THE CROSSING OF THE THRESHOLD
The last six months and two days of Rudolf Steiner’s life were passed in full awareness of everything that was going on around him, including the first steps toward the building of the new Goetheanum. But only a few of his closest fellow-workers were permitted to see him—Marie Steiner, of course, when she was in Dornach, Guenther Wachsmuth, his secretary and the treasurer of the Society, his personal physician, Dr. Ita Wegman, and Dr. Ludwig Noll, who at her request came to Dornach to share responsibility with her, and Albert Steffen, vice-president of the Society. A few other members visited him from time to time, including a eurythmist who had been given a poem to work out and whose efforts he wished to see for himself. He corrected the distribution of her colored veil with his own hands. However, such visits were very rare and always by personal invitation. We must therefore rely on the accounts of these close friends and helpers for all that is known of his external life at this time. Since almost all his writings for the period have been published his actual work is well known to us.
At first he was able to sit in an easy chair, but soon the movement from bed to chair became too difficult for him, and he lay on the bed, or half sat up, with his papers and books around him. Until the end of 1924 he seems to have thought that his health was improving, however slowly and almost imperceptibly. This opinion was at the time shared by his doctors. It was a great disappointment to him that a series of lectures scheduled to take place in Berlin in October had to be cancelled, and he sent a special message to the members on October 19th, explaining the reasons for this necessary decision. Conditions in Germany, and especially in Berlin, had not in recent years been propitious for lecturing. But by late 1924 the currency had been stabilized and the country was at last beginning to recover. Hitler was still in prison after the fiasco of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. This improvement was reflected in the reception given to Marie Steiner and her eurythmy troupe, who performed without further organized interruption in leading German cities, including Berlin, often to crowded houses. Even after his condition had begun to deteriorate further the eurythmy continued, so that Marie Steiner herself was rarely in Dornach during this period.
Rudolf Steiner himself seems to have been aware of the nature of his illness, and on the basis of his knowledge of the medicaments necessary to help him to overcome it, he proposed various new remedies to Dr. Wegman, who took the steps that were needed to procure them. But no real improvement resulted; and though at first he did not grow noticeably weaker, it remained certain that if he could not succeed in assimilating enough food to keep him alive, the illness must necessarily have a fatal termination. It can scarcely be a coincidence that it was on New Year’s Eve, the second anniversary of the Goetheanum fire, that his health took a definite turn for the worse. It will be remembered that it was on New Year’s Day, 1924 that he first gave an outward sign of his illness when he had to withdraw suddenly from a social ceremony that he was attending. It may be equally significant that his closest collaborator of all in the work on the First Goetheanum, the English sculptress Edith Maryon who had likewise used up so much of her own strength in the sculpture of the building, also died prematurely in the course of 1924 at the age of only 52. On the last day of 1924 Dr. Wegman for the first time became truly anxious, and largely lost the optimism that had sustained her for so long.
Even in the last months of his illness Steiner could write to his wife in terms such as he would scarcely have used if he had believed he was in grave danger. He would use such expressions as ”my progress is very slow, but I must soon be able to work again.” Later still he wrote: ”My progress is slow, but I trust I shall be able to return to work on the model of our building.” He planned to give a course of lectures for those who wished to take up nursing as a profession. This course was planned for May, 1925, and was never officially cancelled, as Steiner always thought he would be well enough to give it. Even in March 1925 his death did not seem to be imminent, and Marie Steiner, who acted as his representative in Society matters as well as directing the eurythmy, was in the end not summoned until it was too late, and she arrived in Dornach only after he had died.
Dr. Wachsmuth tells how Rudolf Steiner expected all his correspondence to be brought to him every morning at 11 o’clock, and how he at once dictated replies to almost all of it. He continued to read with the same interest he had always shown. Dr. Wachsmuth was given the task of selecting and bringing to him books that might be of interest to him. When he entered the studio-sick-room with the books Steiner looked at them all and made his decision immediately as to whether to keep them or not, stacking the ones he wanted on the right of the bed and the others on the left. Dr. Wachsmuth could scarcely believe that he actually read the books, but by the next visit Steiner had at least familiarized himself with the contents!
Two important tasks were carried out in February, 1925, the formal constitution of the General Anthroposophical Society in accordance with the requirements of Swiss law, a task to which Steiner devoted himself with his usual careful attention, and the gift of a special ritual for the installation of the head of the Christian Community. This was given to Dr. Emil Bock who had come to Dornach for the purpose of receiving it. Steiner had earlier agreed to be present at the ceremony when Dr. Friedrich Rittelmeyer was to be installed, and the ceremony itself was postponed several times, always with the hope that he could after all attend. Not wishing to postpone it any longer he wrote out the ritual for Dr. Bock, and urged that the ceremony be held at the earliest feasible moment. It took place on February 24th in the presence of Dr. Wachsmuth and Marie Steiner.
Such, then, was the external life of Rudolf Steiner as it could be seen and reported by his friends, and as is shown also in the many personal letters he sent during this period, especially to Marie Steiner. But, as we have already noted, these last months were truly made fruitful for the future by the two great works which occupied him, the letters to the members, each accompanied by ”guide-lines” or ”leading thoughts,” and the instalments of his autobiography. Both were written entirely by hand, never dictated, and were invariably ready for the weekly issues of Das Goetheanum (the Autobiography), and the Newssheet for members (What is Happening in the Anthroposophical Society?) which printed the Leading Thoughts. Both the autobiography and the Leading Thoughts were started while Steiner was still leading an active life, the autobiography just before the Christmas Foundation meeting, and the Leading Thoughts afterwards. The first Leading Thoughts appeared immediately after the completion of the cycle called Anthroposophy: an Introduction, and were a kind of distilled essence of Anthroposophy, as was, in a certain sense, the cycle also. The first Leading Thought begins with the best known of all definitions of Anthroposophy, and it is worth quoting in full as Steiner’s last word on the subject that he intended not only for his own time but for posterity. It is also notable in this ”thought” how clearly he shows why no one can or should be ”converted” to Anthroposophy, but can only, through his own need, come to acknowledge it.
”Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. It arises in man as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling; and it can be justified only in as much as it can satisfy this inner need. He alone can acknowledge Anthroposophy, who finds in it what he himself in his own inner life feels impelled to seek. Hence only they can be anthroposophists who feel certain questions on the nature of man and the universe as an elemental need of life, just as one feels hunger and thirst.”
When Steiner reached the 102nd thought there is a marked change which must surely be linked to the abandonment of his active life as a lecturer and his confinement to his sickroom. From this time onwards the Leading Thoughts, which had hitherto consisted of a distillation of the main ideas of Anthroposophy, intended especially to be used for study purposes by the Groups, now become a distillation of the letters that accompany them, though in a slightly different form. The first letters of this new last phase of his work were written to the members just before the onset of his last illness. On August 17th and August 31st he began to speak especially of the age in which mankind had been living since the beginning of the era of the consciousness soul in the fifteenth century, and of the changes that ensued when Michael in 1879 became the ruling archangel. With the issues of October Steiner set out to describe in words of the utmost clarity and conciseness the whole mission of mankind on the earth, and his task of attaining freedom and building love into the world. He spoke of how men in earlier ages harbored only divine thoughts, then step by step they began to think for themselves, and assumed for themselves the task of ruling the earth without interference from the divine world. But as man moved in this direction and absorbed into himself the Intelligence that had formerly been cosmic, and was in any event cosmic in origin, he became subject to ever more temptations from Lucifer and Ahriman, though the Mystery of Golgotha has made it possible for him to choose instead to take the Christ Impulse into himself, and follow the path indicated by Michael. Deeper and deeper the letters go into the secrets of human evolution, and ever more difficult to grasp are the concepts unless the previous letters and their guiding lines have first been mastered.
So at the last, as February drew into March, we may picture to ourselves Steiner on his deathbed working out each thought, putting it in the most perfect possible form, while the chapters in the autobiography also grow shorter and more compact as he thinks out and expresses, still with the utmost precision and clarity, just what he wishes to say for posterity. Then comes the day when he does not write on the manuscript of the autobiography ”To be continued,” and the installments then come to an end.
The last letter, published only after his death, concerns the danger that mankind will sink into subnature, the realm of the Ahrimanic and even more evil powers, unless he can rise as high with his consciousness into the spiritual world as he sinks below it with his technical civilization.
”He must find the strength,” Rudolf Steiner writes in his last message, ”the inner force of knowledge, in order not to be overcome by Ahriman in his technical civilization. He must understand Sub-Nature for what it really is. This he can do only if he rises, in spiritual knowledge, at least as far into extra-earthly Super-Nature as he has descended, in technical Sciences, into Sub-Nature. The age requires a knowledge transcending Nature, because in its inner life it must come to grips with a life-content which has sunk far beneath Nature—a life-content whose influence is perilous. Needless to say, there can be no question here of advocating a return to earlier stages of civilization. The point is that man shall find the way to bring the conditions of modern civilization into their true relationship—to himself and to the Cosmos. There are very few as yet who even feel the greatness of the spiritual tasks approaching man in this direction. . . . In the Science of the Spirit, we now create another sphere in which there is no Ahrimanic element. It is just by receiving in knowledge this spirituality to which the Ahrimanic powers have no access, that man is strengthened to confront Ahriman within the world.”66
On March 29th in the evening a deterioration in Steiner’s condition was noticeable, and a message was sent to Marie Steiner in Stuttgart, telling her the news, but adding that there were as yet no grounds for special anxiety. In the early hours of the following morning she received a message telling her that his condition had again worsened and that she must return at once to Dornach. She began the journey immediately, but it was too late. In his studio sickroom Dr. Wegman asked him if he had any last message to send to the members. Faithful to the last to his unwillingness to impinge on the freedom of others, knowing that any such last message would become a binding injunction on the members, he looked for the last time into the eyes of this friend who, as both knew so well, had shared his destiny in so many earlier earth lives, and who now anxiously awaited his answer. But he made no reply, a few moments later folding his hands across his breast, and closing his eyes. Without any sign of even a moment’s struggle he soon afterwards passed peacefully across the threshold into the spiritual world.
* * *
Often during his lifetime Rudolf Steiner had explained to members that when an important step forward had to be taken in human evolution, an individuality had to be prepared specially in the spiritual world who would later embody in himself those new capacities that would soon belong to all mankind. Such an individuality would necessarily be out of the ordinary, even, in his time, unique. It would never be possible for his contemporaries to understand him fully, because of his very strangeness and only a few would become his pupils and followers.
Rudolf Steiner never spoke of himself openly in this way, although the gift of clairvoyance that he possessed from his youth onwards is not known to have been shared in such measure by any of his contemporaries. He did not declare himself to be a forerunner; he did not even call himself a messenger of the spirit, as some of his pupils and biographers have called him. He simply lived and worked at all times and always as if it was his life mission to perform the task of revealing to such of mankind as would listen, the reality of the spiritual worlds as he perceived them in direct vision, and what the spiritual beings whom he perceived expected of man. To do this was to make the fullest possible use of those gifts with which he had been endowed. As he grew older and his powers matured he perceived ever more clearly the obstacles to be overcome and the magnitude of the work that lay before him still to be done, while the time allotted to him on earth became ever shorter—so much to do and so little time!
When his last illness fastened itself upon his physical organism and could not be shaken off he refused to yield to it and continued his productive work until death took him, almost suddenly. He would never have agreed that his work was done, nor that he had fulfilled all his obligations to the spiritual beings who were his guides—never at any time in his life did he take credit for anything he had done, nor was he ever at any moment in it complacent.
If indeed it is true that Rudolf Steiner embodied in himself capacities that will one day belong to all mankind, and in this sense he is the first example of a new kind of man, in another and different sense he was surely exemplary. He wished to use his capacities for the benefit of all mankind, and in so using them he never spared himself. So, when on March 30th, 1925 he crossed the threshold into the spiritual world, he had earned the right to die at the foot of the Christ statue that would now forever remain unfinished.
Notes on Earlier Biographies of Rudolf Steiner
Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch