Angels We Have Heard:
Why are they speaking so much lately?

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Dec. 20, 1997)

Every angel is terrible. Still, though, alas! I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing what you are ...

-- Rilke

No image, with the exception of Santa Claus and the Christ Child, is as pervasive at Christmas as the angel. Usually overdressed and smiling sweetly, the angels of Christmas decorating are obnoxious creatures: sexless Mattel dolls with wings, lynched on Christmas trees or set adrift in mounds of spun fiberglass dyed pinker than cotton candy.

Of course, angels -- thanks to books like "Ask Your Angels" -- have entered the public imagination throughout the year in recent times. New Age folks can consult angelic counselors who converse with the winged ones or even make you a nice drawing of your guardian angel. Television is full of angels. They are also favorite subjects of kitsch-makers and they inhabit key rings, dinner plates and condom packaging. Most often, they appear in their cute and sassy cherubic form, inspired by the ubiquitous Raphael angel.

The angel, once invisible to but a few, has become unavoidable to everyone.

Gaston Bachelard, the phenomenologist and student of poetics, was fascinated with angels. He managed to consider their meaning without a theological context, observing that their pancultural appearance in art, literature and philosophy (as well as theology) must reveal some deep meaning about us as a species. Thus, despite their typically grotesque rendering in popular imagery, the angel, whatever it is, does seem to be demanding our attention -- now more than ever.

Angels, of course, are messengers. I am most enamored, I confess, of paintings of the Annunciation -- the angel Gabriel announcing to the young Virgin that she "among women is blessed" to carry the infant Christ. I am unable to read these paintings literally. To me, they are largely a depiction of the way one should respond to the impossible, the what-is that makes no sense.

"Ave, Maria," says the angel. Thomas Moore has pointed out repeatedly that the angel greets us familiarly but from another sphere of reality. In paintings of the Annunciation, the Virgin is often shown stepping back, in surprise, but remaining fully present, in conversation with the angel. To my mind, this is a statement about the appropriate way to greet the unknown. When we are in relationship to the unknown we are virginal in that respect and the proper response, even in surprise, is to enter dialogue. By thus doing, new life is stirred within us.

Now, I don't mean to imply, in my allegorical reading of the Annunciation, that the angel is an altogether imaginal being. My family's religion, Swedenborgianism, is founded on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century mystic who claimed to have direct conversation with angels. Swedenborg was not insane; he was an important scientist (and political figure) of his time and his work with angels inspired everyone from Kant to Blake and Balzac ... and Bachelard.

Another mystic and scientist who claimed to have interaction with angels was Rudolph Steiner, whose prolific "channeled" teachings at the turn of the century still form the basis of much European farming and education. Eerily, according to Robert Sardello, Steiner taught that angelic beings are attempting to contact humans and that refusal to hear their greeting -- their "ave" -- would result in a certain array of symptoms which we now call the negative aspects of material science. In Sardello's view, then, the angels call us to our spiritual natures.

Bachelard puts it differently. He says that the wing, the feature that distinguishes angels from humans, is an image of transcendence. The angels move vertically, calling us to our higher natures, but moving from the depth of personality. They are by and large invisible to the eye but may be perceived by the imagination. This is an important distinction: What is perceived by the imagination is not necessarily imaginary, unreal. In fact, Bachelard would argue that what is invisible and perceived by the imagination has a much "realer" sense than what is perceived with the ordinary eye.

An excellent example of Bachelard's point of view in contemporary theater is Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." The angel, fully sensual (compared to the radical innocence of Swedenborg's angels), calls the protagonist, and our nation, to higher purposes.

Kushner's angels also follow Rilke's -- and the angel of the Annunciation, for that matter. Rilke, the poet most familiar with angels since Milton, perhaps, writes that angels are "terrible." They are not always -- perhaps, rarely -- the bearer of welcome news. The Virgin balks and so does the hero of Angels in America, but they listen and act and, eventually, welcome the angel. (Wim Wenders' films are also good lessons in sensible contemporary "angel-ology.")

Angels, in fact, are not always good. There are fallen angels and angels who behave as tricksters. To evoke an angel, except the guardian angel, unprepared is risky business. To meet an angel and not question it -- even the Virgin questioned -- is also foolish. Remember that the closer the angel is to the Shining, the more potential it has to suffer pride: That was Lucifer's lesson. To identify with the angel, like so many New Agers, is to usurp its role as messenger of the Other. The angel always represents the Other.

Not all angels have human form -- nor wings, for that matter. (Here and there in Michelangelo's work, angels are depicted as simply lifting a foot and taking off.) I have been with several friends who, as they were dying, claimed to see angelic beings and they had nothing in common with the usual imagery. They were often animals, arcs of light and even cartoon figures.

How do you recognize an angel?

Listen first for the greeting -- the "Ave ... " -- that takes you by surprise. You hear it clear as a bell but you do not see a form at once, if at all. You will often hear your name called, as if from another room. Angels, we know, do not speak as we do. They speak musically or poetically. In classic depiction their words unfurl in the air on banners or as notes of music spilling out of instruments. But this too is analagous to the actual experience. Indeed, many writers, like Allen Tate and Jacques Maritain, have suggested the analagous way of thinking is better called "angelic imagination." Angels, in their incarnation, visible or not, refer our world to another world: the higher world. Everything to the angel's eyes is a metaphor of the higher world.

Angels particularly are perceptible at the time you are awaking (or in certain forms of meditation), when consciousness is most open and the heart is receptive to the imaginal. You hear the "ave," your name called. Pay attention to what you sense in your body, particularly in your heart. The guardian angel knows your destiny and thus, if it is calling you, it is usually calling you into the future.

No, the angel may not be standing, wings folded in the other room, trumpeting your future. It may simply call your name and then a thought or feeling will arise, particularly clear and in a felt sense. This is no different from Plato's world of ideal forms or Jung's archetypes or Hillman's images. You are being addressed by the invisible -- which may or may not make itself visible to your physical eye, usually in a fleeting way. But the experience is realer than real.

Do I see winged angels chattering musically to me about my destiny?

Nope. I see birds. I continually encounter birds. Birds, as you may know, were an oracle in ancient times (thus the word "augury"). Birds fly into my house. I dream of birds continually. Last night, I dreamed of an owl that turned into a falcon -- a wise hunter -- while a woman, who called my name, was making a Christian testimony to me. The owl/falcon kept laughing in its tree, taking off and putting back on one of those hoods that trained falcons wear. This was a pagan, a dark angel, one that, unlike the Christian before me, knew the value of darkness -- like Eros in his late depictions.

I awoke, startled, and, looking out my window, I saw an enormous crow pecking in the snow not three feet away. I was astonished.

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published Dec. 20, 1997


"The Angels," edited by Robert Sardello, The Dallas Institute Publications, Dallas, 1994.

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