Once again, I have two subjects whose links shall try to demonstrate. The first is this; some years ago, there was a lady of my acquaintance, who wanted guidance for her daughter in what subjects to suggest for her ‘A’ level exams. She asked me what subjects my own daughter was taking, and on learning that my daughter’s chosen subjects were classical Greek, Latin, and modern German, remarked with amazement: ‘That’s not going to be much use for her later in her career, is it?’.
At that stage, over twenty years ago, I had not yet realised how endangered was the teaching of the humanities. At that stage, without my fully realising it, education had become the preserve of those intent on stuffing the minds of their pupils with as much data as possible, to facilitate their search for a good career, earning top salaries.
The aim of ‘A’ levels, and the subsequent university degree, had become encapsulated in the idea that you had to Pass As Many Subjects As Possible To Get A Top Job. At that stage, society had not yet articulated that as a descent into materialism and, I am afraid, still does not admit to it today. I would put it into the following words: the subjects one reads at ‘A’ level and university are supposed to be those with a Discernible Material Benefit, and since we tend to like acronyms for these things, let’s just call it DIMAB.
British televison these days is not noted for its quality, but a recent series, The Monastery, brought thoughfulness and consideration to a mass audience, and this brings me to my second subject. Five men were selected to spend forty days and nights in a Benedictine monastery, following as strictly as possible the life of the monks, obedient to the Rule of St. Benedict. This Rule enjoins its disciples to long periods of silence, absolute obedience to the Order, many hours of prayer and meditation, and religious services five times every day. The sojourn of these five men included discussion periods with the monks on many subjects, including an examination of the bible. Of course, some of our five newcomers wanted to challenge the veracity of the bible, but one of the monks reminded them that the bible is not a book of answers – it is, as he put it, a book of poetry. ‘If,’ he said, ‘you enter into that poetic movement, your soul will start to be shaped by it. And as your soul becomes filled with the poetry of scripture, it will expand, and your heart will become more generous.’
But some members of the group remained sceptical. They continued to ask questions; not a bad thing, since if we cease to question, we cease to learn, and if we cease to learn, our journey ceases. But the answers they wanted to their questions were material answers. They were not yet looking for the answers which the heart will supply. As one of the monks said in relation to one of the visitors: ‘At a certain point, he has to make a choice – whether the insights of the human heart will come first, and the questions later, or whether the questions will come first, so that he never gets to the insights of the heart.’ The whole journey of these aspirants is linked, yes, you guessed it, to a search for self-knowledge. As the Abbott of the monastery put it: ‘Any individual setting out on a spiritual path needs to grow in self-knowledge, and the most real way we grow in self-knowledge is through seeing ourselves through the eyes of other people. So anyone who is serious about his spiritual dimension, has to live in some kind of community. Learning to live with other people is a key part of learning about your self, and a key part of your spirituality.’
We in Freemasonry ought to know a bit about living in a community. Some years ago, there was a Brother in a lodge who was very disputatious. He had, I think, not completely found his way to the centre. We could say that self-worth, self-esteem were lacking In the course of his masonic career, he caused a few upsets, and caused pain to a number of his Brethren. A mutual friend said to me one day; ‘You realise, don’t you, that he has been sent to us so that we can test, can prove, our tolerance. It’s part of shaping the perfect ashlar.’ It’s part of the poetry of Freemasonry also. If we seek constantly after the historical correctness of the masonic legend, we may be missing the point. If, instead, we can immerse ourselves in the poetry, we may find the point – the point within the circle round which the Brethren cannot err.
And the teaching of humanities to students? I think that too is part of the poetry. To give them something for the heart, not just for the career, to make them whole, and not just make them tools for industry or commerce. Let them learn about the mystery of their own existence, let them be in harmony with their world and listen to the living silence within, so that the demons of self-doubt will not find room there.
Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge;
it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.
William Wordsworth 1770-1850