As the Christmas season draws to a close and we get ready for New Year’s parties and countdowns, yet another tradition comes to the forefront of our minds: New Years Resolutions. These yearly promises from ourselves to ourselves are taken more seriously by some than others, and we may make jokes about how they only last so long, perhaps only a week. Yet, the idea that we should set goals for ourselves, whether to take on new endeavors or remove unnecessary or unhealthy aspects of our lives is something which we should make last all year, much like the love and generosity of Christmas.
In Freemasonry, the symbol of the chisel represents discipline and education. Just as the chisel removes unneeded stone to reveal the jewel, form, or sculpture within, so can personal discipline remove those things which tarnish and distort our latent potential, and education can likewise chisel away our own ignorance, and reveal our inherent virtues.
The journey of a Mason is often compared to the creation of a perfect from a rough ashlar, a polished stone from a rough and imperfect one. The chisel is the primary symbolic tool in that endeavor, in that it is what removes the excess stone until the surface is smooth. An ashlar is a rectangular stone used in walls with a flush face. Just as we are said to be making ourselves into stones in the temple of God, so is the smoothing of the self meant to make those stones that we are fit perfectly, and serve their purpose in the temple.
The removal of excess stone is the purpose of the chisel, and the removal of excess aspects of ourselves forms a major part of the personal discipline required to excel at life, to fulfill our personal destiny and serve our purpose. The uncivilized or ineffective person is much like the rough stone, with various unnecessary protrusions, such as a tendency to anger, drink to excess, speak with too loose a tongue, or engage in sloth activities such as watching television or scrolling social media for hours.
As we hopefully see from the 24-inch gauge, we have only a certain number of hours in the day, and to fritter them away on excess activities that contribute little to nothing to the labor of our evolution is a waste. Likewise, if we speak or behave in ways that are inappropriate, out of anger or even simple gossiping, excess aspects of our being spill over into the lives and minds of others, leading to unnecessary problems, and more waste of time. These are examples of the kinds of rough, protruding aspects of the self we are meant to chisel away from our lives, through discipline and self-control.
Informing ourselves with knowledge is likewise an important aspect of our development, yet how does this correspond to the chisel? If we reflect on it a bit, we can see that every piece of knowledge learned is the removal of some ignorance. After all, if we do not know certain things for certain, our minds will surely fill in the blanks, even if only with guesses or superstitions. We cannot help imagining what might be true until we know what is true, and so it is these baseless stray imaginings that are eliminated with the chisel of Masonic education.
We should also find that these two aspects of the chisel go hand in hand, for surely as we educate ourselves, our behaviors will also change. In a sense, it is always the darkness of ignorance which leads us to engage in lazy behaviors, for instance, even if on some level we know we shouldn’t. At that moment, at least, we forget or neglect, and simply indulge our baser nature’s desire to be stimulated and inert. Likewise for inappropriate anger, gossiping, and similar things. So, going beyond education, it is knowledge and remembrance which are truly required to eliminate these aspects of ourselves.
Why do we choose to make declarations of improvement only once a year? While it’s fine to have a day to remind us all of the importance of this practice, we really should be tweaking and making changes to our lives every single day. Such is the evolutionary process, the way to change ourselves into something better than we have been, day by day. In Universal Freemasonry, we are taught to do precisely this, using the working tools as symbolic reminders of what it takes to become our ideal self, or as near to it as can be managed in this life.
What is your New Year’s Resolution?