That Noble Contention

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Bro. Adam Thayer

My brothers, in the past I have endeavored to reduce large sections of Masonic theory down into bite-sized pieces that would be easily understood by everyone, from the newly raised Master to the highly knowledgeable Past Grand Masters. In this piece, I am going to attempt to do the exact opposite by examining and over-complicating a single phrase from ritual.
That phrase is: “One sacred band, or society of friends and brothers, among whom no contention should ever exist but that noble contention, or rather emulation, of who best can work, and best agree.” We all know the phrase from our degree work, but how many of us have actually tried to analyze the meaning behind the phrase?
It begins by reminding us that, as Masons, we are part of a greater society, the sacred band of Freemasons. Although each of us are from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and financial situations, each with a wealth of unique experiences, yet we all share one common experience that unites us under the banner of Freemasonry, which is the initiatic ritual that we all passed through on our Eastbound journey.
The ritual goes on to give two very specific examples of our bond: we are both friends AND brothers. Why did our ritual writers feel the need to give both? Shouldn’t the fact that we’re brothers presuppose that we are also friends?
This always reminds me of one of the great theological debates: can you love someone without liking them? The general theological assumption is that love has less to do with emotions and feeling, and more to do with actions. Love is wanting what is best for someone, and doing so to the best of your ability. In comparison, liking is an emotional connection to something specifically appealing to you.
Paul refutes this quite directly, in Romans 12:9, when he stated “Let love be genuine. Love one another with brotherly affection.” He is directly telling us that when we love, we should love with an emotional component, the affection we have for a brother.
Coming back to our ritual, it’s my belief that those early ritual writers, who would have been well versed in this type of argument, which was common in their day, decided to reflect Paul’s statement within our ritual, and in so doing head off any potential uncertainty by directly spelling our obligation out: we are brothers, which implies we want what is best for each other due to a connection of love, and we are also friends, which implies a sincere affection for one another. Without both components, our sacred bond could well fail.
We go on to learn that, among this group of men, no contention should ever exist. Ever, period, end of discussion. There is one exception, which we will discuss later, but excluding that, there is never a reason that any contention should exist within the lodge.
Since contention and emulation are not words that most of us use in our daily lives, I’d like to spend a few moments with them.
Contention is best defined as a belief or opinion that is strongly argued. Its root, contend, generally involves a struggle or a battle. Contention appears multiple times in the Bible, generally involving strife between brothers and friends, although it is also frequently used as a warning, as is the case in Proverbs 16:28 “A false man sows contention, and a liar separates friends.”
Emulation, by contrast, is an endeavor to equal or exceed another person in specific qualities. To emulate someone is to try to be like your perception of that person. The words are in sharp contrast; emulation is a peaceful attempt to change yourself, whereas contention is trying to forcibly change another person.
It is no accident that these two words are placed immediately following each other. It teaches us that instead of fighting with our brothers, we should each try to emulate those qualities within each other that will help us as we smooth our ashlars. The lesson of the final working tool is to regulate our lodge in such a manner that discontent is unable to take a foothold. This lesson is so important that it is mirrored in the Senior Warden’s duties: to see that none go away dissatisfied, harmony being the strength and support of all societies, more especially of ours!
Who best can work, and best agree? This is a difficult question, and it always depends on the task to which it applies. A healthy lodge is made up of brothers with a wide variety of backgrounds and knowledge, any of which may be useful to the lodge. One of the many duties of the Worshipful Master is to assign each task to those brothers who are best suited to it, which requires an intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of each brother in his lodge.
The discovery of who best can work, and who best can agree, is the only exception that our ritual leaves us to allow any contention within the lodge. While I cannot pretend to know the minds of our ritual writers, I would guess that this loophole was specifically left because it is possible, even likely, that the Worshipful Master does not know every strength and weakness of every brother within the lodge. Therefore, any brother could request extra work based on knowledge and skills that the Worshipful Master is not aware they possess.
In addition, the ritual specifically says the emulation of who best can work, and best agree. This implies an active effort to improve the abilities of each brother, to emulate and learn from those who are already able to perform those tasks. For those poor brothers who, for whatever reason, cannot learn the task, they are to passively agree and not interfere. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” 
Taken as a whole, the lesson of the trowel is to teach us how to function within a group, and as such it differs significantly from the other working tools. All of the other working tools within blue lodge Masonry provide us with lessons on various ways to regulate our personal lives and actions, whereas the trowel reminds us that we are but one small part of the whole. This makes sense; the brother receiving this lesson is soon to be a fully raised Master Mason, and will have a voice and a vote within the lodge, and so must be instructed in how to properly behave within that setting.
It has been said that Masonry has no room for selfishness, and the entirety of the Master Mason’s degree reinforces that. The obligation gives specific forms the selfishness may take, such as Atheism, and the raising shows selfishness taken to an extreme. Even in the lecture of the beehive are we reminded that we are but part of the greater whole that is Freemasonry.
You have to bear in mind that when our ritual was codified, most men were used to working alone, or in a group consisting of their family members only. Those who did work in a group setting, such as factory workers, were working at the direction of a foreman, and had no say in the direction of their employer. Masonry was the first time that most of our past brothers were placed in a setting where their input was valued, and could influence the works of the craft. The lesson of the trowel, therefore, was necessary to provide a foundation in teaching them how to behave within a larger group.
One of the courses at Carnegie Mellon teaches students how to work within a group setting. Here are a few of the tips they provide their students with, and a Masonic examination of them, as they apply to the lesson of the trowel.
  1. Find things you have in common. We all belong to the sacred band of Freemasonry, and have passed through the same initiation experiences.
  2. Check your egos at the door. There is no room for ego if we are only concerned with the facts of who best can work, as those who cannot best work can best agree.
  3. Be open and honest. Recall the lesson from Proverbs: “A false man sows contention, and a liar separates friends.”
  4. Avoid conflict at all costs. Within our group, no contention should ever exist.
They include many other tips that, while they do not specifically speak to the lesson of the trowel, are interesting in a Masonic sense nonetheless. Here are a few of them:
  1. Meet people properly. As Masons, we meet on the level.
  2. Make meeting conditions good. They specifically point out to meet right after a meal, as food tends to soften people. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I’ve put on a good twenty pounds since I joined Masonry, due to our great meals.
  3. Let everyone talk, within reason. In a lodge, this is at the discretion of the Worshipful Master, and a wise Worshipful Master will know how long to let a discussion go on before it no longer benefits the lodge, and becomes a distraction.
  4. Put it in writing. This is the reason our poor secretaries have carpal tunnel syndrome. Every meeting and every action of the lodge is recorded by our hard working lodge secretaries.
Our lodges, which have been functioning basically unchanged since the 1700s, are performing at the level that research conducted in the 1980s shows is the most efficient way to perform. The suggestions given follow so closely to how our lodges function, they could have been written by observing us directly.
While most Masons today have more experience working within a group or committee setting, this doesn’t mean that the lesson of the trowel is no longer important. Indeed, with the rapid erosion of respect happening throughout all areas of society, this may be one of the more important lessons we teach! The value of respect is still taught within our walls, as long as there are men willing to display it for our newer brothers to learn it.

For being only a single sentence, the lesson of the trowel is surprisingly complex, and a thorough meditation on it could fill a book, while tonight I only had a few minutes. I would encourage each of you to remember the lesson of the trowel in all your Masonic duties, so that we will continue to strengthen the sacred band of Freemasonry. 

~AT


Bro. Adam Thayer
is the Senior Deacon of Lancaster Lodge No 54 in Lincoln (NE) and the Senior Warden of Oliver Lodge No. 38 in Seward (NE). He’s a member of the Scottish Rite, and the Knights of Saint Andrew. Adam serves on the Education Committee of the Grand Lodge of Nebraska. You can contact him at adam.thayer@gmail.com

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