Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

When I was studying the cosmology of Wicca, one of the most fascinating concepts to me was that of the egregore, or “group mind.” When a group of people gathered for a common purpose, particularly if it were spiritual in nature, their collective psychic energy would begin to coalesce into an organic form of transpersonal consciousness that would remain silently present in the midst of the group’s activity. The egregore would be located in a particular place, typically where the group gathered for its ceremonial work. The more focussed and adept the group was at raising energy, the more powerful the egregore became. It was seen as a sort of psychic bank, into which those who are magically gifted could invest their energy for the benefit of the group as a whole. Eventually the egregore would exert its own influence on the group, shaping and directing the group’s ongoing sense of identity, purpose and mission.

Egregore comes from the Greek work ἐγρήγοροι (egrḗgoroi), which means “watchers.” If you love hymnody half as much as I do, you already see the fascinating thread I want to follow here; for in 1906 an Anglican layman named Athelstan Riley wrote Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, a lovely hymn that celebrates the communion of saints in glory (and which repeats the word “Alleluia” a whopping twenty-six times). The first stanza goes like this:

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

It’s basically a run-down of the nine celestial choirs of angels, as originally formulated by the greatest of the early mystics, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote around the year 500 CE. The idea basically is that the heavenly host is arranged hierarchically (yes, it was Pseudo-Dionysius who either coined or immortalized the word “hierarchy” both to describe the ranking of angels and the ranking of church authority) in nine choirs. But Riley calls the entire bunch of them “Watchers” and “Holy Ones.” So what is that all about?

I suspect it comes from the fourth chapter of Daniel: “I saw in the visions of my head upon my bed, and, behold, a watcher and an holy one came down from heaven.” (Daniel 4:13, KJV; in Catholic Bibles this verse is 4:10). As best I can tell with my just enough knowledge of Biblical word studies to be dangerous, the original Hebrew word used here has a sense of a sentinal or guard. Perhaps this is where the notion of a guardian angel comes from?

So the holy watchers basically watch over us. Unlike the occult notion of the egregore, however, they are not of our own making. The watchers are messengers, who are sent to us. We cannot control or manipulate them. They not only gaze upon us continually, unblinkingly, but also stand ready to bring glad tidings to us, whenever we are willing to shut up and listen.

Ken Wilber has popularized a concept he learned from Ramana Maharshi, concerning a heightened level of consciousness called “I-I,” in which one’s awareness as a separate egoic self dissolves into a greater awareness that is able to step back and — you guessed it — simply watch. Watch one’s own self-identity, watch the mechanics of consciousness, watch the pure undifferentiated presence. I’ve had my own brief fleeting tastes of such experience, and I’ve tried to understand it in terms of Christian mysticism. Here is a halting attempt to put it into words:

When we engage in contemplative prayer, the prayer of simply resting in the presence of God, sometimes we can be called (it is always a call — we cannot choose or engineer this on our own) to “watch” as the angels do. Angels, of course, are messengers from God, so in participating in the mind of a watcher, we are actually putting on the mind of Christ. In the context of deep contemplative prayer, this can be experienced as a heightening or expanding of consciousness, similar to the I-I experience of Ramana Maharshi, but perhaps it’s more of an I-i, where the little “i” represents yourself as the creature, and the big “I” yourself experienced as the deified partaker in the divine nature (II Pater 1:4). We never become God, which is fine by me, as I don’t want the responsibility. Rather, we simply partake in God; we put on the mind of Christ, we are deified, we watch. I say simply, but this is to live fully: the glory of God is a human being fully alive. And how can we be more fully alive than by partaking in the mind of Christ? Of course, what we do when we pray is “practice” for living a life in which we always, gently, consciously watch: watch for love, watch for opportunities to love and to serve, watch simply for the sheer joy of watching…

Ah. My words are clumsy and clunky. Forget about reading what I’ve written, better to turn off your computer and go pray. Just remember, as you do so, that you are not alone. You are being watched, watched by one who brings you a message of deep, abiding love.

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  1. “Ah. My words are clumsy and clunky. Forget about reading what I’ve written, better to turn off your computer and go pray. Just remember, as you do so, that you are not alone. You are being watched, watched by one who brings you a message of deep, abiding love.”


    Oh, friend… you speak to my condition!

    It is so hard to say these things in any human tongue. :)

  2. Thank you, Carl, for the attempt (as clunky as it may seem to you) to say this in words; I “know” you in this, that you are moving in integrity according to your coherent view that expression of what you have seen/known–the attempt to give away to others what you have been freely given–is an inherent component of the mystical experience. I am truly blessed by this.

    I remember trying to tell my previous boss (of two jobs ago), a post-Christian German spiritual seeker married to a devout Hindu wife from India, about what I was seeing at the time as the clear distinction between unhealthy spiritual passivity and healthy spiritual receptivity of the kind you are describing here as “watching.” One aspect of this difference is that in the expanded consciousness of transpersonal “watching,” partaking of the mind of Christ, the divine nature, we “soak” in the energies of cosmic creativity, with the frequent and often unconscious result that when we return to our more mundane consciousness we have renewed energy, creativity, originality to contribute to the glorification (deification, sanctification, redemption–used interchangeably here) of the world around us, in obedience to the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourself. In unhealthy spiritual passivity, we may have a good time of navel-gazing, but our unproductive “watching” of this kind does not inspire us to give anything of what we have seen to those arenas where it is so evidently needed. We become the priest and Levite walking across the road to avoid the man beaten bloody by thieves on the road to Jericho–a description of unhealthy religion that Jesus could not bless.

    One reference for our need for such sharp discernment is Walter Hilton–very keen on this same topic.

    Another more contemporary source, highly recommended, is Greg Paul, God in the Alley, who strikes a powerful, user-friendly balance between “being Jesus” and “seeing Jesus” in a broken world. I will leave one quote from Greg Paul to give you a little taste of this:

    “I cannot recognize where Christ is present and the Holy Spirit is at work unless I am willing to be truly present as Jesus to someone, with all the personal investment and vulnerability that implies. . . .Neither can I hope to truly be his presence. . .unless I recognize that he is already there and active–that he got there ahead of me–and I open myself in humility to behold him. My capacity to be the presence of Christ in the world is dependent upon my willingness to see his presence also.”

    In case this comes across as slightly off topic, “clumsy and clunky,” go ahead and turn the computer off and go pray. When you see that you are being watched by a loving Watcher, you will be empowered to watch for ways of multiplying the blessing by imparting “the message of deep, abiding love” in that specific arena to which you as an individual have been uniquely called.

    [title as an afterthought: The Beatific Vision Made Practical."]

    Rich blessings to all,

  3. By the way, I love the concept early in this reading of the egregore. Before reading this, I found myself using this same idea (without the occult contolling aspect) to explain to a sincere, intelligent evangelical pastor why he finds it easier to hear the voice of God in the midst of a worshiping congregation than at other times. The ‘group mind’ has the potential of being the greatest curse (Acts 19, Hitler, etc) or the greatest blessing to human society.

    My conclusion here is to follow the instructions given me a few years back by some prophetically active young people who advised me to choose carefully which “groups” I would lend my part of the “group mind” to. After all, one of the functions of the “Watcher” is as a guard to keep the rest of the group safe from harm!

    Love and blessings,

  4. thank you for this– the hymn (and it’s counterpart, all creatures of our god and king) is my favorite one in the book– and i never knew the etymology of egregore which now brings another layer of meaning to which i can personally relate into the hymn.

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