On poetry, angels and mystical visions
A Reflection for the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
you will see heaven opened
and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
In his iconic book The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley memorably writes:
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures…But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.
I think being raised in this Catholic culture explains why I love mysticism so much, and why I’ve reflexively written poetry when encountering something new; I always feel drawn to those places where experience goes deeper than words and can only be expressed in images and metaphors. I love Dante’s Paradiso for this reason—Dante is forever saying that what he saw there was too beautiful to describe—and I love the more poetic books of the Bible, like Revelations, which supplies an alternate first reading for today.
All of today’s readings—the two options for the first reading, and the Gospel—detail mystical visions, which always have something to teach us about God if we peer into them.
All of today’s readings—the two options for the first reading, and the Gospel—detail mystical visions, which always have something to teach us about God if we peer into them. Today’s first reading describes the Deuteronomy author’s vision of the “Ancient One” taking his throne, and “thousands upon thousands” ministering to him. At the end of the vision, “one like a son of man” approaches the Ancient One and is likewise served by “nations and peoples of every language.” In the Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael, “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
I am struck here by the use of “ascending and descending on.” It could be a matter of prepositions being the hardest part of language to translate consistently, but I think the “on” here implies that the angels minister to Jesus not just by going up to him, where he is at a higher place, but also going down to him, where he sits in a lower place. Here, I think, is the example for us: If this mystical vision of the kingdom of God is meant to inform our work to make things “on earth as [they are] in heaven,” then we should think both of serving a God who is above us and who is below us.
Often, we can focus on just one of these: In a beautiful cathedral, for example, our eyes are drawn up. We get a sense of God being “above” us. But maybe a few seats away in that cathedral, a homeless person is taking a nap. God is in that person, who all of our social conditioning tells us is “below” us. It’s easy to just see one or the other of these as God. The challenge presented to us today is to see God in both, and serve God in both, ascending and descending.