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.