Emily Dickinson, 1544:
Who has not found the Heaven — below —
Will fail of it above —
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove —
“You wish to have super-power for a day?” asked my guardian angel. He had the same tone that I would use if one of my children asked for permission to wash the dirty dishes. I also noted that he dropped the indefinite article in an effort to make sense of my request.
“Yes, that’s right,” I replied. “Just for a day.” In my dream, I did want a superpower, and I was too careless to correct my angel’s missing indefinite article. A superpower would not normally make it onto my wish list. However, I was sound asleep, and there was no real accounting for my request.
In hindsight, my angel clearly had no concept of what “a superpower” meant. He had corrected my request in his mind to “super-power” because he understood each of those words in their clear and straightforward metaphysical senses: “super” simply meant “higher” or “more enduring” while “power” simply meant “the ability to do as intended.” My angel knew that my own purpose as a human was to perceive and enjoy God and to render thanksgiving back to God for His goodness and for everything to which God gives existence. My angel heard me asking for a day with this capacity fully realized: for a day with a glorified body such as every one of us will possess after the general resurrection.
If I’d been awake, I not only would not have asked for a superpower, but I probably would have realized that this concept would be misunderstood by my angel without a careful explanation. Guardian angels—although they are intimately and immediately present with us from our conception to our death—don’t actually experience most of what we experience. Our guardian angels focus exclusively on giving praise and thanks to God for the glorious potential of their beloved human and for God’s continual mercy and grace to us. Whenever we are engaged in an activity that we recognize and enjoy as a gift from God in a fairly complete way (a rare experience for most of us), then our angels do share our conscious experiences because we are actually doing that which we were created to do. Guardian angels are enraptured by these fleeting moments of intense joy and fulfillment.
Most of the time, however, our angels hear very little from us, and they simply do battle with the demons who revel continually in our distraction from everything real that surrounds us. Thanksgiving to God for all that He made us to be confounds and drives away these devils.
Generally, this battle happens without much strife or effort on the part of our angel, but occasionally the conflict over the health and direction of our souls gets heavier. In such times, our angel will speak directly to us in response to lies from our enemies. Out of deep respect for us, our angels will only discourse with us in the quietest and most elemental ways. They whisper truths to us about how beautifully and uniquely God has made us. Their very breath tells of God’s love and desire to commune with us. They let us know what a marvel it is to them how God came as Jesus Christ to be united with us, becoming one of us, inheriting Mary’s entire humanity. They sing with quiet trembling of Jesus going even to the point of becoming our sin and joining us within death itself before rising from the grave to ascend and to seat our humanity upon the throne of God. They grow most hushed and reverent when they encourage us to listen for the voice of God’s own Spirit who lives with all of His children until the end of time but whose gentle, reasoned voice we are almost always too frantic to hear. At only the rarest times, will they appear to us or give us direct and open help.
But I digress. To return to my story—given all that guardian angels have to do—I am hardly surprised that mine had no grasp of Marvel movie superpowers.
My angel followed up by saying, “Do you realize that this will be very difficult for you to bear within the current state of things in this world as well as your own current stage of development?”
“Yes, that’s fine,” I replied.
As I slowly woke to the morning light and to the sound of a car door closing outside on the street, I heard my angel say: “This will afflict you for only a day. I earnestly desire that you may find wisdom and encouragement in this experience that you have requested from me.”
Gaining consciousness, I heard, alongside the typical morning chatter of starlings and sparrows, a myriad of voices swelling in a beautiful but heartbreaking song. Quickly growing overwhelmed, I asked Elizabeth, “Can you hear some kind of singing?”
She answered a little testily, “What? No. If you don’t start your shower quickly, you’ll get Nessa late for school.”
Making my way cautiously through the dark room to collect my towel, I heard a voice chanting, like water falling over rocks. It compared Elizabeth’s laughter to rain showers and her faithfulness to the sun’s heat. Catching just these few phrases stirred an unanswerable ache of gratitude for my wife and a grievous sympathy for the isolation imposed on her by my lack of awareness. I wanted to turn around, to kneel there in the morning darkness, to begin my slow, painful return from years of deafness. However, I turned the knob, stepped softly out and closed the door as silently as I could. My senses were far more alive than my heart and my will, and I ignored any promptings to dwell with these thoughts and feelings.
Closing the bathroom door behind me before turning on the light, I continued to hear voices but now far off. With words I could not put into my own, they relayed ballads of obscured beauties and broken joys. Turning on the water and stepping in, I found that sound was only a small part of how the world was now going to make itself known to me. Water, I’ve heard, carries memories within it from the dawn of time. These memories were not consciously present to my mind, but the warm water flowing over my shoulders carried an uncanny sense of having washed over a thousand other surfaces: shoulders of slaves in cold rain, the parched lips of children in Yankee factories, rocks overrun by melting snow, breaking waves far from land that cast spray through the light and air. In the flow of this water, my back felt a kinship with the soil, stone, flesh and wind of a thousand years and more. This was both a comfort and a grief. Washed in this water, I waited with numberless particulars of creation for a recompense or restoration that I wanted but could not have named.
After dressing myself—working constantly to accept all of the new sensations and sounds as something normal so that they would be bearable—I found that my cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal proved to be excruciating. In eating and drinking, I had to take something into my body. In this process, my food and my body were exposed to each other and unified. My cereal and milk carried with it, into my gut, the full histories of sun in fields, the cold steel of dark machines in hot processing plants, long sojourns in and out of transit and storage facilities from disparate locations across the globe. Each sip of coffee and mouthful of cereal was only possible if I turned away inwardly from all that it shared with me. Unsettled, various phrases that I had read jostled in my mind:
When Jesus ate and drank …the world of which he partook, the very food of our world became His body, His life. …The whole world was created as food for man. …Water and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God. …We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
I imagined that unprocessed foods from nearby fields would leave me feeling alive to the soil under my feet, but this hasty coffee and cereal pulled my core in different directions and left me disoriented—intensely aware of but still disconnected from a dozen far-flung places throughout the world. My powers to perceive the world thwarted any abilities to respond with peace and thanks.
Looking forward to the quiet of my commute after this breakfast, I opened our front door and stepped outside to my car. However, the outdoors was no relief. It was utterly and astoundingly alive in a way that I find myself powerless to describe. I stood on my doorstep on North Newberry Street and felt that the trees growing along the sidewalk (which I had stopped to enjoy many times over the last five years) had suddenly entered the hall of my being where they had taken up a lament for my lack of fellowship and attention. Each plant and stone of the whole morning around me—from the bushes and rock walls of Farquhar Park to the grasses beside the railroad track—longed with all the quiddity of their own beings to have my care and particular consideration. Leaping with a living, internal flame, each one demanded that I share their individual joys as a part of my own joy in a mingled dance of restored fellowship and thanksgiving. My failure to respond in this was more hurtful than all the other ways in which I had long neglected to see or tend these many lives.
In light of this exuberance and intimacy into which I had stepped, I found it a torture to climb into my car. I felt that I was retreating, reduced and caged, into my box of steel and glass. It suddenly seemed impossible, or at least incongruous, to be carried along at high speeds, powered by the concentrated combustion of fossil fuels.
I’ve read that medical professionals used to think that the human body could not survive speeds over 75 mph. With the invention of trains, automobiles, airplanes and rockets, we have roared past that threshold ten times over. However, there may be a truth, still, to this old medical intuition. Our heart, bones, ligaments, lungs and nerves can, in some superficial sense, prove immune to such speeds, but we may not realize what damage is done to our spirit. Driving in my box of metal and glass I passed a thousand fields and forests as well as a dozen streams, creeks and rivers—all of them calling to me as a son of God who belonged potentially to each of them as an instance of paradise.
As I raced over roadways of concrete and asphalt, I was suddenly hit by a passage from George MacDonald’s Lilith describing a man alive within a kind of Eden. He was fully in communion with a rejoicing creation. In contrast—as I reflected on my moment outdoors before starting my commute—I had been in profound participation with an Eden held hostage, oppressed and tortured. My mind turned to the metaphor that the Apostle Paul uses to describe the condition of creation under the curse of sin. Paul writes that all of creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth, waiting for a day to be set free from the corruption that holds it fast. Now, for the first time, I could feel the earth, doubled over, fists clenched, writhing and crying out. It would have been more than I could bear had it been the pangs of death rather than birth. As it was, beneath the terrible pain was a breathless whisper—the dearest freshness deep down of joy and thanks.
I arrived at my office utterly pummeled by the sad grandeur of a fallen world desperate for communion and perpetually rushed past by men and women who are so cut off from the Eden of each place where we might rest and attend.
Sitting down to my computer in a windowless office without so much as a potted plant, I had some relief. Slowly my mind cleared a little from the vivid sounds and images of life as well as the deep calls of ancient hillsides and rushing waters all dancing perpetually with arms and voices outstretched to me. In contrast, my office had the stillness of a tomb. It was not completely silent, for I could tell as I leafed through books or even scrolled past information on my computer screen that the words and images there were not entirely dead. Once or twice, I read a sentence or two out loud and found that the sound brought more than just audible vibrations into vivid reality around me. I could tell that human speech and art and architecture would all be alive in their own ways with meanings and stories reaching deep into the lives of others. Nonetheless, alone and looking mostly at columns of numbers and technical formatting codes, I was able to isolate myself from all of this with relative ease, and I could almost forget my glorified body.
A couple of hours into this blessedly quiet work, my phone rang. I picked up the receiver. On the phone was a mother and her son interested in homeschooling resources such as local co-ops, curricula or online courses. The mother had recently taken her ninth-grade son out of school because he wanted to slow down and perhaps find some more like-minded friends after the unexpected death of his older sister. She had been a junior, just two years ahead of him. Both children had attended a small Christian classical school together and were very close. When they had to move recently because of their father’s work, the two children had decided to attend a large public high school together. It had been going well, but the two of them were a help to each other. Now with his sister’s death, the young man wanted to adjust his schedule, allowing time to grieve. He also hoped to find some friends who could better understand his loss at his sister’s death.
Hearing their story, I began to share some of their pain. I slowed down a little to listen and to consider what help I could offer. Putting the name of their town and state into my computer, I found that there was a large active co-op not far from them. Hearing of the young man’s love for literature, I also recommended that they consider an online course in poetry that we would be offering soon. I gave them the name and number of the principal of our online program so that they could contact her to learn more. We were close to concluding our conversation when the young man shared a few lines that he particularly loved from “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton:
For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
This recalled a line from a book that I had recently read, and I picked the book up, wishing that I could somehow point out the passage to him through the phone. Taking up Lilith, I put my fingers on the lines: “Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. …None but God hates evil and understands it.” As my fingers moved over the lines, preparing to read them over the phone, I found that I was no longer sitting in my office chair but was seated at a table in a dining room that I had never seen. I was seated, book in hand, beside the young man and his mother with whom I had been speaking over the phone.
This was rather disconcerting to all three of us and an invasion of both our privacy. We looked at each other awkwardly, and I could think of nothing to say in our uncomfortable silence.
Finally, I said, “I’m so sorry. This is very rude. I wanted to show you this line in this book and suddenly I found myself here with you at your table. I honestly have no idea what has happened. All I can say is that I dreamed last night that my guardian angel misunderstood something that I said and gave me one day with a glorified body. Based on what I’ve been dealing with so far today, it seems to be true. I’m very embarrassed, and I will get back to my office as quickly as possible. However, I don’t have any idea how all of this works.”
To my relief, they were neither incredulous nor awkwardly impressed by my account. They both seemed to take it at face value and clearly felt a kind of straightforward compassion for my awkward predicament. The young man suggested, rather practically, that if I could just desire something back in my office, I would be likely to find myself back there. He theorized that this was one of the abilities possessed by my glorified body and suggested that I give it a try, this time intentionally rather than accidentally. I thanked him for this suggestion, and we said our goodbyes. However, it turned out to be slightly difficult to think of something in my office that could kindle the kind of desire that was sufficient to transport me there. I love my work and take real joy in it. However, sitting at the table with this mother and son, I found myself trying in vain to conjure any strong desire for the everyday items housed in my office. Nothing was working—not my 1808 first edition Life of George Washington or my driftwood memento of a glorious creek stomp, not even my slightly dated family photo. My heart remained there in their dining room.
They laughed with me at my situation as I described my office to them, and we tried to think of what I might focus upon in my thoughts.
Finally, the young man suggested that perhaps it was not simply a desire for just any object that could transport my glorified body from place to place. As we considered this together, the mother pointed out that Christ in the gospel accounts always seemed to arrive somewhere in order to be with specific people for a particular purpose. I broadened my thinking beyond my little office until my thoughts arrived at my wife and children. There were my loved ones, abstractly, before my mind’s eye. Still, my glorified body remained fixed, rather normally, in my chair at the dining room table of my new-found friends. Continuing to chat with me patiently and matter-of-factly about my predicament, my friends laughed with me about needing to take a train or plane back to my home. Then the young man asked me a question, “What would you most like to share with someone else right now? If you could say something or show something to anyone in the world right now, what would it be?”
I thought for a moment and answered: “I would like to take a walk with my family near our home along Willis Run. I would like to eat a simple lunch with them along the rail trail where Willis Run empties into the Codorus Creek while I am still in this glorified body so that I can tell them what the everyday world is like when your full human capacities are restored, when your senses are no longer dead but alive. I want to walk slowly, rest often and finish this strange day quietly with them, listening and sharing all that I can share.”
All at once, I was seated in a rocking chair in my own kitchen, looking into the rather astonished face of my dear wife.
Exhausted by my body’s powers, I asked, somewhat plaintively, if we could walk together slowly to pick the kids up from school and make our way to the creekside with some bread, fruits and cheeses to share. My wife kindly accommodated me. Making it to the banks of Willis Run, they listened as I related any tidbits that I could put into words from the songs and stories and shimmering lights that surround us. We talked as well of passages and characters from favorite books. I thought of Charles Wallace descending into the realm of his own micro-organelles where he and his companions learned to keep step to their tireless and intricate songs. In moments of quiet memory, I could hear and see these familiar friends from stories as realities that participated in the creation surrounding us. As I tried to explain what the world was like when encountered through the senses of my glorified body, I read one passage from “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” by C.S. Lewis:
We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.
As this day passed, Elizabeth and our children flattered me with a thousand questions that I would not have asked and laughed at the answers in ways that I would not have thought to laugh. They could tell that I was helpless and overwhelmed, pinned to one place by the riot of my own sensory powers, and they gently helped me to finish my day with abilities that were too much for me.
We wondered together at the flights of insects from flower to flower and at the contours of hillsides shaped by mythic glaciers. Although we sat together hardly moving from one place through that evening, the entire world around us spoke ceaselessly. As we enjoyed this strange holiday together, I attended as I could in my own heart to God (with whatever thankfulness I knew how to render), hoping that my guardian angel could therefore share in some of my joy. Truth be told, however, even with a glorified body, communing with my Creator did not come naturally. There was still some lack of training or habit that left me helpless. I was largely lost to God in the goodness of His world and in the love of my family who were kind enough to stop everything and to experience a little of what it’s like to have super-power for a day.
Notes: I’m grateful to Krista Zobel for tightening this story up substantially in a generous edit to a meandering and bloated first draft. In the breakfast passage, the various phrases come from For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann and a letter by C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (June 22, 1930). Finally, several more brief and unattributed phrases throughout the story (such as “dearest freshness deep down”) are borrowed from favorite authors (such as Gerard Manley Hopkins).