I drove back up the long drive to Attingham for the first time in 3 months in October, a changed individual – sadder, certainly, more reflective and more inward looking. Nature has a strange way of mirroring life sometimes, of reflecting the interior journey. The leaves were clinging tenuously to the trees, the golden cattle some distance away, their heads turned to the grass, rather than nudging, inquisitively, at the boundary of the road. I still felt the old surge of optimism as I neared the house, the sense of something continuous and affirming, but was also aware of the quiet passage of time and change.
I reflected that no research project of this kind, so immersive and all-consuming, can avoid being both intensely personal as well as public and that it was probably permissible to allow a little of the personal to creep out publicly.
My work in the past has been variously public or community focused, a journey based on an external world of activism and a passion for justice and equality – all based on deep personal beliefs but very much externalised. Doing this research has allowed me to go inwards, back to the private, as well as seeking the voices of others through the interviews who have been privately marked and changed by their time at the Adult Education College. I have grappled all year with an understanding of Sir George Trevelyan and his spiritual work and philosophy, trying to establish how it connected with my own beliefs, as well as attempting to do it justice within the context of the research, without focusing on it to the exclusion of all else. He was a man, I have found, who touched people profoundly and who manifested his own private thinking through his spiritual beliefs, his public talks and lectures, as well as his belief in education for spiritual enlightenment. This work appears to have been born out of intense introspection and ‘inward journeying’.
To return to the private for the moment, my own father has been very ill all year – and for the last two years or more, in reality. Every time I came to Shropshire I worried about being away from him. Finally, in late August, he succumbed to the terrible illness which had beset him, and which finally silenced his great and epic spirit, a man who loved life and lived it with compassion, joy and wonder. These past months, Sir George’s journey made sense in terms of my own, and my private and public worlds converged.
I have been struck for some time by Sir George’s bravery in opening up the subject of death for public debate and discussion. He began to take tentative steps towards education for spiritual enlightenment early in the 1950s with a course entitled What Can we Believe? He followed this up with his seminal and influential course ‘Death and Becoming’ in the early 60s. This was the first of Sir George’s courses which looked overtly at the interior life, or the development of the self from a spiritual perspective. This course took the subject to a whole new level, dealing, as it did, with challenging perceptions of death. This was groundbreaking at the time and attracted a record number of attendees (170), many of whom gained great personal succour from the course.
The personal dimension to this very public course was that his father, Sir Charles Trevelyan, and also Gwen Orgill, Domestic Bursar, with whom he had worked closely and creatively, died around this time. Sir George was dealing with a great deal of personal grief, through meditation and deep introspection. He said, ‘I knew without any shadow of doubt that the spark of divinity in us cannot possibly die…this can bring an absolute certainty and subjective proof of the eternal spirit in each of us’. (George Trevelyan, 1991, Exploration into God, Gateway Books).
Such a course certainly attracted comment from the Board of the College and from outside press and public. It was challenging and, to some degree, controversial.
Sir George had had his own moment of epiphany in 1942 at a lecture entitled “What Rudolf Steiner Meant”, given by Johannes Stein, a devotee of Rudolf Steiner who had created the philosophy of Anthroposophy, which postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development; the relating of the spirit of man to the spirit in the universe. Like Alice Bailey, a leading exponent of the New Age, who was also influenced by anthroposophy, Sir George challenged the materialist concept of death as a fear-inducing state of non-being or the precursor to a Christian state of Heaven or Hell. Alice Bailey describes it, instead, as the ‘Bringer of Changes’, a period of transition, in which the physical and the astral planes connect and a ‘continuity of consciousness’ is achieved. Like Steiner, Sir George tackled the subject of death overtly, as a means of eradicating much of the crippling, abstract fear we reserve for it. He enabled conversations about it, to help foster positive relationships with dying. As anthroposophy asserts, death is a natural aspect of life and it merits the same attention we give other aspects of our humanity. Steiner himself argued that human beings do not just continue through an ongoing consciousness but that they are reincarnated into new forms.
Coming much closer to the present day, Irvin D. Yalom, writer, psychotherapist and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, in his brilliant book – ‘Staring at the Sun – Overcoming the Dread of Death’ – offers a different perspective on death but continues the tradition of challenging perceptions and asking difficult questions. Here, both Christian concepts of an afterlife and the tradition of continuing consciousness and reincarnation are configured as part of human ‘death anxiety’. He asserts, instead, that the time after death, as with the time before we are born, are states of non-being. ‘Transiency is forever’. How we do continue, he argues, is through the ‘rippling effect’. He states that ‘rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates – often without our conscious intent or knowledge – concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level’(2008, p.83). Yes, we rejoin nature through our scattered molecules, building new life but we also create something that will be passed on and enlarge the life of others.
In this moment, I do not know precisely where I stand. I am still thinking and contemplating and may never know definitively but I do understand the need to grapple with the question of what happens to us when we die. How do we continue, if we continue?
Stephen Spender, quoted in Sir George’s marvellous book on poetry – ‘Magic Casements – the Use of Poetry in the Expanding of Consciousness’ (1980, Conventure Ltd, London, p. 46) – describes how the truly great – those ‘who fought for life’ and ‘wore at their hearts the fire’s centre’ – are never lost, echoed in the wind, in the air, their names listed by ‘the waving grass’. Both my father – John Brian Clancy, 1937 – 2014 – and Sir George stared at the sun and ‘travelled a short while’ towards it.
The Truly Great (excerpt)
……What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in the worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are listed by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre:
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signified with their honour.