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. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Silence and Shouting: Climate March Reflections

So there we were shouting, singing, waving flags and carrying signs that read “There is no Planet B” and “Butterflies against the end of the world” as we marched 300,000 strong in Manhattan on Sunday at the People’s Climate March. But, in spite of the thrill of the March and the inspiration of the songs, the sight that struck the deepest chord in my heart was this: twenty or so people on a hill in Central park utterly still, utterly silent, holding an “Earth Vigil,” meditating, praying for creation itself and the salvation of our civilization from its destructive, errant ways.

The silent energy palpably radiating from these solemn folks spoke to me more loudly than all the wonderful, noisy energy we made to “sound an alarm” to the world leaders gathering at the U.N. this week.

A Mighty Tide of Witness

Of course, the intentional noise of the March had its own integrity and delight. There were so many participants that the organizers begging some people toward the end of the line, over two miles long, to leave the parade and walk along the parade route as spectators. Those of us in the “religious and scientific groups” section filled 58th street as we waited over an hour after our announced “join the march” before we set out—an encouraging sign that more than the expected 200,000 participants had come.

And come they did! As my small group from Summit, NJ boarded the train for New York, we met a family of five who had driven up from Virginia at the last minute to be “part of history.” Hanging ecumenically between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians as we waited, I met a young priest from Portland, Oregon and a woman from the Diocese of New Mexico whose Bishop, she said, is solidly behind increasing awareness of climate change. Church groups were there from Pennsylvania, Boston, California. The Hare Krishna folks in orange mingled with Muslims in white caftans. The “agnostics” and “spiritual seeker” groups stood in solidarity with Congregationalists and Catholics.

Among other groups of marchers, environmental activists and union members voiced their concern together with “clean energy creates new jobs," liberal and conservative, young and old alike were united in this urgent and pressing Cause.

Bearing Witness—How?

But it’s the Silent Earth Witness folks that haunt me still. Their solemn faces bore witness to the seriousness of climate change. Recent scientific data confirms that earth’s temperature continues to rise, whatever the climate change deniers may say. Some projections see serious challenges to future food supply as well as the well-publicized effects of rising oceans.

We need the boisterous marches and rallies, and more of them. Persistently.  But what if we also had silent gatherings, again and again—dozens, hundreds, thousands facing the statehouses, ringing the Capitol, in utter stillness proclaiming our deep, deep prayer for humanity, civilization and the earth?

See The NYTimes coverage at

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Selective Compassion?

Thirteen years later, the observances last week were still poignant. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center have enduring power to make the tears well up, and pull the heart back to that beautiful and crisp early Fall day when, as we say, “3000 innocents died.” 

Innocent they were—as innocent as the vast number of peaceful civilians among the 200,000 who have died in Syria's brutal civil war. Innocent as 100,000 or more Iraqi civilians murdered in the brutal sectarian violence unleashed during the American occupation.

But those foreign deaths occurred at a greater distance from both our heads and our hearts than the events on 9/11—though not far from the hearts of fellow Syrians and Iraqis.  The brute fact is this: human compassion not only has its limits, but its own high degree of selectivity.

Ordinary compassion requires some kind of self-other identification, some “that could be me” sense. “Fellow human being” pales into abstraction when put up against a member of my family, my neighborhood, my town, my nation.” This capacity has always served a key role in binding groups together, part of our communal survival kit.

Us and Not Us

For most Americans, the 9/11 victims are “us." The Syrians and the Iraqis are, almost inevitably, “them.” Similarly, both the Gazans and Israelis usually belong to the “us” circle for the West. Founded mostly by Europeans, Israel has welcomed a goodly number of American immigrants. Millions of Palestinians have moved to the U.S. and Europe. The Israel Gaza strife was front and center in media and commentary just last month.

On the other hand, the five million dead in the ongoing Second Congo War (1998 to the present) belong, conversely, to “them,” and seem to merit little media coverage, much less the welling up of tears. For non-African Europeans and Americans, Africa is mostly not "us."

Even among the “us,” compassion usually works selectively. For example, the blood and destruction in Gaza is vivid and heart-rending. The pundits write about “disproportionate response,” which on the surface seems obvious. Far more abstract to most non-Jews is the fact that Israel faces an enemy which makes a boast of its determination to destroy the “Zionist entity,” actually celebrating the death of Gazan civilians as “martyrdom” in their cause.  To many, the multi-faceted threats faced by Israel seem so much less visceral.

Compassion reveals—and blinds

In the throes of compassion we see some things more sharply; other realities become veiled. When selective outrage joins selective compassion, head and heart can easily start down the slide toward justified violence against the Other. And the identity of the Other can easily shift. Our heart's selectivity makes it harder to see clearly the dynamics at work in any conflict, and naturally drives us to take sides.

This is our usual default way of operating, arising out of millions of years of evolutionary development—basic survival equipment for family, community, tribe and nation. With intention and practice, however, the heart can stretch beyond its present limitations, if only haltingly. Jesus calls us to this stretching, as did the Buddha and Confucius. A heart that sees the prior suffering, the insult or injury at the root of most violence, is more likely to support a head that sees clearly and can respond more wisely.

Such wisdom is most crucial whenever we decide we must take sides.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Money, Celebrity and Real Estate on the Circle Line

Perhaps my memories are wrong, but the spiel of our chatty Circle Line tour guide last week on a picture-perfect tour of the entire shoreline of Manhattan Island more like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” than the story of the city I heard on my cruise a dozen years ago.

A Question of Balance

The sights were great, of course but money, celebrity and real estate took center stage in the guide'scommentary. And—oh yes—I forgot to mention celebrities from both media and the world of sports.  The history of Manhattan was there, but much diminished from the last time. As we glided down the lower West Side toward the tip of the Island, passing glistening new glass, steel and stone apartment complexes it was all: “Helen Mirren has a town house in that tower, and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show over there. Derek Jeter's in that tower over there. And over there is where they filmed Serpico."

Then came the Real Estate: “The apartments in that building go for $2400 per month in the lower third, about $4500 in the middle, from $7000 up nearer the top, and that penthouse just sold for 7 million.”  These bursts of real estate financing, often melded to celebrity location reappeared regularly as a refrain in between the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, The Revolutionary War and the advent of steam ships. Even Yankee Stadium got the "people pay over $30,000 for one of the special suites" treatment. A references to affordable housing and rent controlled apartments broke the “rich and famous” refrain, once. But the tour climaxed with “come rent or buy in New York” pitch to a boat largely filled with European tourists, most of whom probably couldn't afford such prices. 

The True Face of the City?

On the one hand, I want to rant (and am so doing) about how money seemed to suck the life out of  every other value (celebrity excepted). On the other hand, I fear that what the tour guide was spouting revealed the truer face of New York today, a great world city becoming more and more the domain of the elite of the world marketplace. Our guide, indeed, celebrated how the captains of international finance and corporate life are “buying into” this, as into other great cities. 

Viewed through this lens, the gleaming new residential towers reminded me of the grand palaces and 19th century “Turkish Victorian” mansions along the Bosphorus—homes of the Turkish and world elite, many of whom have flats in London, town houses in Paris, and penthouses New York. The middle class has been hard-pressed for decades to hold their own in this city as it divides between the fabulously rich, the merely wealthy, and the working poor. 

Seen from the water, this city is a great forest of buildings as “natural” in its own way as a beaver’s dam or a bird’s nest. But the multi-layered reality that has made New York awesome is made of so many more stands than money and celebrity, I would have hoped to hear more about its true wealth than our tour guide seemed know, care about, or think we cared about.

But such, increasingly, such is the tone of our uber-monetized culture, where all value boils down to the price of things.