Livingstone here. In Masonry, the number three rears its head a lot. Three degrees. Three angles to the triangle. Even during rituals there will be instances of three men being the important element of the ritual. The number three takes a sacred and powerful place within the lodge.
So here I want to discuss the Three Great Lights of Masonry. For those non-Masons who don’t know what this is…you’re right where you should be. I’ll get you up to speed. For any brothers reading this, it’s time to expand your mind. For you non-Masons, the Three Great Lights is a secret part of our ritual and one of the most important. The Three Great Lights of Masonry are
1. The Volume of Sacred Law
2. The Square
3. The Compass
Here is some good reading to give you perspective on it before I dive in.
The Three Great Lights of Masonry and the Three Lesser Lights (A quick introduction)
Phoenix Masonry Three Great Lights (A deep look into the lessons each light teaches)
Right Angles, Horizontals, and Perpendiculars (Clears up misconceptions)
One of the things that is always fascinating about Masonry is its universal nature. In a sense, it was designed over a long people of time by many men, in secret, to become what it is today. And the version you find today is very fascinating because even though there are hundreds and hundreds of religions, Masonry is compatible with all of them. There are some points where things can get hairy among certain doctrine interpretations, but there isn’t a point where there is a clear and definitive contention.
So what does this have to do with the Three Great Lights of Masonry? Everything.
So the first light of Masonry is usually The Volume of Sacred Law (VSL). In America, this is typically The Holy Bible, with a smattering of Torahs, Qurans, and other holy books. This is one of Masonry’s unique approaches to universality. When people think universal, they actually think of a destructive/creative version of universality. I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s say you have two books that are in conflict with each other. What a D/C Universalist will do is they will find the parts of each book that are in agreement, merge them together, and then chop out the parts that are in disagreement. Effectively they are rewriting each book to make this new book.
But Masonry doesn’t work this way. During a normal stated meeting, there can be MULTIPLE VSLs displayed on the alter in front of everyone. There isn’t some Masonic Holy Book that applies to everyone. There is each person’s book, set out and opened for the man who subscribes to it to always have it in their view and thus close to their heart. Masonry is about your personal journey with your VSL, not about modifying what you believe to fit some other belief system. So the 1st great light of Masonry can actually be a number of lights so to speak. Whatever book you consider sacred, that book will be displayed on the alter, unedited and pure in form.
Another thing to think about for the 1st light of Masonry is that is represents LIGHT. As in, this book will illuminate the darkness for you. No small compliment and since it is the first light of Masonry, it is the most important and is considered as much.
However the interesting thing about Masonry are the two other lights. Because Masonry is not a religion, it works on a different set of policies then a religion would. Yet Masonry is “religious order” in some sense. It’s a subsect group that has it’s own particular brand of spirituality. Yet it is not a subset of any religion and does not subscribe to any particular religion, religious talk is even banned from the lodge, so it’s very much not a religious order. What does this all mean? It means that attaching such powerful significance to a set of tools, and having them in the same category as someone’s holy book is a huge statement to make. For some, that is a direct violation of their belief system. Yet again, Masonry knows this and considers the Holy Book the first and most important light of Masonry. I consider my Holy Book far bigger then any organization out there, object or anything known to man. But like many things in Masonry, how much bigger it is up for discussion. Each individual Mason has their own approach for what it means to them.
So let’s focus on our 2nd light. THE SQUARE
In Masonry, we are told to use the square to square our actions. That’s it really, nothing else. While the square does come up in other degrees and has significance attached to it, the Square is used to square our actions and nothing more. Now, if I just told you that was what it meant, you might wonder what the specifics are. Again, this is the universal part of Masonry that manifests itself here. The interpretation is up to you for what it means to square your actions. Obviously the actual Masonic ritual guides you into a direction of what it means, but further speculation can modify or augment that original thought.
For me, I always felt the Square was used to interact with people in a way that was regular and sensible. Furthermore, the tool of the square does not change at all. This is obvious but know that we recognize this, what The Square means becomes clearer. The tool cannot be adjusted. The point of the square is that it is used to make sure the perpendiculars of stone are at a correct 90 degree angle. What does that mean to our actions? For me, The Square is used to make sure my actions are the same for everyone. The same degree. Now this is an interesting concept in itself. The idea that we should have the same set of actions for everyone. When Masonry was first revealing itself to the world in 1717, the idea of treating people the same was a real part of religion but in many ways was only occasionally practiced. People would routinely treat those with a higher status differently vs. those with the same status vs. those with a below status. People would treat each other differently all the time. People come from different places in life, different levels of education, are different racially, socially, politically, etc. If someone was different, you treated them differently.
Let me make a quick tangent. Masonry is interesting in that much of it’s design seems like it was designed for Masons alone for how to treat each other in lodge. Yet Masonry seems to have few references to dealing in a specific way with brothers. The things you learn are designed to apply to everyone, not just Masons. Square your action. It doesn’t say square your actions with your brothers. It says to square them and then nothing else. So Masonry has decided to put forth this system of social philosophy. Why, nobody knows, but that’s what Masonry has decided.
So Masonry takes the opposite approach of treating everyone differently and instead calls you to square your actions. It’s this element, Squaring your actions to have your actions be the same and universal that is very much a blueprint of society today. Every day we more closer to a society that treats people of all walks of life equally. Think about how things were 50 years ago, or 100, or 500, etc. Society is undisputedly getting better at treating people equally. Sure we are getting worse in some areas of treating people the same, but overall we’re better then before. This is one of Masonry’s hallmarks and one of it’s three lights.
The Compass is hugely underrated and I can attest that our journey as builders and Masons begins with The Compass. When we are presented with the Compass, we’re told to circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds to all mankind.
Circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds. Again, this is open to interpretation for each individual Mason, but the use of it seems obvious. When it comes to circumscribing our desires, for me it means to think of the things I desire and to to keep these desires within limits. In 21st century America, where everyone wants to be rich and glory is bestowed on the rich and famous, we must be keen to desire things that may be improbable to reach. Yet it’s not saying to remove our desires at all. It’s saying to limit them. Societies have been destroyed by people who are consumed with desire to have more and then have more and so on and so forth. In a finite world, we must give ourselves a finite level of desire or we will destroy ourselves trying to be satisfied. And this is a good reminder to be happy with what you have because when we limit our desires, we focus more on what we have and are able to enjoy the life we have no in a more full and rewarding way. And if we spend out entire lives focusing on chasing our own desires, we will leave the wants and needs of our neighbors behind us.
The Compass actually has two major elements of symbolic significance. While the compass is presented to us to teach us about circumscribing our desires, it also is presented to us as a reminder to subdue our passions to all mankind. The message of subduing our passions to all mankind is something that Masonry focuses on in a large way throughout the ritual. I consider this potentially the most important for me. I am someone who is a high energy individual and someone who can dive into things and be driven to powerful emotion and zeal. But I know that I’m not alone in this high level of passion. People have their own passions they deal with and many people struggle with anger, obsessive behavior, overwhelming passion, and uncontrolled emotion. In Masonry, this is not what you want. A good Mason keeps these things in check. And of all the level of interpretation, because I have spent the most time focusing on this one I have also discovered how it can be applied to a wide variety of situations and things.
A. Don’t get overly angry. Masonry doesn’t address anger, but through the compass it addresses it in an indirect way. From my view, it means don’t get overly angry. I know some Masons may say this means to not get angry at all, but keeping my passions within due bounds means I need to see anger as a tool and not an uncontrolled eruption. I’m not someone who gets angry easily, but seeing this actually has made me realize it can be ok to get angry. But I have to keep the anger within due bounds and use it constructively. There is a time and place for it.
B. Don’t let the things you love become destructive. What?! Don’t have too much of a good thing you say!?!? Yes, Masonry already figured this out. I can become absolutely addicted to wikipedia and news articles, that I can lose 3 hours of my day if I’m not careful. I used to tell myself that this was ok because I was learning. After becoming a Mason though, I know it’s not. I’m not being constructive with my learning. Instead, that information has turned into a drug and satisfier that hurts my job and relationships. And my information retention is pretty average so this other information I’m putting in is clouding out the other things. And if you consider your mind a structure, every thing you put in is a key part of that structure and bad knowledge and unhelpful information will weaken that structure. So now I limit what I learn to protect the things I do learn and to keep from becoming passionately wrapped up in it.
C. Emotion is good. It’s human, but don’t get overly emotional. It’s an interesting thing to consider as we today are more pro-emotion then we have ever been. It’s ok to cry, to show pain and pleasure. But we must be self-limiting in this. If we are filled with emotion all the time, we’ll never be able to calm ourselves and focus on the reality of the problem. When people get highly emotional about the news or something that matters to them, they lose control of their mind. They let go of reason. It’s ok to care and show emotion, but you must never let go of control over yourself. Also, people keeping their emotions in check helps us see those who are truly suffering.
Now you ask, why do I consider the compass to be the most important? Because there is a long history of Freemasons who took power in their countries or fields. From the kings and Prime Ministers of Europe, to the presidents and revolutionary leaders of the Americas, to the shakers and movers of society in Africa and Asia, Freemason leaders are as ubiquitous as air. So what does this mean? Well there is a long history of leaders filled with evil and tyranny. From the ancient kings of Europe, to the dictators in Europe and South America, to the genocidal warlords in Asia, people who lead are commonly the very source of the suffering we face as humans. Yet in Freemasonry, those dictators are a rare lot. Freemasons have FDR, George Washington Simon Bolivar, Winston Churchill, Sun-Yat Sun, the revolutionaries of France, and so forth. They all were the engines of liberty, progress and modern society. There weren’t any Hitlers, or Stalins, or Maos in this group. Instead, Masons were all men who took power and instead of becoming consumed with passion or desire, they circumscribed those feelings. They instead looked to build society and the people around them, instead of tearing things down trying to fill their own unsatisfiable wants and needs.
So those are the three great lights of Masonry. The VSL, the Square, and The Compass. As Masons, we look to them to illuminate the dark and to provide us with guidance, when the answers aren’t easily known. For you Masons or for those who are looking for ways to make yourselves better people, consider the illuminating factor of these Three Great Lights.