From the time when I was initiated, I found myself fascinated by the three ‘lesser lights’. I understand why the three greater lights are the ‘greats’ of Freemasonry. The Volume of the Sacred Lore, the Square and Compasses – these are at once the emblems of our ancient art and the implements we use for masonic development and progress. They constitute the true cornerstone of masonic practice.
Yet for me personally, the three lesser lights have a true fascination, and are more personally relevant. Here’s something which relates to our individual aspiration, our journey Here we are talking not about the attributes of the Almighty, nor the strict rules of the morality we obligate ourselves to adhere to. Here we consider the qualities a person needs to have, to develop, or to meditate on, in order successfully and fruitfully to follow his masonic path.
Given all this, and more, which surrounds the three lesser lights, it’s strange that they are passed over so quickly at our initiation. However, the fourth section of the first Emulation lecture dispenses some light:
What supports a freemason’s lodge?
Three great pillars.
What are they called?
Wisdom, Strength and Beauty
Why Wisdom, Strength and Beauty?
Wisdom to contrive, Strength to support and Beauty to adorn.
Wisdom to conduct us in all our undertakings, Strength to support us
under all our difficulties, and Beauty to adorn the inward man.
The universe is the temple of the Deity whom we serve; Wisdom,
Strength and Beauty are about His throne as pillars of His works, for
His wisdom is infinite, His strength omnipotent, and beauty shines
through the whole of the creation in symmetry and order. The heavens
He has stretched forth as a canopy; the earth He has planted as a
footstool. He crowns His temple with stars, as with a diadem, and with
His hand He extends the power and glory. The sun and moon are
messengers of His will, and all His law is concord. The three great pillars supporting a freemasons’ lodge are emblematic of those divine
Wisdom, Strength and Beauty – these are qualities related to the Grecian orders, which are ‘suggested by the diversity of form in the human frame’. The Master’s column, the Ionic, representing Wisdom, was created to meet the need for grace and elegance, which were lacking in the earlier Doric order. The Ionic order was employed in the erection of the temple of the goddess Diana. This column ‘is formed after the model of a. beautiful young woman, dressed in her hair’, represented by the volutes, those lovely spiral scrolls appended to each side of the capital.
The Senior Warden’s or Doric column, the simplest of the Grecian orders, representing Strength, is in a sense both counterpart and companion to the Ionic. It ‘has no ornament except mouldings on either base or capital … the composition of this order is both grand and noble. Being formed after the model of a muscular, full – grown man, it … is principally used in structures where strength and a noble simplicity are required’.
The Junior Warden’s or Corinthian column, representing Beauty, is the most sophisticated of the orders of Grecian origin. It retains the volutes of the Ionic column, adding rows of leaves, and is ten diameters high, giving it more slender and elegant proportions than the others. Paradoxically, this column, adorning the position of the most junior of the three principal officers, is the most graceful, elegant and beautiful of the three.
Speaking personally, I find Wisdom hard to apply. So often we say or do something impulsive which, in a cooler moment, after a period of reflection and applying a little wisdom, we might have postponed, or cancelled altogether. We talk about ‘tempering with wisdom’, as the blacksmith tempers a piece of hard steel to make it more malleable, more amenable. It’s closely allied to, and arises from, a good sense of judgement. The best thing is, working at our own sense of judgement, to nurture wisdom in ourselves.
Strength is something else again. Although the allegory, the symbolism, is one of physical strength, clearly we are speaking here of strength of a different dimension. We may be speaking of strength of character, of exercising the strength necessary to carry one’s convictions against the overwhelming opposition of others. Strength to stand up for what is right, against the prevailing fashion, or against expediency dictating that benchmarks other than uprightness of purpose ought to apply. A severe test of our morality may require more strength than we thought we possessed.
The difference with Beauty is, that perception is everything. It could be argued that, of these three attributes, beauty is the passive one. If I am not possessed of beauty, physical, mental, spiritual or any other kind, there isn’t a great deal I can do about it, or so it would seem. ‘Beauty to adorn the inward man’. What does that mean? And how do we acquire it?
Beauty is perceived, and perceived both ways; others’ beauty of character, purpose or intention perceived by us, and our own beauty, if it is vested in us, perceived by others. Notice that we say ‘perceive’, not ‘see’, principally because our eyes are not reliable as organs of true perception. Just as, when listening to music, or poetry, or ritual we must sometimes listen with more than our ears, so too will beauty only be perceived with something more than the eyes.
The Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s little book of the same name, wants to know from his new friend, the fox, the secret of his perceptiveness. The fox demurs, but finally replies: ‘Here is my secret. It is very simple. You can only see properly with the heart. With the eyes, you can’t see what is essential’. When assessing ourselves, and those around us, let’s close our eyes sometimes, and see with our hearts.
Only beauty purely loving
Knows no discord
But still moves delight,
Like clear springs renewed by flowing,
Ever perfect, ever in themselves eternal.