Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Let me confess that I don't do angels well either. They seem a bit too New Agey for me, especially with the spate of angel books that were published 10 years ago, books that promised me that I would get to know my angels, books in which getting to know my angels was very similar to enslaving my angels to do my will. Blcch. Giving the angels a mission is God's job, not mine.

I often joked that I should combine two publishing trends and publish a diet book: Your Angels Want You to Be Thin! The Know Your Angels Diet Book. I'm not that mercenary, though (and if you are, feel free to steal my title), not that willing to make money off the real troubles and gullibility of humans. To borrow words from Blake, I don't want to be the one that makes a Heaven off of misery.

But now, ten years later, I find myself a bit envious of those people who grew up in traditions that had theologically sound approaches to angels. Again and again, I find in the traditions of others something I feel lacking in mine.

Luckily, I'm part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't insist that we remain closed off to traditions that might enrich us spiritually, even if Luther didn't sanction them. We've seen an explosion of exploration of labyrinths. Maybe angels will be next.

For those of you who want some special Scripture for this high feast day, here's what the Lutheran church (ELCA) recommends:

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
Gospel: Luke 10:17-20

1 comment:

Dale said...

Yikes. We become angels when we die? I hope there's a rigorous training program, then. If ever I was unqualified for a job! :-)

I think (speaking as a Buddhist) that it's easier to listen to and interpret messages from -- um -- (man, terminology is problematic going from one religion and cosmology to another!) well, let's say heaven -- if you're free to picture different messengers. God is beyond conception, but we have a really difficult time interpreting speech without imputing a speaker. (In my day, theoreticians used to bat around whether that was even possible. I don't know what they bat around now :->.) If you're going to start imputing to divinity, it might be wiser to steer away from imputing things directly to God -- that seems like an obscure version of idolatry, doesn't it?

Tibetan Buddhism has all these characters called (this was a very bad translation, but we're stuck with it) "deities"; some of them originally human beings. You can visualize them, ask them for blessings, pray to them. You don't, at least you're not supposed to, *believe* in them. That's not what they're for.

But when you need purification, you go and do the Vajrasattva practice, and say the Vajrasattva mantra, and visualize him washing away all your impurities. That's his schtick, that's why he's pure white, and he has all this purification symbolism about him. You could do the same thing, theoretically, with the Holy Spirit, but -- I think it would be a lot more difficult. Harder to get traction.

I picture angels and saints as fulfilling the same function, but, never having practiced Christianity, I can't really say. You all take the ontological status of things a lot more seriously than we do, so I imagine it's a lot more problematic. Whether Gabriel is real would matter deeply to you.