Monday, November 28, 2011

Interview with Philip Thatcher

Reflections from My Years as General Secretary

- Interview by Robert McKay

RM: How did you first meet Anthroposophy? Was it easy for you to find a relationship to Steiner’s work?

PT: I came first came into contact with anthroposophy when I married Marjorie, in 1965. I was then in my early years as a priest in the Anglican Church in the interior of British Columbia. For the next seven years my meetings with anthroposophy and anthroposophists were occasional and somewhat enigmatic--interesting people involved in something more than an odd philosophy. Yet nothing in those meetings augured a significant change in the direction of my life.

We moved from Prince George to North Vancouver in 1972. There was active work in the Anthroposophical Society already underway, the Christian Community had recently been established, and the Waldorf School had just opened its doors. Soon our children became Waldorf students. Waldorf education was clearly something I could whole-heartedly embrace, yet other aspects of anthroposophy presented me with a struggle. There was light here and there, such as the biography work. At the same time, reincarnation and karma, which I knew only from an eastern perspective, seemed to me incompatible with a world-affirming, earth-transforming understanding of the deed of Christ.

My second moon node became the needle's eye through which my resistance to Rudolf Steiner became an open door. Aspects of anthroposophy that had seem impossible suddenly became possible, as my time in the Anglican Church came to its own end. In 1977 I decided to leap into the dark and do the Foundation Year at Emerson College. At the end of that leap the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and then the Parzival story were waiting for me.

Amid those many colleagues in anthroposophy who feel they came home upon their first meeting with Rudolf Steiner's work, I am one of those who had to travel a different path. So I well understand those who need to wrestle their way into a relationship with Rudolf Steiner.

RM: In your recent speech at the Goetheanum you mentioned that Anthroposophy has the potential to surprise us, and that the Council surprised you by asking you to become General Secretary. Can you take us back to those early days?

PT: I served on the Council of the Society in Canada from 1986 to 1993, and then was a co-editor of Aurore, with Herb Walsh and Robert Adams, from the fall of 1994 to the spring of 2002. During those years, someone would now and then wonder aloud whether I would ever consider taking on the task of General Secretary. However, nothing in me responded to that idea. I was active as a Waldorf high school teacher and an adult educator, and was in the process of writing The Raven Trilogy. Moreover, I felt that over fourteen plus years I had made a substantial contribution to the Society in Canada and wanted to move on to whatever might come next, once I retired from teaching in 2004.

What came next, as a surprise, was a direct question concerning the General Secretary task from the Council, in the fall of 2002--a question initiated by a Council member whom I did not yet know well, yet for whom I felt great respect. So not only did the question surprise me, but it stopped me in my tracks. This time I knew I had to consider the General Secretary task in a new light. And then I had to take a next step and ask myself if I truly was the person to take on this task. Was there someone else better suited to do this work? As the process went forward and the members were asked whether or not they would recognize me as General Secretary, I simply had to trust in their judgment and be ready to step back if that recognition was not forthcoming.

RM: Some of the older members of the Society in Canada who have worked with successive General Secretaries note how differently each individual interprets the role. How did you find your way into it? What became your guiding thoughts?

PT: As I was on the way toward becoming General Secretary, Paul Mackay asked me, "What would you do if you did become General Secretary for Canada?" My answer was, "Paul, I don't yet know what I would do."

Which in retrospect was a good point of departure. Not burdened by pre-set goals or agendas, I could take up the task with the intention to discovering where it might take me. There were imaginations that I carried from my earlier time on the Council, from editing Aurore, and out of my biography as a whole. One of those was an imagination of Canada not only as a vast place but also as a being still in the process of coming to itself. How could a small Society such as ours, spread across the country, be informed by such a being and what could we bring to the forming of that being?

Another guiding thought was that it was essential that I come to know members of the Society in Canada, that I meet with them whenever possible within their centers of work and listen to what they yearned to bring to life. That gesture of listening would not only support the members but would also help spark whatever contribution was mine to bring during my time as General Secretary.

And a third factor in shaping my work was the awakening within the School of Spiritual Science and the Society as a whole to the task and research questions of the General Anthroposophical Section of the School. What questions concern us as human beings in our time? How can we research them out of Spiritual Science? And how can that searching out affect the quality of our human meetings within the Society?

RM: So much of Anthroposophy requires working together, and yet, as a human organization, the Anthroposophical Society needs leaders. Are there special challenges to being a leader in the anthroposophical context?

PT: We sometimes speak about "giving leadership" in a particular situation. It is good to pay attention to our everyday language, for leadership can be seen as a gift an individual gives to his or her community. The challenge then is to discern and be true to the gift of leadership a community needs.

In the Anthroposophical Society, leadership serves the working of the members. How then to support, yet help deepen that working? How to confirm work already underway, yet discern new ways of working not yet explored? How to enrich understandings of anthroposophy that already live in the membership, yet open out insights that would extend or even reshape that understanding, however uncomfortable a reshaping might be? When to listen and when to speak? This exercise of leadership involves a balancing of possibilities and a readiness to live in a creative tension between what is and what could become.

As well, amid affirming initiatives of the members, I needed to be awake to and have the courage of those initiatives that were mine to take out of the General Secretary task. The Encircling Light -- Expectant Silence conference was an example of the latter.

RM: At the recent Canadian Society AGM, you gave a wonderful talk that included the idea that Anthroposophists need to develop enabling ways of speaking to and working with each other. How can we practice this enabling?

PT: At the core of that talk was an exploration of what we call the moods of our language--indicative, interrogative, imperative. Two questions then followed: How can we penetrate each of these moods out of an anthroposophical consciousness? And do we need to transform what has been the imperative mood into what could be called an enabling mood? How could we move from a mood that is concerned with how things should be, ought to be, to a mood ready to make possible what could be?

I then went on to elaborate three ways to putting this new mood into practice. The crux of any practice, however, is our willingness to make the fundamental shift toward this enabling mood in the way each of us carries the possibilities and urgencies of anthroposophy. How to rediscover, time and again, both freedom and responsibility out of the consciousness soul, as indicated by Rudolf Steiner in The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity? It is a matter of coming to thoughts and deeds not constrained by imperatives but born out of intuitive thinking. How to enable that quality of activity in ourselves and in our colleagues in anthroposophy?

The practice of listening to the other without a preconception of what should be said or done is one essential aspect of this enabling mood.

RM: In your work as General Secretary, you had the opportunity to work with General Secretaries from around the world. Did this change your sense of the anthroposophical movement?

PT: Yes, in that I became aware, beyond the pages of Anthroposophy Worldwide, of the diverse ways in which the life of anthroposophy and the Anthroposophical Society is embodied. Meeting colleagues who carried the possibilities, questions and struggles of their situations took what awareness I had to another level.

I was struck, for instance, by the situation of European Societies, where large numbers of members live and work together in a geographically compact setting, compared with our situation in Canada. That compactness makes for an intensity in anthroposophical work that can be dynamic and fruitful, yet which also makes for a like intensity in difficulties that arise between those who are active. As well, my Central European colleagues, coming from Societies numerically larger than ours and so carrying more of the financial burden for supporting the Goetheanum, are particularly aware of and sensitive to what is happening at the Goetheanum. Their members are often pressing them to account for word of any difficulties or even rumours of difficulties.

Then there were my Nordic colleagues, who sparked in me a renewed interest in the North of our globe. As I came to know them both at our meetings and in their homelands, I recognized the unique role of their Societies in the fabric of anthroposophical life. It worth noting not only how many lectures Rudolf Steiner gave in Northern Europe, but also which lectures he gave and which themes he brought for the first time out of that setting.

As well, I shared with colleagues from New Zealand and Australia the experience of living at a considerable distance from the Goetheanum, yet discovering that distance could also bring its own perspective on what might be going on there and in the world. Sue Simpson, my New Zealand colleague, became one of those responsible for shaping a "World Conversation" at each of our General Secretaries' meetings. It soon became clear to all of us how clear and adept she could be in focusing and leading an engaging conversation from the vantage point of an active Society in a small country.

I am grateful to Helmut Goldmann of Austria and Joan Almon from the USA who each befriended me in my early General Secretary years and helped me connect with what was going on. When Torin Finser became Co-General Secretary for the USA, he and I would have North American General Secretaries' meetings over lunch. I valued those interchanges.

The General Secretaries' circle consists of a fine group of human beings, and I will miss my interactions with them.

RM: By all accounts, the conference in Whitehorse was a deeply inspiring experience that continues to reverberate for the participants. Why was it such a powerful event? How is it still living in you?

PT: That the Encircling Light - Expectant Silence conference does live on in those who took part in it has become evident to me many times during these past two years. In August 2011 I, with other members from Canada, participated in the I Am the Inner and Outer Light conference on the Åland Islands, Finland. A number of the participants in that event had also been in Whitehorse and again spoke of that week and ways in which the week on Åland had a similar resonance.

I have shied away from dissecting that week in Whitehorse to identify reasons for why it worked as well as it did. However, from a distance of two years after the event, I will offer the following observations.

This was a conference that lived on the edge, from its conception when I met Frode Barkved from Norway at what was for us both our first General Secretaries meeting in the fall of 2004, right into conference week itself. The thought of holding the conference in Whitehorse made sense, yet was a risky idea. When Monique Walsh, Edna Cox, Ralph Danyluk and I first went to Whitehorse in August 2006, we were ready to discover that it could be a very bad idea. What we met and whom we met convinced us that the idea could work; yet every step along the way during the next three years still had that edge, right into the financing of the conference. I remember how moved we were at the generosity in the donations that came toward us, and the relief I felt the day I looked at the incoming registrations and knew we would at least break even. In conceiving and planning this week we took risks and with risks come those edges.

That element of risk was also there, I am convinced, for many, and maybe all, of those who chose to come to Whitehorse. As I surveyed the registrations, coming in from Canada, the USA, the Nordic countries and Central Europe, it became clear to me that each registration brought with it a commitment from that individual to take part in an event that would not be a typical anthroposophical conference. The readiness of each participant, often travelling to Whitehorse from a great distance away, to make such a commitment was integral to the life of that week.

Other important elements, I think, included asking younger members to take leadership in shaping the conference; offering opportunities to a number of individuals to take on leadership tasks in a new way; our efforts to engage the First Nations' cultures of the Yukon. One early decision was that of placing the School of Spiritual Science at the core of this conference in a matter-of-fact way, including the single Class lesson carried throughout the week at the start of each day. In this way, the work of the School could penetrate the whole of the day.

There is one further thought, which has come to light only recently. In the latter pages of Occult Science, Rudolf Steiner speaks of a Cosmos of Wisdom transforming into a Cosmos of Love, as the secret of all future evolution and the meaning of human destiny on earth. Therefore, "it is the very nature of true spiritual knowledge to be transmuted into love."

I am becoming aware, more and more, of times when those of us active within anthroposophy fall back upon the wisdom of our cosmic past in our efforts to understand and articulate the insights of spiritual science. Such a falling back or leaning back upon Cosmic Wisdom is not surprising; it is the stream of cognition that guided and nurtured us from our beginning, a resource still rich and astonishing in what it can offer us. Yet the transformation of which Rudolf Steiner speaks is essential. An urgent question of our time for each of us is: How can I move from cognition out of wisdom to cognition out of love? Such a step is work for the whole of earth evolution; yet I venture to say that we contributed to that step toward cognition out of love during the Encircling Light - Expectant Silence conference. I can find no other way to account for the experience so many participants had of human being meeting human being during that week.

The above notwithstanding, only each participant can fully say how and why Whitehorse lives on in her or in him. As for me, the conference continues to flow into my ongoing journeys into the North.

RM: So what’s next for Philip Thatcher? Will your schedule be a bit lighter?

PT: Yes, for the moment, and probably No as these last years of my life come into focus. The volume of e-mails has tapered off, but other work carries on. I continue to be active in the School for Spiritual Science and as an adult educator--the longest running thread in my biography, since age 25. That work includes the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and Parzival courses I offer for the teacher training programs of the West Coast Institute for Studies in Anthroposophy. I am also weaving these two threads together in new ways, through workshops and courses.

I continue to journey into the North of our globe. This past July, Matthew, my oldest grandson, and I spent several days on Baffin Island, walking the land with Inuit guides. In August I drove into the north of Finland after the Inner and Outer Light conference. And in September, Marjorie and I offered workshops in Fairbanks, Alaska, amid the radiance of the birches turning an intense gold. This searching out of the North is an ongoing work.

As well, I continue to try to comprehend this land, this being, Canada. When I met my colleague Leena Westergren, General Secretary for Finland, in Whitehorse, she said, "I thought Finland was a big country, until I flew across Canada." That vastness still speaks to me and questions me.

And I may pick up my pen again, a gift from a Vancouver Waldorf School graduate, and do some more writing--but from a new place in my biography. We shall see.

RM: Any words of wisdom for Arie as he moves into the role of General Secretary?

PT: No words of wisdom. I am simply grateful that Arie is willing to take on this task on behalf of the Anthroposophical Society in Canada. He will serve us well as he finds his way into the work and discovers the initiatives that are his to take.

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