I’d rather be an angel...or would I?
For CJP who, with the courage of friendship, has advised me to have a heart.
On the way to Mass this morning, I was reflecting (as is my wont) on the idiocy of all those who do not see things as I do. Fortunately, I find it difficult to maintain a completely self-righteous posture in my sleepy meditations prior to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and I tried to turn these thoughts in a more fruitful direction. And so, of course, I put God to the question: “Why are we humans destined to follow such a bumbling path toward union with You? Wouldn’t it be better for us to be made like the angels, so we can see everything clearly at a glance, and choose just once accordingly?”
Now there’s a question.
An anecdote! An anecdote!
To attempt an answer, of course, we must decide what we mean by “better”. But surely this is fairly simple. “Better” can only mean more conducive to the Creator’s purpose, which is our union with Himself. Now many people reading this will doubtless say, “I registered my ‘yes’ to that union long ago. So why the unceasing delays, why the constant holdups?” In my own case, I was (as I mentioned) thinking about how clear-headed I am compared with so many others. I like to think some of my readers—mostly highly-committed Catholics—have the same thought from time to time. Therefore, to help all comers probe into it a little more deeply, I shall recount, without any additional charge whatsoever, an anecdote.
The day after the weekend is Monday, right? I call as witnesses to my defense all those who answer “yes”, for on Mondays my habitual pew at Mass changes. The Monday morning Mass at my parish is the one attended by the students and staff of Seton School, at which my wife teaches, and for which she supervises the student lectors. On other weekdays my position is two spots over in the fourth pew just to the left of the center aisle, with my wife in spot one as is doubtless her due. (And, no, I do not like it when I cannot claim my habitual place at Mass.) But on Mondays I am far back in an isolated corner of the church not occupied by Setonites, while my wife is up front, close to the lectern, in the lector pew.
So there I was this morning (which my many witnesses will testify was the morning after the weekend), in my obscure place reflecting on how very clear-headed I was about life. Suddenly my wife (who drives to Mass separately before going off to school) leaned in from the aisle and whispered, “Are you hiding from me today?” To which, sharp as a whip, I replied, “No, you have the Monday Seton Mass today, so you are up front, I am back here.”
But she just smiled and (without, I am happy to say, the least asperity) remarked: “Actually, today is Tuesday. Yesterday was Labor Day. It was a three day weekend.”
The gap between those of us who are quite sure we have our act together and those who even more surely do not—that gap is not quite the chasm some of us imagine. Spiritually, I grant that this gap cannot be more significant. It is the difference between knowing and loving God and not knowing or not loving God, or both. But in terms of our ability to be muddled in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways which make our knowing and loving imperfect, the gap is relatively small, and even constantly shifting.
Now, if we were like angels and therefore unmuddled, the gap would be instantaneous, vast, and constant. Under these circumstances, the question each of us must ask ourselves is simple: In the first moment of my existence, would I have chosen—with a proper valuation of my own worth—to be in union with God? Those of us who do not know Monday from Tuesday—and I do not claim anyone else has this problem!—need to be careful about how we answer, not only for ourselves, but for all those whose experience of their habitation in the universe is not ours to know.
But I can ask myself at least two further questions. When did I first essentially recognize the reality of God and Who He is? Once I was clear about that, did I ever sin again? The answer will be obvious to each of us, but at least we can claim truly that our clarity of knowledge and firmness of will is not angelic. And surely, if we possessed that clarity and firmness….
We do not know how many angels chose to reject God, but in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, we are given at least a symbolic clue. The Devil is identified with a red dragon whose “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth” (v. 4). Through the good angels under the leadership of St. Michael, the dragon “was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (v. 9). It is hard not to understand “stars” as “angels” in this passage. We can guess, then, that huge numbers of angels chose a life apart from their Creator—exercising free will in response to the angelic nature’s instantaneous clarity of knowledge.
If so many angels were lost, we would be foolish indeed to assume that their mode of salvation is superior to our own, in the sense that we might wish for a different nature, so that we can translate our present inclinations into a more efficient result. In the present moment, readers may not see this folly; after all, it would be a churlish soul indeed who did not experience an upsurge of piety while reading one of my essays. But what of so many other occasions in our lives? I refer to those times when we have, with at least tolerably clear heads, chosen something bad for our relationship with God, or those times when we simply did not really know, in the life of the spirit, the difference between Monday and Tuesday—and so did not take our proper place in the body of the faithful here on earth.
In spiritual matters, of course, we acquire something closer to angelic vision through the life of grace, because by grace we learn to see things as they are—to know as God knows. Happily for angels and humans, both can exceed their natural powers, in accordance with their specific natures, through participation in Divine grace—if only they do not resist it—not only to know as God knows but to will as God wills, and so to love as God loves.
Are you hiding from Me today?
The only thing we can say for sure about these two paths to union with God is that, through a wisdom at least marginally deeper than our own even on our good days, our loving Father has put into place the best possible system for the angelic nature as well as the best possible system for our human nature. That the systems are not identical is a function of our respective natures, for the love with which they are fashioned is the same—a perfect Love which desires to bring every intellectual creature, purely for its own good and its own glory, into free union with Itself.
For my own part, at least on days like today (when I imagine for a few minutes that it would have been more suitable to my exquisite nature to have been made an angel), I take solace that I am at least likely to have a few more moments in time to get things right. I rather suspect that each of us, no matter how highly developed our spiritual sensibilities, is a combination of genuine insight and peculiar self-deception, and that we ought to pray very hard for more opportunities of exactly the kind the angels were not given.
I confess I should not like to meet the One Chesterton called “the man who was Thursday” when I am so confused about the names of my days. As in that marvelous book, when we try to teach Our Lord how to arrange things better, His answer is always the same: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38)
Do we grasp in our depths what it means that He has died for us—that He has died for me? No, not really; no, not yet. So by all means, Lord, grant us at least a few more generous days. I would like to get things, if not quite perfectly right, at least as close to right as the gifts You have given me permit me to do. And as I seek this without the least presumption, so must I pray without the least judgment, that all Your beloved fools will receive more—and more—and more—precious opportunities to do the same.
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Posted by: Jefesabella1011 -
Sep. 05, 2018 2:02 PM ET USA
Super well said, sir. I pray for more and more clarity and wisdom like what you seem to possess. Kind of makes the challenges of our days pale in comparison to our abilities to overcome them.
Posted by: DrJazz -
Sep. 05, 2018 9:42 AM ET USA
Except for wanting to claim the same pew at every Mass, every word of this applies to me. (One of my pet peeves is walking into Mass with my family and seeing a single person planted at each end of every 8-person pew. I have to ask one of them to let us in! Where's the welcome? Am I not their brother in Christ? We need some homilies on this!) I still have work to do. I too need "at least a few more generous days," and more opportunities to get things as close to right as possible in this life.