By Brother Mark van Dijk
Address at Lodge De Goede Verwachting
15 January 2015
In our Craft we are taught – and we seek to learn – through the use of allegory. Our Speculative Masonry uses as its philosophical bricks and mortar, the very real and concrete workings of the Operative Masonic Guilds of old. It illustrates through symbolism how the development of our lives can be compared to the design and construction of a building.
This evening I would like to examine a fundamental – indeed, the fundamental – aspect of personal development, using exactly this kind of allegory. I will look at the part of a building that is never seen, but without which any tower would surely topple over. The part of a building that is never seen, but without which any tower would surely topple over.
When I think of a great building, I think of the towering cathedrals and basilicas of Europe, with their enormous domes and their flying buttresses. I think of the temples of antiquity, with their pillars supporting massive weights. I think of our own Temple, with its checkered floor and its heavenly ceiling. I think of my home, with its rooms and its warmth of family. I think of smooth walls, of high ceilings, of clean floors, of bright windows, and of open doors. And then my sense of humour takes over… and I start thinking of buildings that went wrong.
I think, then, of curious edifices like the campanile, or freestanding bell-tower, of the Cathedral of Pisa. Brethren, I’m sure you’re all familiar with that infamous Tuscan landmark: The Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Imagine, if you will, that you were Bonanno Pisano, the architect of that famous tower. You designed a beautiful cylindrical bell tower; you decorated it with beautiful arches. You watched as the stonemasons turned your design into a freestanding building, adding a glistening marble exterior to the limestone structure. And then imagine your horror as the builders finished the second floor, and your tower started lean to the side. Imagine yourself peeping through your fingers as your hands hid your face in embarrassment, knowing that your beautiful belltower would, at this rate, eventually tip and topple to the ground.
The Tower of Pisa was designed to be a belltower, which would stand proudly alongside the cathedral, calling the faithful to prayer. But because of one simple but fatal flaw, it became the Leaning Tower of Pisa: a monument to masonic failure.
So what went wrong? Well, to discover that we need to look not up (and to the side), but down, to the part of the building that we cannot see: the foundation. We need to look not up , but down, to the part of the building that we cannot see: the foundation.
The foundation stone of the Tower of Pisa is only three metres deep: not a great start. Then there’s the soil. The tower site is located on soft ground, composed of clay, sand and shells – the town of Pisa lying, as it does, between the Arno and Serchio rivers. That soil is weak and unstable, and – combined with a flimsy foundation stone – it’s not nearly solid enough to support a 56-metre tower. Now the builders knew that if their tower was not plumb, it would be unable to withstand the tests and trials of time. So immediately, they tried to straighten it out.
By the year 1178, just five years into the project, the tower was already leaning at an angle of 1.6 degrees. So, to counteract that, they made the remaining floors taller on the south side in a desperate attempt to – Brethren, please forgive the term – “bend it straight”. Did that work? No. The weight only made the foundation sink even deeper, and only made the tower – now with seven floors – lean even further. At its completion in 1372, the tower was leaning at an angle of 5.5 degrees. In the centuries since, engineers from around the world have tried, tima and again, to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In 1934, Benito Mussolini ordered concrete to be poured into the foundation – but again, that only made it worse. In 2008, a group of engineers removed 70 metric tons of soil, stablising the tower just enough for it to stop moving for the first time since its construction began more than 800 years before. Those engineers believe that the Tower should hold firm for another 200 years… but the lean is still a full 4 degrees. The top, a full 3.9 metres off-centre. It is, to borrow the Italian, un disastro.
Brethren, the story of the Leaning Tower is amusing in many ways, but – for me, as an Apprentice – it is also a cautionary tale. I delayed my petition to join this Order for many years – at least 10 or 15, given my family’s relationship to the Craft. And I did that, not through any disregard for the Craft, but because I needed to make sure that my own moral foundation was secure, and that the soil of my life was solid and stable. I needed to ensure that I was, in a sense, properly grounded. I suppose I started early in my assignment to “Know Myself”. As with any building, the foundation is the part of the structure that is buried away, and hidden from view. But the stability of that structure depends on the strength of that foundation.
In order to fully achieve the Architect’s plan, we must each ensure that our foundation is firm. It’s too late to go back, years later, and try to rebuild that foundation. All you can do is try to patch things up as you go. In order to fully achieve the Architect’s plan, we must each ensure that our foundation is firm. As I’ve been welcomed into Freemasonry, I’ve been tremendously grateful for the help and encouragement I’ve received. Brethren, there is a generosity of spirit in our Craft that is almost impossible to find in our modern world. You Brethren are providing me, and my fellow Apprentices, with the light and support we need to establish a solid foundation on which to build our Masonic careers.
If we are able to stand upright, let it be because we are firmly grounded in our moral lives. And if we wobble along the way, let it never be because of an inadequate foundation.