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Understanding Michaelmas

By Adam Petersen & Beth McDaniel

This blog post offers an opportunity for a deeper understanding of our Michaelmas Festival. This festival has varied incarnations and layers of meaning available to meet a student or adult wherever they are in their development. For the younger children, the story of Michael and the dragon awakens the imagination and serves as a call to courage and strong will. For the adult, Michaelmas is a call to inner reflection and communal action. Here, the deeper themes meanings of the Michaelmas festival are discussed for those who wish to enrich their understanding — and experience — of this festival.

Chalkboard drawing by Mitchell Bustillo, Waldorf Lead Teacher.

I can belong now to myself

And shining spread my inner light

Into the dark of space and time.

Toward sleep is urging all creation,

But inmost soul must stay awake

And carry wakefully sun’s glowing

Into the winter’s icy flowing.

- Calendar of the Soul, Wk. 25, Rudolf Steiner

Historical Context and Prevalence in Waldorf Schools

Michaelmas (also known as the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael or the Feast of the Archangels) is a Christian festival dating back to the 4th century, which venerates the archangel Michael. Michael is sometimes considered the greatest of all the archangels and is known for defeating Lucifer in the war in heaven. This festival has historically figured prominently in the cycle of church and folk life, especially in the isles of Great Britain.

This festival and the figure of Michael deeply resonated with Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, who saw in it an opportunity to bring the courageous qualities of Saint Michael to bear in our experience of community and of the changing seasons. While the festival is tied to the fall equinox, Steiner also felt that the festival has a deep relevance for the time in which we live, with all of its emergent opportunities and challenges (for Steiner the project of rebuilding the world after “the war to end all wars,” for us the myriad challenges of modernity and its attendant dislocations). As a result of Steiner’s attention to this feast day, the Michaelmas festival has come to be particularly prevalent in Waldorf schools around the world.

Michaelmas puppet play performed for the preschool and kindergarten children.

Marshaling Light & Strength for the Changing of the Seasons

Even around the turn of the century, Rudolf Steiner was concerned with modernity’s tendency toward individualism, isolationism, and disconnection from the spiritual and natural world. Much of Waldorf education — and the festival life that is central to it — is an attempt to rectify these disconnections and support healthy human development and healthy community.

One intention of the Michaelmas Festival is to bring us into a deeper connection with the natural world and the changing seasons. Of the Michaelmas Festival, Steiner writes:

“If, today, we can fathom the whole influence of the universe when autumn approaches, if we can read and decipher all the signs of its countenance, if we can draw upon its forces and work creatively with them, then the establishment of such a festival would reveal not only the will of human beings, but also the will of the spiritual world.”

Specifically, during Michaelmas time, we gather our inner resources for the cold and dark of the coming months. In summer, when nature is abundant and the sun is generous, we are physically nourished by these sources. But were we to travel with nature’s cycles into autumnal decay and winter slumber, we would lose ourselves to darkness.

Thus, the Michaelmas Festival is a reminder that we ourselves must awaken and find the means to sustain our beings without the immediate fruitful support of nature. We must conjure strength inwardly from our own powers of thinking, feeling and willing. To rely primarily, and perhaps solely, on one’s own soul capacities requires tremendous courage and strong will.

In a lecture called The Michael Imagination, Steiner writes: “We must learn to keep the Michael festival by making it a festival of fearlessness, a festival of inner strength and initiative, a festival for the commemoration of self-lessness and self-consciousness. There should grow everything that opposes love of ease, that opposes anxiety, and encourages the unfolding of inner initiative and free, strong, courageous will. The festival of strong will!”

Taming the dragon, CWS 6th grader.

A Festival for Our Time: Meeting the Challenges We Face

In the figure of Michael, Steiner saw a model for individual courage and healthy community-mindedness. At the heart of the Michaelmas Festival is an imperative to remain steadfast, oriented always towards that which we may hold with common sense to be true, beautiful and good.

This is the same courage and goodwill which we can extend generously when relating with one another, which begs forgiveness of trespasses, which beseeches the heart to open and transcend that which appears to divide us. Steiner seems to speak directly to our modern condition of divisive political ideologies when he notes the need to imbue festivals with a sense of genuine fellowship and to turn from social tirades toward authentic reforms rooted in a genuine desire to understand one another and create healthy relationships and community.

Matthew Barton, translator of many of Steiner’s works and longtime kindergarten teacher, speaks more specifically to the challenges of our present moment. Barton earnestly articulates a polarity between the prevailing conditions of our Machine-age and the sort of Michaelic countenance and bearing required to counterbalance this Machine:

“Our age is one in which the head often predominates. So many of us spend a great deal of time no longer gazing out into the world but into the interior of the computer’s artificial ‘head,’ into a virtual reality that detaches us from the world and each other while artificially ‘connecting’ us – and increasingly straitjacketing and mechanizing our thinking. Steiner describes the face of Michael, in contrast, as outward gazing, silent but expectant, waiting for our courageous and conscious deeds. Michael, says Steiner, is a being who does not aspire to the pride of the separate human intellect, but who reflects cosmic intelligence such as we find at work throughout the natural world. The intelligence in nature is innocent, unconscious and intuitive. We are a long way from becoming such clear, conscious, vessels for the cosmos to work through – but perhaps it is time to make a start.”

Answering the Call

During the Michaelmas Festival, we embrace the infinite intelligence presupposed in nature as an additional means to temper, harmonize and calibrate the wiles of intellectual human intelligence. To bear with tolerance, openness, and empathy in the face of great and growing contrasts, divisions and tensions is radical and courageous and is a capacity that resides quietly and powerfully within each of us.

Should we choose then to seek, with good will, courage, and love, that which unites us — those qualities which are eternal and immutable — we will perhaps begin to imagine, together, a more beautiful world than the one we now inhabit.

Arguably, this is the true calling of Michaelmas!

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