http://www.waldorfcritics.orgDebra Snell, President 12562 Rough and Ready Highway Grass Valley, CA 95945 (530) 273-1005 snell gv.net Lisa Ercolano, Vice President 220 Gaywood Road Baltimore, MD 21212-1709 (410) 377-4204 momof2gals mindspring.com Dan Dugan, Secretary 290 Napoleon St. Studio E San Francisco, CA 94124 (415) 821-9776 dan dandugan.com
EDITOR, THE MONTEREY HERALD
ADVENT SPIRAL AT MONTEREY BAY CHARTER SCHOOL
Last Friday (Dec. 10, 2004) I drove down to Monterey to attend the annual "Spiral of Light" of the Monterey Bay Charter School. MBCS is a publicly funded Waldorf school located in Pacific Grove, California. Their web site is:
This school is part of an extraordinary arrangement made by the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District in which nine separate schools are organized under the name of one charter school, "San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District Charter School," established in 1993. Originally there were more schools, but apparently some have closed or never got off the ground. It would take a lawsuit to determine whether this scheme violates the letter of California's charter school law, but it certainly violates the intention. The charter school law was written to foster educational innovation by allowing the creation of public schools with unconventional methods. The methods were to be evaluated by the state's standardized testing. But San Lorenzo Valley's nine schools have their test results aggregated into one report, so there is no way to evaluate their different methods, frustrating the intention of the state's experiment.
A ritual called the "Advent Spiral" has been a long-standing tradition in Waldorf schools. The Portland Waldorf School describes it thus:
"Advent spiral: The festival that families share at the beginning of the Advent season is one of the most beautiful and memorable of the year. In a semi-darkened room, lit only by candles and smelling of evergreens, voices are lifted in song. Each child goes, one at a time, through the spiral of evergreens to the center of the Garden. Each child lights his or her candle, then places it somewhere on the pathway to light the way for the next child. It is a reminder of the journey inward each of us must make during the dark days ahead." [http://www.portlandwaldorfschool.org/lower%20school/calendar%20events/festivals.html]
Friday night's ceremony, advertised in the school community as "Spiral of Light," was was held in a meeting room of the Community Church of the Peninsula, a mile east of Highway 1 in Carmel Valley. I got there in time for the 5:00 session, which was, as expected, for the younger children. Afterward there would be a 6:30 session for the older children. A woman at the entrance was checking names on her clipboard and directing people to read a list of seven or eight rules posted on the door. One was "no photography or videotaping." She asked me who I was. I said my name wouldn't be on the list, I was a guest. She wrote "Dan" on her sheet next to the family that went in before me, and I went in.
I thought it was strange for a public school to be taking attendance at the door of a school event, and forbidding photography. I suppose reservations might have been organized because space was limited, but there were enough empty seats for several more families, and even if there were reservations, there would be no need to check people in. To me it suggested excessive group control, or an attempt to exclude outsiders.
The room was dimly illuminated by a few candles. I sat on the opposite side near the musicians, who were on a low platform. A double spiral was laid out in greens and pyrocantha berries. The double spiral allowed for more traffic as people could enter by one path and exit by the other. Here is an illustration of a similar spiral, though the Monterey one had one more turn to it:
There was a candle elevated in the center. Rocks, gnomes, and knitted animals were scattered along the spiral, also in accordance with tradition. When everyone was in, tinkling chimes sounded from several places in the room, a charming effect. The musicians played, always just one instrument at a time. There was a shakuhachi, a recorder, and a guitar. Between simple solo melodies there were traditional Christmas carols, hummed, not sung, all religious, including O Little Town of Bethlehem, What Child Is This, and O Come, All Ye Faithful. At one point a man intoned something like a Buddhist chant. I found the music disappointingly simple-minded, but I understood it was in harmony with the Waldorf principle of limiting the intellectual stimulation of young children.
In accordance with Waldorf tradition, there was no spoken introduction or explanation. For that matter, not a single word was spoken or sung during the entirety of the ceremony. Rather unique for a public school event! A teenager sat on the floor dispensing the traditional candles stuck in apples and metering the traffic into the spiral. Two adults went in first, teaching by example, then the first child. Most of the children figured out that there were separate paths for coming in and going out, but some of the children turned around and went back the way they came, and this led to one embarrassing traffic jam.
One girl's dress brushed a candle, but it didn’t catch. A little girl’s candle went out and she stopped halfway, not knowing what to do. A woman going in gestured that she should re-light her candle from one burning at her feet but she didn't understand. The woman then led her by the hand back to the center to re-light her candle. There were at least two water buckets under chairs on my side of the room, and a man near me was watching the people and the candles carefully. I counted 36 adults and about 25 children. The kids were squirmy but with a lot of parental attention they managed the hour of quiet without any major disruptions.
I wished that I could record the event, but I kept my cameras in my bag. Taking one out in that quiet and intimate environment would have drawn a too much attention. A gracious guest at a church service shouldn't engage in distracting activities. I witnessed by participating instead. About half-way through the long hour I joined the waiting line, walked the spiral reverently, and placed my candle on a paper star.
After all the adults and children who wanted to had walked the spiral, three white-clothed young women in long white dresses entered in procession. The latter two wore crowns of four tall candles. I worried because one young woman's candle crown was tilted at an angle that guaranteed hot wax dripping. The musicians led humming of the "Santa Lucia" song. The three also carried small candles, but they weren't in apples, they had paper skirts with ribbons and ferns. They looked like a wedding party except that their dresses didn't match. They gathered in the center and lit their candles together. One dress was silky and in a terrifying moment, brushed the flames of a couple of candles. I guess the angels were watching. The three presumed virgins processed out of the room and the ceremony was over. I wonder what the significance of that scene was--particularly why there were three women but two crowns.
A woman gestured for people to leave while the musicians played. I stayed till everyone was gone so I could take a picture of the candles. The woman gestured to me to go. I whispered "thank you," sat there for a minute more, and took my picture. Some women lit candles from the "sacred flame" and took them out, presumably to light the candle jars surrounding a labyrinth walk set up outside. I skipped the cookies in the lobby and went right out, not wanting to engage in conversation. My snapshot of the completed spiral is at:
One would have to be a grinch to not experience this ceremony as beautiful. I am grateful to the parents and teachers of the Monterey Bay Charter School for producing a faithful Waldorf Advent spiral for me to experience. In "The Hero's Journey" Joseph Campbell said "The power of a well-constructed ritual to move from centers beyond your control is enormous." But there's the problem. Monterey Bay Charter School is a public school. Is it acceptable for a public school to produce a "nonsectarian" religious ceremony? Is reverencing "light" nonsectarian? It's likely that the school takes that position, but to do that is to ignore the context. Waldorf schools are activities (they like to say "initiatives") of Anthroposophy. In Anthroposophy, light is divine! Anthroposophy's (and Waldorf's) founder, Rudolf Steiner, said:
"[W]here, then, is the physical body of the Logos, of which the Gospel of St. John speaks?...In its purest form, this external physical body of the Logos appears especially in the outer sunlight. But the sunlight is not merely material light. To spiritual perception, it is just as much the vesture of the Logos, as your outer physical body is the vesture of your soul." [Steiner, Rudolf. The Gospel of St. John. (Hamburg Cycle, 1908), rev. ed. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1962, p. 50]
"What is this spiritual science? It is the wisdom of the Spirit, the wisdom that lifts into the full light of consciousness that in Christianity which would otherwise remain in the unconscious. The torch of the resurrected Lucifer, of the Lucifer now transformed into the good, blazons the way for Christ. Lucifer is the bearer of the Light--Christ is the Light! As the word itself denotes, Lucifer is the "Bearer of the Light". That is what the spiritual scientific movement should be, that is implicit in it." [Steiner, Rudolf. "Lucifer, Holy Spirit, pentecost, Whitsuntide: The Deed of Christ and the Opposing Spiritual Powers: Lecture I" Berlin, 22 March, 1909.]
An analogy might help in understanding this situation. Say that people who admired the successes of the Catholic education system were to found a "Catholic-inspired" charter school. The teachers would say Catholic prayers at their faculty meetings, and some of them would be priests and nuns. They would promise not to teach any Catholicism in the classroom, they would just use Catholic school methods that they would learn at Catholic seminaries.
This analogy might seem far-fetched. Such a school wouldn't be likely to be approved by a school board. It would have too much entanglement with religion. But this is just what has happened with Waldorf charter schools, because Waldorf schools deny their Anthroposophical connections, and school boards don't know what Anthroposophy is. They don't recognize its doctrines when they see them.
Say our hypothetical "Catholic-inspired" charter school held an annual Christmas Eve Midnight Mass that most families in the school would attend. Would holding it in a nearby church, instead of the school, make it acceptable under the Establishment Clause, which forbids religious activity by publicly-funded organizations? I wouldn't think so, but something very much like that happened that night in Carmel Valley. If light is "the vesture of the Logos" in Anthroposophy, and Waldorf schools are an activity of Anthroposophy, then it's reasonable for me to say that I attended a sectarian religious service sponsored by a public school.
-Dan Dugan, Secretary
PLANS contends that public Waldorf schools are intrinsically and inseparably based upon Anthroposophy, a New Age occultic religion. Curriculum decisions and teacher training in public Waldorf schools are based on Anthroposophy's spiritually-based child development model. Publicly-funded use and reliance upon the doctrines of Anthroposophy impermissibly endorses that religion in violation of the United States and California constitutions.
PLANS filed its federal lawsuit in Sacramento on February 11, 1998, naming as defendants the Sacramento Unified School District, which operates a "Waldorf Method" magnet school, and the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which established six "Waldorf-inspired" charter schools.
In May, 2001, Judge Damrell dismissed the PLANS lawsuit against two school districts based on lack of standing. PLANS appealed the decision, and in February, 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed PLANS' right to sue the school districts as taxpayers and reinstated the case. A trial is scheduled for September 12, 2005.
WHAT IS PLANS?
PLANS was organized in late 1995 by former Waldorf parents and teachers concerned about both private and public Waldorf schools. It became a California non-profit corporation in 1997. PLANS' volunteer board includes two public school teachers, one of whom has received Waldorf teacher training; the former president of a skeptical society; the associate director of a Christian anti-cult ministry, and two former Waldorf parents. PLANS' President, Debra Snell, was a director of a private Waldorf school and helped found a Waldorf charter school. For more information, please see the PLANS web site, http://www.waldorfcritics.org.