Patrick Lydon and his wife Gladys helped to found the Ballytobin Camphill Community, where life is structured with daily and annual ritual, rhythm and music. Patrick Lydon, Camphill Community, Ballytobin, Co. Kilkenny


I am writing in the evening of the First Sunday of Advent. It is a special day for us in Camphill communities, the day we celebrate the Advent Garden. At dusk the whole community gathers with many neighbours and friends in a room where a spiral of moss or greenery has been made on the floor, large enough for a child to walk through. At the centre of the spiral is a large candle on a little hill, and the room is otherwise almost dark. Everyone sits in a large ring around the spiral, quietly singing Christmas songs and carols. One by one the children take an unlit candle, set into an apple, and walk the winding path to the central light. When their own candle is lit, they walk back and find a place for their light in the green spiral. About half of the children have special needs. Some need quite a bit of help on their journey, while others can walk proudly alone. The others are children of friends and neighbours, some infants in the arms of a parent. With each new light the room becomes gradually brighter. When all of the children have made the walk and placed their candles and the spiral of light is complete, everyone leaves quietly with the image of a light-filled garden.

In fact, the founder of the Camphill Movement, Dr Karl Konig, recalled that his first experience of the Advent Garden, as a young Jewish doctor in 1927, inspired him to dedicate himself to the development of disabled children. ‘My heart flowed over with compassion. I saw these severely disabled human beings who appeared so happy and bright. I suddenly and very profoundly experienced that the spark of the living spirit was present in each one of them in spite of their deficiencies. And in this hour, the decision was taken that I would dedicate my life to the care and education of these children. It was a promise I gave to myself: To build a hill upon which a big candle was to burn so that many infirm and disabled children would be able to find their way to this beacon of hope and to light their own candles so that each single flame would be able to radiate and shine forth…. An ideal started to grow in my mind and heart.’

Hopefully this idealism, and the vision of the living spirit in every fellow human being, is still alive in the Camphill communities. Spirituality is certainly a very important word and concept in the daily life of the communities–not so much a Sunday thing as the foundation of our whole approach. It is a basis for our view of people with special needs and also for the forming and working of the community of coworkers who might elsewhere be called ‘staff’.

Many of the particular ideas and practices of the Camphill communities are inspired by the thought and work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and spiritual teacher who died in 1925. Steiner spoke at length and in detail about matters of the spirit, and he emphasised the importance of recognising that every human being is made up of body, soul and spirit. He also proposed a Christian understanding of reincarnation. He gave practical courses for professionals in many fields: agriculture, medicine, architecture, education, social structuring and the arts. His experience as a tutor to a boy with a mental disability gave him a particular insight into special education.

All human experience and potential, including the spectrum of ability and disability, can be seen as the interplay between body, soul and spirit. Each and every human being is a unique mixture of these elements, different to every other, each with his or her own integrity and each worthy of being embraced by our human community. It is clear to us that what we know as ‘disability’ occurs only in the body and soul–in the life of the spirit we bear no earthly failings.

This holistic approach leads to many views and practices that are different to the conventional medical/educational methods. Perhaps the most characteristic expression of our approach is the celebration of the seasonal festivals. For all of the aspects of Christianity, and for all of the changes in the great circle of the year, there is a festival: a saint’s day, an event in the life of Christ, a moment in the life of our earth– that has a story, a theme, and a meaning. Of course, the greatest of these are Christmas and Easter, known to us all as the festivals of birth, the birth of the spirit, and of death and resurrection.

Christmastime in Camphill lasts almost six weeks– from the beginning of Advent until Epiphany! Advent celebrates the coming of light in the darkness. There is lots of singing and music, decorations, special biscuits, St Nicholas’s Day, large homemade Advent calendars in every house. Christmas is marked with a community pageant, more music and non-denominational religious observances, as well as gifts and feasting. The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany are taken as a time of calm and reflection until the Three Kings come and ceremoniously take away the tree, the decorations are packed away, and the New Year is ushered in.

And at Easter, the whole of Holy Week is celebrated. On Palm Sunday there is a procession, with cocks made of bread held high on crosses made of sticks and decorated with streamers and spring flowers (a Dutch tradition), around the bounds of the community’s land. On each day the events of that day in Holy Week are brought to mind in song or dance or storytelling; the way of trial and suffering. Holy Thursday is marked with Silent Supper. On Good Friday there is no music–sometimes there is a ceremonial seed-sowing and hot cross buns for supper. On Easter itself we are up early, waking the children with music, to try to see the sunrise and have a festive breakfast at the site of an ancient High Cross nearby.

And then on to Ascension Thursday, always a day for an outing, and Pentecost, celebrating the first experience of community in the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is an occasion for a great pageant and lots of fun–a multicultural drama and a feast on the lawn. St John’s Day at midsummer is the next occasion, with a play and a bonfire–festival of light on the longest day with the theme of John the Baptist, ‘Change your ways, prepare the way of the Lord!’

The next great day is the feast of St Michael the Archangel at the end of September. It is a time for a harvest festival but also for pageants celebrating courage, the struggle against the dragon, the need for inner resolve.

Then there are jack o’ lanterns at Hallowe’en, and even a bit of trick-or-treating, but we save a good bit of energy for St Martin’s Day on 11 November. St Martin, as a young knight, met a poor beggar who asked him for some protection against the cold. Martin cut his cloak in two to share it with the poor man, whom he later realised was Christ Himself- This we celebrate in French style with a lantern procession and lots of special songs. And then it is not long until Advent again.

In all these events and celebrations, we try to create images of the great experiences of the human soul–of birth and death, trial and suffering, strength and weakness, love and sacrifice, individuality and community, good and evil. It is an active celebration – everyone is welcome to play his or her part. And while we try to inspire an attitude of awe and wonder, we usually seem to end up with a lot of laughter and a wonderful meal!

This circle of celebration gives a rich sense of belonging to everyone, but it seems to be of particular benefit to people who are troubled with their own identity– people with autism, psychotic challenges, and the many burdens associated with childhood deprivation. Hopefully, in this range of soul experiences, every person can make up a picture for themselves and find their own place.

All this may seem very idealistic, and I assure you that life in Camphill communities is the same struggle with burdens and failures and frustrations as it is everywhere else! Every day we fail our values, fall into the trap of being a ‘service provider’ with financial restraints, short-sighted strategies and arrangements, shortages of  ‘experienced staff’, etc. But in our most important considerations we turn to our ideals, our faith in the spirit and the spirit in each of us, and we try again to live as ever-differing equals, with an attitude of mutual recognition, acceptance and support.


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