Masonic Education

The Cable Tow

by Anon (extract from the “short Talk Bulletin” – vol IV March 1926 N.3)

The first thing most of us do when encountering a new word, is reach for the nearest dictionary. Although other variations, such as Cable-length and Cable-laid were found, the word Cable tow, could not been found outside of Masonic publications, despite trying different spellings and different (older) dictionaries.

Breaking cable tow down, we find the word cable and tow. Webster’s lists three words in this context, namely towline, hawser, and cable. It defines a tow-line as “A small hawser, used to tow a ship”, a hawser as “A small cable; or a large rope, in size between a cable and a tow-line”, and a cable as “A large strong rope or chain, used to retain a vessel at anchor; composed of three strands; each strand of three ropes; and each rope of three twists. A ships cable is usually 120 fathom, or 720 feet, in length. “Furthermore, the encyclopedia of knots describes a cable as three hawsers, twisted so that they spiral to the left.

In any case, it is clear that the one of the main purposes of a towline, hawser and cable is to pull and secure heavy objects and is an essential piece in construction. 

Ancient builders used cables extensively, and although it is unclear exactly when the term cable tow came to be used in Masonry, it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest it came from terms and equipment operative masons were using which speculative masons then adopted.

Symbolism of ropes around a neck:

Other religions and societies have used a device similar to a cable tow in their religious ceremonies, commonly referred to as a halter, or a rope put around a candidate during religious ceremonies, presumably as a symbol to indicate the mercy of the candidate to whatever was awaiting him after an initiation.

However, the main symbolism of having a rope around one’s neck, is submission. Many cultures put halters, or collars, around prisoners and slaves. 

Usages in Masonry:

It seems that the first time the word Cable tow came in use was 1730, when it was described as a cable rope, and as a towline. It is referred to in the Fellowcraft obligation. This usage probably stemmed from the fact that Medieval Masons were required to attend their annual or triennial “assemblies” except in case of sickness or “in peril of death”. Others have said that certain assemblies specified what that distance was, ranging from 3 to 50 miles.

What is interesting is the term is used as “my cable tow”, implying that it is an individual thing, and hence unique. If so, many have said that the length of one’s cable tow, and hence the ability to attend Lodge, depends on the individuals circumstances, like work obligations, family, distance, and the like.

It is also interesting to note that in some Masonic ceremonies, the number of times the cable tow is bound around a candidate increases as the candidate progresses higher in the degrees, symbolizing the increasing importance of the lessons therein taught. The opposite also exists, where the number of times a candidate is bound is decreases, signifying the increased “trust” the candidate receives as he progresses

The Cable Tow is purely Masonic in its meaning and use, or so we are told.

In an early pamphlet by Pritard, issued in 1730 the cable tow is a called a “Cable-Rope” and in another edition: a “Tow-Line.”  However, in neither pamphlet is the word ever used in the same form and sense in which it is used today. 

The whole Masonic Lodge is a symbol and every object, and every act performed within it, is symbolical. The whole fits together into a system of symbolism by which Masonry veils the truth that it seeks to teach.

As far back as we can go in the history of any initiation, we find the cable tow, or something similar, used very much as it is used in a Masonic Lodge today. Whether it is called “Khabel” from the Hebrew or “Cabel” from the Dutch (both meaning a rope) the fact is the same. In India, in Egypt and in most of the ancient world, a cord or cable was being used in the same way and for the same purpose.

So far as we can make out, the cable tow seems to represent pledge, a vow in which a man pledges his life. We even find the cable tow being employed outside the initiatory rites. For example, in a striking scene recorded in the Bible (I Kings 20:31,32), the description of which is almost Masonic, “Ben-Hadad” – the King of Syria –   had been defeated in battle by the King of Israel and his servants are making a plea for his life. They approach the King of Israel “with ropes upon their heads,” and speak of his “Brother, Ben-Hadad.”

Why did they wear ropes, or nooses, on their heads? 

Possibly to symbolize a pledge of some sort, given in a Lodge or otherwise, between the two Kings, of which they wished to remind the King of Israel. The King of Israel asked: “Is he yet alive? He is my brother.” Then we read that the servants of the Syrian King watched to see if the King of Israel made any sign, and, catching his sign, they brought the captive King of Syria before him. Not only was the life of the King of Syria spared, but a new pledge was made between the two men.

The cable tow, then, is also the visible symbol of a vow by which a man has pledged his life or has pledged himself to save another man’s life at the risk of his own. Its length and strength are measured by the ability of that man to fulfill his obligation, a test of both his capacity and his character.

If a lodge is a symbol of the world and the initiation is our birth into the world (of Masonry), the cable tow is not dissimilar from the cord which unites a child to  masonic temples/her mother at birth. Just as the physical cord, when cut, is replaced by a tie of love between mother and child, so, in one of the most impressive moments of initiation, the cable tow is removed, because the Brother, by his oath at the Altar of Obligation, is bound by a tie stronger than any physical cable.

The cable tow is the sign of the pledge of the life of a man. As in his oath he agrees to forfeit his life if his vow is violated, so he pledges his life to the service of the Craft. He agrees to go to the aid of a Brother, using all his power in his behalf, “if within the length of his cable tow,” which means, if within the reach of his power, oath. 

But let us remember that a cable tow has two ends. If it binds a Mason to the Fraternity, by the same token it binds the Fraternity to each man in it. Happily, in our days we are beginning to see the other side of the obligation – that the Fraternity is under vows to its members to guide, instruct and train them for the effective service of the Craft and of  Humanity.

Control, obedience, guidance – these are the three meanings of the cable tow.  Of course, by Control we do not mean that Masonry commands us in the same sense that it uses force.  

Not at all!  

Masonry rules men as beauty rules an artist, as love rules a lover. It controls us, shapes us through its moral teaching and so it wins obedience and gives guidance and direction to our lives.

What is the length of a cable tow?

Some say it is seven hundred and twenty feet, or twice the measure of a circle. Others say that the length of the cable tow is three miles. But such figures are merely symbolical, since to one man it may mean three miles and to another three thousand miles – or to the end of the earth.

For each Mason, the cable tow reaches as far as his moral principles go and his material conditions will allow. Of that distance each person must be his own judge!

So mote it be.

St. John the Evangelist, Involution, and Freemasonry

By Kristine Wilson-Stack

Presented by Brother Matt Wheeler during our Lodge’s observance of St. John, the Evangelist Day

There’s been much written about the patron saint of Freemasonry, Saint John the Baptist. His feast day, celebrated by Freemasons over the world, is in June – the time of greatest light in the northern hemisphere. This feast day, June 24, is typically the time of Summer Solstice celebrations.

There is another patron saint of Freemasonry, Saint John the Evangelist, of which less is spoken or discussed. St. John the Evangelist has as his feast day December 27, roughly the time of Winter Solstice. There is an excellent paper on the Saints John in a popular Masonic site called Pietre-Stones. In it, the author discusses the possibilities of how the Saints John became the patrons of Freemasonry. In the end, he concludes that we really don’t know the actual reason that they are Freemason’s patrons. One thing, though, that Freemasons are wonderful with is speculation. After all, it’s what we are – speculative Masons. So, let us speculate.

Freemasonry itself has a lot of analogies related to light and with Light. There’s an archetypal idea, mostly associated with Plato and the allegory of the cave and the analogy of the sun, which associate Light (in the form of the Sun) with Truth. These archetypical forms are what Plato (via Socrates) considers to be that for which the philosopher-king is ever searching. These ideas have been incorporated into Freemasonry in myriad passages and ritual elements. Many Freemasons consider Freemasonry to be a “solar” ritual, as opposed to a lunar ritual. In this aspect, they see “solar” as an active, outgoing, and Western in nature, whereas a “lunar” type of ritual is receptive, inward, and Eastern. Where some initiatory schools are inward looking, Freemasonry is outward viewing. Like the symbol of Yin and Yang, this does not mean it is devoid of lunar aspects; however, the primary focus of Freemasonry is the improvement of mankind.

It makes sense, then, that Freemasonry would concern itself with solstices. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s path (as seen from Earth) comes to a stop before reversing direction. These are trajectories of the sun’s path and in understanding these movements, we understand more about how our world, how nature, works. In understanding nature, we are able to move through it with easy and achieve greater good. However, Freemasonry goes far deeper than the simple knowledge of nature. These movements become metaphors and analogies for the “a-ha” moments which make up a Freemasonic life.

For thousands of years, mystery schools and myths taught humanity about the cycle of life. When we moved away from superstition into speculation, we realized that special gods did not bring back the sun to continue life – it was simply the way that Nature worked. Humanity learned that while there might or might not be a Divine hand behind the creation of the world and the Nature it housed, we could learn to understand how it worked to our advantage. We learned to move away from fear and into exploration. The myths and mystery schools became a way to explore not only what happened in this world but perhaps what happened after we die, and help us contemplate the reasons for our existence, humanity’s existence. The greatest time of philosophical and physical exploration within these schools of thought came during the Age of Aries. The Age of Aries was a time of identifying humanity into civilizations, when there was the fire of invention, innovation, and inspiration.

With the onset of our current Piscine-age, mystery schools and myths faded in the bright light of more dogmatic and directive religions. With the rise of Abrahamic religions, our concepts of Light have morphed. In the Western Hemisphere, we began to associate people which archetypes. Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Muhammad, who said “I am the light of Allah and everything is from my light.” Gods of all locales had and have been associated with the Sun or Light, but this Piscine age was the beginning of a time when living human beings began to be associated with light, and Light from divine sources. As Christianity spread, it sought to incorporate many cultures into its fold, thus continuing the influences of the Roman Empire – conquering with assimilation rather than domination. In this assimilation, many “feast days” and “saint’s days” were integrated with, and overtook, colloquial celebrations. It is not a coincidence that the Feast day of Christ (the Light of the World) is also the celebrated feast day of Mithras, a Sun God worshiped in Ancient Rome.

Two of the most important figures of the Christian Bible, and specifically the Christian religion, are Saint John the Evangelist (John of the gospels) and Saint John the Baptist. An extremely good overview of St. John the Evangelist is located at this link. According to this, since the fifth century, December 27 has been the acknowledged feast or celebratory day of St. John the Evangelist. Every Christian knows, at the very least in passing, about John the Baptist. They might say different things, but the core of the story is essentially that John the Baptist was born to a woman named Elizabeth, six months earlier than Jesus’ birth. There is some speculation that Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were related in some way. John was a bit of a wild man, calling on the nation of Israel to repent because “their savior was nearly upon them.” John began baptizing people by way of water, to “wash away their sins” and be ready for the Christ. Thus, John the Baptist was the herald of the coming of the Christian savior, even before knowing who he was. John the Baptist is known as the one who recognized the “son of God” and identified him to the world. (John 1:31-34)

John the Evangelist was a different story. John The Evangelist, brother of St. James, was one of the first disciples of Jesus and was the only disciple not to be martyred for his faith. This John wrote his gospel, letters to leaders of the early church and later, in Patmos, his Revelation. He apparently died in Ephesus, a priest and scholar. He was known in the Byzantine Church as “John the Theologian.” What we know of this John is only what he himself has, ostensibly, written.

This does little to explain why these two disparate personalities are linked to Freemasonry. My speculation goes on here. I believe these two Johns are archetypes in which Freemasonry has housed certain ideals and, perhaps, more esoteric teachings. John the Baptist is a fiery personality, who used water to cleanse the people for the coming of “the True Light.” He was vocal, verbal, an expression of the element of air and yet, he was a man of the wilderness, whose earthiness lead people to belief and faith. In other words, he was an elemental man, full of life of this material world. He shone during the highest point of the year, the time of most Light in the material world. He is the archetype of material expression in its highest form. It could not be clearer why he is the Patron Saint of Freemasonry at the brightest time of the year.

John the Evangelist, however, was none of these things. He is a reflection of the teaching of the Christ, someone who took the Light and transmuted it into thought. He was a scholar, someone for whom thought created life. He represents the mental aspects of humanity, the time when contemplation and reflection are necessary to achieve progress. He was the energy of the Light transferred to thought and in its purest form, the Mind. Where John the Baptist represents Evolution, John the Evangelist represents Involution. These two Johns are the boundaries of the circle of human attainment – maximum involution and maximum evolution – the spirit turned to word and the word turned to spirit again. We see this as a icon of Freemasonry when we see the two Johns displayed beside a circle with a point in the exact center. This center is the point of pure Light within the human form, from which perfect balance of humanity is attained. These two Johns are the archetypes of the best of two facets of mankind, icons of the Piscean age.

This current age, in the procession of the equinoxes, is coming to a close and we find ourselves beginning a new age – an Aquarian age. While there is a technological overtone to the age, this is also the age of consciousness. The influences of nature continue to push us toward new ways of thinking, new influences. They push us away, perhaps, from the avatars and archetypes of an earlier age. The pictures that humans need vary and perhaps these two will become even further abstract in their meaning as we progress. Humans will continue to look to nature, and need to look to nature, to understand their own progress. Perhaps these archetypes of Involution and Evolution will change in the new age, and Freemasonry’s symbols will change with it. For now, these two Saints’ John stand guard and the highest and lowest moments of Light, reminding us that both edges of the spectrum are necessary for progress to be achieved and nature to be understood.

The Old Master’s Wages

 I met a dear old man today,
Who wore a Masonic pin,
It was old and faded like the man,
It's edges were worn quite thin.

I approached the park bench where he sat,
To give the old brother his due,
I said, "I see you've traveled east,"
He said, "I have, have you."

I said, "I have, and in my day
Before the all seeing sun,
I played in the rubble, with Jubala
Jubalo and Jubalum."

He shouted, "don't laugh at the work my son,
It's good and sweet and true,
And if you've traveled as you said,
You should give these things their due."

The word, the sign the token,
The sweet Masonic prayer,
The vow that all have taken,
Who've climbed the inner stair.

The wages of a Mason,
are never paid in gold,
but the gain comes from contentment,
when you're weak and growing old.

You see, I've carried my obligations,
For almost fifty years,
It has helped me through the hardships
and the failures full of tears.

Now I'm losing my mind and body,
Death is near but I don't despair,
I've lived my life upon the level,
And I'm dying upon the square.

Sometimes the greatest lessons
Are those that are learned anew,
And the old man in the park today
has changed my point of view.

To all Masonic brothers,
The only secret is to care,
May you live your life upon the level,
May you part upon the square.

Author Unknown

St. John the Baptist

Presented by Brother John Koch

St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist is a name that is synonymous with Freemasonry. From our rituals to our obligations to feast days, we learn that the place where we are is dedicated to the memory of the Holy Saints John, of which one is St. John the Baptist. However, we often do not learn too much about them, as a Google search revealed that who is John the Baptist, what is his importance to freemasonry, why do freemasons celebrate feast days to them, are common searches. Thus, tonight, I am going to briefly tell you who St. John the Baptist was historically, then I will discuss his importance to freemasonry, and why we have a feast day.

First, who is St. John the Baptist historically? According to Biblical Scholar Robert Funk, in his book, The Acts of Jesus, St. John the Baptist was a Jewish Prophet and is often regarded in the Christian tradition as the precursor of Jesus Christ. This is because as part of his preaching, John often talked about a messianic figure who was coming and who would be greater than himself. In the Gospel of Mark, John is described as the messenger who was sent ahead of the messiah. He is also sometimes for the sake of clarity referred to as St. John the Baptizer, because he was not for instance a Southern Baptist, but a baptizer of men.

Biblically, St. John the Baptist is credited with baptizing Jesus Christ. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, St. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. According to Mark Powell, in his book, Jesus as a Figure of History, historical scholars regard the baptism of Jesus and John’s role in it as an event of almost near historical certainty, and along with the crucifixion, one of the two certain facts about the life of Jesus. Historically then, St. John the Baptist was a Jewish preacher, who is a major religious figure in many faith traditions. He is considered the precursor to Jesus Christ in those traditions and is credited with baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. Why though is he important to freemasonry?

According to Reverenced Harvey, of First Baptist Church in Lebanon, CT, in his speech entitled: “In Search of St. John the Baptist,” there is more that we do not know about St. John’s connection to freemasonry than we do know. There is no one answer to why he is so linked to freemasonry, especially when we could have adopted St. Thomas, the patron saint of architecture and building. What we do know is that medieval trade guilds did choose patron saints to watch over them, and likely, somewhere in our lineage, the Holy Saints John became our patron saints and we carry on that tradition today.

Regardless of the initial reason, Phillip Elam, Grand Orator for the Grand Lodge of Missouri in 1999, says no better person than St. John the Baptist could have been chosen to represent us, as his life and teachings exemplified those of freemasonry. In his article, “St. John the Baptist: Patron Saint of Freemasonry,” Elam writes: St. John the Baptist was a stern and just man, intolerant of sham, of pretense, of weakness. He was a man of strength and fire, uncompromising with evil or expediency, and, yet, courageous, humble, sincere, and magnanimous. A character at once heroic and of rugged nobility, the Greatest of Teachers said of the Baptist: “Among them that are born of woman, there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist.” Moreover, as Jesus, upon learning of John’s death said: “John was a lamp that burned and gave Light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his Light.” Here we see John’s biblical connection to light, and perhaps freemasonry. As Elam puts it: In John the Baptist, we have a singular instance of purity, of zeal, simplicity of manners, and an ardent wish to benefit mankind by his example. To him we are indebted for the introduction of that grand tenet of our institution, which it is our glory to support: Peace on earth, good will toward men…

So far then, we know that St. John the Baptist is historically important and has an important, if not completely known, connection to freemasonry, why though do we celebrate a feast day to him? According to Chris Hodapp, author of Freemason for Dummies, on June 24th, Freemasons celebrate the feast of St. John the Baptist, a curious thing for a non-sectarian group to do. It is hypothesized that the reason for it though lies in the above description of John the Baptist’s importance to freemasonry and his relation to his equal John the Evangelist. Two parallel, but equal lines. The St. John’s may also be representative of our journey as freemasons from darkness to light. From the darkness of St. John the Evangelist Day to the light of St. John the Baptist Day. From the winter solstice to the summer solstice. Both passion and reason looking towards our moral codes and moral representatives, the Holy Saints John, for guidance. We are also celebrating the formal founding of freemasonry today, as the Grand Lodge of England, probably not coincidentally, was officially formed on June 24 in 1717. In conclusion, on June 24, we celebrate St. John the Baptist. A man of historical importance and an exemplar of the virtues and duties of freemasons. As Phillip Elam puts it: John the Baptist was simply a man who lived in one particular historical moment. Yet, his message of repentance, humility, devotion, and love of God transcends time and culture. It is a message that is just as urgent and just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. It is a message that was illustrated by St. John’s daily life. Moreover, it is a message that underscores so many of the values that Freemasons today exalt as ideals for the living of a moral life. Let us dedicate ourselves anew today then to the memory of this Holy St. John and live out his example.

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