‘I have seen a thousand times that angels are human forms, or men, for I have conversed with them as man to man, sometimes with one alone, sometimes with many in company.”
This statement from Emanuel Swedenborg, a 17th- and 18th-century scientist and religious writer, throws us into another realm, a world that few of us can experience. But Swedenborg was a rather unique fellow who not only founded a religion in his own name but also predicted the moment of his death.
I have been a skeptic about this angel business even as the books about heavenly creatures pile up on my desk. But this summer, as I’ve dug through some of those books, I am struck by how many people through the ages have had an intimate relationship with some kind of spiritual force.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a conversation with angels whenever one wanted or needed help, as Swedenborg said he had done? I think of all the times I have needed divine help and how I longed for some guidance that could be trusted absolutely.
What I got instead of an angel was a mishmash of advice from friends, coupled with my own peculiar confusion. But this summer I have had some fresh thoughts about this angel phenomenon. I have decided I need to believe in angels, not for supernatural help but simply because it lines up with my theological system.
After all, I believe in a God I have never seen, so why shouldn’t I believe in invisible angels? If I believe that God is everywhere, why can’t I decide that angels are carrying part of that burden?
Social critic Harold Bloom says the current angel phenomenon is about not wanting to die. I think that could be part of our desire, but it goes beyond dying and lands smack in the center of our lives. I think angels signal our longing for comfort, safety and inner peace.
Tom Peters, the noted management consultant, says the popularity of angels is a “New Age answer to the homelessness of secularity.” What he means, I think, is that we have bought into the secular culture and found that it does not satisfy our needs. Even when we have accomplished every possible pleasure and acquired every material thing, we still feel alone - homeless, as Peters would say - alienated from the real world where our souls live.
I’m pulling these quotes from a brand-new book titled “The Quotable Angel: A Treasury of Inspiring Quotations Spanning the Ages” (John Wiley and Sons, New York, $14.95).
Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, described angels as “spiritual being(s), created by God, without bodies, for the service of Christendom and the church.”
The problem with that view is that all religions claim to have angels - not just Christianity, but Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
I like C.G. Jung’s description of the heavenly beings.
“The angel personifies something new arising from the deep unconscious.” Isn’t that what most of us want - something new coming into our lives to help define who we are? Isn’t it true that it takes a lifetime to fashion a complete picture of ourselves?
I’m still working at my big picture, and when something new rises from my deep consciousness, I’m intrigued and enlightened by it. But those are the shining moments we often miss because we aren’t paying attention to our souls.
Actress and singer Dolly Parton
weighs in with her thoughts on the spiritual personages: “One of my favorite expressions is ‘Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.’
“To me, that means they’re not held down by the weight of their own self-importance. They don’t ever think of themselves as angels. They just are.
“Angels are very special to me. I’m not for a moment suggesting that I am an angel, but I have certainly known some.”
Of course, Parton is speaking of people who have been nice to her, but my understanding of angels is of beings both wispy and physical: big, burly beings who swoop down into our lives with messages that enter our subconscious.
I’m going to continue thinking this through. Maybe if I concentrate enough, I’ll have a vision like Swedenborg.
MEMO: Clark Morphew, an ordained clergyman, is religion writer for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. Write to him at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul MN 55101.