This afternoon, I want to say two things about angels and encounters with angels. First, that it seems to me that all angelic encounters are first and foremost about being open to the Other and intimacy with otherness.1 And second, that the mission of angels is bound up with the presence of both light and shadow in each of our lives and that all of our lives are bound up in angelic realms.
Talking about angels pushes us into that most remarkable region of the human mind that is able to entertain ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. Belief and myth fall into this region. Religion was born in a world that had little use for the modern idea that belief has to do with intellectual assent to hypothetical and dubious propositions. Belief in its spiritual sense means to “prize, to value; to hold dear.” It’s a heart movement not a head movement, having much more in common with intuition than rational thought. It is closely connected to the concept of faith which in its biblical sense means “trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.” Jesus set great store on faith but he wasn’t at all interested in whether people believed in him in the sense that we most often use that word. He wanted commitment not intellectual assent.2
So if we are to talk about angels, or anything else to do with concepts that are beyond our conceptual grasp we have to, in a sense, return to that pre-modern world of thought where religious ideas were born. We have to admit, as all pre-modern people knew, that myths are fundamentally expression of Truth. Angels are beings born in the language of myth. Religion, faith, belief are always about a kind of experiential thinking that of necessity moves from our normal patterns of thinking. I know angels exist not because I can think “angels” but because my heart can know angels in a way that my head never can.
Our Old Testament and gospel lessons tell about two men open to believing what rational minds could not assent to. Both Jacob and Nathaniel had the gift of openness to the other – as – Other. When we make this faith movement we, like them, are freed, for creativity and originality in our response.
Jacob, who you will remember is a bit of a scoundrel, having stolen his brother Esau’s birthright flees his brother’s justifiable wrath. In his flight, he lays down exhausted and falling asleep, has a vision of angels ascending and descending upon the place where he lay. He knew that vision as a direct experience of God’s transcendent presence and faithfulness. Jacob, open to the intimacy of the Absolute Other, now had a reference point that relativized all of his own small reference points. This wasn’t just a place he had laid his head, it is, “none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”3 Jacob believed in that instance that he was caught up in something much bigger than his own small world. His betrayal of Esau, his guilt, his fear, his flight was all about something much bigger than what he has done. In his vision, Jacob is changed as he watches his shadow self absorbed and held within his experience of divine intimacy.
Nathaniel’s snarky question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”4 was turned on its head when he was able to move beyond his own limited social constructs and recognize that his encounter with Jesus was about to blow apart all his small and limiting ideas. Nathaniel was changed in his encounter with the Other – in an instant, the old Nathaniel disappeared and the new Nathaniel stood in his now transformed world. Nathaniel was able to see what he could not see before. Jesus, perceiving his transformation told him that he, like Jacob, would inhabit the realm of angels “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”5
“Without the other, we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews.6 When there is encounter with the Other, when there is mutuality, when there is presence, when there is giving and receiving, and both are changed in that encounter, that is the moment we begin to move toward transformation. Maybe the word transformation scares us, but it means exactly the same as its Latin roots – to ‘change forms.’ When we allow other people or events to change us, we look back at life with new and different eyes. That is the only real meaning of human growth.”7 It’s none other than an experience of encountering angels unawares.
A friend of mine is a therapist specializing in treating soldiers suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder. He told me this true story about his intimate encounter with otherness.
At one of his weekend retreats, he couldn’t help notice a particularly distraught middle-aged veteran. Something told him that he needed to talk to the man. During one of the session breaks, he approached him to ask how he was doing. The former soldier told him that he was a Vietnam War veteran and that he had participated in the murder of more than 500 Vietnamese civilians included men, women, children, and infants; what some of us will remember as the infamous My Lai massacre. That day, he said, had ruined his life forever. He was completely without hope. Nothing lay before him but guilt, sorrow, shame, and remorse; more than he could bear. He was simply and completely beyond the pale.
My friend witnessed something profound happening to the man during that weekend of intense healing work. That tormented man experienced a transformation when he encountered and experienced a transformative insight, in an encounter with the Other.
At the end of their time together, my friend asked him to say what had happened. The man said that he really could not say except that he now understood. That in some inexplicable way he now understood that his being in that place, at that time, with those people involved something much bigger than himself. Not in the sense that allowed him to deny moral culpability but knowing that he had been part of something much larger than himself. That he found himself in that place, where he had never asked to be, afraid and overwhelmed, with those particular people, participating in something he could never imagine and he would never understand; something much bigger than his small world and limited awareness could grasp. Yet, now he realized that there was a presence of the Other in that place and that everything now looked different. He was able to assent to something that his rational, dualistic mind could never grasp. His guilt, sorrow, shame, and remorse were all about something much bigger than his being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was changed because he was able to look squarely at the shadow self and watch it being absorbed and held within the gift of divine intimacy. He was able to see his victims and himself with the eyes of Christ, with the vision of God’s compassion.
That’s what I mean by transformation. Not something that is neat, easy, or even clean and beautiful. Rather something about being able to see things differently and knowing that changed perspective to be much truer than being trapped in our own hall of mirrors where we never can see beyond our own small story and our own victimhood. It’s about seeing what is real.
So what about that man’s shadow? What about my shadow? What about your shadow? Today, the Book of Revelation tells us that war broke out in heaven and that the power of God has vanquished evil. That is the larger reality that lies beyond our smaller personal view. Light and Dark are both real and both part of God’s cosmic vision. Michael’s rival in this mythical battle is none other than Lucifer. Lucifer, whose name means “light bearer,” embodying darkness masquerading as light. Our shadow will invariably masquerade as light; while light can appear as shadow. The closer one gets to the Light, the more shadow we see. Angels, the mighty messengers of God, aid us, help us and draw us closer to the Light. They are manifestations of that great Other that allows us to see our light in our darkness.
Most of us were not raised to understand that we are participating in something that is already happening. Rather, we were given tasks to accomplish individually and completely. But, Jesus’ Good News has never been about being correct. It’s always about being connected.8
What do I think happened to that soldier? A moment of insight and clarity lodged in a deep and abiding spiritual awareness that his aching, inconsolable and isolated self within is, has been, and will always be connected to God’s spirit without. He experienced his darkness flooded in the Light of intimacy with the Other and in that instance he was transformed.
People who encounter the Other know something about angels. They know that we are all participating in something much bigger than our own small story. They know that they are really alive with angels in the angelic realms.
- Richard Rohr. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Jossey-Bass, 2011, pp. 132-133.
- Karen Armstrong. The Case for God. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009, p. xiv.
- Genesis 28:17
- John 1:46
- John 1:51
- Richard Rohr. Job and the Mystery of Suffering. The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1998, p. 157.
- Rohr, p. 157.
- Richard Rohr. Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007, p. 50.
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