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Angelic songs are swelling

26 September 2014

David Bryant meditates on the ministry of the holy angels


Spiritual struggle: Principalities by Guariento di Arpo (1354)

Spiritual struggle: Principalities by Guariento di Arpo (1354)

AS WARTIME children on the Kentish doodlebug path, we were put to bed with a prayer asking the angels to protect us. We needed them.

These picturesque figures turn up in nativity plays, stained-glass windows, and icons. The Old Testament really goes to town. Ezekiel gives them four faces, four wings, calves' feet, and bodies of burnished bronze. New Testament angels startle Mary out of her wits, sing to the shepherds, trailing clouds of glory, and terrify the women at the tomb. Some churchgoers may feel alienated by much of the sugared imagery.

There is another, less colourful, tradition surrounding angels, however. They go unrecognised, undecked, and unremarkable. The three appearing to Abraham are ordinary desert travellers who deliver a message, and mooch off into the sand-hills. The angelic visitors bringing Job tidings of doom walk the earth incognito.

This concept is echoed in the New Testament. In Hebrews 13.2, we are exhorted to be hospitable to strangers. They may be angels in disguise. St Paul, writing to the Colossians, refers to two orders of creation - the visible, earthly domain, and the invisible realm of heavenly beings.

A more recent picture is that of the host of spectral angels that allegedly appeared to soldiers at the Battle of Mons, 100 years ago. They have been dismissed as swirling smoke or the fevered imagination of terrified minds. Others believe in them implicitly.

The German poet-mystic Rainer Maria Rilke envisaged an even more unknowable species of angel in his Duino Elegies. They have a remoteness, a terrible beauty that lies beyond human limitations, a perfection towards which we can only aspire.

All this enriches our understanding. Angels are not just heavenly visitors with shimmering wings. They have become the hidden precursors of eternity: invisible powers hovering on the cusp of time.

There is no sentimentality here, no airy-fairy picture language, but only a realisation that holiness is not confined to heaven, but is written into the fabric of the world. Francis Thompson puts it neatly: "Turn but a stone and start a wing." There is a palpable sacredness all around us, an angelic presence, but more often than not we miss it.

In his book Le Milieu Divin, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist, posits a world that is slowly, painfully evolving towards Christ, an onward Christogenesis that is powered by humankind. It is our creative effort - our searching for the angelic in the dark places of the world - that furthers the purposes of God.

Every time we discover a crumb of otherness, a hint of the divine in our environment, we are touching on unseen angels. The angels speak to us of what we might become. They tell of the potential of humanity to flower into ever-greater holiness. Angels hold before us a vision of the world that is constantly emerging into something closer to God.

Teilhard de Chardin's prayer sits well with the feast of St Michael and All Angels.

Lord, we know and feel that you are everywhere around us: but it seems that there is a veil before our eyes. Let the light of your countenance shine upon us in its universality. May your deep brilliance light up the innermost parts of the massive obscurities in which we move. . . 

It is a humbling and thrilling thought that, together with the unseen angels, we can play a vital part in bringing about God's Kingdom. 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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