ANGES ET ESPRITS MÉDIATEURS - revue connaissances des religions
translated by Matthew Evans-Cockle
• Les anges dans la tradition prophétique hébraïque et judéo-chrétienne – Jacques Bonnet
• The Guardian Angel of the Gateways and the Seven Abodes – Frédérick Tristan
• Et au milieu du feu une forme de quatre vivants – Michel Fromaget
• Des anges et de l'homme universel – Andréi Plesu
• Angels in the Christian and Medieval Imaginal World – Philippe Faure
• Les anges et la cosmologie au Moyen-Age – Tiziana Suarez-Nani
• La chute des anges ou l'histoire du diable – Stéphane Duclos
• La dévotion à l'ange gardien. Traduction et présentation de textes spirituels inédits – Philippe Faure
• The Angels in Islam – Pierre Lory
• Strophes liturgiques et offices divins (extraits) – Sohravardî
• Humains et djinns en islam. Similarités et différences – Amira El-Zein
• Renaître dans les autres mondes – Renaud Fabbri
• La dimension éliatique du message de Louis Massignon – Patrick Laude
• Les esprits médiateurs du bouddhisme – Fabrice Midal
During the last decade of the twentieth century the francophone cultural landscape endured an avalanche of publications consecrated to angels. This was, in large part, the effect of an editorial trend imported from across the Atlantic - part of the “New Age” current, a neo-spiritualist and syncretic movement which was supposed to answer the aspirations of a humanity on the march towards the famous “age of Aquarius”, promised land of a new golden-age. Amongst stories of celestial apparitions on the threshold of death, rituals of invocation of the Hebrew names of the Angels, neo-Cabbalistic manuals purporting to lead one to a better understanding of oneself and the future, and confessions of the sort “my guardian angel exists, I met him”, the reader no longer knew whether he was coming or going. It got to the point that cycles of conferences were proposed with titles such as: “how to rise to the level of one’s angel…” or seminars in which the one might learn to enter into dialogue with one’s angel and to follow judicious advice in order to “to optimize one’s form” for the greatest benefit of the business enterprise of course. As always with the apparition of a neo-spirituality everything is dressed in angelic colours: the quest for magical and occult powers, astrology via planetary angels, the symbolism of colors, natural medicines, etc. The success of this trend was such that for several years angels served as material for literature, cinema and publicity, for high culture as well as for the perfume industry, invading public billboards and magazine pages. What is left of all that? Not much, thank God, sthe truth of the matter being that that which is syncretic and composite cannot last, all intellectual bricolage containing in itself its own end-term.
It remains that this “angelophile trend” of the end of the XXth century is a singular socio-cultural phenomenon, appealing to the nostalgia and expectations of contemporary humanity, lost between a universe it is leaving and another which has not yet come into being: nostalgia for a spiritual universe populated by creatures of light, pure and beneficent, nostalgia for an “enchanted” world, seeded by the Absolute; expectant awaiting of mediating figures capable of raising the soul, of coming to its aid, of delivering it from this world of shadows, of guiding it upon the path of knowledge and, failing this, of interceding in its favor. The angels have often taken the place of a God considered dead or removed; a God of whom the image has become so blurred we no longer know very well what it is or what it does.
In fact, this return of the angel harkened to no God, to no revealed tradition; it most often presented itself as disconnected from the Biblical and Koranic foundation if only by means of borrowings from the Jewish Cabbala and the Occult Sciences. In connection with the primacy accorded to the experience of the encounter with the angel, this approach found itself confirmed by the emergence of an iconography privileging the Greco-roman image of the nude Adonis or of the winged child. The doctrinal void and the syncretic bricolage characteristic of the “New Age” made the angel appear as “pure form”, an envelope susceptible of being filled by the aspirations towards “another life” and spiritual understanding. It would no longer be the Revelation that would give the latter its meaning, but the individual who would tailor it to his or her own measure. There results a formidable ambiguity: as many phantasms and as much will to power can project themselves upon the angelic form as authentic aspirations. Angels have sometimes even been assimilated to extraterrestrials or “superior strangers”.
The easily understandable need for a world populated by beings of light, attentive to humanity, is as it were the inverted positive image of the blackness of souls, of the pervading moroseness of the contemporary world of which we confusedly fear the disastrous end. But the aspiration to celestial life, to spiritual protection, to true knowledge, is obviously not [in itself] enough to restore a traditional perspective, and even less an angelology.
The moment has thus come to renew the examination of the figure of the angel, placing it once again in the religious structure upon which it depends, revealing both its spiritual resources and the intellectual stakes involved. Is it not urgent that we change visions of the world, and render to Reality all of its depth, its complexity and its mystery by renewing the abandoned relationship between the human and the divine? Philosopher, Orientalist, specialist of theosophies in Islamic Iran, Henry Corbin (1903-1978), to whom this volume is dedicated upon the occasion of the centennial of his birth, has shown the way in exemplary fashion. Corbin never ceased forcefully proclaiming: there can be no real monotheism without angelology, without proclamation of the divine transcendence by celestial messengers, without the manifestation of God in multiple angelic theophanies. Inversely, on the anthropological level, there can be no true spiritual knowledge without the soul’s ascension and encounter with its angel.
There is also an essential point that must be underlined: angelology concerns the three great monotheistic religions, it is the privileged terrain of an intellectual labour in the service of a true oecumenical spirituality. Effectively, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the angels constitute the first creation, the “intelligible” foundation of the world of the psyche and the senses; this angelic world provides the image of an ordered hierarchical universe composed of multiple degrees of reality, to which correspond states of consciousness that are themselves degrees of knowledge. For each angel is a mirror of the Divinity, defined by that which it receives of the divine light, and that which it transmits. This “world” full of [spiritual] “Intelligences” is intimately linked to the cosmos and consequently to humanity which is in its keeping.
An eminent form of the manifestation of God in Judaism and Islam, the angel is subordinated to the incarnated Verb in Christianity. Herald of the mysteries of the Revelation, the angel relays the word of Christ and places himself in its service. Prototype of spiritual life, channel for praise and glorification, the celestial being that takes nourishment in God is the model which human beings devoted to the contemplative life must imitate. Initiator, guide, interpreter of spiritual visions, the angel is the guardian and servant of the soul, - supporting and sustaining it in its daily battle against the Adversary – who, the mission once accomplished, knows to withdraw in self effacement before the divine Presence.
This said, the monotheistic traditions do not have a monopoly on mediating beings. From a historical point of view, the angel is a Semitic figure in origin and development, it is not implausible that it has been influenced by Indo-European traditions, notably Persian and Hellenistic. On the metaphysical level, we may go even further: if the Absolute manifests itself in multiple mediating figures, these are necessarily present everywhere, under diverse names and forms, regardless of the spiritual galaxy in which one is situated and which defines their nature, their personality, and their functions. It is therefore legitimate to broach the oriental traditions and to integrate within this volume the study of Buddhist divinities, in an altogether stimulating comparative perspective.
Against the narrowly defined fundamentalisms and the ambient neo-spiritualism, it is important to engage in useful work drawing from the sources that are the great Traditions and to clear the way for a true oecumenical spirituality, showing the importance of mediating beings and their symbolic fecundity, restoring the indissoluble link between traditions and revelation, between degrees of knowledge, levels of reality and theophanies.
Henry Corbin’s Faith is the faith of a Gnostic, for whom gnosis is “a kind of knowledge that is salutary in itself”.
This Faith is “Earth-Angel-Woman”, as he would write, the 24th of April 1932, on a lake shore in Dalécarlie: “All ofthat, is one single thing which I adore and which is in this forest. The twilight on the lake, my Annunciation. The mountain: a line. Listen! Something is going to happen, yes. The anticipation is immense.”
The Earth in question, the Land of Henry Corbin’s Faith is that Celestial World, “the intermediary world between Heaven and Earth.
It is the world of the Angel.
The day of Henry Corbin’s death, Mircea Eliade noted in his journal, dated the 7th of October 1978: “Henry didn’t suffer. He died with serenity so certain was he that his guardian angel was waiting for him.”
Of course, we do well to appreciate the particular nature of this “guardian angel”, who is, for Henry Corbin, the “angel of the incarnated soul”, and, in the circumstance of his death, very precisely “the celestial figure that comes face to face with the soul at the dawn of its eternity”. Elsewhere, he would also speak of the Fravartis, as “guardian angels”. It is, he adds, necessary to conceive of the guardian angel as celestial pole, the celestial self of a being whose totality is bipolar and constitutes a bi-unity, that of an earthly form and of a celestial form which is its superior counterpart”.
We may call to mind the admirable pages which he consecrated to the figure of the Daênâ, “the tutelary Angel”, and to its post mortem encounter with the human soul: “to the amazed soul’s question, asking “who then are you?” of the young girl who advances at the entrance of the Chinvat Bridge and whose beauty is more resplendent than any other beauty ever seen in the material world, the latter answers: “I am your own Daênâ”, -which means: I am, in person, the faith that you professed and that which inspired it in you, she for whom you have answered and she who guided you, she who comforted you and she who now judges you, for I am, in person, the Image proposed to you from the birth of your being and the Image which finally you have yourself wished for (“I was beautiful, you have made me still more beautiful”).
These lines describe, to a certain extent, by way of anticipation, Henry Corbin’s vision, at the moment when he took leave of the manifest world.
Daênâ is thus the Angel of Henry Corbin’s Faith, and as such she is also the “celestial Idea” of all human being, she appears as Henry Corbin’s secret, as he himself would say of Ibn ‘Arabi: “that which a human being regains in the mystical experience, is the “celestial pole” of his being, which is to say his “person” whereby and as which, the Divine Being from the very beginning in the origin of origins in the world of Mystery, manifested himself to himself, and made himself known to it in this Form [its own form, the form it was given to assume] which is equally the Form in which he knew himself in it. It is the Idea, or rather the “Angel” of his person whose present self is no more than the terrestrial pole.”
The following text is the transcription of the recording of the lecture given by its author during a conference held by the “Cercle européen d’art sacré sur l’Ange” [European Circle of Sacred Art Consecrated to the Angel], which was held at Pont-à-Mousson in 1981, under the direction of Dominic Donnau. We have conserved its oral character.
My lecture deals with an extremely vast subject. I will limit myself to situating it according to the traditional Jewish perspective, and more precisely according to the Zohar and the Treaty on the Abodes, it being understood that the guardian angel of the Gateways and the notion of the Seven Abodes belong in common to the three Abrahamic traditions. I will start by attempting to give an adequate if somewhat lengthy definition of this notion of the “Seven Abodes” to the extent that abodes and angels are here intimately linked.
A first clarification which conditions all the others: Genesis and Creation, as everyone knows, take place in six steps and then one step more: six days of effectual creation and one day of rest, the Sabbath. Between the Bereshit, the “beginning” and the Sabbath, that which God (Elohim) created is not a multiplicity nor a disparity of beings and things (light, firmament, earth, vegetable, stars, fish, birds, earthly animals, man) which would be a sign of quantity, therefore of heterogeneity and of alterity, but is, on the contrary, one single and unique ordered whole, whose elements are qualities. In other words, light, firmament, earth, vegetables, stars, fish, birds and terrestrial animals all the way to man, are not, in this beginning, distinct juxtaposed individualities, but a unitary coherence; the figures are not productive of quantity but are numbers of quality. Similarly, the seven days are not figures productive of quantity, but numbers that signify quality. They are not of the domain of duration. They signify that man (the unique man of Beriah, the Creation) is composed of seven elements, the first among which is placed beneath the sign of the Light and the last beneath the sign of the Sabbath. This is, moreover, made perfectly clear by the literal translation of the Hebrew: ‘It was the night, it was the morning, day one (and not: “it was the first day”), it was night and it was morning, day the sixth” (to mark the halt before the Sabbath). One must see therein the absolute unity of creation; God made Creation one, which is, moreover, the basis of monotheism as we understand it here: one God, one Creation. The six and one days do not designate a succession of creations, but one Creation alone of which the number seven is the sign and, in some way, the identity. And why seven? The Treaty of the Palaces, the Treaty of the Hekhaloth, answers: “For manifest God is ten, for three remain his secret, for seven is his hierarchical Creation”. The creation in seven days signifies that the creative unity and the created unity, without thereby falling into duality, still remaining intimately “the same” has formed in someway the number three (creative unity) and the seven (created unity). They are the seven created heavens, they are seven sojourns, seven abodes, seven palaces at the breast of the fundamental unity, and let us repeat, to avoid all misunderstanding, they are seven hierarchical qualities at the breast of the unique and of the same.
To these seven heavens correspond the seven archangelic guardians of the Palaces and the Gateways.
The latin term “Mundus Imaginalis” was forged exactly forty years ago by Henry Corbin in an article which has remained well known to this day, which was a veritable manifesto in favour of a new approach to the visionary literature of Iranian Islam and of a hermeneutic disencumbered of the categories of modern thought. With this term Corbin meant to designate a world, a mode of being, and a type of knowledge. Between the external senses and the intellect, “the active imagination” was understood to be a cognitive faculty, the foundation of a rigorous analogical knowledge, capable of transmuting internal states and of reflecting, at the level of the soul, the spiritual images issuing forth from the intelligible world. The “imaginal world” is thus that un-locatable “place”, as though suspended in the mirror of the soul, place of the epiphany of images, where bodies become subtle, where archetypes acquire form, where spiritual states acquire spatial dimensions. The visionary tales and accounts of spiritual initiation composed by Suhravardî provided Corbin with exemplary models of the spiritual topographies of Iranian Islam.
To our knowledge, the term “imaginal world” has not been applied to [European] medieval visionary texts. Corbin himself, however, did not hesitate to delve into occidental spiritual texts - such as the Grail literature and Swedenborg’s theosophy - endeavoring, in line with what he had done in the Moslem domain, to explore particular works that though considerably influential were often deemed heterodox. It seems clear to us that the reality envisaged through the term “imaginal world” also concerns sources that are much more in conformity with Christian orthodoxy, whether it is a question of visionary tales or hagiographical texts. Certainly visionary knowledge has been less theorized in the Christian West than in Islam, and medieval visions participate in a well-defined theological framework. We do not wish to attempt a reductive gathering together or interweaving of the visionary Christian and Islamic worlds, or to establish whether the theory of knowledge and the status of the spiritual image in the two cultures are equivalent. Contrary to such questions, we are merely showing that in the heart of medieval Christianity and particularly of Monasticism, there developed a world of the spiritual image with its codes and procedures; its own logic, a world wherein angels are the essential agents and the bearers of mystical knowledge.
Questions concerning angels often appear marginal, gratuitous and even derisory within the ensemble of reflections upon religion. To speak of “the gender of angels” is ultimately to lose oneself in speculation that is void of any real import, distracting one’s spirit from the fundamental exegetical perspectives, as well as from metaphysics and morality. Such speculation, we feel, amounts to “bootless inquisition”. The decisive work of Henry Corbin shows that, on the contrary, angelology is profoundly rooted in the very question of monotheism. Here then, are several reflections upon its developments within classical Muslim thought, and upon how the angels, despite their apparent inconspicuousness, represent an essential cogwheel in the assumption of the cosmos in God, the final end-term to all Creation.
Starting off with the founding texts of the Muslim Tradition –which is to say the Koran, and the teachings attributed to the prophet Mohammed, to his Companions and to the first generations of [Muslim] erudites - we immediately discover three communities of conscious beings in the universe: Human beings are the category which seems to be best known to us – indeed merely “seems” so, for to tell the truth the nature and the role of human beings remains a mystery even for themselves. A remarkable mission appears to have been conferred upon Adam and his descendants. Conceived as a lieutenant (Khalîfa, caliph) of God on Earth, receiving as homage the prostration of the angels, mankind also assumed responsibility for a mysterious “deposit” the nature of which is not given any final precision by the text: “We proposed this deposit to the sky, to the earth, and to the mountains; they refused the burden and were afraid. It was Man who took it upon himself, for he is very unjust and very ignorant” (Koran XXXII, 72). Thus, its weak character inclined towards sin distinguishes humanity as much from the angels as from the animals, and appears as correlate or counterpart to the assumption of a grand part in the designs of their Creator.
It is this fundamental ignorance, this part of shadow included in human nature that renders humankind capable of accomplishing its mission in the dense, heavy, shadowy earthly world. The djinns are mentioned many times in the Koran. These are beings endowed with a subtle body, but nonetheless strictly distinct from the angels to the extent that they are made of fire (Koran XV, 27) and not of light as were the latter, and that they live on Earth and not in the Heavens. In fact, their condition is close to that of human beings for just like them they are born, die, and reproduce. Like them, they are called to obey God, are susceptible to disobey and disbelieve, and will be rewarded at the end of time by Heaven or by Hell. Their role, however, in terms of the “economy of salvation” of humankind is marginal. The rebellious djinns (sometimes assimilated to the demons, shayâtîn, the ‘satans’) can in effect constitute a temptation for certain humans –notably for sorcerers or diviners- by the services with which they can furnish them. They can, in any case, do nothing tohelp humans, neither materially nor spiritually, even in the case of djinns who are virtuous believers. It is rather the opposite that may be true, since all the djinns are called to receive, and to put into practice, the divine message proclaimed by the monotheistic prophets – Mohammed in particular, who is explicitly mentioned in this role in the Koran (LXXII, 1-17).
The third category of conscious beings is that of the angels. The general role of angels in the Muslim religion in relation to the rest of creation is somewhat paradoxical. The dogma affirms their existence. In fact, the Koran makes reference numerous times to their presence and their activities. But elsewhere, this role seems relatively neutral and effaced… apparently a mere executant role. Nevertheless, a closer analysis allows one to distinguish that which hides behind the manifold figure of angelic apparitions.