Azrael

“Is it right and permissible to ask you to end the lives of our enemies?” I asked the archangel Azrael. “Is contact with you likely to provide any benefit?”

Random thoughts flickered through my mind, mostly concerned with the events and coincidences that had raised these questions and brought me down to the shed before daybreak to invoke the angel.

The seal of the archangel Azrael.

Firstly, my dream from the previous night: wandering with two long-lost friends through streets we knew but which were now much-changed, each of us wondering if we were dreaming. Then I said: “I think only I am dreaming, and your thinking you are dreaming is only my dream.”

And then my dream from the night before that: I had become obsessed with compiling a playlist of songs from the eighties. It was so vivid that the next day I set about compiling the same list of tracks whilst awake – and, yes, I quickly became obsessed, because the tracks were diverse and I could not find an ordering that provided pleasant-sounding transitions.

Next, the so-called “27 Club”: musicians and artists who had died tragically at the age of twenty-seven, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain.

Then the intriguing intersection of musical inspiration and the angelic in novels by David Keenan. (“For Azrael is the angel described in these works”, Azrael told me.)

And finally, the first appearance of Azrael months ago. A friend was troubled by shadow entities in her home and our group offered to exorcise them using a scrying process, calling on the archangel Raphael, which had worked well for us in two previous and similar cases.

When the shadow entities appeared the word “Azrael” occurred spontaneously to my friend, although she did not consciously recognise its meaning.

Three of us undertook the working, over a video connection, and we were shocked by the negative consequences. I escaped relatively lightly, experiencing only a nasty sulphurous smell. My colleague found himself in sudden physical pain, feeling a sense of dread that lingered over several days, and there were unexplained scratching noises and footsteps in his home, which his partner also heard.

Azrael showed me how all these were connected, because Azrael had connected and completed them by being invoked.

Azrael showed itself to me as a crystalline structure embracing all living beings across all dimensions, the function of which is to bring each being to completion as a living being. Completion is the key to understanding Azrael.

In the present time, many people are calling out to Azrael because they feel loss. In my social circle at the moment, many are angry at the corruption of politicians who no longer represent the people to power but now represent the interests of power towards the people. The politicians pretend that significant change is not possible, and they pretend at patriotism (to ensure support) even as they sell off our nation’s assets to benefit themselves and the power they represent.

A rash of flags. If they think it garners them votes then they do not seem to mind looking like fascists.

The ballot box apparently cannot rid us of them – but can magick? It is a dark thought, but consider: there would be no material or causal connection between an assassin and a target if the means of assassination were magick. Yet this could never be undertaken lightly, because it would place a person in the very same position ethically as if physical measures had been taken. The karmic consequences would be dire, yet there is the option to recognise and own the consequences. Was Azrael showing up now because this was viable?

We made a divination for further guidance. “Is it permissible”, we asked, “to request an angel to eliminate someone whom that angel recognises as a malefactor?”

From the tarot came Five of Wands, Six of Pentacles inverted, and the Knight of Cups inverted. From the I Ching came Hexagram Thirty, The Clinging, Fire. With a moving sixth line, this was transitioning to Hexagram Fifty-Five, Abundance. We picked our jaws up off the floor after reading the meaning of that moving sixth line:

It is best to kill the leaders (Anthony 1988: 144).

But let us take a pause.

It would have been easy to read this as complicit assurance, rather than the wry pun it actually was. The correct way to read the I Ching is always as the advice of an immeasurably enlightened being.

If Azrael brings down upon all living beings not only grisly demise but completion, then things are not so simple. I was crying out from a place of loss. Maybe, dear reader, at this moment in time you are too. In this state is it wise for living beings to call down completion on either themselves or others? Consider the 27 Club – their works and reputations are preserved in beauty forever by the tragic and premature completion of lives. But how does this mitigate the losses they endured in life, and the loss of their lives to the rest of the world?

Azrael brings all beings to perfect completion, but the completion of being is not resolution of loss nor the restoration of losses.

In my dream I woke to the truth that I was dreaming, and so the dream ended and was complete. But only whilst sleeping were my lost friends restored. On completion of the dream they were lost again.

And in my other dream, the songs on the eighties playlist are available in the present, but there is no hope of imposing any tidy completion upon their diversity, their chaotic jumble of sounds. It would be obsession to attempt this, whereas in refraining from obsession there might be joy.

To call down Azrael upon vicious liars and thieves is to complete them as such. They become a maleficent version of the 27 Club. The meaning of Hexagram Fifty-Five, Abundance, is the recognition that when we lack influence upon others we must let go of seeking it: “to hold to the power of truth is to overcome all darkening trends” (Anthony 1988: 251).

“It is best to kill the leaders”, urged that moving sixth line in Hexagram Thirty, The Clinging, Fire. But who are those leaders?

The most evil ringleaders of disorder in the personality are vanity and pride – the ego, whether it is self-depreciating, self-congratulating, or self-defending (Anthony 1988: 144).

Hexagram Thirty is a chastening reminder of the obvious.

When events seem foreboding and people seem evil, we should remember the good that was and still has potential in them. The more evil they seem to be, the more resolutely we must cling to that potential. If we cling to the invisible sparks of light that are eclipsed by their inferior natures, the power of clinging will enable the dark force to be overcome. (Anthony 1988: 141)

When is it inadvisable to pursue goodness and truth? Never. Obviously. But in the grip of loss this may become obscured.

[D]esire and impatience […] have their origins in fear and doubt. Vanity is also present when we see ourselves as rejected, alone, abandoned. Vanity causes us to want “inside knowledge”, to have a “handle” on things, and to seek assurances that will work to our satisfaction. Vanity […] makes us think that everything in life is dependent on human decisions; it causes us to forget that the Cosmos is at work putting things to right, and that we are not required to accomplish everything by ourselves. (Anthony 1988: 145)

I had been looking to magick to provide the “handle”, the “inside knowledge”.

The lessons of the hexagrams were underscored by the tarot: Five of Wands indicates discord and struggle; Six of Pentacles, inverted, suggests greed and corruption. The Knight of Cups is associated with Sir Perceval, he who seeks the Holy Grail, but the card is inverted, signifying a failure at or deviation from the quest. So the first card of these three hints at incompletion and irresolution, and the others point at abandonment and loss.

Azrael can take nothing away. By dying no being attains or achieves anything except completion of its life. On this side of existence, completion is what Azrael has to offer. Whatever remains unresolved must find its solution after death.

Azrael, the archangel of death.

David Keenan’s novel This is Memorial Device (2018) is the fictional history of a band formed in the early eighties from the post-punk scene in Airdrie, as told by various characters who encounter the band members and their music. The bassist is Remy Farr, and one of the chapters concerns his father. Remy’s father wrote a tract that argued “there was some kind of disjunction between actions and thoughts. It wasn’t that they were parallel occurrences, in his view actions were eternal and forever but thought was something that happened in time and that came to pass only once” (Keenan 2018: 62).

Remy’s father describes being on holiday with his wife, kneeling down to clean some plates after a meal at a picnic spot, when he notices two small indentations in the grass into which his knees fit perfectly. He is convinced that he created these holes himself, because he is re-living his life repeatedly rather than it unfolding uniquely through time, “as though his secret self (his guardian angel he called it) had constructed this total artwork that had lain in wait for him (or more properly that had always existed and that was now somehow revealing itself to thought)” (Keenan 2018: 63-4).

If actions are fixed forever, but thoughts come only once, then – Remy’s father reasons – life is “this precise set of occurrences” (Keenan 2018: 64) and our thoughts are judgments upon it. He takes this a couple of steps further. First, if we ourselves (or an angel) has set up everything that happens in our life, “then what thought demands of us is nothing less than that we weigh the will of God itself” (Keenan 2018: 64). Second, he suggests a possible transcendence: if we refuse our gift of judgment and the will of God then could it be that “the whole thing comes full circle and finally you are able to live your life as written (in history and in time over again), but this time outside of mind, without judgment and beyond understanding?” (Keenan 2018: 65).

There is no longer a sense of a passage through life, of life unfolding through time or mind, demanding to be understood and judged, but the cessation of a need for mind, judgment, or understanding as conditions of the unfolding of life. This is no longer, then, the setting up of the circumstances of life by the guardian angel, but maybe something like the completion of life that Azrael brings. The completion of life is when God’s will offers us nothing further.

Keenan’s Xstabeth (2020) is about another father – the father of the narrator, Aneliya – an aging but commercially naïve musician who, after a disillusioned break, decides to return to performance. His music is improvised and, although he does not record the performance, mysteriously a recording appears under the name “Xstabeth”: “he both recognised it as himself whilst thinking that the voice was coming from someone else entirely” (Keenan 2020: 56). Aneliya’s father is distraught when a second album appears without him having given any further performances. Xstabeth is some kind of an emerging entity, maybe an angel, perhaps a saint. After a subsequent performance, Aneliya’s father vanishes.

Is Keenan returning to the insights of Remy’s father in this later novel? Xstabeth seems a narrative elaboration of a process by which our actions, through assuming a life of their own, transcend the conditions of our lived being.

He had come through art. I realised. Was what he said. Or he might have said. I am realised. […] The point of art is to be done with it. He said. […] The point of art is to get you to the place where you have no need of it. […] The end of art is at the end of the world. (Keenan 2020: 62-3)

“For I am the angel described in these works”, Azrael assured me.

Music is a recurring motif in this nexus of concepts. I was reminded of a brilliantly incisive conversation on the intrinsic weirdness of music between J.F. Martel and Phil Ford.

Music is regarded as the most abstract artform, yet also the most direct in how it represents nothing to us figuratively yet exerts a direct effect: “You don’t just entertain a notion of sadness”, Phil Ford commented. “You feel it. It takes you over. You become a different person when you listen to sad music” (14’29”). On listening to music, the listener becomes the music. It makes us into what it evokes. J.F. Martel draws out the philosophical implications of this: “The things that we think exist only in our heads are already out there. That’s what music teaches me” (17’52”).

Perhaps all art forms achieve this, but in different ways. And maybe it is not just art, but every action, every karmic impression. In music it is clearest how actions (those minute vibrations of molecules through air) have a life and meaning that eclipses those we usually perceive as being our own. Azrael is the spiritual being that that fulfils this function to its fullest and at its final extent.

The shadow entities witnessed by my friend followed a bereavement of someone who had endured much pain and loss. In retrospect the emergence of the name “Azrael” may have been an indication that completion would have been a better approach than an attempt at healing.

The dead are beyond suffering. It would be a misconstrual to suppose the consequences of our working impacted on anyone other than ourselves. Healing involves an encounter with the other’s pain, and that was maybe what had impacted on us.

The problem here is more subtle than knowing the right angel to evoke. Through contact with and contemplation of these spiritual beings the work actually lies in developing an understanding of how karma operates in the context of being, dying, pain, ignorance, and loss.

I hope that the I Ching and the tarot and finally the invocation of Azrael itself have now furnished a fuller understanding and have cleared the way.

References

Anthony, Carol K. (1988). A Guide to the I Ching, third edition. Stow, MA: Anthony Publishing.

Ford, Phil & J.F. Martel (2020) Weird studies episode 90 – “The Owl in Daylight”: on Philip K. Dick’s unwritten masterpiece. https://tinyurl.com/wsdus8yp (weirdstudies.com). Accessed March 2021.

Keenan, David (2018). This Is Memorial Device. London: Faber & Faber.

Keenan, David (2020). Xstabeth. London: White Rabbit.

 

Kite

I came downstairs and saw that the kite machine had finished. It had taken care of all the troublesome work of launching the kite high above the garden of my parents’ old house. Outside, it was a clear, summer day. The kite was already so high that it could not be seen. Its cord stretched up into the air, vanishing from sight, but I knew both kite and cord shared the same shade of pale blue.

Thanks to the launching machine, what remained was purely the pleasure of taking hold of the cord. I felt the tug of the kite from the other end, like something alive. This was the thrill of it: that direct connection with something vastly remote, invisible yet present.

Gazing up, a series of high-tension wires were dangerously close to the cord. I felt a surge of adrenaline, but realised the cord was already brushing against them. The danger I feared was not real. There was nothing to worry about. I could relax completely into my connection with the high and distant kite.

It felt like a good, healing dream. When I told it to my therapist he looked surprised and disclosed a synchronicity: he was running a men’s group and they were reading together a short story by Somerset Maugham, “The Kite” (1946).

It is the self-proclaimed “odd” tale of Herbert Sunbury, only son of a lower middle-class family, in his early twenties and still living at home with his overly attached mother and somewhat passive father. The story is told to the narrator by a friend, a prison visitor. Herbert is one of the friend’s cases and has been imprisoned for refusing to pay his wife alimony after abandoning her. When the friend asks Herbert why he wants to make his wife suffer he states that he can never forgive her – because she smashed his kite.

We are told how Herbert became obsessed with kites at the age of seven, and every weekend when the weather was favourable he and his parents would join other kite enthusiasts on the common, a tradition maintained ever since, until the day arrives when he invites a girl home to tea named Betty. Herbert’s jealous mother is so insulting towards his new girlfriend that he rebels by asking Betty to marry him. His parents boycott the ceremony, but Betty and Herbert set up home together as newlyweds. Betty cannot understand, however, why a grown man is still so fixated on flying a kite with his parents every weekend.

In a jealous rage, Herbert’s mother insists that the kite she gave him for Christmas all those years ago was never really his. Then, with promises of a huge box-kite that can fly at a height of two miles, his parents entice him back to the common at weekends. At this, Betty’s patience snaps. She throws him out. To his mother’s delight Herbert moves back home where, he realises, he was more comfortable anyway. Driven to desperation by Herbert’s refusal to return or to meet his financial responsibilities, Betty breaks into the coal-shed and smashes up the new box-kite with a hatchet. At least, that is what we are led to assume she did, yet none of the characters sees her do it, and her confession is delivered to Herbert through his father.

The story ends with Herbert in prison, having ignored court orders to support his wife, and relishing the suffering he has inflicted on her when the piano and all their furniture is repossessed.

Perhaps the biggest oddity of the story is its self-conscious framing at beginning and end with disclaimers by the narrator of any understanding of the meaning of Herbert’s behaviour. The narrator states that he knows little of human psychology; he evokes Freud but promptly dismisses him. Maybe this is Maugham’s way of signalling that the obvious Freudian overtones were not primarily what he was aiming at, and so perhaps the narrator’s own interpretation falls nearer the mark:

You see, I don’t know a thing about flying a kite. Perhaps it gives him [Herbert] a sense of power as he watches it soaring towards the clouds and of mastery over the elements as he seems to bend the winds of heaven to his will. It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it’s as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure. And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King’s doctors and not all the King’s surgeons can rid him of it. But all this is very fanciful and I dare say it’s just stuff and nonsense. (Maugham 1946)

I am not convinced it is freedom that is the issue for Herbert, who enjoys the confines of his family home, nor precisely the pleasure of domination and control. At his most desperate, he expresses violent intentions towards Betty yet never follows through; his most aggressive act is to throw her onto the bed so he can leave their home, after she kicks him.

What the kite seems to represent in Maugham’s story is Herbert’s desire. A kite soars high whilst never escaping the cord that binds it. Likewise, we feel the pull of desire, but can never break free from it. Our needs and wants might be satisfied, but our desires never are. We desire a person or an object, but having that object or being with that person does not end the desire for them. Desire extends outwardly to things, at the same time presenting itself intensely and close within. Desire is an inmixing of self and other, which is the reason that working with it is so effective for accessing non-dual states of awareness, as in bhakti yoga, tantra, and sex magick. Psychologically desire reveals more about ourselves than whatever it happens to be manifestly directed towards.

In the story, whoever has the kite has Herbert’s desire; wherever the kite goes, Herbert comes attached. “If you marry that woman you’re not going to fly my kite”, threatens his mother. “I never gave it you, I bought it out of the housekeeping money, and it’s mine, see” (Maugham 1946). In her refusal to relinquish the kite it becomes apparent that Herbert’s desire is his mother’s desire. The fundamental gift a mother bestows the child that emerges from her body is independent existence, yet Herbert’s mother deprives him of this by refusing him a desire of his own.

Betty is not able to break through to him. By belittling his passion for kites she alienates herself from his desire. But that is no fault on her part; as an adult woman she might prefer to be the object of his desire rather than the custodian of it. A film version of the story in 1948 could not resist appending a happy ending: the narrator’s friend arranges for Herbert to be let out early from prison, and for Betty to join him on the common where they fly the kite together (Crabtree 1948). In Maugham’s original text, however, Herbert does not recover from Betty’s destruction of the kite. By taking a hatchet to it, she destroys his capacity for desire altogether. At the story’s conclusion he is stranded in prison, consumed with hatred, and cut-off from the world. The kite as a symbol conveys how we need desire to find a grounding in reality at the same time as it lifts us out of ourselves.

man and woman hugging whilst flying a kite
A happy ending for Herbert (George Cole) and Betty (Susan Shaw) in a movie adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Kite” (1946), part of an anthology film entitled “Quartet” (1948).

In my dream, I was back at my parents’ old house, but they were not there. I was inhabiting a structure they had provided, whereas for Herbert his actual parents are all too present. And if it is the act of control and mastery that is important for Herbert, in the dream all of this is taken care of automatically by the machine. “Getting it up” is not the dream’s focus; it is about the sensation of connection.

On the day of the dream I had listened to Conner Habib’s podcast on the Archangel Michael (Habib 2020) and been very moved by this, and struck by Habib’s remarks on the traditional image of Michael, in which he is shown killing a devil with a spear or sword:

[…t]he sword and the dragon and Michael’s hand are always connected. In a very real way, the sword becomes a conduit or a bridge between Michael and that other being, the dragon. […] The difficulty with destroying the dragon is that you must connect yourself to it […] We don’t evolve past the dragon, we in-volve him and our hearts must be ready for him. (Habib 2020: 14’53”)

Habib is reading Michael from an anthroposophical perspective. For Habib, as for Steiner, the devil slain by Michael is the reductive materialism that characterises our era. This devil is therefore an aspect of a greater cosmic being, Ahriman. For Steiner, human beings walk a path between the deviating influences of Ahriman and Lucifer (Steiner 2009). The former manifests as a downward, earthwards pull towards materialism, literalism, nationalism; Lucifer takes the form of the opposite skyward drift into intellectualisation, abstraction, utopianism. Whereas Herbert struggles to get his kite off the ground, in the dream mine has completely vanished into the wide blue yonder.

Yet the sense of connection is paramount: the kite is grounded to my body through the exhilarating sensation of its pull. Too much identification with the kite itself would lead, as Maugham’s narrator supposes, to an impulse towards “escape” – a dynamic that finds expression in the archetype of the puer aeternus and the cautionary myth of Icarus. But the dream maybe points in a different direction. As Michael demonstrates how to defeat the enemy by exercising will in the correct way and avoiding the temptation to separate from what we need to engage with, perhaps the dream indicates how to put our desire in order.

an archangel killing the devil with a sword
Josse Lieferinxe, St Michael Killing the Dragon (c. 1500).

Allowing others control of our desire provides a promise of satisfaction, just as Herbert fools himself that his best option is to live at home, but this is to confuse desire with his wants and needs. As will is a conduit between self and world, so desire mediates between the self and the ideal. When desire is extinguished then so is our connection to what we hold to be beautiful, good, and true. Herbert’s mother prevents his desire from ever getting off the ground because she wants him, rather than what is best for him. She entraps him in her own confusion. The kite-flying encapsulates both Herbert’s predicament with his mother and his wish to escape.

As Michael’s sword shows how to destroy the devil by connecting with the devil, maybe the kite demonstrates the converse: how to communicate with the highest. Simply being human guarantees a possibility of realising this: we do not have to “do” anything, desire is a given. We automatically tend towards the good, the beautiful, and the true. Obstacles – those supposedly deadly high tension wires – are false beliefs, like Herbert’s false belief that mum fulfils his desire rather than Betty, just because mum meets his needs; and the narrator’s false belief that human nature is beyond his understanding, whereas everything he says about Herbert is right on point. We go wrong only if, in the grip of false belief, we fail to rise at all or completely lose our connection with the earth.

References

Crabtree, Arthur, director (1948). Quartet. J. Arthur Rank Productions.

Habib, Conner (2020). AEWCH 126: The Archangel Michael. https://tinyurl.com/y2x4nz3m (soundcloud.com). Accessed October 2020.

Maugham, Somerset (1946). The kite. https://tinyurl.com/y64ztas9 (blogspot.com). Accessed October 2020.

Steiner, Rudolf (2009). The influences of Lucifer and Ahriman. https://tinyurl.com/y3g87x9t (rsarchive.org). Accessed October 2020.