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Three Lights - Greater and Lesser

by Ed Halpaus
Grand Lodge Education Officer
Grand Lodge of A. F. & A. M. of Minnesota

“Virtue could see to do what virtue would by her own radiant light, though sun and moon were in the flat sea sunk. And wisdom’s self oft seeks to sweet retired solitude, where with her best nurse Contemplation she plumes her feathers, and lets grow her wings that in the various bustle of resort were all to-ruffled, and sometimes impair’d. He that has light within his own clear breast may sit I’ th’ centre and enjoy the bright day; but he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts benighted walks under the midday sun.” John Milton [1608-1674]

The Three Great Lights and the Three Lesser Lights of Freemasonry

The new Mason has sworn fealty to his own higher-self at the Altar of his own idealistic longing for a better life. Then he begins to see the Light by which Masons work and the meaning of the Three Great Lights by the light of the Three Lesser Lights, which are explained to him. At this time he, the then candidate, has little appreciation or understanding of all the symbolism and lessons that are represented by the three Greater and Lesser Lights.[i]

We study the symbolism of Freemasonry for only one purpose; to find out exactly what it means. In studying we are not trying to read into Masonry anything which was not originally intended to be placed there. We do not attempt to change the meaning of Masonry.[ii]

To understand the allegory and lesson behind the Three Lesser Lights we need to understand the lesson of the allegory of the Three Great Lights; they need to be considered together. The lesson of the Greater and Lesser lights is that our higher-self should be in control and ought to govern us, (our entire being.) The Greater Lights, (our higher-self,) is to be seen by the Lesser Lights, (our lower-self.[iii]) By ‘seen’ it is meant that our lower-self, (represented by the three lesser lights,) is to recognize and obey the lessons of the Greater Lights, and especially the Great Light of Masonry - that library of wisdom, which points out the whole duty of man.

This is not always easy to do, and there is a Biblical passage that points out the difficulty we as humans have in doing what is right. This passage also might illustrate the difference between our higher-self and our lower-self. In Romans 7:15 Saint Paul wrote: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (NIV.) The New Living Translation, (NLT,) says the same thing, but phrases it differently: “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate.” [iv]

What Paul wrote about himself could also be written by many of us regarding ourselves. We sometimes are governed by our lower-selves when we would rather be governed by our higher-selves; sometimes we allow our ego[v], our personality, to come to the forefront instead of our spirit.[vi]

Brother Benjamin Franklin gives a good reference to human beings not being the bodies we see, but rather that human beings are spirits. He wrote in his essay on death; “We are spirits. That bodies should be lent to us to us, while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, or in doing good to our fellow creatures, is a kind and benevolent act of God.”[vii] (Our bodies are not us. We have an immortal soul that survives after the body is put into the grave, that is what is symbolized by the Acacia plant; the immortality of the soul.)

What Saint Paul Wrote in Romans 7:15 has this explanation according to the 1917 edition of the Scofield Reference notes: “The ‘I’ which is Saul of Tarsus, and the ‘I’ which is Paul the apostle are at strife, and "Paul" is in defeat.”

Many a man is unable to ‘see’ the Great Lights except in a very dim and partial fashion, because the lesser lights within the individual are either asleep or hostile, and their light is turned away from the Great Lights[viii] and are thus not recognized. So the candidate is told he sees the Three Great Lights of Masonry by the light of the Three Lesser, but this is true only because his own lesser lights are awakened to view the higher-self he can become. The higher-self is represented by the Divine Law, and it is important then that our lesser lights are not only able to ‘see’ the Divine Law but also to get a correct impression from it.

It is important that our own lesser lights, our lower-selves, be divested of all vices and superfluities, so that our lesser lights, (our lower-selves,) are not hampered in any way from being able to move to the higher-self that we aspire to be. The symbolism of these Greater and Lesser Lights, (the lesson if-you-will,) is thought control and self control. Masonry is a progressive science and every step we take in learning and understanding the lessons behind the allegories of Freemasonry brings out information that help us see more and more clearly what Freemasonry has to teach us.

“Life itself is but the shadow of death, and souls departed but the shadows of the living. All things fall under this name. The sun itself is but the dark simulacrum, and light but the shadow of God.”
Sir Thomas Brown [1605-1682]

I have long maintained that the Three Great Lights of Masonry should only be lighted by the Three Lesser Lights. This to me is evident because of the wording in the ritual of the first degree. However, here in Minnesota at least, each Lodge that either has or has had an Eastern Star Chapter meeting in the Lodge Room will have a light directly above the Altar. I belong to two Lodges, and my plural Lodge has a spot light directly above the Altar, and my home Lodge has a large light directly above the Altar, in each Lodge room the light above the Altar is there because it is part of the Eastern Star ceremonies and the lights are on a separate light switch so that it can be turned on when the Bible is opened and turned off when the Bible is closed; that is for the Eastern Star Ceremonies. But in most every Lodge I’ve been at the spot light is many times on while the other lights are off in a certain part of our degree work, so the effect is that the candidate sees the Three Great Lights by the light of the three Lesser Lights and the spot light above the Altar.

Not to beat this subject to death, but there is no part in the degree work that says anything about a spotlight shining on the Three Great Lights. The only mention of the Spot Light is in the ceremony for the Lodge of Sorrow here in Minnesota, and that was added in the 1990’s because most Lodges have such a thing, so the Masons reviewing the Lodge of Sorrow ceremony put something in to use it.

I admit I am a purist when it comes to the ritual of Freemasonry. I like to see it done well, and that the symbolism is kept pure, and communicated to the Brethren watching the degree as well as taking part in it. For the correct effect to go along with our ritual the spotlight is not necessary.

“The Light of Lights looks always on the motive, not the deed: The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.” William Butler Yeats [1865-1939]

From the Great light of Masonry = “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” Isaiah 9:2 AV

[i] The Lost Key of Freemasonry by Brother Prentiss Tucker #136 & 137
[ii] The Lost Key #138
[iii] The Lost Key # 148
[iv] You may also want to see Galatians 5:17
[v] Our lower-self
[vi] Our higher-self
[vii] This is from a letter he wrote to his brother’s step-daughter at the death of his brother. If you would like a copy of this letter just let me know and I’ll send you a copy by e-mail.
[viii] The Lost Key #153

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Last modified: March 22, 2014