When an initiate is first brought to light, the radiance comes from the Three Lesser Lights, which form a triangle about or near the altar.
Lesser Lights are lit when the lodge is opened and the altar arranged, and extinguished when the lodge is closed and the Great Lights displaced. Something – not very much – is said of them in the ritual.
They form one of those symbols in Freemasonry – of which there are so many! – which the individual brother is supposed to examine and translate for himself, getting from it what he can and enjoying what he gets in direct proportion to the amount of labour and thought he is willing to devote to the process of extracting the meaning from the outer covering.
In some jurisdictions, the Lesser Lights are closely about the altar; in others one is placed at each of the stations of the three Principal Officers.
In some lodges the Three Lesser Lights form a right, in others an equilateral, in others an isosceles triangle.
What is uniform throughout the Masonic world is the triangular formation; what is different is the shape and size of the triangle.
Of course, it is not possible to place three lights to form anything else but a triangle; they cannot be made to form a square or a star.
Hence the natural question:
why are there
three Lesser Lights
and not two
or four or more?
There is ‘three’ throughout Ancient Craft Masonry. The first of the great Sacred Numbers of the Ancient Mysteries, three was the numerical symbol of God, but not because God was necessarily considered as triune.
While many religions of many ages and peoples have conceived of Divinity as a trinity, the figure three as a symbol of God is far older than any trinitarian doctrine.
The triangle, like the circle, is without beginning or ending. One line, or two lines, have ends. They start and finish. Like the square or the five or more sided figure, the triangle has no loose ends.
And the triangle is the first of these which can be made; as God was always considered as first, and also as without either beginning or ending, the triangle itself soon became a symbol of Deity.
Ancient peoples made much of sex. Their two greatest impulses were self-preservation and mating. Their third was protection of children.
So powerful were these in primal man that not all his civilization, his luxury, his complicated and involved life, have succeeded in removing them as the principal main-springs of all human endeavour.
It was natural for the savage worshipper of a shining god in the sky to think he, too, required a mate, especially when that mate was so plainly in evidence.
The Moon became the Sun’s bride by a process of reasoning as plain as it was childlike.
The Moon, Sun and Mercury depicted in alchemical symbolism – A red-faced king stands in a red robe, flanked by a queen and the deity Mercury in green clothes; representing a stage in the process of alchemy. Coloured etching, ca. 18th century.
IMAGE LINKED: wellcome collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Father, mother… there must be a child, of course. That child was Mercury, the nearest planet to the sun, the one the god kept closest to him.
Here we have the origin of the Three Lesser Lights; in earliest recorded accounts of the Mysteries of Eleusis (to mention only one) we find three lights about the holy place, representing the Sun, the Moon, and Mercury.
The Worshipful Master rules and governs his lodge as truly as the Sun and Moon rule and govern day and night.
There can be no lodge without a Worshipful Master; he is, in a very real sense, the lodge itself.
There are some things he cannot do that the brethren under him can do. But without him the brethren can do nothing, while without the brethren’s consent or even their assistance, he can do much.
As one of the principal functions of the Worshipful Master is to give ‘good and wholesome instruction’ to his lodge, the inclusion of one light as his symbol is but a logical carrying out of that Masonic doctrine which makes the East the source of Masonic light to the brethren.
By the light of the Lesser Lights the Entered Apprentice is led to see those objects which mean so much to a Mason, the Great Lights; the inestimable gift of God to man as the rule and guide for his faith and practice, the tools dedicated to the Craft and to the Master, the Alpha and Omega of Freemasonry.
Light alone is not enough; light must be used! Here, too, is symbolism which it is well to muse upon.
As the lodge as a whole is a symbol of the world, so should a Mason’s heart be to him always a symbol of the lodge.
In it he should carry ever what he may remember of the Great Light and with spiritual compasses lay out his work; with spiritual square, square both work and actions toward all mankind, ‘more especially a brother Mason’.
Therefore must he carry also in his heart three tiny Lesser Lights, by the light of which he uses his spiritual lodge furnishings.
If he lights these from the torch of love and burns one for friendliness, one for helpfulness and one for godliness, he will be truly an initiate in the real sense of that term, and about the altar of Freemasonry find a new satisfaction in the new meanings which the Three Lesser Lights will, with silent light and soft, imprint upon his heart.
Article by: Carl H. Claudy
Carl Harry Claudy (1879 – 1957) was an American author, magazine writer, and journalist for the New York Herald.
His association with Freemasonry began in 1908, when, at the age of 29, he was raised a master Mason in lodge Harmony No. 17 in Washington, DC. He served as its master in 1932 and eventually served as Grand Master of Masons in the District of Colombia in 1943.
His Masonic writing career began in earnest when he became associated with the Masonic service Association in 1923, serving as associate editor of its magazine, The master mason, until 1931.
Under his leadership the service Association was brought to a place of predominance through his authorship and distribution of the short talk bulletin which made his name familiar to virtually every lodge in the country.
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