I must be watching too much television. In issue 19 I criticized television programmes such as Big Brother, The Weakest Link and Survivor and now, again on television, I have witnessed the perfect antidote to all this ritual humiliation. In April ITN’s Trevor MacDonald hosted a Survivor-type programme in which Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland were placed together in close proximity on the Isle of Man in an endurance test, physical endurance, endurance of cultural difference, endurance of reciprocal prejudice and mutual distrust.
Half way through the programme it was truth time – a Protestant woman telling how close relatives, brothers and cousins, had been killed by Catholics, and breaking down as she told it; Catholics relating stories of equivalent indignities visited on them by those of the other side; scenes from the Belfast so-called ‘peace line’, likened to the Berlin Wall. But we saw too a group of people who, being billeted together in a strange environment, neither permitted nor tolerated physical violence against each other, drawing back even from verbal abuse. Catholics and Protestants had been deliberately teamed together to do the cooking, to work together to sort out difficult situations, their cooperation made necessary by force of circumstances.
Two women, one Protestant and one Catholic, had previously taken part on opposing sides in the Holy Cross School confrontation in Belfast, but came on the programme in ignorance of each other’s part in that. In the unfolding programme they became aware of their previous confrontation, learning to accommodate it. They had begun better to understand the sterile ‘blame culture’, that barren landscape lying between and alienating them one from another.
These two were teamed together towards the end of the programme in an abseiling exercise, the Protestant woman hanging over a scary-looking rock face, paralysed by fear, the Catholic woman, her former antagonist, paying out the rope from the top and, to encourage her, calling out the words we all long to hear from time to time when we feel abandoned or helpless, the words which resonate to us from the memories of our mother in our childhood – ‘Trust me’. At this point I must confess to having a problem with my spectacles misting up. ‘Trust me – I won’t let you fall’ are probably amongst the most evocative words one human being can speak to another, spoken here by someone to her former deadly foe.
As Freemasons we have many instances of our unique organization over-arching cultural, political, racial and denominational differences. I have myself sat in a lodge with Jews and Muslims and in another with Irish Catholics and Protestants. That is after all one of the main reasons we exist as an Order. Many lodges have names starting with the word ‘Harmony’ or ‘Harmonic’, and many more have the word ‘Harmony’ in their titles. It’s no accident. Harmony is as indispensable to our masonic profession as meditation is to our religion. Harmony, best rendered by music or painting, can also be rendered by a word, a gesture or a look. Harmony can be equated with peace, inner and outer, where no strife and no differences are present to upset the balance of our senses, the balance of our spirit. Disharmony and discord are similarly represented and have as their roots the ignorance, fear, distrust and active hatred which so easily cause them.
When we talk of building I think we also mean building such harmony and brotherhood in a spirit of community. We too easily forget that, historically, Freemasonry has been a refuge for those fleeing disharmony, discrimination and persecution. It has been – and still is – a refuge for those seeking liberty of conscience and freedom on many levels, not least freedom of speech. We can promote that freedom, that liberty, and we can perhaps do so surrounded by our three lesser lights, Ionic, Doric and Corinthian, equated with Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. Wisdom, closely allied to correct or upright judgement; Strength to carry out our chosen task as Masons against malevolence and obstruction; Beauty, the third member of that trinity, adorning the inward man, representative of that harmony which comes closest to our own spirit if we will let it. Trust harmony – it won’t let you fail.
All nature is but art unknown to thee, All chance, direction which thou cans’t not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good; And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear; Whatever is, is right.
Alexander Pope 1688-1744