The cornerstone has long been considered to be an essential element of many buildings, a tradition that has long survived throughout many ages and cultures. While we as Masons are familiar with our symbolic teachings surrounding the cornerstone, which I will touch on later, I thought it might be helpful to explore some examples of the use of cornerstones in history.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures would lay their foundation stones in a tradition similar to that of a “ground-breaking” ceremony as a “foundation ritual.” The purpose of which was to call upon the favor of their Gods to protect their structures from destruction by the elements or any other malevolent force. During these “foundation rituals” stones would be hollowed out and filled with vessels containing an array of different symbolic items pertaining to the intended use of the building and the Deity it was dedicated too. These stones were then placed in different corners of the buildings, at the entrance of the structure, or in some instances at a different point of importance depending on the type of structure being built.
In the customs and traditions of Freemasonry we see many examples of both the operative and symbolic uses of the cornerstone. One of our few ceremonies that are open to public is that of the laying of the cornerstone, of which one of the earliest mentions dates back to the entry in Mist’s Weekly Journal of May 26th, 1722. It stated “The first stone of the foundation at the same corner above ground being twelve feet above the other, was laid with a great deal of ceremony by the society of Freemasons, who on that occasion, were very generous to the workmen.”
The cornerstone is also a deeply meaningful symbol within Masonic philosophy. The newly initiated Entered Apprentice is placed in the northeast corner of the lodge. This in itself has several meanings. Newly made Masons are the foundation of our entire Craft, for without new members to carry our traditions forward into the future, our work dies with us. The laborer of today is the overseer of tomorrow. Thus, we are to take pride in the laying of these new Masons as cornerstones of our lodges, and to guide their placement within the craft with studious attention and care.
This placement is also a symbolic halfway point between the darkness of the North and the light of the East. This first step of the initiate marks a transition from darkness and error, to that of light and truth. The charge he receives reiterates this by stating how he should live, walk, and act in the outer world. In this moment, he is a neophyte that is receiving its first nurturing rays that will perpetuate his growth on his Masonic journey towards light.
We all as Masons, from the youngest Entered Apprentice to the Worshipful Master of the lodge, are ever erecting our spiritual temples. We labour in this daily, brick by brick, through our charitable acts, selfless deeds, caring spirits, and truthful dealings with one another. May the cornerstone of our spiritual temples be steadfast and built upon the principles of integrity, stability, and longevity.
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