Masonic Lodge is a symbol of the world as it was
thought to be in the olden times. 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 center
stood the ALTAR of sacrifices, 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 fulfill it we, too, need wisdom and help from above; and at the center 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 our 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 gone, our need is
for the living God to hallow these our days and years, 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 center 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 around 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 under lies 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 center of the Lodge - more properly a little to the east of the
center--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 detain, 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 center 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 Honor and Honesty, by whatever
Denomination or Persuasions they may be distinguished; whereby Masonry becomes the Center
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 over arches all sects;
faith in God, in the moral law, and in the life everlasting. Faith in God is the
cornerstone 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--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 then itself, and find healing for the burisings 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
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