In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Luke 2:8-14 (New Revised Standard Version)
The numbers are complicated, but one 2008 poll revealed that 55% of Americans believe in guardian angels (that number includes 20% of all self-identified nonreligious people), and a 2007 Pew poll found that 68% of Americans believe “angels and demons are active in this world.” Crazy, right? I mean, not entirely shocking, exactly, but take a minute and just think about the clear majorities on this subject. I mean, people are nuts.
What’s even crazier is that we don’t possess anything remotely resembling an agreed-upon definition of what angels are. Historically, even venturing back into deep history, we never have. One commonly-depicted notion, that of angels as dead friends of ours (or something), possesses surprisingly little mythological background outside of American popular culture, with the exception of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Mormons actually believe that dead people and people who aren’t even alive yet can be angels sometimes. Then there’s the matter of Enoch in the Hebrew Scriptures. Enoch was an ancestor of Noah, and the book of Genesis cryptically informs us that he “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (5:24, NRSV). So far as we know, no one has ever known what that line was supposed to mean, and it’s never mentioned again outside the Apocrypha (where it’s mentioned quite a bit). One once-popular theory was that he went on to become Metatron, the only angel in the room with God who is allowed to sit–an exception made so that he can write everything down. It’s a pretty awesome name, even if no one has any idea what it means (in this regard, Enoch is a very consistent fellow).
The Bible, taken as a whole, could be described as being positively schizophrenic on the subject, which is undoubtedly due in part to translation issues and in part to its failure to ever clearly define these beings. We can establish a certain tenuous general agreement that there is a class of being in the Old and New Testaments that reside in the chain of existence somewhere below God and above mankind. Most often, they seem to appear in both Testaments as God’s messengers sent down to find someone and, well, tell them something that God wants them to know. This is consistent, actually, with the predominant view of angels in Islam. They do other stuff sometimes, though. In some texts, they are referred to as Watchers, who, like, watch everything for some reason. Some of the Watchers are actually evil, which I presume means they stand there and give everyone dirty looks, even though we can’t usually see them. For reasons unknown to me, they sometimes fight wars, sometimes against each other and sometimes against people we don’t like. As we see in the passage above, sometimes they sing songs to Bedouin and their sheep. Many interpret certain remarks of Jesus to indicate that they are entirely asexual, but many others interpret more cryptic lines of Genesis to mean that they have sex, and even children, with human females sometimes–but only the pretty ones. In fact, in another part of Genesis, a couple of them narrowly escape getting raped (I’m not kidding…ever hear of the city of Sodom?), and in still another part of that same book, one of them picks a fight with a guy named Jacob and cheats when Jacob seems to be winning the fight. That’s right, when angels fight, they don’t always fight fair. On the flip side, they were always extremely kind and comforting to Jesus during his darkest moments, which is really nice.
In the book of Job, Satan is an angel employed by God to be some kind of adversary and a huge jerk to people. Other simultaneous traditions depict Satan as the former Lucifer, an extremely pretty angel who led a rebellion and screwed up the whole world because he thought he could do a better job than God. The Islamic version of this story has a different twist in which the devil’s rebellion occurs because he refuses to bow down to mankind. By the time the New Testament rolls around, Satan is definitely freelancing and makes his living mainly by lying to everyone and trying to get them to do things that aren’t good.
The notion of guardian angels, especially the idea of angels individually assigned to each of us, despite being adopted by many Christians, actually has its roots in Zoroastrianism.
Finally, there are the angels in the books of Daniel and Revelation, who seriously do all kinds of things.
So, to review: a large majority of people believe in these beings and feel free to make up their own notions of who they are and what they do. No wonder we’re in trouble all the time.
And that’s where I have to stop myself. When I’m being honest, like right now, I have to admit that I’m in the majority that believes. This belief, for me, is no article of faith but is born of direct experience. Two direct experiences, in fact. Once, about five years ago, I was spoken to late at night by an angel walking down the street drinking beer from a pint glass. The other time, an angel passed close by and said “Excuse me.” Those of you who know me personally may have heard the full stories of these incidents before, but I’m not going to get into them here, because it would only distract from the point.
But that’s not all. There are certain songs–in fact, sometimes certain moments within songs–in which those other realms which some might call heavenly are opened up before me and I can both hear and see the whole of the heavenly host, if only for a few seconds. But I’m not going to tell you, at the moment, which songs I’m talking about because then you’ll go off immediately to listen to them, and come away disappointed when you don’t have the same experience as me. It’s not because I’m a wizard, it’s because those are my songs, my gateways. You’ll have to find your own, and I can’t really point you to them. But this kind of specificity, too, is not really the point.
What is the point of all of this rambling, you may ask? One of the absolute most important messages which I am here as a wizard to convey is simply this: There are many notions and beliefs which we possess collectively as humans which are crucially significant even if they are not true in any conventional sense. These are ideas and stories which travel along with us, which pop up again and again and again, and it’s not because we haven’t yet successfully “advanced” out of superstition. It’s because they stand for something. They represent something that is real, intangible, and inexplicable. Something that exists within us because it also exists outside of us. For there’s nothing contained within ourselves that cannot be found without.
Take a twenty-minute walk outside this week. It’s kinda dark and gray out there, even when the sun is shining, and it may well be wet and mushy when the sun is not. Most importantly, however, aside from the noises of our own civilization, it’s very quiet out there. A few birds are still hanging around, not least of which are my friends the crows, and these remaining birds are well worth speaking with at your leisure. You might run across a mole or a mink or a rabid chipmunk, but most of the furry creatures have departed from our sight, gone to lay low for a while. It is quiet and it is still, and we would all do well to use this to our advantage.
There is a great deal to be said for the obviousness of the unity of life and nature during its bursting forth during the months of spring. There is similarly much to be said of the awe we feel before life’s power and glory in summer, and for the somber contemplation to which we are often forced in autumn. I cannot and will not discount any of the four seasons. But there are times in which the quiet and stillness of winter’s dawn, when the sun approaches its nadir, are exactly what we need in order to perceive the bustling hive, the endless comings and goings and messages and missions, that exists just beyond the veil of our ordinary consciousness.
This, too, is a somewhat universal notion to we humans–that there is a great deal, an entire world or many worlds, that we cannot normally see. There are many measures which people take in order to catch glimpses. Some, as I alluded to earlier, use music, for music is a powerful tool. More generally, sound itself as a common medium, inclusive also of repetitive noise like drumming and rattling and chanting. Some use dance and other forms of ritual. Some fast. Some use psychedelic drugs (which works if you are doing it right). Sometimes we don’t do anything at all, and we just stumble into it.
I don’t actually believe there are spirit-people who sing and watch and wrestle and fight wars and blow trumpets and start rebellions and deliver telegrams. When I speak of angels, I speak of actions and entities that exist in these realms beyond our perceptions just as solidly as we exist in ours. And why on Marduk’s green Earth, many will ask, if such things are so real and so important, do we find ourselves so incapable of measuring them or capturing them or otherwise experiencing them directly? I don’t pretend to know for sure. When I was younger, I adopted a primarily biological theory, one put forth by the clown-guru Timothy Leary, among others–that the actual purpose of the brain as an organ is to filter more information than it actual provides us. This makes sense from a traditional evolutionary perspective, for if we are constantly distracted by the events of realms outside of what we need to sustain our bodies and reproduce, how can we remember to eat food and not let predators kill us? I may have been right, of course, but in recent years I have come to believe something entirely different. I have come to subscribe to the idea that we can and we have and we can again experience an infinitely more vast and broad reality, it’s just that we don’t know how to do it during the current age. We lost the ability long ago, and will gain it again in another age. Something to look forward to, even if we’ll never live to see it.
But right now, while it’s still out there, and quiet, it can’t hurt to give it a try. Maybe if you listen the right way or squint your eyes toward the right direction or just stop and be still and regulate your breathing and sense in a different way–maybe you’ll catch a glimpse.
No matter what, today is the second day of our 21-day celebration of the mid-winter High Holy Days, and, at the very least, look around you today, above you and about the room and even inside your computer, and think, “There’s just all kinds of shit going on,” and you can smile about that.