“Freemasonry takes good men and makes them better.” We have all heard that for our entire Masonic careers, I have always focused on the ways that Masonry helped me to deal with those around me.
As Entered Apprentices we are taught the lessons of the Three Great Lights of Freemasonry: The Holy Bible, Square and Compasses. The Holy Bible is given us as the Rule and Guide for our faith and practice, the Square to square our actions and the Compasses to circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds.
The Holy Bible tells us how the Supreme Architect of the Universe deals with us. The Square teaches us how we are to deal with other men. I never gave the Compasses much thought. I understood that they were to help us to curtail our worldy passions, but I never delved into the spiritual meaning behind the third of the Great Lights. While visiting a lodge recently, a Brother gave a short talk on the Compasses and it was like light added to the coming light. I had to take a whole new look at the Compasses; the Compasses teach us how to deal with ourselves.
I searched several sources and found some fascinating and varied thoughts about the Compasses from different Masonic Scholars. Even though the writers do not agree on everything, most agree with Arthur Edward Waite’s description in A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, “…the Compasses are perhaps the most spiritual of all the working tools: it is found everywhere in Craft Masonry, and is also in other degrees.” (Waite, p xv) Before I began this study, I would have considered the Holy Bible would have been seen as the most spiritual of the Three Great Lights. After all, it is The Great Architect of the Universe‘s revealed Light to us, his children. As I have learned, this is not the case. The Holy Bible is given to us, we do not necessarily need to do anything other than receive it, and use it as our guide. All men, not just Freemasons can receive the Light provided by this most holy of books. The Compasses, on the other hand, require us to take action. We must use the Compasses to put bounds on ourselves, not let our passions rule us, but to use Reason in our actions.
In The Craft and its Symbols, Roberts tells us that, “The Compasses symbolizes spirituality. It is interesting to note that the Compasses are symbolically hidden when you are first brought to light in Masonry. This signifies that man is hoodwinked by the senses and must grope his way, slowly from the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth. As the square cannot be corrected without a circle circumscribed by the compasses, man cannot find Divine truth outside the circle of law and love.
The most spiritual of all the working tools of Freemasonry is the Compasses. As an Entered Apprentice you are taught a valuable lesson. The Compasses should remind you to “circumscribe your desires and keep your desires within due bounds.” And you are not to confine these duties to your brethren alone, but to all men.” (Roberts, Ch. 3, P 33)
As we can see, the Compasses are a vital tool for us to use, in conjunction with the other Great Lights and the Working Tools, to improve ourselves in Freemasonry. “The square is a reminder to walk uprightly, and not turn aside into the inviting paths of error. Passing from the square to the compasses is a reminder to rise above the level of the mundane and climb the skies of spiritual and philosophical knowledge.” (de Hoyas p141)
As we delve deeper into the symbolism of the Compasses, we can see more esoteric meanings. The Compasses are symbolic of that soul, given us by the TGAOTU, but not just a passive soul; the living soul of Man, with the Divine spark given us by our Creator.
The Compasses interlaced with the Square are the symbol of the Spirit of the Soul, its functional energy or Fire. Of itself, the soul would be a mere inert passivity, a negative quantity unbalanced by a positive opposite. Its active properties are the product of the union of itself with its underlying and inspiring Divine basis, as modified the good or evil tendencies of the soul itself. God “breathed into man the breath of his life and man became–no longer a soul, which he was previously–but a living (energizing) soul.” This product, or fiery energy of the soul is the Spirit of man (a good or evil force accordingly as he shapes it) and is symbolized by what has always been known as the Fire Triangle (with apex upward and base downward), which symbol is approximately reproduces in the Compasses.
To summarize: the three Greater Lights emblematize the inextricably interwoven triadic groundwork of man’s being; (1) the Divine Word or Substance as its foundation; (2) a passive soul emanated therefrom; (3) and active spirit or energizing capacity generated in the soul as the result of the interaction of the former two. Man himself therefore (viewed apart from the temporal body now clothing him) is a triadic unit, rooted in and proceeding from the basic Divine substance.
Observe that in the First Degree the points of the Compasses are hidden by the square. In the Second Degree, one point is disclosed. In the Third Degree both are exhibited. The implication is that as the Candidate progresses, the inertia and negativity of the soul become increasingly transmuted and superseded by the positive energy and activity of the Spirit. The Fire Triangle gradually assumes preponderance over the Water Triangle, signifying that the aspirant becomes a more vividly living and spiritually conscious being than he was at first. (Wilmshurst, Ch. III, P113.)
Another way of looking at the Compasses is that they give us a grounding point; we place one point at our Center and use it to help us to draw limitations. The center point is our true self, from which we should not deviate. The circle made by the other point of the Compasses as we travel through life can never be separated from our center. Worshipful Brother J. S. M. Ward, a controversial author and spiritualist illuminates this point in his book, The Master Mason’s Handbook.
The Compasses, moreover, are the instruments with which geometrical figures are created, and more especially the Circle. By means of two circles the triangle, emblem of the triune nature of God is produced, while the Circle itself is the emblem of Eternity and therefore of Spirit. A point within the circle forms the symbol for the Hindu conception of the Supreme Being, Paramatma, whence we have come and whither we shall all ultimately return. At the centre of the circle rests all knowledge; there shall we find every lost secret. Now such a figure can only be drawn with the help of the Compasses, and in drawing it the following significant symbolical act takes place. One point of the Compass rests at the centre, and the other makes the circle of the Infinite. No matter how far the legs of the Compass be extended, or how large the Circle, the fact remains that one leg is always at the centre. Thus the Compasses, while they travel through infinity, are at the same time never separated from the centre, and from that point cannot err. This instrument may therefore be considered as standing for the Divine Spark in Man, in all its manifestations. One of these is conscience; but the Divine Spark has many attributes and names.
But the Divine Spark within us is never really separated from the Great and All-Pervading Spirit. It is still part of it, though its glory is dimmed by the veil of flesh. Therefore, just as one arm of the compasses ever rests on the centre, no matter how far the other leg travels; so however far we may travel from God, and however long and hard may be the journey, the Divine Spark within us can never be truly separated from Him, or err from that Centre. Thus the point of the Compasses at the centre of the circle may be considered to be the Spirit, the head of the Compasses the Soul, and the point on the circumference the body. (Ward)
I find it comforting to know that we can never truly be separated from our Creator, that small bit of Divinity breathed into Adam by God and transmitted to us all will keep us in contact with the GAOTU.
We see every day the vices of Man on full display, through some of the vile things that are called entertainment, through ways that men treat other men with no respect, and some men do not even show themselves the respect that they are due as children of God. Men are celebrated for being foul-mouthed, for showing deviancy in their personal lives; women are celebrated as single mothers because the men that fathered their children refuse to care for their own offspring. The lessons of the Three Great Lights are more vital now than ever before, we as Masons must not keep these Lights under a bushel. We must shine these lights in our communities, in our places of work and within our families. As WB Bruno says in his Sunday Masonic News, “Be careful how you live. You may be the only Mason some people will ever meet.” We are instructed that Brotherly Love, Morality and Relief, the three greatest Tenets of Freemasonry are contained between the points of the Compasses when properly extended.
As in Operative Freemasonry, the compasses are used for the measurement of the architect’s plans, and to enable him to give those just proportions which will ensure beauty as well as stability to his work; so, in Speculative Freemasonry, is this important implement symbolic of that even tenor of deportment, that true standard of rectitude which alone can bestow happiness here and felicity hereafter.
Hence are the compasses the most prominent emblem of virtue, the true and only, measure of a Freemason’s life and conduct. As the Bible gives us light on our duties to God, and the square illustrates our duties to our neighborhood and Brother, so the compasses give that additional light which is to instruct us in the duty we owe to ourselves-the great, imperative duty of circumscribing our passions, and keeping our desires within due bounds. “It is ordained,” says the philosophic Burke, “in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate passions cannot be free; their passions forge their fetters.” Those Brethren who delight to trace our emblems to an astronomical origin, find in the compasses a symbol of the sun, the circular pivot representing the body of the luminary, and the diverging legs his rays. (Mackey)
As we lay our plans upon the Trestleboard of our lives, we need to use the Compasses to set bounds on our desires and passions. Let us not be as the profane world, letting our emotions and passions rule our conduct. Let our oaths and our working tools forge our futures with the illumination of the Three Great Lights.
De Hoyas, A. Scottish Rite Ritual and Monitor, 2nd Ed. The Supreme Council, 33°, Southern Jurisdiction, 2009.
Mackey, A., Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences, New York, N.Y., The Masonic History Company, 1914.
Roberts, A. The Craft and its Symbols, Richmond, VA, Macoy Publishing, 1974.
Waite, A. E. A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. New York, University Books, 1970.
Ward, J.S.M., The Master Mason’s Handbook,
Wilmshurst, W.L. The Meaning of Masonry, New York, Bell Publishing, 1980