Experience over Orthodoxy - a 13th century nun's vision of the Ophanim
Living mysticism is a thorn in the side of any orthodox religion. By its very nature the first-hand, intimate experience of divinity in its manifold forms challenges the fixed and confined archives of established spiritual organisations. After all most churches of any significant size and age are nothing but executors and archivists of what once all began with a fluid, highly personal experience of a few or even a single person. Once the spirit has waned and died, what remains is the administration of memories. It's no surprise many entomologists of the past preferred their objects of research when they were pierced with a needle in neat rows on large canvas - rather than alive and well in their natural habitat.
Unfortunately the above is not only true for most established religions but even for their heretic relatives - just like the Western Magical tradition. Ideas and artefacts of our ancestors' practice - whether bound in paper, cloth or metals - are mistaken for objects of authority and humble adoration - rather than encouragement for one's validation through practice.
Nowhere is this demise more apparent than in our own tradition's relationship to the concept of angelic beings. Before most practitioners can get anywhere close to their own first-hand experience of them their minds have been cluttered already by centuries of second-hand theories and philosophical speculations of what these beings actually are, how one should engage with them properly, which rewards and benefits one may receive from them - and how they are organised in endless chains of celestial hierarchies. There is very little space left to cut one's own teeth in an unbiased way by the time a practitioner gets to this point. Creating this space then often becomes a struggle over many more decades - in freeing one's own practice and perception from the many encrusted layers of cognitive speculation turned orthodox canon.
So imagine my delight when recently during research on another subject I happened to come across the following report: it's the story of an anonymous 13th century German recluse who voluntarily confined herself to a hermitage and struggled through the 'dark night of the soul' - until she finally achieved first-hand vision of angels and souls all by herself.
The story is taken from Caesarius of Heisterbach's large 13th century collection of spiritual legends and miracles, Dialogus Miraculorum. Before we'll go into further discussion of this wonderful and yet incredibly rare mystical account, let's read it in full. To my knowledge this might be its first English translation in a very long time:
1. Of a recluse who while doubting God and the angels achieved gnosis, beheld angels and souls and returned to her body (IV,39). The abbot of Brombach (Brunisbach, Brumsbach) in the previous year told our abbot a terrible story how through excessive sadness temptations may arise. 'In our land' that's how the report began, 'was a nubile girl, the daughter of rich people. When the parents planned to marry her, she declared: I will not take any other than my celestial bridegroom, the lord Jesus Christ. As she kept on renewing her vow the parents finally gave up their resistance and gave in to her will. She thanked God for like a victory and had herself built a cell in which the bishop dressed her in her robe and locked her in.
For several days she lived in devout service of God surrendering to her seclusion; the devil however furious about her devotion frightened and tortured her through all kinds of temptations and by poisoning the innocent heart of the virgin with melancholia he turned what was healthy into sick. Soon she submitted to all kinds of thoughts, wavering in her faith and doubting her endurance. Despondency afflicted her: her vital forces dwindled, the fervour in her prayer lapsed and she felt deepest pains over her incarceration. While the virgin was tormented by such dangerous doubts the Cistercian abbot named above, into whose care she had been given, visited her and asked how she was living and what her condition was like. 'Miserably I am living' she replied, 'miserable is my condition, and I don't even know why and on whose behalf I am incarcerated here.' When the abbot replied: 'On behalf of God and his celestial kingdom,' she cut him off: 'Who can say if there is a God, if there are angels, souls and a celestial realm? Who has witnessed them, who has returned from yonder to tell us that they have seen them?'
When the abbot heard this and similar speeches he felt hugely alarmed and said to the virgin: 'What are you talking, sister? Make the sign of the cross!' — 'I talk as I perceive: if I cannot see such things I cannot believe in them. I beg you, release me as I cannot bear this torture any longer.' It was then that the abbot realised that sudden melancholia which had risen already to the level of desperation could only stem from the devil, and he said: 'Sister, the enemy of your glory is riding you and he is tempting you in the most concerning way. Stand firm in your faith, fight manly against your enemy, strengthen your heart and hold out for the Lord. Against the word of your friends and relatives you chose this sacred life; you yourself called for this reclusion.' When she did not listen to his admonitions, the abbot asked her to hold out one more week; he would return after that. It took plight before she agreed to this.
Once he had returned to his monastery to abbot told his monks about the dangerous condition of the virgin and commanded them to pray for her imploringly throughout the entire week; he himself however prayed for her with strongest zeal.
At the end of the week he visited her again and asked: 'Daughter, how are you doing?' She replied: 'Very exquisite, father; I have never felt better. Within the last seven days I have been rewarded and bestowed so much more than I had been sad and desperate before.' When asked how this had come, she replied: 'Father, with my own eyes I beheld what I had doubted before. As soon as you had left me, my soul was taken from my body and I beheld the holy angels, beheld the blessed and the reward of the righteous. However, I also saw with the eyes of my soul how my body was lying on the ground bloodless and pale like barren grass.' When the abbot inquired how the soul had looked like, she said: 'The soul is a spiritual substance, spherical in nature, similar to the disc of the moon and it looks in all directions at once. If an angel or spirit appears to the soul while she is within a body they appear in corporeal silhouettes; however, once it is free of the flesh the soul is just like all other souls.' Furthermore the nun told some things about the advent of the antichrist which I am not going to tell here, as many have been cheated by prophecies about him.' (Alexander Kaufmann, Wunderbare und denkwürdige Geschichten aus den Werken des Cäsarius von Heisterbach. Zweiter Theil, p.115/116)
In a footnote towards the end the editor, Alexander Kaufman provides two further valuable links which we shall equally quote here:
'Here the novice remarks: 'This concurs with what the abbot of Morimond has given testimony on, his soul had resembled a glass-vessel covered with eyes on all sides' (Dial.I,32). A soul covered entirely with eyes appears in a Lithuanian legend in Veckenstedt, Mythen Sagen und Legend der Zamaiten II, p.211.
Now, please tell me I am mistaken, but for my part I'd bet money on the fact that most practitioners of Western Magic will never be able to experience the angelic beings called 'Ophanim' in such personal, intimate relationship - simply because their minds are way too cluttered with the stuff they read or were told about them. - In fact it's ironic that me putting the label 'Ophanim' on the above experience just might make things worse again?
So let's rewind and consider how this young woman managed to achieve this gnostic vision: She followed her inner calling against the advise of all people close to her. Where there was no path, she dared to forge one. When she finally was in her cell, she had to face her own worst fears and doubts: The place she had sacrificed everything to get to proved to be a hellish prison full of torture and torment. After all she wasn't who she thought she would be - the reclusive nun that followed her own spiritual path in complete confinement. Instead darkness seemed to tell her she was a fraud - wanting nothing but to leave this place, to escape from her own demons and mingle with people in sunshine again. However, in this darkest moment she had the support of an 'elder' who knew what was needed and managed to keep her in her self-chosen prison despite all her resistance. Only then did she break through and made contact. And what she saw and experienced was nothing like she had expected it - but so much more of a reward than she had endured pain before.
Now this is how spiritual first-hand experiences are crafted. Not from repeating words or patterns of an established ritual, not by following a well trodden path - but by throwing yourself one hundred percent into your own experience, by putting all of your skin into the game - and by having the courage as well as the required support to face your own demons first.
By following the example of this young woman - this is how we can empower ourselves to understand our own tradition from the inside out - and not the other way around. We can see this best by imagining how her story might have continued...
Imagine our young recluse in her later life studying the mystical tradition of the West. At some point she comes across the vision of Ezekiel and the images of the 'many eyed wheels' of the Ophanim; a few years later she works her Gematriah and realises the value of Ophanim (187) is the same as the hebrew word for 'lifted up'; she researches further and reads these angels are ruling over the circling vital forces both in the human body and the celestial realm; in another book she hears them being called the beings that enable one to develop the perfected vehicle of adepthood.
She probably reads a lot more. But whatever she comes across in writing, however somber and sacred the name of the author might read, she always holds on to her own first-hand experience. Of what she saw and experienced in that dark cell: that once freed from the the flesh every soul looks upon every other soul in the same way. And that her own soul is no different to these mysterious beings - somewhat like the disc of the moon, covered entirely with eyes.
And I can see her, smiling to herself when reading 3 Enoch where the head of the Ophanim, Ophaniel is referred to as 'the angel of the wheel of the moon' with '16 faces, 100 pairs of wings, and 8,466 eyes'.
Experience eats orthodoxy for breakfast. Every time.