Richard Waring: Angels

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Lay-Led Worship Service

March 27, 2011

Of all the questions you might want to ask

about angels, the only one you ever hear

is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time

besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin

or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth

or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?

Do they swing like children from the hinges

of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?

Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,

their diet of unfiltered divine light?

What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall

these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole

in a river and would the hole float along endlessly

filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive

in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume

the appearance of the regular mailman and

whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.

The only question you ever hear is about

the little dance floor on the head of a pin

where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,

billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse

into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:

one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,

a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful

eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over

to glance at his watch because she has been dancing

forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

~ Billy Collins




I am an old woman named after my mother.

My old man is another child that’s grown old.

If dreams were thunder and lightning was desire

this old house would’ve burnt down a long time ago.


Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.

Make me a poster of an old rodeo.

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to.

To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.

When I was a young girl I had me a cowboy,

wa’n’t much to look at, just a free ramblin’ man.

But that was a long time, and no matter how I try,

the years just flow by like a broken-down dam.

(repeat chorus)

There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear all their buzzin’

but I ain’t done nothin’ since I woke up today.

I am kind of person goes to work in the morning

come home in the evenin’ and have nothin’ to say.

(repeat chorus)

To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.

~ John Prine


Angels. When still a young child, William Blake saw an angel on his way to school. He barely escaped a beating, when he got home, for telling a lie. A few years later, he saw another one behind a bush. This time his father did beat him. Several years passed before he told his parents of a third sighting. So they sent him to art school.

Angels. I think about them as I look at our beautiful stained-glass window of the Angel & the Traveler. The story goes he is on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, St. James of the Field of Stars, in northwestern Spain, famous shrine of the later Middle Ages where St. James, one of the first disciples to join Jesus, is said to be buried. The shell on the pilgrim’s hat is a symbol of St. James. (I have Richard Marius to thank for this history.) The traveler appears weary & takes comfort & encouragement from the angel. His left foot rests firmly on the ground while his right foot is elevated. The angel appears to remain aloft without doing any flapping, her left foot barely scraping the ground while her right foot is elevated like the pilgrim’s. Their robes are similarly entwined around their bodies &, except for her wings, they could be mistaken for brother & sister. And as anyone who attends an evening service in our sanctuary knows, they become African American at night. A veil extends between her & the tree, like an umbilicus, as if she came, not from the Heavens, but from the immediate surrounding creation. (I have Doug Reynolds to thank for this interpretation.)

Angels. I don’t know anyone who’s experienced one unless you count muses, dreams, hospital hallucinations, or the better angels of our humanity. Perhaps ours are the only hands angels have to work with. Once, after days of sleep deprivation at an arts conference on Star Island, a cloud spoke to me. I’d always wanted to hear voices but just then wasn’t a good time & I wept & was terrified.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrestled with angels in his poetry. His Book of Hours came to him so quickly that some of the best poems were not written on pages but in a paperback book he always carried with him while walking on the beach. The lines required little or no revision as if dictated to him. Other times, while accompanying the sculptor Rodin on his rambles, ideas came to him that he jotted down on his shirt cuffs. Returning home, he would carefully hide his shirt from the laundress until he’d had a chance to read it. Here is “The Man Watching.”

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after

so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes,

that a storm is coming,

and I hear the far-off fields say things

I can’t bear without a friend,

I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on

across the woods and across time,

and the world looks as if it had no age:

the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,

is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights with us is so great!

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the angel, who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestler’s sinews

grew long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel

(who often simply declined to fight),

went away proud and strengthened

and great from that harsh hand,

that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

                                        ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

That poem & its fabulous ending has goaded my triumphs & failures for years — whether spiritually or on the tennis court. This nexus where obstacle & transformation coexist is a perfect place for angelic revelation. Jack Gilbert, now in his 80s, describes this viewpoint in a poem about Icarus, a character usually mocked for his foolishness. Here is “Failing and Flying.”

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

It’s the same when love comes to an end,

or the marriage fails and people say

they knew it was a mistake, that everybody

said it would never work. That she was

old enough to know better. But anything

worth doing is worth doing badly.

Like being there by that summer ocean

on the other side of the island while

love was fading out of her, the stars

burning so extravagantly those nights that

anyone could tell you they would never last.

Every morning she was asleep in my bed

like a visitation, the gentleness in her

like antelope standing in the dawn mist.

Each afternoon I watched her coming back

through the hot stony field after swimming,

the sea light behind her and the huge sky

on the other side of that. Listened to her

while we ate lunch. How can they say

the marriage failed? Like the people who

came back from Provence (when it was Provence)

and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

but just coming to the end of his triumph.

                              ~ Jack Gilbert       

Though we may all be doomed to ultimate failure, we can achieve momentary triumph, like Camus’s Sisyphus, with perspective & courage. We may even flourish beyond our hardships, as Adrienne Rich does after the death of her husband, by suicide, in 1970. She revisions herself from traditional wife & mother to radical lesbian feminist through her will to change & dive into the wreck of one life to salvage another. Here is “From a Survivor.”

The pact that we made was the ordinary pact

of men & women in those days

I don’t know who we thought we were

that our personalities

could resist the failures of the race

Lucky or unlucky, we didn’t know

the race had failures of that order

and that we were going to share them

Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special

Your body is as vivid to me

as it ever was: even more

since my feeling for it is clearer:

I know what it could do and could not do

it is no longer

the body of a god

or anything with power over my life

Next year it would have been 20 years

and you are wastefully dead

who might have made the leap

we talked, too late, of making

which I live now

not as a leap

but a succession of brief, amazing movements

each one making possible the next

                                        ~ Adrienne Rich

In her dream of a common language & wild patience, Rich speaks beyond herself in an oracular voice, one that caused her to reject the National Book Award, in 1974, as an individual but to accept it on behalf of all unknown women writers.

Nothing confers strife and revelation like the process of immigration. Li-Young Lee was born into history and suffering in 1957. His father was Mao Zedong’s personal physician and his mother came from the people the Cultural Revolution was revolting against. After falling out with Mao, the family fled to Indonesia where his father was thrown in jail, tortured, and nearly died. They eventually arrived in the United States where Lee’s father became a minister. Lee says he sees his poetry as a form of prayer. Here is “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees.”

If your name suggests a country where bells

might have been used for entertainment

or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons

or the birthdays of gods and demons,

it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes

when you arrive in the United States,

and try not to talk too loud.

If you happen to have watched armed men

beat and drag your father

out the front door of your house

and into the back of an idling truck

before your mother jerked you from the threshold

and buried your face in her skirt folds,

try not to judge your mother too harshly.

Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing

turning a child’s eyes

away from history

and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if you meet someone

in your adopted country,

and think you see in the other’s face

an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,

it probably means you’re standing too far.

Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book

whose first and last pages are missing,

the story of your own birthplace,

a country twice erased,

once by fire, once by forgetfulness,

it probably means you’re standing too close.

In any case, try not to let another carry

the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.

And if you’re one of those

whose left side of the face doesn’t match

the right, it might be a clue

looking the other way was a habit

your predecessors found useful for survival.

Don’t lament not being beautiful.

Get used to seeing while not seeing.

Get busy remembering while forgetting.

Dying to live while not wanting to go on.

Very likely, your ancestors decorated

their bells of every shape and size

with elaborate calendars

and diagrams of distant star systems,

but with no maps for scattered descendants.

And I bet you can’t say what language

your father spoke when he shouted to your mother

from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”

Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.

Maybe it was a forbidden language.

Or maybe there was too much screaming

and weeping and the noise of guns in the streets.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:

The kingdom of heaven is good.

But heaven on earth is better.

                                        ~ Li-Young Lee

“Heaven on earth is better.” Is it not heaven on earth to walk through the valley of the shadow of death & replenish water supplies so that no one dies of thirst in Arizona as our Youth Group has done? The kindness of  strangers may come closest to describing the presence of angels in modern times. Here is Stuart Dischell’s “When a Child Asks about Angels.”

When my brother was swept away in a culvert

During a flash flood and into a drainpipe

Under a road, the stopped motorists, two elderly

Sisters on their way home from church, counted

Their breath until he spilled out in the ditch

On the other side alive where they cheered him

From the rail and walked down the path in the rain

In their Sunday shoes, flowered hats and dresses, and they

Guided him through the trees to the shelter of their car.

I am grateful forever to their blanket and thermos

And how they hugged him warm with their bodies

While he was trembling, their huge gorgeous bodies.

~ Stuart Dischell


This poem came to me by way of Mary Louise Landfried, who clipped it out of The Atlantic last summer & mailed it to me — one of the external gifts that prompted today’s topic. Lay-led worship works in mysterious ways. As do angels — if they exist. Perhaps they do for those who can see them. Certainly there’s great enthusiasm for the possibility of angels & their unique ability to navigate the human & celestial spheres.

In many traditions, winged creatures are seen as messengers of the spirit, intermediaries between earth & air, between the visible & the invisible. Here is Jane Kenyon’s “The Bat.”

I was reading about rationalism,

the kind of thing we do up north

in early winter, where the sun

leaves work for the day at 4:15.

Maybe the world is intelligible

to the rational mind:

and maybe we light the lamps at dusk

for nothing . . . .

Then I heard wings overhead.

The cats and I chased the bat

in circles — living room, kitchen,

pantry, kitchen, living room . . . .

At every turn it evaded us

like the identity of the third person

in the Trinity: the one

who spoke through the prophets,

the one who astounded Mary

by suddenly coming near.

~ Jane Kenyon

May we continue to explore the presence of angels, whether heaven-sent or from around the corner. What are the bat moments in your life that astound & bewilder you? Can we make our world more a work of angels than of demons?

So may it be.

                                         ~ Richard Waring, March 27, 2011