Visions and Visitations
EVEN THE ENTIRELY GODLESS —provided they are not entirely artless—know that Christmas began with an angel. The soaring radiance of medieval and Renaissance art turned again and again to the Annunciation and the astonishing moment when Gabriel first appeared to Mary with the slightly scandalous news that she was about to become the mother of Christ. Multiplied and modified by commerce, these and kindred images—of angels flying, angels tootling on long trumpets, angels simply adoring—have become as much a part of worldly Christmas as street-corner Santas. And when the New Year comes, they seem as swiftly and easily forgotten.
They deserve better, even from 20th century man, says Critic and Biographer Theodora Ward. Modest, scholarly, at times profoundly thoughtful, her new look traces the story of angel visitations through theology, philosophy and art from angelic beginnings in Jewish and Christian scriptures up to the present. Miss Ward's conclusion: angels are in for a renaissance.
Male or Female? The author's literary pilgrimage takes her through diverting patches of angelic lore. Biblically speaking, most angels are confined to the hierarchical ranks in heaven—seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, etc. Only the lowest ranks, archangels and angels, have ever had contact with man, appearing as messengers and ministers of God, especially at crucial moments when things had to be done that defied human logic—opening the Red Sea, for example, so that the children of Israel could pass. But no scriptural source deals adequately with such practical matters as what angels wore, what they really looked like, what sex, if any, they possessed. Man was left to imagine these details according to need and fashion.
The three angels who dined with Abraham are not described in Genesis. Early Christian painters presented them as strong, manly figures who greatly resembled Abraham. But angels were swift travelers and miraculous beings. By the 4th century A.D., Abraham's visitors had permanently acquired wings and halos. Much thought was given to the thorny question of whether angels were male or female. That dilemma was resolved by St. Thomas Aquinas in 1272, who reasoned that angels could assume whatever aspect they liked but had no bodily functions. Hence they were neither male nor female.
The advent of science eroded angelic prerogatives. So, surprisingly, did the rise of Protestantism. Luther and Calvin believed in angels; but Luther prayed God not to send him angel visions because they distracted him. And both men were dedicated to downgrading angels, the Devil, the Virgin Mary—anything and everything that cluttered the image of God as an all-powerful being.
Sea of Sentiment. The most inhospitable age toward the heavenly hosts, according to Miss Ward, was the post-Darwinian 19th century. Religion had unwisely chosen to do literal battle with evolutionists about the creation—and roundly lost. Science, reason, progress, all crudely conceived of as panaceas, became the new gods. Anyone who saw visions, angelic or otherwise, was plainly cracked. "The idea of the angel," Miss Ward writes, "became more and more detached from its religious background and floated on the sea of sentiment that flowed from the purely secular romantic movement." "Angelic" became a precious adjective applied exclusively to women and babies.
Miss Ward does not seem overly cast down by the decline of the role of angels as formal messengers of God within a codified religion. For in tracing the personal experiences of men with angels, her real sympathies and many of her pages are given to the mystics Jakob Bohme, Emanuel Swedenborg and, more recently, the German poet Rilke.
In the 17th century Bohme's visions taught him that spirit and matter interpenetrate and surround man and nature "The holy angels," he wrote, "converse and walk up and down in the innermost world." For Rilke, struggling with personal despair before World War 1, angel visions, overwhelming, beautiful, threatening, appeared as anything but comforters. They were beings exhorting him and all mankind to a task, which he thought of as "transformation." Miss Ward links Rilke to Teilhard de Chardin and his conception of man's part in the ultimate goal of evolution—"the spiritualization of the earth."
Unlike the mid-19th century, the mid-20th has few illusions about the omniscience of reason or the inevitability of progress. In the current leaning toward mysticism and occultism, Miss Ward optimistically sees a greater openness to inner truths—and a great opportunity for angelic influence. Their real power, after all, is not as messengers of God but as profound and enduring symbols from the subconscious, where modern men must wrestle with the still mysterious forces that move them and the world.