tdf002 – Ashlars – Rough & Smooth The Story of a Stone

Brethren, Most Wor. Bro. Norman Thomas, our 99th Grand Master set each one of us a task last year. He charged us, each of us, to individually embark upon a quest to “Study to show thyself approved.”

This was not an easy task, to either accomplish, nor, some might say, to even understand, last year as the Deputy Grand Master, my initial step in the task, was to study – to simply understand what the task at hand really was.

My study included a review of “The Freemason”, a publication of the Grand Lodge of England, and finally centered on a paper by Bro. J. Fairbairn Smith, which he in turn had based on research by the eminent Masonic Scholar, Rt. Wor. Bro. J. Smith (no relation), the Editor Emeritus of the Detroit Masonic World, who was first made a Mason in the Lodge at Hawick, Scotland in 1925.

In every Masonic Lodge room there is the Rough Ashlar and the Perfect Ashlar, placed there for us to “moralize on”. These two and the Trestle Board constitute our Movable Jewels. What is their significance, what do they have to do with Freemasonry, and, can they assist us in our quest to show ourselves approved?

A Sculptor was once asked: “How do you carve such beautiful statues?” His reply (often quoted) was: “It is the simplest thing in the world. I take a hammer and chisel from the shapeless rock, I knock off all of the stone I do not want, and there is the statue. It works every time.”

In our Masonic teaching we are told that the Rough Ashlar is a stone taken from a quarry in its rude and natural state and that the Perfect Ashlar is a stone made ready by the hands of the workman, to be adjusted by the working tools of the Fellow Craft.

The Rough Ashlar was not a stone that was merely picked up somewhere. It was one that had been selected. Some work was initially done upon it. It was apparently a good stone, a stone that showed good prospects of being capable of being made into a Perfect one. Had it not been a good stone it would never have been cut from the quarry in the first place.

So it is with each prospective Mason. You were not merely “picked up somewhere” but rather were carefully selected. Before you were ready to be initiated, some work had been done on you. You were made to stand certain basic tests. You were apparently of good material. You were shown to be a man who had within you the prospect of being made into a good Mason. If you had not been a good man you would never have been proposed for membership.

In changing a Rough Ashlar into a Perfect Ashlar, as a workman you take away the imperfect. You chip away, and you chip away. You cut away the “rough edges”. You work diligently to remove the visible flaws. You do not create a new material but rather work with what is already there to develop and mould it into your Perfect Stone.

Very few Masons will ever make a Perfect Ashlar. So there are very few, if any, perfect Masons in our Lodges. In our ritualistic work, we can take away much of the roughness, remove the sharp and jagged points and obliterate the most visible defects. We can diligently work to produce as good a Mason as there is within our power to produce. However, the most essential thing is to first have good material.

These truths are applicable to all mankind, but for us as Symbolic Masons, they are provided with especial meaning. For, was not each one of us, at the commencement of our Masonic journey, placed at the Northeast corner as an example in stone, in the hope that being so placed, we would, in the fullness of time, be brought towards a state of perfection, acceptable to the Builder.

What does the poet say of the stone?

Isn’t it strange that Princes and Kings
And clowns that caper in the sawdust rings,
And common folks like you and me
Are the builders all, for eternity.
Each is given a kit of tools,
A shapeless mass, and a book of rules:
And each must make, ere life is flown;
A Stumbling Block or a Stepping Stone.

The shapeless mass we work with is a man’s character, and each one of us is his own architect, each is his own building material. Like our predecessors, the Operative Stone masons, we must each show true craftsmanship in working out a Perfect Ashlar, fit, to be tried by the square of our own conscience.

Pause for a moment; Ask yourself “Which are you crafting – a Stumbling Block or a Stepping Stone?”

If a man’s life is such that he cannot “join in the grand design of being happy and communicating happiness to others” then he is a stumbling block, not only to himself, but to all those with whom he is associated. If a man is a Freemason then he is bound by oath to study the ritual, to discover the hidden and inner symbolic meanings, so that he can perfect his Ashlar.

Historically, an ancient charge states that; a visiting “Operative Mason” was provided with a mason’s stone (a Rough Ashlar) to enable him to demonstrate his skills and craftsmanship to his brother masons. His wages were determined by his skill. His rewards established by the work he had done. Is this not the rule of life?

On a building site each stone is selected from the quarry to suit the requirements of the building. As Speculative Masons, we obtain our mouldings stones from the quarries of life. Thus, when we receive an application for admission to our order it is our duty to carefully scrutinize all of the applicant’s credentials, to ensure that only approved material is admitted to the craft. Ensuring that only material which may be made perfect, goes into the building of our symbolic temple.

Freemasonry can, and does, improve good material, but it cannot make bad material good. As with the Operative Mason, poor material would have endangered the integrity of the structure, placing the building at risk. So too with Speculative Masons, a faulty Ashlar will endanger the Spiritual Temple we are all endeavouring to build.

In you capacity as a craftsman, as a man of the world, and as a Mason you are continually coming into contact with your fellows and you must learn to control your passions, and to recognize the worth of others, with the result that the stone you are working on, namely your own character, is slowly but surely taking shape as a Perfect Ashlar.

Seek out the materials we need to complete our Temple. Encourage and cultivate men of honour to join in our building. Today and every day, chip away yet one more flaw from your Rough Ashlar. “Study to show thyself approved.”

And thus, you may rest assured that when your final summons comes, you will find that the Great Builder will have provided a place for you in the “Great Spiritual Temple not made with hands” eternally resting in the House of God.

My Brethren, let us continue to labour together in the Grand Design. Let each one of us work diligently at our “Rough Ashlar” And move together towards perfecting the “Rough Material” which the Almighty has given us to work.

My Brothers, Freemasonry offers many men many things. We enjoy fellowship and social contact.

We involve our families in many events. We travel and converse with one another. Some even enjoy commercial or financial benefits. For many, Masonry is the focus of their lives. All of this is well and good. All of these elements add to our enjoyment of the Craft.

However, I caution each one of you: Do not ever forget, nor ignore the real purpose of Freemasonry: Work diligently to assist all of our “Good men in becoming better.” And as Individuals – Perfect your Ashlars.

M.W. Bro. Rod Ponech
100th Grand Master of Alberta