Cosmic and Human Metamorphoses

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When I was about twenty-three I encountered a book by Rudolf Steiner, Cosmic and Human Metamorphoses, transcripts from a series of seven lectures he delivered in Berlin between February 6 and March 20, 1917. World War I still raged while Steiner gave these lectures. The world situation must have influenced his subject matter, though the prose does not bear any inflections of anxiety.

What most impressed me about the book—and something I have carried with me ever since—is the way Steiner describes what he calls the three meetings we have with the Genius, the Life-Spirit, and the Father-Principle. The Genius, for Steiner, is connected to the Holy Spirit and, he says, we encounter it every night through the holiness and depth of sleep, though most people do not recall the meeting, save through flashes of intuition. The Life-Spirit, for Steiner, works as a kind of vehicle for experiencing Christ, an encounter that unfolds over the course of an earthly year. The Father-Principle, finally, can only be encountered in the course of a human life of “three-score and ten.” If a person dies early, the encounter can happen in the spiritual realms.

The idea of the meeting with Christ grabbed my attention. Could it be so easy? Steiner explained that one could come to this experience by attending to nature’s subtle changes during the progression of the solar cycle. He didn’t mean simply noticing the budding of plants in spring, summer’s fruitfulness, the change of color in autumn, or the seeming death of nature in winter. Everyone notices these things. What he meant was a deep attention to the daily, even hourly, changes in the life around us. I started paying attention.

Steiner’s academic training was rooted in phenomenology (intentionality) as it was then developing under philosopher Franz Brentano (among Brentano’s other students were such philosophical heavyweights Sigmund Freud and Edmund Husserl). Steiner’s discussion of the meeting with Christ was deeply indebted to the kind of meeting with the phenomenal world embraced in phenomenology.

In my attention to it, nature became more alive. In truth, it was my attention that became more alive through intentionality: nature was simply waiting for me to pay attention. I learned how to be quiet and watch. Every day. The secrets of nature didn’t exactly open up to me, but I developed a sensitivity to the natural world and entered that domain, first as a gardener and garden designer, eventually as an organic farmer.

It does not surprise me that the work of many phenomenologists comes near the door of the spiritual world. Husserl, for one, went from being an agnostic Jew to a practicing Lutheran. Husserl’s research assistant for a time was Edith Stein who, after reading all of Teresa of Avila’s Vita in one sitting proclaimed, “This is truth.” She eventually became a Catholic and, later, a Carmelite nun. She was martyred by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Another of Husserl’s students was Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy often intrudes into realms traditionally left to theology. The same can be said for Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Marion—all of whom come out of phenomenology.

I think, in our technology-driven age, we could do with a little more intentionality to nature, to things that grow, flourish, die, and return. We need to know how a pine tree differs from a spruce. We should notice how tomato plants grow straight up until after Midsummer, spill out like exploding fireworks through July and August, and start to fade from the bottom between the Perseid meteor showers and Michaelmas. We could benefit from knowing where the moon might be at any given moment of the day, the changing pathway of the sun, and the oscillations of the honey flow. Will this allow us to somehow meet Christ? I won’t say anything except that it would help to pay attention to the phenomenal world. But it’ll take at least a year.

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