More On Angels

Michaelmas is a season that is hard to let go of, which is why I’m returning to the subject of angels, or at least angelic matters. I think what fascinates me about angels is that they are impossible to describe. Artists and writers have tried to depict them, not always appropriately, in my view. Those rather fat discreetly draped cherubic beings, beloved of Renaissance artists, don’t always invite further engagement, whereas later, more subtly suggestive works do. Here, I’m thinking especially of the series ‘Angels in Combat’ by the Islamic artist Afruz Amighi and, in particular, of his painting entitled ‘Tent’. Perhaps I’m especially drawn to the ‘Tent’ painting because I’m also reading Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel about the First World War A Long, Long Way to Go.

The painting and the novel present us with two very similar contexts in which we might expect to see or sense angels. Although Barry makes no explicit reference to them, we sense that only a very thin veil exists between the idea of angelic presence and that of a human being who is utterly compassionate and utterly wise, as well as supremely courageous. I am thinking of the regimental Catholic padre as he figures in Barry’s story.

The question that they present us with, in both the painting and the novel, concerns what angels actually do, what part they play in the bigger picture of the outworking of human destiny, so much of it being done through the bitter and brutal circumstances brought about by wars. But if angels have work to do, I do not think that it is limited to war situations, as if once treaties have been signed and the soldiers have gone home, the angels are also given orders to return to heaven, to put it in rather simplistic terms.

I think that angels, whose primary calling seems to be to mitigate the sufferings brought about by the stupidity of human beings, go on being present in their ‘warrior guardian’ capacity in life as we know it right now. The wars, and the chaos they bring, go on in many parts of the world. They also go on even when guns are not being overtly deployed.

Right now, a climate of chaos prevails in what we like to think of as the free world. There is a sense of things ‘falling apart’ to quote Yeats’s often used poem ‘The Second Coming’. The chaotic non-debate of two presidential contestants, one of whom is now seriously ill as a direct result of his own drastic failure as a leader in regard to this pandemic, feels to me like a kind of black hole into which democracy, and possibly civilisation as we know it, is in danger of being irretrievably drawn. We are on the brink of something cataclysmic which is hard to define, let alone understand.

There were moments during the First World War when soldiers felt this way about the appalling circumstances they were caught up in. They could not understand or make sense of them, of their own place and purpose in them, or even who they were fighting for. Something like this is happening to us now, existentially speaking.  

We are all caught up in our own political vortex, driven largely by fear. So it is time to be calling on the angels, not in a passive way, as if to ask for help or divine intervention, to magic everything away. That is not enough and, in any case, the angels are already hard at work intervening where they can. What is required is that human beings of all political persuasions engage with them in this work, rather than wait in the vague hope that if angels exist they will somehow leap to our rescue before we either disintegrate as a civilized society or destroy ourselves with guns, both of which are in danger of happening given the situation in the US right now.

Angels expect us to work with them. We need to work with them, even if we don’t ‘believe’ in them. Believing in angels, or not believing in them, usually amounts to not being able to visualise them in any way. Scientists have provided a non-graphic portrayal of angels as akin to photons, which is helpful if nothing else has presented itself in a person’s spiritual journey. Plenty of people have seen or dreamed angels, so a discussion of what is meant by their ‘existence’ is superfluous, especially right now when we need their pure light (photon light, maybe), their pure energy, their pure intelligence (an idea possibly derived from the thinking of Aquinas) and their uninterrupted worship of God to be working with us into the chaotic vortex we may be about to experience.

How this is done will depend on the single hearted thinking of each person, by which I mean on the amount of energy we have to bring, in our thinking and willing for the good to prevail in our world. We then harness this will for what is truly good, because it is essentially of love, be it ever so slight, to the greater energy of the angels, those powerful forces of invisible light that surround us and that counteract every dark thought, every moment of despair, that overwhelm with their own brightness the smouldering embers of hatred burning quietly in all our hearts from time to time.

Once in this conceptual space, in our heads and hearts (even if it is only for a few seconds – it will grow exponentially, the more we occupy it) we can use words that come to mind, as we focus on the chaos, words like Kyrie eleison, eleison emas. Lord have mercy, have mercy on us and on our world.

The Season of the Angels

Today is the feast of Michaelmas, the beginning of the season of the angels.

As a child, I did a fair bit of travelling, usually on small airplanes. They were small by today’s standards, to the extent that I don’t remember there being a central block of seats, just two sets of three on either side of the cabin, which meant that most people could see out of the window. We children were invariably given the window seat or, if not, the one next to it, so you always had a reasonable view. The flights were fairly short, so I spent more time looking out of the window than filling in colouring books.

One of the things that I took for granted, and came to expect the minute the plane had become fully airborne, was to see someone who I took to be a mechanic positioned towards the middle of the plane’s wing. He appeared to be slightly bent over, as if he was investigating something. I took him to be a ‘he’, although gender was by no means a distinguishing feature of this personage. I occasionally asked my mother what he was doing there. She declined to comment, which was wise of her.

I’m not sure at what point in my travelling life this person no longer appeared on the wing of the plane, but I do remember realising that he or she wasn’t there anymore. I took this to be a normal aspect of growing up, that perhaps this guardian was no longer needed, or that I didn’t need to see him. It never occurred to me, and still doesn’t, that he might have been a figment of my imagination. This is because I assumed that it was perfectly reasonable for someone to be on the wing of a plane at thirty four thousand feet, or perhaps a little less in those days. I just noticed him there and thought little of it.

When you notice something, you don’t think about it beforehand. It just seems to occur from nowhere. I have had one or two similar experiences in later life, but very few. As with the guardian figure on the plane, they were never imagined.

To imagine something involves a degree of suspension of disbelief which, to begin with at least, involves a willingness to let go of one reality in order to grasp another. Both realities are true in a prosaic sense, although as we grow older we tend to distinguish one realm of truth from another. The film or story is true for as long as we are caught up in it, but ceases to be true in the same way when we close the book or turn off the television.

There are exceptions to this. The two truths, the two realities, can become one in moments of extreme need. Take the story of the apostle Peter who was led out of prison by an angel and ‘awoke’ to find himself in the street, his companion having disappeared (Acts 12: 1-11). This, I take to be an event that happened in real time, real space, but it had its origins in an altogether different dimension. Put in the clumsy language of ordinary mortals, it would seem that this liberator stepped from one reality, the reality beyond time as we know it, into another, the reality of time and the constraints, challenges and ultimate death that come with the passage of mortal time. In Peter’s case it was the reality of prison.

All of this raises a host of questions about the nature of belief and faith. There is plenty of scope for cynicism and for the despisers of religion to make what may seem like a convincing case against belief in angels. But, to my way of thinking, their arguments only convince to the extent that we confuse belief with faith and try to separate them, when ideally they should belong together.

Children remind us that confusing the two is not the right way to arrive at an understanding of faith and an appreciation of what informs true religion. A child who sees what they presume to be an angel, sees that entity without questioning its ‘existence’. Existence means nothing to the clear visioned child because the idea of existence demands proof and rational explanation. The child does not have the means for this at their disposal, especially if they are very young. The child sees, knows and believes. Very often the child does not even need to see in order to know and believe.

A person who arrives at this stage in later life might be described as a person of faith. They may arrive at this point of knowing as a result of a long and painful intellectual or spiritual search, or they may simply arrive at what can only be called a place of deep understanding, which is also a place of knowing. This can also happen in the aftermath of grief, illness or personal trauma.

I think this returns us to the season of the angels. Angels seem to be around people who are more interested in the understanding that leads to knowing, rather than in proof. This is what happens to the prophets. They have to be brought to a place of knowing, so that they do not burden themselves, and distract others, with the need to prove that what they have seen, heard and said is true and provable. They need to be in a place which allows them to be, in a sense, transparent interfaces with that other realm, so that they can assure the rest of us that the world and all that is in it is somehow held in the power of an ultimate goodness. Prophets and their angels are badly needed right now, but I can’t help thinking that they are very much around.

The Wheat and the Tares

The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss.

 

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Matt.13:24-30; 36-43

Two sermons about seeds and sowing on two consecutive Sundays. Someone is trying to make a point. You might say that it’s Jesus himself, but then is he talking to the same group of people on each occasion? Some of them will be the same. His disciples were following him around, so they would have heard last week’s story about the seed that fell on the good soil, as opposed to on dry stony soil. Or is it the editor of Matthew’s gospel? Editorial privilege allows for a certain ‘slant’ on things, even for manipulation of the facts, as we know from the newspapers we choose to read. If you want one particular view your ‘go-to’ paper will give you what you want to hear, even reinforce your prejudices at times. This is something we know we have to be wary of, especially in the digital age we now live in. Anything can be done to the news.

With Matthew’s gospel we know that there is a particular editorial slant, but it is not the kind of slant employed by tabloid journalists or various kinds of malware that gets hacked into our computers. The writer of this gospel is writing primarily for a Jewish readership, which is why we frequently see him set the sayings and parables of Jesus in the context of a Jewish festival, or of the Law. He is concerned with, among other things, Jesus’s Jewishness and his understanding of morality, and of how his very different approach to moral questions is to be understood when it comes to the way Divine judgment works.

So bearing all these considerations in mind, what is this Gospel saying to us today? In what context does it speak most forcefully to us? As with last week’s gospel, we are dealing with questions of good and evil, and of ultimate judgment.

This week, we hear about the kind of evil that, to use a common expression, ‘messes’ with things. If we relate the story to last week’s, the good soil has indeed yielded the wheat but somewhere along the line something got in there and wrecked the crop – ‘messed’ with it.

I am reminded of the situation we face in regard to Russia seemingly trying to mess with the Covid vaccine that is being developed by other countries. The question is, why would Russia want to do this? Why would anyone want to mess up something that is so badly needed by the rest of the world? I don’t think you need to be a political pundit to find an answer to this question. People usually mess up the good that another does out of envy and spite. So much of the evil that we see happening in the world around us – in international relations, in scurrilous business deals, in countless personal betrayals – stems from this evil root. We, or ‘they’ want something they feel they don’t have.

Historically, Russia has always felt that it does not quite belong. Somewhere in its heart is a sense of being denied access to the family of nations, to being part of Europe. So it behaves like any alienated person who needs to belong by messing with the things others have. In this sense, Russia is behaving like an alienated individual, someone who feels shut out of things, but makes it very difficult for people to include them. The alienated individual is someone who allows the good that is in them to be ‘messed’ with through envy and jealousy.

The Creation story itself embodies this ‘myth’. The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss. Satan wanted to be like God – greater than God, in fact. In more prosaic terms, you could say that this cosmic battle was in fact a battle between love and hate. The battle has been won for all time in the Cross, but it also continues today in every malicious thought and in every betrayal that invades the human heart and messes with its potential for goodness.

But the story does not end here. In both the parable we read last week and in the one set to be read for this Sunday, we hear of judgment. In last week’s story, it is as if we bring our own judgment upon ourselves, depending on the state of our hearts. The word either thrives and bears fruit, or it withers and dies of its own accord, because of the state of the soil (our hearts) that it is planted in. But this week’s is quite different. This week, Jesus tells us that the weeds are to be allowed to grow up alongside the good plants and that they won’t be uprooted until the last day. Whether he means our own individual last day, or the end of time as we know it is open to conjecture. The main point is that there will be judgment.

The good news though, is that the judgment that Jesus is talking about is a redemptive one, if we are willing to play a part in it. We are not passive recipients of evil thoughts and impulses. Neither are we passive recipients of salvation. We have a part to play. We have choice and we have at least a measure of control over the things we do and say. The judgment for us, then, involves being truthful with ourselves about the real motives that drive our words and actions. What is the ‘desire’, to use a phrase often repeated by St. Paul in his letters to young churches, that drives us? Sin, as St. Paul often tells us is driven by ‘desire’; the desire, or need, to be better, richer, more powerful or more important than someone else, the desire to win at all costs.

It is important to own our real desires before God so that he can effect a redemptive judgment on them, so that he can burn out of our hearts the desires that ‘mess’ with the goodness that is innately ours, by virtue of the fact that we are made in his image and redeemed by his Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. In the end, he will do the necessary ‘burning’ whatever happens, as the parable of the wheat and tares suggests, but we will be a great deal happier, and the world a more peaceful and just place, if we begin this work with him today.