Vol. XL No. 4 — April 1962

The Stars We Think We See

Elbert Bede, PM

This Short Talk Bulletin is the work of Elbert Bede, Editor Emeritus, The Oregon Freemason; past master, Cottage Grove Lodge No. 51; and Charter Member, Research Lodge of Oregon No. 198 and Ashlar Lodge No. 209, Oregon.

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Astronomy and Geometry are closely linked in the liberal arts and sciences of Freemasonry. The geometry lecture of the Fellowcraft Degree, to be found in Masonic monitors where all may read it, is generally considered by Freemasons to be the finest example of expressive and inspiring English in Masonic ritual. It certainly impresses us with the infinite power of the One who shaped the universe with a symmetry and order that Speculative Builders believe will be an eternal development. A realization of the staggering magnitude and beauty of this perfect geometric and astronomic design should lead craftsmen to a greater devotion to the Grand Architect of the Universe, the Master Geometrician, and to a fuller realization of the immensity of the lessons of Freemasonry.

The geometry lecture has been made even more beautiful and more meaningful in an elaboration usually referred to as the “Dew Drop Lecture” (Short Talk 27:7, Jul ’49). Its authorship is uncertain; it has sometimes been credited to Albert Pike, a gifted ritualist best known as the long-time Commander of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, who created Masonic light that will live through the centuries.

In its rituals and monitors Freemasonry makes many references to the heavenly bodies, such as the sun and moon, the blazing star, and the star-decked heavens. It is to the stars that this Short Talk is directed.

Originally a large number of lodges in the United States met according to the light of the moon and were referred to as “moon lodges” (Short Talk 38:1, Jul ’49). A century ago the state of Oregon had many of these, and even, today one remains, Siuslaw Lodge No. 192 at Mapleton, near the Pacific Ocean. Oddly, this is a comparatively recent lodge, having been chartered in 1927. At that time it still had the company of two or three older lodges that met according “to the light of moon.” Siuslaw’s by-laws state that it meets “on the first Saturday after the full moon.” That “first” takes care of the situation should there be two full moons in one month, which infrequently happens.[1]

The brethren of these moon lodges, when scanning the skies to check on the moon, probably believed that they saw millions of stars; and they probably would have smiled in disbelief if anyone had told them they did not actually see the stars they believed they saw.

Scientists inform us that we never actually see the stars we think we see. They are far beyond the perception of unaided human vision. We see only the twinkle that was started on its way to us many nights before, many months before, many years before, or even before the first day any of us has ever known. The distance to some of the stars is so great that the rays that reach us tonight were started on their way before Freemasonry was born. Some of these rays, moving at the fantastic speed of light, have traveled night and day, clear nights and dark nights, through generations, through great wars and small, through the rise and fall of nations, through the decline of civilizations, since long before Solomon built the great white temple on Moriah’s Mount, probably back to the time when this earth was without form, and void.

We are told that radiation from one star may have taken eight billion years to reach us, but the great truths that are the basis of Freemasonry existed before light from that star was started on its way. It is conceivable that a large portion of those truths has not yet wholly reached us, either.

If the stars themselves were close enough so that we could actually see them, their brilliance would incinerate us. Freemasonry is different in that close contact with the light contained in its lessons brings beneficial warmth only.

Proof that we do not actually see the stars we think we see is found in the sun, one of the smallest of the stars, the one most familiar to Freemasons, the one nearest to us. Rays from the sun must travel eight and a half minutes to reach the earth; hence we never see the rays when they start on their journey. During the eight and a half minutes it takes them to reach us, the sun has traveled the incredible distance of 1,730,000 miles, so what we see as the sun is actually what the sun appeared to be eight and a half minutes before.

Scientists tell us that rays of light are reaching us today from stars that ceased to exist in long-ago centuries. One astronomer insists that such a star blew itself to pieces forty-eight million years ago. My morning newspaper carries a report by an Associated Press writer that tells an almost unbelievable story of the explosion of a great star. We earthlings were not disturbed by it because the incident happened 800,000,000 years ago. It had taken the light created by the explosion all those years to reach us.

The stars we think we see are so distant that light from the one nearest our sun, we are told, requires four and a half years to reach us. It takes some of us that long to absorb a small part of the lessons of Freemasonry.

How many stars are there? No one claims to have made an accurate count, but the fantastic number estimated by astronomers ought to make a thinking Freemason realize what an infinitesimal pinpoint he is in the boundless scheme of things. Freemasons should be deeply humbled by even a partial realization of what has been designed in space by the Great Geometrician whom we reverence and serve.

How many stars are there in the Milky Way, the only galaxy of which we have much knowledge and of which this huge world of ours is only a tiny speck? Scientists tell us that a hundred billion may be the number. They also tell us that under the most favorable circumstances we cannot “see” over 2,500 of them. Astronomers estimate that there may be 200,000,000 galaxies as great as the Milky Way, the nearest one separated from us by a million light years.

We really cannot comprehend how many stars there are; we can name but a few of them and cannot actually see any of them. We depend upon the rays of light they send us to inform us where they are, or where they were when their rays were started on their way. Therein lies a Masonic lesson. We do not know how many lessons there are in the structure of Freemasonry; and many of these lessons are so far away from some of us, that we don’t see them and are aware of them only because of the rays of “light” which filter through to us.

These figures should give us confidence that the Grand Architect of the Universe, who has such an important place in our ritual, who has the power to put our universe into motion under an unerring eternal plan, hears our prayers and has a perpetual future life for His creatures after they have lived through their few moments as earthly mortals.

A magazine article a few years ago stated that it is possible to photograph galaxies and nebulae so far away that their light takes 1,200 to 1,500 million years to reach us. We can only conjecture what further wonders of the heavens will be revealed in the future by such great eyes as the one on Mt. Palomar, California, and by the radio telescopes now being built.

Astronomers tell us that some stars have traveled away from this earth at the rate of hundreds of millions of miles a year, century after century, yet their apparent position in the heavens has hardly changed, nor has their brilliance diminished. A Mason, however, cannot depart very far from the teachings of the Fraternity and expect to retain their brilliance.

We are inclined to think of the sun, with a diameter a hundred times that of this earth, as one of the largest and certainly the most brilliant of the heavenly bodies. It appears to be so only because it is so close to us, a mere 93,000,000 miles distant. Actually it is one of the smaller and one of the fainter of the celestial bodies. A baby of the known distant stars is said to be three thousand times as large as the sun. Some of the super stars are a million times as bright.

To give some idea of the immensity of the works of the Creator, it is said that although our sun is comparatively small, it is losing weight at the rate of a million tons a second, but is expected to endure for millions of years yet. There is still plenty of time for Freemasons to memorize their rituals and to study the teachings of the Craft!

Some astronomers believe there are six hundred million billions of stars and planets larger than our earth. Many are said to be infinitely larger. This huge earth, our planet, has a diameter of approximately 8,000 miles, but it is only a speck in the universe when compared with some of the larger stars like Antares, one of the largest so far measured, with a diameter that astronomers have estimated as four hundred million miles.

All of us have seen pictures of the earth revolving in its elliptic orbit around the sun. All of us have observed how tiny this earth appears to be compared with the size of its orbit. If Antares were hollow, the earth’s orbit, together with the sun, the moon, and a few stars could be placed inside and there would be space remaining.

More unbelievable than the story of Antares is that of stars with a diameter of a billion miles. To give an idea of the size of these stars, the 93,000,000 miles that separate this earth from the sun is only a small part of the space required for a passageway for these monsters of the skies. Let any reader compare himself with one of these. Any idea he may have of his own importance in the scheme of things undoubtedly would shrivel away.

There are billions of stars and planets roaming around in endless space, each guided in its various revolutions by the same unerring law of Nature. Freemasons need to study the unerring laws that guide men of good will into the pathway of brotherhood and keep their feet always in the right way.

We are prone to think of billions as quantities that were unknown before the World Wars, but right at the beginning of things . . . millions of years before the creation of man . . . the Creator was dealing in billions, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions, and even higher figures that baffle the powers of the imagination.

Possibly many of us have wondered why, when there are so many stars and planets rambling around in space, none of them bumps into one another. No one knows all the reasons; but one of them is that they are scattered through unfathomable and unmeasured stretches of space, at distances that confound our limited understanding.

Astronomers tell us that it takes light, moving at 186,000 miles a second, 4,000,000 years to cross merely the observable region of space. Stars are separated from one another by billions and billions of miles. The cases are exceptional in which light can cover the distance between neighboring stars in less than several years. We have somewhat similar difficulties in passing Masonic light from one brother to another. It takes a long time, even when the light is steadily maintained.

The life of Freemasonry is an infinitesimal part of a moment in the span of time it takes the twinkle of some of the stars to reach us. We live by rays of light started on their way to us hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years ago. We live by rays of light from stars that no longer exist, by rays started on their way before a human being existed, that started their long journey centuries before there was civilization on this planet as we know it today.

As Freemasons we live by the bright rays of a Great Light produced centuries ago. Those who come after us are likely to follow the paths our feet have made. In the brief moment we have left in which to do so, let us start rays of Masonic fight on their way to brethren who will live a century, or a hundred centuries, after our enfranchised spirits have sought the place where we expect to discover the Lost Word. Let us leave them a vehicle by which they may put to use the age-old truths that Freemasonry has learned for its guidance and effectiveness.

None of us can even faintly comprehend the stupendous figures required to number the stars. We know, however, that there is a Great Power that created them hundreds of millions of years ago, by a plan so perfect that it has continued to this day and gives promise of continuing eternally. This stupendous conception should make every Freemason realize that he is merely a momentary development in the evolution of a minor planet. Such a realization should give him the humility that becomes a Freemason.

Why should the spirit of mortal man be proud?

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  1. In 2015 Siuslaw Lodge is no longer a moon lodge.

The Masonic Service Association of North America