Some months ago, I was asked by the committee of the Anthroposophical Society in Sussex to give an address on a theme of my choice at our Easter Festival, which was to be held at Emerson College on Easter Day, 12th April 2020. I was honoured and enthused by this request and decided to give a talk on the theme of ‘Anthroposophy as an Easter experience.’
The inspiration for this theme came from a remark by Rudolf Steiner during a lecture he gave on April 22nd 1924: “Anthroposophy in all its working, is an Easter experience, an experience of resurrection bound up with the experience of the grave.” Steiner was speaking in the context of the deliberate destruction by arson of the first Goetheanum on New Year’s Eve 1922, an event which he was able to relate to the similar destruction of the Temple at Ephesus in the year 356 BC by the arsonist Herostratus.
The Goetheanum had been intended as a modern mystery temple; its burning had been for Steiner a kind of crucifixion. Steiner now called for a renewal of the Mysteries, saying that: “The Anthroposophical Society must consciously cultivate this renewal. The Society was, after all, witness to an event that, like the burning of the Temple at Ephesus, can be turned to good historical account. In both cases a grievous wrong was perpetrated. However, what is a terrible wrong on one level can turn out to be useful for human freedom on another level. Such harrowing events can indeed call forth a true step forward in human evolution.”
Steiner also recognised that the destiny of human beings is to achieve freedom, “which meant that the Mysteries’ powerful influence had to diminish and for a time leave human beings more or less to their own devices.” This, of course, in the age of the Consciousness Soul, is where we are today, with many people pulled this way and that because they have no foundational philosophical base on which to gauge their response to world phenomena.
All of this was to have been the context for my talk, which cannot now take place owing to the Covid-19 pandemic which has closed down Emerson College and many of the other aspects of our normal, everyday life. I would also have talked about some of the anthroposophical enterprises which have experienced significant difficulties in recent times, particularly the Steiner schools. I had even found a quotation from Steiner, to the effect that whatever good intention we start off with, it is inevitable that the way of the world will eventually turn it into its opposite. It comes from Lecture 4 in the cycle ‘The Fall of the Spirits of Darkness’, given in Dornach on 6thOctober 1917:
“ ‘Surely’, people will say, ‘it must be a good thing to be more and more perfect?’ And ‘What better ideal can there be but to have a programme that will make us more and more perfect?’ But this is not in accord with the law of reality. It is right, and good, to be more and more perfect, or at least aim to be so, but when people are actually seeking to be perfect in a particular direction, this search for perfection will after a time change into what in reality is imperfection. A change occurs through which the desire for perfection becomes a weakness. Benevolence will after a time become prejudicial behaviour. And however good the right may be that you want to bring to realisation — it will turn into a wrong in the course of time. The reality is that there are no absolutes in this world. You work towards something that is good, and the way of the world will turn it into something bad. We therefore must seek ever-new ways, look for new forms over and over again. This is what really matters.”
But to have confined my remarks to the original theme of this talk would at the time of this pandemic have seemed not only beside the point but even frivolous, given the scale of what human beings are currently facing. It is not only anthroposophy which is having an Easter experience but humanity as a whole.
Each one of us is familiar in these apocalyptic times with what Steiner called ‘the experience of the grave’ . For many areas here in the UK, 2019 ended and 2020 continued with day after day of heavy rain and disastrous flooding. The rain never seemed to stop. On the other side of the world, Australia suffered huge bush fires which were then followed by floods. Climate change, which is affecting all parts of the world, is having a marked effect on weather patterns. Pollution is poisoning our land, seas and rivers and much of nature, including us. Migration and the associated resurgence of nationalism encouraged by populist politicians is undermining our sense of shared humanity and common goals. We know that the Sixth Great Extinction of species is underway, and this and so many other human-made problems are casting long shadows over all life on Earth. And just to add to the Biblical scenes of apocalypse, in Africa we are even seeing a vast plague of locusts, the worst there has been for nearly a century. Now the Covid-19 pandemic has joined these other phenomena to reinforce our sense of all-consuming crisis. For me this is epitomised by the “social distancing” that we are being exhorted to practise – literally to keep our distance one from another.
In Judith von Halle’s book Illness and Healing, she suggests that in this present age of the Consciousness Soul, many modern illnesses are in fact illnesses of the organism of humanity, ie the totality of all human beings. These illnesses arise from the collective effect of the actions, thoughts and feelings of each one of us and express themselves through human beings in the form of pandemics; but they also manifest in the Earth as extreme weather events, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and so on.
This will, no doubt, strike many people as just fanciful – but as Steiner observed in another context, “Present day materialism will find it very hard to admit that the spirit creates everything material. It is, however, the tragedy of materialism that it understands the nature of matter least of all…”
But could it be, as ‘Midnight Rambler’ recently suggested on this blog, that the current pandemic may have a potentially positive outcome? His view was that, if we can grasp it, this global event could be an example of metanoia – a John the Baptist moment for a re-evaluation of how we want to live and how we want society to function. He also said: “Is everyone noticing how Natura is breathing more easily now that the world is slowing down?”
Let us hope so – we should never waste a good crisis; and unlike the Member of Parliament I heard on the radio the other week, I do not want to “get back to normal as soon as possible” after this crisis is over; because if we do go straight back to how life was before, we will soon have to suffer even more pandemics, extreme weather events, societal breakdowns etc., until we finally learn the lesson.
The lesson we need to learn is actually quite a simple one: how can we meet real human needs and care for each other and all life on Earth through our work? If we are to experience the resurrection as well as the grave, it is human solidarity, which is love expressed in practical action, which will get us through this present crisis and take us on to a better future. We are seeing this now, in the countless deeds of selfless work on behalf of the sick by hospital and health workers; and we see it, too, in the myriad acts of kindness offered towards the elderly and vulnerable by their neighbours.
At my own local level here in Forest Row, I’m often reminded of these simple truths; at Tablehurst Farm, for example, where I work at the farm’s care home, a small residential home for three adults with learning disabilities. I’m reminded of this, too, by the farm’s work in producing biodynamic and organic food for local people while demonstrating strong community values. The farm has recently started home deliveries for the elderly and those who are self-isolating (a service which I’ve just taken advantage of, as my wife Sophia and I are recovering from symptoms of the virus and so unable to leave home). Will this epidemic help society to make these kinds of initiatives part of the new normal, so that we don’t have to go back to what we had before?
Even better, might this experience make it possible for us humans to realise we can change our habits and our expectations without too much pain? Could those of us in the West learn to do with less so that the rest of the world can have a little more? Can we prolong this welcome mini-break that the Earth has had from our polluting activities? It’s been wonderful to see evidence of reduced air pollution across major cities and I’m sure we’re all enjoying the diminution in aircraft and traffic noise. Could this be maintained into the future? Probably not, unless we can persuade governments that we do not want to resume the relentless emphasis on economic growth, even though it’s obvious that this is the only way for us to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions necessary if the twin crises of climate change and species extinction are to be averted. If change is what we want, then we all need to let our politicians know it, loud and clear.
I’ve been veering towards the positive so far on what this pandemic might mean for us; but there is also a possibility that I am being naïve and that we are all being ‘played’ by forces that are very far from benign towards human beings. One of the many disturbing features of this crisis is the astonishing speed with which our civil liberties have been taken away from us. At Easter time, amid all the other restrictions being placed on us, it is very strange that Covid-19 is making it impossible for churches to be open and for services to be held; and therefore “where two or more are gathered together in my Name, there I am present among them” is also rendered impossible. Sophia, who is a French national, tells me that in France people are now only allowed out of their homes if they are on their own – and only for one hour at a time and they can only go one kilometre from their home. This pandemic has created the circumstances in which all the aspects of a totalitarian dictatorship can be justified by governments and accepted meekly by most of us, not only in France but also in the UK and across the world.
Who would wish to bring about such a situation? Anthroposophists will of course have a ready candidate in mind, the infinitely clever being whom Jesus Christ called the Ruler of this World and whom Steiner called Ahriman. It would be very much in the interests of Ahriman, whose incarnation may be imminent, to close down Easter and to force every person on the planet to submit themselves to government diktat for reasons that are apparently benign and claimed to be for the greater good.
What can we do as a form of gentle resistance to this closing-down of Easter and normal life? This Good Friday morning Sophia and I lit a candle and read through the Gospel of John, from the account of the last supper in the Upper Room through to the events of the Crucifixion; this was an incredibly powerful and moving experience for both of us. We will continue to read the rest of the story in the coming days. Outside, the sun was shining, the plants are burgeoning and there was a very strong sense of the Christ-filled elementals celebrating in the garden.
If I could have given my talk at Emerson College on Easter Day, Sunday 12th April, I would have begun with the great Easter poem by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser. This is Sonnet 68 from the ‘Amoretti’ sequence of 89 sonnets, first published in 1595, which Spenser wrote for his fiancée, Elizabeth Boyle. Now it seems an appropriate way to end this piece:
Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day,
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin:
And having harrow’d hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
And grant that we for whom thou diddest die,
Being with thy dear blood clean wash’d from sin,
May live for ever in felicity.
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again:
And for thy sake, that all life dear didst buy,
With love may one another entertain.
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.