We are divided by much in the modern world. We are divided by language, and all the attempts to make the English language international won’t put that right. We are divided by cultural imprints, and no single one is superior to any other. We are divided by race, and we are only overcoming that division slowly and painfully. We are divided by religion, or we seem to think we are. We are divided by ideology and politics, often through our own blindness to see some truths parallel to the one we hold to. It seems impossible sometimes to have a view of unity, of one-ness, of those things which bring us together rather than those which cast us asunder. Even Freemasonry has its different, mutually unacceptable traditions.
Diversity can of course unite. God forbid that we should assume that dull and faceless uniformity which totalitarian regimes have sought to impose on us. Diversity ensures that we imbibe the richness of other ideas, of other cultures, a richness that comes to birth when we achieve a fusion of art, music, poetry or social harmony from elsewhere, and use it to enhance our own culture, our own lives, to give us other perspectives.
But too often we have perceived diversity in thought, conduct and belief as being divisive, perceived it as a threat. Out of divisiveness can come confrontation. When confrontation looms, the animal instinct is to hit back rather than to stop, think, analyse. Civilised man learns slowly, to assess, to evaluate, to interpret, to weigh up and to appraise. It does not always come easily to him to make a measured response, a response we might say which is called for by the symbolism of the twenty-four inch gauge, in assisting him to measure and to mete out appropriately. It has been man’s failure to respond in this way that has so often in the past led to bloody conflict, and still does today.
And in such conflict, even attempts at conciliatory behaviour can be overlooked, diminished. Many are the stories, now told with pride, of Freemasons on both sides in the American civil war cooperating to bring aid and relief to those supposed to be their enemies. Ireland too is proud to count Freemasons from both sides of the sectarian divide. I have also heard of Freemasons on both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict who maintained bonds of brotherhood despite the hostilities. But when I was a child, nobody recounted the stories, told later, of troops from both sides in the first World War celebrating Christmas together across the trenches. In my childhood, there was yet another war going on, and it didn’t seem right then to throw light on enemies actually getting on well together.
Recently, eighty-eight years after the end of that terrible war, we have witnessed two brave men, brave in more than one sense, imprinting the stamp of unity on a divided world, and doing it together, a man joining with his former foe to honour lives so tragically and needlessly lost. Last autumn, Henry Allingham, at 110 years old Britain’s oldest First World War veteran, travelled to Germany to lay a wreath of poppies at the foot of the war memorial in the town of Witten near Dortmund. A British veteran laying a
wreath at a German war memorial? This would have been amazing and heart-warming enough, but he did not do it alone. He was joined in this sublime act by the 109 year-old German veteran Robert Meier, and together they laid the wreath.
There was no superfluous question of whom they were honouring. There were no issues of the nationality of the fallen. No points were scored. No recriminations or reservations. No history lessons were given. Certainly, they were honouring by this simple act, all those who gave their lives, but there was another dimension, another horizon. These two men did not speak each other’s language, and they hardly needed to. Once they had clasped hands, they could not let go, so great was the energy flowing between them. The unspoken words of Wilfred Owen hung over the encounter – ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ – but these were men who had survived, and the reason for their survival, it seemed, was to redeem their former enmity and to do honour to all their comrades, and to do honour to the new-found bond of friendship forged in this remarkable way.
Yes, unity is precious. Unity should be highly prized. But unity is a delicate plant and needs to be nurtured. And this is the first and best reason why the words of Anderson’s Constitutions are appropriate:
But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d 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 Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Centre of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.
The melting voice through mazes running
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony.