Writing this on a Michaelmas day, in 2019, I reflected at the time on a visit the previous day to Wells in Somerset and the wonderful St. Andrews Cathedral, taking a tour of the cathedral and attending the evensong service. The tour guide spoke of how the church is on the site of two previous churches, dating back to the 8th century, and all were located on the site of a previous pagan holy site. The simple explanation was given that churches were often built on pagan sites so that the pagan people would more naturally turn to the church and the new religion, which in its carvings, for the same reason, even included many depictions of natural or fantastical elemental beings and also Green Man.
That is the simple material explanation. But it is only the later church which recognised little or no truths in the earlier pagan ‘beliefs’. Early Christian leaders, up through the times of building the Saxon, Romanesque and Gothic churches and cathedrals, also saw that there were special locations in landscapes that carried special spiritual energies, often at converging ley lines. Building on top of pagan sites was an implicit recognition of this, and people sensitive to these elements relate how energies flow upwards and downwards at these places, often through or near the crossing of the transepts with the nave or at the altar point.
Michaelmas follows on the autumn equinox. From a purely material point of view, the equinox is explainable and understandable even to the ‘everyday person’: day and night reach equilibrium in length. After that, day becomes shorter and night longer, or vice versa if you live in the southern hemisphere. Simple! Naturally one can go into more astronomical details, but the general picture is easily grasped. Or so it can be at first glance.
Early cultures ascribed much greater significance to these times in earthly and cosmic cycles. What happens at the time of the autumn equinox in our inner soul life? In the northern hemisphere, the darkening days bring an inward turning side, which on the one hand can be an invigorating time for thought life, for studies and the like, the heat of summer passing. On the other hand this turning inward can be a hard time, the inner world perhaps bringing up difficult emotions and turmoil, replacing the outer distracting joys of warm summer growth and activities. The realities of outer darkness taking hold are strengthened the more one moves towards winter. The equinox was thus a time of seeing outer darkness taking hold, which if not balanced by inner work could become overwhelming. The inner soul life held its breath, as it were, until the winter solstice.
The Christian festival of Michaelmas builds on this, just as the churches built on the pagan sites. But it is not as easily grasped as the explanation of the equinox and even of the potential inner experiences as we move into the darkness. It takes more inner work. Michaelmas presents a challenge and a light filled inner potential: to enliven the inner flame and the inner individual spiritual self, to carry this inner will force into and through the darkening times. If grasped in this way, the darkening times can be a time of intense spiritual work and enlightenment. The image often portrayed is of the Archangel Michael conquering the dragon, a living image of the conquering of the forces of darkness.
The ‘pagan’ spiritual festivals were often at sites open to the elements, the soul relating and identifying with the spirit weaving and working in the world around. The churches built an inner space, one where one would turn inward and find the inner spiritual self.
We need both: the relation to the spirit of the world and cosmos around, and the relation to the spiritual self in each of us. The past several centuries in particular have brought a darkening of the spirit revelations for human beings in both these directions, and it belongs to the urgent need of our times to, now out of inner free initiative and will, find the spark and courage to carry us through darkening times. Michaelmas is there to give us that inner strength to carry the spark through the inner corridors of self to the time of spiritual rebirth at the winter solstice and Christmas.
The soul calendar verses by Rudolf Steiner for the equinox and for Michaelmas depict this in inner poetic images.
Week 25 (fourth week of September, following the equinox)
Now I may belong to myself
And luminous, spread inner light
Into the darkness of time and space.
All Nature-being tends towards sleep;
The depths of soul shall now awake
And waking bear the warm sun-glowing
To freezing winter-flowing.
Week 26 (Michaelmas and 1st week October)
Nature, your essence motherly,
I bear within the being of my will;
And my will’s fire-force,
It steels impulses of the spirit,
So they may bear a sense of self
To bear myself in me.
A short essay contributed by Richard Brinton
A Michaelmas Verse
(for 29th September and the weeks following)
Springing from Powers of the Sun
Radiant Spirit-powers, blessing all Worlds,
For Michael’s garment of rays
Ye are predestined by Thought Divine.
He, the Christ Messenger, revealeth in you –
Bearing humankind aloft – the sacred Will of Worlds.
Ye, the radiant Beings of Aether-Worlds,
Bear the Christ-Word to Man.
Thus shall the Herald of Christ appear
To the thirstily waiting souls,
To whom your Word of Light shines forth
In cosmic age of Spirit-Man.
Ye, the disciples of Spirit- Knowledge,
Take Michael’s Wisdom beckoning,
Take the Word of Love of the Will of Worlds
Into your souls’ aspirations, actively!
(verse by Rudolf Steiner)