Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: September 2019

How to see angels

How to see angels

Michaelmas is a time for opening hearts to heaven, for learning to see realities to which we have progressively blinded ourselves.

The Moken ‘sea gypsies’ of the Andaman Sea off Malaysia have developed the unique ability to focus under water, in order to dive for food on the sea floor. Their sight is also 50% more acute than Europeans’.

The Hadza in Tanzania have developed a mutually helpful relationship with the honeyguide bird, which leads them to wild bees’ hives. The bird calls to the hunters, who whistle back to it. It flits from tree to tree, stopping to wait for hunters to catch up, so eventually leading them to a hive. The bird is rewarded with the honeycomb leftovers.

The Yanomani of Brazil have an encyclopaedic knowledge of native animals, plants and herbs, using around 500 species of plants on a daily basis.

These are just a few snapshots from Survival International of people with skills you or I could never learn: people called “primitive” by “civilised” neighbours like us, who are pushing their ancient cultures to the verge of extinction.

And while these ancient peoples struggle to keep their deep connection with the natural world, ours gets weaker and weaker with each generation. Country folk will know this anyway, but studies also show that as young children get better and better at swiping and tapping at glowing rectangles, their motor skills and muscle memory for everything else suffers. As we become technologised, we withdraw more and more from our natural environment, trapped behind our little screens of glass – and through that glass, we presume to claim that we can see the world better, more clearly, than the “primitives” and ancients.

So, do you want to meet an angel?

Maybe it sounds like a silly question. Angels?

Right. Winged people, four-headed things with animal faces and six wings, flaming wheels with eyes - I’ll have some of that cactus juice you’ve been hitting, please, Ezekiel.

Haven’t we grown out of this sort of thing? Isn’t it a bit embarrassing to think there might be some world world of invisible beings all around us, like fairies, ten thousand times ten thousand round?

Isn’t it a bit - primitive?

Let’s go back to Brazil and the Yanomami to help us with the question.

We know that they can see things in the natural world which we cannot see. Think of how a country person can see things in the country that a city dweller will never see, and multiply that.

So if ancient peoples can see things in the natural world that we cannot see, can we really be so sure that they don’t see things in the supernatural world that we do not see, too?

The Yanomami shamans are said to commune with spirits they call the xapiripë. I thing this is intriguing. They say these spirits dance and sing, songs of great power; that there “thinking is straight”; that their armlets are decorated like wings, with macaw and parrot feathers; that their number is uncountable, thousands, like stars; that they come from sky, earth or forest, some to bring messages, some to bring healing.

Sound familiar? Of course. Thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago, our prophets in their visions too saw choirs of spirits singing, some winged, spoke of a thousand times ten thousand, recognised them all around. They called them ‘angels’ because they sometimes, like Gabriel, brought messages; but some, like Raphael, brought healing, too.

Whether the angels of the ancient Near East, the djinn of the Arabian desert, the daimones of the ultra-rational Greeks, the lares and deities of Rome, the Celtic creatures of faerie lore or the Yanomami xapiripë, cultures throughout the world have always told stories of invisible intelligences.

And there are people even today, many people, religious believers or not, who believe that they have seen such things. Not just madmen, but people as balanced and reasonable as St Theresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church, and St Seraphim of Sarov have claimed to see angels.

Thinkers as brilliant as Dionysius the Areopagite and St Thomas Aquinas have made the philosophical case for angels. Since the Reformation, Christian thought has developed the habit of writing off any spiritual realm between us creatures and God - as though God is himself the spiritual realm. But if God is beyond all being and understanding, such that we physical beings cannot see God face-to-face, then what exactly are people experiencing when they say they “experience” God? Surely some created spiritual intermediary, which bears just as much of his blinding glory as our myopic hearts can bear. Angels, then: guides sent to raise us from the physical to the higher spiritual reality.

But “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The Bible, too, would be incomplete without angels. It is angels whom Abraham and Sarah entertain unaware, an angel who stops Abraham from sacrificing his son, an angel who wrestles Jacob and gives him the name of Israel, angels who spoke in visions to Isaiah and Ezekiel, angels who rescued Daniel and later Paul, an angel who brought good news to Our Lady, an angel who persuaded Peter that we gentiles might be part of the Christian Church. Our Lord speaks explicitly of angels. Do we know better than God Incarnate? If so, that leave the somewhat awkward question: what else did he get wrong?

Now if all this is getting a bit too spiritual, there are practical consequences to first world dismissal of these ancient beliefs, too. Wherever tribal peoples live, you will find so-called “Factory Schools,” where indigenous children have their cultures’ spiritual insights drummed out of them, where they are set to work and instilled with a new way of seeing their world, through the lens of profit. The Chinese government is doing something similar with Uighur Muslims for its own political ends, and shamefully, Christian missions have played their part in all this, too. At the very least, we need to be very careful of dismissing ancient ways of seeing the world as “primitive.”

But I think there is much more to be gained than just caution about closing our minds: there is the opportunity to open them, as well. Not just to stop crushing ancient cultures – surely a good thing in itself – but more, to let them teach us to see what we have lost sight of.

It seems that as we get further from the natural world, we get further from the supernatural, too. At least part of the answer to the cries of the young for action on climate change that we are hearing of late must surely be to take our place among the choirs of angels, to find and reestablish our proper relationship in the celestial hierarchy: for in knowing our true place in the spiritual order, we might yet bring God’s healing to the physical order.

I say we need to make the Eucharist a kind of school for our spiritual perception. As we learn to perceive the bread of angels, the very body of Christ, under the species of bread, so we might open our ears to the song of the angels, our eyes to the glory of God with which they shine. Then we can start, from the Mass, to reenchant this disenchanted western world.

Who knows what we might see?

So you think you’re the Samaritan?

Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, Jesus is showing that the whole human race are really neighbours and we should help each other whatever our race or nation, so off you go and do your best to be good boys and girls like the Samaritan. End of homily.

Wait - no! If that’s what you think Christianity is about, you have completely missed the point.

People often say, you can be a “good person” without religion. Well, if it's not obvious enough already, let me let you into a secret: Christianity is not actually about making yourself a better person. The Bible is not a self-help manual. The point of Jesus' stories is not to moralise and give Sunday school lessons about being nice. Christianity certainly has little to do with "Christian values."

Because actually – who do you think you are in this story? You think you’re the Samaritan? You think you’re the one going out helping the half-dead beggar lying in the ditch? You think that’s what Jesus is saying to you?

No, no, no…

You are the poor beggar dying in the ditch.

So am I. So are all of us.

After all, why is Jesus telling this story? Think back. A lawyer is trying to catch him out, trying to get him to add something extra to the Jewish law so that he will be condemned for blasphemy. Jesus replies with the fundamental Jewish commandment: love God, love your neighbour. Do this, he says, and you will live.

But the lawyer wants more. He wants to “justify himself.” He thinks that he is perfectly capable of following the Law already, thank you very much. He thinks he can be a “good person,” if he just tries hard enough.

But what Jesus is saying, to him and to us, is that you can’t do this by yourself.

Maybe Jesus is wrong. Maybe Christianity is wrong, and people can build a better world by sheer effort, with all our laws and values. I’ll just point out delicately that we haven’t done such a brilliant job so far.

But if Jesus is right, we’re not the Samaritan: He is. And the first step for us is to realise just how beaten up and broken and hopeless we are. Only when we see ourselves with this unflinching honesty can we know how much help we really do need even just to get through this life, let alone to the next; and how that help is nothing that we do, but something already done for us, by another broken man, 2000 years ago, on a Cross.

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