I’ve been thinking a lot about angels in the last few months, ever since I prayed with “Pray as You go” on the feast of the Archangels. on September 29. I’ve been pondering angels ever since, and every time they are mentioned my ears have pricked up.
My understanding is that angels are messengers of God and since I am of the opinion that regular people can and do convey messages from and of God, it equates that people might be regarded as angels in a sense, when they are fuflifilling such a purpose. In fact, I say it out loud to people, and I am not half joking. I might say:
You are an angel disguised as a student/daughter/friend/colleague.
Try it some time – it really brings a smile to their face to hear it.
Where am I coming from with this?
The Book of Tobit, of which I am so fond, has it as a fundamental premise. How would it have been if Tobias had been obnoxious to the stranger he hired to guide him (the Archangel Raphael)? It seems to me to be a good rule of thumb.
When my youngest was little, perhaps around the age of nine, she was having a tough time at school with some bullying. I’d given her a notebook to use as a journal so that she could vent and get it out of her head. Things tend to spin around in there. She encouraged me to read part of it once when I was helping her to tidy up her room. She had written:
I think my mum is an angel, a real, live, actual angel.
It brought me out in goosebumps and still moves me today when I think about it.
In The Spiritual Exercises, the first exercise of the first week is a contemplation of the angels. A long time ago, when I first became aware that I wanted the do The Spiritual Exercises, I started with this first exercise of the first week. In my defence, I fully admit that I did not know what I was doing. It was really scary. In this exercise we imagine the angels reflecting God’s glory, and how some of them decide to refuse to and they began to turn dark. I’m describing it as I remember it. When I spoke to my gentle and wise spiritual director about it, he advised me to put the book away, that it was a handbook for spiritual directors, and the Exercises were to be done with a spiritual director. How wise he was, I know that now. I regard my director as one of the angels in my life.
It has been a tough year and a bit for me with a lot of upheaval and some dramatic and permanent changes in my life. I resigned from my job as a science teacher – I posted about the day I made that decision, not explicitly, but not subtly either. I started my own business as an Online Chemistry tutor, hoping that it would give me the time and flexibility to do more spirituality work – and it has. After an infection last December, which the ME/CFS specialist believes to be COVID, in spite of the negative test, I am left with this long term, permanent health condition. My mum died at Christmas and honestly, it is the strangest thing in the world not to be calling her today. The thought of calling her has been in my head all day and I’m having to remind myself that she is not there anymore.
The last big period of upheaval in my life was when I was training to be a Spiritual director and when I did the Spiritual Exercises in 2016 and this lastest series of earthquakes seems to be to be a part of the same conversation with God. Is is almost as if we had to allow the dust to settle from the first series of events before we could move on with the next part. As I look back over the last year and a bit, I can see the angels that have helped me on my journey, in practical ways in making my work transition, in drawing me into spiritual work in ways I could never have predicted, and also in the liminal space.
I am thinking of my friend Bill Stebbe who I visited when he was dying. I read the Book of Tobit to him – he had never read it. I have a friend who worked in care homes and has been at the bedside of several people as they died. She talks about the presence she senses as death approaches, even talks to. It makes my hair stand on end and I have asked her to change the subject more that once, lest I start to cry. Yet, when I was reading the Book of Tobit to Bill, I had a sense of Raphael being there, smiling, as he listened to the story of his journey with Tobias. I have it in my head that the little dog in he story is God. I might have picked that up at a lecture I went to a long time ago, but I’m not sure.
In the liminal space, I’m also thinking of my mum. If you can describe a funeral as lovely, it was. I planned it with her a few years ago. She might even have called me an angel when we were finished. We sat down together, chose the hymns she wanted. I had to cut the list down though – she really had too many favourite hymns! But we used some of the ones we cut to inspire the readings for the mass. Three of the grandaughters sang them like angels. She would have loved it – it was everything she wanted and more.
“Being with the angels” is a euphanism we use to say someone has died. Does it make it more gentle? more easy to accept? Is it a comfort? I ask these question genuinely, because I do not know the answers to them. Both the directness of my culture and my scientific background lead me to be matter of fact and use accurate, rather than colloquial language, with no intention to deny, belittle or avoid uncomfortable emotions. People do not know what to say to someone who is grieving and we have developed some appropriate expressions to awkwardly express our sympathy. Sorrow is a grace. We ask for it in the first and third week of the Spiritual Exercises.
I realise that this is a meandering post. I am contemplating the angels and they are a mystery to me. I have no tight ideas. I know I do not like stories that depict them as bad. For example, the film Constantine portrayed Gabriel as twisted; and some of the fantasy books I have read portray them as being just like people but with wings and supernatural powers. Others portray them as servants, maybe even slaves, with no perks, who are envious of humans. And in some of these stories, they seem to be punished severely by being banished from God for what appears to be even a minor expression of desire that is other than what they are perceived to be supposed to be doing. One exception perhaps is Angel-A.
Have we made angels in our own image in the same way we can try to make God in our image? Are we confused because sometimes it is other people who are our messengers from God – nothing apparantly supernatural there? I have no answers here. The only thing that makes any sense is what I experienced in the first Exercise of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises:
…recalling that they were created in the state of grace…The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
In my imagination, the ones who did not fall, chose to reflect the light and the glory of God. Maybe there is no more to know than that.