Traveling around as much as I do, I am constantly being told ‘Mind the gap between the platform and the train’. The phrase became mutated in my brain into ‘Mind the gap between the pretence and the reality’, reminding me how much and how often we substitute the semblance for the real thing. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht said that reality is not about the way things really are; it is about the way real things are. There’s an important difference. If we try to represent the way a thing ‘really’ is, we are bound to invest it with our own interpretation. If, instead, we stand back and consider what is real, what is true, what is beyond controversy and beyond debate, we have the chance to arrive at something of real value.
The famous painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein depicts two men standing nonchalantly, surrounded by emblems of wealth, prestige, substance and power. If we had not been told the title of the painting, we would merely see two men of the Elizabethan era, vaunting their own self-importance, eager to show their best side to the world, keen for the painter to show them in the grandest possible light. Once we know the title, we see them as specific personages, representatives of their monarchs or their states. Their power and significance is inescapable, and seems permanent. But Holbein is more clever than we at first realise. He has introduced a third level of meaning. Painted at the feet of these men is a dark smudge which seems incongruous, until we turn the picture to one side and view it from an angle: the smudge becomes a skull beneath their feet, and is a reminder of the transitory nature of human existence, of what the first degree Emulation lecture means when it says:
A time will come, and the wisest of us knows not how soon, when all distinctions, save those of goodness and virtue, shall cease, and death, the grand leveller of all human greatness, reduce us to the same state.
Holbein thus gives us a real, bleak reminder, of how unimportant worldly pomp and glory are; it is a real memento mori. ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ it seems to say: thus passes the glory of the world.
How often in life we seek to promote a self-chosen image of ourselves. For some people, a great deal of time and energy is expended in forming a construct of the person they would like to be seen as, when the real person underneath may be far more estimable, far more lovable than the image projected. At the end, this construct remains just that: an image without substance, without essence, a bit of stage scenery like the woods in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, behind which the real characters can hide, showing only that side of themselves they choose to. This applies as much to Freemasonry as it does to us as individuals. We are constantly being told that Freemasonry is not a religion. What interests me is, not so much what that phrase says, as what it hides. We feel the need continually to repeat that mantra, as though somehow we need the security of being reminded.
Freemasonry is indeed not a religion, but by repeating that to ourselves, we obscure the reality, that genuine spiritual benefits flow from self-knowledge, from enlightenment within. The readers’ letters in this magazine, claiming that Freemasonry is not a spiritual pursuit, seem to be an attempt to clothe our Craft in unsuitable attire, in clothes that don’t quite fit.
A friend once described the danger, in masonic practice, of what he called ‘displacement activity’, that is, engaging in activities that divert us from the true aim. Concentrating on the appearance of masonic practice – rank, precedence, minor detail, hierarchy and structure – may cause us to lose sight of what real Freemasonry is, what Freemasonry can do, what it surely must do in each one of us, in order to be effective. Some will say that this is too serious, that it takes the fun out of Freemasonry, but I promise you, the rewards are immense, and they ensure that we will never again need any constructs in our lives. It can ensure that, in amongst the wood, we will begin to see real trees, and chart our progress by the way we interpret each one of them.
We should not be fooled. We should mind the gap, stop it becoming wider, try to bridge it, to give our Craft a greater sense of its true aim, and through that to find our own path to Truth.
That beauty is not, as fond men misdeem, An outward shew of things, that only seem.
Edmund Spenser 1552-1599