Monday, September 29, 2014

Angels—Symbolic? Real? Both?

It’s the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, one of my favorite days. But with angels it’s either feast or famine in this culture, even in the church. 

Within religious and ‘spiritual’ circles we have everything from explaining angels away to  almost codifying their DNA. On the one hand, we hear high-toned interpretations of ‘ancient beliefs’ which boil down to symbols of Divine providence. On the other extreme, there are those kitschy new-age angel-channelers who can, for a small fee, tell us the exact name of our guardian angel and even send us a nicely colored drawing of them plus personal angelic greeting.

There’s biblical precedence for these two polarities, of course, and much in between. We have stories where the ‘angel of the Lord’ appears, only to be replaced a verse or two to later with the Lord himself. Clearly the angel is not a separate entity here, but a ‘scaled down’ manifestation of the Divine itself. (1)

We also have stories in which such a ‘scaled down’ theophany has become a real, distinct entity. From Joshua’s encounter with the ‘captain of the Lord’s armies’ to David’s  placating an angel of the plague to Tobias’ seemingly human angelic guide Gabriel, we hear of a host of invisible beings who hover about the human family on their heaven-sent missions. (2)

And, finally, there is the biblical hint that anyone and anything can become, for the moment, an angelos, a malach or messenger of God:  “who makes his angels spirits and his ministers flames of fire” and “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have thereby entertained angels unaware.” (3) 

The Blank 'Above'

In our secularized culture, belief in angels has waned along with significant denial of any kind of metaphysical reality. As the Jungian analyst and author James Hillman points out, even our ceilings have become flat and white rather than richly ornamented with celestial beings. There is no ‘beyond’, and thus the angels have no home. (4)

People who take angels with any seriousness at all—whether as symbols or entities—seem to think they have to choose one of the biblical options, rather than seeing them as multifaceted reports of a reality that transcends one kind of manifestation. Similar stories appear in other cultures as the surprising appearance of the gods and goddesses.

But the angels, originally, weren’t so very ‘beyond,’ but, as the biblical scholar James Kugel points out, ‘just out of sight,” as if just on the other side of a veil, ready to appear at any moment. (5) Like the truck driver in the big rig who stopped on a stormy night to fix my niece’s flat tire, then mysteriously disappeared. She turned to get a piece of paper to write down his address so she could send him a thank you note, and he was gone. “No cab door slamming, no sound of the big truck leaving. No sight of the truck down the road. Weird.”  (6)

Maybe this visitation was of the “he makes his angels appear like truck drivers and his ministers car mechanics” sort, with an honest-to-goodness human being. Then again, perhaps it was more like the angels in the book of Judges who seem to be ordinary people but disappear in a cloud of weirdness. (6)  Maybe the weirdness was a trick of her mind.

Or maybe our species, which can only see select parts of the whole light spectrum, and keeps discovering undreamed of dimensions of the universe, has made a mistake in turning almost every ceiling blank and white.


1.  Exodus 3:2-4

2.  See Joshua 5:13-15 and Tobias in the Deuterocanonical books.

3.  See Psalm 104:4/ Hebrews 1:7 and Hebrews 1:13:2

4.  See Blue Fire, the anthology of James Hillman’s thought, edited by Thomas Moore (HarperPerennial).

5.  See James Kugel, The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (Free Press)

6. Sophie Burnham’s intelligent and informed discussion of a host of such contemporary encounters in A Book of Angels: Reflections on Angels Past and Present (Tarcher) is worth the time to read.

7.  See the visitation to Gideon in Judges 6 and the annunciation to Samson’s mother in Judges 13.  While these stories are part of legends, they illustrate the kind of angel appearance lore that circulated in ancient Israel, and thus have an archetypal quality. 

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