Interview with Bert Chase by Robert McKay

, May 31, 2016

Robert: Could you share a sketch of your childhood and youth? Were there any events in particular that prepared you to meet anthroposophy?

Bert: I was born in the United States, in a small Missouri town. When I was quite young my family moved to Peru, where I grew up. Looking back on those years, one of my first memories stands out as critical to the unfolding of my biography. This happened when I was four, during a family trip to Machu Picchu, in the high Andes Mountains. Through a complex series of circumstances; including a landslide and my father’s single minded determination to get there, we were Bert07the only family – the only people – on the site that day. For some time it had been raining, cloudy and dark – but when we finally arrived at this remarkable place, the sun came out beneath the clouds. My memory is of this magical site at that moment – everything covered in droplets and then the sun coming out – everything flooded with light. Each droplet shimmering with an inner light. Throughout my life this quality of experience has suddenly occurred. What arises is a sense of transparency, or thinness, or closeness between what is visible and what is invisible. It took me a long time to find words for these unanticipated experiences. Of course I did not have such language when I was four – but the experience was so strong, in a sense, it woke me up. It woke me up into life and gave a kind of sureness that what we perceive – the heaviness of the world that we live in – is not a complete picture. There is a lightness beyond our sense perceptions, and this is linked with my sense of space, and light, and place. For many years I have been drawn to historic and archeological sites. From childhood I have been fortunate to travel widely – “stumbling” upon these remarkable places, confronted by this sense of closeness to what is not immediately outwardly perceived. The sureness of these experiences is central to how my biography has shaped itself. When life has become difficult, weighed down, the recollection of these experiences sustains. They led me to architecture – to work with space, and light, and form. This was unconscious initially, but when I found anthroposophy I began to understand. Rudolf Steiner gave me confidence that I could take guidance from these sacred moments, allowing them into my professional life. It all goes back to that very first memory of water, and light, and stone.


Robert: So how did the encounter with anthroposophy come about?


Bert: It came out of this same stream of events. From early in life I “played” with spacial imaginations, so it was quite natural that in university I studied architecture. This was a six year training that coincided with the Vietnam War. My family had returned to the United States where I attended high school and then went on to the School of Design, Architecture and Art in Cincinnati, Ohio – studying architecture against the chaotic, social upheavals of that time. These university years were overwhelmed by a sense of increasing social and political disintegration. I had great difficulty finding my place in what I experienced as a university setting that seemed inseparable from the cultural heaviness, darkness. The central principle of the training – a very North American principle – was that the architect should be a prima donna, the orchestrator of the environment. I had a fundamental discomfort with this archetype of the “star architect”, as it focused on the development of the personality, in essence the lower ego, of the student. Inwardly I felt I was on the right path, while at the same time feeling in conflict with the program and with The on-going, ever present, social turmoil. By my third year I hit a wall. I was not sure how to go forward. While I was grappling with this sense of displacement, a very close friend – and fellow architectural student – introduced me to an acquaintance who was involved in starting what I understood to be a “very strange new school” that had something to do with “spirits”. This friend was often off to a place called Spring Valley. Returning from one of these conferences she said to me, “you know Bert, there might be something interesting for you in Spring Valley”. This was just before Easter of 1970. Following her suggestion my friend, Jim Chapman, and I climbed into his convertible Corvette – as we did then – and headed to Spring Valley. On that trip we met Walter Leicht, who was the one architect practising out of anthroposophy in North America at the time. During that Easter weekend, the Grade 12 students from the Waldorf School gave a eurythmy performance in the midst of which I turned to Jim, whispering, “this has something to do with architecture!” From those few days, and the people we met, we were both hooked! We went back to Cincinnati, found a study group, and the rest is history. Jim went on to become the one architect on the east coast, and I the one on the west coast, working out of anthroposophy.


Robert: What does that mean, to be an architect working out of anthroposophy?


Bert: Anthroposophy completely transformed how I am as an architect. I had to recreate my view of what I thought I was doing. It addressed my fundamental discomfort with my training – the focus on the inflation of the personality of the architect. I gradually realized that I needed to experience architecture as part of an ongoing flow, an evolution through time. If I truly wanted to contribute to this this flow, I had to first understand it – and commit myself to it.   This was the opposite of the training I was getting that most valued what comes from the personality. When I graduated, I wanted to work in a setting, and with an architect, dedicated to anthroposophy. This took me to Camphill Village in Copake, New York and to another meeting with a remarkable man, Carlo Pietzner. He was a Viennese painter, and one of the original circle of young people around Dr. Karl Konig. Carlo was fundamental to my biography, guiding me through Rudolf Steiner’s insight that all arts are evolving processes inseparable from our evolution as human beings. That was a huge insight for me, giving me an anchor. It has inspired my anthroposophical explorations for almost 50 years. My primary interest has been the evolution of consciousness, especially in relation to the arts. This has led to a broad study of the leading mythologies of many cultures – then seeking the relationship between these mythologies and art, especially architecture. Architecture is the all encompassing artifact that civilizations leave behind as a picture, a record, of their cosmology. Understanding these relationships has become my life’s study and the basis of my professional practice. Rudolf Steiner makes it clear how architecture has always been guided out of the Mysteries, preparing human beings for their future incarnations. So my guiding questions have been; what are the forms, what are the spaces, that we need to bring into the world today to help us in our future incarnations? Rudolf Steiner’s call completely challenges our perception of architecture. It has nothing to do with what I arbitrarily want to do as an artist, but challenges the architect to serve what is needed for human evolution. I intuitively knew the accepted egocentric approach was misguided, but it was the gift of Carlo Pietzner, and then of Rex Raab, who had deeply penetrated Rudolf Steiner’s architectural impulse, that helped me find the star that has guided me since. Leaving Camphill I became part of the Architects Group at Emerson College in the UK. Here I met Esther, my future wife, and together we came to Vancouver where we raised our family and where I have had my architectural practice since 1977.


Hesperus Fellowship Village – Bert Chase architect

Robert: It is remarkable how anthroposophy transforms a profession, giving the profession back to itself but in a new form that emphasizes its role in serving humanity so that each profession becomes a path of spiritual awakening for the practitioner.


Bert: Yes, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if I had not had the critical set of “accidents” that led me to anthroposophy. Having been privileged enough to experience a real meeting with anthroposophy has confirmed and given direction to my life. Of course, for this meeting to happen we must allow anthroposophy in. So the question becomes, what are the hindrances that I put in the way that block this experience – not only for myself – but for others? We are often hesitant sharing our own relationship with anthroposophy. We are very tentative, protective, about revealing something which is so intimate, so bound up with our sense of a sacred thread running through our biographies. We are wary of criticism, of judgement, an ever present response in our time. We live in an age where a fundamental belief has been cultivated that reality has to do with what has physical weight, solidity. Anything that awakens a sense for something beyond this heaviness is seen as questionable, suspect. That doubt, that hindrance, blocking soul experiences that are delicate, refined, and subtle undermines our essential humanity. On the one hand, as anthroposophists, we have the experience of having met something profound. At the same time we face a world situation where our soul experiences can be deeply unsettling for those around us. We are taught to believe that the perceptible, the weighty, is safe and comfortable. It seems to give a firm ground on which to stand. At the same time it binds our humanity. That is the world situation we are living in. The extent to which anthroposophy has found its way into the world has been limited both by our hesitation to share it, and by this cultivated concept of reality. Individuals tend to find anthroposophy through following their intuitions. In my life these presentiments were there first. These intuitions, many share. We are experiencing unconsciously what in our conscious minds we won’t believe, are taught to believe, is not real. Many human beings are gradually awakening – having intimation of something other than the material. They don’t know what to do with those experiences. That is the nature of the threshold condition we are living in. Those of us who have been privileged enough to find our way to anthroposophy, to spiritual science, need to understand this. The world is approaching the doorway where there is a greater possibility for hearing these intimations. The past century has prepared us, in a certain way, to meet this developing opening in humanity. We stand at a critical point. Will we enable, or hinder, anthroposophy meeting the soul needs awakening in so many of our fellow human beings. These needs have always been there, but now become ever more pressing. We could say our culture has not been able to hear anthroposophy yet.


Robert: Given that we are on this cusp, does the role of the Anthroposophical Society need to change? What should the Society be doing more of or less of in these times?


Bert: That is a difficult question. In part because of this word ‘should’. Can we excise it from our way of speaking? It implies that we know, that we have answers. Do we believe we have answers? What are we hopeful for? Where are there opportunities? The language we use shapes how we think, what we can imagine. We are in the midst of centenary celebrations of what Rudolf Steiner’s impulses have sown into human culture. In reality, a century is an arbitrary construct. But concealed within it is the remarkable rhythm of three times 33 1/3 years. The rhythm that is not at all arbitrary, but connects us with the central being of evolution. Over these 100 years individuals, circles of people, have sought this being through all that Rudolf Steiner has initiated. It is as if this has been our time of apprenticeship. Training to integrate anthroposophy into our lives. Not just to think it, or feel it, but to “become with” it. I believe we are at the point where renewal of initiative is asked of us out of this gift of 100 years of preparation. If I try to describe my hope, it would be that we truly seek the language that the current time needs – to find language that can work as an invitation, a doorway, a bridge for our questing fellow human beings. When I reflect on what created my bridge to anthroposophy, to a relationship with Rudolf Steiner, it has always come through individual meetings with remarkable people. My great hope would be that we learn how to have such conversations with those who are experiencing the immediacy of an imminent cultural breakthrough. If we are honest with ourselves we would have to acknowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of people who feel this immediacy of “something more”. They have turned to any number of movements to understand those experiences. I think we have something unique that can speak to that longing, not with answers but with human warmth, with interest, with understanding. If we truly become active in every sphere of human endeavour – if we contribute – we can meet and fill out the picture of what is already happening. There are innumerable examples of this. Consider the environmental movement and all that the voice of anthroposophy could bring that could elucidate why people are beginning to feel the suffering of the earth. There is an intuitive sense that lies behind the environmental movement – and anthroposophy can bring a sureness, a knowing to what that feeling is. My hope for for our Anthroposophical Society, and its members,is that we take the courage to speak, and to seek out where we can contribute beyond speaking with each other. Although it is extremely important to speak with each other, for that is where we practice this new language. With each other, we can practise developing a kind of sensitivity to the soul life of one another, so that we learn to speak in such a way that we do not trespass on this intimate, sacred space in the other. If we can not do this with each other where we already have a common ground, how can we hope to do so with those with whom we have not yet found common ground? The great opportunity of the life in the Anthroposophical Society, if we are conscious of it, is that we can practice developing this soul sensitivity that enables us to truly meet, abide with, those who share our path but have a different language, or a different imagination, for this common aspiration. So many people are seeking for a transformation of culture.   As the bearers of anthroposophy, we have a unique contribution to make to this transformation.


Robert: That is a wonderful picture of the Anthroposophical Society, as both a learning environment and a learning community but also a community that, based on what is learned inwardly, then turns outward to bring resources to all people.


Bert: We have been hesitant to do that. I think this has to do with a sense of inadequacy. That we are not ready – that we haven’t completed our apprenticeship yet. But, prepared or not, we have come to the point where we are asked to take responsibility for what we have been given. It is called a practice for good reason and, as needed, the world will correct us.


Robert: You have been very engaged in the work of the School for Spiritual Science and the Class Lessons. How did you move into that work and what is it like to be a Class Holder?


Bert: On reflection the pathway to the Class goes back to my early childhood experience and the sense for two worlds interpenetrating each other. I joined the Society when I was in England where the process of coming to know anthroposophy was rich, supported by a mature community. I then came to a point where I felt that I couldn’t keep taking. I had to take up some kind of responsibility. It was out of that sense of something turning around within me, that I began to look toward the School. I had known about the School for Spiritual Science but in a very tentative way. I didn’t have a clear picture of it. But as this sense of needing to give back came to the fore, the importance of the School came with it. I was admitted to the School and became active in it, participating in the Class for a number of years. Then the event happened which is always quite extraordinary in someone’s biography as it comes completely unexpectedly – without foreknowledge. I was asked if I would take up the responsibilities of a Class Holder. The consideration of someone to take on these responsibilities can take years, and happens completely behind the scenes, without the candidates knowledge. For me it was a completely startling request. I was attending a conference when Virginia Sease took me aside, asking if I would take this on. Of course my initial response was, “no, you’ve got the wrong person!” Then, as the question quietly percolated, I realized it had implication for all my close relationships and each needed to be separately considered. It was then that it gradually became clear to me that my biography had been shaping itself toward this request for many years. This was the next step in taking responsibility for what I had been given through the Society, to anthroposophy, and to Rudolf Steiner. Of course accepting this call is to step into the unknown and to be confronted by ones inadequacies. It is a task that I slowly grew into over many, many years. With every Class Lesson, if I am honest with myself, I ask – invariably it comes up – am I ready? Am I here in an authentic way? So far, the grace has been there for a confirmation each time. The School is really inseparable from the impulse to bring about the transformation of human culture. The gateway of the School, and of the Class, is another level of preparation to contribute to this transformation. It is part of the process, for some of us, of coming to a deepening intention to be a representative for anthroposophy in the wider culture – to speak to those who have an intuition of the threshold point that the human soul is on. These are our contemporaries, our fellow seekers, and we have a responsibility to find a way to share with them so they become co-workers in this task of turning human culture around. We cannot do it alone.


Rob: You have studied anthroposophy over decades and are called upon to lecture on a variety of topics. You can even provide free renderings of Class Lessons, which is not an easy thing to do. Notwithstanding your obvious vitality and youthful spirit, you are an elder in our community so I wanted to ask you a question that one might ask an elder: How does one become a serious anthroposophist?


Bert: I can only respond for myself – what guides the longings in each of us toward the spiritual is unique and sacred for each person. What blocks that striving is what we meet in the world. I believe we come into life with a very clear sense for finding our way. We can see this if we look back into our biographies and see what is there to guide and support us in our quest. But we can also see what we meet that is afraid of spiritual striving – to begin with in our families. Here we may find ourselves with others who have cut themselves off from their own soul experiences for various reasons, usually to protect themselves. Then, beyond our families, we meet hindrances in our culture in so many ways. Those of us who have found our way to anthroposophy can often see the great importance of meetings with key people who helped us open up to our own intuitions and take our own deeper feelings seriously. If we think about this, perhaps we can add to this question of becoming a serious anthroposophist, another questions: Are we, who have met anthroposophy, ready to help others in their becoming? Are we providing openings for others to experience themselves as we were helped to do? The meetings with remarkable people that shaped my life are linked by the qualities of openness and a complete lack of criticism or judgement. They were willing to meet my living question, not with an answer, but with warmth, with an openness that encouraged me to find my own answers. If we are working with anthroposophy, people will find their way to us with their living questions. When this happens, will we even notice? Will we give them the time? Will we be able to listen behind what may come as a very tentative, halting query to the living question that has not yet found its words? Will we be barriers, or will be doorways, bridges for those who are finding their own way to anthroposophy?


Rob: I am hopeful that some special meetings will happen this summer at the Society conference in Ottawa in August. As one of the contributors, and as someone speaking at the event, are you looking forward to it?


Bert: Having this opportunity to come together from across this continent is an immerse and a rare gift. Each of us carries, deep within us, a vision for our world’s future that comes with us through birth. These opportunities for meeting are special point in life where the rare possibility arises to ask questions of each other, to deeply listen to each other, to meet each other with a warmth that strengthens us, that fructifies each of us in deep and hidden ways. This is a space of possibility for the future. I very much look forward to being there with you, and so many of our friends from across the vasts spaces we share.