A Comedy of the Spirit
Out of Print
Spirituality & Practice Book Awards: One of the Best Spiritual Books of 1998
When the archangel Gabriel appears to a narrator who has written a bestselling book called Against Angels, our whole view of the world is turned on its head. What is the nature of bliss? What games do angels play? What is angelic sex like? Gabriel gives an intensely erotic and moving demonstration of this, leaving us, as he leaves the narrator, breathless. Later, he takes us on a guided tour of the heavens and introduces us to, among other spirits, William Blake. The three chapters of dialogues between Gabriel and the narrator — surprising, poetic, instructive, funny, and improbably real — may be as fascinating to those who can’t stand angels as to those who are enchanted with them.
Meetings with the Archangel is primarily about humans, not angels. Its central section is the story of the narrator’s spiritual training, which culminates in his experience of enlightenment. It is an ambitious, searching, and sometimes hilarious story of his effort to get at the heart of our lives and the questions of how we should live, what truth is, what love is, and how we can respond to evil. There are many meetings along the way: with Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza and Rilke and the imagined medieval theologian Benjamin ibn Ezra, with a community of broccoli-smoking Hasidim, with the narrator’s fiercely demanding Jewish Zen Master, with the Book of Job and the Virgin Mary and the mind of Hitler and the heaven of the fundamentalists and the too-exuberant angel Shiriel and Martin Buber and Buber’s cat.
“Angels can fly,” Chesterton said, “because they take themselves lightly.” Meetings with the Archangel traces its lineage back to the wild, reverent irreverence of Chuang-tzu and the Zen Masters, to the Biblical improvisations of the Midrash, the dialogues of Plato, and the bogus scholarship of Borges. It meets the reader beyond the realms of fiction and nonfiction, at the crossroads of profundity and humor.
He was standing near the little olive tree in front of my writing studio—wings, white robe, halo, everything, as if he had just stepped out of a Renaissance painting. The wings were huge: a dozen feet across. He fluttered them twice, then folded them carefully behind his back, like someone tucking a handkerchief into his breast pocket.
My first reaction was a shiver that began at the back of my neck and rippled down my spine. My second reaction was a silent “Oh shit!”
You may have heard of my book Against Angels, which stirred up a good deal of controversy a few years ago. (It was praised by all the wrong people, condemned by the Catholic Church, and, to my mild surprise, climbed up and down the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks.) I’ll tell you about it later, by way of explanation, and about myself as well, and how I arrived at being visited by the archangel Gabriel. For even before I saw the lily in his hand, I knew it was him.
I was disappointed, as you’ll understand when you get to “The Six Angel Pictures” — disappointed not in myself, but in the level of my spiritual maturity. I had thought I was further along. To discover now, after twenty-two years of Zen training, that I was still susceptible to otherworldly visions… Ah, well. On the other hand, the event certainly had its fascination. And even in these first moments of our acquaintance, as he waited there politely, bathed in the sunlight of a northern California spring day, the upper edges of his wings overlapped by the silver-green leaves of the olive tree, I realized that there had been some excessive quality in my book, some attachment to a view of reality that excluded the muse of the archetypal, or at least banished her to an ash-strewn corner beside the kitchen fire.
“Fear not, Stephen,” said the archangel, “for thy prayer hath been answered.” He wore a robe of heavy, cream-colored satin. His face was girlish and white; it had the look not of human skin but of a flower petal; was, in fact, the same white as the lily in his hand, which seemed to be illumined from inside, as if there were a tiny light-source in its throat. Above his blond head floated a stiff circle of gold the size of a dinner plate.
I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. The Renaissance trappings, the King James language: it was all a bit much. Besides, what prayer could he possibly be referring to?
As if he were aware of my thoughts, he tilted his head and looked at me for a moment, quizzically, birdlike. I heard a long, musical “Oh” — not an external sound, but an “Oh” that resonated inside my mind like an arpeggio played on a harpsichord. Then he was gone, and in his place near the olive tree stood a seven-foot-tall ellipse of light.
“Does this suit you any better?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“In me,” said the light, “as the miracle of understanding is effortlessly achieved, each single truth that I discern shines in the radiance of all truths, like jewels in the crown of unitive knowledge. I am the intelligence that ceaselessly consumes every created thing, without being affected or changed by anything in return. Throughout the universe of my marvelously pure spiritual substance, all truths exist equally distant from one another and from myself, in such perfection of their harmony and correlations that even if I were to cease existing, the system of their simultaneous necessity, glittering like a diadem, would endure by itself, in all its sublime plenitude.”
This also, I realized, was a bit much: too condensed, too exhausting, too (let’s be frank) intelligent. And though I had felt a certain pleasure in listening, it was the kind of pleasure a dog might feel as his master spoke incomprehensibly endearing sounds to him.
Again an “Oh” like a harpsichord arpeggio; the ellipse vanished; standing before me was a young man in his early thirties.
“Sorry,” he said. “I usually get it right the first time.” He looked at me sheepishly, with such a warm smile that I had to smile myself.
“Let’s start over,” he said, extending his right hand. “I’m Gabriel.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Pleased to meet you.” His handshake was firm but fluid. I could feel a current of energy in his palm.
As I gazed at him, what struck me first was not his beauty but his nakedness. I work out four times a week at the gym and am quite used to being among naked men. But to be fully clothed and greet a naked visitor was something new. Briefly I considered taking off my own clothes so that he would feel more comfortable. But then it occurred to me that his present form was an effort to make me comfortable, and that the courteous response would be to do nothing.
He had chosen a beautiful, vaguely familiar body, about five foot ten, solid but graceful, with the long, firm muscles of a dancer. His face too was dazzlingly beautiful, masculine but not rugged — black hair, sensuous lips, high cheekbones, large finely-sculpted nose. It seemed Mediterranean and could have been an Israeli’s, though the most compelling feature was the huge pale-blue animal eyes; I had seen eyes like that, not nearly so alive, on a friend’s husky. I glanced at his penis. It was uncircumcised.
“May I offer you a chair?” I said. “Something to eat?”
“I’d love to sit down. And yes, I am rather hungry. I forgot what it’s like to have a body.”
I brought over two patio chairs from the deck, and a small glass-topped table, and returned in five minutes with a loaf of multigrain bread, fresh that morning from our town bakery, a half-eaten pasta salad my wife had made the day before, some baked tofu, a barbecued chicken breast, a bottle of a local Chardonnay and one of port, and a bowl of apples, bananas, and grapes. My ancestor Abraham, I remembered, had served an entire calf to his angelic visitors, but there was no word for cholesterol in ancient Hebrew.
“If there’s anything else you want…” I said.
“No, this is perfect.”
I cut him a thick slice of bread and poured a glass of the Chardonnay. Then I sat down and watched him as he ate. He chewed very slowly.
When he had finished, he said, “Thanks, that was delicious. Eating is a kind of pleasure we don’t have in heaven. This drama of need and satisfaction that repeats itself…how many times a day? What frail, marvelous creatures bodies are! Fearfully and wonderfully made.”
How long was it since he’d last had a body? I thought this to myself, or maybe I said it aloud, because he answered, “A minute? A century? It’s hard to keep track. My memory works for certain earthly events, but it doesn’t have a sorting system. In heaven, there’s no such thing as a where or a when. Entering space and time is, for us, like traveling to a very foreign country. All the rules are different.”
I should remark that up to this point it took a considerable effort for me to keep up my end of the conversation. Actually, it was hard even to concentrate on what he was saying. I kept finding myself absorbed into the beauty of his face and into the extraordinarily enchanting musicality of his voice, rich and woody, as if a cello could talk. I would listen for a few moments, then get lost in it, then come back, then get lost again. Sometimes, to keep myself focused, I had to look off into my neighbor’s field, with its grapevines and four cows grazing, or to the easy, oak-tufted hills in the distance. But eventually I was able to pay attention. Not that the dazzlement had grown any less, but my eyes and ears had gotten used to it, as in the minutes after you leave a movie matinee and step into the blaze of the midday sun.
“May I ask you another question?” I said.
“Please. Ask whatever you want.”
“It’s just that I’m wondering why you were sent. What message did you bring me?”
“No, no, it doesn’t happen like that. We aren’t sent; there are no messages. We simply appear in the mirror of someone’s consciousness. Or, more accurately, we are the mirror. Later on, when they tell their story of the encounter, there is always a message that they find. Sometimes it’s even more or less true.”
“Then why did you come?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I have a sense of it. But I want to know your reason.”
“Let’s say that I was drawn by a kind of spiritual gravity.”
I paused to take this in, but couldn’t quite grasp it.
“It’s not complicated,” he said. “Haven’t you ever been in a crowd, and suddenly you feel you have to turn around to look, and you see someone already looking at you? It was like that: a magnetic pull that came to me in the midst of my games. Perhaps I was drawn by the brick path to your studio that winds between the olive and the apple tree. Or by the intensity of your marriage vows, or the way you hold your pen as you stare into the blank page of your notebook. Or by the unmingled flavor of your grief.”
“So you didn’t come to tell me anything in particular?”
“I have a lot to tell you. But I didn’t come to tell you a thing.”
“I’d like to tell you about heaven. I’d like to show you.”
“Read your book again after I leave. You’ll see.”
Against Angels, you should know, is not against angels per se. But it does take a stand against the sillier inanities of the current angel craze. I wrote it in a fit of exasperation at the sentimentality of the angel-watchers, good people though they might be, and my sense of spiritual priorities made me highly critical of the whole shebang. Of course, many reviewers attacked the book for undermining religion, for trying to destroy the innocent faith in the hearts of American children, and so on. One pious fellow called me “the Arch-Grinch.” Another entitled his article NO, VIRGINIA.
I poured two glasses of the port and picked mine up. “I hope you and the others didn’t take my criticism personally.”
“We enjoyed it, my dear. We came to bathe in your anger like birds in a puddle of rainwater.”
“Well, I’m glad. I didn’t mean to offend you. Though you’re probably not offendable.”
He picked up his glass of port, said “L’hayyim,” and took a sip. “What’s the title of your next book?”
“I guess it’ll have to be In Praise of Angels.”
“Oh, there’s no need to apologize, you know. Nothing public. This visit is just for you.”
“Or I could call it The Unnecessary Angel,” I said, amused at the possibilities. “But tell me about heaven. What do you do? How do you spend the time — I mean the non-time?”
“What do you think we do?”
“I haven’t got the foggiest idea. The way people talk about it, heaven is a long — a very long — Sunday service. And you angels are the church choir, singing hymns for ever and ever. And ever.”
“Not a happy prospect.”
“There’s an anecdote — is it Bertrand Russell’s? — about an Englishwoman who’s asked where she thinks her dead husband is. ‘Oh,’ she sighs, ‘I suppose he is enjoying eternal bliss. But let’s not talk about such depressing things.’”
“Bliss,” Gabriel said. “Do you know what it is?”
“Supreme joy. At least, that’s what the word means. I’ve had my share of joy. But prolonged, unadulterated joy? Joy comes and goes. I keep my door unlocked.”
“Well, I won’t show you the feeling. Human bodies can’t bear the intensity of it. But imagine the happiness of an ideal king, young and handsome, wise, rich beyond all desire, physically vibrant, honorable in every way, beloved by his people, adored by his many wives.”
“Wait a minute.” I closed my eyes and visualized the scene. Nice. Solomon in all his glory. The phrase reminded me of the lilies of the field. A field of lilies superimposed itself onto my mental screen. I made a small adjustment, and there was Solomon again, lounging on a waterbed in his harem. One gorgeous, bare-breasted wife was massaging his shoulders. Another was licking his left thigh. Another was defeating him at chess with a Nimzo-Indian defense. Another was explaining the fine points of a public health bill he was about to sign.
“Okay,” I said.
“Now multiply that happiness by a million.”
I tried. I couldn’t even get to two. “You’ve lost me.”
“If you could multiply it by a million again, and do that a million times, you’d have some idea of the bliss that even the least of the angels feel. And the greater our capacity, the greater our bliss.”
“Not your everyday Sunday service.”
“The essence of heaven is joy. Joy is the air we breathe, the ground of our meditation, the sky through which we soar. And the contemplation of God doesn’t mean standing around staring at some deity. It’s the most thrilling game you can imagine.”
“For us, everything is a game,” he said, “as everything is the joyous contemplation of God, because whatever comes from God is God. So all our games are ways of contemplating different aspects of That Which Is. The simpler ones have to do with limits — creating and destroying them. Ultimately there are no limits except the ones we create for ourselves, and the limits of pure spirit, our angelic nature — which are, however, considerable.”
“We’re incapable of feeling sorrow, for one thing.”
“Yes, that would be a bit of a limit,” I said. “But one I wouldn’t be too sorry to have.”
“You might think twice about that. You don’t yet understand.”
“That I am here as your mirror.”
This puzzled me. What did he mean? Where was my own image in that elegant body, wingless but graceful as air, in that face overflowing with delight like David’s cup? I looked into his huge pale-blue eyes and could not see myself.
“But let me tell you about the games,” Gabriel said. “In heaven, it’s the easiest thing in the world to step beyond limits. Instantaneously I can expand my body…”
“I beg your pardon, but I have to use the words of your very physical language. I can expand my energy field — what you might call my body — to include what in space would be the equivalent of the earth, sun, and solar system. Then I can expand further, to include the galaxy, then further until I include all space. And when I am that vast, I have only to look inside myself to see the ultimate curve of the universe or the primal birth of the stars.”
“Yes, it sounds easy,” I said.
“And that’s only the physical aspect of the universe. I can do the same with the universe of thought, or with any of the other infinite modes in which reality manifests itself. But since that’s hardly a challenge, after a while it’s not much fun.”
“After a while?”
“After a while, as it were. The challenge is in creating limits. It’s like making rules for a sport. For example, I can will myself to become matter. For the tiniest flash of a moment, with a rush of excitement, I forget who I am. It’s like a young child covering its eyes for a game of peekaboo, except that here I cover my primal identity. Suddenly I feel heavy, crushed. My flight slows, stops. I am falling, then wading, through a dense, gluey liquid. Then the wading stops. I acquire atoms and the space between atoms. I vibrate into time. The world grows heavier, nothing but mass and energy. I feel heavier and heavier, more and more crushed, bound by the laws of the physical, until I can’t bear it any longer. And then, at the last possible instant, I remember who I am. And as soon as I remember, I burst into praise — flame or song.”
“If you looked through a telescope.”
“And I could hear you? If there were a telescope for the ear?”
“Give your ear enough room,” he said, “and naturally you’d be able to hear me. And not only me. My song would have been picked up and repeated, with infinite variations, by infinite others playing the same game. We pass on the song from star to star, like whales.”
“‘When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,’” I quoted. (Job was a book I knew intimately.)
“I would translate that not ‘shouted’ but ‘shout.’ There is always a host of us exploding with joy at the first moment of creation, which has never ceased happening.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “This is the simplest kind of game?”
“Well, space-time, you know.”
“What about the more complicated games?”
“I won’t even try to describe what can happen in a game with another archangel, or with multiple players. It’s glorious. Not ecstatic like our lovemaking — after all, if you step out of yourself, there’s no game left — but truly glorious.”
“What do you mean, ‘our lovemaking’? Angels have sex? What kind of sex? How? What does it feel like?”
“Slow down, my dear. Not everything at once. Didn’t you ask about games?”
“Okay,” I said. “You’re right. Please continue.”
“Suppose you want to play with a truth. You can praise it, you can admire it, you can contemplate it from every possible viewpoint, you can vary it, you can taste it, you can ingest, embody, live it. And for all this while, that truth is the only reality in the universe. But then you take another truth and set it beside the first one. Because every truth has its opposite.”
“Why not stay with the first truth?”
“Before there was One,” he said, “there was Zero, and inside that circle dwells the mind of God. One is the creation of the world. But when you have a world, you have things. So once you have One, you have Two, and then, sooner or later, infinity, infinite infinities. These are not just concepts; this is what creation is all about. Before the beginning was the Zero; in the beginning was the One. And since Two is already implied, you get curious about what would happen if the One meets the Other. Besides, there are so many things you can play with. Everyone knows that opposites attract. Well, sometimes there’s a kind of magnetic field between two opposite truths. You can use that to create something new. Or you can contemplate the two truths in such a way that they become one greater truth. They appear as if you were seeing the same thing with the right eye and the left eye, in a kind of depth vision.”
“But often there is no magnetic field, there’s simply an abyss. One of our most exciting games is standing on the edge of a truth, just before it touches its opposite, and gazing down into the abyss between them. Each abyss has its own quality. It’s not that there’s nothing there, but that the gap is impenetrable even to an angel.”
“That doesn’t sound like much of a game.”
“It’s thrilling,” he said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like for an infinitely pure intellect to come face to face with the unknown. Sometimes I will stand gazing down into the abyss for what to you would be centuries.”
“Gazing at what?”
“It’s not that kind of gaze.”
“Ah. And then?”
“Then, slowly, I move to the edge of the abyss. I take one last, exhilarated, uncomprehending look down into it. I close what you would think of as my eyes. I spread what you would think of as my wings. And then I leap in head first, hurtling straight down into the deep space of oblivion, a black wind whistling past my ears in the motionless motion of my flight, my heart pounding, my voice crying out involuntarily with a shout in which victory and disaster are indistinguishable.”
“If you can imagine skydiving into the equal-sign of an equation. Of course, for us there is no possibility of dying.”
“Yes, well that would change things. Take some of the thrill out of it.”
“Not at all. Death is highly overrated as a stimulant. Look at children: death is unreal to them, but they don’t enjoy themselves any the less.”
“True,” I said. And then, as the thought occurred to me: “You angels seem as active as young children. Do all your games have to do with motion? Don’t you ever sit still?”
“Mostly we do. But our stillness would still be beyond the range of your perception, since we vibrate much faster than the speed of light. And even our movement is not so much motion as emotion, thought-feelings flashing vividly through us as living truth. It doesn’t happen in space, you see.”
“I don’t see. But that’s all right. Tell me about the stillness. Is it a kind of meditation? ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ as the Psalmist says?”
“No, that’s a verse for you restless humans. We are never not aware that the I Am is God, whatever we happen to be doing or not-doing. The still, small games are less exciting, but more exquisite. I can tell you about them, if you like.”
“My head’s spinning. Let me take a time-out first.”
He nodded. I half-closed my eyes, focused my awareness in my belly, took a few deep breaths. Everything slowed down. The contents of my mind began to fade. I felt reconnected to the deep calm at the core of things. Five minutes or so passed.
I opened my eyes. For half a second there was no one facing me. Just an empty chair.
Then the archangel was there again. He had crossed his right leg over his left and was sipping from his glass of port. “Well done,” he said. “Lovely.”
“This has been a lot for me to take in.”
“I know,” he said, setting his glass down on the table. “Would you rather talk about something else?”
“Let me see.” It would be a relief, I thought, if the conversation could shift, at least for a couple of minutes, to a lighter subject, one that wouldn’t expand my sense of reality quite so fast. But how do you make small-talk with an archangel? Do you comment on the weather?
“Nice day, isn’t it?” Gabriel said.
I burst out laughing.
“How do you think the Giants will do this year?” he continued.
“Okay, okay. No need to exaggerate.”
“We could spend the time together in silence, if you’d prefer.”
“No, I just needed to recharge my batteries. But speaking of weather, how is the weather in heaven?”
“It depends on the heaven.”
“You mean there’s more than one?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been talking about the heaven of the archangels. I didn’t want to confuse you. There is also the heaven of the gods, the heaven of the animals, the heaven of the seraphim, the heaven of the interim — many heavens. I’ll tell you about some of them another time. Not now. You’d get overloaded.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“But to answer your question. We do have weather in our heaven, if we want to create in a semi-physical world. Our weather is always perfect.”
“Perfect how? Spring-perfect or summer-perfect? Are there fruits or are there blossoms on the trees?”
“Imagine your spring, summer, autumn, winter all together, all at once.”
“You know how all colors come from white, through a prism, and return to white, on a spinning disk? It’s like that: as if you put the four seasons on a disk and set it spinning.”
“Ah,” I said. But my mind refused to make the effort. “Tell me, what did you mean by ‘if we want to create’?”
“Our principal games have to do with love and art. Art is, you might say, the creative contemplation of God.”
“You don’t mean that you sit there with semi-physical paintbrushes and semi-physical easels, do you?”
“No,” he said, “it’s all created and all enjoyed in the spirit. Some of your own artists do that: Mozart, for one, who can hear an entire symphony in his mind’s ear before he ever sets down a note. But our art dances in and out of categories. For us, everything is connected to everything else. Even the most elementary angel might notice the affinity between birds and trees, say, or between an atom and a solar system, or between God as creator and God as created, and from that one perception a statue or a sutra is born. Or I can create something in the mediate realm between painting and molecular physics, for example, or between poetry and architecture. I once composed a string quartet out of a theorem of algebraic topology.”
“What did it sound like?”
“I’d have to draw it for you. Besides, there’s an essential aspect that I haven’t touched on yet. The emotion that you humans feel for the beautiful, we feel for the good as well. We see the good as beautiful; for us there’s no distinction. This is, after all, a moral universe. Do you feel like stretching?”
“I feel pretty stretched already.”
“No, I mean your body. We’ve been sitting for quite a while.”
We both stood up. I touched my toes a few times, then did a little t’ai-chi. When I looked over, Gabriel was still stretching, arms and legs at forty-five-degree angles to the vertical and horizontal: the very image of Blake’s Glad Day. I knew I’d seen that body somewhere before.
He sat down again. I did too.
“So,” I said. “Tell me about angelic sex.”
“Sex is one of the ways we contemplate God,” he said, with a smile that glowed a kind of celestial rosy red. “It’s our most intense game of mutual delight.”
“Is it like human sex?”
“First of all, we don’t have sexes as you do. There are no male or female angels.”
“Oh,” he said, “this is the form I took for your sake. In our heaven we always start off with variations of the One, not the Two. So we’re all one kind, though with infinite variations.”
“In other words, you’re homosexual?”
“Well, I suppose so, in the sense that ‘homo’ means ‘the same.’ But it’s more accurate to say ‘metasexual.’ We aren’t looking for a partner to complete us. We’re already complete. And in any case, our sexuality isn’t genital. We don’t have organs for that. We create, we don’t procreate.”
“How often do you have sex?”
“As often as we meet. We’re not what you’d call monogamous.”
“Ah. So it’s true that the angels in heaven ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage’? That’s a Gospel saying I’ve never cared for. It would be a big problem for me. I must have a monogamy gene.”
“No, it wouldn’t be a problem, I assure you. You’ve learned to play faithfulness in one key, but there are thousands of keys to play it in. Anyway, the first thing you should understand is that we’re all in love with the I Am. The reason our love is so pure is that we expect nothing in return. Love is who we are; we have no interest in being loved, though that is part of our joy. When you see God in all creatures, it’s impossible not to fall in love with them.”
“And what happens when you meet another archangel?”
“That’s hard to describe in a physical language,” he said. “It’s not so much a falling in love as a rising in love, as if I were stepping from a three-dimensional to a five- or six- or ten-dimensional universe. When I first look into the beloved’s face, I am reborn on the other side of myself. There’s no longer an inner or an outer. Song bursts into song, color into color, the beloved becomes everything in the world, everything holy or unholy, the breath moving beside my breath, the heart beating in my heart. The whole universe has become a garden. Adam on a bed of moss, dreaming of night, moistness, the shadow of a rose. He wakes up to the pulse of his own fulfillment. All the leaves on the Tree of Life are tiny mirrors. In each mirror he sees Eve’s face, O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs. The moon’s blood flows in his veins. The whole garden is her body. Where can he find himself?”
“All this, before you come together?”
“This is the first moment, which lasts as long as we want it to.”
“And when you do come together,” I said, “there’s nothing like genital union?”
“No. We unite with our whole bodies, easier than air with air. There’s no resistance. We surrender ourselves completely. We’re lost in each other, found in each other. We taste each other’s presence, hear each other’s absence, whisper each other’s most secret name into the heart of being.”
“And your pleasure?”
“It’s not concentrated in one place, as with you,” he said. “We’re suffused with it, penetrated by it, through and through; everywhere we brim over with each other’s sexual joy.”
“Do you have orgasms?”
“Any climax would be an anticlimax. No, our pleasure doesn’t explode and dissipate; it goes on and on; galaxies are born and die during the circuit of our embrace. Our union is like one of your Bach melodies that moves with all its lines in long, sinuous counterpoint, each winding in and out of the others, each line, each note, complete in itself, until at the appointed time they all naturally come to an end in the final chord.”
“Of course, this lovemaking would be impossible with bodies of flesh. But I can show you something of what it’s like. Do you want to try?”
This was embarrassing. How could I say No to an archangel? How could I say it politely? I felt a churning in the pit of my stomach.
Gabriel looked at me with a huge amusement in his eyes. Then, in less than a minute, his features softened, his hair grew long, his penis disappeared, breasts formed, his waist narrowed, his hips broadened, until he — she — sat before my eyes with an hourglass figure rather like my wife’s, though twenty years younger.
I felt much better. “Sorry,” I said. It was hard not to stare.“
Please don’t apologize,” Gabriel said. Her voice was rich but higher now, like a viola. “It was my fault. I forgot how heterosexual you are.”
“Yes, well…” It was a struggle to keep focused, with her stunning legs competing for my attention, her lovely full breasts. To add to the problem, there was an unequivocal stirring in my penis.
She burst into laughter. “Thanks, but let’s make it simple.” Immediately she was clothed in a lavender-colored cotton robe that covered her from shoulders to ankles.
“Would you like to try now? It doesn’t even involve touching. Put your mind at ease.”
“Let’s find a comfortable place for you to lie on. How about over there, near the walnut tree?”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I returned from the house with our old picnic blanket, spread it on the grass, and lay down.
Gabriel knelt on the blanket beside me, to my right. She held her hands out, palms downward, a foot or so above my heart. “Close your eyes,” she said. And then, very gently, “Just let it happen.”
As I lay there, I was aware of nothing out of the ordinary at first. The breath passed in and out of my nostrils with the tiniest of breezes, moved my belly up and down, grew slower and deeper as the minutes went by. All the drama of the encounter began to dissipate — the excitement, confusion, questions, answers — as my mind regained its composure. I was aware of Gabriel’s presence behind my head, and I kept scanning for any sensation that might be the harbinger of something unusual. But after a while, I relaxed into the given. No thoughts, no feelings, the mind calm and open. My awareness sank deeper into my body. My breath breathed itself.
Then, almost imperceptibly, a kind of radiance appeared. It was faintly visible on my mental screen: like looking at the dawn sky, when the sun is just below the horizon and the edges of the world open toward the light. I could also feel it flowing through my body, from the feet upward, as if the blood in my capillaries were turning to liquid gold. It was an extremely subtle sensation at first, but the pleasure was intense, like what a woman must feel when her lover says Don’t move and with his tongue slowly circles each of her breasts and circles each nipple and moves down across her belly and pubic hair and down her inner thigh and up again and lingeringly up her labia and clitoris and says No, don’t move and slowly across her belly up to her nipples and begins again. Except that this was happening not just on the surface but throughout my body. As if from some source deep inside me, tiny waves of pleasure were rippling out to the edges of my awareness.
As I struggle to describe this to you, I grasp at language and come up with “like” and “as if.” I’m not trying to be fancy. It’s just that I can’t find words to convey the quality of these vivid body-events. All I can do is point. It was like… It was as if…
I don’t know how much time had passed when I realized that my breathing was deeper than I’d thought possible. Some kind of door in my throat or belly had opened. I would breathe very slowly in or out, but after a breath reached its stopping point there was a long time when no movement occurred, and I found myself hovering in the immensity of space. It was like being a child on a playground swing: each inhalation seemed to last for minutes, and swung me with a rush backward past the far recesses of my throat and through my head to the top of my skull; at the arc’s peak the swing stopped, as if caught and held in the air by invisible hands; and then each exhalation swung me into the light, down my chest and loins and thighs and out the tips of my feet. It was like being a boat rocked on a warm ocean, except that the ocean was inside my cells. The feeling was more peaceful than I can express.
Gradually I also grew aware that I had somehow spilled out over my skin, and I could feel my body energy running through the space around me. I was literally occupying an area that extended for a foot or so beyond the limits of my physical body. I noticed this without surprise. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Since the first few minutes of the experience I hadn’t been at all conscious of Gabriel, so absorbed was I in the intensity of these sensations. But now I felt her presence in the border of space that I had come to inhabit. It was as if one circle had penetrated the circumference of a second circle, and in the intersected area you couldn’t tell which circle was which; or as if a glass of wine were pouring itself into a glass of water. Slowly her presence moved from that outer area into the rest of my body. As her energy flowed into mine, a kind of dance began, a minuet at an eighteenth-century ball, in which each partner, hands barely touching, moves in the same intricate pattern of steps. Sometimes the dance would turn into a game of hide-and-seek: she was there inside me, then gone, then there again. I would feel her as the moon or as a hawk diving into my eyes. Sometimes I would be overwhelmed by lust, would hear drums pounding, see huge wet vaginal lips. Then once again we would be partners gliding past each other in the subtlest of minuets. Throughout all the changes, I felt aroused all over to a profound, tingling aliveness down to the marrow of my bones. It seemed as if every cell had an erection.
But the pleasure wasn’t just erotic. My heart was opening too, like a flower in sunlight. Often during these events I was on the brink of tears, deeply moved by this opening of the heart, even in the midst of all the erotic rapture. Everything was happening at once. I felt excited as I had never been before, but at the same time my heart kept opening out into the light, and I felt as if I were an infant gazing into its mother’s radiant eyes.
The current of energy running through my body would at times feel too powerful, most acutely in my legs. It was as if a needle-thin hose had been attached to a spigot and the water turned on full blast. At times I felt like jumping out of my skin, or shouting No more! No more! It was almost unbearable.
At this point I could still distinguish what was me and what was Gabriel inside me. As to my own energy, there were different modes that would shift as my awareness shifted, the way light is both particle and wave. Not only was I adult and infant at the same time, I was male and female. That is, my sexual identity still felt male (very male — I seemed to have several million penises dispersed throughout my body); but the current was coming toward and into me, and I found myself mostly in the role of the yin, the receptive. Sometimes the direction changed, and suddenly I was the yang, the energy would rush out of me into her, and I would see the image of her face, or of my wife’s face, cheeks glowing, eyelids flushed, eyes swimming in pre-orgasmic ecstasy.
Or the current would begin to alternate back and forth, so that one instant I was male, the next female, the next male, hundreds of times a minute. During one very long period I was nothing but yin: the energy kept flowing one way, into me. At a certain point I grew uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy what I was being given, or that I couldn’t accept so much erotic pleasure lavished on me. But I felt unbalanced, the way you might feel if a rich friend kept buying you extravagant gifts and you had trouble thinking of even the smallest favor you could do in return. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer. The desire to give welled up in my throat like tears.
It took a considerable effort to move my lips. I could barely manage a faint whisper. “Would…you mind…if I put…my hand… on…your leg?”
“Not at all,” she said.
But I couldn’t move. My right hand just lay there. After a few moments, she took it and placed it on her calf. I was overwhelmed by the intensity of this lightest of touches. It felt as if I had taken her in my arms and was passionately covering her neck with kisses. This was the only time during the experience when I actually had an erection. I was embarrassed, then amused, to notice that my penis, in its blind innocent way, was lubricating. But I felt glad I had asked to touch her. It did balance the energy.
After this I could no longer tell the difference between her and me. There was just one immense wave of brightness, ebbing and flowing. I couldn’t feel when my breath stopped or started, or even whether I was breathing. It didn’t matter. My sense of body had now expanded to include miles of earth and sky, it seemed. I, we, were dancing through all that space, the space was dancing through us. Everything was alive and glowing with joy. The sky had a woman’s face, unbelievably beautiful and loving. I kept opening my heart into it; the more I opened, the more deeply I was received, until there was nothing left to open, and I felt as if I had become the woman and were holding my smaller self, with infinite tenderness, in my arms.
I have no idea how long I spent in this state. By degrees the radiance subsided. I began to breathe normally again. I opened my eyes.
Fascinating and beautifully written.
— David Guy, New York Times Book Review
Stephen Mitchell’s peculiar, audacious and very readable new book is at once a novelistic memoir, a metafiction, a spiritual guidebook, a post-Judeo-Christian Zen angelology, and a “comedy of the spirit” – but don’t let that scare you off. The writing is as funny as it is learned, as exuberant and sexy as it is didactic…. This amusing, rich, and stunningly intelligent book is itself a spiritual experience. Just by grappling with Mitchell’s ideas and following his stories you look up from the page to find you’re further along on your own spiritual path, whichever one it is.
— Michelle Huneven, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
A beguiling spiritual memoir that masquerades as a comic novel… The more jaded reader may be shocked at the riches to be found here. Meetings with the Archangel is spirituality with an attitude, a wry, knowing, and playful entertainment with a theological subtext… [Its] spiritual insights, always revealed with urgency, intimacy, and candor, are sometimes startling… Profoundly moral and mystical.
— Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Charming, clear… and very funny.
— Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury-News
In this keen contemporary spiritual allegory… Mitchell balances playful cameos of great Western souls like Aquinas, Rilke, and Meister Eckhart with a witty, incisive portrayal of the workings of Zen training. He succeeds in creating a parable for thinking people with a hunger for reality.
— Publishers Weekly
An extravagantly creative and beautifully realized spiritual adventure story that honors imagination as a way of knowing. Stephen Mitchell has fashioned an immensely erudite and rich portrait of earthly and heavenly truth, beauty, passion, play, and enlightenment. This work of fiction is nothing short of awesome.
— Spirituality & Health
In one of the most strikingly original and engaging books of the year, Stephen Mitchell takes the reader on a spiritual journey–a trip through uncharted territories of the soul that are rarely explored so vividly in contemporary fiction. The most profound spiritual experiences are made comprehensible and accessible….Some of the richest passages in Meetings with the Archangel convey the absolute rapture that is experienced at the higher levels of spiritual practice. The heat and passion of these descriptions is more exciting than adventure-novel prose.
— Digby Diehl, The Player
Stephen Mitchell’s work has often given me the strength to go on writing from the heart; he is one of the American voices I most admire today. His new book, Meetings with the Archangel, is an absolutely incredible piece of writing: extremely witty, profound, erotic, and deeply satisfying in many ways. The section about sex is unique and totally convincing: here he has succeeded in something that’s almost impossible to do. I love the book’s tone, which has all Mitchell’s delicious humor and all the colloquial warmth of a novel or memoir. It deserves a wide and passionate audience.
— Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying
A vivid and strange fiction, animated by an intense spiritual drive. Its accounts of Zen training surpass any I’ve seen, and help make this book a persuasive spiritual autobiography.
— Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon
I loved reading Meetings with the Archangel – found it fascinating, deep, enormously ambitious, and profoundly funny. It is a wonderful book.
— Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels
Insanely quirky, good-natured, unpretentious, and…genuinely enlightening.
— Kirkus Reviews
Meetings with the Archangel is a work of genius. Someone who doesn’t have a clue about spiritual truth will enjoy it as a marvelously beautiful erotic adventure story, and someone who does have a clue will see that hidden in the midst of the poetic, erotic prose are the most marvelous Dharma truths, and she will be thrilled to read them.
— Sylvia Boorstein, author of It’s Easier Than You Think
Stephen Mitchell’s archangel is the only interesting angel I have ever read about. He keeps us enchanted and amused, and finally lets us in on the great secret about angels and human beings.
— Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly
Aptly subtitled, this is the touching fictional memoir of a Jewish man who chooses Zen as his spiritual path. After receiving a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, the man returns in memory to his graduate school days and retraces his spiritual wanderings, reevaluating his experiences from the perspective of a wiser and more philosophical self. Painful yet hopeful, these Meetings take us through the dark night of the soul experienced by mystics in every tradition. Mitchell also shows us angels in all their aspects, from the sweetly saccharine to the terrifyingly majestic, and he reveals the evolution of the angelic in human history, illuminating how that history reflects on the spiritual awareness of the humans who believe in angels. You need not, however, be a fan of angels to appreciate the book as an intelligent, insightful, compassionate look into the human soul and, thus, fascinating reading for all spiritual seekers.