As if you needed reminding, we have been subject to serial mishaps in the past twelve months. A supersonic airliner hits a piece of metal shed by another airliner and is destroyed. The weather-shift causes flooding with disastrous consequences. Our computers are invaded by more and deadlier viruses. As if BSE hasn’t been enough, we are hit by foot and mouth disease. More miscarriages of justice are uncovered. Railway lines begin to show cracks, leading to fatal disasters. And in one of the cruelest twists of coincidence, a vehicle accidentally leaves the motorway causing a collision with two trains.
Technology is complex, and we only notice how complex it is when it fails. We not only expect it all to work smoothly, we demand that it does so. When our trains don’t run, when the motorway seems to be one vast tail-back, we fume impotently. We inhabit a society which is very intolerant of technical failure. Simpler civilizations may have television sets and a limited number of cars and trucks, but when they stop working, society doesn’t break down.
The complexity with which we surround ourselves is not even self-serving. There are so many strands, so many threads which cross each other, that they have become mutually destructive, as in the Selby crash. We even invent acronyms for both the causes and the consequences, so that we do not have to face them too squarely. Who remembers what ‘HIV’ or ‘BSE’ stand for? or the sinisterly-named ‘variant CJD’? For ‘variant’, should we be reading ‘deviant’? And if we do remember what they stand for, does it aid our understanding of them?
Complexity is a peculiarly twentieth century talent. It is defined as the unpredicted result of a multitude of interreacting elements which, in themselves, are simple. It is similar in appearance to chaos, which is a system difficult to predict because of so many unknown factors, for instance earthquakes. For me, a child of the twentieth century nurtured on this stuff, they are indistinguishable in their effects. Chaos doesn’t only reside outside us. We all have to contend with inner chaos – depression, self-doubt, despair, pain physical and mental, bereavement, anger and low self-esteem are all parts of the same cosmic chaos.
The good news is that, especially as Freemasons, we can answer it with a corresponding cosmic awareness, growth and enlightenment. Look at the first degree tracing board:
In all regular, well-formed, constituted Lodges there is a point within a circle round which the Brethren cannot err; this circle is bounded between North and South by two grand parallel lines, one representing Moses and the other King Solomon; on the upper part of this circle rests the Volume of the Sacred Law, supporting Jacob’s ladder, the top of which reaches to the heavens …. in going round this circle we must necessarily touch on both those parallel lines, likewise on the Volume of the Sacred Law; and while a Mason keeps himself thus circumscribed, he cannot err.
We also know that a Master Mason’s place is at the centre of his own being, that likewise being a place from which he cannot err. I recently discovered the etymology of the word alone’ – we are not talking about ‘lonely’. ‘Alone’ means ‘All-One’, the state of relationship where your existence is all existence. You get to be with yourself, without which it’s sometimes hard to be with others.
There is a rather nice fact about Edward Elgar which I want to share with you. When the music was slow to come to him, or would not come at all, he went out into the country to be with himself, away from the complexities of everyday life, to discover himself and own himself, in his case to discover the song inside him, away from the chaos, whether inner or outer.
Read that tracing board lecture again. Cross the barrier. Be with yourself and find the song.
I saw Eternity the other night, Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
-Henry Vaughan 1622-1695