Masonic Articles and Essays
Death, The Liberator
Bro. N.W.J. Haydon
The spectre of death looms large over every creative work of humanity. It is the great motivator, the unknown end against which we all strive for remembrance. But is it also our greatest liberator?
In common with the older Mysteries, so far as we have relies of their teachings, Masonry offers its votaries a method of approach to this final test of our philosophy of life, one worthy of human dignity and in harmony with our honored motto, Follow Reason. Alan Seagar wrote for all of us:
“But I’ve a rendezvous with Death At midnight in some flaming town, And I to my pledged word am true-I shall not fail that rendezvous.”
We, too, have a rendezvous with the Reaper, by no means to be escaped, no matter how much science may help us to postpone it. And though to but few is it given to meet him with those feelings voiced for us by Horatius
“How can a man die better
Than when facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?"
Yet we need not watch his sure approach with only a bitter recognition of our human weakness. Such an attitude is unworthy of those who truly follow reason, and have worked out a philosophy of life, which in death sees but a change of circumstance, however important that may be.
We should adapt to our own use the salute offered by the gladiators of old, save that instead of hailing a human Caesar who viewed their struggles as an amusement, we should as bravely regard the Ancient of Days, saying each one of us “Ave, Maoister Vitae, moriturus te saluto,” and go forward fearing nothing.
There have been many noble expressions of attitude towards Death, and amongst them that remarkable poem, “Thanatopsis,” written a century ago by a young man of 18, holds a high place with its sonorous phrases, its confidence that finds in facts a firm foundation for faith. Naturally, it reflects at first the sombre New England upbringing of its author, but none surpass its conclusion in natural dignity:
“. . . sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Let us examine our grounds for this trust, that our hope may be reinforced by reason as concrete as by iron rods and, to this end, let me draw attention to an essay by Maeterlinck, to which I am deeply indebted. (“Death,” published by Dodd, Mead & Co., 1912.) He writes:
“It were a salutary, thing for each of us to work out his idea of death in the light of his days and the strength of his intelligence and learn to stand by it. He would say to Death: ‘I know not who you are, or I would be your master; but, in days when my eyes saw clearer than today, I learnt what you are not; that is enough to prevent you from becoming my master.’
“He would thus carry, imprinted on his memory, a tried image against which the last agony would not prevail and in which the phantom-stricken eyes would take fresh comfort. Instead of the terrible prayer of the dying, which is the prayer of the depths, he would say his own prayer, that of the peaks of his life, where would be gathered, like angels of peace, the most limpid, the most pellucid thoughts of his life. Is not that the prayer of prayers? After all, what is a true and worthy prayer, if not the most ardent and disinterested effort to reach and grasp the unknown.”
Here is the key to our problem; let us learn what Death is not; by this time-honored method we shall strip off the masks wherewith our imagination has disguised it. It is not sickness, nor suffering, nor the stern agony. It is not shroud, nor pall, nor grave, nor the horrors of disintegration. All these have to do with the methods and usages of life. The errors and weaknesses of nature or science caused their beginnings; Death emphasizes their futility. Should we convalesce, we forget them; should we not, our survivors abuse Death that stops them.
As Spencer so carefully explains, our life is a continual adjustment of internal relations to external relations, of growth from within to pressure from without; and when we can no longer adjust ourselves, why blame Death for clearing the board and giving us a new deal ?
Do we accuse Sleep for the fatigue which overwhelms us if we resist it? It seems that all our knowledge only helps us to die in greater pain than the animals that know nothing, and we add to our troubles by imputing to Death those salvaging operations whereby our elements are restored to usefulness in Life’s workshop.
“... Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim Thy growth to be resolved to earth again, And lost each human trace, surrending up Thine individual being, shalt thou go to mix forever with the elements.”
We do not view with horror or anguish the fading flower, or the crumbling wall, but, where our bodies are concerned, we usually strive to delay by all means possible their natural dissolution. Embalmings, coffins, graves, and vaults are brought into action, and that which happens therein poisons our thoughts, offends our senses, daunts our courage. Yet all this is of life and impossible without life. How much, then, has our boasted civilization increased the ethical value of our funeral ceremonies?
Remains then but one terror associate with Death, that of the unknown into which it seems to force us; but this also can be dissolved considerably if not totally, by following reason. There are at least four methods of solution open to us:
Survival with our present consciousness.
Survival without consciousness.
Survival with universal consciousness.
There is nothing to be gained by including any religious dicta herein, for the fact of Death is no more-and certainly no less-subject to that mode of thought, than any other of the activities of life. Birth is equally as important as Death, but only in some “pagan” and “uncivilized” peoples do we and the solemnity and dangers of birth regarded as occasions for priestly action, so we have still much to learn.
Annihilation is not only unthinkable, it is a blunder.
Infinite change, yes, surely
“Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
Endless diversity of place and condition, but to suppose non-existence is to try to limit infinity, and since a state of nothingness cannot be at all, that at all events it cannot make Death terrible. As Sir Edwin Arnold has written:
“Never the Spirit was born, the Spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not, end and beginning are dreams.
Birthless and deathless and endless endureth the Spirit forever, Death hath not touched it at all, dead tho the house of it seems.”
The next alternative - survival with our present consciousness involves that ancient puzzle, “What am I?” For most of us, “I” becomes identified with memory. “I” cannot be body or mind, for we know they are constant only in changing. The body provides, and the mind organizes, our sense perceptions, whereas our conscious memory preserves such residue of these as establish experience and build character. Memory seems to be a sheath for the “I,” most easily disturbed by sickness, yet most clamorous for an unbroken existence. What cares it that through the alchemy of Death, “I” can participate in the whole range of natural forces? Neither knowledge, nor beauty, nor power attract it, if they are not accessible through its agency.
If “I” am greater than, and within, memory then bodily sufferings and desires must be petty to this surviving consciousness, for with the loss of body its services are lost too, deprived of sense perceptions on which to build them, mental and moral pains and changes must go, and the personal mind is dissolved. Remains then of our present consciousness, only memory, so pitiably finite and, cut loose from its former co-workers, how shall it continue to know itself? We know how easily it fades while in full physical health, what then will it be like when the great change comes? Yet the hope that this alternative conveys has done much good service to the brave souls of our predecessors, and is well expressed in the “Song of Odysseus” as he lay awaiting death by torture:
“Endure my heart; not long shalt thou endure The shame, the smart.
The good and ill are done, the end is sure;
Endure my heart.
“There stand two golden vessels by the throne Of Zeus on high, From them he scatters mirth and moan To men who die.
And thou of many joys hast had thy share, Thy perfect part;
Battle and love, and evil things and fair;
Endure my heart.
“Fight one last greatest battle under shield, Wage that war well, Then join thy fellows in the shadowy fields Of asphodel.
There is the kingly Hector, there the men Who fought for Troy;
Shall we not fight our battles o’er again, Were that not joy?
“Tho no sun shines beyond the dusky west, Thy perfect part, There shalt thou have of the unbroken rest! Endure my heart.”
(Translated by Andrew Lang.)
We approach, then, our third alternative, survival without consciousness. This also contains nothing of terror, or even regret. Dreamless sleep we welcome as “Nature’s sweet restorer,” but not as a lasting condition. Such an expectation does not consort with ideals fit for ordinary healthy men and women much less for Builders. A little further analysis shows us that by this alternative we imply really the direct negative of our second alternative; rather we feel opening to our vision that which contains the offly possible satisfaction for which all seem to be struggling, the only possible completion of that urge from within which is the mainspring of our evolution.
“Nay, but as when one layeth His worn out robes away,
And, taking others, sayeth
‘These will I wear today.’
So layeth off the Spirit
Lightly its garb of flesh,
And passeth to inherit
A residence afresh.”’
Here, then, we approach our fourth alternative, survival with the Universal Consciousness and at this point Maeterlinck’s own words alone are adequate:
“Here begins the open sea. Here begins the glorious adventure, the only one abreast with human curiosity, the only one that soars as high as its highest longing. Let us accustom ourselves to regard Death as a form of life which we do not yet understand; let us learn to look upon it with the same eye that looks upon birth; and soon our mind will be accompanied to the steps of the tomb with the same glad expectation that greets a birth. If, before being born, we were permitted to choose between the great peace of non-existence and a life that should not be completed by the magnificent hour of death, which of us, knowing what we ought to know, would accept the disquieting problem of an existence that would not end in the reassuring mystery of its conclusion? Which of us would care to come into a world, where there is so little to learn, if he did not know that he must enter it if he would leave it and learn more? The best part of life is that it prepares this hour for us, that it is the one and only road leading to the magic gateway and into that incomparable mystery where misfortunes and sufferings will no longer be possible, because we shall have lost the body that produced them; where the worst that can befall us is the dreamless slumber which we count among the number of the greatest boons on earth; where, lastly, it is almost unimaginable that a thought can survive to mingle with the substance of the universe, that is to say, with infinity which, if it be not a waste of indifference, can be nothing but a sea of joy.”
It is to this that we, having “Followed Reason,” make our approach, “sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust.” Heretofore we have seen through a glass, darkly; the narrow limits of our being conceal infinity from our view, as Pascal has said, or, to use a Western idiom, we cannot see the forest for the trees. We must prepare ourselves in advance by learning how to change our focus. For example, when we look through a screen door we see the garden through a faint blur of lines; or we can, instead, see the screen filling our vision with a faint blur of light and greenery filtering through.
For all of us Death is but a screen, and for most of us it fills our vision. Can we readjust our focus, and strengthen our unfaltering trust, by attempting to understand infinity? The effort, even if unsuccessful at present, will be as useful as those of our talented brother of Rochester (Mr. Claude Bragdon) in his illuminating books on “The Fourth Dimension.”
As an analogy let us consider the experience of the human embryo when the time of birth approaches. How limited is its experience of life! A little space and power for movement, but in no other mode can its volition express itself! Sight, hearing, choice of food, protection from accidents, are all beyond its power. It knows nothing but a soft, warm, darkness, and even these qualities are not so known to its consciousness, for it has no basis of comparison with anything different. Could one communicate to it news of the great change soon to take place in its condition, with what terror and reluctance would it regard this entire loss of all it knows, for a state of being so much more comprehensive as to be incomprehensible! Yet we adults are in the same position as we approach the gateway to another life.
And if, as we know, the embryo by virtue of its inherent life-quality can change from a speck of zooplasm to a human being, there appears no reason at all why it should not go on yet further and enter into tune with the Infinite. Death to us can be no worse than birth to the embryo, and all evolution affirms that “The soul’s ephemerally housed in Nature’s depths.”
What then is this Infinite, as our reason tests it that is to say, as we compare it with life as we know it? Mostly negatives. It has neither beginning nor end. It can have no purpose nor destination, for the one would have been accomplished and the other reached in the long train of ages that has passed, had it been other than self-contained. If it be not conscious always, then it never will be, for it must know all or nothing since it has only itself to know.
If, however, we try to understand, Infinity through our senses, how different is the result. At once the hard diamond becomes a mass of activities. Every part is going somewhere, complete knowledge is endlessly experimenting for new discoveries, accomplished purpose seeks continually some new fulfillment.
Which is right, is this inconsistency real or only apparent? Here our limits force us to change from Operative to Speculative. We are, for the most part unable to attain exact knowledge in advance of the fact but we can hope, for we have laid the foundation thereof. We cannot deny infinity, but we can see that all its parts (for lack of a better word) must be of the same nature. There would then be, as yet, no unchangeable finality of perfected knowledge or accomplished purpose. Rather an infinite series of transformations and combinations, an ever growing consciousness striving to know itself, seeking to express an idea hidden in its own nature, requiring all the worlds of all the universes as fields for its experiments, all form of life as instruments, as coworkers to that discovery as pioneers in that great adventure. Here is our hope:
“Small as man and his thought may appear, he has exactly the value of the most enormous forces that he is able to conceive, since there is neither great nor small in the immeasurable. The mind alone, perhaps, occupies in infinity a space which comparisons do not reduce to nothing.”
Is it not, then, childish to talk of eternal happiness or sorrow, where it is infinity that is in question? Our ideas of these conditions are so human so specialized, they are based so entirely on the implication that the laws of our life here shall govern our life under all other conditions. Yet, we must admit that our ideas proceed entirely from the sensibilities of our nervous system, which is tuned to but a small range of perceptions, and which could as easily have felt everything the reverse way, and taken pleasure in what now makes pain.
Much wiser, then, is it to “Follow Reason,” and recognizes that it would need but a trifle, a few papillae more or less to our skin, the least modification of our eyes and ears, to turn the temperature, the silence, and the darkness of space into a delicious springtime, an unequaled music, a divine light. We can, then, readily persuade ourselves that the catastrophes we think we behold are the acts of life itself, that even the collision and pulverizing of worlds marks the beginning of some new and marvelous, experiment, that all is but birth and rebirth, a departure into an unknown filled with the anticipation of that far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves: some immense festivals of mind and matter in which Death, the Liberator, thrusting aside at last our two enemies, time and space, will soon permit us to take our proper part, as Fellows of the Craft of which the Great Architect is the Master.
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