The Three Lessor Lights

The Three Keys 

An understanding of the three lesser lights of Freemasonry does not come quickly or easily to the seeker. It also is impossible if not unwise to attempt to gain an understanding of the symbolism embodied in the three lesser lights in isolation. While one can understand their various meanings without reference to any other symbols, it is only in the appreciation of their relation to the three greater lights that one can begin to become enlightened. The lesson of the three lesser lights may be the most foundational lesson in the hidden mysteries of the Craft. It is only by the regular application of the light of one’s own mind and soul that he may begin to access and use the profound lessons of God and Freemasonry.

Upon first undertaking the task of understanding the hidden meaning in the symbolism of the three lesser lights I was struck by the dearth of explication that I could find in any of the volumes on the Craft. Initially, I felt that this must surely be an oversight on the part of our worshipful brothers, however upon further reflection I am now of the mind that this scarcity of information is by design. Many of the great lessons of life must be experienced to be appreciated, and as always, the experience of the experience is more important than the explanation of the experience. 

A Hermetic Origin

To best understand the basis of the Masonic symbolism of the three lesser lights it is of course wise to begin with an attempt to trace the roots of these symbols. While there is some disagreement about how Masonry came to have these symbols I agree with the great brother H.L. Haywood that the three lesser lights began as a symbol in the ancient Hermetic tradition. Before discussing what I take to be the correct origin it is wise to briefly summarize the opposing view. This is simply, that the operative masons built their lodges on the south sides of the cathedrals they were constructing. Further, that because of this positioning the window which were built into the lodge on the south side of the structure lit the work of the operative masons thus they came to be known as the greater and lesser lights. Brother Haywood summarizes the opposing view and its problematic conclusion thus,

That Operative Lodges always, or even frequently, built their temporary headquarters on the south side of the church is not supported by evidence, and may well be questioned; besides it is difficult to understand how these windows could ever have become identified with the Holy Bible, Square and Compass, or with the Sun, Moon and Master.

In the Hermetic tradition the Sun was said to be representative of the active or masculine sides of nature. The sun as the giver of light, heat, and life is continually in an active posture. It knows nothing else. In contrast, the moon represents the passive or feminine. The moon has no light of its own, rather it is passive in the sense that the only light it can provide to the earth must first be received and then reflected to our planet. Considering our teaching with these understandings it can be said that it is the synthesis of these two opposing sides of our own nature which gives rise to the master of the lodge (our own consciousness). Further it is only by attending to and keeping in balance this duality within ourselves that we are able to begin to approach the three greater lights which will illuminate our way as we journey inward. 

The Three Great Lights of Freemasonry

I will not attempt to give a full explication of the meaning of the three great lights of freemasonry here. It should for our purpose of understanding the three lesser lights be sufficient to name them and describe their relationship with the three lesser lights. The three great lights, the volume of sacred law, the square, and compasses, are explained in the ritual of the Entered Apprentice degree as being illuminated for the initiate by the three lesser lights. In fact as a matter of practicality when an initiate first comes into the light of the lodge during his initiation it is literally only by the light given by the three lesser lights that the man is able to observe the three great lights of our fraternity. Additionally, it is important to remember that the three lesser lights are always lit when the lodge is open, and are always extinguished whenever the alter is closed within the lodge room. This teaches us that it is only through attention to our opposing natures and the usage of both, and the higher faculties which arise within our consciousness that we are able to understand all the important lessons of the Craft. These greater faculties are spoken of in every spiritual or religious tradition with which I am familiar with. They are given various names but the common consensus seems to be that they are associated with “the observer” within us. That part of our conscious or sub-conscious mind (depending on the individual) which exists simultaneously behind and above all of our phenomenal experiences.

We must actively pursue an understanding of our ritual and our symbols if we are to grow. We must question our current understandings; we must study, and write if we are to grow in understanding. These are all examples of our active nature. On the other hand we must admit new information into our thinking, we must keep an open mind when speaking with or reading the writings of our brothers, if we are to grow. The principle of admission, or letting in, is one of the cornerstones of any quest for wisdom. It is also quite clearly passive in application.

It is up to each of us to learn to divine the proper moments to be active and when to be passive, and through the application of this “master of the lodge” or higher faculty of consciousness that we are able to make use of the many teachings of our great fraternity.

This experience during one’s initiation has a greater symbolic meaning regarding the relationship between the greater and lesser lights, and our commitment to becoming great men. In the understanding of this lesson the Entered Apprentice can begin to build and perfect the structure of the lodge of his mind and spirit.

As I have described above it is through the equal and regular attention to one’s own conscious experience, ensuring that we balance both the active and receptive sides of our natures, that allows us to begin to make use of the tools of the three great lights. Further, it is by using the three great lights of Freemasonry that a man is able to progress through the degrees. This process is the beginning of a life long process of refining his character, his understanding of himself and his place in the world. 

Applying the Teaching of the Three Lesser Lights to Our Lives

Understanding the symbolism of the three lesser lights is a fine academic endeavor. However, it is only through the practical application of this lesson in our own lives that we can hope to attain increased wisdom through our study of all the teachings of Freemasonry. As the master of the lodge must attend to the masons under his charge so must the individual mason with equal regularity attend to the function and the balancing of the two sides of his own character. Through the exercise of this faculty the individual mason can balance these opposing forces and use both of them to their maximum benefit. Argument can be made that the lesson of the three lesser lights is akin to what the Buddhists would call “traveling the middle road”. When our minds are balanced we can take in the teachings of The Great Architect, actually, in this state we find it near impossible to keep these teachings out of mind.

Additionally, we are able to thoughtfully consider our actions, and take only those most in line with our higher values. Finally, from a balanced mind a man finds it easier if not easy to keep his passions within due bounds. Thus, it is the inner balance we find through practicing the lesson of the three lesser lights, that illuminates the three great lights, and puts the mason in a position wherein he is able to make use of the great lights and explore the inner realms of his mind, his world, and his spirit.


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