Relief and Charity
Relief, the Column of Beauty, whose ornaments, more precious than the lilies and pomegranates that adorned the pillars of the porch, are the widow’s tear of joy and the orphan’s prayer of gratitude. (Mackey, 1878)
As Freemasons we are taught that relief or charity is “that virtue which may justly be denominated the distinguishing characteristic of a Freemason’s heart”. It’s true that one mason may know another by certain signs, tokens and words, but a true Freemason is known by his heart and actions thereof. We are also taught to help people who are in distress without causing material injury to ourselves, and to support outside charities as well – that it’s a “duty incumbent on all men”. Showing compassion, treating everyone in a just and upright manner, committing random acts of kindness; these are the true marks of a Freemason:
To relieve the distressed is a duty incumbent on all men, but particularly on Freemasons, who are linked together by an indissoluble chain of sincere affection. To soothe the unhappy, to sympathize with their misfortunes, to compassionate their miseries, and to restore peace to their troubled minds, is the great aim we have in view. On this basis we form our friendships and establish our connections. (Mackey, 1878)
When we usually hear the term “relief” we automatically think of charity. An organized charity is set up in a community to relieve distressed people. These are usually supported by the public, and thus it is the duty of the public to contribute to this form of relief. Citizens are obliged to help in order to pay their lawful debt to society. People need to give more than their share for it to be considered relief and not obligation. Masonic relief goes well beyond that:
All about us, among our neighbours, are examples of what we term “a beautiful life.” Such beauty is almost wholly composed of unselfishness. He who walks in beauty thinks of others before himself, of stretching forth his hand, not for personal gain, but to help, aid and assist the poor and the unfortunate.
It cannot be had by wishing. It is not painted by the brush of desire. No musician may compose it upon any material piano. The poet may write about it, but he cannot phrase it. For it is of the inward essence which marks the difference between the “real good man” and he who only outwardly conforms to the laws and customs of society. (Unknown, 1930)
It’s not just about monetary relief. There are other ways one can be in distress. Personal problems can be relieved by suggestions and encouragement. Loneliness can be relieved by friendliness. There are many ways to give relief. Sympathizing with misfortune, consoling sorrow, restoring peace to a troubled mind – these are true examples of Masonic relief. It’s our duty to see these opportunities and offer relief as best we can. Physical and economical distress often requires emergency demands, and money can certainly help but might not fully solve a problem. Let’s not forget about things like readjustment, rehabilitation, education, family and the welfare of everyone concerned. There will always be a need for spiritual comfort and the assurance of sincerity, interest and friendship. This is the true meaning of Masonic Relief:
A man may give all the money he possesses and yet fail of that Divine grace of Charity. Money has its place and value, but it is not everything, much less the sum of our duty, and there are many things it cannot do. (Unknown, 1923)
Any man, no matter what his status in life, may suddenly come into a situation that he has no control over and require assistance. Giving that assistance isn’t necessarily charity, but rather an inevitable act of brotherhood. Brotherhood means the willingness to give a helping hand. Ergo, Masonic Relief is a tenet. We must extend that relief to the best of our ability, and continue to do so in whatever manner is necessary – whether that be monetarily or simply putting in the time necessary. This spirit of helping one another is central in being a member of a lodge:
Charity is a law because our conscience is not satisfied nor at ease if we have not relieved the suffering, the distressed, the destitute. It is to give that which he to whom you give has no right to take or demand. To be charitable is obligatory on us. We are the almoners of God’s bounties. But the obligation is not so precise and inflexible as the obligation to be just. Charity knows neither rule nor limit. It goes beyond all obligations. Its beauty consists in its liberty. (Unknown, 1925)
When a candidate is initiated he is charged in the North-East about the importance of Charity. Even during higher degrees candidates are reminded about it. In this sense, we are constantly to remind our brethren about this virtue through practice. Remember that this tenet is preached from the very first day one becomes a Freemason. We have a natural tendency to relieve the distress of a brother whom we have shared experiences with:
As Masons come together in the lodge room and outside of it for the discussion of Masonic truth, a strong feeling of companionship and brotherhood naturally results. The friendships formed in Masonic work and study carry in themselves a desire to relieve the necessities of unfortunate brothers. (Frazer, 1915)
This is not to say that relief and charity will grant one salvation in the afterlife. The purpose is to improve the lives of men here and now. We don’t have charities simply for gratitude or recognition. Individual brothers are to take part in any form of benevolence, whether or not anyone hears about it. Giving time and self is a commodity that is often in short supply, so by improving the lives of either a community or just one person we set an example that may encourage others to follow. This is vital. To be blunt, it is unmasonic to be selfish:
Freemasonry has no place for the little, selfish side of man. Its secrets are as the dead to him who looks at life that way. It looks for the man with the bigger soul, with the more universal spirit; it stops and stay with him only who sees man’s mission in the betterment of the human race, who can take by the hand the fellow who is down and out, and put him on his feet and send him on his way a better man. (Unknown, 1925)
It’s a divine commandment. In any holy script, the practice of charity is always recommended. As we all know, fulfilling any such divine commandment can give one piece of mind and inner strength, while easing the soul. Robert Farley- a poet, in his collections says: “Charity is a blessing- chance to serve others. Think of the service you may render, not of serving self alone, think of happiness of others and in this you will find your own.”
When we as Freemasons adopt this practice to our fellow brothers it helps us to shape each other’s futures. It’s not just about fulfilling our obligations, but also realizing that helping a member of the human family is a key part of the equation relating us to the divine. Does Deity give us things, or rather shares things with us? Donations are all fine and good, but at the end of the day sharing or donating ourselves leaves a much more lasting impression:
The Holy Supper is kept indeed,
In what so we share with another’s need;
Not that which we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three,
Himself, his hungering neighbour, and Me!
– James Russell Lowell, 1849
Charity and relief have no substitute in Freemasonry, as they both have much deeper roots in the Freemason’s heart. This practice will always receive divine blessings as we are “wise stewards of the manifold gifts of God”. Not only is it an ornamental part of Freemasonry, but also an essential part:
Relief flows from brotherly love, as free, pure, and refreshing as the mountain air. It dries up the gushing fountains of grief, banishes want from the abode of a distressed brother, and pours the oil of joy into the wounded hearts of the widow and the orphan. (Sickels, 1868)
Every action has a reaction. Contributing to charity and relief bears fruit and allows those less fortunate to rise in life. We are remembered for the things we do, and Freemasonry teaches us to “live respected and die regretted”. In its broadest sense, charity is about attitudes and relationships, respect and tolerance – not just giving money. Attitude is everything:
We must not fall into the too common error that charity is only that sentiment of commiseration which leads us to assist the poor with pecuniary donations. Its Masonic, as well as its Christian application, is more noble and more extensive. The word used by the apostle is, in the original, love, a word denoting that kindly state of mind which renders a person full of good-will and affectionate regard toward others. (Mackey, 1873)
Having that attitude doesn’t mean waiting until a brother needs it. On the contrary, we are to constantly extend the hand of fellowship, friendship and fraternity. There should never be a moment in time when a Mason feels lonely, friendless or forgotten. May the invisible arms of the brotherhood surround him no matter where he is:
From all this one can see at a glance what brotherly aid really is. It is the substitution of the friend for the stranger. It is a spirit which throws round a man the comforts and securities of love. When a worthy brother in distress, or his family, is helped, it is not as a pauper, as in the fashion of public charity, but the kindly help which one neighbour is always so glad to lend to another. Masonic charity is strong, kindly, beautiful and tender; and not charity at all in the narrow sense of the word. Nay, it does not wait until a brother is in distress, but throws about him in his strength and prosperity the affectionate arm of friendship, without which life is cold and harsh. Friendship, Fraternity and Fellowship – this is the soul of Freemasonry, of which charity is but one gesture with a thousand meanings. (Unknown, 1925)
We are taught to “extend relief and consolation to our fellow creatures in the hour of their affliction”. Again, this is referring to something much deeper than a cheque book. It’s not just the physical acts we do for others that is important. What really counts is the empathy and love we show to each other:
We are taught not only to relieve a brother’s material wants, the cry of hunger, etc., but to fellowship with him upon our own level, stripped of worldly titles and honours. When we thus appeal to him, giving spiritual advice, lifting him up morally and spiritually with no sense of humiliation to him, we set him free from his passion and wants. (Unknown, 1925)
Therefore we should always know that when we are with Freemasons we are in good company, because we know that in order to create a better world relieving human suffering must come from the heart. It is not enough to “give until it hurts”. We must give until it helps. This is what it means to be a true Freemason:
Guided by this sentiment, the true Freemason will “suffer long and be kind.”
He will be slow to anger and easy to forgive.
He will stay his falling Brother by gentle admonition, and warn him with kindness of approaching danger, He will not open his ear to the slanderers, and will lose his lips against all reproach.
His faults and his follies will be locked in his breast, and the prayer for mercy will ascend to Jehovah for his Brother’s sins.
Nor will these sentiments of benevolence be confined to those who are bound to him by ties of kindred or worldly friendship alone; but, extending them throughout. the globe, he will love and cherish all who sit beneath the broad canopy of our universal Lodge.
For it is the boast of our Institution, that a Freemason, destitute and worthy, may. find in every clime a Brother, and in every land a home. (Mackey, 1873)
In its truest sense, empathy is the best example of Masonic charity. To a Freemason, it’s one of the working tools to build up that “temple not made with hands”, and eventually becomes a natural part of his life:
Once a Mason has really trained himself to regard every man as his brother, it becomes natural for him to feel the impulses which prompt him to relieve the distressed, whether they suffer physical wants, fears, sorrows, wrongs, or bitter grief. This is where the individual Brother plays his part in creating a favourable image of the Craft. (Hahn, 1964)
There are those who tend to pay more attention to the suffering itself rather than its cause. We should remember that helping others carry their burdens involves the sharing of feeling and emotion, and involves giving attention to both pain and cause. In this way, Freemasons usually have a tendency to flock towards other Freemasons:
In a lodge a man need no longer be a stranger; he finds there other men who, like himself, are eager to establish friendships, engage in social intercourse, and pool the resources of all in behalf of the needs of each. (Unknown, 1925)
We take pride in knowing that we are part of such a great brotherhood. We share in each others pain, we remain loyal to our obligations and we never refuse to extend the hand of relief and charity – whether or not we are called upon to do so. A wise brother once said:
The Charity that is swift of foot, ready of hand, in the cause of a common humanity.
The Charity that writes a Brother’s vices in water and his virtues in enduring brass.
The Charity of which He who spake as never man spake was the illustrious exemplar.
– Address by M.* W.*. Edward M. L. Ehlers, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge F. & A. M. of the State of New York. June 24, 1913.
We all know that charity and relief are essential in Freemasonry, but in the normal run of things they have their limits. Sure, they alleviate sufferings here and there but obviously it goes far beyond putting our hands in our pockets. We need to show that we actually care:
Freemasonry not only inculcates the principals of love and benevolence, it seeks to give them actual and living presence in all occupations and intercourse of life. It not only feels, it acts! It not only pities human suffering, it relieves it! Nowhere in the world can a good Mason feel himself alone, friendless or forsaken. The invisible but helpful arms of our Order surround him, wherever he may be. (Unknown, 1925)
Masonic charity should be practiced in everyday life – restoring faith, confidence, love and dignity in one another. We should forget what we give and always remember what we receive. We should not only pity those less fortunate, but show compassion for them as well.
Freemasonry teaches us to render our neighbour “every kind office which justice or mercy may require, by relieving his distresses and soothing his afflictions; and by doing to him as, in similar cases, [we] would that he should do unto [us].” Therefore when we give a helping hand we need to keep in mind not to shame or disgrace anyone. Recipients deserve their dignity. The highest form of charity is actually to prevent someone from becoming impoverished in the first place, by offering considerable favours in a manner that is dignified or by lending things, or by helping someone to get a job or start a business. In the end that person is lifted to a point where they no longer need to become dependent on others. Everyone deserves to be prosperous:
It is enough if you understand that the larger ideals of Masonry mean freedom, and therefore, average prosperity of soul, and mind, and body to its members, We must not forget that the fundamentals of Masonry, the simple and accepted things, are the makers of welfare–the truest and surest expression of Masonic charity. (Frazer, 1915)
The most important thing to remember about charity and relief from a Masonic standpoint is that it’s not about what you do or even how you do it, but the feelings that go into and come out of it:
“Charity is a virtue of the heart and not of the hands.”
– Joseph Addison, 1713.
Sourced from The Korean Freemason - Relief and Charity - Part 5 of a 16 part series regarding morals and conduct.