Tag Archives: Shepherds’ Play

A vision of Christ in Firle

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in England, we decide to go for our first pub lunch in four months to The Ram Inn, an historic 500-year old pub in Firle, East Sussex.

Ram Inn

Jeremy (with Covid crop and pint of Harvey’s) and Sophia at the Ram Inn. (Photo by Isabella Smith)

 

Firle is an attractive old village in the South Downs National Park, which manages to remain quite tranquil despite being just a few hundred yards off the ferociously busy main A27 road.  It sits below the high chalk escarpment of the South Downs, from which one can see the English Channel in the distance. The road to Firle from the A27 leads nowhere except to the village and up to Firle Beacon on the downs, so there is no through traffic to disturb the peace; and since there is no street lighting, no traffic signs or road markings, and no modern buildings, one can easily imagine that the village looks very much the same as it did in 1911, when Virginia Woolf took a house there for about a year.

Little Talland

Little Talland House, built in 1904, which Virginia Woolf rented in 1911, naming it after Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, a place where she had spent many happy holidays in childhood.

After a pleasant lunch in The Ram Inn and a welcome pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter for me, we walked around Firle, passing Virginia Woolf’s house. In a letter describing it to her future husband Leonard, she said: “This is not a cottage, but a hideous suburban villa – I have to prepare people for the shock”. With due apologies to the present occupant, she was not wrong, it is the ugliest house in Firle; nevertheless, she invited members of the Bloomsbury Group and other friends from literature and the arts to visit her there, including Roger Fry, Adrian Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Desmond McCarthy, Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

We strolled on, pausing only to buy some quails’ eggs from a display outside a house, with an honesty box for payment, and then came to Firle Post Office and general stores, which according to a sign above the door was established in 1780.

 

Firle+(13)

Firle Post Office, established in 1780. (Photo via Angela Bunt Creative) 

 

A little further on, we came to a long path between beech hedges which brought us to the West Door of St Peter’s Church. The present church dates from the 12th century, though it is likely that there have been varying forms of religious settlement on the site since Druidic times.

Inside the vestry, I am struck by a newspaper cutting displayed there, from the Daily Mirror of November 8th 1940, with the headline: “Shepherd Tells Of Vision In Sky”.  The article, “by a Special Correspondent”, tells such an intriguing tale that I can’t resist quoting from it extensively:

Daily Mirror

A cutting from the Daily Mirror dated 8th November 1940, which is displayed in the vestry of St Peter’s Church, Firle. Fred Fowler, the shepherd, is holding a Pyecombe hook, a special kind of shepherd’s crook made in the Sussex village of Pyecombe for use with the narrow-legged Southdown breed of sheep local to the area.

“Old Fred Fowler, sixty-six, lifted his weather-beaten face skywards and pointed west way above the highest peak of the Sussex downs. ‘It be there when I see it,’ he said. ‘There in the clear blue sky. A vision they calls it – it was the like of something which I never see before’. Then he said reverently, ‘It be Christ I see.’

Fred, who is a shepherd, lives in the village of Firle, near Lewes, Sussex. Yesterday the Daily Mirror told of how he and other villagers claimed to have seen a vision of Christ and six angels.

Fred told me the strange story himself. I joined him in his shelter of bracken on the downs. The biting wind blew round us. His two dogs, Bob and Watch, guarded his 150 sheep.

‘I never be one to see things’, said Fred. ‘I am alone too much for that. (…) I’d just rounded up the flock that morning – it be about eleven. I says to meself it’s a nice clear day and I looks up west at the sky. Then I sees it. It be like what they tells me the cinema is like, but I thinks it be more real. There came a kind of panel across the sky’.

‘Inside the panel of white there was a cross, with Christ, his head to one side, nailed on to it. Round him were six angels. I counted ‘em, and they wore white cloudy robes to the feet. I know it was to the feet because I even saw their feet. I even saw their toes’.

‘When I got to the village I knew what I had seen was really there. There were other people who had seen it, too. But mine’s a simple life – I just have me two dogs, me sheep and me missus way back at the cottage and I come to church on a Sunday. That’s all I sees or knows of life; that’s all I really want to see or know’.

‘I forgot,’ he smiled. ‘There’s my pint I always have of a night’.

‘Sometimes though, if I think of it all now, the vision I mean, I wonders whether it really was Christ come to help put our world straight again’.

Old Fred walked away into the distance with his sheep and dogs. He has never been to the cinema or even out of Sussex. I watched him pass into the distance and I almost envied Fred.

Back in the village I confirmed his story. There were two sisters, widows, evacuated from London, Mrs Grace Evans and Mrs E M Steer who had seen the vision, and also a neighbour, Mrs Stevens. ‘Actually, we must have seen it a second or so before the shepherd did’, Mrs Evans told me, ‘because when I first looked into the sky it was clear blue. Gradually I saw the panel of kind of white cloud appear. I called my sister because it looked so pretty, then all at once we saw the crucifix and Christ. I saw every detail, to the nails in his crossed feet and the angels rose around him’.

‘One held a harp, another an old-fashioned pitcher with two handles. It was as clear as a picture and then, when I had got over my surprise, I called my neighbour to see the wonderful sight’.

‘Yes’, said Mrs Steer, it was so real it almost frightened me. I am not one to imagine things, and I used to smile at the story about the Angels of Mons – I always thought the soldiers who saw them imagined things, but now I can believe it’.

I called to see the vicar, the Reverend A G Gregor.

‘I saw nothing’, he said, ‘and I think the whole thing is nonsense’.

 

However, the vicar of Firle’s neighbour, the Reverend JR Lawson, the vicar of Glynde, said in an article published a week later in the newspaper:

‘I think those people who say they saw the vision were too much in earnest to be discredited. After all, our Christian religion is based on the vision of Bethlehem, which was only seen by a few. Therefore, why should not the story of apparently quite earnest people living today be equally believed? I certainly think the vision was seen and I only wish I had seen it myself’.

 

This is a lovely story and reminds me of The Shepherds’ Play from the Oberufer Christmas plays, not just because of shepherds and angels but because of the simple faith of Fred Fowler. A shepherd’s life consists of tending, watching, minding and guarding his flock, all of which can be summed up in one word: caring. The risen Christ said to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, but the Vicar of Firle’s brusque dismissal of the story sounds as though he was rather in the same vein as Peter, who at first didn’t believe the tales of the women who had visited the tomb on that first Easter Day.

I should add that the present-day Vicar of Firle, the Reverend Peter Owen Jones, is a very different sort of person from the Reverend A G Gregor.

SSX MAY15 Peter Owen Jones

The Reverend Peter Owen Jones, Vicar of Firle. (Photo via Sussex Life)

Firle has other Bloomsbury Group associations besides Virginia Woolf; Charleston Farmhouse, which was the home of several Group members, is just a short distance from Firle. In the churchyard at Firle are found the graves of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Angelica Garnett (the only child of Vanessa and Duncan), Quentin Bell (art historian, author and biographer of his aunt Virginia Woolf, and the second son of Vanessa Bell by her husband, Clive Bell) and Quentin’s wife Anne Olivier Bell, whose five-volume edition of the diaries of Virginia Woolf is a superb work of scholarship and elucidation.

When we get home, Sophia reminds me of an interesting coincidence: the date of Fred Fowler’s vision of Christ in 1940 is very close to the introduction of the ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’ on the BBC on November 10th 1940. The Silent Minute was an initiative of the adept Wellesley Tudor Pole, in which people in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth were asked to devote one minute of their time at 9.00pm each evening to pray for peace and thus create a channel between the visible and subtle realms through which divine help and inspiration could be received. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, and King George VI, offered their support and accepted Tudor Pole’s suggestion that it should coincide with the chiming of Big Ben in London. On Remembrance Sunday, November 10th, 1940, the BBC broadcast the chimes of Big Ben as a signal for the Silent Minute. This then continued throughout the war years and on up until the late 1950s.

Did the Silent Minute offer some kind of help against the Nazis, in a similar way that Fred Fowler imagined Christ coming “to help put our world straight again”? In a letter to President Roosevelt dated August 11th 1953, Tudor Pole said the following:

“At the end of the War a Staff Officer of the German Intelligence Corps made this remark when under interrogation at British H.Q. in Germany: ‘During the war you had a secret weapon for which we could find no counter-measure and which we did not understand, but it was very powerful. It was associated with the striking of Big Ben at 9pm each evening. I believe you called it the ‘Silent Minute’.”

 

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The timeless wisdom of the Oberufer Christmas plays

I gave the following address at Emerson College on December 24th 2017, during the Christmas Festival organised by the Anthroposophical Society in Sussex. Since I first got to know the Oberufer Christmas Plays by acting in them some years ago, I’ve been aware of the timeless wisdom that they contain about human beings and our situation here on Earth. As I’ve referred to some of these themes in earlier blog posts, I apologise for the repetition here; but partly excuse myself because I have added some further thoughts in this address.

 

Throughout the Advent period and up until the end of the school Autumn term, teachers and other staff in Steiner Waldorf schools around the world are to be found busy in rehearsals for one or more of three Christmas plays, which they perform as a kind of gift to the pupils, their families and friends over the holiday period.

These plays – the Paradise Play, the Shepherds’ Play and the Kings’ Play – are known as the Oberufer Christmas Plays, after an island in the Upper Danube where these plays were first noted down and collected by one of Rudolf Steiner’s university professors, Karl Julius Schroer.

For those of you who’ve not come across them before, what are these plays about? The first one, called The Paradise Play, is quite short and tells the story as described in the book of Genesis of the creation of the world and the subsequent expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve, after they had succumbed to Satan’s strategem to get them to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the one tree in the Garden of Eden that God had forbidden to them. Today, Christmas Eve, is I believe called the Feast of Adam and Eve in the Catholic Church, and the Christmas tree, of which we have a lovely example here, is sometimes called the Paradise Tree, and it represents the Garden of Eden. The Paradise Play is usually performed just before Christmas together with the second play, the Shepherds’ Play, which tells the story of the proclamation of the Birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the field. This is the nativity story as told in the Gospel According to St Luke. We’ve recently seen a performance of the Shepherds’ Play at Michael Hall school on 14th and 15th December. The third play, the Kings Play, tells of the visit of the three wise men, the Magi , to the birthplace of Baby Jesus, and then of the murderous atrocities of Herod in his attempt to destroy the boy he assumed would take over his throne, and it is traditionally performed on 6th January, the feast of Epiphany. This is the nativity story as told in the Gospel According to St Matthew.

Of course, Christmas in our own time has become a secular rather than a religious holiday – you’ve probably noticed that many people now prefer to say “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.” I saw recently a cartoon in a newspaper, which showed two people looking at a nativity scene in a shop window. One person was saying to the other: “Now that’s what I call really tasteless, bringing Jesus into Christmas!”

But there was a time when Christmas was not primarily about over-indulgence and conspicuous consumption. For Rudolf Steiner, who grew up in the rural Austro-Hungarian villages during the latter part of the 19th century, Christmas was still a time which was not primarily about consumerism, but was instead a festival when love, philanthropy and what you might call “right living” was given a fresh impetus in human hearts. As Christmas approached, these villages were suffused by a mood Steiner later described as a kind of magical breath that filled the homes and streets with joyful, hopeful anticipation. Even the poorest peasant householder would dedicate a corner of their dwelling to a nativity scene made from figures they had carved themselves from wood.

As a boy, Steiner would see these nativity scenes when visiting his neighbours. It’s easy for us to forget that he was born into the rural working-class and this was the milieu in which he grew up. As an adult, he expressed his empathy with poor working people as a natural result of having grown up among them. The villagers of Steiner’s childhood not only decorated their homes with nativity scenes but they also took part in traditional seasonal pageants. On Christmas Eve they would re-enact the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Paradise; and on Christmas Day the story of the Shepherds as told in the Gospel of St Luke. Despite their simple settings, props and costumes, the villagers took these plays very seriously, with preparations beginning at the end of the harvest season and with rehearsals taking place by lantern and candlelight. The actors were men and boys only, including those playing the roles of Mary and the angel. Those taking part in the plays had to observe certain rules and uphold high moral standards.

Steiner tells us that from his own observations of knowing the people involved, there were what he calls “utterly good-for-nothing fellows who would not dare to be dissolute as the days shortened. At Christmas time those who were invariably the most quarrelsome, quarrelled less and those who quarrelled only now and then stopped quarrelling altogether. A real power was active in souls at that time of the year and these feelings abounded everywhere during the weeks immediately before the Holy Night.” Steiner went on to say that “anyone who has lived among village people knows what the first rule of conduct signifies. The first rule was that during the whole period of preparation none of the actors might visit a brothel.” (I trust that the Waldorf teachers today are showing similar restraint.) A second rule was that no-one was allowed to sing bawdy songs or get drunk and the boys taking part were expected to be God-fearing and be capable of absorbing into their character the essence of the Christmas mood. The actors were also obliged to learn how to speak in strict rhythm and rehearse every movement and gesture in minute detail.

So when in later life Steiner was introduced to the Oberufer Christmas plays by his university professor Karl Julius Schroer, he immediately recognised what he described as the same “warm, magical breath of the Christmas mood” that he remembered from the village plays of his childhood. Schroer had collected these three plays in the local dialect from the island community of Oberufer in the Danube, where they had been performed for hundreds of years. Nowadays, as I mentioned, these plays are performed during the Christmas season at Steiner Waldorf schools around the world.

I think we can be fairly sure that Steiner further adapted Schroer’s texts of these plays. We may also assume that Steiner brought out and strengthened the ancient wisdom inherent in the plays. Now Steiner was perhaps one of the busiest people there has ever been – he must have been under greater time pressure than any of us can imagine, as the work he packed into his 63 years would have been more than enough for ten ordinary people. And yet we know that he gave much time and attention to the rehearsal and production of the plays at Dornach, and he provided a spoken introduction to every performance whenever he could. So what was it about these plays that was important enough to make Steiner want to attend hundreds of rehearsals and many performances over the course of his years at Dornach?

When I worked in a Steiner school and sometimes took part in these plays, I found there to be a special, intangible quality about acting in them. It may sound fanciful but I experienced this almost as a blessing, a sense of grace. I found this particularly to be the case when playing Balthasar in the Kings’ play, but also when playing God in the Paradise play (typecasting, some might say). Of course, those playing the Devil or Herod might have quite a different experience!

There is real wisdom in each of these plays and the text repays careful study and attention. Take the Paradise Play, for example, and the final speech that God makes just after Adam and Eve have been cast out of Paradise and after he has rebuked Satan for beguiling Adam and Eve into tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It’s both powerful and thought-provoking:

“See now this Adam, such wealth he has won

Like to a god he is become

Knowledge he has of Evil and Good

He can lift up his hand on high

Whereby he liveth eternally”

I was playing the part, so I had to try to make sense of these lines. They reminded me of an earlier scene in the play, just after God has created Adam, and is showing him the Earth for the first time. God says to Adam:

“The earth with hills and mountains steep

I give thee – fishes of the deep and

Birds of Air, that by this hand I made,

I give to thy command.

Share thou with me my domination

And be the lord of all creation.”

God is inviting Adam to become a co-creator, the steward of the Earth, although a steward who is so far lacking in the wisdom to run things properly.

So what do those last two lines I quoted earlier mean, when God says that Adam “can lift up his hand on high, Whereby he liveth eternally”? Through Satan’s cunning, Adam has acquired premature knowledge of good and evil, before he was evolutionarily ready to take this on, but in doing this, Adam has also taken on the potential to become a god.

The image of Adam lifting his hand on high (and surely it’s his right hand he lifts) reminded me of a king with orb and sceptre. Picture a king with a sceptre in his right hand, which is used for directing and willing and with the orb in his left hand, which is used for receiving and holding – so Adam has become like a God or a co-creator with God and who now must learn to use his power with wisdom, which implies that there will be all kinds of painful lessons to be learned as mistakes are made along the way. And isn’t that a perfect image of humankind today, as we grapple with cloning and nuclear energy and genetic modification and all kinds of new technologies? We have the godlike powers but we are still trying to learn the godlike wisdom to use them properly.

What lies behind these plays? We could perhaps say that the Paradise Play is to do with the forces of Will, depicting as it does the beginning of Humankind.

We might say that the Shepherds’ Play is about Feeling and the light that gives warmth to simple shepherds’ hearts. It’s about empathy, the wisdom of the heart, the caring for one another that the birth of Jesus will reinforce and strengthen throughout the world.

And we could say that the Kings’ Play is about Thinking – and indeed it seems to me the play most closely aligned to anthroposophy, because the Three Kings are a kind of image of the seeking after of higher spiritual knowledge or the truths of esoteric Christianity. The Kings’ Play is traditionally performed at Epiphany on 6th January.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “vision of God” and in the Christian tradition it refers to the visit to the newborn Jesus child in the stable at Bethlehem by the Three Kings; or in other words, the revelation of God the Son as a human being to the Three Kings or Magi. Epiphany is sometimes called the Festival of the Three Kings for this reason, and Rudolf Steiner had some interesting things to say about it. He said that in our present time less importance is attached to Epiphany than to the Christmas festival itself but in the future, Epiphany will assume greater and greater significance as we begin to understand its symbolism.

The Shepherds’ Play and the Kings Play are telling us of two proclamations of the birth of Jesus: the Shepherds’ Play shows us that one proclamation is made to the shepherds in the fields, as told in the Gospel According to St Luke; while the Kings’ Play shows us the proclamation made to the three Magi from the East, who follow a star leading them to the Jesus child. This is the Nativity as related in the Gospel According to St Matthew.

So these plays are showing us two ways in which higher knowledge came to exceptional individuals in earlier times. Individuals such as the simple shepherds in the fields who with their great purity and kindness of heart still possessed a certain power of clairvoyance that came over them like a dream.

And the Kings’ Play shows us that there were individuals who had reached the heights of learning, like the three Magi from the East, in whom the ancient faculty of gazing into the how and why of cosmic happenings had been preserved.

Let’s take a closer look at the knowledge possessed by the three Magi. It’s clearly indicated in the Kings’ Play that these Magi (another word for spiritual masters or initiates), were able to read the secrets of the movements of the stars. This ancient knowledge of the secrets of the stars also contained the secrets of happenings in the world of human beings.

Steiner posed the question: “What has become of the wisdom possessed by the Magi?” And his answer was that it has become the mathematical astronomy of today. However, unlike today’s astronomers, the Magi were able to gaze at the world of the stars, not only with their eyes but also with their inner vision and their esoteric knowledge and thus they were able to see the secrets of the universe and of humankind. In a way we can scarcely understand today, the Magi could also perceive the stars talking to them. However in our present age, today’s mathematics has become pure abstraction, says Steiner, but he also says that the same forces that are unfolded in mathematical thinking can again be filled with life, enriched and intensified in imaginative perception. Then, from our own inner forces, we can once again behold the heavens through inner perception, inner vision, as the Magi discerned the secrets of the Christ child.

Perhaps it is thoughts like these that prompted Steiner to give the following meditative verse at Christmas 1923:

The stars once spoke to Man.

It is world destiny that they are silent now.

To be aware of this silence

Can become pain for Earthly Man.

But in the deepening silence

There grows and ripens

What Man speaks to the stars.

To be aware of this speaking

Can become strength for Spirit Man.

In our present age, the verse seems to suggest, we need to recognise that the spiritual world has withdrawn from us in order to advance the next step of our own evolutionary journey. In Steiner’s account of how humanity is evolving, since the 15th century we have lost the atavistic sense of clairvoyance which we used to have, and thus lost our awareness of the connection with the spiritual world. This was a necessary but very dangerous step in the evolution of humankind. It was necessary because as humans we have the unique privilege of developing freewill, which could only happen by entering an age in which our connection with the divine-spiritual beings and their will for our future appeared to be severed. And it was dangerous because this apparent severance from spirit existence has given the adversarial powers an opportunity they didn’t have before, which is to convince human beings through our science and technology that physical, material reality is the only reality; and thus to thwart our true destiny, which is to evolve, aeons from now, into what Steiner called the Tenth Hierarchy, a new angelic order of spiritual freedom and spiritual love.

But even in this present age we are not alone, however; help is all around us. We must find the courage and imagination to speak to the stars and re-establish our links with the spiritual world; but this time in full consciousness.

Turning to the Magi themselves, one of them is portrayed as a Moor, an African; the second as a white man, a European; and the third as an Asian from India. And about this Steiner says something which I find very moving (and which gives the lie to those misguided people who accuse him of racism):

“What must never be forgotten is that the proclamations to the Shepherds and to the Kings contained a message for all mankind – for the earth is common to all. In that the revelation to the shepherds was from the earth, it was a revelation that may not be differentiated according to nationality. And in that the Magi received the proclamation of the sun and heavens, this too was a revelation destined for all mankind. For when the sun has shone upon the territory of one people, it shines upon the territory of another. The heavens are common to all; the earth is common to all. The impulse of the ‘human universal’ is in very truth quickened by Christianity. Such is the aspect of Christmas revealed by the twofold proclamation.”

But there are two other kings in the Kings’ Play – Jesus and Herod. And they open up two different worlds before us: one which promotes the development of humanity in a good way; and the other world, which is served by the adversarial powers and in which Herod represents the diabolical element. Unlike Jesus, and unlike the three Magi, who are working out of love, or more precisely, who are applying the intelligence of their hearts to their knowledge of the stars, Herod is working out of the opposite of love.

What is the opposite of love? Not hate. No, the true opposite of love is fear. Herod is afraid. He is afraid of losing his throne to this new-born king, whom he assumes will be a temporal rather than a spiritual ruler. And out of Herod’s fear, and his ignorance of spiritual laws, he is willing to commit the most terrible atrocity imaginable: the mass slaughter of all boy-children in his kingdom under the age of two.

Actually, one feels almost sorry for Herod, who in his fear and ignorance is preparing a truly appalling karma for his future lives. In the play, Mary appears to Herod in a vision and tries to warn him about what he is doing to himself:

“Great King, to Mercy mend your mind

Lest grief come suddenly behind;

If so much guiltless blood you shed

What call you, King, on your own head?”

But Herod is not to be dissuaded from his terrible crime and orders his servants to kill all the children, “to make the children’s blood gush out.”

And at this point, I can’t help but ask myself what has changed in the last 2000 years? Still today we have rulers who are acting out of fear and ignorance rather than a heart-filled wisdom. A prime example is president Assad in Syria, where the death toll of his own Syrian people in the conflict is around 500,000, together with over 6 million internally displaced people and another 5 million seeking refuge abroad. We could multiply these examples in other conflicts around the world.

Why is this, I wonder? Why is it that so many politicians and leaders today still lack “the light that gives warmth to simple shepherds’ hearts, the light that enlightens the wise heads of kings?” Why are so many of them, to use a 19thcentury term that deserves to be revived, such moral imbeciles?

Whatever the answers to those questions, each of us can help to improve matters. None of us is powerless – our thoughts, our example, our prayers, our daily interactions with other people can all help to create a better future, even if the numbers of those working consciously for good sometimes seem like an impossibly diluted homeopathic dose within the great mass of humankind.

And of course, we can also go to see the Oberufer Christmas plays, to remind ourselves of what remains true and good in the face of evil. We’ve missed the Paradise, and Shepherds plays for this year, but we can still see the Kings Play, which is being performed at Michael Hall on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th January at 7.30pm; and then on Sunday 14th at 5.00pm.

Thank you for listening – very best wishes for a peaceful and restful time during these Holy Nights and in the New Year ahead.

 

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