My mother-in-law’s refrigerator is a repository of wisdom and a shrine to joy. There’s a hand-drawn picture from my son with these words: “I love you, dear Nan. Happy Mother’s Day. Thanks for being the best Nana in the world. Thanks for being my mommy’s mommy. I love that sometimes you paint your nails. This is a picture of a baby monster. Love, Emerson.”
There’s a photograph of my daughter holding a plastic-wrapped chocolate mold of praying hands. My mother-in-law had taken her to the dollar store one Christmastime and told her she could pick anything she wanted to give my wife as a present. The chocolate hands were “perfect,” she had said. In the picture she is beaming to beat the band.
Then, among a couple of Far Side cartoons, some poems, and photos of family, there are magnets and little pieces of paper with wise, gentle sayings: “If you would have a lovely home, live a lovely life.” (Shaker Proverb). “Let go or be dragged.” (American Proverb). (I always read this one “Let God or be ragged,” which only requires moving one letter.) Or this nice one from Mother Teresa: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.”
But the one that makes me catch my breath is this one, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” (The Talmud). I looked it up. It’s from the Midrash Rabbah on Bereshit (Genesis). Another translation is that the angel has to hit the grass to make it grow. But I like the whisper. I also like the questions it raises about angels. And the affirmation of divine attentiveness to earthly endeavors.
I took my children to meet Brian Kershisnik at his studio in Kanosh. He had just finished painting a stunning, staggeringly lovely depiction of a woman downcast and downhearted with a column of angels soaring, swooping—maybe even stumbling—to lay hands on her. The paint was still wet, and I feared my bumpy children would bump into it. They did not, and Brian was exceptionally gracious and generous with the kids. But the image has stayed with me. Brian often depicts whorls of angels enveloping unseeing mortals. “So great a cloud of witnesses,” as it were. And it must be that way. Angels breathe peace down our necks day to day. And what else?
Billy Collins wrote a poem called “Questions About Angels.” Among other things, he writes,
Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.
No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.
Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?
If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?
The poem is good because it raises questions. Certainly, angels deliver cakes, if not the mail. I’ve often wondered who baked that bread brought by ravens and who prepared the cake delivered by an angel to Elijah. I like to imagine heavenly parents singing and swaying together in a celestial kitchen somewhere, cooking that which will nourish their weary mortal children. I believe in a God who would bake a cake for me in my juniper bush moments. And in the angels who shake us awake.
Back around Valentine’s day, I got Oliver up from a nap and laid him down to change his diaper. He smiled up and me and shouted, “Lew-yuh!” He followed it up with “HalleLEW-Yeah!” And then he began to laugh, almost maniacally. “Ah-hahahaha!” I joined him, and we laughed together. Hallelujah. I wrote about that experience to my mother-in-law, and she wrote back, “Lew yeah, indeed. I’m pretty sure that O-town awoke from his innocent sleep/communion-with-God-and-angels and spoke what his ancient soul knew for certain. That God is good and that He heals us all. Hallelujah. Oliver caught up a blazing brightness from the spiritual soup in his small dimpled hand and opened his fingers let a golden shaft of perfect love fall across your face as well. Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, and so do baby boys with earnest brown eyes. And they laugh out loud for pure joy.”
Wyslawa Szymborska, an excellent Polish poet who passed away about the same time in February that Oliver awoke in praise, gives us this delightful thought:
If there are angels
I doubt they read
concerning thwarted hopes.
I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.
Off-duty, between angelic-
they watch instead
from the age of silent film.
I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.
They must laugh. Sometimes I think I hear them laughing at me. Or with me, as that would be more angelic. “Angels above us are silent notes taking.” Perhaps they are taking notes on the humorous and the lovely, shaking with silent laughter, wiping their tears.
Jacob wrestled an angel and got a blessing. I'll bet that was fun for the angel.
In the Apocryphal book “Bel and the Dragon,” Daniel has been cast into a lions’ den and is hungry. An angel asks the prophet Habakkuk in Jerusalem to take him some food. Habakkuk rejoins that he doesn’t know where Babylon is and could never find Daniel even if he wanted to. The angel, in apparent exasperation, picks him up and flies him to Babylon where he sort of bombs Daniel with food before being carried back to his own house.
The writer of Hebrews urged, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” That is a nice idea, because it humanizes angels and exalts people. Surely we are not so different from the angels, nor they from us. Every person we meet might be an angel in disguise. It certainly urges a sense of hospitality. That seems to be the point when three “men” came to Abraham in the plains of Mamre. He ran to fix them a meal. And for his kindness, he was told he would have a son of promise. He laughed and laughed and then when the promise was fulfilled, he named his son “He laugheth.”
When we were at Brian’s studio, I was holding my brand-new baby girl in one arm and the diaper bag in the other. I went to put the diaper bag over my shoulder, and Ellie shifted her weight. I watched in horror as my chubby-legged cherub flew through the air toward the cement floor. Surely some Kershisnikian seraphs assisted on that one, because she was floating for what felt like a whole minute before I reached out and plucked her by her onesie from midair.
When one of my student’s sister died of cancer, her best friend, another one of my students, walked out on her porch in grief and was given a song. It was about angels. It might have been given by an angel. I heard it again today, and it made me cry. You should check it out: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/shes-an-angel-single/id467541475
Here’s the point: there are angels. I don’t know exactly what they do. But I know they do. (And if you have any thoughts on what they do [surely they sing; I learned once in Mexico that they can sing in Spanish. We were in a tiny chapel for a temple dedication and we raised the roof with song. I looked around in astonishment, wondering where all this sound was coming from, then I realized it must be from the unseen world]—anyway, if you have any thoughts on what they do, I’d love to hear them in a comment.) But they are real, and I think that they are a testament to the infinite attentiveness of God for his kids. Whether they are whispering to grass or catching babies or watching over grieving sisters, they show the love and power of God.
(The painting is "Angels" by Brian Kershisnik.)