I find our use of this particular passage fascinating. We discuss in our lectures the subject of death and mortality. In fact, of all the subjects in all the degrees, mortality seems to get the most ink. It’s a focus of the Royal Master, Select Master, Order of the Temple. The symbols of death, the coffin, the shovel, and the grave are highlighted. But, have we thought of the square?
As I mentioned in the previous two entries to this series, I think that matching the movable jewel to the Biblical passage is a good exercise for us. In this degree, we see the joining of the two previous tools, the plumb and the level. Through the working of time (the level) and the rectitude of our character (the plumb), we square ourselves for the day when the silver cord is loosed, when the golden bowl be broken. This is the final measurement.
All these things we do, these things we concern ourselves with, are vanity of vanities, in the words of the preacher. They are vain attempts at perpetuity. Then the physical self returns to the earth and the soul departs to Heaven. These words are not intended to be hopeful, this is a lamentation after all. It’s the judgement of the Grand Master of Heaven and Earth, wearing the symbol of life, the square, that determines what’s next. And that’s the rub. We don’t have a single passage to work through. We lament but then we find hope.
At Masonic funerals, the words found in Job 14 are spoken (with additions from the Latin Vulgate of collection of Psalm verses). Job is a beautiful and difficult book. It lyrically laments on the absolute power contained within God and the minuscule contribution a single man will have, no matter how successful. The specific words we use are meant to give us some sense of completion, that what we work for and strive for has purpose. And it is explained thusly:
“Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
A person’s days are determined;
you have decreed the number of his months
and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.
“At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
But a man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
As the water of a lake dries up
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
so he lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.
“If only you would hide me in the grave
and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
and then remember me!
If someone dies, will they live again?
All the days of my hard service
I will wait for my renewal to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Surely then you will count my steps
but not keep track of my sin.
My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
you will cover over my sin.
“But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
and as a rock is moved from its place,
as water wears away stones
and torrents wash away the soil,
so you destroy a person’s hope.
You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
you change their countenance and send them away.
If their children are honored, they do not know it;
if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
They feel but the pain of their own bodies
and mourn only for themselves.”
Boy, that’s depressing. So, what do we do? How do we take this set of verses and apply them to the hopeful nature of Freemasonry?
For me, reading through this, with the idea of vale of tears clearly in mind, I think it’s the author’s way of telling us to stop worrying about death and instead to focus on life. We will experience death, we will leave sad and despondent people behind just as some before us have left us behind. Our work may be forgotten but ultimately, the Great Artificer is design plans upon some celestial work.
We are living stones but just one. Nothing more, nothing less. All things are vanity, meaningless, when we reside on the quarry floor. We can’t see what might be constructed from our efforts so we exert because it is good.
The final commentary by God to Job has always been distressing to me but also heartening. Boiled down, God is chastising Job for thinking he can know the great multitudes present in creation. Job has tested God into explaining what everything means. And God rebukes him.
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2)
And then, God uses building metaphors to describe the creation of the universe:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7)
Again, a request for trust, for faith. That sometimes, when we think that we are not receiving the fairest possible shake from God, perhaps it’s only that at our ground level view, that we don’t actually see where we fit, how we fit. And that is absolutely frustrating.
My take away is that sometimes, in our darkest fears, that death will cut short our contributions, that life is too short, that everything is meaningless, that our lack of contributions are just us lacking perspective. We just need to keep shaping our living stone, keep working, and know that God will ultimately fit us once we cross the vale of tears. Meaningless might be what we think we do but meaningless is not what we are. That’s what sayeth this preacher.
Thoughts? Leave your comments below.