I’ve been thinking lately about how skittish angels are— “Now you see them, now you don’t”; and about how hard it is to hold onto those compelling moments when something extraordinary uplifted you with joy—the sense that “all is right with the world,” or,” I am loved!”
Sometimes it is an angel, sometimes it’s another human who says just what you needed to hear at that moment. Sometimes it comes—this acute awareness—when watching the surge of the sea against the shore, or the moon sailing through night-clouds in the high domed dark. Everyone has such experiences, and then they pass, and we are left wondering: Did that really happen? And why can’t I hold onto the exquisite euphoria?
Here’s a story. I’ve told it before (I don’t remember in which book). My friend Ellen was just a little girl, when she was playing with her brother and sister, in the autumn leaves that the street cleaners had collected at the curb. The three children, were not allowed to cross the street, but they saw that all the good leaves were in a pile on the far side, and with the logic of children, they ran again and again across the street to carry armloads of leaves back to the pile at their curb. Ellen, six years old, dropped her leaves midstream and stopped, innocent and guileless, to pick them up, when the car hit her. She was tossed into the air, came down and was hit again, landing in the gutter, while the car raced off: a hit and run.
The two siblings approached her gingerly. She lay like dead. They could not get her to breathe and in their dismay they walked around helplessly. It was a neighbor who called the ambulance and finally one of the children ran home to call their mother. She tore down the pavement to her daughter. By then a crowd had gathered. A mirror held to Ellen’s mouth showed she wasn’t breathing.
A man approached. His face was radiant. Everyone agreed he was amazing, with his radiance and calm.
“May I pray with you?” he asked Ellen’s mother.
She stared at him astonished. “I’d be honored.”
As they prayed, the ambulance’s siren sounded. Ellen’s mother went to the hospital in the ambulance, and my friend Ellen recovered, with no damage done.
But here comes the angel part. Or the skittish part—the part where we, each one, get to choose moment by moment: Do we “believe” or do we deny?
Afterwards Ellen’s mother wanted to thank the kind man who had prayed with her and brought her comfort. People thought he was the Episcopal priest at the nearby church. But when she went to the church, no one had heard of him. The man was never seen again.
Was he an angel? Was he a human who came along at that moment and carried out the duties of an angel? It depends on your point of view.
This is the time of year when we hear the story of a teenage woman who got pregnant. It’s not just that we hear of the story, but we identify with it. Or we are moved by it. Or else we are inundated and rage against it. Like Ellen’s story, you don’t know what to believe. After all, the virgin birth was a myth as old as ancient Sumaria, three or four thousand years before.
How did Mary know it was the Angel Gabriel who came to her? How did Joseph reconcile the fact of Mary’s illegitimate pregnancy with her story, or with his privileges as her betrothed? What do we choose to believe when angels are skittish and nothing can be proven or locked neatly in place?