Vol. XXII No. 7 — July 1944

Sanctum Sanctorum

In both the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and in King Solomon’s Temple, the Most Holy Place — Sanctum Sanctorum or Holy of Holies in the good old Masonic phrase — was the most secret and best protected of all apartments.

It is not necessary here to try to decide whether the wandering tribes really did construct and carry with them a Tabernacle in the form, substance and decorations described in the Old Testament, or whether it was a smaller, simpler structure to be used only until circumstances might permit the larger one to be made. Whatever its size, it did have an inner chamber, even as did Solomon’s Temple.

The Most Holy Place, the most sacred portion of the Temple, a cube of 40 feet dimensions, had three sides of highly polished walls of gold. The “Veil” of fine twined linen in blue, purple and scarlet, embroidered with figures of cherubim in gold, hanging from the top of four pillars of shittim wood overlaid with gold, and resting in sockets of silver, defined the eastern and only entrance. Over all hung the blue, purple and scarlet curtain, embroidered with golden cherubim. The reflection of these brilliant hues upon the walls of polished gold must have produced a startling effect.

Within this enclosure was but one article of furniture, the Ark of the Covenant. This was a chest of shittim wood 5 feet long, 3 wide and 3 high, overlaid with gold and embellished with a crown of gold extending around the top. Rings of gold were set in the corners, two on each side, through which were passed wooden staves overlaid with gold used in carrying the sacred chest.

The covering (the Mercy Seat) of gold was 5 feet long and 3 wide. Upon each end and a part thereof were cherubim made of beaten gold. These stretched forth their wings to cover the Mercy Seat, their faces being inward. In this Ark was the Testimony, or Ten Commandments, upon two tablets of stone.

The Ark of the Covenant was visited but once each year by the High Priest, on the Day of Atonement, to make “atonement for the sins of the people,” the most solemn ceremony of Hebrew worship.

That the Twelve Tribes were deeply religious goes without saying. But even without such a characteristic, it must have been with a real thrill that worshippers without thought of the High Priest within. As for the High Priest himself, what must have been his feelings as he spoke the Ineffable Name once in a twelve month! It could never have been lightly that he entered the Most Holy Place — it must have been with fear and trembling as well as awe and wonder that he stood before the Ark of the Covenant and saw, perhaps, the dim glow of the Shekinah pushing back the thick darkness. . . .

In the Legend of the Third Degree the Master Builder enters the Sanctum Sanctorum not once a year but once at least every working day. The Most Holy Place was then neither finished nor furnished — the Ark had not been borne in and there must have been some light, since it was here he drew his designs upon the trestleboard. But the place was holy, even then, since there devotions were offered. Doubtless, also, the Builder knew the ancient maxim that worthy labor itself is prayer — and surely no labor could be more worthy than building the Lord’s House.

If the Legend is to have its proper setting there should be, within every Masonic lodge open on the third degree, something which represents to every Mason the Most Holy Place, held in appropriate reverence by them.

What made the inner chamber of Tabernacle and Temple more holy than any other parts of either structure? Obviously, the Ark of the Covenant, and the belief in the presence — more here than elsewhere — of Jehovah.

Masonic lodges have no Ark of the Covenant. But they do possess an altar. Upon that altar lie the Great Lights of Masonry — the Volume of the Sacred Law, the Square and Compasses (“compass” in six jurisdictions). Surrounding these, or near them, are the three Lesser Lights or luminaries.

In English lodges the altar is a pedestal near the Master; in American lodges the altar is universally in the center of the lodge room, or somewhat east of center. In the forty-nine Grand Lodges of the nation may be seen fourteen different arrangements of the Lesser Lights, but all have one invariable characteristic; the lights form a triangle. It may be large enough to enclose the altar, the invisible lines which make a triangle out of three lights marking the boundary of the Sanctum Sanctorum. Or the Lesser Lights may be closely grouped and placed to one side or another of the altar. In some grand lodges the Lesser Lights are adjacent to the master’s and wardens’ stations. But in all they form a triangle; in no lodge are they in a straight line.

The triangle is an early, if not the earliest, symbol of Deity. Long before primitive man learned to twist fibers into a cord or with one draw a circle, he made signs by various arrangements of sticks and twigs. As far back as religious history may be traced, man has always conceived of God as without beginning or ending. Very naturally, then, whatever symbol expressed to his primitive mind the idea of God must have neither beginning nor ending. The triangle is a closed figure, without beginning or ending and triangle antedated circle. Doubtless square or pentagon also antedated circle, but the triangle is the easiest to construct, and of all closed figures the simplest to make with twigs or sticks.

Hence the triangle became a symbol of Deity.

This is the significance of “three” throughout Freemasonry. Three degrees, three steps, three principal officers, three Great Lights, three Lesser Lights, three gates to the Temple, three, three, three! And of all the "threes” in Freemasonry, the Lesser Lights are the only ones to be seen by their own light.

Alas, that modern convenience so often supplants the burning candles, which consume themselves even as they give light to others, with electric lights. For the electric light is here but a symbol of a symbol, which loses in significance what it gains in ease of lighting and extinguishing. Happy the lodge in which the burning candle is a tradition too strong to break.

In several jurisdictions in which the Lesser Lights are grouped about the altar so that he who kneels is within the triangle, brethren do not pass between the altar and a light. Officer or candidate may enter this mystic Sanctum Sanctorum but they leave by the same path. They do not pass through. There was no thoroughfare through the Sanctum Sanctorum of Tabernacle and Temple; the High Priest entered and left the same way; he did not pass through.

Some lodge rooms provide a faint light in the ceiling, shining down upon the altar — a reminder of that Shekinah which glowed about the Ark of the Covenant.

Tabernacle and Temple had altars of sacrifice and altars of incense. The altar of Freemasonry is both. An altar of sacrifice, it is for those who here take certain obligations, for unselfishness is always sacrifice and there is nothing selfish in any Masonic obligation. The man who would feel that he is regarded as a brother by his brethren must first be a brother to those brethren. Brotherhood — unselfishness; to go on foot and out of one’s way to serve another; to help another; to pray for another; to guard and warn another — these are sacrificial in character.

On the ancient altar of incense burned sweet spices and herbs to make an odor, pleasant to man and therefore, in his thought, pleasant to God. In ceremonies in the churches of a number of faiths today incense is burned and censers are swung. In Freemasonry incense may be an offering of song. In many lodges — a pity it cannot be said of all — is the pretty custom of hearing a solo or the chanting of a choir during a degree. In some lodges the passages of scripture appropriate to the ceremony are rendered as anthems instead of recited. There are lodges in which a quartette stands behind the chaplain as he offers devotions to Deity for the lodge and ends his prayer with an harmonious Amen:

“. . . one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen"

as Adelaide Proctor wrote nearly a century ago.

But there are many little lodges in simple Temples and lodge rooms bare of all but the essentials. Think not that here is no altar of incense! For where men gather together around an altar to pray, to practice unselfishness, to offer the symbolic Light from the East to one who is to become part of the circle of the Mystic Tie — here is incense as sweet as ever perfumed the air in the Tabernacle, or arose in anthem in larger and wealthier lodges.

The altar in the tabernacle had horns. Whosoever was pursued by an enemy or accuser could flee to the altar and there with his hand upon a horn be safe; he had thus time to prove his innocence if wrongly accused or to gain protection from an enemy. There is at least one, and doubtless there are more, lodges in this nation, the altars of which have horns. In King Solomons Lodge No. 7 of Woodbury, Connecticut, (properly spelled without an apostrophe, since it was so written in the Charter) is an altar with four horns on the corners, which were taken from the first Merino sheep imported into the state in earliest Colonial days. No member of that lodge need touch a horn for sanctuary, but it adds a touch of venerableness to the room to see them there.

No Mason needs an altar horn for protection; these are symbols of a day that is gone. But Masons, even as all men, need sanctuary at times from a troubling world. Many find it in the contemplation of the Sanctum Sanctorum in a lodge.

Such then, are the furniture & the lights & the symbols which form the Holy of Holies in a Masonic lodge.

It is for the philosophers of religion (or the priests of philosophy), not for these pages, to decide if that which is holy is inherently so, or so only as man regards it. A wooden cross in a grove of trees is holy to Christians; to a primitive who never heard of Christianity it might be a satisfactory object on which to hang his newly killed game.

The Sanctum Sanctorum of the Masonic lodge can be holy only in the thought with which the brethren regard it. Doubtless to the janitor who sweeps out the room, altar, book and lesser lights are but objects which make sweeping difficult!

Holiness is not in the wood of the altar, the paper of the Book, the metal of the candlesticks. They become holy and of veneration only as they mean something more than their structure and materials.

If the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Tabernacle and the Temple is a vivid reality in the lodge, it is because men who gather about it reverence the altar as belonging to the Great Architect; find in the Great Light His words; see in the radiance of the Lesser Lights the powers of nature and the wisdom of the East; mentally metamorphose altar and Lights into that place in which the cunning workman of Tyre, who was son of a widow of the tribe of Naphthali, “drew his designs upon the trestleboard.”

There are some fifteen thousand five hundred Masonic lodges in this country. In everyone is an altar, Great Lights, Lesser Lights. In all men gather in reverent formation about the Sanctum Sanctorum of Freemasonry, their vision turned inward, eyes of the spirit seeing what is hidden from eyes of flesh, their thoughts upon the obligation assumed by those who here imitate the Master Builder and thus, in the symbolic Sanctum Sanctorum, symbolically draw their designs upon the trestleboard.

There is nothing more expressive, nothing more impressive in all the Ancient Craft than this constant gathering of many men of many minds, here of but one mind, entering their Most Holy Place as did the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, long, long ago.

The Masonic Service Association of North America