjuration: Hope thou a little, fear
not at all, and love as much as you can."

Surely it was a good and wise wish, if we think of it, because
the things which money cannot cure are the ills of the spirit,
the sickness of the heart, and the dreary, dull pain of waiting
for those who return no more. There are hungers which gold
cannot satisfy, and blinding bereavements from which it
offers no shelter. There are times when a hand laid upon the
shoulder, "in a friendly sort of way," is worth more than all
the money on earth. Many a young man fails, or makes a
bad mistake, for lack of a brotherly hand which might have
held him up, or guided him into a wiser way.

The Rite of Destitution! Yes, indeed; but a man may have all
the money he needs, and yet be destitute of faith, of hope, of
courage; and it is our duty to share our faith and courage
with him. To fulfill the obligations of this Rite we must give
not simply our money, but ourselves, as Lowell taught in
"The Vision of Sir Launfal, " writing in the name of a Great
Brother who, though he had neither home nor money, did
more good to humanity than all of us put together - and who
still haunts us like the dream of a Man we want to be.

"The Holy Supper is kept indeed,
In what so we share with another's need;
Not that which we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three:
Himself, his hungering neighbour, and Me!"


 

         

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