Of the many symbols and phrases of Freemasonry, a few mottoes are important enough to be prominently, and sometimes publicly displayed on flags, seals, or regalia. The phrase “Ordo Ab Chao,” is the motto of the 33rd degree, which can be found on the grand decorations of the Order of the Sovereign Grand Inspectors General, one of the highest honors and roles which can be bestowed upon a Mason. It is also featured on other seals and flags representing various Orders.
This phrase being depicted so prominently, particularly in relation to the 33rd degree, indicates a tremendous importance to Freemasonry. Indeed, Ordo Ab Chao, translated to “Order from Chaos,” is also associated with another latin phrase, Lux In Tenebris, which translates to “Light from Darkness.” Why is the idea of Order from Chaos or Light from darkness so significant to Freemasonry? Let’s explore this question together.
As always, this article does not represent the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but are simply the reflections of one Co-Mason.
One theory about the origin and significance of this phrase has mostly to do with Masonic history in the United States. In the early 1800s, there was some division and conflict between the Northern and Southern jurisdictions of the Scottish Rite, in the US. According to this theory, when the Rite being practiced in the North was found to be a fraud, and the conflict resolved in the restoration of the original Rite, this was where the original use of the phrase emerged.
Perhaps the most dismissive theory, in this case the “Order from Chaos” was simply the order restored from the chaos of the schism between jurisdictions, and all other meanings commonly attributed to it are purely speculative.
While it’s important not to rule out such an explanation simply because it’s only historically interesting, it’s hard to believe that the motto would be considered so significant if it didn’t have a deeper symbolic meaning. What are some other possible meanings?
The first clue to the more profound meaning and significance of this phrase is the origin of it’s correlate, Lux in Tenebris. This phrase comes to us from the Latin translation of the Gospel of John, in which it is said “The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” While Ordo Ab Chao can be traced to the early 19th century, this other phrase is obviously much older, and carries similar meaning.
What is meant when we say to bring Light from darkness, or Order from chaos? Much as the operative Masons of old took the rough stone of the natural world and hewed and smoothed it in such a way as to be fit for the construction of elaborate and pristine structures such as cathedrals, so the speculative Masons of today apply the same discipline, and even the metaphor of the builder’s tools, to draw forth Order from the Chaos of their own lives and minds. Just as God is said to have made a Light to shine in the darkness which comprehended it not, so are we to be as Lights of knowledge and integrity in the darkness and ignorance of the world, even when it does not understand that Light.
On an even deeper level, what is this universe made of? There are many ways to answer that, and one of them is that it is made of gradients of Order and Chaos. We can see in history and in our own lives that these are not two separate things, but are both a continuum, and a dynamic process of change. As Chaos ensues, old orders are broken down to allow new ones to emerge. Like Ying and Yang, death and rebirth, Order and Chaos follow from and give birth to one another, in an ever-renewing cycle of creation and evolution.