Francis, son of the rich cloth merchant of Assisi, with harsh words turns away the beggar who enters his shop. He is a nuisance and interrupts the trade with noble customers that is getting underway and promises rich profits. Alone again in the shop, however, the image of the ragged and begging beggar suddenly stands before his inner self. Francis sees his look, in which all the misery and suffering of the world seems to be concentrated. He is struck to the core by the look and in a flash he makes a decision: he grabs his bulging money bag and rushes out into the alley to look for the beggar. When he sees him kneeling on a street corner, relief grips him and he pours the entire contents of his bag into the beggar’s hands. How differently does this story affect us than when we are told in a very abstract way: “Be helpful and good to others!” How deeply such a story touches the child, how they imagine the process inwardly, how they relate to it emotionally, how they have compassion for the beggar and feel joy in the transformation to good – all this has an effect on the child’s soul and stimulates them to develop their own compassion and joy with their surroundings. How the imagination embellishes the images, what exactly is felt, that varies from individual to individual. The special thing about the image created by the imagination is: it does not fix anything. It touches us not only intellectually, it touches the imagination, feeling and will, it is powerful and yet leaves us free. In the lessons in lower school, the outer image of the objects of reality and the inner image of the developmental stage of the children, who are dependent not on abstract concepts but on imaginative imagery, come together. Images are created through the stories told by teachers or parents. The more intensively and richly the storytellers themselves experience the images, the more colourful and vivid they become in the children’s imagination. Images can move, they are alive, changeable, individual and never quite finished.
Iron glove and fish bones or living concepts
Rudolf Steiner occasionally compared premature teaching in abstract terms to putting on an iron glove that prevents the hand from growing. We may produce knowledge that can be retrieved and controlled, but we risk drying out the child’s soul through its inanimate nature. Sometimes parents are irritated when their children – especially in the lower classes – can only reproduce at home a little of what they have learned. However, we might be just as irritated if a child recounted what they have learned verbatim. Because everything that is taken in should first be digested and processed individually. This process tends to be hindered by all early asking of details. Instead, the focus should be on the child’s overall development and the skills they have acquired. Some things are allowed to sink into forgetfulness and will work there shaping the soul and come back to memory in their own time, or will be brought back to the surface through an appropriate process in the classroom. For in Waldorf education, the content of the lessons is not simply regarded as knowledge that has to be conveyed, especially since today there is knowledge everywhere at the push of a button. Rather, all subjects should stimulate the whole person, expand their possibilities and help them to develop so that they can place themselves meaningfully and energetically into life.
Pictorial teaching shapes us in a way that leaves us free and stimulates development, because pictures grow with us, because they are striking and impressive, and at the same time multi-layered and changeable. Steiner used a drastic image in a lecture to teachers in England in 1923: “What would you say if someone who had been given a fish on a plate were to carefully lay the flesh aside, separate out the bones and eat them! You would probably get a terrible fright that such a person could choke on the fish bones. Moreover, they would not be able to assimilate these fish bones into their organism in the right way. But it is like that, exactly like that, only on a different level, on the level of spiritual instruction, when we teach a child dry, abstract, sober concepts instead of vivid images, instead of that which engages the whole human being.” Pictures do not constrict the child, they do not tie them down and for this very reason they have an educational effect.
Concepts that are gradually developed from this have a different quality than those conveyed in the abstract. Rudolf Steiner spoke of living concepts that can grow with us. They evolve – unlike definitions or fixed terms – as children’s understanding and judgement increases. This keeps them age-appropriate so that they can be built upon. This also serves the economy of teaching. The curriculum offers a wealth of possibilities to use pictures and to return to them in later stages, in order to bring them to experience under different aspects and in a different quality. In this way, over the years, the lessons lead to a deep, living, multifaceted and differentiated formation of judgement in the pupils.
The cycle of the year
The great imaginations of the cycle of the year particularly shape the children’s experience. The change of the seasons, experiences in nature, and the festive seasons are felt as one big whole that conveys safety and security. Joyfully, the familiar festivals are celebrated on a new level every school year. They can also be a source of strength, peace and wisdom for adults. Georg Kühlewind once wrote: “Festivals are like calm islands in the sea of everyday life, kairoi, points in time where the divine and the human come together, where the wound of separation is temporarily healed, where true peace sets in ... “ Let us look at some archetypes in the course of the yearly festivals:
How intimately the children are touched by the figure of Mary at the Annunciation. We can experience in her the willingness to be open, to say yes to a task that is set before us. Saying yes in the confidence that we will be given the necessary strength to grasp it and implement it. At Christmas, the birth of the child is experienced. We receive something new, something of the future, for which we are also responsible: an idea, a realisation, an impulse which we are to nurture and let grow. We could call this the seed of light that we carry within us. Accordingly, the external light also gradually increases again as the year progresses. At Easter time, we are presented with the possibility of overcoming suffering and death. Every person can experience deeper crises in their life as a kind of path of the Passion: fear, injustice, pain, denial, powerlessness, betrayal are some images from the time before Easter. But with the event of Easter, all this is overcome. Just as nature in spring extends its shoots out of the cold, frozen earth into the light and blossoms anew everywhere, so the person who brings the Easter forces to life within themselves can find hope, renewal and the possibility of inner growth. It is the coming into being and passing away that is constantly evident in nature and in human life. Goethe says of it:
“And as long as you don’t have
This dying and becoming
You are but a sorry guest
On the dark earth roaming.”
At Whitsun, we know from paintings in art history about the individual flames above the heads of the disciples. They are the flames of the spirit that everyone can only ignite themselves through inner dedication and activity – through inspiration. It is not simply given to us; it can arise when we free ourselves from habits, everyday life and resignation and inspire ourselves.
At St John’s Day, large fires are lit in many places. Has the little flame grown bigger?
Will I be able to make it grow into a fire? Do I take responsibility for my development, do I work on my faults, which I usually know quite well, am I serious about my self-reflection? These are typical St John’s Tide questions. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the festival said: “He (Christ, the higher element in us) must increase, I (fears, egoisms, weaknesses) must decrease.” Thus strengthened, we defeat with Michael in autumn the dragon forces, that which inhibits, annihilates, paralyses, destroys. We can counter the outward dying of nature with the growth of the soul, in order then to receive the seed of light again at Christmas. We see how the cycle of yearly festivals presents us with developmental images that give us courage. Images that contain spiritual realities. They can become a source of joy and self-confidence in children’s lives. And call out to us in times of sorrow and distress: Follow your path!