Meetings with the Archangel

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9780060182458: Meetings with the Archangel

When the archangel Gabriel appears to a narrator who has written a bestselling book called Against Angels, our whole view of the world is turned on its head. What is the nature of bliss? What games do angels play? What is angelic sex like? Gabriel gives an intensely erotic and moving demonstration of this, leaving us, as he leaves the narrator, breathless. Later, he takes us on a guided tour of the heavens and introduces us to, among other spirits, William Blake. The three chapters of dialogues between Gabriel and the narrator--surprising, poetic, instructive, funny, and improbably real--may be as fascinating to those who can't stand angels as to those who are enchanted with them.

But Meetings with the Archangel is primarily about humans, not angels. Its central section is the story of the narrator's spiritual training, which culminates in his experience of enlightenment. It is an ambitious, searching, and sometimes hilarious story of his effort to get at the heart of our lives and the questions of how we should live, what truth is, what love is, how we can respond to evil. There are many meetings along the way: with Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza and Rilke and the imagined theologian Benjamin ibn Ezra, with a community of broccoli-smoking Hasidim, with the narrator's fiercely demanding Jewish Zen Master, with the Book of Job and the Virgin Mary and the mind of Hitler and the heaven of the fundamentalists and the too-exuberant angel Shiriel and Martin Buber and Buber's cat.

"Angels can fly," Chesterton said, "because they take themselves lightly." Meetings with the Archangel traces its lineage back to the wild, reverent irreverence of Chuang-tzu and the Zen Masters, to the Biblical improvisations of the Midrash, the dialogues of Plato, and the bogus scholarship of Borges. It meets the reader beyond the realms of fiction and nonfiction, at the crossroads of profundity and humor.

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Review:

It's as if Stephen Mitchell had been working on three books and decided that instead of finishing them separately, he would just combine them into one. There is the fictional story of a Jewish man who has the jarring experience, while high on broccoli (prepared in the secret Hasidic fashion), of identifying himself with Hitler. He exterminates Jews and feels proud to have done it. Subsequently, in the back of his mind, he is preoccupied with unraveling the problem of evil, a process that leads him to Zen practice and a brilliant account of its tribulations and rewards. Then there is the nonfictional essay "Against Angels," an erudite lambasting of the popular fascination with angels. We get not only a summary of it but a philosophical history, an outline, and extensive passages. The third story is of a man's encounter with the angel Gabriel, who doesn't know why he's there, but who initiates the man into the orgiastic bliss of archangeldom and troops him through the heavens--and the resemblance to the Divine Comedy doesn't stop there. What (barely) links these stories is that the Zen practitioner is the author of "Against Angels" and, ironically, the one to whom Gabriel appears. If there is an abiding theme, it is that the suffering of humanity is redemptive. In this first fictional outing for Mitchell, it is his laid back, whimsical tone that really holds it all together and makes each story worth reading for its own sake. --Brian Bruya

About the Author:

Stephen Mitchell attended Amherst, the University of Paris, and Yale. His many books include The Book of Job, Tao Te Ching, Parables and Portraits, The Gospel According to Jesus, A Book of Psalms, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, and Genesis. He is married to Vicki Chang, an acupuncturist, herbalist, and healer.

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