Jacob's Ladder
Charles A. Sankey
21 February 1968

Tonight in continuing the theme of Masonic-things-we-live-by, I want to consider one symbol from the Junior Warden's lecture heard here tonight.

One of the stories which has often bothered me in its Old Testament setting is that of Jacob's ladder. You will recall Jacob, with his mother's coaching and connivance, and by means of deliberate lies in both act and word, had just cheated his elder twin brother, Esau, out of his father's blessing. He had fled to visit his maternal uncle, and, incidentally, to wive it wealthily there, until his brother's fully justifiable anger had subsided. As the story has come down to us, Jacob's vice was not only not punished, it was promptly rewarded. A recent translation of the Torah by Jewish scholars tells it this way:

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it1." Shaken, he said, "How awesome is this place'. This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven." Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that site Bethel, "

Whether it was because of the white magic of Isaac's blessing, or because Jacob was more sensitive and contemplative, or that he was better mentally developed than Esau and, obviously, from the results in his descendants, a carrier of superior genes, I do not know. Anyway that time lies and trickery came out on top.

What then is the meaning of our symbol? I believe it is precisely the same as it was to Jacob, namely a revelation that there exists a line of communication symbolically between heaven and earth, that is between components of or in the universe which are spiritually and morally respectively superior and inferior. To so state is merely to repeat the universal testimony of the thousands of our race who have had what we call a mystical experience.

Let us agree with the Junior Warden that, from our standpoint, in this line of communication Faith, Hope and Charity are very important, i.e. are principal rounds for ascent.

Faith is often taken to be an acceptance, probably a non-critical acceptance, of a divine revelation through the particular religion to which the faithful one adheres. Let me, as a scientist, suggest that it is something far more universal.

The only reason we think there is such a thing as science is because observations of phenomena in many, many instances have fallen into a pattern which appeared ordered or understandable to human minds, or from which predictable sequences of events or other observations could be correctly anticipated. Each attempt in science to correlate facts and observations is invariably to construct and deduce statements and laws which are assumed to be correct, and therefore a logical basis for action, until disproved by other observations. Each such assumption is an act of faith, - make no mistake about that. Because of the sun's past performance we believe, i.e. we have faith, that it will come up tomorrow morning. This is why I have said again and again, that science is an intelligently questioning faith, an agnostic faith, in the concept of order. Faith is as deeply inherent in the order of nature as it is in the moral-spiritual order.

Each of us has expressed a belief in a Supreme Being. In the sincerity of my personal belief in this I yield to no one here. But Job was right in asking

" Canst thou by searching find out God?
Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
Oh that I knew where I might find him
That I might come even to his seat. "

The fact that my personal belief is an hypothesis, a deeply and conscientiously considered opinion which is in accord with everything I know or of which I am aware, does not weaken it in the slightest. It is logical, sensible and right that I should endeavour to act as if it were "true". To me this religious faith and faith in the order of nature are parallel.

Faith certainly generates Hope. But hope should be concerned with much more than just one individual or even with mankind. I would hold to a universal hope matching a universal faith; this hope says that ultimately there is an answer (including an answer for me) not merely to the what? and to the how? but to the why? that there is Purpose beyond our greatest imaginings. The universal hope is Purpose, not reward. This universal hope is the only presently valid rejection of Emily Dickinson's .sad words

" As all the heavens were a bell
and Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race
Wrecked, solitary, here. "

Yes, Hope is a second principal round.

I also agree that a third principal round is charity towards all men but I am not sure that this "comprehends the whole". I would concur with Albert Pike when he suggests that "he will hardly find his way to heaven who desires to go thither alone". This, in its broadest implication, would lead to a universal charity so magnificently demonstrated in our own times by Albert Schweitzer.

But when I give you, as I do, Jacob's ladder as a Masonic-thing-to-live-by, you must be warned that you cannot really use it unless you appreciate some of its mystical significance. The poem "In no Strange Land" which bears the subtitle "The Kingdom of God is within you", written by Francis Thompson, testifies irrefutably to this. Everything that I have said tonight, and much more, is in its six brief stanzas.

O world invisible, we view thee
O world intangible, we touch thee
O world unknowable, we know thee
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air -
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Wot where the wheeling systems darken
And our benumb'd conceiving soars'. -
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shutter'd doors.
The angels keep their ancient places; -
Turn but a stone, and start a wing.
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces
That miss the many-splendour'd thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, - clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Gennesareth but Thames'. "