Valdemar W. Setzer

(This is the contents of an e-mail  sent on October 9, 1994, to the Waldorf electronic discussion list).

I describe here the last block lesson (in German, "Epoche") on Parsifal at our Waldorf school. I do it for the following reasons:

1. It is, I think, a unique experience in the world;
2. As such, it may serve as a guide for future similar implementations in other Waldorf schools with upper classes (high school);
3. To create a sense of community - the participants of this list may have an idea about some of our present local activities;
4. To give some idea of a particular implementation of Waldorf education, for those that want some information on it;
5. Those W schools that don't have a high school yet may get a slight impression on how important it is for the young people to continue their education following the Waldorf method; maybe this account could be an extra drop of incentive into their will and struggle to install a high-school

In our school, it is a tradition that the block lesson on the Parsifal legend, prescribed by Rudolf Steiner for the 11th grades, be given in an intensive way, as a separate block. In Germany, it is in general part of the German Literature studies, covering the Middle Ages text using Wolfram von Eschenbach's original (13th century).

Here the class leaves town for a full week of activities centered around the legend. In general it goes to a primitive hotel, accompanied by the lecturer, a painting teacher and the class tutor. Since 1990, the lecturer has been my wife Sonia Setzer. At the time of writing this text, she is the school doctor. Formerly the block lesson was given by her late father, Rudolf Lanz, one of the school founders and who was one of the leaders of the local Anthroposophical movement; the present form of the block is her development.

The Parsifal legend (as a matter of fact, according to Steiner Parsifal really existed, in the 9th century) tells the story of a naive boy, kept isolated from the world by his mother, who didn't want him to become a knight because her husband had died in a battle. He leaves home after having met some knights in the woods, naively does bad actions to some people, is made knight by King Arthur, is taught all the arts of knighthood, and then finds the Castle of the Grail. There he sees the Fisher King (who is in fact his uncle), suffering from a wound that does not heal, but is kept alive by the forces of the Grail. Parsifal does not ask him the crucial question why is he suffering, and because of this fault (lack of interest in the suffering of another) wakes up next morning with the castle completely empty. He later learns of his fault, and starts a long quest for the Grail castle, full of adventures, where he suffers a lot and progressively matures. He is finally called back to the castle, poses the question to the Fisher King and saves his and his court's fate, and becomes the king of the Grail. He also meets his half-brother Feirefis, who is a black (!) Moor ("pagan"). The legend is full of Christians motives, but does not mention the Catholic church at all.

This legend makes a deep impression on the 17-year old students. They realize through its images that they are leaving a period where innocence and lack of responsibility was dominant, and are beginning to enter the quest for the meaning and realizations of their life. What expects them? Are they doing good or bad? What should be each one's Grail? What and where are the good and the evil forces? Are important questions not being made by them?

These questions are not covered explicetly by my wife; she lets the students reach the association by themselves. This time a boy, during the last lecture, said aloud: "Then Parsifal did what we are supposed to do!" This shows the deep knowledge R.Steiner had of the particular circumstances and problems of each age, the basis of Waldorf Education. You may also imagine how happy my wife was, seeing that the students had experienced the message the whole block lesson was trying to convey.

The first class to take the program this year left in the afternoon of Fri. Sept. 30, and returned in the afternoon of Fri. Oct. 7. The "hotel" extremely primitive (for instance, with large dormitories full of bunks (double-deckers), located in the mountains North of the city (with sports place, swimming pool, etc.) was reserved for the 31-student class. Experiences with other places where other guests or groups were also lodged was not very good.

The daily activities were divided as follows (this applies to this version; other courses could have slight variations):

Morning: The academic day begins with the morning verse (Waldorf Schools' standard from 5th grade up), and reading of some drafts written in the previous morning. In general, only a couple of students have their drafts selected for reading during the whole week; this time Sonia was very happy of being able to select drafts from a total of 14 students. Then comes a 1 1/2 hour lecture on Parsifal and related history (see program below) followed by 1 1/2 hour of individual draft writing by students on the lecture's subject; some material was dictated, based upon the experience my wife has on the difficulty of each subject. Sonia reads the drafts produced each day, correcting for mistakes in contents, so the students may copy them in the next day to their notebooks.

Afternoon: 1 1/2 hour painting - students are given each day a special theme, like: landscape with castle, inside of a castle, a fight of knights, a face of some character from the story - it is typical for this age to choose "dark" characters, like those of Kundrie (the messenger of the Grail, with horrible face while Parsifal is not yet pure) and Klingsor (the magician which imprisoned 400 young ladies in his Chastel Merveille). Then comes 1 1/2 hour final writing to notebooks based upon the drafts written in the morning of the previous day (this way the subject is "worked" upon during sleep), which have already been revised by Sonia. In general, students write their notebooks with some decoration, like painting the margins or even each whole sheet, using different colors for the letters etc. A couple of students are chosen each afternoon to work on a collective production of a large book on the legend, with beautiful writings and many paintings which is later given as a gift for a 5th grade class.

Evening (after dinner): A special lecture covering other themes (see below).

After lunch time and late afternoon students have time for leisure (resting, swimming, playing ball, walking, etc.). Many continue to work on their notebooks or paintings.

This time the lectures on Parsifal followed this scheme:

Day 1. Literature related to the Grail legend. The legend, excluding Gauwain's adventures.

Day 2. Analysis of the structure of Eschembach's book. Meetings and important happenings in Parsifal's life.

Day 3. Considerations about the legend. Reality and fantasy. Scientific subjects appearing in the book, like Astronomy, Botany, Mineralogy, etc. The symbol of the sword. The differences between
Arthur's and the Grail's communities.

Day 4. The symbols of spear and Grail.

Day 5. Historic movements related to the Grail: Essenes, Manicheans, Bogomils, Cathars, the Orders of the Temple (Templars) and of the Christ (in Portugal). Masonry. The history of the Grail temple (Albrecht von Scharfenberg, 1270) and esoteric Christianity from 14th century up to R.Steiner (this highly impresses the students).

Day 6. The meaning of some names which appear in the legend. The meaning of Parsifal's path.

The evening lectures had the following themes:

1. The Middle Ages life, mainly in the castles, knighthood, bards,
customs. (This was given in their first evening, after arrival and
dinner, and is a preparation for the main lectures.)

2. The threefold human being.

3. Child evolution and the seven-year periods.

4. The arts curriculum in a Waldorf School as a function of the child's/young person's evolution (this one was given by the arts teacher).

5. Gauwain's story.

6. Slide projection of landscapes of Bretagne, the Cathar castles, Arab buildings in Spain (this was given by a teacher who had visited intensively those regions).

7. Dreams. (Sometimes my wife gives also a lecture on the 4 temperaments - both themes are loved by students.)

After each evening lecture students sang (in English) the beautiful chorus by Michael Wilson, "In the Quest of the Holy Grail," considered by some as the "Waldorf Hymn," closing the "official" program of the day. Those that wanted to work on their notebooks or paintings could continue doing so, others could do whatever they wished, as long as they would stay far from the dormitories, keeping silence to those that wanted to sleep. The hotel manager noted that he had never seen such a calm group of students, that didn't mess up everything and did not require constant attention and shouting from their teachers (Waldorf education...). Sonia said she felt a special reverence of this class towards the story.

As the beautiful watercolor and charcoal paintings became ready, they were hanged at the walls of the large painting room, which served also as dinner and lecture room. The hotel's typical kitsch paintings were gradually replaced by student's paintings and the room started to look like a museum, highly admired by the hotel's personnel. (You may imagine the impression this makes on simple, semi-illiterate people...)

For each student, the physical result of the block is the notebook and the separate paintings done by each student. The notebook I am looking at now has 62 pages, handwritten with large letters and has many decorations, done with colored pencils, crayons and watercolors (the paper sheets are produced separately and then bound together). The first page has the title "Parsifal" and colored drawings of a castle, a knight with sword and helm, a little boy with his bow and arrow (Parsifal's first weapons), etc. The second page has a drawing of a knight in his armor and a landscape, and the 14 first lines of Eschenbach's original ("Ist zwivel herzen nachgebur,/ das muoz der sele werden sur/...", "When doubt takes place in a heart, the soul goes through bitter experiences..."). These 14 lines were read in the original by the students each morning, before the lecture. The third page contains the 14 lines in Portuguese.

I am now going to translate the answer given by a girl to the question the students were supposed to write in the last page of their notebooks. This gives a first-hand impression on how the students regard this block lesson. I will try to be as faithful to the original as my knowledge of English permits; one may notice that the girl has some difficulties in expressing her thoughts. (The reason I am using her notebook is that she was the only student to hand on the complete notebook right after the ending of the course; my wife has not received the others yet.) 

Q: Which episode has impressed, interested or touched you the most?

A: I had a great surprise in getting to know that there are so many things to be learned in life. For me, it was impressive to see how much wisdom one may extract from a story. So many things that I, by myself, would not have the capacity or, better, the patience to perceive. I reached the great conclusion that I formulate too few questions. I keep never questioning things, this is a pity and now I may feel myself incentived to do so: I have quite a lot to learn and I want to learn everything I can. And the only things that are lacking are, to my disappointment, patience and time.

The relations with Good and Evil among the heretic sects interested me a lot.

The conversation on dreams was very nice.

To me, there remained doubts on what should "reaching perfection" really mean. What is really a perfect person and if in this case s/he does not cease to be a human being.

The relations that highly attracted me were Parsifal's and our life, as a path to be desired by each one of us.

The contents of these days made me become more connected to the spiritual intervention in our lives, and the desire to increase this connection everyday. I am impressed how a school may give us so much life experience, changing the paths of our lives.

Many thanks,
Janaína [that's an Indian name, pronounced Jah-nah-ee'-nah, J as in French].