Thursday, January 10, 2013


Earlier this morning I read in another blog about the vast difference between angels as described in the Bible and in Christian tradition and angels as conceived by contemporary society.  It is easy to assume that people are being carelessly poetic when they talk as though angels are the ghosts of "good" people (usually anyone who was "nice", or at least not totally monstrous -- there is rarely significant overlap with the Catholic teaching on the communion of Saints) or that they are basically just like humans with a few neat abilities (to become invisible, to teleport, and immortality, for example).   

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation
I really like the representation of the angel Gabriel in Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Annunciation".

Angels are very different from that.  They are spirits that were never human or even truly incarnate, which means being a union of body and soul.  Christian teaching is not consistent with the idea that our bodies are "merely shells"; thus
  • reincarnation is impossible (it would mean the same soul going into a different body), 
  • at the Resurrection Christ rose in His own body, He did not create a new one and leave the old one in the tomb, and
  • the general resurrection will reunite both the blessed and the damned with their own bodies.
Yes, when angels reveal themselves, they appear to have bodies.  If they didn't, we couldn't see them and would not know how to interact with them.  In some cases, they are apparently present only to the mind of the person to whom they reveal themselves, but in others they seem to control a kind of tangible puppet, though that is no more a part of them than a puppet is a part of the puppeteer.  Also, note that the descriptions of angels are frequently almost incomprehensible -- almost impossible to visualize.  I think the reason for this is to emphasize that angels are indeed very different than anything we meet in our everyday lives.

When I imagine angels, though, I now think back to a very odd dream I had about a dozen years ago.  

I dreamed I was in the Holy Land, and there was a line of elderly Israelis waiting to catch the next bus.  Suddenly a van spun around the corner and crashed into a wall.  I knew somehow that this was a partially botched terrorist attempt on the line of people waiting for the bus; the van contained two liquid chemicals, each harmless in itself, that would create a powerful poison gas when mixed.

For some reason I was not really worried about my own safety or that of the people standing in line, but I was very concerned for a little girl who continued playing near the van, which even then was leaking chemicals.  I said something to her (I don't remember the exact details of much of the conversation), but she told me it was all right:  as Michael is the angel of protection for the Jewish people, so she was the angel of death.  She was there to escort the elderly Jews to their final destinations.  Then my eyes were opened. 

Anyone who has been to church much at all will be familiar with the expression "my eyes were opened", but the actual experience of it was something of a shock.  Basically, I noticed that I had been seeing all along that she was completely white -- not just white like a piece of paper, but glowing white like a fluorescent bulb, or, to very slightly paraphrase Matthew 28:3, "Her countenance was as lightning, and her raiment as snow" -- although, really, her raiment was also glowing.  The experience was something like the difference between the way a city or building looks when you first see it, without knowing where things are or how they relate to each other, and how it looks when you have lived or worked in it for a few years; or how a piece of music like the 1812 Overture sounds different when you understand the meaning behind the musical themes.  Even closer is the experience I have had a few times in which I have passed a sign without reading it but been able to remember it clearly enough to read it in my memory.

In my dream I was shocked at this discovery, but not really alarmed.  She was not evil, she was simply carrying out a duty God had given her, and since I am not Jewish, she had no business with me.  She was, however, a being whose very nature demanded respect.  Forget all the silly nonsense people say about how they would do this or that "cute" thing if they were to meet an angel or God; they don't know what they are talking about.  So although I wondered for a moment where she was taking them, I did not ask; it seemed to be none of my business and an impertinent question, and asking an impertinent question of one such as herself simply Is Not Done.  Likewise, I felt that it would be possible to reach out and touch her, but that this would be both inappropriate and unwise; I was sure she would burn my hand, not like fire burns with heat, but like liquid nitrogen burns with cold.

That was all the dream, or at least all I remember of it.  It surprised me in that I had always imagined the angel of death before as either being just one angel (like the Grim Reaper) or maybe being each person's individual guardian angel; the idea of a different angel of death for each nation had never occurred to me, though it does seem to fit well with certain Scriptural passages, especially Daniel 10:13, and with the angelic hierarchy.  Maybe such an angel of death would be a Principality.

Yes, I know all this was just a dream, and that

Like one grasping at shadows or chasing the wind,so anyone who believes in dreams.What is seen in dreams is a reflection,the likeness of a face looking at itself.-- Sirach 34:2,3 (NAB)
I do not take this to be anything more than food for thought, but it has given me much to think about.  

One last thing.   A year or two after having this dream, I told a Jewish friend that I had had a very strange dream in which I met the angel of death for the Jewish people.  I was afraid he would take offense at this, but he was not only a friend, he was also very reasonable.  The question he asked in response, though, gave me the shivers:  "What did she look like?"  Until I had the dream, I had never thought of any angel of death as female, but that is the Jewish tradition.

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