A Homily for the Day of the Holy Archangel Michael
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The Day of the Holy Saint Michael the Archangel, also known as Michaelmas, is an important feast day in the Gnostic liturgical calendar. The Archangel Michael has enjoyed a surprising prominence in all three of the great world religions of the West—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It was a day of particular importance among the feast days of the liturgical calendar of the Medieval Christian church, thereby obtaining the common name of Michaelmas. Of the three Archangels mentioned in the canonical writings of the Roman Catholic Church, none has enjoyed more popularity or had as many Churches and Chapels dedicated to him, as the Archangel Michael. His popularity and presence in the mystical dimension of the human psyche eventually forced the Roman Catholic Church to include him in their theology as a Saint.
The legends including him in the Christian tradition stems primarily from the story of his fight with the dragon in the Book of the Revelation of St John.
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. And there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was there a place for them found any more in heaven.”
Many of the legends about St. Michael the Archangel relate to the mystery of the Holy Grail and the tradition of the Cathars, which flourished in the area of France from which these stories sprang. Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Grail romance is one that brings together most effectively the mythical imagery related to Michael. In the War in heaven, the Archangel Michael, brandishing his sword, strikes an emerald out of the crown of the Devil. It falls to earth, and from this one great emerald is fashioned the Holy Grail. According to a similar French legend, this same Holy Grail was guarded by the Cathars, its custodian being Esclaremonde, the Countess of Foix. Throughout history, the Devil and his archons strive to retrieve the emerald for his crown and to destroy its guardians. To keep it safe from the human minions of the Archon, St Michael strikes the top of Montsegur with his sword. A great cleft opens in the rock, into which Esclaremonde casts the Grail, and which closes over it to keep it from harm or theft. The story recounts that after her death her Cathar friends secretly buried her in the same place where the Grail lay, that she might guard it even in her death. The legend goes on to foretell that one day she will awaken from death and bring the Grail back with her.
Many of the chapels and churches dedicated to St. Michael are connected as well to devotees of our Lady Wisdom and the military order of the Templars. Although one of the great proponents of the crusade against the Cathars, St Bernard of Clairveaux, who drew up the rule for the Templar Order, was a devoted student of the Wisdom literature and our Lady Sophia. The Order of the Templars also took on the mythical character of guardians of a mystical wisdom encountered on their journeys through the Middle East. The military protection of the Templars given to pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Land aptly symbolizes the military role of St. Michael in legend and in the mystical life. Just as the Templars vowed to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, so St. Michael is the Defender who guards us on our journey back to the Pleroma. In the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the small figure holding her up represents St. Michael bearing her away to safety.
In approaching the subject of angels and archangels from an experiential and Gnostic point of view, there is not a lot of evidence in the material reality of our everyday lives for their existence or interaction with human beings. As far as the current reports of angels rescuing people from run-away trucks and curing people of cancer, whether true or not, ultimately, the Gnostic considers valuable those interactions with angelic beings that concern the spiritual and transcendent dimension of human existence. The appearance of angelic beings is, for the Gnostic, an indication of an altered and transcendent state of consciousness. Whenever we deal with angels we are concerned with a different degree of consciousness and sublimation of perception than the everyday, an altered state of consciousness through which we can perceive spiritual realities of a transcendental and transformative character. The emphasis here is on the inwardly transformative character of the experience. The acid test of Gnostic experience is that what we perceive changes us in a fundamental way on an interior level of being. Concerning this difference between ordinary and non-ordinary perception, the Gospel of Philip states:
“But you saw something of that place and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become the Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself—and what you see you shall become.”
A transformative contact with angelic presence does not come in ordinary states of consciousness but in extraordinary states of consciousness where what we see changes our inner perception in the deepest and most interior part of our being, so that what we perceive spiritually we truly experience as our Self. Such contact may occur in dreams, a spontaneous flood of interior images, various hypnagogic states of consciousness, or even synchronistic events related to such interior images. Occasionally these visionary states may take on the character of a seizure, as is often reported of shamans and some mystics in their contact with the spiritual realm.
One of the universal difficulties of non-ordinary states of consciousness is that the initial impact on our ordinary, worldly-habituated egos is that of disorientation and confusion. The experience may initially inspire fear and trembling—fear because of the complete otherness of the experience and trembling because of the flood of psychic energy that shakes up the psyche and the electrical activity of the brain and of the body. As recounted in the Book of Enoch the prophet:
“In the five hundredth year, and in the seventh month, on the fourteenth day of the month of the lifetime of Enoch, in that parable, I saw that the heaven of heavens shook; that it shook violently; and that the powers of the Most High, and the angels, thousands of thousands, and myriads of myriads were agitated with great agitation. And when I looked, the Ancient of days was sitting on the throne of his glory, while the angels and saints were standing around him. A great trembling came upon me and terror seized me. My loins were bowed down, my reins were dissolved and I fell upon my face.”
What has this to do specifically with the Archangel Michael? As with most questions of a Gnostic orientation, the best answer is that which we obtain from our own experience. Yet, to obtain such experience, some poetic and archetypal imagery is exceedingly helpful and often necessary. As stated in the Gospel of Philip, “Truth did not come into the world naked, but it comes in the types and images.” The Archangel Michael has not only a metaphysical correspondence but serves also as the archetypal defender and protector of those assaying the journey into non-ordinary states of consciousness on their way to achieving Gnosis. The Book of Enoch further describes this role of the Archangel Michael:
“The holy Michael, another holy angel, one of the great holy ones, was sent to raise me up. And when he raised me, my spirit returned, for I was incapable of enduring this vision of violence, its agitation, and the concussion of heaven.”
Enoch’s experience of being raised up is central to the role of St. Michael the Archangel. This passage might commonly be interpreted as describing Enoch’s return to ordinary bodily consciousness, but I would like to propose that perhaps it is describing his being raised into a higher state of consciousness that raises him above the agitation and roiling maelstrom that is perceived when first seeing the chaos of material existence from the viewpoint of spiritual perception. I would propose that what Enoch experienced is a mystical vision of heaven from the vantage point of a spirit yet trapped in the chaos, but who is raised above it by the assistance of the Archangel Michael. By such an interpretation the Archangel Michael becomes the one who raises us up, the defender who raises us above the ignorance and darkness of the chaos of matter into the Light of the Pleroma. In the Pistis Sophia, Michael is one of the two archangels that guard and accompany Sophia in her assumption into the Pleroma.
“It is again thy word: Thou hast given commandment to Gabriel and Michael, that they guide Pistis Sophia in all the regions of the chaos, until they lead her forth and that they uplift her on their hands, so that her feet do not touch the darkness beneath, and that on the other hand they of the lower darkness do not seize hold of her. And I led forth Pistis Sophia, she being on the right of Gabriel and of Michael. And the great light stream entered into her. And Pistis Sophia beheld with her eyes her foes, that I had taken their light-power from them. And I led Pistis Sophia forth from the chaos, she treading under foot the serpent-faced emanation of Self-willed, and moreover ctreading under foot the seven-faced basilisk emanation, and treading under foot the lion and dragon-faced power. I made Pistis Sophia continue to stand upon the seven-headed basilisk emanation of Self-willed; and it was more mighty than them all in its evil doings.”
Such an ascent and raising up is again described in the Sufi story, Mohammed in the Golden Valley:
“Over against the valley I saw an Angel in meditation, perfect in Majesty, Glory and Beauty. When he saw me he called me to him. When I had come close I asked, ‘What is thy name?’ He said, ‘Michael. I am the greatest of the Angels. Whatever difficulty thou conceivest, question me; whatever thou desirest, ask of me.’ I said to him, ‘To come hither have I undergone many toils and sufferings. But my purpose was this: to attain to gnosis and the vision of Truth. Show me the direction that leads to Him, so that perhaps I may attain the goal of my desire, and receive a portion of His universal Grace.’ Then that Angel took me by the hand, he made me enter and led me through so many veils of light that the universe I saw had nothing in common with everything I had previously seen in these worlds.” (Avicenna)
In both of the preceding stories, St. Michael assists the supplicant in rising towards transcendence and union with the Light of the Fullness. There is a particular direction of the soul that leads to our transcendental interaction with angels and archangels. As Mohammed, our purpose and motive must be to attain Gnosis and a vision of truth. Angels and archangels are the messengers and servers of the ineffable greatness that transcends human intellect and desire, so their interaction focuses on the spiritual dimension of life and they accompany those who direct themselves towards the highest divinity. The Gospel of Truth describes those who direct their contemplation to the transcendent heights.
“The place to which they direct their thoughts, that place is their root, which brings them upward in all the heights to the Father. Theirs is His head, which becomes a repose for them, and they are enclasped as they approach Him, so that they say that they have partaken of His face by means of the embraces…This is the way of those who have something on high through the immeasurable Greatness as they stretch after the One, alone and perfect, who is there for them. And they are not to go down to Amente, and they have neither envy nor groaning, nor is there death in them, but they rest in Him who rests, not toiling nor writhing round about the Truth. But they are themselves, the Truth.”
To partake of the countenance of the Godhead by means of embraces is a common means of describing the mystical union with the Most High. The image of St. Michael with the sword and scales symbolically shows us his role in aiding us in transcending the clash of opposites in the lower worlds to achieve the unifying experience of the Gnosis of God. The sword is double-edged, dividing the world into a duality of opposites, the right and the left, light and darkness, good and evil, yet the hilt by which he holds the sword ends with a perfect orb for its pommel, a symbol of perfect unity and transcendence of the opposites. The scales refer him to the zodiacal sign of Libra, which esoterically is the sign of relationship, of love and war. St. Michael not only makes war upon the foes of Gnosis but also aids us to rise above the warring opposites within our selves. This sense of rising leads us to an experience of the Godhead that at once embraces and fills us with such a sweetness and sense of familiarity and authenticity that we cannot but feel totally known to the deepest core of our being. This all encompassing and indwelling presence has no resemblance to the vengeful and punishing god of the Old Testament but fills us with a feeling of being our true, most loving, and most perfect Self. Thus it is described in the Gospel of Truth:
“But they do not stand revealed in such a manner as not to have risen above themselves. Nor did they lack the glory of the Father, nor did they think of Him as small nor that He is bitter or wrathful, but that He is guileless, imperturbable, and a sweetness, knowing all before they were, and not having need to be taught… And the Father is in them, and they are in the Father, being complete, being indivisible in the truly Good, lacking nothing at all but taking rest, being fresh in the Spirit. And they will heed their root, they will be at rest, they in whom He will find His root and not do harm to His soul. This is the place of the blessed — this is their place.”
As the archetypal warrior and defender, from what does St. Michael defend us? The Gnostic collect for his feast day indicates that he defends us from ignorance, the darkness and chaos of the world. The image of St. Michael defeating the Devil does not signify some moral defense against the temptations of the Devil endangering our souls but against ignorance of our divine origin, our root, and those forces both interior and exterior that would keep us in ignorance of that truth. When we have a numinous experience of transcendence many of the social forces of convention would have us deny or minimize the experience. Interior forces of pride, hatred, and false delusion may also keep us in ignorance or personalize our experience into a false semblance of the truth. One of the most powerful interior forces of our psyche that keeps us in ignorance is the inclination to personalize and concretize transcendent experience. Enoch cannot bear the vision of heaven primarily, because of his initial tendency to personalize the experience and identify with the clashing of the opposites. It is St. Michael who can aid us in transcending this tendency, so that, as stated in the Gospel of Truth, we might rise above our selves.
The name Michael is the Hebrew for “likeness of God.” His name is a reflection of that Divine Light to which our own divine spark is also akin. Michael is our guide and guardian back to the Pleroma, back to the Light from which we came. As stated in the Gospel of Truth, “this is the way of those who have something on high.” This way opens into an alternate reality where angels and archangels speak with us and help us toward our divine goal. Their aid and particularly that of the Archangel Michael can defend us from the spiritual evils of the midst as we wend our way on the long journey to behold the great flame from whence we are a spark. Not only shall we behold that flame but we shall become it ourselves. So may St. Michael’s strong hand uplift us and guard us in justice and strength. As in the story of Mohammed in the Golden Valley, may he make us enter and lead us through so many veils of light that, as we ourselves are changed by that vision, the universe we see shall no longer have anything in common with anything we had previously seen in this world.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.