Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angelification

David Crowder is a musician whom one of my dearest friends really doesn’t like but of whom I happen to have firsthand knowledge. Having met him in a grocery store, I came away with a thoroughly positive impression; he even told me to call him “Dave.” His music is remarkable. Dave sings songs that sometimes involve angels or are suggestive of the beating of angels’ wings. When he mentions “the rush of angels,” compositionally Crowder does something interesting in his musical arrangement: he introduces a change in tempo. For example, he might adjust a time signature, just for a measure, and then quickly return to the previous signature (e.g., in his song “Shine,” which is a particularly powerful and emotional song on a variety of levels). As I am fortunate to be able to perform Dave’s music fairly frequently, I’m especially sensitive to rhythmic changes; I can say, from the vantage point of a drummer’s stool, at least, it seems to me that it is owing to angels that David Crowder’s music can be more difficult to play than that of other musicians.

Though angels are, of course, known in the Old Testament, the English word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos. Both it and the Hebrew (malak) have approximately the same connotation, “messenger.” While many of us (i.e. Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general) may think of angels as oversized cupids (or worse, cupids to scale), the ancient descriptions of them do not bear this out. The mistaken, erotic image  seems rather to have been the product of a strange form of syncretism.

Clarence Another fictionalized portrayal of an angel, in this case one that I rather like within its storytelling (i.e. mythical) context, is that of Clarence in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bungling, charming, human, Clarence defies any angelic stereotype. He is not the bold image of St. Michael expelling the fallen parents of humankind from the garden.

Tile flooor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri
St. Michael Expels Adam and Eve, Handpainted Tile Floor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri

Nor is he Gabriel, charged with the impossible task (but pulling it off brilliantly) of having to announce to Mary her soon-to-be, quite-difficult-to-explain-to fiancé/parents/friends new situation.

 

Leonardo's annunciation
Leonardo di Vinci, Annunciation

However much one may adore the early work of Leonardo, one nevertheless might say or at least think, “Come on, nobody seriously believes in angels today.” Well, about that one might be both wrong and right at once. It is right in the sense that, if one says “nobody” in such a sentence, one does not intend to be taken literally.  Rather, the speaker’s purpose with such a statement to be perceived as fan of folk wisdom, a purveyor of practical advice, an unsolicited but hopefully helpful social commentator. Yet this overarching truism is obviously wrong, as David Crowder has such high regard for angels that not infrequently he even changes time signatures for them.

But this blog is not meant to engage in a debate about the existence of these heavenly beings. Rather, it is meant to analyze them, ever so briefly, so as to suggest that they can help explain, on the one hand, the strange behavior of some of your friends who might bring to you strange-sounding “religious” information and, on the other, to suggest that we can all, religious and non-religious alike, take a page out of the angelic playbook. Let me start with the latter of these two ideas.

One role of angels that I have alluded to in a previous blog seems to be protective; hence the idea of a “guardian” angel. For this reason the notion of a fallen angel seems particularly evil: the guardian has turned into the predator—how perfectly Satanic. One thinks of the abuse of power in the hands of any person given charge over a dependent. Few would disagree that such abuse of a guardian’s role is evil, even if fewer yet would admit that it is Satanic. Yet it is, as I said above, not merely Satanic, it is perfectly so, precisely because it is the abuse of one’s authority. Would that our elected officials or any overpaid overlord bear that in mind.

Battista Hagar
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hagar Assisted by an Angel
St. Peter and Angel
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Liberation of St. Peter

The concept of a “guardian” angel no doubt derives from the notion that angels appear in the Old and New Testaments fairly frequently in this role. I need not burden this piece with examples, as one or two will do. An angel appears to Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah and helps her in her time of need.[1] Peter’s escape from prison is another example.[2] In both cases angels show up unexpectedly and deliver someone from distress. And in our lives, there may be times—hopefully there will be—when we can show up to help someone in distress. One need not be a true believer to conclude that one should help a person in distress. The degree to which one engages in such help may correlate to the depth of one’s faith (or may even provide a path to faith), for such a merciful act is fundamentally God-like. Yet it is also fundamentally human. But I posit that as a challenge to believers, not as a rebuke of those who reject the faith. Suffice it to say that anyone can “angelify” in this sense of helping another human being in need.

I now turn to the second aspect of angelification which must begin with a kind of apologia. I use the Greek term here, borrowed of course from Socrates’ famous defense speech in which he explains the sum of his life’s work successfully to generation upon generation of readers but unsuccessfully to the jury at the time. Thus I use that term to explain how the Greek term differs from its English cognate (the English word “apology” obviously derives from the ancient Greek). The ancient kind of apology is not meant to express regret or remorse but rather merely to offer an explanation, an “after word,” which is what apologia means in Greek. And that explanation is simply this: those Christian folk—for I offer this apologia only for that group—who are eager to bring others with them to church or a group meeting or the like, are acting as messengers in the truest sense, for what they try to explain to their fellow human beings is a message.

A touch more explanation here may be required, as it is not just any message that that person is trying to share: it is the good message (Greek, euangelion), sometimes translated as “good news.” My apologia, then, is not for that news, which, since it is good, needs no apology. Rather, it is for us messengers who, not being angels and thus imperfect creatures, might sometimes come across poorly, misspeak, or even jumble up the message—not explaining that good message in every instance as well as it deserves, for it is a message of hope and forgiveness, a good message indeed in a world full of grief and sorrow.

In trying to bless in either of these ways, whether by offering a helping hand or acting as a messenger, one is playing the part of an angel. One thus “angelifies”; one metaphorically becomes an angel, like Clarence trying “to win his wings,” which, if not the best theology,[3] is nevertheless the narratival catalyst for that old, quite wonderful movie. And in the process, one is blessed—one does get one’s wings, so to speak, though not the kind that Clarence seeks. Rather, by blessing, one becomes blessed, by understanding others and meeting them where they are, perhaps one can, oneself, be better understood.

Thus, figuratively speaking, one can angelify and be blessed by so doing, helping another, speaking the blessing of good news to a desperate world. If one does, one must be careful of the rush of angels’ wings roundabout, for those wings will be beating close by, as a being from outside our own time bumps up against our mortality. That will effect a change of time signature, a new beat, and it can affect the way we think about life and even how we might live our lives, now and forever. There are indeed, at least in that sense, angels among us. And I myself have heard of others, too—a chapter in the Curious Autobiography (pp. 225ff.)perhaps, in the distant future, of yet another blog on angels.

 [1] Genesis 16.

[2] Acts 12.

[3] Milton says it quite pithily: “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts” (“On His Blindness”).

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