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LEO Article May 2010

The Work of an Entered Apprentice

The Common Gavel



ow do we apply the working tools of the Apprentice stonemason in our daily lives?  The ritual and lecture of the first degree tells us two applications.  The common gavel breaks off the rough corners to better fit the stone to the builder's use.  We as speculative Masons are to use it metaphorically to divest ourselves of vices and superfluities.  That is, to chip away our rough edges, so that we may be "living stones" fitted for the Builder's use. 


It is a more complex metaphor than it may seem at first hearing.  For each of us is both the worker and the stone.  And, of course, our whole ritual allows us to infer that the "builder" is the Supreme Architect of the Universe.  The builder in the context of Masonry is often called Hiram Abiff.  Whether Hiram Abiff was a historical person involved in building Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem does not matter.  He is an allegorical figure, and that is what counts for us, brothers.  As the third Master Mason in the position of grandmaster at the building of the temple, Hiram is often said to be the Grand Junior Warden (King Solomon being the Most Worshipful Grand Master, sitting in the East, King Hiram of Tyre sitting in the West as Grand Senior Warden).  This reading would associate Hiram with the quality of Beauty. 


When a brother takes the seat in the South, he does well to think that he sits in the seat of Grand Master Hiram. This is the place of the builder.  King Solomon might have been the idea man and financier.  King Hiram of Tyre might have been another member of the board, so to speak.  But H.A. was the builder and he, allegorically stands for the Creator incarnate -- the Grand Architect of the Universe working in this world.  Wisdom creates the plan or intention, and Strength enables us to act upon it, but Beauty is what we are making, the material outcome of our intentions and actions.  The ritual of the 3rd degree tells us that this divine creative force working in the world is betrayed and violently rejected by some men.  They are a small minority among the fellowcrafts, but their violence, selfishness, and lack of restraint causes the whole work to fall apart, at least temporarily. 


Who are the ruffians, allegorically?  On one level, we could take them to be that element in human society that is disruptive, selfish, and lawless. They are theives, kidnappers, blackmailers, and murderers, but they are also the embezzlers and shady dealers, the selfish risk-takers who ruin other people's lives in order to enrich themselves with more money.  Yet we err if we think that the ruffians are those despicable "other guys" in the world – the "criminal element."  No, the ruffians are also us.


Another level of reading allegorically can show the three ruffians as our own vices.  We should easily recognize them when we come to the third degree because we were admonished to remove them from our lives when we stood before the Worshipful Master as an Entered Apprentice.


Vices and Superfluities

The word "vice" comes from Latin where it means "a flaw or weakness."  A stone with a flaw is not suited to the builder's use.  Its flaw will weaken the whole building.  A man with a flaw is – well, all of us.   Don't kid yourself.  We are all imperfect, even if we rise to the level of "good enough to pass."  Vice isn't just about failing to be sexually chaste and truthful.  And it isn't about breaking the law.  It is about not living up to the ideals we know are there, the ideals we strive for.  It's about failing to care about other people and the hurtful consequences of our actions.  Living in the moment is a good thing, but not if you lack compassion for others, not if you are only thinking about your own pleasure, wealth, or power.


Those kind of rough edges, when visible on the surface, are not easy to knock off.  The weakness and flaws hidden under the surface are even harder to repair.  The good news is that we are not actually blocks of limestone.  We can repair those hidden internal flaws.  What's more, we can do so ourselves, through the focused gavel of our own intention.  Intention is the power of will, of action.  The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions – that is, intentions that were not action, only words.  But words and awareness of our vices is a good starting point.  In fact, words and plans have to precede the active changes of character, just as the architects idea and plan must precede the active building of the temple.


The other curious term used by the Worshipful Master when he teaches us the use of our common gavel is "superfluities." The "vices and superfluities of life." But what does "superfluity" mean?   It also comes from Latin and means "overflowing" with the implications of excess and waste -- something unnecessary.

Humans are the only animals who really have this problem.  We eat too much.  We exercise too little. We work too hard and sleep too little.  Drink too much booze.  Smoke too much.  Get high.  Overindulge our appetites. All excess and waste.  And all of these superfluities are just the sort of thing that the Lord Buddha was talking about when he said that despite all of that behavior, we are always dissatisfied, even miserable.  Our American Declaration of Independence speaks of the right to the "pursuit of happiness," but excess, greed, gluttony, or getting high on anything other than life itself is not the way to go.


However, as the Buddha taught, we don't have to become ascetics to handle the problem.  Asceticism and zealous condemnation of other people's pleasures is just another form of excess.  We go wrong if we become fanatics.  We only have to pay attention to ourselves and realize that desire for those superfluities is actually the source of our dissatisfaction.  Happiness in the long run – the happy life, as distinguished from the happy moment of self-indulgence -- is the goal of a Master Mason and the work that starts as an Entered Apprentice.  Indeed, ideally, if you haven't successfully completed the work of the Apprentice, you cannot pass on to the degree of Fellowcraft.


What are we here to do?  To subdue our passions and improve ourselves in Masonry. Our noble Craft holds many keys and secrets that we unlock only if we work at it.  Reading the allegorical meaning of our rituals and understanding what our symbols ask us to do is the way to this improvement, smoothing, perfection, and solid usefulness to others.  Next time you find yourself desiring something, consider whether it is really necessary or whether it is superfluous.  Take a few deep, slow breaths, and subdue your passion.  Then think more clearly and be aware of your thoughts and feelings.  The stone within is composed of thoughts and desires, so it is only by first attending to our thoughts and desires that we can then manifest the metaphysical gavel of the will, which can happily knock away all of those weaknesses and excesses.  The result?  It is called Beauty.

Lastly, remember that it is a "common" gavel.  It isn't the gavel of the Master.  It isn't a badge of authority or control over other men, nor is it an instrument for attacking other people, even to try to remove their vices or get something from them.  It is the gavel we hold in common, the tool of the mind which we all have and may use to perfect a simple life.  The simple cube.  What shape could be better to represent a simple life where everything is contented and aligned?  Admire the simplicity and strength of the Doric column.  Nothing superfluous, yet beautiful in its perfection.  And that is the place of the Grand Master Hiram Abiff – the place of simple beauty.  The beauty of nature, of geometric forms manifested by our creativity.


Homework:  Take out a piece of paper and a pencil (or your smart phone) right now and make a list of your vices and the superfluities that have accumulated in your life.  Take a deep breath.  Think about it.  Keep the list with you and look at it when you have a moment during the day.



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