Ashlars ~ The Building Blocks Of Fraternity
By Bro John Ward Worlein
This exploration into the symbolic and philosophical aspects of Masonic ashlars is arranged in three chapters. The first regards the initiate as a building block of his lodge, the second explores a seldom considered concept relating to the growth of the speculative initiate to ‘Master’ his destiny, while the third speculates about applications of the “Perfect Ashlar” by The Craft.
Unlike some terms in Freemasonry, an ashlar is an actual building material manufactured by operative masons since antiquity, and is defined as carefully squared-off blocks of various kinds of stone that are made to permit a very thin joint or no mortar joint at all. The ashlar, by whatever term, is found in almost every style of western architectural. It can also refer to paving stones of a finished kind. The term “ashlar” has been used at least since 1370 although many early texts mentioning “aschelers” refer to stones used as catapult missiles. Interestingly, an ashlar is also defined as “a hewn stone resembling in appearance or serving the same purpose as a wooden beam”. In timber construction, portions of roof supporting systems are called ashlar pieces or ashlar posts, perhaps in the far distant past there was a cooperative effort between masons and carpenters that allowed common terms.
Like so much of the symbolism and vocabulary that appear in the language of our Masonic Fraternity, the term “Ashlar” conjures both illusion and allusion. That is to say it both gives us a symbolic representation; in the first case that of an ideal created through personal interpretation, as well as a basis for comparison, a point of reference.
Masonically, the symbolism relating the ashlar to The Craft has been used as a teaching device since at least William Preston’s time in the 1760s, and almost all sources view the symbolism of the rough ashlar in the same manner. The new entered apprentice is the rough material straight from the quarry. “Rough undressed stone - ignorant, uncultivated man, ready to be squared and prepared for purposeful employment by skilled craftsmen”. The rough ashlar is a symbol of initiation, the entered apprentice degree.
In the Prestonian lectures of the Entered Apprentice Degree we are treated to his opinion about the rough and perfect ashlars and perhaps how they apply to us.
“The rough ashler (sic) is a stone taken form the quarry in its rude and natural state . The perfect ashler is a stone made ready by the hands of the workmen to be adjusted by the tools of the Fellow Craft. By the rough ashler we are reminded of our rude and imperfect state by nature; by the perfect ashler, that state of perfection and which we hope to arrive by a virtuous education, by our own endeavors and the blessing of G_d.”
Preston also refers to the concept of perfect ashlars in Song XXIII. [To the tune, ‘Balance a Straw’.]
In the Lodge, sloth and dulness we always avoid,
Fellow-crafts and apprentices all are employ'd;
Perfect ashlers some finish, some make the rough plain,
All are pleas'd with their work, and are pleas'd with their gain.
Rough Ashlars to Useful Building Blocks
The Mason as an Element of His Lodge
In Masonic parlance, the term “Rough Ashlar” seems to universally be applied to individuals, candidates or the newly initiated, as the raw elements of building material; their state of finish, however, seems to be a matter of interpretation. As one can see in a number of places in the vicinity of the ancient Temple of Solomon, real stone ashlars come in sizes ranging from a cubic foot or two to automobile sized ones and are dressed to different level of finish. Those in exposed areas are neatly finished with borders and distinctive textures that often assist scholars in dating the work. Others, which are out of sight, have a much lesser level of exterior finish, but are as finely faced on the load bearing surfaces as those in exposed areas. Without fine surfacing to knife blade or even paper tolerances, the thousands of tons of load from a soaring wall would be distributed unevenly and would fracture the stoutest building block, collapsing the structure under its own weight. Mortar, when used, can help to even out superficial differences to keep the forces of weight and pressure in balance. The mortar of brotherly love was well chosen in Masonic symbolism, not so much for its adhesive qualities, but as a means to smooth small differences between Brothers and improve the level of load bearing tolerance.
Despite the distinction in size and finish, to be truly useful, all ashlars or building blocks have two qualities in common. One is that they were selected for their inner strength and integrity at the quarry before being sent to the building site, stone that was rotten or contained obvious faults was set aside with the rubbish and not used by the workmen. In the same respect, to be of any use to the Grand Builder, the prospective Mason must have integrity and character to begin with; flawed men and stones will only frustrate and waste the builder’s time as they try to form them into a useful state, and will always yield disappointment, time after time.
Secondly, once suitable material has been quarried, it must be ‘dressed’ for its purpose, trued to keen, exact surfaces where it will come into contact with other load bearing stones. Material thus prepared is often referred to as a “smooth ashlar”; a term which can also apply to a well prepared Mason. With real stone, an operative Mason will begin roughing out with the biggest hammer in his chest and graduate to smaller ones for finer work. At this point the reality of shaping stone and influencing men diverges. The “big hammer” approach to making Masons, which demands rigid conformity through draconian structure to superfluous detail, has been employed for the last 50 or 60 years. This methodology may have appeared to work in the past, but in truth, it is the antithesis of a philosophical movement; our approach needs to be a lot more respectful. We are speaking here of dressing and polishing the inquisitive and cultural nature of initiates so that they can compliment and best fit in with their fraternal Brothers. We take it on faith that our Masonic tenets and philosophy contain the information to make this possible, but we should never lose sight of the fact that it is routinely practicing these lessons that yields accomplishment, not simply the repetition of words. Encouragement to learn and practice the concepts of Truth, Relief and Brotherly Love together with a strong recommendation to continue personal self-education through association with others of the society is the basis of the modern Masonic fraternity. If there is a key word to this process it is respect.
When discussing the task of finding the suitable rough ashlars, the candidates, for the future of Freemasonry, it may interest some readers that most Masonic jurisdictions, outside North America, consider that less than one-half of one per cent of the adult male population between 21 and 50 years old may be suitable prospects for Freemasonry. Serious Masonry is not about numbers; it is about integrity and the strength of our relationship to other Masons. A small lodge of Masons who continually consider and apply the conditions of their Masonic obligations and the lessons contained from rituals and philosophy, will yield infinitely more satisfaction to its members than a larger one where such considerations are lost in an atmosphere of club masonry or petty politics. Imagine a lodge of only 35 to 40 Brothers that share & live the Masonic ideal and you can also begin to imagine a Lodge that will have 80 to 90 percent attendance and a fraternal satisfaction rate that is even higher than that. After all, isn’t personal fulfillment our lifetime Masonic goal?
To Build Soaring Structures & Satisfying Lives
“The horizontal,” wrote Victor Hugo, “is the line of reason, the vertical the line of prayer.” Perhaps my favorite representation of what speculative Freemasonry is really about is found in Coils Masonic Encyclopedia, “It is an error to suppose, as some do, that the principle work of (operative) masons was the making of square or prismatic stones to be laid in walls. On the contrary, the peculiar and characteristic work of the Gothic artists was the building of round and curved arches, columns, flying buttresses, ogees, carving and even sculpturing. The making of ashlars must have been left to the apprentices; Gothic cathedrals were not built like block houses.”
What an incredible statement! What a stunning concept, that we have better things to do with our fraternal time than to chip away at little square blocks! This simple paragraph leads us to see that we, as speculative initiates, need only build simple squares until we had developed our skills with the tools and then graduate from the ranks of the apprentice to cut, carve and erect increasingly complex designs, Then, with that experience under our belts, as Masters to imagine soaring arches, graceful designs and thoughts we would not have believed possible without the training we received as a Freemason. I read this to say that we should not major in the minor things, but instead to use our developed capabilities to grasp and engage complexity, to build a satisfying life, one lesson at a time.
If this is the shortest chapter of this essay, this writer thinks it the most important; the addition of words will do little to advance the concept.
One of the most often quoted, and potentially misleading notions in Freemasonry is that our craft will lead us to become “perfect ashlars”. We can thank Preston for this bit of arrogance, since he writes, “by the perfect ashlar (we are reminded) of the state of perfection at which we hope to arrive by a virtuous education, our own endeavors and the blessings of God.” A noble ideal; however, if perfection can be had so cheaply as this, why are we not inundated with candidates? Who doesn’t want to be perfect? Maybe we have inherited a faulty, and imperfect, interpretation.
Very much like a cut crystal when light is shed upon it, there can be many, many facets of thought revealed in one philosophical concept – such as “Perfect Ashlars”. Masonry is, after all, the personification of philosophy. We have all heard the expression “Perfect Ashlar” used in several ways that relate the term to the individual: as the newly made Master Mason, transformed from the profane; “as one who has mentally and morally developed so that he may become acceptable in the sight of God”; as the personal goal of a Masonic life or as the last honor bestowed on us by the GAOTU.
“Perfect” is not an easy state to achieve, some will even argue that the terms “perfect” and “impossible” are ideal stable mates. In his memoirs, rocket scientist Werner von Braun recalled that the final examination in one of his applied engineering courses consisted of machining a “perfect” cube from a lump of rough metal. The size of the finished product wasn’t specified, which von Braun said was fortunate, because the large piece of material he began with was reduced to a fairly small size by the time he was satisfied that his cube was as “perfect” as he could make it. Every time one side was machined, its relationship with all of the other sides and angles was altered; what was required in this exercise was to develop the necessary focus to consider the whole and to bring it into tolerance as a concept, instead of merely whittling away at the individual elements. Not unlike this process is the very concentrated effort required to appreciate and understand the correlation of our actions to the shape of our lives and our relationships with Brothers, our families and the world. This is a learned process, and no institution has the potential to teach it better than Freemasonry.
One of my favorite concepts in this vein is that the “Perfect Ashlar” relates not to the individual state of being but rather to a standard by which we gauge our conduct or our reaction to life situations. Consider for a brief moment the perfect ashlar to be a prismatic or parallelogram-sided solid stone of absolutely correct angles, the sides exactly parallel to each other and totally level. Precise increments are inscribed on the 24 inch length and it rests absolutely perpendicular to the earth. This is an instrument to manufacture new tools upon and to test old ones. When working in an abrasive and difficult medium such as stone, tools made of metal or wood will eventually go out of tolerance and not remain the reliable references they were when new – trying the tool against a perfectly calibrated standard and then adjusting it back to true insures consistent results.
In this allusion, the “Perfect Ashlar” is an instrument and the most treasured possession of a Master Mason, shared with him by the Masters of all time and absolutely required by him because no good work can continue to be done without it.
So is it too with symbolic tools. The perfect ashlar can also be an element of philosophy upon which the emblematic tools of the craft can be routinely checked, ‘tried’ and adjusted back to true. This “Perfect Ashlar” has been painstakingly crafted in antiquity to be perfectly square, perfectly level, perfectly plumb and of perfect dimensions to test all of the usual tools of our craft, and their symbolic applications.
The pressures and distractions of life have a way of wearing away and distorting our symbolic tools, tools which were not made to last a lifetime without maintenance. This may be thought of as our learned and cultivated natures. Sometimes we may even forget that we have tools to work with and hastily conduct our lives by “eyeball”, only later to realize that our slapdash efforts have yielded only unsatisfactory results and conditions. The “Perfect Ashlar” may be thought of simply as the quantifying of communal Masonic standards, or it may be yet another way of expressing the ultimate Masonic concept of “light” or personal truth. “Truth” is a tightly woven fabric of personal integrity, introspective nature and a constant testing of information in an atmosphere that supports such noble exercises. We have all taken the obligations of Masonry, but do we use our obligation as a guide to making decisions? It too may be thought of as an element of “The Perfect Ashlar”.
Why do Masons meet? Certainly it should not be to conduct a common business meeting! I choose to believe that, in the grand design, it is to allow us to build lodges of men, and communicate common, shared values - to refresh our standards, to routinely “try” our tools against “the Perfect Ashlar” of truth and ultimately to find personal satisfaction.
Bro. John Ward Worlein
12490 State Highway 105, le Chateau
Lyle MN 55953
Fidelity Lodge No 39, Austin MN
Loge John Scot Erigena No. 1000, Paris France