Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, September 9, 1924:
Our prime concern should be to read the Book of Revelation in the way that is appropriate for today. Today the spiritual development of the human being is to unfold in the sign of the consciousness soul; for this reason alone, therefore, it is appropriate that the guidance of spiritual life must become fully conscious; so it is therefore up to us to adopt with full consciousness the appropriate orientation about what the apocalyptist tells us.
In earlier ages the revelations of the apocalyptist no doubt meant something only to the highest initiates, of whom there were fewer and fewer as time went on, and nothing to the ordinary priests. Today what the Book of Revelation contains must enter fully into the consciousness of priests.
Yesterday we spoke of seven congregations, and from one point of view we pointed to the congregation at Ephesus. The world is most certainly full of viewpoints and many of these can play a part in one and the same matter. We can describe the congregation of Ephesus as we did yesterday, and find how in this particular congregation Christianity developed out of previous pagan conditions. Another way of looking at it would be to show how these impulses contained a great deal of the basic structure of the first post-Atlantean cultural age, even more than was there in the India of later times. So one can in a sense regard the Christianity that developed at Ephesus as a Christian continuation of the world view and view of life of the first post-Atlantean cultural age. The second congregation mentioned in the Book of Revelation is the one at Smyrna, where the ancient Persian culture thrived before the transition to Christianity.
Then comes Pergamos, which is introduced as the congregation that lived during the third post-Atlantean culture. Specifically in the letter to the congregation at Pergamos we can discover references, more or less unveiled, to the Hermes Mystery that was alive in this culture.
In the letter to the congregation at Thyatira we are referred to the fourth post-Atlantean culture, the age in which the Mystery of Golgotha itself took place. When we allow the effect of this important letter to work on us we are everywhere reminded of the direct message the Mystery of Golgotha had to impart.
Then comes the congregation at Sardis, about which we spoke yesterday when I showed you how this congregation had a specifically astrological orientation, how it was oriented toward a star religion. Of necessity this congregation of Sardis would have to have a good deal of past history, but above all this congregation in particular carries future things within it. So let us now try to bring this into our spiritual view of today. We are living in the fifth post-Atlantean cultural age. When you look at Sardis you see that there are elements that were already past at that time; but you also see something germinating like a seed, something that was not yet complete at the time when John was writing the Book of Revelation. The whole tone of this fifth letter is different from that of the four preceding ones. In his letter to the congregation at Sardis John points to the future. The future to which he was pointing, which was there like a seed in Sardis, is our time now; it is the time in which we are now living.
The sequence of post-Atlantean cultural ages, and at the same time the inner development of Christianity, is hinted at in another way in the seven seals, and this letter bears hidden within it the development of the post-Atlantean ages mingled with the development of Christianity. In the seven seals, too, the seven congregations are hinted at. We are shown—and we shall look at the other meaning of the seven seals later—how when the fourth seal is opened, the one corresponding to the fourth post-Atlantean age, a pale horse appears, and now the talk is of death entering into the world. (Rev. 6:8) With this we are touching on one of the most important secrets of the Book of Revelation in so far as our own age is concerned. In the fourth post-Atlantean age death really does in a sense enter into humanity. You must be very clear about this. You get to know human nature very well when you consider death.
Let us initially go back to the first, second, and third post-Atlantean ages. The make-up of the human soul, in fact the make-up of the whole human being, what he felt himself to be, was very different in the earlier ages from what it became later on. Long ago there was a distinct inner feeling of growing into one’s sojourn on the Earth. In their ordinary consciousness human beings had a clear memory of having lived in the spirit world prior to life on Earth. This awareness had become considerably dimmed by the time the Mystery of Golgotha was approaching, but in the first, second, and third post-Atlantean ages it was so significantly present that every human being knew: I was a spirit being before I became a child. There is not much of this state of soul to be found in external documents, but it was so. One reckoned not only with a time spent on Earth, for there was also a continuation of one’s earthly time backwards into the spiritual world to consider. What came into play in the age that coincided with the Mystery of Golgotha was that earthly life began to be seen as clearly bounded by two gates: the gate of birth or conception, and in addition the gate of death.
This awareness, this kind of soul make-up, did indeed only set in during the fourth post-Atlantean age. From about the eighth pre-Christian century to the fifteenth century after the Mystery of Golgotha a consciousness unfolded that sees the human being strictly enclosed within the boundaries of earthly life. Since then another new consciousness has been in preparation, of which we are only at the beginning. You must take into account that only four or five centuries have passed since this began to develop, so we are about at the stage the fourth post-Atlantean age had reached by the third century BC, when consciousness was still quite different compared with the consciousness of the fully evolved fourth age that developed later. People today on the whole are not yet clothed in the garments of the new consciousness; for the most part their consciousness is still that of the fourth post-Atlantean age. Our civilization as a whole is the cause of this.
Think how much that belongs to the fourth post-Atlantean age is still with us, how much people are either still living as a matter of course in the fourth post-Atlantean age or at least are still flirting with it. The whole of our grammar school education still has the fourth post-Atlantean age working in it. So long as Latin was the language of scholars—this was the fourth post-Atlantean age. In public life, too, we still think in the way people thought in the fourth post-Atlantean age. You could say that for the fifth post-Atlantean age we have not even reached the stage humanity needs to be at for the consciousness soul to begin developing. That is why people today still see their life on Earth as being bounded at either end by the gate of birth and the gate of death.
There is of course some development going on in the new consciousness, only in most people it is not having much of an effect yet; it is only showing in some individuals who are particularly gifted in that direction. I have met quite a number of these during my lifetime, but on the whole little notice is taken of them. The consciousness to be developed by human beings in the fifth post-Atlantean age is such that the time between birth and death is not quite sufficient for it, so that death co nstantly plays into one’s life on Earth. People will become aware that they die a little bit every day, so that dying is constantly present in the human being, so that death is constantly present. There are some individuals who live in great fear of death, sensing that it is constantly eating away at their earthly humanity. But I have also met people who love death because it is their steadfast companion for whom they continuously long.
An awareness of being accompanied by death is something that will become more and more prevalent in the fifth post-Atlantean age. Let me describe this more concretely. Human beings will perceive in themselves the intimate fire process which is bound up with the development of the consciousness soul. Especially at the moment of departing from sleep consciousness and entering waking consciousness they will experience the waking consciousness like a kind of fire process within them which is consuming them. For the consciousness soul is something highly spiritual, and the spirit always consumes what is material. The manner in which the consciousness soul consumes what is material and what is etheric in the human being is a kind of intimate fiery process, a process of transformation. It is this that human beings will more and more perceive within themselves as the fifth post-Atlantean age proceeds. However, one must not imagine this fire to be burning like a candle flame; this would be too physical a picture. It is in a moral way that people will feel this being-accompanied-by-death taking shape in their soul.
When people notice a good intention, or a strong purpose they may have, evaporating again immediately, or in an hour or after a day or a month, most of them within our current materialistic view of the world find this acceptable as a part of the way things are. But it is something about which we shall more and more learn to feel differently. We shall learn to feel how a good intention that we have been too weak to carry out begins to consume our life, begins to diminish our moral weight. We shall learn to feel how such a thing makes us more of a moral lightweight, more insignificant for the universe. Nowadays we see such a thing as no more than a weakness of soul, not as something that works on in the cosmos — which in the future, however, we shall indeed feel it to be. In a similar way people will begin to feel how certain intellectual activities consume them, like a fire in the soul consuming them. Such things are indeed already happening even on a grand scale, but hitherto they have not yet been sensed for what they are.
One can find one’s way step by step into the spiritual world, for example by taking account of the suggestions in the book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. By this means it is possible to achieve harmony between spirit, soul, and body. But the way most people today carry on their inner life, without these exercises, and indeed even the way the religious life is carried on in the different denominations, causes the religious life to work in the human being in such a way that his moral weight is diminished, made lighter.
These things are being perceived consciously more and more, and human beings will undergo great changes during this fifth post-Atlantean age. It is a very great change when one feels either strengthened or diminished in one’s whole humanity through what one is in one’s soul life, when one senses destiny to be not merely a matter of outer circumstances exercising their influence on one, but when one feels destiny to be something that makes one morally heavier or lighter.
This is the consciousness that is in the process of coming about in human beings, and it can be seen happening quite externally and empirically. We are entering a time in which priests will have to take account of such things when they have their congregation before them. It will be necessary to treat what is rising up in people’s consciousness—something of which they are not yet fully aware, but which shows in all kinds of restlessness, nervousness, and inharmonious feelings—in such a way that individuals receive comfort and strength.
It will become less and less appropriate for priests to treat individual human beings according to some general preconceived ideas about how this should be done. Please do not be offended when I say that in some ways stereotyping has been and still is the norm. When you speak to a person who is perhaps suffering from some kind of delusion and has sought refuge with a minister, you can hear exactly what that minister has said to him or her. You can hear how the minister has sought to awaken in that person a sense of being sinful. In another case again you can hear how a minister has sought to awaken a person’s sense of being sinful. This kind of stereotyping is to be found everywhere.
When I once had to attend three funerals on the same day I noticed how the minister began each service with the same sentence: ‘However high above the Earth the heavens are, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts.’ Three times the same stereotype — which would, however, have been more or less justifiable during the fourth post-Atlantean age. This is the kind of thing, as I have mentioned, that is reaching over into the fifth age so that it is still happening now, whereas in this age there ought to be a much more subtle way of observing, there ought to be a transformation in the way things are done.
Priests must begin to do this now. They must begin to learn how to direct the glance of their soul right into the heart of the other person. Hardly anyone is capable of this nowadays. Human beings remain terribly unknown to one another these days. If you read the Book of Revelation with a degree of reverence—in fact you cannot read it without reverence—if you read with reverence the passage about the white raiment (Rev. 3: 4-5) in which those will have to be clothed who have fulfilled the task of the fifth cultural age, you gain the impression: It is a matter of looking deeply with the eye of the priest into this special type of human consciousness; it is a matter of getting to know the human being as he appears before you now in the fifth post-Atlantean age. This is the admonition: Get to recognize the human being not by the clothes he wears, not by what he presents to the outside world, but by the raiment of his soul. In the letter to the congregation at Sardis the apocalyptist speaks this admonition to the present time in which we are now living.
A priest in our time must penetrate to a person’s soul through all the external circumstances in which human beings find themselves. In a sense a priest must look at a person in the way I described the day before yesterday with regard to wanting to find that person’s karma. I said that to reach a person’s karma one must disregard his profession, his social standing, his ability and his incompetence, and must instead go deeply into his soul, into those characteristics and capabilities that can find expression in any profession a person might have. This is because you have to look to what the individual was in his former life on Earth. Well, there is no need for the priest to go quite this far, but he must begin to see through everything external and find the individual’s inner being, that which is purely human in him, that which makes the person human inwardly, an individual human being.
It is definitely the case that when we have read in the Book of Revelation as far as the letter to the congregation at Sardis we can sense that what is written there is a direct summons to our present time.
As we read on we can then gain an even profounder impression.
Let us now think about the time when the fifth post-Atlantean age will have passed. During the course of this age human beings will have changed their consciousness in a way that will enable them to see how death works on them. They will learn to understand this, but not to the extent that makes them aware all the time of the exact age they are going to reach. They will see how death works on them. They will have death as their constant companion. Death will be with them naturally. The new element that must enter into all the different fields of life will be that the human being’s content of soul must enable him to regard this having-death-beside-one as something natural. To have awakened in oneself the powers of eternal soul alertness means to have death as a good friend and constant companion always by one’s side.
When you look about you, you are still seeing things entirely in the light of the fourth post-Atlantean age. On the whole you are seeing life which has death within it, in every plant and every stone, but you are not seeing death because you do not yet see death in yourself. But human beings will begin to see death all the time. One will increasingly have to speak to people in this vein, for as a person increasingly perceives death his whole way of looking changes.
To perceive death means to perceive many things that are today still entirely hidden behind outer appearances. In a sense we regard nature as being very stable because we cannot see into its finer, more intimate realms. You might take a walk in the countryside and come across a notice stating: Foot and Mouth Disease Area. In reality something more intimate has been taking place over the whole of the area, something that might be compared with a stormy sea or a volcanic eruption. This is the kind of thing that human beings will face in the sixth post-Atlantean age.
Because human beings do not yet see death, they only notice an eruption of Vesuvius, say, or a strong earthquake measured by a seismograph. But they do not notice the tension in the etheric sphere that arises for example when an important genius lives or is born in a particular place. They equally do not see that mighty working and weaving of spirits of which the stars and their constellations are merely an outer sign.
To see all these things in some way is what human beings can expect in the sixth post-Atlantean age. The Sun as it is today will have fallen down from the heavens and the stars will have fallen down as well. Where the stars now shine in, like material abstractions, one will see a mighty working and weaving of spirit. In the course of the fifth post-Atlantean age, therefore, there will be a great change in the way human beings see themselves, and in the course of the sixth post-Atlantean age the whole world surrounding them will change. Do not imagine that the initiate, for example, sees the world in the same way as one who is not initiated. And the same applies to the sequence of stages in consciousness. Human beings in different stages of consciousness do not see the world in the same way.
That we as human beings are living in a process of transformation, a process of transformation of the human being and of our image of the world, is indicated in the Book of Revelation, among other things, by the way there is a relative similarity in the first four letters. The first seal is opened and a white horse appears, one horse. The second seal is opened and a red horse appears, another horse. The third seal is opened and a black horse appears, yet another horse. The fourth seal is opened and a pale horse appears; again it is a horse. (Rev. 6)
When the fifth seal is opened there is no longer any talk of a horse. The import of this letter is indicated in quite a different way. So as we proceed in our reading of the letters we find an indication of a fundamentally significant transformation that will take place in our own age.
There is only one thing to be said, which is that we must prepare ourselves to become the new, transformed congregation of Sardis. This new, transformed congregation of Sardis will have to understand that there is little value in knowing plants, animals, and minerals unless one can find the stars working in every one of them. In the spiritual sense the stars must fall down from the heavens, and this can already be perceived.
Let me give you one specific example of this. People usually notice the external configuration of such things without taking much account of the way they fit into the whole spiritual evolution of humanity. Each one of us can only do something at the place where we find ourselves, and for me the following took place here just before my last trip to England. You know perhaps that when I am in Dornach I set aside one or two hours each week for the men working on the building here when I talk to them about science and spiritual science during their working hours. The men like it very much if I get them to suggest the subject. They like choosing the subject themselves and among other things they want to know about today’s spiritual life and culture. This is also something that you as priests will surely have to understand.
Before I set off for England I had one of these sessions with the workmen, and one of them had prepared the question: What is the reason for some plants having fragrance and others not? Where does the fragrance of flowers come from? Well, these lectures have been going on for years and the workmen are by now sufficiently well primed not to put up with the usual chemical explanation about some substance or other being what spreads this or that perfume—you know what scientific explanations usually amount to: poverty comes from la pauvreté. No, these workmen are after real explanations.
So here in brief is what I told them over the next hour or so. Something that has fragrance first of all draws our attention to our sense organs; we perceive the fragrance through our organ of smell. We should then ask ourselves whether our sense of smell is subtle enough to allow us to work as a sniffer dog for the police. Of course you will agree that it is not. On the contrary, you will have to admit that we human beings have rather a blunt sense of smell, not a subtle one, and that as you go down the scale in nature you come to more sensitive organs of smell.
Take the dog with an organ of smell so delicate that it can be trained as a sniffer dog. Look at the way its forehead slopes backwards following along the continuation of the olfactory nerves which carry the scent into the very being of the dog. We human beings have a forehead that is puffed up. Our intelligence apparatus is a transformed organ of smell, especially in its capacity for apperception. This alone makes it obvious that as we go down the scale to lower animals we come to more sensitive organs of smell.
Spiritual science teaches us that in their flowers and in the way they develop fragrance very many plants are nothing other than organs of smell, real vegetable organs of smell of immense sensitivity. What do they smell? They smell the cosmic fragrance that is always present. And the cosmic fragrance that emanates from Venus is different from that emanating from Mars or from Saturn. For example the fragrance of the violet is an echo-in-fragrance of what the violet perceives of the cosmic fragrance. Plants that smell nice perceive the cosmic fragrances that come from Venus, Mercury, or Mars. Ferula fetida perceives the smell of Saturn and passes it on in the asafetida derived from it.
This is something these people want to know, for in a sense they want to know how the stars fall down to Earth. What, after all, are the beings in the world but what the stars send down? If you want to speak realistically about these things, you have to say: The stars really are falling down, for they are in the plants. It is not only the fragrance that is in them, but the plants themselves are actual organs of smell.
My first talk today was once again to the workmen, and I asked them to state the questions they wanted answered. One question was as follows: If what you said last time about fragrances is right, so that plants are sensitive organs of smell, where then do the plants’ colors come from?
So I had to explain that the fragrances of the plants come from the planets, while the colors come from the power of the Sun. I expanded on this, giving examples that show this to be the case. One member of the audience was not satisfied, asking why I had not mentioned the minerals, and why were they also colored. I can understand why the plants have colors, he said, and that a plant growing in the cellar without sunlight might have the right shape and fragrance but no color—why it would remain pale or even colorless from lack of sunlight. But what about minerals?
So I had to explain further. The Sun has a daily course arising from one revolution of the Earth in 24 hours. It also has an annual course that brings about the seasons, during which it reaches the zenith and then falls back again. But there is another cycle as well, and I went on to explain the Platonic cosmic year. I explained how the Sun now rises in Pisces at the vernal equinox, but that in former times it rose in Aries, and before that in Taurus, and then Gemini, and so on, taking 25,920 years to complete one cycle round the Zodiac. In this way the Sun has a course that takes one day, another course that takes one year, and a further one lasting a whole cosmic year. Whereas it gives the plants their colors during the course that takes one year, the minerals need a cosmic year of the Sun to gain their colors. In the colors of the minerals, in the green of the emerald, the wine-yellow of the topaz, the red of corundum, there lives a force that develops during the Sun’s cycle through the Platonic cosmic year.
So you see: If you take from the spirit what you have to say about the world, people begin to ask questions about earthly things in a way that shows they are no longer satisfied with attempts to explain the Earth by means of the trivia emanating from our laboratories and dissecting rooms. They want to understand in the proper way, and are well satisfied to be shown things in the ‘Sardian’ way that involves including the stars and their effects as well. In doing this one is doing what the apocalyptist does; one is bringing Sardis into our present time.
What I have been telling you is merely one example. We must begin to bring this sense for the stars, this sense for the beings of the stars, into our present time. We must begin to help people understand anew that the Christ is a Sun Being. This is the fact that meets with the greatest opposition of all.
When I tell you these things, and especially when I tell you how our modern fifth post-Atlantean age must become, in a way, a re-awakened Sardis such as we find described briefly, concisely, and marvelously in the fifth congregation and the fifth seal that must now be opened—when I tell you these things you will sense that it is our task today to develop this special way of understanding the Book of Revelation, namely that the Book of Revelation be a task that is knocking daily at the door of our heart. There is no point in merely interpreting the Book of Revelation. It is necessary that we do the Book of Revelation in all things, otherwise we might as well leave it alone. Merely to interpret it is almost valueless.
Herewith I have now told you the second aspect that must be involved when we read the Book of Revelation. Yesterday I sought to explain the form, today I am seeking to show you that to read the Book of Revelation one must be present with one’s will. This is only natural, for revelations have always arisen through Inspirations of the will. With this we are touching on a truly apocalyptic point, a living apocalyptic point.
There are people today who are in some ways educated in an apocalyptic manner. They are educated apocalyptically in a way that gives them an education of the will that is oriented specifically toward the Roman Catholic church. These are the Jesuits. Jesuit education, the exercises of the Jesuits, have a strongly apocalyptic aspect. The exercises of the Jesuits involve a schooling of the will such as is always at the foundation of any apocalyptic, any revelatory, vision.
Educating the will is the most important aspect for anyone who takes seriously a genuine priesthood in the sense of a Christian renewal. Such a person must understand the Book of Revelation if he is to see in it the right impulse for the will, whereas a very one-sided impulse for the will was given by Ignatius of Loyola, a grand impulse no doubt, but an extremely onesided one. Today this has become ahrimanically rigid, but especially in looking at Ignatius of Loyola we are shown how wrong it is to look at the world in any other way but through spiritual science. People still attribute the development of the Jesuits today to Ignatius of Loyola, but this is wrong. Ignatius of Loyola has long since been reincarnated and has of course extricated himself entirely from that earlier stream. He lived anew as Emanuel Swedenborg, and the development of the Jesuits since then has slid right into the realm of Ahriman; it no longer harks back to Ignatius of Loyola but works now in accordance with Ahriman’s purposes. You could say that this is the shadow, the counter-image, of what you yourselves must train yourselves to be by, as I have said, taking the Book of Revelation into your ‘I’ in such a way that your ‘I’ becomes the sum of powers that work in an apocalyptic way.