By Philip Thatcher
I offer the article below as my letter to you for this issue of Glimpses. The article will also appear in the Summer issue of the US News for members; excerpts will appear in the June issue of Anthroposophy Worldwide.
This coming August participants from many countries will come together in Whitehorse, Yukon, for the week-long conference Encircling Light – Expectant Silence. As I continue to prepare for this week, it seems good to bring together intentions, questions, insights and nuances from some of those who will take part in it.
When Edna Cox from Port Alberni, British Columbia, travelled to Whitehorse in August 2006 to begin preparing for the conference, she wondered “just how my anticipation of the north and its reality would fit together.” Such a question in one form or another may also live in other participants, especially for Canadians for whom “north” is a strong imagination of who they are, yet one that can seem remote from where they actually live. In the words of Alexandra Günther, a workshop leader from Ontario, “Central to my long-standing wish to be part of something like this conference is the question: What is it about the North that draws us there, we who are not its creatures? And what is the idea of North in the Canadian mind and heart, and in other people who have never been there?”
Canadians carry varied, powerful and conflicting images of their north, a fact that has fueled countless books, articles and works of art. Yet certain images are pervasive. West Vancouver participant Robbie Black pictures a drive northward from Edmonton, Alberta. The city falls behind, then the farms, then the last cluster of houses, until only the forest lies ahead: “When the car comes to rest, the silence descends…a subtle awareness emerges of all that lies in hiding, out of sight of the casual glance.”
Other participants are drawn northward by the silences they intuit from or have experienced in that part of the globe. Marjorie Nordås, a Canadian now teaching at the Norstrand School just south of Oslo, once travelled northward with a group from an army base in Toronto: “We made a performance right up between Russia and Canada, at a base called Alert. I was 20 years old but it was my first strong experience of the light, and what touched us most was the silence.”
Jef Saunders, who emigrated from Britain to Toronto, is also drawn to the “expansive light-filled days” and “deep, yet expectant silence”; he also wonders what spiritual intentions might be hidden in that landscape, waiting to be drawn out into the light. Or are these intentions hidden in ourselves, waiting to be unveiled within this northern setting? At the close of the 19th century, prospectors from around the world flooded into the Yukon looking for gold. Workshop leader Anthony Perzel, who is concerned with understanding the activity of elemental beings in the mineral wealth of the north and Luciferic and Ahrimanic influences in our exploitation of it, observes: “The seeking of precious metals and diamonds is analogous to seeking the ‘precious’ within ourselves.”
For at least two participants, the conference will provide a context for understanding the importance of the places where they live. Olga Kornienko from Ekaterinburg, Russia, writes: “Here in the middle of the Urals we have extreme variations of temperature, from -40C to +40C, with northern snowy winters and hot southern summers. The mountain range itself looks a lot like a spinal column; in the history of Russia it always played a spinal role. People here are strong and courageous, especially the women. Being a barrier and a gate, the Urals gathered different peoples and religions. So too, meeting different people from different parts of our planet helps you to meet yourself and know your native land better; the other side of the earth reflects your own land.”
And from Anchorage, Alaska, Mary Lee Plumb-Mentjes, with her Fairbanks colleague Lisa Del Alba, is trying to understand Alaska’s spiritual meaning in the world by observing its landscape, the angle of the sun, the caricatures of its people in the press, its 50th anniversary as a state of the United States: “How are we the same as and different from other northern lands? The not knowing is exciting. This is my first explicit, prolonged anthroposophical research; it is also very daunting.”
For Jorun Carlsen of Tønsberg, Norway, the conference in Whitehorse could be an opportunity to carry forward many years of research, as an extension of Nordic anthroposophical summer conferences held in Scandinavia and Finland and later, Iceland, from 1949: “Now I feel this impulse has expanded to the American continent, to Canada, and maybe next time it will be the Nordic East—in Russia. Nothing should be static; it has to change according to the time. I feel it is very important that we anthroposophists connect to and cooperate in a conscious way with the spiritual world in different places in the world.”
On a similar note, Marie Kolmos of Copenhagen, Denmark, wonders: “I’m curious about what a conference in the north could be like: Are anthroposophical thoughts and themes different from ones in the south of Europe? What can happen in a northern conference not held in a Scandinavian context?”
One contrast is evident: A conference hosted at 60 degrees latitude in the Nordic countries is supported by the presence of the Anthroposophical Society, anthroposophical initiatives and one hundred years of anthroposophical activity. Virtually all of Finland lies north of 60 degrees, as does most of Norway and much of Sweden. Iceland has only a few members of the Society and one Waldorf School and biodynamic farm but all are active north of 60 degrees; so too in Alaska, with the Waldorf School in Anchorage and the four members of the School of Spiritual Science in Fairbanks who meet weekly to work with the class lessons. In Canada there is a single anthroposophical initiative at 60 degrees—the Waldorf Preschool Chalia Tuzlak cares for in Whitehorse, where she has lived for twenty years. After having to travel thousands of miles over that time to go to pedagogical conferences elsewhere, Chalia is amazed and excited about the conference that will be held on her doorstep this coming summer: “Some people call me a keeper of the flame in this part of the world, but with no one to discuss thoughts on an anthroposophical level, I haven’t had many opportunities to grow on that path. So for me this conference is an opportunity to gain a new understanding of what supports my everyday life, as well as a new perspective of the North.”
Jim Steil of Calgary, Alberta, has a thought about what that perspective should include: “I notice a tendency to treat this conference on the north as if ‘North’ is up there, specifically the arctic. We had snow in Calgary yesterday and there is not a leaf in sight. Granted, this is not the tundra, but I feel strongly that in all parts of Canada we are in the North.”
Two further themes gleam through the thoughts of participants. One is a wish to meet and interact with First Nations peoples for whom the north is their homeland—an intention and responsibility acutely felt by Seija Zimmermann and Paul Mackay when they met last August in Whitehorse with the Council of the Society in Canada. For Jonitha and Paul Hasse of Hillsdale, New York, a meeting with First Nations friends stands in the context of a larger question raised by the failure of European cultures “to listen, to learn, to honor and to share the spiritual gifts of different peoples.”
The second theme is that of discovering the Christ in a new way: How can the light and silence and expansive landscape of the north support an expanding and deepening understanding of the etheric Christ in our time? In the words of a participant who lives near Edmonton:
I have never been to the North
This in itself is reason enough to go.
There is a mystery about this place—undiscovered truths, waiting to be understood.
From hence the Christ is coming,
Christ in the Earth,
Christ in us.
Last summer I stood at midnight on a bluff north of the Arctic Circle, overlooking the Inuit hamlet of Kugluktuk and the Arctic Ocean at Coronation Gulf. The sun hovered a few degrees above the northern horizon—as if it were about to return to the place from which it once left the earth. Yet after a time sunset became sunrise; the sun journeyed back into the sky, as if to remind me that Christ-sun comes to the north along another path, the path of warm, human activity.
And in closing, these words from Paul Mackay: “This conference in Whitehorse is of a special nature, not only because of its ‘expectant’ theme but also because of the way it has been prepared. Every step was silently contemplated and carefully designed; the contacts with those involved were taken care of in a most human way. All this creates a wonderful basis for the conference to unfold: May the encircling light shine over this conference!”
General Secretary for Canada