A year ago I wrote an article on wisdom, strength and beauty, the three pillars which support a Freemason’s lodge. As we know, they are emblematically present in our lodges in the form of the three lesser lights. The Master’s words: ‘I would draw your attention to the three lesser lights: they are situated in the south, the west and the east, and are meant to represent the sun, moon and Master of the lodge; the sun to rule the day, the moon to govern the night, and the Master to rule and direct the lodge’. Wisdom is to contrive; strength is to support; beauty is to adorn. But in writing that article, I found the aspects of wisdom and of strength, though not easy, more straightforward than that of beauty. Wisdom is difficult for us to achieve and the striving for it is what enables us to master ourselves, to become Masters in the true sense. The wisdom of the Great Architect is infinite. Wisdom, we are told, should conduct us in all our undertakings, and the maximum wisdom to which we can attain is through self-perfection. We will need strength of purpose to achieve that, hence the second of the lesser lights. Note that the Senior Warden is distinguished not by the Doric column alone, that symbol of strength, also by his jewel, the level, so his strength is also linked to the equality of his dealings with others, as well as with himself, to maintain an even course, not one which is subject to highs and lows of temperament or inclination.
But beauty? This is the least obvious, yet the most compelling of the three. What does it, or can it mean for us? We are surely not talking about physical beauty, that being so subjective and therefore elusive, that any personal estimation is always suspect. Are we talking about inner, spiritual beauty? This is almost as elusive, resting as it does on inner contemplation, meditation and the striving for perfection mentioned earlier. Where, we may ask, is that absolute in beauty that we can all relate to, acclaim and commend?
When the tennis champion John McEnroe hit an ace, or made a shot that displayed pure genius, it provoked jaw-dropping admiration. We do know how to appreciate beauty when it makes its appearance in such a physical way. But incongruously, such beauty is often accompanied by ugliness, witness McEnroe’s spoilt-brat outbursts on centre-court which certainly diminished his status as a champion, so no absolute of beauty there! We can produce very beautiful objects on computers, yet the conventional words we use in computing are full of ugliness and violence: ‘Punching data’; ‘Hit escape’; ‘Forward slash’; ‘Strike any key’ (why not ‘touch’?); ‘Crunch numbers’ and of course the ultimate: ‘Crash’. Is there an absolute in beauty? Or is it like wisdom – we must forever strive for it, in the knowledge that we may never reach the summit?
Well, at least as far as the third lesser light is concerned, I think the clue may be enshrined in the old saying ‘I can’t see the wood for the trees’, implying that we are so concerned with the detail that we can’t see the broad plan. Of course it is important to see the broad plan in most areas of our lives. There’s nothing worse than failing to see the opportunity, or indeed the danger, because we are so preoccupied with the detail of the immediate. But to ignore the detail is sometimes to miss the beauty, the essence of life. A friend of mine, a member of a very old and interesting lodge, was one of the truly great Freemasons whom I have known on my masonic journey. He was a great humanitarian, a man of infinite compassion and integrity. By his life, I and others have been greatly enriched. He was a writer (in several languages) and was largely unrecognised for his services to humanity. One of the things about him which I found most compelling was his habit of calling attention to the beauty in things around him that many of us might have missed – the way the evening light catches the edge of a beautiful building; the mournful cry of a seagull; the particular shape of a leaf or a flower; the vibrant colour of a small pebble he had found by the side of the path; the gentle interplay of words in a poem.
Without losing sight of the big plan, we might be enriched by stopping occasionally to study the beauty in the small things around us, the beauty of form, but also the beauty of purpose, of environment. The Junior Warden is distinguished, not by the beauty of the Corinthian column alone, also by the plumb rule. A study of, and immersion in, the beauty of small things around us may just have more than we imagine to do with the integrity and uprightness to which we aspire.
Beauty being the best of all we know
Sums up the unsearchable and secret aims Of nature.
-Robert Bridges, 1844 – 1930