Of all the festivals we celebrate at the Waldorf School, Michaelmas is usually the most unfamiliar to people. It doesn’t really have an established place in modern culture, and the historical traditions around it may feel somewhat archaic. And yet Rudolf Steiner offered it as an imagination specifically suited to the modern world. As such, he also saw it as central to the mission of the Waldorf School. So how are we to understand it and make use of it? The “Michael imagination” is a picture of the struggle of our times. Michael represents the spirit of our age, the spirit of modern times, from the 15th century onward. In this imagination, Michael’s gaze is strong and taciturn, but he believes in humanity and seeks to help us achieve our full potential as beings of freedom and love. Allowing for that freedom, he waits for us to act first, then takes up our work and joins with us. The dragon or adversarial force against which he fights alongside of us is characterized by Steiner as a being of hardening, contracting and deadening forces, striving tirelessly to bring humanity under its dominion—to enslave us. If our Michaelmas pageants in the Waldorf School leave us with a feeling of victorious completion, then we may be missing the point. The festival of Michaelmas should serve to rouse us, to stir us to action, perhaps even to alarm us—for often that’s exactly what we need to spark our courage. Talking to the teachers of the first Waldorf School in 1923, Rudolf Steiner commented: “Basically, we have fallen out of the habit of being inwardly incensed by things as they are. If you merely pull a long face, however, about things that ought to be rejected in our civilization, you certainly will not be able to educate.”
The dragon threatens our civilization with three primary forces that ought to alarm us: intellectualism, egoism and materialism. Intellectualism refers to a cold, abstract (one might say digital) rationality, and through it, the dragon strives to disconnect us from our own hearts. Egoism is a preoccupation with one’s self, an excessive individualism, and it destroys our connection with other humans. Materialism in this context means the belief that the physical world of the senses is all that is real, which effectively cuts us off from the surrounding super-sensory world. In this way this adversarial force increasingly isolates us from ourselves, from community, and from the spirit, making us more vulnerable and easier to control.
In this imagination, Michael is mightier than the dragon, thrusting it out of the heavens and toward the earth, but the battle is nonetheless ongoing and actively raging here on the earthly plane. In this current moment, there is a great deal to cause fear and concern: global pandemics that threaten lives and tear at our social fabric, unprecedented fires and floods fueled by climate change, centuries of unresolved racial injustice boiling up violently, political discourse that feels perpetually polarized, increasing economic inequality....the list can feel truly overpowering and intractable. A “long face” may feel like the best one can do sometimes.
But the image of Michael struggling powerfully for humanity’s sake can and should rouse us to greater consciousness — to be “incensed by things as they are.” If we consider that our many crises may be manifestations of the three underlying adversarial forces, then we can begin to struggle in meaningful and lasting ways. We can begin to think with our hearts in living images rather than cold abstractions. We can combat our egoism by serving and celebrating the human community and enlarging our social bonds. We can endeavor to sustain an awareness that, beyond our immediate sense experience, there is an active spiritual world that grounds our being. We can begin, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
It’s not truly here yet, but the cold, dead winter is coming. Here in Sacramento, we can find strength in the unique image of a creature that is indigenous to this region: the salmon. The salmon is a majestic creature of two worlds that struggles upstream each September against forces of death for the sake of perpetuating life. This is a natural part of the salmon’s beautiful and mysterious life cycle. Similarly, we somehow need the struggle with the dragon. We are here on earth, where these adversarial forces are quite powerful, and we came here with a reason, with a purpose, with work to do and lessons to learn. We can learn to recognize and resist the forces that threaten our humanity and boldly face life in our times, as desperate as they can feel. It may take fear to spark courage, but with courage, we can find the inner strength to struggle —and hope.