I’m thinking about angels, and it’s all a-jumble. Fragmented angel thoughts.
A quick inventory of things I know about angels: Organized into categories: cherubim, seraphim, archangels, etc; Can wrestle (or was that God?); Can pass as humans like when Abraham entertained them (or was that God/the trinity?); Sometimes sing; Sometimes terrifying; Can speak, and have conversations; Worship; Bring messages; Can play trumpets
The angel who stirred up the fountain at Bethesda.
It’s probably best that I haven’t seen an angel face to face. In fact, it’s probably best that so much of the most holy things pass right by me, unnoticed till the very last minute, till I turn my head and catch a glimpse of a shimmering robe disappearing into the air. It’s enough to know they exist. It’s more than enough to imagine them.
I am DEFINITELY forgetting so much from “Study of Mary,” which I took my senior year of college. Oh, to take that class again! Oh, to take that class every year for the rest of my life!!! (Note to self: find notes from that class!!!)
I’m in my information-gathering mode, my obsessive research mode, where really nothing becomes more clear, I just stack up more and more things to refer to and consider. Some things stick out.
Like Marie Howe’s “What the Angels Left”. I’ve been reading it over and over, wondering how Marie wrote this poem, what thing in her life became this poem, what she knows about angels that I don’t know. It’s stuck in me. I want more things to happen to me that I can’t explain. I want more things to attribute to angels. Less order, more mystery. Thicker things, deeper things, things to knock the socks off my sense of control. This is a terrifying thing to want, but I want it. I want to be mystified and terrified, to be told, “FEAR NOT!”
Almost all the images I’m gathering are images of the annunciation. Have to narrow it down somehow, and it’s Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel that I can’t get out of my head. Not sure who or what I’m more captivated by, Mary or the angel. It’s the two in combination that get me. It’s the human in relation to the angel, the moment of it, the way time must have stopped, of having a conversation with an utterly spiritual being, one that stands in the space between humans and God. The giantness of the information being exchanged. The very fact of the angel’s presence. Did the air change? Did Mary know instantly that there was something new in the room? A new smell? The sound of bells? A thunderous voice? Heat or chill? The angel in images of the Annunciation is almost always depicted as a woman, and often looks a lot like Mary herself. Could Mary’s angel, Gabriel, really have just been human-ish, almost a mirror?
Fra Angelica, The Annunciation, north corridor, Monastery of San Marco, 1438-45.
Here, they are like twins, the angel and Mary, and seem to be looking deep into each other’s eyes, gesture matched, mirroring each other. There is a unity here. They both look uncomfortable? Or Mary does at least. Unable to move, perhaps. Unable to look away. Here, this Mary could say, “the angel looked just like me, but with wings.”
Gabriel also appeared to Zechariah, saying, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” (Luke 1:19) Gabriel also appeared to Daniel, in chapter eight of his book. “And behold, there stood before me one having the appearance of a man.” (8:15). When Daniel sees Gabriel, he is frightened and falls on his face, and then falls into a deep sleep with his face on the ground. But Gabriel touches him and makes him stand up and talks to him, explains the visions that Daniel is having. THE APPEARANCE OF A MAN?!? In the midst of a vision already. A man, just a man? Nothing more, no more description? Not enough for me! The appearance of what sort of man? A normal man? A man made of fire, of smoke, of power itself? Of sunshine? Of lilies? Of snow?
Or really just a man? With normal skin? Nothing crazy? Except the fact he was an angel?
I wish they all would tell us more.
In Chapter 9, Gabriel comes quickly to Daniel’s side as he is praying, and speaks almost as a friend. “At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved.” (9:23).
The same angel 500 years later, with Mary. The same angel! With the appearance of a man, maybe. Or not. It doesn’t say. It just says the angel’s name. Gabriel. Speaking words she could understand somehow. She didn’t fall on her face. She didn’t fall asleep. She was greatly troubled, whatever that means. (Luke 1:29)
I don’t know what I’m looking for here. Searching for nothing, no frame of reference. I’m trying to understand something un-understandable. I’m trying to hear a song that hasn’t been sung to me. I’m trying to find someone who isn’t in the building. That’s all any of us are doing. All the painters, all the writers. Who of us has seen an angel? Who of us has spoken with Gabriel? Why do I desire this terrible privilege, so? Wouldn’t I just be greatly troubled like everyone else? Wouldn’t it change my life in ways that would possibly make me crumble? Wouldn’t it make God too terribly real?
I desire an angel because I believe they’re real. Why not an angel? Why not for me? Come to tell me some message, to knock me down, face to the floor, empty-brained, terrified. But also sure. It’s that fire in me that I can’t fully wrap my head around, the one that comes from outside of me, from somewhere outside of everything I understand. That’s the part of me that wishes for an angel. The part of me that burns.
I’m sure there are books I should read about all of this. I’m sure there is a book somewhere that would tell me everything in the Bible there is about angels, but that feels too easy. I don’t want to read that book, I want to write it! I want to have to gather it myself, I want to have to search, to rummage around through scraps of paper, to ask people, to find out what there is to know.
I’m so sure I’m forgetting things. I’m so sure I’m forgetting most things.
From the preface to the paperback edition of The Screwtape Letters, some of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on angels: “It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings, not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to suggest the swiftness of inimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know. Creatures higher in the natural order than ourselves, either incorporeal or animating bodies of a sort we cannot experience, must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all.”
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898 My sister’s all-time-favorite image of the annunciation, and one of my favorites too. C. S. Lewis may have liked its different symbolism, its lack of human with bird wings attached, its focus on Mary, its warmth. I was surprised this was painted in the 1800’s. It feels so strikingly modern, so current and present.
I think all my rummaging around in the annunciation might be an utterly selfish act. Forgive me, God and everyone! I want to know how it would be for me. I put myself in Mary’s shoes, I imagine being in the same room as an angel, even just for a moment. I wonder if I would fall on the floor. Mary was not some magic person, except for how she sort of was. Maybe I am a magic person too. Actually, I know I am–full of grace and truth and spirit and light, with God in the center of me who I have to wander to get to. That’s what I’m told is my inheritance. I am Mary, trembling, but saying yes. Asked to bear Jesus in a world that wasn’t, isn’t, ready, but is desperately needy. Isn’t that me? Isn’t that you too?
I don’t need an angel to tell me so. But I want one anyway.
How desperately I want a personal invitation. At all times. Someone to tell me, “Okay, now is the time. Now it begins.”
To Mary, the angel actually came. To Mary, these things actually happened. A real pregnancy, a real child, a real son, real fear, real suffering, real grief. Real peace too, perhaps? How did she carry so many things? How do I carry these things too, now so intangible?
The fact I know these things to be true is enough. This collection of fragments is angel enough for me. But, still. I know angels to be real. I believe them to be present and active, factual, true. Gabriel, out there somewhere – able to have the appearance of a man, of a woman, of whatever is right. The same angel that appeared to Mary could conceivably appear to me. Could speak to me like a friend, as to Daniel. Could call me, “O favored one.” Could say, “I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved.” Could speak to me in english, with a voice I could recall later, could burn an image into my mind.
How then could I doubt? What would be left for me to wonder? Where would I go? Who would I tell? I already feel like a madwoman for thinking all these things, how much more mad would I become for having these things to tell, to shout?
When the sun comes through the window just right and crosses over my body (as it is doing right this moment, even), that is angel enough. When I hear the wind, moving, moving, invisible but present, that is angel enough too. The earth as angel. The Bible as angel. Come to tell me I am favored. Come to tell me what is true. Come to say, “This message is for you. Let’s begin.”
I think of Angels in America, of Prior’s reaction to seeing what he sees. I can’t tell you all about it right now because there is so much there, but just believe me that it proves the rule. We humans don’t know what to do with angels. It’s too much, and yet, no matter the circumstance, we still get to respond. We get to talk back to the angels, and they wait to hear us, to answer our questions, some of them, to make sure they are at least somewhat understood. Whether we see the angel or just wish we could. We get to say, “I won’t let thee go except thou bless me.” We get to hear the message and ask to be blessed. It’s not a fat letter dropped in our lap, final, impersonal, booming words from somewhere beyond. It’s a conversation. Another presence in the room. A relationship. A message that awaits a reply.
To the angel, you get to say, “But still. Still. Bless me anyway. I want more life.” We in our small humanness can tell the being who stands in the presence of God that we want more life. We get to ask for the blessing, knowing full well that we are already receiving it due to their very presence. Even though we know the appearance of the angel to us is blessing enough, we get to ask for more. More blessing. More life. More abundance. More time, more space. More God. More favor. Show me more of what it means to stand in God’s presence, make me more sure of what I already know. More of this life and more of the life I can only imagine, the life that is completely beyond my understanding, beyond this world! Show me the angel, then show me another! Show me a multitude! Sing me the songs! Let me remember them and sing them all my days! Show me poems and paintings and a thousand different ways to imagine it and then show me the real thing! Give me scissors all over the house! Give me guardians hovering above! Give me Gabriel himself! Stay with me a little longer, tell me what it’s like up there. Jesus, what’s he like? God, oh God, what in the world is God like?! Oh sweet smell, oh ground like sapphires, terrifying because you’re a glimpse at something I’m only supposed to know through a dim mirror. A sudden naked look. The veil torn top to bottom. Angels with many eyes, many heads, bodies of animals, crazy beings, trumpets, incense. I want to see them all, somehow.
I would fall with my face to the floor. I would fall into a deep sleep, a coma, a trance. I would weep endlessly. I would be greatly troubled in every part of my body. I would be afraid. I would not know what to say. I would maybe keep it a secret forever. Too much desire, too much hope, too much fear. Too much wanting all of God’s fullness all at once, things I’m not ready for, things I can’t understand without astronomical help.
Maybe just a little at once, I could or should say instead. Please don’t overwhelm me, though I ask so much blessing.
Give me blessing enough perhaps. More life, the life I can handle. The life that is already mine. More God, the spirit already at the center of my soul, the journey to the center, the glimpse through the mirror, darkly. The tiny trickle of understanding that feels like the rush of many waters. The beginnings of wisdom. The opening chord of the song.
I suppose angels in the Bible always came to tell people things they didn’t already know. Are things really that different now, with holy spirit thick inside? Do we know all we have to know, closed up in the china box of our soul, waiting to be unfolded? All the angel-visit we need already within?
What are the messages I can’t find on my own? What are the things that need to fall out of the sky for me? What has already come??? There has to still be space for actual visits from actual angels, right? There has to be! Maybe not for me, but for someone? Maybe for someone like me?
If this is how I experience an angel, as a wondering, hoping, yearning in myself for a message, an invitation, things I don’t already know, perhaps I could still call seeing an angel seeing something like me but with wings. Me but with wings. The hope for what could be, what will be when all is made new. Me, but with more hope, more life, more joy, more understanding, more of God’s fullness. Me, but in the presence of God.
Angel as lily, as flower, as field. I’ll take whatever you’ll give me, even just my wondering — as long as it keeps burning. The pull toward understanding, the imagining or meeting of angels, the message at the center of me, annunciation enough for now and always. (George Hitchcock, The Annunciation, 1887, above)
This one, above, forever my favorite image. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it is Mary’s joy. Probably the resemblance between the two is part of it, the radiance. The wings, the angel’s crossed arms, the angel’s look toward Mary’s womb, Mary’s gaze toward the dove. But it’s more the significance of the painting than how it depicts the story. This image is a miraculous image, one where people would come for healing in Renaissance-era Florence. The story was that the face of the virgin in this image was painted by angels. This made the image itself a miracle, at least in people’s minds. People would literally come to this painting with offerings, votive dedications, and set them before the image, hoping to be healed or blessed or something. Hoping for some sort of angelic burst in their life through proximity and devotion alone. Miraculous paintings are a crazy thing, somehow real, probably displaying a misalignment of what is important and what is not. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of it, although I did do a big essay about it for my Renaissance Art History class in college. But, the spirit of the thing! (You won’t find me bringing any offerings to any paintings painted by angels, rest assured.) An image as miraculous–the idea of that. Here, I remember that even just the remembering of these things can be miracle, or at least the beginning of one. The returning again and again. I can come to the remembrance of Mary and Gabriel, spending time in the same room. I can believe that this really happened. I can come to the painting, to imagine and look, again and again and again. I can come looking for healing. I can come wishing to experience it, to see myself but with wings, to see something completely unlike myself but with wings, to let my imagination be limited to symbols, to art, to literature, to see what is possible within the limits I live in. I can come and try to stand in the presence of one who stands in God’s presence. I can come and try to stand in God’s presence, all by my lonesome. I can remember, over and over again, that this happened. And maybe, somehow, it has happened even to me.
(The Annunciation, mid-14th century, Santissima Annunziata, Florence).