Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Do we recognize the angels in our lives?

Last week one of the poems I received from panhala began:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

It is a poem by Richard Wilbur called ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of the World’  and it made me begin to think about angels, about what they are and how they are viewed today.  
John Cornwell in his book Darwin’s Angels said:

"One of the most beautiful conceits of mortal wit is the idea of the angel; for angels exemplify, symbolise, and render intelligible the dynamic mental capacity known as imagination. "Angels," according to Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theolo­gian and philosopher, "exist anywhere their powers are applied ... The angel is now here, now there, with no time-interval between." And . . .  angels are conceived as operating outside, ' as well as within, space and time, . . . "

Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake in their book, The Physics of Angels tell us that “To study angels is to shed light on ourselves, especially those as­pects of ourselves that have been put down in our secularized. . .” lives.

The secularization of society has meant that we have lost the ability to see the awe and wonder that there is in the world.  In a past age, when it was the norm to attend church and worship, we humans were more inclined to believe that there was a degree of wonder in the world that we did not necessarily understand and angels fall into this area.  As we have developed into a society where it is considered quirky to believe in anything other than that which we can see and prove, we find that we have lost much of the wonder in a world beyond ourselves.  Of course there are still people who believe in angels but they tend to be looked at as a bit odd or different by many.  Fox and Sheldrake have tried in their book to bring back the idea of angels and even try to look at their existence scientifically.

They tell us that angels are agents and co-workers with us human beings. Some­times they guard and defend us; sometimes they inspire us and an­nounce big news to us—they get us to move. Sometimes they heal us, and sometimes they usher us into different realms, from which we are to bring back mysteries to this realm. 

And what’s more important is that angels make human beings happy. It is very rare to meet someone who believes they have met an angel who doesn't wear a smile on his or her face. To encounter an angel is to return joyful. As Aquinas says, happiness consists in apprehending something better than ourselves. Awe and won­der and the kind of power that angels represent are of such an ilk. They call us to be greater beings ourselves.

So what are angels?  The word literally means messenger.

In the religious world, an angel is a spiritual, supernatural being that is found in many religions. 

Angels are usually viewed as emanations of a supreme being, that are sent to do the tasks of that being.  In Christianity the concept of an angel shifted between being a messenger of God and a manifestation of God himself.   Some angels were even identified and given names; the most well known, perhaps, being Gabriel or Michael.
William Blake supposedly saw a flock of angels when he was just eight years old. Saying their bright wings “bespangled every bough like stars.”  Later in his life he wrote:
“It is not because Angels are Holier than Men or Devils that makes them Angels but because they do not Expect Holiness from one another but from God only.”  

'Poets and artists see strange things.  But angels are notable for the way in which they trespass into the modern world through art and poetry.'  In Blake's time angels were considered just as improbable as they are in our time - he was lucky to escape a whipping from his father for telling a lie when he voiced seeing his angels. Yet artists and poets before and since, contine to draw on angels for their inspiration.  Even Banksy, the illusive and secret street artist portrays angels in his work, albeit wearing flak jackets or policemen's uniforms and on occasions with a cigarette in their hands.
However angels appear in our modern world, they continue to perform their age-old function as messengers and mediators between the seen and unseen, or material and spiritual worlds.  Many people still want go betweens of this sort.

Kay Frazier writes about ANGELS IN SMALL PLACES,  she says:
"Some people think that angels always come her­alded—glowing brightly, trumpets sounding, with an angelic choir in the background.
Me, I think angels mostly come in small places— like the friendly clerk at the fast food place who makes you laugh on that day when you thought it wasn't possible, the homeless man in the shelter who teaches you about the portability of dignity, the friend who refuses to stop caring as you become a teary mess, the acquaintance who drops just the right word at the right time and makes a bridge of hope".

These sort of angels appear as the ordinary.  They are people we could meet anywhere and anytime in our lives.  

Billy Collins asks in his poem Questions about Angels:

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular postman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

It isn’t a new idea the idea of an angel as ordinary I remember a television series I used to watch many years ago which told the story of an angel who came in the guise of a long haired young man who would just appear – do some good and then just as mysteriously disappear again.

I wonder if we actually recognize the angels in our lives.


Not all images of angels are positive though.  

 Rainer Maria Rilke – one of my favorite poets – was tormented by angels all through the writing of one of his greatest works, his ‘Duino Elegies’.  He writes:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I would perish
in the embrace of his stronger existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure and are awed
because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. 
Each single angel is terrifying.

I am not sure how I stand on angels at all.  But I do know that I don’t find them at all terrifying, rather I love their images and I have lots of pictures and angel symbols about in my home.  A small fluorite angel sits on my desk in the manse where I can see it when I am working.  There is something reassuring in the image – it does not belong to the rational and as I glance at this small angel of mine I wonder about the angels who exist in my life.  I wonder if they are truly messengers from God.

John Cornwell says: “There may or may not be a God. Or gods. Yet there is something ennobling about our search for the divine. “

And we may or may not believe in angels but there are those who we encounter in our lives who surely are nothing less than angelic.  Only last Monday I experienced what was surely an angelic moment.  Showing Shammy, my student minister, around Rochdale town hall I jumped up to open the door for an elderly, frail, lady . . . 
and she . . . 
she smiled at me and curtsied . . . 
for me she was an angel and maybe, just maybe, I appeared as an angel to her.         

So as we begin each day I ask that may we know that. . . 

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

   May it ever be so for you. . . . . . .