This article is from a paper I wrote for my lodge back when I was a Fellowcraft. Much of this material has been taken word for work from this article, but the opinions are obviously mine.
I am here to talk to you about the Chamber of Reflection. A brief summery of what it is, what it means, and why it may benefit a lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.
In the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, the French Rite, and related jurisdictions, including Co-Masonry, the Chamber of Reflection is a small darkened room adjoining the Lodge room. It is a somber place of meditation and reflection for candidates for initiation into Freemasonry, and is sometimes used in higher degrees.
Although the impact of the chamber’s furniture must of necessity be personal, the symbolism relates to hermetic and alchemical correspondences. The chamber itself is symbolic of a cave, introducing the candidate to the alchemical element of earth. Also it reaches deep into the human subconscious, as early humans found refuge in caves. I argue it dives even deeper still when the darkness represents the womb and the brother is about to experience light for the first time. The skull (often with crossed bones) is an obvious symbol of mortality, and coupled with the hourglass, points to the brevity of mortal existence. Bread and water indicate simplicity. The rooster symbolizes the alchemical principle of mercury, which partnered with the salt and sulfur, symbolize faith, hope and charity. Vitriol (sulfuric acid) is interpreted as “visita interiora terrae, rectificandoque, invenies occultum lapidem”, or “visit the interior of the earth, and purifying it, you will find the hidden stone.” This is interpreted as “look within”.
Before the ceremony of initiation, the candidate is placed for a time in the Chamber of Reflection, in order to meditate and consider how Freemasonry is about to change his life. He is given a series of questions to answer. Typically, he is asked his duties to God, his fellow men, and himself. In some lodges he is also asked to make a will. At the end of this time, he is led to the Temple for initiation.
Now should ask ourselves the most important question a Mason can ask, and that is why.
1. The first is the impact it can cause on the brother. In a world where our minds are filled with information, 30 minutes divested of all minerals and metals (a.k.a. no cell phones) in a room with little information offers a Mason an experience they may not have had for a long time.
2. The 2nd is the lesson taught about recording ones experiences as they travel on their journey. By writing down thoughts and opinions before the initiation of a degree, they will have a vivid historical artifact that will allow the brother to remember who he used to be before. This is a reminder of the how our thoughts and views of our internal emotional history can change within us. Which is why a written record is so important, as while the mind will be influenced by our memory biases, the written account will provide a solid stone imprint of what our thoughts used to be.
3. The 3rd is while the symbols in the ritual aren’t replicated from the degrees, they offer a glimpse of symbolism that is not based around a degree and highlight the change one is about to make, and how their time in the world is finite.
4. The 4th should be the least important for us, in that it costs us nothing. To put a man in a room with symbolic items, and given a brief lecture and then letting him write his thoughts in peace for 30 minutes does not cost the lodge anything. It even buys us time to set up for the degree!
While the symbols on the Chamber of Reflection are foreign to us as American Masons, the idea of a Chamber of Reflection is one of merit. The ability for a brother to have time to contemplate whom he is in silence and solitude while recording his journey offers an experience that will only enrich the candidate and further illuminate their experience of the ceremony. I argue that we should implement this for use before all 3rd degrees, so the brother may take the time to prepare in his heart for the finality of the journey ahead.
If you’re Christian, then you are aware of St. John the Evangelist. Well, not everyone anyways. My history with St. John growing up was hearing the name John everywhere in The Bible but never being able to make heads or tales to who John the Evangelist really was. It was all very confusing and frankly considering how important Jesus was to me, I largely didn’t care for anyone else.
That is until I became a Mason. For non-Masons, we have two figures that are celebrated in Masonry and they are the Holy Saints John. Those saints are John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. And they both have holidays that coordinate with the winter and summer solstice, June 24th for John the Baptist and December 27th for John the Evangelist.
But for this entry with December 27th fast approaching we’ll focus on John the Evangelist and the celebration of him.
Certainly Saint John the Evangelist is important to us as Masons as well. It is fitting that while we have a relatively concrete biography of St. John the Baptist, whose theology and teachings were straightforward and rigid, the story of the Evangelist is more difficult to relate and requires more study much like his teachings. Saint John the Evangelist is likely the amalgamation of several New Testament Johns, including John the Disciple of Christ, John the Epistle writer and John the Divine of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation. There are many striking reasons why Freemasons would choose the Evangelist as Patron. Chiefly, the writings of this John (or group of Johns) read almost like Masonic ritual.
St. John’s Day was created early on in Christian history when the Catholic Church expanded and absorbed pagan religions and holidays. For many of these pre-Christian belief systems, the sun and the moon were key to their understand of the world. Also that duality of death and rebirth of the sun was extremely important. For early Catholicism, this became so important to them as well that they placed John the Evangelist’s day of recognition and celebration in accordance with the winter solstice. It’s interesting that John the Evangelist’s day came on the time of the year most most shrouded in darkness, surrounded by cold and snow.
As time went on, his day remained on December 27th and became less of winter solstice day and more of a day of it’s own, solidified on the 27th. Early Masons became attracted to it because of it’s proximity to the new year and thus became a key point in the Masonic calendar.
Firstly, let’s look at a few reasons why John the Evangelist took such a prominent role in Masonry.
One argument would state his defining reason for us is to be a marker for the winter solstice and New Year. The winter and the world in the darkness have a deep symbolic meaning to Masons. For the world is at it’s darkest when St. John arrives. Maybe he is here to bring the light back or maybe he is here to represent the total darkness. Another thing to mention is that Europe in late December is a cold and dead world. Nature has left and the life around us is gone. The significance of this in relation to John should not be lost to us. John is associated with death and darkness. And yet when the holiday ends, the world begins it’s journey back to light and life. That transition is a key element of St. John the Evangelist’s Day.
Then there is another argument as to why he is highlighted in Masonry. The Masonry we know cares deeply about the symbolic significance and to just tie a man to a date in time ignores the the actual man himself and what he meant. John was also the only disciple to not die a martyr but instead lived to an old age. He was also the one that Jesus held to his breast during the last supper. Also John laid next to the cross while Jesus was crucified. John was considered the most loyal and trusted of Jesus’s disciples and the one closest to Jesus. They were so close that Jesus entrusted the protection of his mother Mary to him.
John however, is also one of the most complex of the disciples of Jesus. John the Evangelist wasn’t just 1 man, but potentially 3 men. The three men being John the Evangelist, John the Apostle, and John of Patmos are all believed to be the same person and this tradition is generally held among all Christians. To know that a man could potentially encompass three different figures shows that John the Evangelist isn’t just a man, but potentially a figure that has grown beyond his physical history into something greater and more profound. John also was the person to have received Revelation, the final chapter in the history of the earthly world, the end of history as we know it and even potentially the end of darkness forever.
John is also considered to be the most Masonic of disciples. For example, the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist begins like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and darkness comprehended it not.
Let’s stay with this phrasing for a while. For those of you who have read this blog, this description of the creator is jarring, thought provoking, and meditative. Statements like this are right up Masonry’s ally. It’s rich in contextual wording and phrases open for complex interpretation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
What could this sentence alone mean? In the beginning there was the Word? The Word started it all. The Word was with God, as in God and the Word are uniquely tied together. How are they tied together is by saying the Word was with God. It’s something out of a deep esoteric playbook. You can take it in it’s more traditional terminology by saying that God was in the beginning and was the Word. Or you could turn around and look at it literally. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. As in the Word of God created God. It’s not a controversial thing to say if you take it in the direction that without the Word, there is no God. Any religion person will get that. But what is also interesting is this idea that these words created God. That God is the result of the creation of the Word. I myself am someone who firmly believes in the transcendent and immanent God of Christianity, I don’t believe the Word existed before God. But I do like to think and meditate deeply about what the disciples of Jesus stated. And the next sentance clarifies the first as such.
The same was with God.
This generally clarifies the last sentence of In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Replace Word with God in the last sentence and it comes out to In the beginning was God, and God was with the Word and God was the Word. It’s an interesting prose system but it’s meaning is crystal clear. God and the word are one and the same. They are WITH each other. What we can also learn here is the hyper importance of context. The first sentence almost made it seem like the Word created God, in this it feels more like God created the word. We must remember this in life, that words and their context matter very deeply. About going back to the very first sentence, the design of the sentence to flow back and forth for what is attributed to what still allows for us to see that the Word was in the beginning…but God along with it.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
This sentence is easy to read and to understand until after “anything made”. Yet if you look closely and assess again you can see that it really means that nothing didn’t come from God. Everything is from him. However our final two sentences are the most Masonic.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
This first sentence in the context of the sentences before is complex and I even dare say potentially controversial. There was life in God. And the life was the light of men. In Masonry light is a powerful symbolic element that is routinely used in various ways of instruction and thinking. Light in our case generally means knowledge. You could almost read the first sentence as, God was alive through the knowledge of men. That men brought God to life. Again, controversial but something that can be interpreted from this. Or you could read it as, in God was life, and the knowledge of men made God feel alive. That more men know the more alive God becomes. To further complicate this the Bible uses light in a very specific way in Genesis.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
Light is the first thing created by God in the creation of the world. By giving light, God gave us the world and our identity in reality. Light, darkness. Night and day. Possibly further evidence that the creation of men brought life to God.
And the light shineth in darkness; and darkness comprehended it not.
If we use our first interpretation, that the knowledge of God created him, then this verse becomes complex. You could almost read it as, the knowledge of God can shine into the dark, the unknown. And the unknown can not comprehend it. Yet the way the sentence is designed, it acts almost like darkness is alive. That darkness has the power of comprehension. You could almost even associate Satan with darkness. The unknown. Or you could say that people who live in a state of darkness will not know knowledge. They may not know true knowledge without God. Something to think about.
Back to St. John the Evangelist. It is things like that statement I just dissected, things like the esoteric nature of the Book of Revelations, that make St. John the Evangelist stick out. Looking at Revelations, any sample verse will make you scratch your head if you take it literally, but serve to make you think and observe if you take it figuratively.
Here are three verses from Chapter 8 in Revelations.
 And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
You could spend days just trying to think through this specific section and what it means. And the entire book is filled with figures and symbols. No wonder Masons hold John the Evangelist in such high regard.
Going back to John the figure, his influence on Biblical cannon and even Masonry is never fully realized. And we can learn some things about how he lived his life. For one, his long age served Jesus and Christianity extremely well. His length of life allowed him to contribute not only gospels but epistles and even the end times. John’s survival allowed him to bring the word of God and Jesus to the world in a far more diverse and effective way than if he had died like everyone else connected to Jesus. Another thing about the man, is he stood next to Jesus through his entire life and was loyal to him and what he represented. John’s loyalty made him special. It’s a loyalty that we as Masons and non-Masons could learn from. And also John created the church along with Peter. A lesson for us being, that we may be followers our entire lives but one day we may have to be part of building something great and profound.
We are now about a week away from December 27th. For many members of the Fraternity, St. John’s Day is a lost day, a day where it’s meaning and significance are not fully realized and the depth of what he meant is unclear. John the Evangelist was a man who lived a long, deep, and influential life. The things he said and his recordings of Jesus had a profound impact on the world and served to create the structure of a great belief system, Christianity. Christians view Jesus as perfect in moral design. We can learn from this. We as Masons know that if we steadfastly stick to those of great and perfect design, man and God, then we will influence the world as profoundly as John the Evangelist did.
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.