Angels in words, pictures, and music

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Along with Santas, elves, and reindeer, angels make a big appearance this time of year.  And yet unlike many of the other characters associated with the holidays, angels aren’t Christmas-specific.  In fact, as a new book points out, they  are fascinating beings whose presence in the Bible can point us toward a fuller understanding of God’s work.

All God’s Angels: Loving and Learning from Angelic Messengers (Paraclete Press)  is one of the loveliest books to cross my path this year.  Each short chapter focuses on an angel story from the Bible, everything from Genesis to Revelation.  In pithy, wise reflections, author Martin Shannon meditates on each story and what it reveals about angels, about God, and — ultimately — about our human selves.  I love the approach; I’ve never before read these Bible stories and thought about the angels as anything other than peripheral figures, so I found the new perspective fascinating.

Each chapter is illustrated by a colorful reproduction of a work of art, everything from a Byzantine mosaic of the angel guarding Eden to Eugene Delacroix’s famous picture of Jacob wrestling the angel.

Delacroix's classic image

Delacroix’s classic image

These pictures are powerful complements to the chapters, particularly because Shannon also comments on the artwork, pointing out little details that help emphasize the mood and meaning of the story.

Between the words and the art, this book is a glorious celebration of these mysterious beings who end up on our Christmas trees and coffee mugs but whose history and involvement in salvation is so much more rich than it seems.  It’s a lovely, inspiring little book and would be a great Christmas gift for anyone looking for a dose of inspiration.

And if you want to fully immerse yourself in all things angelic, read the book to the strains of this lovely song.  It’s one of my favorite carols of all time, courtesy of John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers.

Enjoy!

 

 

When all else fails, try nature

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Marin Headlands, Marin County, CA

Like many of you, I’ve been spending the last two weeks looking desperately for peace and a quiet mind.  I’ve found a few things that help. Writing is one; wine is another. And getting outdoors into the beauty of creation has a healing power like nothing else.

I’d like to share with you two places I’ve found God lately.

One is a county park not far from where I work.  It’s the place where Scott proposed to me lo these fifteen (!) years ago.   And while the hillsides are light brown most of the year, we’ve been fortunate enough to have rain this fall, and everything is a brilliant spring green.

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There are oaks here, and bay trees which give out a wonderful fragrance.  There is poison oak turning a beautiful red and lots of deer, who graze unconcernedly as you walk by.  Off in the distance you can see Silicon Valley and the bay.

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It’s a place so dear to my heart, and on a crystal-blue day like this, with the earth still soft from the recent rain and the air smelling so sweetly of oak and bay, it’s much easier to breathe here than anywhere else.

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The next place is in the Marin Headlands, north of San Francisco.  The boys went there on a Cub Scout Hike, and it was the kind of day where rain gave way to wonderfully dramatic skies, with clouds over the ocean and fog hugging the hills.

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We hiked from the estuary to the coast, then up a rather significant hill to a WWII bunker up on the top (a hit with the Scouts).  Along the way we passed an honest-to-goodness cove far, far down below, in which water was churning and roiling about and moving a log as if it were a toothpick.  The whole setting was all very Poldark. I half expected to see Cornish smugglers unloading a ship down below.

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Channeling my inner Demelza

Channeling my inner Demelza

It was balm for the spirit: being out by the water, seeing impossibly large waves form and crash onto the beach, smelling salt and soil and the cleanness that only comes from a good rain, seeing the birds wheel and glide over the estuary and the hills.  At every turn there was a view that makes you think about the Being that made all this, in its glorious splendor, for the rest of us to live on and with.

I’m home now, with sore legs and good memories and a renewed conviction that time outside is always the best choice.

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In the [soccer] fields with God

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My grandmother had this lovely little book when I was a child.  It was one of a few kids’ titles she had in a plastic shopping bag in the spare bedroom closet. When my sister and I came to visit, she’d often take them out for us to read.

I never read this book as often as I did the others.  Perhaps it was because it was a book of poems and prayers, not the stories and narrative-driven books I preferred.

But I found this book again recently, and last night, during a few quiet moments at my prayer desk, I leafed through it.  The gentle, detailed illustrations charmed me.  And as I turned the pages, I felt a nostalgic sense of cozy well-being, the kind I always felt at my grandparents’ house.  Grandma suddenly felt very close; I imagined her seeing the book in a store somewhere (it was long, long before Amazon!), admiring the sweet drawings and poems (Grandma loved all things literary), and buying it to have on hand for her four grandkids.

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One poem in particular caught my eye.  It’s called “Out in the Fields with God,” and the book lists it as being by an unknown poet.  A little online sleuthing, and I found that it’s often attributed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Either way, it’s a gem:

The little cares that fretted me.
I lost them yesterday
Among the fields above the sea.
Among the winds at play;
Among the lowing of the herds,
The rustling of the trees,
Among the singing of the birds,
The humming of the bees.
The foolish fears of what may happen,
I cast them all away
Among the clover-scented grass,
Among the new-mown hay;
Among the husking of the corn
Where drowsy poppies nod,
Where ill thoughts die and good are born.
Out in the fields with God.

I’m not often in fields, in my modern suburban life.  The one exception would be soccer fields.  And though soccer fields can often feel more like opportunities for tension and care (I die a thousand deaths during every game, I swear, especially if my son is playing goalie), there is something so beautiful about being outdoors in the fresh fall air on a Saturday.

Two Saturdays ago, it was especially true.  We’d had the first real rain of the season the day  before, and the air was so sweet and fresh and clean, and the colors seemed so much more vivid than they usually do.  The entire experience of being outdoors in the morning just made my soul expand.

And then I saw these beautiful flowers growing by the fields, and they seemed like a little gift on a Saturday morning, a reminder that there is beauty everywhere if I am willing to look for it.

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In the book of poems, I felt closer to my grandma.  In the fields, I felt closer to God.

Every day, there is grace.

Orange is the new prayer

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Getting ready for my son’s 8 AM Saturday soccer game may seem like an odd context for a spiritual experience.  I can tell you that when I went to bed the night before and set the alarm for 6:15, I sure wasn’t expecting a prayerful, mindful morning.  I wasn’t expecting to feel anything other than nostalgia for the warm bed I’d just left or the usual pre-game rush of panic (“Is his uniform clean?Where the heck are the shinguards?”).

But as I stood at the kitchen counter around 6:50, yawning and cutting navel oranges into slices for my little player and his teammates, I had a moment’s mindfulness.  I have my senses to thank for it.

First of all, the scent: oh my, those oranges smelled like heaven. They smelled almost as good as the coffee my husband made, and that’s saying a lot. With something so fragrant right before me, my nose was awake before the rest of me was.

And once I’d sliced them all, I realized that there were a few more than could comfortably fit into my Tupperware.  I decided that was my cue to eat one.  So I did.

I rarely ever eat oranges anymore; I’m not sure why. But that taste showed me what I’d been missing.  The little triangular segments peeling off the rind and feeling all wonderfully pulpy and sweet in my mouth: it was positively marvelous.  I can’t remember when something tasted so good, or when a food made me so instantly happy.   It was a gratitude prayer of the most simple and delicious kind.

That’s why it’s good to have our antennae tuned to the spirituality of the senses.  If we do, then any moment — even the dreaded 8 AM Saturday game — can be a little bit of God, when you need it most.

P.S. If you’re interested in cultivating your own awareness of the senses in your prayer life, check out the “Experiencing God with Our Senses” retreat on IgnatianSpirituality.com.  Starting Monday and continuing throughout October, you’ll find reflections and prayer prompts to help you taste and see (and smell, hear, and touch) God’s goodness.

Let there be peace on earth

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…and let it begin with me.