Detail: Archangel Michael c. 1636, Guido Reni
Placid? I don’t think so.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST RUTH FARMER
Related column The Question of Angels, Redux
The very word conjures up for most people a gentle-faced benevolent Being whose sole purpose is to make your life simpler, easy, working in your favor. Angel.
When we speak of people whom we love immensely, dearly, we speak of Angel.
The angel metaphor includes gentleness. Angel soft, for example.
Angels are sometimes depicted as pudgy babies with sweet, placid faces. But Angels are not sweet or benevolent. And they certainly aren’t gentle. If you believe that Angels are messengers of God, you cannot believe they are gentle, benevolent, or sweet.
And placid? Being a messenger of God is incompatible with these attributes.
Angel mug shots: can you pick them out of the line up?
Nearly every confrontation with an Angel ends with humans face down – in fear – wondering why they have been chosen, and trying to get out of whatever it is.
Consider that, according to several bible passages, “Do not be afraid” is the first thing an Angel says to the recipient of the message.
When I think of angels, several images come to mind:
Religious art Winged beings, backlit by spooky brilliance. The Angel’s expression is reminiscent of a scientist observing the reactions of a lab specimen. Their faces are simultaneously blank, speculative, and judgmental.
Scene from City of Angels Dark-robed figures looking down upon humans from rooftops; observing, never intervening.
Cupid Whose arrow never seems to strike when you need love or hit the one you want to love you.
And who thought that an arrow in the heart is a welcome situation? Surely this piercing reminds us that love hurts. Is that what most people want?
But though reminiscent of these creatures, Cupid isn’t an angel but a god. So we’ll leave him out of this for now.
Just suffice it to say that Cupid is part of the cute mythology about winged beings that falls under the category of “wishful thinking.”
This is not a theological argument. I am not a theologian. I’m not even sure I believe in God. Wait. I did say that I am not a theologian; maybe you doubt that after I said I don’t believe in God.
Let me start over
I’m not a Biblical scholar. How’s that? This has nothing to do with scholarship or claims of theological or biblical knowledge. It’s about the gut reaction a certain type of Being instills in me.
I was going to write a very brief, informed piece about angels stemming from a conversation I had with Susan. The conversation started out casually and spiraled into this wondering about the nature of, the question of Angels. The teacher in me took over.
I looked for texts about angels. And I found them…thousands of hits in First Search alone. When I narrowed the search to “not fiction,” hundreds of entries remained. I skimmed the titles and my heart started beating; my breath became shallow.
Let’s face it. Angels frighten me.
Not in the ways that clowns, ventriloquist dummies and certain kinds of dolls frighten me. The creepiness that emanates from these is tied to the realization that some human thought these depictions entertaining or even funny.
Angels frighten me for a different reason. There is something extremely real and discomfiting about the concept of Angels. Their depictions are fairly consistent over the centuries. (For some reason, they are always sporting wings. When you think about it, Why would Angels need wings?)
Imaginary, right? Yes, until one shows up -
You are probably thinking: But aren’t Angels figments of humans’ imaginations, just as clowns and dolls are? Yes and no and it’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that Angels have a façade that is just human enough to be acceptable. At first. This façade gives them the brief seconds needed for them to open their mouths and say something completely unreasonable to the stunned human beings they appear before.
By the time they begin to speak, recipients of their messages usually have fainted or become so shaken they’d say anything just to make it go away. Angels are as awe-inspiring (read fear-invoking) as God is. That’s what makes them perfect for delivering God’s messages.
Imagine Mary’s amazement when Gabriel came around telling her that she was going to bear the child of God. Most of my life, I believed the mythology that she was honored. Nowadays, I think differently. I think she was resigned to her fate.
I’m betting her first thought when she saw the Angel was “What the …?” Her next thought (after she regained consciousness) was probably “Why me?” I’m betting that like most of us, what she thought and what she said were very different.
I mean, what can you do – really – if such a powerful Being conveys a message from an even more powerful Being? You’re not going to say “Talk to the hand.”
Committed and relentlessI wonder if Gabriel had the same thoughts when he was given the assignment: “What the…” and “Why me?” The impassive expressions on Angels’ faces likely mask a dismay at the jobs they are tasked with. We’ve all had those experiences – doing what the Boss says even when it’s counter to what we prefer.
Angels frighten me because I believe they are messengers of God or a Higher Power or the Universe… whatever. I believe they are committed and relentless. They’ve got jobs to do and they are in no mood. No mood for compassion or gentleness or wasting time.
We humans have created mythologies about Angels: that they are loving. That they are sent to protect us. That they are here to make our lives easier.
They are here to tell us what G or HP or U wants us to do. Now this might coincide with our innermost desires or this might be completely counter to those desires.
It’s all the same to the Angel.
Here on business
As far as the Angel is concerned, G or HP or U says do this job, so the Angel does it. The Angel’s probably thinking: Get off the ground and listen to me because I’m in no mood for histrionics. I’ve got a demanding Boss and another meeting. I’ve got to tell some other poor schmo that his life hasn’t gone the way he thought it would, that it won’t go well for a long time coming and, by the way, God needs a favor. And I’ve got to compel this person to do what I say and feel grateful that there is someone up there watching him.
I imagine that Angels are quite pissed off most of the time (in case you hadn’t figured that out already). It can’t be easy working for the real Master of the Universe. And Duty is a hard Taskmaster.
So I’m looking at the list of titles about Angels and I can barely breathe. What’s that all about? Did some Angel threaten me in a past life? Is one breathing down my neck right now shaking his head, his face expressionless, six foot wings folded behind his back, waiting for me to write that one thing that will really piss it off? I suppose it would tsk tsk me if it really cared.
But it doesn’t care, not about me personally just about the natural order of things.
Am I being too morbid? You’re probably thinking: But there are good Angels!
Okay. Let’s stipulate that the good Angels are the ones that were around when you got something you truly wanted. The cynic in me says that this was going to happen anyway. That if you’d wanted something else to happen, it wouldn’t have. And the Angel, if it bothered to speak with you at all after it delivered its message, would tell you how this is all for the best. God’s will.
A friend once told me, “God doesn’t make things easier for you. He makes it possible for you to deal with what happens.” My first thought was, When did she become so religious? The next one, Well I don’t need that kind of help.
I said this on the inside because my friend at that moment seemed so much more mature than I felt about this essential spiritual issue. Finally, at some point in my maturity, I realized that what she said had been a gift. That if I looked at it from that perspective, God must have had a lot of respect for my capabilities. He threw a lot at me. I guess He figured I could deal with it, with just a little help from Him. Thanks.
No I really mean it.
Just writing the above evokes images of my grandmother and church. She is probably rolling in her grave, fuming at my blasphemous tongue. While I did not grow up in a religious home – we were rather casual about attending church – I did grow up in the South. God, in the form of Christianity, seeped into your skin. It’s almost as though you became a Christian just by walking down the street. Everybody believed in God, convinced themselves that they believed in God, or at least knew how to appear to believe in God so that they’d fit in.
But we weren’t talking about God, were we? We were talking about Angels.
A totally different sort of Being.
Related column The Question of Angels, Redux
In part two of her column about angels, Ruth wonders, among other things, what it’s like to work for God, the Corporation.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.