From The Angelic Way
At the heart of this book is the intuition that we are part of God, and the notion that myths regarding angels are designed to remind us of that. The stories of angels descending to Earth and taking on human form, the stories of humans ascending to Heaven and becoming angels, the stories of humans ascending to Heaven to see God, and the stories of humans ascending to Heaven and then returning to Earth to guide humanity are all pointing to a single truth: humanity and God belong to a singular reality, and each has the capacity to reach the other.
In other words, the relationship between humanity and God is analogous to that between the positive and negative poles of a magnet. A magnet cannot be a magnet without both poles, and neither pole can exist without its opposite. Yet it is the nature of the human mind, trapped as it is in the illusion of achad, the alienation from the whole, to imagine itself separate from God. This imagined division is the cause of much suffering on our part: feeling alienated from the whole we seek to become whole in and of ourselves, like a wave pretending to be the ocean or a leaf pretending to be the tree. While we can easily see the absurdity of this when speaking of waves and leaves, it is much more difficult for us to see the absurdity of the very same kind of thinking when it comes to ourselves.
And yet we cannot shake off our deep sense that the state of achad is not real, that there is more to us than our ego-centered mind lets on. The ego-centered mind cannot shut off or dismiss the insights of the world-centered soul and God-centered spirit. These larger Wholes, Wholes that embrace the ego in a greater nondual reality, continually break into our ego-centered world, and one way in which they do so is as angels.
Thus we understand angels as metaphors for the human capacity to both transcend and include ego-centered mind in more holistic levels of consciousness that ultimately realize the divinity that is the fully human. We are to realize our true nature as part of God, the singularity that is all reality.
The Greeks called this process of divinization apotheosis (from Greek “to deify”). According to Joseph Campbell, apotheosis is one of the stages of the Hero’s Journey – the monomyth that underlies almost all mythic tales across times and cultures. Campbell described seventeen steps or states in this monomyth, and while most myths do not contain all seventeen, the three major divisions into which the seventeen stages fall do seem to be universal. They are “Departure,” “Initiation,” and “Return.”
Departure calls the hero to a quest that takes him or her away from the known; Initiation happens when the hero passes a number of tests or trials and is rewarded with some new insight or level of self-awareness that has practical application; and Return refers to the conclusion of the myth when the hero returns to the ordinary world and uses the new insight or skill to improve the world. Apotheosis occurs during the Initiation stage where the hero’s very idea of reality is changed, and he or she can now engage the world in a new way. The apotheosis often entails an expansion of consciousness that shatters the more narrow view of the ego-centered mind. Along with this new consciousness comes a sense of self-sacrifice: the hero is willing to sacrifice the self for the greater good.
As Joseph Campbell once said, Myths do not belong, properly, to the rational mind. Rather, they bubble up from deep in the wells of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. Or to use our own wording: myths do not belong, properly, to the ego-centered mind. Rather they break into that mind from the larger, more inclusive fields of consciousness we call world-centered soul and God-centered spirit. Our myths about angels reflect insights of which our ego-centered minds are largely unaware.
To speak of myth in this way we need to recall that while the word, “myth,” is today often and erroneously linked to the words, “false,” and, “lie,” the original and truer meaning of the word is still viable. Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind to what can be known but not told. So this is the penultimate truth. (Joseph Campbell)
The truth toward which the myths of angels point is the truth of the absolute unity of all reality in, with, and as God. Actively engaging with myths of angels tilts our thinking and opens our minds to more holistic ways of knowing and living in the world. In Campbell’s words, It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and your own mystery. This gives life a new radiance, a new harmony, a new splendor. Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty, “yes,” to your adventure – the adventure of the hero – the adventure of being alive.
Angels, or more accurately our myths of angels, call us to the adventure of life, the hero’s journey from bounded ego-centered consciousness to unbounded divine consciousness. Angels are our mythic guides to this greater reality. They point toward a truth greater than themselves and show us how to realize that truth in and as our truest selves. In some of the myths the hero becomes the angel and returns to guide us to the place he or she has been to. In others, the angel speaks to the hero as “other” and yet is internal – what Rabbi Joseph Karo, the great master of Jewish jurisprudence who said he was visited by an angel he called the Maggid (the Proclaimer), called an “echo” of our deepest thoughts.
According to Karo, the Maggid visited him regularly for fifty-two years. A journal of his encounters with the Maggid was published some time after Karo’s death under the title, Maggid Mesharim (“One Who Proclaims What Is True”), a phrase borrowed from Isaiah: I didn’t whisper secrets in a land of shadow; I didn’t say to Jacob’s descendants, “Look for me in bedlam.” I, YHVH, speak what is just, I proclaim what is true [maggid mesharim]. (Isaiah 45:19)
In his journal Karo wrote, Said the Maggid to Karo: “I am only the echo of your thoughts.” The Maggid reveals to Karo, and through his journal to us, the true nature of angels – echos of our own thoughts. Not the thoughts generated by the achad-plagued ego-centered mind, but thoughts liberated from illusion and reflective of the greater wholeness to which each of us belongs.
This understanding of angels as an echo of our own thoughts is key to the premise of this book. Angels are inner realities, inner capacities of human consciousness accessible to us when we transcend the ego-centered limits of self and attune to the larger truth of reality found in the divine realms.
Over the course of five decades the Maggid revealed many secrets to Joseph Karo, secrets that he dutifully recorded in his journal. I came to reveal to you the mystery of mysteries, the secret of secrets, the Maggid tells Karo. What I am going to tell you now will make the bones rattle and the knees tremble in fear, terror, and awe. Why? Because they reveal dimensions of reality that the ego-centered mind cannot fathom, and may well fear.
All angels reveal secrets, even the fallen ones. Satan calls us to face our dark side, and does so with all the skill he can muster. Where would be the heroic in our journey if the dark side was portrayed as not alluring? It takes little courage to say, “no,” to the undesirable. So Satan makes the dark side seem appealing, and does his best to entice us to it. That is his task – to make our choosing between good and evil real and courageous.
The question is whether or not we are willing to say, “yes,” to the angels, “yes,” to our own transformation, and, “yes,” to the hero’s journey that might cost us all we know and yet promises us so much more.
Here, in The Angelic Way, we want to assume that we are willing to say, “yes,” – if not this moment, then the next; if not today, then perhaps tomorrow. And with this assumption we will explore how we can evoke our angelic potential and open us to the greater wholeness of which we are a part.
To evoke something is to call it into our consciousness from within. Angels do not dwell outside of us, but inside of us. They are, as Joseph Karo’s angel revealed, echoes of our own higher mind, aspects of ourselves that our ego-centered mind cannot grasp due to its state of achad.
But to evoke the angelic we have to engage the ego. We cannot “slay the ego” and discover the angelic, for who would be doing the slaying? “We” are for the most part ego-centered minds, and there is no need to deny, decry, or defeat that truth. Like Karo we must engage in ego-centered activities that will draw out the angels rather than drown out the ego.
Joseph Karo’s method was a type of lectio divina, a contemplative reading of the Mishnah, the early law code of the ancient rabbis – not as a fixed text to be memorized but as a fluid field in which to let the imagination play with possibility. At the heart of angelic encounters is this willingness to let the imagination play. By actively and imaginatively entering into the classic myths of angels we can evoke the angelic mind and receive our own revelation.
What we are suggesting is to use our imagination to engage our angelic faculty by reading and listening to the myths of angels, ascending humans, and human and angelic messengers in a specific way, a way rooted in the spiritual practice of lectio divina.
Lectio divina, Latin for “divine reading” or “holy reading,” is a traditional Christian prayer practice nurtured in Benedictine monasteries and designed to act as a catalyst for communion with God. Lectio divina can be found in the monastic rules of Pachomius, Basil, Augustine, and Benedict, though the formal structuring of the practice into four steps or stages dates back to the Carthusian monk Guigo II in his book, The Monk’s Ladder, dating to around 1150.
While we will adapt lectio divina to our own needs, it may help to understand the process as it was originally articulated. Lectio divina is usually an hour-long discipline, though some people divide the practice into two half-hour periods, one in the morning, the other at night.
Lectio divina should be done in a peaceful setting. The reading one wishes to use should be chosen in advance. Prior to reading one should take a few minutes to quiet body and mind. Once feeling centered one should begin the four stages of lectio divina. The first stage is lectio, reading the chosen passage slowly and with full attention several times through. The second stage is meditatio, thinking over the meaning and implication of words or sentences. The third stage is oratio, entering into an inner dialogue with God around the passage just read. The fourth stage is contemplatio, a silent resting in the presence of God.
To pursue our angelic lectio divina, we first need to set aside a specific place and time to engage in spiritual reading. The place should be quiet and free from distractions, and the time should be one when we are least apt to be intruded upon either in person or electronically.
Second, we need to choose a myth about angels with which we wish to engage. There is nothing magical about this choice; one myth is not better than another. Rather, we should choose a passage that speaks to us personally. If we find ourselves drawn to the tales of the archangels, let us choose one of the passages relating to them. If Hindu or Buddhist myths move us, we can choose from among them. But there is no need to be interreligious in one’s choice. While over time we may choose to draw from myths that are presently outside of our comfort zone or area of interest, we are most likely to have success with this spiritual reading if we choose a passage that we find intrinsically moving or intriguing. In a sense we should let the myth choose us, rather than our choosing the myth.
Third, as we begin to settle into our reading, we need to make time to quiet our body and mind. Our body should be comfortable, our breathing soft, even, and slow – but we don’t want to fall asleep. We rest our attention on our breath, focus lightly on our inhalation and exhalation. We shouldn’t seek to control our breathing, just watch it. Over time we will fall into a natural rhythm, and we will be ready to proceed.
First we read the selected passage aloud slowly. Reading aloud slows the reading down and with it our breath. There is no rush. At first we may wish to exaggerate the reading a bit, pausing between clauses.
In the following example of a possible reading, the Prophet Elijah has fled from his enemies into the desert, and is full of despair. He lies down under a tree, deeply exhausted, and falls asleep. Twice an angel appears to him with food and water, and thus strengthened, Elijah moves on and walks for many days until he reaches Mount Horeb and settles in a cave there for the night. Then God speaks to Elijah:
“Leave [the cave] and position yourself on the mountain before YHVH, who is passing by.” Suddenly a terrible wind tore through the mountains crushing boulders to pieces before YHVH, but YHVH was not in the wind; as the wind grew still and the Earth quakes, but YHVH was not in the earthquake; and following the earthquake a fire blazed, but YHVH was not in the fire; and after the fire cooled – a voice of fragile silence. When Elijah heard it, he buried his face in his cloak and went out to stand by the mouth of the cave where a voice spoke to him asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
The “terrible wind” is the rush of thoughts racing through our mind. We will let them pass and focus on the reading, because the angel that will lead us from ego-centered mind toward God-centered spirit cannot be found in the intellectual rush of ideas. The “earthquake” is the unleashing of emotions that often accompanies the settling of body and mind. These feelings can be captivating for the ego-centered mind, but they are a distraction. We need to stay focused on our reading and let the feelings pass of their own accord. The “fire” is the sense of energy that comes with the initial breakthrough of ego-centered mind into world-centered soul. This is the imagination lifting the ego out of its isolating box and into the larger reality. But this is not the end of the imaginative unfolding, only its prelude. After the fire, when body, mind, and emotions are still, we hear the “voice of fragile silence.”
This voice, famously but incorrectly translated as the “still small voice” of God in the King James Bible, is “silent” in that it transcends words. The creative reading of our passage, our chosen angel myth, leads to silence. But this silence is not empty of meaning, for out of it comes the fundamental question of the angelic way, What are you doing here?
Here is another example of a possible reading, Hagar’s first encounter with an angel recounted in Genesis. Rather than read it swiftly, we break up the passage into breathed clauses:
The angel of YHVH found her by an oasis in the wilderness,
the watering place on the road to Shur.
And he said to her,
“Hagar, servant of Sarai,
where have you come from and where are you going?”
“I am fleeing Sarai, my mistress.”
The angel of YHVH continued speaking, saying,
“Return to your mistress, and surrender to her.”
Again the angel of YHVH spoke to her saying,
“I will increase your descendants so greatly
that they will be too numerable to count.”
And the angel of YHVH said to her,
“You are pregnant and shall give birth to a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for YHVH has taken note of your suffering.”
Read in this slow and distinct way the passage is more apt to yield something of interest to us. Perhaps it is the question, Where have you come from and where are you going? that grabs us. Or perhaps the command to return and surrender speaks to our situation at the moment. Different passages will “choose us,” meaning they will especially resonate with us depending on what is going on in our life at the time of the reading.
Once the passage has chosen us, it will come to greater and greater levels of clarity as we continue with the lectio divina practice. Where have you come from? could be a great existential question, or it might strike us as more prosaic. We might answer, I come from God, or, I come from the universe, or, I am stardust become conscious. Or we might hear ourselves responding, I have just come from a very stressful meeting at work, and I am worried that I am in danger of losing my job.
Following this last line and focusing on such a major concern, the second part of the question, Where are you going? may be very challenging. It may be that the thought of “trying to hold on” makes us more uncomfortable than the thought of “trying to let go.” It may be that our answer to, Where are you going? is an honest, I have no idea where I am going!
The point is not to come up with some formal answer to the question – indeed in many cases the passage that chooses us is not a question at all – but simply to allow ourselves to feel connected to the passage. We need to take the text personally. And when we do so we enter into the second stage of lectio divina, meditatio.
Meditatio, meditation, is not the kind of meditative practice normally associated with Hinduism or Buddhism. In these traditions the aim of meditation is to release one’s thoughts, but in meditatio as we are applying it here, the goal is to engage in imaginative thought.
As we enter into the deeper layers of the passage and myth we have chosen, we try to place ourselves imaginatively in it. We imagine ourselves like Elijah in the desert, or like Mary encountering an angel, or our meeting Amida Buddha, or any of the other angelic beings or ascended humans we have read about, as well as the many others we have not.
We read the text again, and this time we let our imagination run loose. For example, we may imagine that we, rather than Hagar, are the protagonist in this story. We ask ourselves, What am I running away from? or, What is the wilderness I am running into?
Now we are no longer just reading, but actively imagining. We should close our eyes after rereading the text and imagine the scene as vividly as we can. Let us not try and match the Biblical landscape, but allow our own scene to arise. Hagar is in the desert, but we may find ourselves by an ocean or in a forest or on an empty street. What is the scene that we imagine? What does it mean to us? What does the angel with whom we are in contact look like and sound like?
We should not manage this stage of meditatio as if we were directing a play, but simply allow it to manifest as it will. We are an observer, but not a passive one. Perhaps the best notion of our role is that of a participant-observer: we are engaged in the myth unfolding yet we watch it unfold at the same time. Can we allow ourselves to be surprised by what we find, what we hear, and what we say? The story should unfold on its own.
This will take some practice. It may be difficult for the ego-centered mind to let go of control in this way. But the rewards are worth it. We are reaching beyond passive intellect to active intellect, intuition, and imagination. As mentioned, Aristotle understood passive intellect as the known, and active intellect as engaging with the as yet unknown. If we find ourselves responding to the unfolding myth with, Ah, I knew it! we may very well not be engaging in imaginative thought at all, but only projecting the ego-centered mind’s passive knowledge onto the text passage, making the discovery of something new next to impossible.
Meditatio should be surprising, perhaps at times challenging. It should shatter the achad of the ego, the sense of alienation and isolation that feeds both the ego-centered mind’s illusion of itself as the whole and the suffering that accompanies this illusion. If we are quite comfortable with what we experience, chances are we are not yet practicing the lectio divina of the angelic way.
Returning to Hagar, or rather to us in Hagar’s situation, the question the angel poses, Where have you come from and where are you going? is clearly addressed to us and us alone. And given our practical example that we might be coming from a business meeting that seems to threaten our job, the question, Where are you going? takes on special importance.
We may not know where we are going. Fine. Let us allow the angel to inquire differently, Where do you want to go? or, Where might you go if you do lose your job? The angel should be free to do so. Of course this is our myth, our imagination, but let us not write out a script for the encounter in advance. It needs to happen freely.
As we move through the meditatio stage of lectio there will be moments when we might be moved deeply or rocked by surprise. We should do our best to remain still and observe these moments, looking more deeply into them rather than being distracted by them. In this way we are imitating the prophet Elijah who waited through the distractions of wind, earthquake, and fire to hear the astonishingly fresh voice of God that arises out of the silence of the full self (mind, soul, and spirit) in meditatio. And when these moments happen we move on to stage three, oratio.
Oratio, prayer, moves the lectio divina, even deeper. We have found ourselves addressed by an angel or holy messenger. A question has been asked or a sign has been posted. We have been pointed in a certain direction of inquiry. Now the drama ceases, the myth is set aside, and we focus on the question or way-pointing alone. As with Elijah in the desert, all that remains now is the question, What am I doing here? This question now becomes our prayer, our mantra. Nothing else matters but this, What am I doing here?
If we were to use the Hagar text the question might be, Where am I going? or it may have morphed into, Where should I be going? or, Where do I want to go? or more simply, Where is the way to my happiness or bliss?
Whether it is a question or a sign, image, or something even more abstract, something will have arisen in the meditatio stage of lectio divina that will dominate our thinking and become the focus of oratio.
We know we are engaged fully in oratio when the question or sign just won’t let go of us. It is what we need to know at this moment more than we need to know anything else. It is what the angel or other messenger from God wants to tell us. But before the angel can reveal the meaning of this sign or the answer to this question, we must become the sign or the question. No other thoughts can distract us. The myth is set aside, or more accurately it is simply forgotten. The reading is over. So strong has our imagination made our encounter with the angelic that we have almost forgotten that this is lectio divina. It feels deeply personal, and the question or sign is burning inside us.
Oratio is not a time for polite prayer, like, O God, if it be thy will, please bestow upon your humble servant insight…. We are wrestling with the question or sign in this stage of prayer with a real urgency, with a deep desire to reveal what is encapsulated in the prayer.
Perhaps this is where our angelic lectio divina differs from formal lectio divina. It may well be that the time we have set aside for this practice is over and we are still in the grips of oratio. Or it may be that we need more time to enter this third stage of the practice, but other obligations demand that we move on. The wonderful thing about our lectio divina is that it moves on with us.
Once the seed of the myth is planted, that is to say once we have actively imagined ourselves into a story, the story will accompany us as we go about the demands of our everyday life. The “prayer” that has emerged from the myth will rest in the back of our mind, pushing against the limits of ego-centered mind until, whether we are expecting it or not, new insight arises. Our practice sets the process in motion, and doing this regularly deepens our ability to move into oratio and be taken over by the prayer. It also depends our capacity, without willful action on our part, to slip from stage three to stage four, from oratio to contemplatio, where we will hear and ponder the angelic message.
In the final stage of lectio divina, contemplatio, or contemplation, our prayer yields some new insight or wisdom. And for it to do so we must learn to listen.
Listening is among the most intimate acts of love. Listening means being fully receptive to the other, whether that other is a person, an angel, or God. But the listening of contemplatio is not a willed action; it is a gift of grace. We cannot force ourselves to listen, we can only cease any active resistance to listening.
The truth is, however, that when the prayer has us fully enriched there is no need to worry about listening; it comes naturally from the intensity of the prayer. Our inquiry into why we are here (to take Elijah’s story), or where we have come from and where we may be going (to draw from Hagar’s story), or whatever it is the myth has birthed in us, is so powerful, so deep, so transforming that we cannot slip into an ego-centered response without a jarring sense of inauthenticity. We can no longer mistake the shrill voice of ego for the silent voice of God.
What arises in this stage of contemplatio is true because whatever it is, it does not serve the illusion of alienation, but the healing of belonging. Whatever we hear in response to our prayer is true if it is in service to life lived in the greater, more inclusive levels of consciousness – I-Thou and I-I.
We cannot know in advance what we will be offered in contemplatio, nor should we think it will be the same every time we engage in lectio divina. In fact we can be certain that if the revelation is always the same, it is either because we intentionally continue to listen to it, or because we are interfering with the process and simply hearing what the ego-centered mind wants to hear.
During the formal lectio practice when we are sitting alone, contemplatio is just that – sitting. Even the active imagination falls silent here. Nothing is left: the myth, the active engagement in the myth, the questions and signs – all are gone. We are simply alone with the silence, and when grace allows, with God’s voice that is at the heart of silence.
Practicing Lectio Divina With Others
Originally lectio divina was designed for individual practice, but over time a practice for groups has developed, and we would be remiss if we didn’t touch on this as well. While group practice is not a substitute for solitary practice, it may be an aid to it.
If we choose to explore lectio divina in a group setting, we should keep the group small, no more than eight to ten people. Someone from within the group takes on the role of facilitator, choosing the myth to be read and reading it aloud slowly twice, with a few minutes of silence separating each reading so that the words and images can sink into the imagination of the listeners. The first reading simply gets the group familiar with the passage, the myth; the second reading allows them to step into it. This is the first stage of the practice, lectio.
The facilitator then passes the text to another person (of the opposite sex if the group is mixed), who then reads the text slowly a third time. Having a different voice now frees the mind from stereotypes. With this third reading the second stage, meditatio, begins, and members are encouraged to actively and imaginatively place themselves in the myth, either alongside the myth’s protagonist or in place of the protagonist. Silence again follows the reading, this time ten minutes, time enough to allow the active imagination to begin to engage with the myth and make it one’s own.
It is in this silence that the question or sign emerges. Our imaginations begin to blend the myth with our current life situation. The myth unfolds in ways that leave the fixed reading behind.
A fourth reading of the text, again by the second reader, signals the shift from meditatio to oratio, from engaging with the myth to praying the myth. Again the reading is followed by ten minutes of silence in which the sign or question takes hold.
After those ten minutes a bell is sounded, signaling the final stage, contemplatio. Now we simply sit in silence and listen. Our minds are, to the best of our ability, free from myth, story, signs, and questions. The seeds have been planted and now we await the sprouts of insight. Contemplatio should last for ten minutes at the very least. Nothing may happen during this formal listening period, but we can expect a harvest in time, often at the least expected place or moment.
Three peals of the bell signal the end of contemplatio. The facilitator then invites participants to share their experiences, reminding all assembled to honor both the practice and their fellow participants by abstaining from cross talk, commentary, advice giving. The goal here is simply to share what one has heard with the others in the group.
When the time is up, or when no more words are forthcoming, the facilitator should thank the group for assembling and sharing, and remind everyone that our respect for one another and this process requires that we do not repeat what we have heard from others in the group to anybody outside the group.