The Three Great Lights of Masonry: The Book of the Law, Square and Compasses
We are first introduced to the Three Great Lights when we are kneeling at the altar in the 1st degree. The Senior Deacon removes the hoodwink and the Worshipful Master motions to the open Bible, the Square and Compasses superimposed upon the Volume of the Sacred Law.
The Volume of the Sacred Law used in our lodges represents “Light”, but not just any light. It does not denote any specific religious sect’s “Light” or knowledge, as some would allege “Light” to be. Some have described masonic “Light” as specifically being knowledge, but knowledge without context, experience and judicious and wise application is useless at best and dangerous at the worst.
I believe that our masonic light is the all-encompassing “Light” of the Creator who is known by many names by many people throughout all recorded time, and whose handiwork is inscribed in Nature and on every stone, star and living thing. In our ritual we are told that the VSL is to rule and govern our faith and is the symbol of our dependency and relationship to God.
“The first objects presented to your view on being brought from darkness to light are the Three Great Lights of Masonry, the Holy Bible, Square and Compass.”
After this instruction the Worshipful Master then gives a shortexplanation of their import and meaning and in a whirl of words and a rush of the ritual work he is off on another tangent and moving onto more explanations and instructions that have become part of the clipped pace of our degree work.
Because the pace of the degree work seems to move so quickly it can confuse, overwhelm and even intimidate a new candidate. It seems that masonry has consciously determined to use a maddeningly rushed pace to confuse rather than educate and inculcate its most deeply held tenets and secrets.
But if we look carefully at our work it becomes clear that the initiates who crafted our degrees had specific reasons for obfuscating the symbols. Their purpose was to create tension and to create questions in hopes that the new brother would begin his studies of the Craft more earnestly.
With the candidate kneeling at the altar, which is arguably the place of birth in the lodge of the new mason, with these Three Sacred Great Lights, the most profound act of change takes place in a man, and that change takes place in his heart. This occurs in the center of the precincts and sacred space ofSolomon’s Temple, which itself exemplifies the mundane plane.By the use of the term “mundane plane” I refer to our physical manifestation and experiences on the Earth proper.
It is at this juncture that we have participated in the act of elevating a common man to a more enlightened spiritual man. It is an act of birth in every way. The candidate has begun the process of shedding his former coverings and profane status and has embarked upon the path of initiation, enlightenment and service.
It would seem to be of absolute necessity to spend more time in explaining how critical the Three Great Lights are to the process of enlightening and creating a better man by having him in the center of the Solomon’s Temple on his knees and in the presence of these most powerful of working tools. Because, if any one of the elements is missing, the Altar, the Volume of the Sacred Law, the Square or the Compass is missing there is no way toconsecrate this new being.
I add the Altar to this formula because it represents that point on and in the mundane plane where the “Light” manifests and also the point where the new mason is born. In our jurisdiction and current rendition of the work this sacred place is situated in the center of the lodge room.
It is at that place and point in time and space where the candidate takes his obligation and becomes an Entered Apprentice Mason, a brother, a student and a new initiate. He has shed his former life and he begins the journey of acquiring the mantle of friend, brother and benefactor to others and all of society.
The Holy Bible is the Volume of the Sacred Law used in our jurisdiction, but other holy writings are allowed to be used on the altar when initiating, passing or raising a brother, according to their faith, conscience and religious practices.
It is the embodiment of Universal Law, and emblamatic of the laws of creation, and represents the spiritual heritage we enjoy with our creator. It is essentially the physical representation of all natural forces and creative energy of the One that led to the physical creation of all that we experience in the known universe. It is the hallowed receptacle of the infinite force or forces of creation written and sealed in sacred text.
It exemplifies the foundations of creation and is the firmament upon which we build and upon which we obligate ourselves to serve Him and our fellow creatures.
When we take our obligations at the altar we bind ourselves to serve the Creator, as we understand him, and we acknowledge we are subject to His Laws, Universal Law. We also bind ourselves to the fraternity, its rules and regulations and our fellow men at the same time and commit our strengths and efforts to support the fraternity, our brother masons and all of society.
At this moment of birth into the fraternity our new brother has entered into a new light by which to see himself, his fellows and brothers, the world and all of God’s creations and wonders. It is an act of conscious spiritual will and a confirmation of his new station, place and duties in Great Work.
In the days of Operative lodges the candidate sealed his obligation or oath by placing his hands upon the open Bible. We continue this practice today with some changes and variations as our degree work has evolved from our earliest reckoning, but the VSL has been present and part of the furniture of masonic lodges from time immemorial.
Upon the open pages of the Volume of the Sacred Law liesthe Compasses and then the Square.
In the 1st degree when we are “brought from darkness to light’, we are told the Square is to square our actions. In the lecture we are instructed that “the Square is to the Master”, because it is the proper masonic emblem of his office and exemplified by the jeweled collar he wears. Later in the lecture we are also instructed that the Square denotes morality.
The Square is the tool upon which we are received in the 2nddegree. It represents more than the obvious 90 degrees of an angle and the ritual of this degree exhorts the candidate to look to the Book of Nature and science to discover the Creator’s hidden mysteries.
The Square is the tool we use to prove an angle to be true, or at 90 degrees and is called the “try-square”. It exemplifies thingswhich are perpendicular and has been used in masonry indescribing a person of rectitude, and it is used as a memory tool to teach proper moral conduct and to remind a brother to practice “upright” behavior.
In our ritual we are told to use the Square to “Square” our actions, and it is with the use of this Great Light that we begin to accurately measure the accuracy of our masonic work upon our character, our actions, our hearts and our souls. There are other explanations of the square which can be applied too. Some masonic writers claim it applies only to the human or mundane and is not directly connected to the Divine. I would argue that all things are directly beholden to and connected to the Divine.
“There is no thing without the “One” thing.”
The square of 90 degrees “tries” our efforts and forces action to overcome the resistance of a situation or an event. The ancient Chinese spoke of building their temple to the earth in “Square” form, thus the “Square man” is created. As explained before, it is the symbol of the Master of the Lodge, the working tool of a Fellowcraft mason and the 2nd of the Three Great Lights. (ref. Symbolic Masonry, HL Haywood, 1923)
I have spoken of the “Square” in other masonic lectures as having a more esoteric context of having the effect of creating tension, or of adding resistance to a situation in which an obstacle must be overcome. I also teach that from a hermetic perspective it represents the positive, electric, male spiritual influence that is one of the constituent forces necessary to formnew life. In our masonic ritual it is purposely placed on the altar with the other Great Lights, which are the necessary constituents of the alchemical formula to create a new spiritual life.
The Compasses lie upon the Volume of the Sacred Law and its points are covered by the Square.
The compasses are placed at an angle of 60 degrees, which is an angle of ease and opportunity, as opposed to the Square angle of 90 degrees which is angle that describes difficulty, friction and obstacles.
In the 1st degree obligation the Compasses are explained as being necessary to “circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds toward all mankind”.
Later in the 2nd section and lecture of the 1st degree we are instructed again that:
“the Compass to the Craft, for by due attention to its use, we are taught to circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds toward all mankind.”
The fact that this is repeated almost verbatim is significant in that the emphasis and repetition indicates that the adepts who crafted our ritual knew full well how easily man is ruled anddriven by his animal urges and passions.
Only a little further on in the lecture the new Entered ApprenticeMason is introduced to the two Holy Saints Johns and the symbol of the Point within the Circle. We are instructed that the Point represents the brother and that the Circle represents the boundary of his conduct toward others and the world. So, yet again we are cautioned about our behavior and how to conduct ourselves in the world:
“beyond which he should never suffer his passions, his prejudices, or his interests to betray him.”
We are told the Circle is supported by two parallel lines, representing St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and on top rest the Holy Writings.
“In tracing its circumference we necessarily touch upon the parallel lines and also upon the Holy Bible, and while a Mason keeps himself thus circumscribed, it is impossible that he can materially err.”
This emblem of the Point within the Circle, the parallel lines, the Saints John and the Holy Bible is full of hermetic symbolism that begs examining. I have, in other lectures, shown some of this symbolism in a much different light than that in which it is presented to us in our 1st degree lecture.
From a hermetic perspective, the compasses represents the receptive, magnetic female generative energy necessary in the alchemical formula to create a new spiritually conscious being. In our case, in the lodge, we are speaking directly about the creation of a new mason and brother of the Craft.
Because it is at the altar, on his knees, in front of God and the Brothers of the Lodge, as a base and profane man, that all of the alchemical elements are present to transform the candidate into an new Entered Apprentice Mason. But the formula, to be successful must be actuated by a conscious act of spiritual will, and this can only be done by the man on his knees at the altar and in the crucible of his heart of hearts!
Are we not asked, “Where we were you 1st made a Mason?”
The only and obvious answer is, “In my Heart!”
The Altar is adorned with the open Volume of the Sacred Law, which represents the Divine Presence, the Compasses represents the magnetic, receptive female spiritual energy, whose points are covered by the Square, which represents the electric, generative male spiritual energy.
These spiritual and alchemical elements are part of the constituents of the formula required to transform the mundane man into a seeker of more “Light”, a Mason.
The final element in that formula is the candidate himself, who by “his own freewill and accord” subjects himself to the obligation and then swears to “never reveal any of the secret arts, parts or points of the hidden mysteries of Freemasonry”… “Except it be to a true and lawful Brother of this degree or within the body of a just and legally constituted lodge of Entered Apprentices…”
Later in our progression to the 3rd degree we are received upon the Points of the Extended Compass upon our naked breast and told:
“which is to remind him that as the most valuable parts of man are contained within the naked breast, so are the most important tenants of Freemasonry contained within the points of the extended compass, they are brother love, relief and truth.”
As we progress through the degrees of the Blue Lodge the expansion of scope and import that the Great Lights and tools of masonry undergo expands too. Part of the ever increasing “Light” we receive on our masonic path is related directly to the greater understanding we acquire related to the use of these toolsas we progress through the degrees of the Blue Lodge.
Over and over we are reminded that our enlightenment in masonry is “by degrees only”. How we choose to interpret that knowledge and how we choose to apply the lessons learned is a very personal matter.
The Three Great Lights of Masonry are part of the elements necessary for creating a new mason, but it is within the crucible of his heart, “the Breast”, that the ancient formula comes alive,and the profane man transforms into the spiritual man and is born into Masonic “Light”.
It is my hope that as I travel on my masonic journey I will have the strength of my convictions and stand by my obligations to help a worthy brother and to have the compassion and courage to help others who are suffering and in need. It is my intent and my commitment to practice those sacred tenets of Brother Love, Relief and Truth which were energized and enabled at the altar by the Three Great Lights of Masonry.
MWD: aka Tom O’Bedlam