I don’t believe in angels as part of the larger scheme of things—to me they have always represented an ancient cosmology and hierarchy that is quaint, verging on the absurd. For that reason, the narratives about the birth of Jesus recorded in the Christian Testament, with all their angels have required of me a suspension of disbelief. The infancy narratives are such compelling invitations into the mystery of God’s ways that I have not felt disingenuous simply leaving my world view to one side, comfortable to say that I don’t sweat about the details while I treasure the wonder that a little boy from nowhere with nothing to his name could cause the heavens themselves to sing with joy.
I have been spending quite a lot of time these days on the infancy narratives, up early each morning for prayer and reflection that has included the main passages of the early chapters of Luke and Matthew. A few days ago, I came to the part where the shepherds were out feeding their flocks by night and the angel came to them and announced tidings of great joy. For the first time, maybe ever, I sort-of sat with the concept and notion of an angel. I wasn’t all caught up in an existential rumination or some kind of ontological back and forth in my mind, two competing cosmologies shaping that conversation. It was a lot simpler, really. “What might I know about angels”, was the half-formed question that insinuated itself to me.
That Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is surely an overplayed and over-examined piece of music that becomes suspect because it is so easy to love. But there are some wonderful lines in it including: “there’s a blaze of light in every word”. That morning “angel” had a blaze of light for me—a flash that cut through some self-protective ‘stuff’ of mine, that illuminated not only the text but my own life. I thought that if I had ever heard the voice of an angel, it was my mom’s voice. Let me hasten to add: my mom was no angel. She was a complicated, broken woman. But I come back to those yearss at Children’s in Boston and the time I was lying weeping one evening after my surgery in 1968.
A volunteer happened to come by, saw my sadness. Somehow I was able to tell her that I was desperately missing my mom. The lady got permission and instructions from the nurses enough to wheel my bed (I realize now how small that bed must have been if she was able to maneuver it on her own) right up to the public phone in the hallway in front of the elevators. She found the phone number to the Longwood Inn, where my mom was staying, put in the nickel and called. Hearing my mom’s voice was hearing the voice of an angel–there was hope again, and consolation, and the promise of the joy that comes when finally, something has broken the free-fall of pain. I look back on that summer evening in Boston and also realize that the volunteer–who is now little more than a dimly remembered presence, was her own self an angel.
Last night, a lot of pain from the week caught up with me as I walked; in fact it was an overwhelming wave of pain like I haven’t dealt with for months. And at the point when I could hardly bear to take one more step, I heard a rustle and there, once again, sat the little burrowing owl. And once again, it sat still in front of me, though this time it was calling—a thin, reedy bird call that sounded like a kitten mewling. Once again, I stood as still as I could, until the little bird took wing. And then it came down on the grass close by me on the swale and I realized there was a second one—maybe his or her mate. After just a little bit longer, they both flew away and I continued my walk back home.
This is the third time I have encountered what I assume is the same owl. It’s never been in the same place; however, like the last time we looked at each other, it has been in the midst of bone-crushing desolation. I don’t believe in angels and I am grateful, so, so grateful, for the beautiful presence of these creatures who are as mystery-filled as the darkness we meet in.