Angels we have heard on low

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Angels are the personal manifestations of the earthbound grace of God. John Shea comments on the role of angels in the spiritual lives of people in an excerpt from A Month by Month Guide to Entertaining Angels by Mark Boyer.

A recent novel begins with a spaceship surging into outer space. One of the astronauts glances out the portal at the vast empty expanse. An angel wings by.

It is a marvelous image--an encounter between angel and spaceship. We smile a little. The last thing we expect outside a spaceship is an angel. If the astronaut saw an alien, there would be no problem. Has not Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. prepared us for this possibility?

But an angel? For this we are somehow not prepared. Has the human race finally stumbled upon the heavenly courts where winged creatures flit to and fro, alternately praising the Lord and gossiping about the affairs of earth?

If that is so, I am sure my grandfather would feel pleased.

In the late 1950s the first Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, soared into space. When he returned to earth, that staunch atheist could not help but boast that he had been to the heavens and found them empty. Neither God nor angels were anywhere to be found.

My grandfather was not happy. Since I was a seminarian at the time, he asked me what I thought of this "shot at the deity." I had just read theologian Paul Tillich on symbolic language, and so I treated my grandfather to the philosophical view that God was not a divine person who really lived in the sky. "Heavenly" God was an image that signified the divine was transcendent, always more than the finite human mind can encompass.

My grandfather gave me a great look of disgust and spoke the truth that was obvious to him: "That commie didn't fly high enough."

Grandfather would be vindicated to read--even in a novel--that an astronaut finally got high enough to see an angel out the spaceship window.

But perhaps there is another way to interpret this fun image of angel and spaceship. It is not that humankind finally flew high enough to bump into angels, the next level up on the hierarchy of beings. It is that the angel came from earth, along with he humans, and was traveling skyward, along with the humans. In fact, that is what angels are--companions of human adventure. Wherever people are, angels are not far behind. In fact, as in the novel, they are usually winging a little ahead.

Of course, these angelic companions are sent by God, and that is where their reputation as sky creatures comes from. In the ancient cosmology of a three-tier universe, angels lived in heaven with God and were sent by God to earth. They were under different instructions depending on the situation. Sometimes they carried important information. At other times they made predictions, issued warnings, or conferred blessings. But always they were reminders of the immanent divine presence. And in biblical and Christian faith this reminder is sorely needed.

The Christian imagination stresses divine transcendence, and that transcendence is often imaged as separation. Our Father lives in heaven and we toil on earth. The question then naturally arises--how does the heavenly God communicate with the earthly creatures? Enter angels. Just when we thought we were on our own, an angel arrives to tell us we are part of a larger plot. Angels help us recognize the intimate, invisible workings of God in our lives.

In other words, angels are not heard on high, they are heard on low. They are the personal manifestations of the earthbound grace of God. Even if the background cosmology of angelic visitations is no longer how we view the space-time continuum, this truth of angels remain: they bring God's providential care into the midst of our comings and goings.

Whenever I take the advice to entertain angels, I think of the gospel perspective, "Are not two sparrows sold for a few pennies? Yet not one is forgotten before God." Christian faith holds that divine providence is particular and universal. Nothing is left out. Everything is considered, and it is considered in its most minute detail. Even cheap sparrows, worth only a few pennies, are not forgotten. How much more you, who are worth more than a whole flock of sparrows]

I think this is what angels are all about. There is a piece of folk wisdom about being tempted by the devil (who is, after all, a fallen angel): "The devil doesn't tempt chopped liver." This saying is meant to console someone in the midst of temptation. In their words, you must be doing some thing right if the devil has showed up to work on you. So too, angels don't visit chopped liver. You must be someone important if an angel accompanies your life.

That is why, among all the angels, my favorites are those who are characterized as guardians. A number of years ago I wrote a poem to honor guardian angels:

I laugh to remember how
in the second grade
the nun made us slide over
to make room for a guardian angel.
Since I was fat
and the seat thin,
I oozed over the edge
like a melted cheese sandwich
and was plainly aware
of how close God was.
But I have outgrown that angel,
left him behind
like the sign of the cross
before a free throw
in a basketball game.
Yet
if I could tell a son
only one wisdom,
I might whisper
that he had an angel of his own,
not as a valet
or imaginary playmate,
but as companion-like
Tobit had
on his mission of manhood.
Otherwise
he might forget
his father's mature faith
that the wings of God's love
beat above us all.
I laugh to remember
but I wonder
how to pass on.

Excerpted from the foreword of A Month by Month Guide to Entertaining Angels by Father Mark Boyer. (C) 1995 ACTA Publications, Chicago, Illinois.