Monday, December 9, 2013

Bedtime Shema: Archangels, Meditation, and Christmas

My daughter Eleanor was born on Friday, and -- not that I'm a super meditator or anything -- I found myself going to a particular visualization while trying to calm down just before the big event.  This visualization is one of those eccentric, unique-to-me things that I've never really put into words.  But, similar to the idea that "there are no atheists in foxholes," the things that really work, and really matter, come out on top when you need them; in the couple of days since Eleanor has been born, here in the hospital, I've been mulling over how to put the symbols of my meditation into words.  This post (along with the new blog that frames it) is going to be a big undertaking, because it'll utilize research I've done on my own throughout the years -- research I haven't touched much since putting a lot of time into puppetry -- and it doesn't make it any easier that I'm such a stickler for footnotes and attributions (topics like these can get muddy quickly, especially on the Internet).  But it feels like it's time to start unpacking some of this stuff.  Now or never, no better time than the present, right?

We begin, strangely enough (unless you know me well, in which case nothing is too strange), with an evening prayer used in Orthodox Judaism, called The Bedtime Shema.  In this prayer, we find that the four archangels are piously called by name to ward off evil from the room in which the supplicant is about to sleep.
In the name of HaShem, God of Israel: may Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me, and Raphael behind me; and above my head the Presence of God.
(transliterated Hebrew): B'shaim Adonai Elohai Israel, mimini Michael, umis'moli Gabriel, umilfanai Uriel, umai'achorai Raphael, v'al roshi sh'ckinat ail.1
Mark Chagall, Sarah and the Angels

Perfect for me -- I love angels, their names in Hebrew, and anything that removes them from sappy Hallmark cherubs and puts them more in the context of the bizarre or uncanny.  I've never said this prayer word-for-word, but I've often taken a couple of seconds to "picture" this layout of angels surrounding me like an Advent wreath.  And that's it, basically!  Somehow this visualization is effective for me, which is saying a lot.  I suffer from panic attacks and chronic worrying, and even though I'm on meds, this prayer-oriented visualization has some kick to it on its own.

But why this particular layout of these particular angels?  This prayer's blueprint perhaps ultimately comes from a vision of the heavenly choirs that surround the Divine Throne: in the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, we find exactly the same angel-to-direction arrangement:
Four classes of ministering angels minister and utter praise before God: the first camp is led by Michael on His right, the second camp is led by Gabriel on His left, the third camp is led by Uriel before Him, the fourth camp is led by Raphael behind Him, and the Shekhinah of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is in the center.2
In a slightly later text, the angels are imagined more specifically in terms of a military guard, surrounding the camp of Moses and the Israelites:
He caused four standards to be set up in the camp in the wilderness: Michael at His right, corresponding to where Reuben set his standard on the south side of the Tabernacle; Uriel at His left, corresponding to Dan's place... Gabriel at the east, corresponding to Moses, Aaron, and the kingdom of the house of David; and Raphael in the west behind him.3
Obviously the angel-to-direction correspondences have gotten a little shuffled -- matching the angels to certain tribes seems to have been more important in this later text -- but adding this "tactical" idea to the prayer (which is prayed ostensibly for protection) works really well.  For the prayer to have any deeper meaning, you have to picture these angels as your entourage, your spiritual wingangels, and there certainly have to be solid definitions of what each angel represents, and why it's placed here instead of there in the scheme.  (For instance, who is Uriel?  Who put Raphael all the way in the back?)  Anyway, I think the Bedtime Shema arrangement really does work the best, and I'll try to break it down, angel by angel, to show how I think it works.

Let's start with Uriel, in the front: once explained, this one's probably the simplest.  Uriel means the "light" (uri) of "God" (el).4  The angel Uriel is metaphorically "the light that illuminates Israel's darkness, as is said 'Though I sit in darkness, the Lord is a light unto me'."5  As a "luminary" archangel, Uriel was Enoch's tour guide, revealing to him the hidden secrets of the heavens, the moon and the stars, the storehouses of wind and rain, the prisons of the fallen angels, and the gates of heaven.6  Why, he's so "bright" that Milton equated Uriel with the angel of Revelation 19:17 that was "standing in the sun":
His back was turn'd, but not his brightness hid:
Of beaming sunny rays a golden tiar
Circled his head, nor less his locks behind
Illustrious on his shoulders, fledged with wings,
Lay waving round...7
All this is to say that I think Uriel functions here, standing before the supplicant in the visualization, as the bright shining light that both reveals the hidden path and leads the way.  I'm sure there are many more orthodox images that could come to mind with these symbols -- perhaps an acolyte holding a pillar candle -- but the one that most immediately comes to my mind is The Hermit from Tarot cards.

The Hermit, from Arthur Waite and
Pamela Coleman Smith's Tarot deck

In one way, Uriel could be the Hermit figure himself; in another, the Hermit could be the supplicant, and Uriel would be the shining Star of David that illuminates the seeker's particular path towards God.  I'm sure the more mystical answer is that there's no difference between the two ideas, but I'm not nearly enlightened enough to say for sure.  In any case, I think we've made a solid case for Uriel's position being truly effective in the front of the visualization.

Now on to Raphael in the rear, an angel well known to us readers of Catholic Bibles that include the apocryphal Book of Tobit.  In this story, Raphael acts as a medicine-man: only using parts of a fish that he and Tobiah caught, he makes medicine that cures cataracts and banishes the demon Asmodai.  At the end of the story, Raphael reveals to Tobit and Sarah that he's an angel, and that "God sent me to heal you."8

Who is Raphael?  Raphael is the very angel in charge of tending all diseases and wounds,9 and his work is that of curing and healing.10  In fact, Pesikta Rabbati finds the etymology of the name Raphael in Numbers 12:13, "Heal (repha) her now, O God (el)."11

In the "tactical" scheme proposed earlier, Raphael can be none other than the combat medic.  I'm sure that Raphael could hold his own in a fight, but all the accounts I've read of his deeds have him healing, cleansing, and picking up the pieces of the damage that's been done.  After the fallen angels were defeated, it was left to Raphael to bind them in chains under a burning valley.12  After the Flood, Raphael cleansed the world of some leftover demons, and took the time to write an herbal remedy book for Noah.13  While he wasn't the angel that wrestled with Jacob, he did heal Jacob's wound afterwards.14  And one account of Abraham's three visitors has them as Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael; Michael and Gabriel were about to head out to do the unpleasantness at Sodom and Gomorrah, while Raphael's only mission was to heal Abraham's circumcision wound.15

Enmegahbowh, Ojibwe Episcopal priest;
there's a healing station in his name at

In the Bedtime Shema, I think Raphael is the one that tends to the healing aspects of prayer -- he's the part that mends and calms during any prayer, regardless of where the supplicant is going (that's Uriel's job).  I've never had an out-of-body meditating experience, but I would assume that there's some definable "presence" that stays behind with the body and makes sure it doesn't simply quit.  In this visualization, that's Raphael, and I think it's shown to be completely appropriate that Raphael is placed in the rear of the guard, hanging back and healing.

Now on to Gabriel and Michael on either side of the supplicant.  This might get a little difficult to explain because our popular images of both these angels are, to all appearances, based on the kind of irony that the Bible does so well -- the unexpected turn that has a tiny shepherd boy slay a giant, that has the second-born son receive the inheritance, that has the head-over-heels twist in nearly everything that Jesus said or did -- so I may need to shatter some preconceptions before building them back up.

Michael (left) and Gabriel (right) in the popular imaginaton

The two images above were selected almost randomly from Wikipedia -- the content of the images should be at least vaguely familiar to anyone raised in a Christian-dominant culture.  At Revelation 12:7-9, when war broke out in heaven, Michael slayed the dragon (Satan); at Luke 1:26-38, Gabriel came to a Galilean girl named Mary to announce her pregnancy by the Lord.  Since these are the most memorable moments in the "lives" of these angels, it's only natural that Michael has tended towards an aggressively masculine depiction, while Gabriel has come to be seen as a softly androgynous or even feminine angel.  But to even recognize the irony that the Bible is giving us, we have to back up and understand that these depictions are exactly opposite of the principles that Gabriel and Michael represent in the tradition that leads to the Bedtime Shema.

In Kabbalistic terms (don't get me started -- we'll save that topic for further blog posts), Michael represents Mercy and Loving-kindness, while Gabriel represents Judgment and Fear.  This opposition of angelic roles absolutely permeates all Jewish mystic understanding --
...concerning Job 25:2, "merciful dominion and fear are at peace with Him," Merciful dominion is Michael and Fear is Gabriel; both surrender to God so that one doesn't injure the other.16
-- and is even understood by early Church fathers like Origen:
A particular office is assigned to a particular angel: as to Raphael, e.g., the work of curing and healing; to Gabriel, the conduct of wars; to Michael, the duty of attending to the prayers and supplications of mortals.17
Gabriel's role as a warrior is made obvious when you look at his name in Hebrew: the root word of his name connotes strength and might.
Why is he called Gabriel, made up of Gabri (My means whereby I prevail) and El (God)?  Because it's written of Judah "for Judah prevailed (gabar) above his brethren," and of a scion of Judah "his name is called 'wonderful in counsel is God the Mighty' ('El Gibbor)."18
Gabriel is the angel of fire,19 so it was this angel that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah20 and smote the Assyrian army.21  Gabriel brought visions of war and apocalypse to Daniel,22 and is promised to overthrow corrupt Rome and hunt down the monster Leviathan23 before blaring the war-trumpet at the End Times.24

Chuck Heston as Ben Hur --
a more accurate image of Gabriel?

Michael, on the other hand, is the angelic prince,25 merciful and forebearing.26  He acts (in Jewish sources) as the benevolent, heavenly high priest, sacrificing the offerings of humanity to God.27  After any worship service, Michael uses "a large bowl as deep as from heaven to earth, as wide as north to south" to gather up all the prayers and devotions offered to God, which appear to him as flowers.  He forms the flowers into a crown which he sets upon God's head.28

The archangel Michael constantly displays mercy, especially to humanity.  He works pro bono as Israel's defense attorney when Satan brings accusations against it;29 he guides souls towards the Divine Throne, and makes sure they've been purified before they stand in front of their Lord.30  He comforted Eve while she labored with Cain, and even after the scoundrel murdered his brother, Michael secretly taught Cain how to till the earth for food.31  He rescued Lot and his family from the doom of Sodom,32 and, most tellingly, he was the one that stopped Abraham's hand at the moment he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.33  Looking at the two angels objectively, it seems as though Michael should be considered the more stereotypically "feminine," caring one, compared to Gabriel's warrior might.

Mother Teresa -- one of many
"Michaels" that lived on earth

So why do we have the standard, popular images of Gabriel and Michael?  To a degree, I think biblical irony is at work.  In the literary landscape in which "the meek shall inherit the earth," it's appropriate that the loving, merciful angel would finally slay Satan ("killing him with kindness," perhaps), and it's interesting, if not downright amusing, to imagine the hulking, manly warrior Gabriel being commissioned to give glad tidings to a poor girl in Nazareth.  But I think a little deeper digging will yield more insights than even this.

As a liberal Episcopalian, I'm not the expert on Revelation that other Christians claim to be, but there's a couple things I want to pull out of the Satan-slaying scenario in Revelation 12:7-9.  Remember that Michael, in the mindset of ancient Judaism, was the defense attorney for Israel, working against the prosecutor, Satan.  If a Judeo-Christian like John of Patmos was composing the ultimate End Times retribution, in which all was finally set correct and just, it only makes sense that Mercy (Michael) would finally win out against the accuser.  Anyone that's on trial, either literally or spiritually, would love to see their attorney "take down" the prosecutor; John's attorney, Michael, does this on a heavenly scale.

On a little deeper level, also keep in mind that Michael carried the upward-motion prayers from Earth to God.  With Michael, the upward-motion is key.  It's completely appropriate that John, either consciously or via inspiration, put Michael's battle against Satan in the sky.  It gave hope to the early Christians that their prayers were not only being heard, but were, in and of themselves, producing the game-changing effects (in the form Michael) in the war in heaven.

To bring this back to our Bedtime Shema visualization, remember that Michael is on the right side of the supplicant.  The more I've worked with the visualization, the more I've pictured my prayers actively going directly from my right side (or my open right hand, if I'm in a more meditative pose) and moving upward, like flower petals in the breeze, to God.  All of the symbols and implications of Michael are present in this upward-motion, and I think it's appropriate to put Michael on the right side -- the more traditionally "active" side -- of the prayer.

But now, what of Gabriel?  In many ways I think you can anticipate what I'll say of his role in the prayer.  First I'd just like to relate an insight I've discovered, pertaining to his mission at the Annunciation of Mary.

An interesting entry in the Book of Psalms (a book which, when read plainly, is far more interesting than the pious hymns at church would have you believe) is Psalm 110.  Here, we find God promising an earthly king (ostensibly David) that He shall "make your enemies a footstool for your feet."  God promises him willing troops and a holy array of war; nonetheless God Himself will crush the enemies: "He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing rulers of the whole earth.  He will drink from a brook along the way, and so he will lift his head high."  A Psalm well sung in the warrior-Gabriel mode; all that's missing is the lamentations of women.

Of all things, though, I discovered -- while reading C. S. Lewis -- that this particular psalm had traditionally been scheduled for liturgy on Christmas Day. seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of a war, promising victory... for those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the 'judge' or champion or giant-killer, had at last arrived, and the evidence suggests that Our Lord also thought of Himself in those terms.34
Lewis then notes that he's recognized this mood of Christmas before, in Milton's poem On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which is a worthwhile read during the holidays to counter the effects of sugarplums and fruitcake.  This all goes to show that Christmas really might be appropriate, and less ironic than you'd think, to Gabriel.

This view of Christmas accords with many of these symbols in interesting ways.  With this mindset, the church year between Easter and Pentecost is an upward, Michael-oriented motion; the time of Advent is when the church is preparing to receive its downward-moving Savior.

And here's where I'll bring it back to Gabriel: remember, as fire and brimstone Gabriel came down onto Sodom and Gomorrah, and likewise destroyed the Assyrian army; he came down to announce glad tidings to Mary; he'll reportedly come down with the trumpet at the End Times.  Gabriel, in all respects, represents the strength and might of God in a downward-motion, and the supplicant receives this strength on the left side -- the traditionally "receptive" side.

What this gives us is a situation in which a perfect current of prayer is being conducted through the supplicant.  In the visualization, you simply have to imagine God's strength moving down/into you through your left side or open left hand, and feel it moving through and out of you via your right side or open right hand.  With the light of Uriel leading the way, and the medicine of Raphael at your back, the current is well housed in an angelically protected system.  I don't know if the originators of the Bedtime Shema envisioned anything as grand a concept as this, but I think this is why I keep coming back to it.

I'll end with an image that might be useful as we head towards Christmas.  The theological scholar Margaret Barker -- a big influence on my angelic musings -- has proposed35 that the promise of a Messiah found at Isaiah 9:6 can be read as a coded reference to these four archangels.
For unto us a child is born... and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Wonderful Counselor = Uriel
Mighty God = Gabriel
Everlasting Father = Michael
Prince of Peace = Raphael

For Isaiah, the promised Messiah would fulfill the roles of all four archangels; for Christians, Jesus had.  With tidings of Christmas so tidily wrapped into this verse, it might not be inappropriate to see the four archangels in the four candles of the wreath this Advent season, as we prepare for the child "born unto us."

1. Scherman, Siddur, pp. 294-5.
2. Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer ch. 4, p. 22.
3. Braude, Pesikta Rabbati 46:3, p. 792-3; see also Numbers Rabbah 2:10, cited in Cohen, Talmud, p. 50.
4. Cohen, Talmud, p. 52.
5. Micah 7:8, cited in Braude, Pesikta Rabbati 46:3, p. 793.
6. Isaac, 1 Enoch 17-19, 21, 33, 72-82.
7. Milton, Paradise Lost, 4:613-629.
8. Tobit 12:11-15.
9. Isaac, 1 Enoch 40:5.
10. Origen, De Principiis 1:8:1; Midrash Avkir cited in Bialik and Ravnitzky, Legends 1:3:83; Ginzberg, Legends 1:2:2.
11. Braude, Pesikta Rabbati 46:3, p. 793.
12. Ginzberg, Legends 1:4:2; Isaac, 1 Enoch 10:4-6.
13. Ginzberg, Legends 1:4:9.
14. Midrash Avkir cited in Bialik and Ravnitzky, Legends 1:3:83; Ginzberg, Legends 1:6:16.
15. b. Baba Mezi'a 86b; Ginzberg, Legends 1:5:17.
16. Braude and Kapstein, Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 1:3, p. 9.
17. Origen, De Principiis 1:8:1.
18. 1 Chronicles 5:2, Isaiah 9:5, cited in Braude, Pesikta Rabbati 46:3.
19. Ginzberg, Legends 1:3:12; b. Pesachim 118a.
20. Sitre Tora, Zohar 1:99a, cited in Patai, Gates pp. 440-1; Ginzberg, Legends 1:5:17; b. Baba Mezi'a 86b.
21.  2 Kings 19:35, cited in b. Sanhedrin 95b.
22. Daniel, 7-8.
23. b. Pesachim 118b; b. Baba Bathra 74b-75a.
24. Budge, Bee pp. 133-4.
25. b. Chagigah 12b; Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer ch. 27 p. 193.
26. Isaac, 1 Enoch 40:4, 9.
27. b. Menachoth 110a; b. Chagigah 12b; Ginzberg, Legends 1:1:3.
28. Gaylord, 3 Baruch 11:2, 4-9; 12:1-8; Exodus Rabbah 21:4 cited in Cohen, Talmud p. 49.
29. Exodus Rabbah 18:5 cited in Cohen, Talmud p. 50.
30. Ginzberg, Legends1:2:8; Apocalypse of Paul par. 14, 22, 25; Isaac, 1 Enoch 71:3-5; Herbert and MacNamara, Irish 4:18-19.
31. Ginzberg, Legends 1:3:1; Johnson, Vita 21:1-2.
32. b. Baba Mezi'a 86b; Ginzberg, Legends 1:5:20.
33. Ginzberg, Legends 1:5:28; Wintermute, Jubilees 18:9-11; Braude, Pesikta Rabbati 40:6, p. 718.
34. Lewis, Psalms pp. 122-5.
35. Barker, The Archangel Raphael in the Book of Tobit, chapter 9 of Bredin, Tobit, p. 124.

Apocalypse of Paul; retrieved from

Bialik, Hayim Nahman and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, ed.; William G. Braude, trans.  The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah.  New York: Schocken Books.  1992.

Braude, William G, trans.  Pesikta Rabbati: Discourses for Feasts, Fasts, and Special Sabbaths.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.  1968.

Braude, William G. and Israel J. Kapstein, trans.  Pesikta de-Rab Kahana: R. Kahana's Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days.  Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.  1975.  

Bredin, Mark, ed.  Studies in the Book of Tobit: A Multidisciplinary Approach.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd.  2006.

Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans.  The Book of the Bee.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.  1886.  Retrieved from

Cohen, Abraham.  Everyman's Talmud.  New York: Schocken Books.  1949.

Epstein, Rabbi Dr. Isidore, ed.  The Babylonian Talmud.  London: Soncino Press.  1961.

Friedlander, Gerald, trans.  Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer: The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna.  New York: Hermon Press.  1965.

Gaylord, H. E. Jr., trans.  The Third Book of Baruch.  Vol. 1, pp. 653-679 of Charlesworth, James H., ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co.  1983.

Ginzberg, Louis.  The Legends of the Jews.  1909.  Retrieved from 

Herbert, Maire and Martin McNamara.  Irish Biblical Apocrypha.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd.  1989.

Isaac, E., trans.  Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch.  Vol. 1, pp. 5-89 of Charlesworth, James H., ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co.  1983.

Johnson, M. D., trans.  Vita Adae et Evae.  Vol. 2, pp. 249-295 of Charlesworth, James H., ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co.  1983.

Lewis, C. S.  Reflections on the Psalms.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.  1958.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  New York: Barnes and Noble Books.  2004.

New Advent.  Fathers of the Church.  Citations from the writings of Church Fathers (including Origen) retrieved from

Patai, Raphael.  Gates to the Old City.  Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.  1980.

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, ed. and trans.  The Complete ArtScroll Siddur.  New York: Mesorah Publications.  1984.

Wintermute, O. S., trans.  Jubilees.  Vol. 2, pp. 35-142 of Charlesworth, James H., ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co.  1983.

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