The New Journey to God
Chapter 3 November 11, 1993
In which St. Michael views a modern representation of himself and reminisces about some of his campaigns on behalf of the Church. Catherine asks about the power of the human mind to discern truth, which leads to a discussion of the powers of the soul and what it means to be made in the image of God.
SEVERAL WEEKS PASSED and my conversation with the archangel faded from my mind. To some this may seem to be the most extraordinary aspect of the whole business. How could one receive a visitation from an angel and think of anything else? How continue to live as before? How not be instantly transformed into a saint? And yet, when I looked back on that late September afternoon, I found that I could remember little or nothing of what was said.
A few phrases would come to mind usually when I was thinking of something entirely different. A swift rush of certitude would fill my mind as I prayed or worked and then just as swiftly leave it. The day itself stood out in my memory; I retained a vivid impression of the buildings we passed, the precise shade of gold in the sky, and the day's last brilliant light; but of what was said, little remained. I tried to remember what St. Michael looked like, but it was a statue or a stained glass window that came to mind and not the image he presented to me.
Later, much later, when I got to know Fr. Francis Fitzgerald, OFM, and chaplain at St. Bonaventure's, I told him what had happened. He took it in his stride.
"You believe me then," I said, somewhat surprised. "You don't think that I am crazy?"
"No reason why you should be, as far as I can see," he said, as if conversations with angels were a regular occurrence at St. Bon's. "You know, Francis always had a great devotion to the Archangel Michael. He loved him dearly because, he said, it is Michael who leads souls into the presence of God."
As to my poor memory of the event, he had his own explanation for that.
"Yes, of course ... well you know, that is much what I would have expected. You see, it is not the unusual that affects people or even the extraordinary; it's the meaningful that changes lives. You have had nothing to do with angels in the past; nothing in your education has prepared you to acknowledge their existence, let alone their friendship; nor did you know anyone who could have helped you to make sense of it all."
Then he got out one of his usual soapboxes: the metaphysical ignorance of modem man.
"People are always asking me why, if God is so fussed about atheism, he doesn't send hosts of angels or saints down to Earth to convince the doubting ! Well, you know from your experience the answer to that one!
"There was nothing in your experience at the time to which you could attach St. Michael, nothing except the parts of the city where you met him, and these remained vividly impressed in your mind But the heavenly host never show themselves without effect."
That at least was Fr. Frank's theory. It was also the case that I had suddenly acquired a lot to do. I had found a job of sorts: nothing permanent, but it was a start. The Royal Canadian Institute of Apiculture had acquired a government grant to study the migration of killer bees, and they needed someone to construct and program a computer simulation model of the births, deaths and journeys of the bees. They had been reading the Scientific American; they wanted chaos theory, and they wanted colour graphics. I applied and got the contract, which was good for at least six months.
I also acquired a new interest in art. Perhaps this was due to the influence of my entomologist colleagues people who had spent their adult years looking closely at small things, instead of reaching directly for the abstract, as is the case with mathematicians. Whatever the reason, I began to carry a sketch pad with me, to visit the art galleries; and if nothing much appeared on my pad at the end of the day, at least I was learning to notice the colour and shape of the world around me.
Meanwhile October passed. The leaves, translucent, golden and glorious as the last trumpet, held their beauty for a week, and then were blown into the gutters all in one stormy day. The liturgical year equally ran towards a close. The readings rounded off the story of Christ's earthly ministry and then hurtled through the remaining centuries into distant futurity and history's catastrophic close. We honoured the saints; we prayed for the departed souls; and then, as if to counterpoint the hope of celestial glory, we honoured its secular counterpart in solemn grief on the eleventh of November.
I had the day off and decided to spend the morning examining the city's artistic wonders. One of my "killer bee" associates suggested a new walking guide, entitled Toronto on foot: a Tour of Public Art. "You would be amazed at how many interesting sculptures are simply dumped on the plazas of modern buildings these days," he said. Guide book in hand, I set out. An hour later, sitting on a bench in the quadrangle of St. Michael's College, I read the passage in the guide concerning the piece of public art on display before me.
It was an exciting concept, and as I stared at the collection of steel plates standing in front of me, I tried hard to believe in it. Perhaps if it had not been such a grey day, I would have seen the desired effect of luminous strength overcoming rebellious pride. I circled the statue twice, trying to determine which side was intended as the front. That rectangular panel might be St. Michael's shield. I sat down again and contemplated the struggle of the powers of grayness against the powers of grayness.
I tried to put the two
together: the faithful and passionate spirit,
Only then did I remember that I had actually spoken to the creature represented hereand he had called me by name. I had met a real person, not a mere symbol; someone who actually cared whether I loved God or not. I tried to put the two together: the faithful and passionate spirit, and this arrangement of metal sheets. I failed. Indeed, the more I looked at it, the more repellent did the statue appear a pathetic irrelevance, too small to impress and too large to ignore. It was an object more calculated to repel thoughts of angels than to focus them.
According to the theory of the guide book, it should have worked. Armour, light, swift movement down from heaven, virtue allied to power, as among men it seldom is. I found myself thinking of all the strong, high places of old, of vigilant courage, and unsleeping eyes scanning the horizon. I wanted to be far away, standing on a cliff looking down on endless seas, crackling below in a thousand slivers of light.
The feeling condensed into a rational presence, and I saw Michael standing before me
"It's you," I said joyfully. "You came back." And then as swiftly, I was overwhelmed by shame and grief. The activity of the previous weeks fell from me like dust. How irrelevant it all seemed in the face of one who faces Heaven.
"Peace be with you," he said quietly. Then in a different tone he said, pointing to the statue, "I see you are looking at that thing."
"Yes," I said. "What do you think about it?"
"What's to think? Six panels of steel do not an archangel make. You are the first person to have thought of me while looking at it. No one has ever used it to invoke my aid; so to me it means nothing."
I thought for a moment of the college faculty imploring the prayers of their patron saint before faculty meetings and dismissed the idea. Whatever the purpose of the abstract statue, piety was not in it.
I looked again at the ineffective statue of Michael in the quadrangle, and back at the figure of the archangel standing beside me. Surely neither image conveyed the whole truth about this alien creature, to whom the paths of nature were an open highway to the throne of heaven. His clear and angular face was almost too regular to be human, and certainly no human face could be as pale and breathless, and still be the face of a living being. It was simply a different kind of life, one that drew a different kind of breath and moved in a different kind of light. He was dressed appropriately to the time and the place, but something in his bearing said "civvies" rather than "civilian." In honour of the day, he wore a poppy in the lapel of his coat, and strangest touch of all, he carried a dark umbrella, furled against what storms of nature or the spirit, I could not guess.
Michael seemed to be waiting for something to happen, and it crossed my mind that perhaps he was waiting for me. I said that I had thought about heading over to the War Memorial at the university in time for 11:00, and he nodded in agreement.
We left the college and walked out towards Queen's Park Circle. The park was in front of us, and beyond it lay the rest of the university, where I intended to go. Normally I would have cut across the lanes of northbound traffic to the park, crossed the park by the shortest distance, and then J-walked across the southbound lanes to the campus. The park itself divides the stream of traffic, and drivers tend to treat the division as if they had suddenly entered a divided highway, and they drive accordingly. Normally, I say, I would have done this, but J- walking is illegal in Toronto, and I was reluctant to infringe even a minor traffic regulation with the archangel beside me. Instead we headed south and made slowly for the traffic light at the bottom of the Circle.
It had all but stopped raining. A fine mist hung in the air; sky and city remained grey. I looked at the park with its trees and its squirrels, its equestrian statue in the centre, and a mad thought crossed my mind that all these solid shapes were only creatures of the rain, made of water, and about to dissolve and flow into the gutters. Only Michael, calm and luminous beside me, seemed resistant to the dissolution of the day.
"Michael," I asked. "What do you really look like?" I was still thinking of the six panels.
"A spirit that can be seen is called a man," he said. "But when it comes to forming an apparition, personally, I have never eschewed facile anthropomorphism. It is simple and it works. People see a winged man, armed and killing a serpent. They think, 'Michael'. What more can you ask from a representation?"
"Perhaps that it should convince those who see it," I thought to myself. We walked in silence past the Toronto School of Theology, and the Centre for Medieval Studies beyond it. Both establishments occupied a couple of the last remaining Victorian houses that once encircled the park and formed the domestic heart of Toronto. Having survived thus far, they would be safe for a while; historical preservation had overtaken progress, and the homes both of theology and the Middle Ages would remain as they were.
"Hadrian's Tomb," declared Michael, pursuing his previous thought, "That's where it took shape."
"What did?" I said.
"The facile anthropomorphism at least in its final form. There was a plague in Rome. Hundreds died of it. Finally, the Pope thought to lead a procession through the city and invoke the aid of Our Lady ..."
"Help of Christians," I supplied.
"And Queen of Angels. I was sent to announce that their prayers had been heard. I appeared on top of Hadrian's Tomb in the appearance of a soldier of the Empire, sheathing his sword, while everyone else sang the Regina Coeli."
"The Castel San' Angelo!" I said brightly, making the connection.
"There is a statue there still. You must have made quite an impression."
"It was a bit histrionic, but those were not subtle years."
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"At the end of the sixth century."
I called to mind everything that I knew about that period. Nothing came beyond waves of barbarian invaders ... or was that earlier? "Now those were glorious years," said Michael with enthusiasm.
"The entire social order collapsed: political, intellectual, and even moral."
We negotiated the lights at the foot of the Park and turned west, walking alongside the back of the Ontario Legislature a curious stone building: huge and slightly pink.
"It sounds terrible," I said. "There must have been total chaos." "It varied from place to place. Fragments of social function remained; people carried on, getting used to less, narrowing their expectations. But the background had fallen out of their lives: Eternal Rome, eternal no more.
"Sometimes a wave of panic would overwhelm a town, and people would fall on the first stranger they met. Or they might grab their weapons and start murdering each other. Men live in a network of trust; when that is broken, they have nowhere to go.
"There was no human thing that worked," he added with gusto. "Even more horrible than the chaos was the corruption of moral order in the new barbarian courts. A lot survived from the Empire, but nothing really worked, not well. It was a glorious opportunity for the mercy and the power of God."
"I wonder if they saw it that way," I remarked, as I tried to revise the fall of Rome into a golden age and failed.
"Some did, indeed many. Their faith was made very pure, because there was little of human bargaining in it. You must have read accounts of all the miracles that took place at that time, and how the barbarians left their idols when they saw the power of Christ in those holy men and women."
I had read the stories, but this was not history as they taught it in school.
"What did you and the other angels do?" I asked.
"Ah yes," Michael said, "it was an interesting campaign, and so rich in opportunity. We did what we always do, of course, but we were more obvious about it; we appeared to them more frequently. We helped the Christians to win a few battles; sometimes we showed them where to hide, where to build a monastery away from the invaders' main lines of travel."
"I don't mean to be rude," I said, as the fall of Rome continued to jar with Michael's reminiscences, "but it seems to me that you were not very effective."
"We had a job to do, and we did it," came the swift reply.
"But the Empire fell just the same; and there was barbarism for centuries."
"Angels do not work to save empires," he said sternly, "but to glorify God. We were sent to remind the soldiers of Christ that God had not abandoned them. Arid then we also worked on the imagination, to remind them of the beauty of peace, and of what a civilization of love might be so different from what they saw around them. We were there for the Church and the new society that we hoped would emerge around her. It was a question of working with individuals here and there, encouraging a parish, defending a monastery. Order is not built in a hurry. But that is what we were doing: helping to build a new order, and not to preserve an old one whose time was past."
We soon reached another network of streets, those forming the western boundary of the park. The road ran down to the left, past the Legislature on one side and the faculty of medicine on the other. Beyond these were the office towers, with walls covered in mirrors. But on a day like this, they had nothing to reflect and stood like darker patches against the sky, about to turn to rain. Ignoring legality this time, we dashed across to the other side. Michael narrowly missed being struck by a taxi, but beyond receiving a honk of abuse from the driver, was untouched by the incident. Danger averted, we walked through the campus toward Hart House and the war memorial.
Hart House was the gift of a wealthy and grateful family to the male student body of the university. Sporting facilities, library, sitting rooms and dining hall were lodged within a stone neogothic structure at the northern end of the grand circle that forms the main campus. The front entrance opens onto a stone terrace running the full length of the building, and that is where we were standing. We had still a few minutes to wait before eleven o'clock. The memorial is carved into a wall separating Hart House from the grounds of University College. It contains the names of the fallen, and a small covered area where wreaths could be placed, protected from the weather.
I looked across the campus. The habit of facing the same green for so many decades had so accustomed the buildings to each other, that with time they had come to present an almost unified appearance. One was almost led to the belief that the various styles of architecture employed in their construction did not in fact conflict, and that the whole had been intended to look like this from the start. In the distance, tall against the sky, stood the CN Tower. Michael leaned against the parapet, his back to the view. It began to rain in fine drops and the wind rose slightly.
"The purpose of the campaign," pursued Michael, "was the restoration of human nature."
"That must have been difficult, given that the social infrastructure had just collapsed," I pointed out.
"The infrastructure was only half the problem. It was not simply a question of building new roads or passing new laws. Society had fallen too far for that. The whole truth of the human person had to be rediscovered"
"What truth about man did you tell them?" I asked.
"We reminded them of God," Michael replied. "That was the purpose of those rather dramatic appearances. But there was much more serious work going on below the surface. Do you remember what St. Augustine wrote about the mind being an image of the Trinity?"
"Yes," I said. "He compared Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the memory, intellect and will of the human mind- distinct powers, but belonging to the same individual."
"And not only do the powers belong to the mind, but each contains it in its entirety. The mind loves itself as a whole, knows itself as a whole, and recalls its own presence as a whole. Each power contains the mind; each is distinct; and each relates to the others. For instance, I could not love myself if I was not aware of my own existence."
"I never found that very satisfactory," I said. "Isn't it selfish to talk about the mind knowing itself and loving itself, like a perpetual self-admiration society?"
Michael laughed. "Men are never humble, except when there is no need to be! God has created me to be, so why should I not desire the continuance of my own existence?
"Now this is the key to the whole campaign. Augustine intended his analogy as an aid to understanding the Trinity, but it is equally an application of the doctrine of the Trinity to the understanding of the mind. Had his life not been illumined by the gift of knowledge, it is doubtful if he would have been able to see a trinity in the intellect.
"Not that one needs the gift of faith to see that a mind has memory, intellect and will, and that these are distinct powers it is an inescapable quality of existence but the Pagans tend to deaden their experience of themselves. It is another consequence of the slavery in which they live," he said sadly. "You could hardly expect the dignity of the human soul to be apparent to a society that exploited labour, killed men for sport, ignored the marriage bond, and practised abortion and infanticide to a point where they could no longer sustain their own population level."
A university campus is never idle in the middle of term. People passed back and forth along the, terrace, some using it for a shortcut to somewhere else, others because they had something to do in Hart House. But gradually, the number arriving began to exceed the number that were leaving. They clustered around the memorial and began to wait, as we were, to remember the wars and those that fell. Some of the visitors were veterans, in their uniforms and medals. Graying men, still firm and upright from the Second War, and from the First, still a few, a very few, now bent and fragile. I thought of autumn leaves, dropped from many trees and scattered by the wind, until all are gathered in one pile for a bonfire before the end, when winter sets in.
"Michael," I said, "why are you here? You just said a moment ago that you appeared frequently during the years following the sack of Rome, even to ordinary Christians like myself. If you are here now, does that mean ... ?"
My question was suddenly interrupted by a cry of recognition. I wheeled to look, but the cry was not for me. The man might have been my height when young; but now, bent over and shrunk down, he was a full head shorter. It was one of the veterans. He stopped before us in amazement, and pointed his cane at the archangel.
"Mons!" he said, and repeated it several times. "You were there, during the retreat. It was you!" Then confusion mastered the old man's face. He mumbled something about impossible things and turned away.
"Let me help you," said Michael. I watched as he guided the veteran to a seat near the front and then found a spot for myself near the parapet behind the rest of the crowd. Michael returned shortly, but he seemed to have forgotten my question.
"The Allies were defeated at Mons," he explained, "but not destroyed. We covered the retreat."
"I suppose I should not be surprised to learn that you are a veteran of the First World War along with everything else," I said. I made another attempt at my former question. "You said that you and the other angels revealed the power of God in a world that was in ruins, humanly speaking. If you are here now, is it that the power of God will be revealed in a world where, humanly speaking, man has triumphed on all fronts, but God has been forgotten?"
Michael poked at the ground with the end of his umbrella. Then he said, "Perhaps the world has not yet reached as grim a stage as the one that you describe."
Clearly I was not going to hear a prophecy of the future. I tried a different tack.
"You said that the Pagans tend to deaden their experience of themselves. What should I look for to identify that sort of thinking when it occurs?"
"They lose their verbs," he said. "Everything becomes a noun instead of a verb, eventually only an adverb. They want to 'live happily' or 'live long'. Nothing wrong in that, until the quality of life becomes more important than life itself. That is one sign to look for.
"Another danger sign is that they forget they are free. Pagans forget that human action is undertaken by human beings, who have chosen to act in that way. Instead they attribute change to abstract entities like 'cultural and economic forces'. The older Pagans had more dramatic names for them, but Paganism never dies, it only acquires new terminology."
The dispersed groups of people arriving for the ceremony had grown slightly in numbers and condensed to form an audience. Michael and I also moved forward, and the ceremony began. It was brief and to the point. A small procession arrived, a wreath was laid, bland comments were made about world peace, and a bland deity was invoked without conviction. We observed two minutes of silence. There was no trumpet and no Last Post. It was over. The young people looked serious, but uneasy. It was the seriousness of the polite tourist and not the emotion of the patriot. The fate of their fellow alumni, fixed for ever at the age they now enjoyed, concerned them little. Perhaps each century has a fixed allotment of sacrifice and courage, and the portion given to the Twentieth century was consumed before the mid-point was passed, leaving only cynicism and moral fatigue to those of us born in the second half.
As the group dispersed and left the terrace, Michael and I crossed the access road to take a closer look. He appeared to be reading the names on the memorial, while I read the verses above them.
"I know many of these men," said Michael at last. "Most are much the same age that you are now. What would you be prepared to die for?"
"Surely you do not believe that war was a good thing," I said, shocked.
"I believe that those responsible and those who took part will be judged by Christ at the Last Day. If he needs my help, he can ask for it. But I know that some of them volunteered to defend genuine human values, like their homes and their nation. I was wondering if there was anything in human society for which you would be prepared to die, or to live?"
"Who is like God?" I said, desperately.
"Man is," replied the archangel. "Let us make man in our image male and female created he them. Sometimes to serve a human good is to serve God," he added in the direction of my silence. It was a miserable and soggy silence. The rain was coming down in a methodical and persistent way. A drop of rain trickled down the side of my nose, followed by another, where they mingled with my own private miseries.
"Why are you crying?" asked Michael.
"It is hopeless," I said. "How can I commit myself to anything, when nobody believes in anything anymore: art, science, politics, education, health, nation, family. It has all been tried; nothing works."
"I would have thought that the Twentieth century has proven that these work very well"
"They work the way a machine works," I said with a sudden inspiration, "but nobody believes that there is any real meaning there." "And what do you believe?" he said.
"I don't know," I replied sadly. "They say that everything is culturally conditioned. For instance, there is no real science, because everything we think we know is not really knowledge, but only a paradigm."
"Who says this?" Michael demanded.
"I don't know. Everyone. It's just out there somewhere." I pointed in the direction of the university library, as if its thousands of volumes, the result of man's search for knowledge, were the source of this assault on truth.
"And when it comes to the interpretation of history, or the analysis of morals," I continued, "it is even worse. Everyone is a product of his time and place, so we can totally disregard what he said and did. But if people were conditioned in the past, we must be conditioned also. We can never know whether we know anything and whether what we are doing is right."
"If you have a moral difficulty about something, you can always speak to a priest about it," Michael said gently. "And the essentials about God and man are in Scripture and Tradition. You can read the gist of it in a three dollar pamphlet."
"I know, I have seen the pamphlets. I own several. I read the words on the page, all about God and salvation, but something is missing as if the words failed to connect with what is really there. So I wonder if words really mean what we think they mean when we say them."
"Well," said Michael after a pause, "I am not sure that I know quite where your question is in all of that. I know that you love God and you long to see him as he is. He has given you that love in baptism, and he is calling you home. But no one can look on God and live. Human words are signs, and not substance. You want the substance and you only have the signs."
"Yes, yes," I said quickly, "but do the signs point to anything?"
The doubts raised by Modernism are difficult to express with clarity, but the despair that they imply cannot be silenced. I turned my face to the circle of university buildings where they stood, grey and streaked in the rain. One assumes that the buildings will hold, and that the rain will evaporate. But what if they did not endure and were as transient as the weather they were meant to withstand? What if some day they began to dissolve and run off into the gutters with the water? Human words are also meant to stand firm. It has been said that they form a house for the soul, but it would be better to say that they build the whole city; they house and they connect.
"Some theologians argue that all doctrines are the product of the times when they were formulated, and they no longer express man's experience of the divine. Similarly with moral norms. Man has no nature and must actualize himself in his freedom. They say that you can't propose any universal moral norms because they would impose morality"
As I was framing the question of modernity, Michael stood motionless before me. His face turned even paler than before and flushed blue as from the frost. Suddenly he began to pace back and forth along the terrace. With each step, he swung the umbrella forward in a brief arc and then stabbed it into the ground. When I reached the end of my exposé, he wheeled around to a halt, and I realized, to my surprise, that he was furious.
"I can only hope, for the sake of their immortal souls," he said, "that the people who write these things are sufficiently stupid not to know the supreme evil of what they are saying."
"Why is it so evil to think in that way?"
"Why? Why?" The umbrella pointed the heavens in search of an answer and finding none, struck the ground again. "You need to ask why? This line of thought, repeated over the years, insinuated in everything you read, assumed but never proven, has sapped your power to act at its foundations, namely in the confidence you should have of knowing that you can discover God's will and carry it out.
"But it is even worse than that. Even now as we speak, as this blood-soaked planet continues to orbit the sun, all over the world in forgotten prisons and compounds sit confined your brothers and sisters; or their remains are rotting under heaps of dirt, wherever their executioners thought that they could hide the cities of the dead that they have made. There they lie, guiltless, for no better reason than that their existence offended some local tyrant; perhaps their property aroused his greed; or their poverty aroused his fear.
"Until now, one freedom at least remained to the victims of oppression, and one hope. They could still cry out to Heaven for justice. Even those who did not believe in God by name knew at least that what they suffered was contrary to everything that is right. They knew that whatever truth the world can own would witness in their favour. But now all that is changing. Were the ideas you cite to prevail these anti-ideas I should say the last chink of light would be shut out from the cell. Evil would triumph, and men would call it good, just as their oppressors instructed them."
"Surely it would never get as bad as that," I said. "After all, people in pain always know that they are suffering?"
"They would suffer, to be sure, as animals suffer, more than animals, since they would also suffer dread. But if God permitted your race to evacuate all reference to eternal goods from your speech, the victims of injustice would be incapable of knowing righteous indignation. Perhaps some residual sense of justice might be there, but they would so confuse it with fears for their personal safety and resentment against their oppressors that the element of righteousness in it would be very small.
"Your society is already dangerously close to this stage. Notice how your journalists see criminal trials as a matter between the victim and the perpetrator, in which the victim seeks justice, usually understood as compensation, from the accused."
"Isn't that what is going on?" I asked.
"In the tradition of the courts, such cases are held to be between the accused and the crown, since society as a whole is offended when injustice has taken place. There is a moral loss as well as a material one. And since the crown represents the justice of God ... but any idea that God is offended by injustice, and that the state acts on his behalf, is long gone from your culture."
MICHAEL'S PACING had taken him some distance from the memorial, and then back to our initial post by the parapet. I sat down, tired, since I had been standing for some time. Suddenly a new thought occurred to him.
"Why don't you ask to borrow my umbrella," he said. "You are getting soaked in this rain."
"I did not know if it was real," I said, surprised, "or that you would be prepared to lend it."
"You have to ask when you need something," he said and handed me the umbrella. I accepted it gratefully. Michael sat down beside me on the parapet and ignored the downpour.
It certainly looked genuine. I released the catch, and the fabric stretched open across the ribs. It was deep blue. The words Quis ut Deus?' ran in white letters around the rim, interspersed with something in Hebrew that I could not read. I raised the umbrella over my head against the rain and looked up to see if the ribs and the folding mechanism were what one would expect. They were, but it was not on account of them that I gasped in amazement.
"I see the stars," I exclaimed in delight. It was true. I was looking up at the night sky, as it can only look on a clear winter's night, deep in the country, and far from any artificial light. "It is beautiful," I said.
The archangel smiled in quiet satisfaction. "I have always thought that the real trouble with rain is that it prevents one from seeing the sky."
"But it is just past eleven," I said. "Even if the sky were clear, we would only see the sun."
"Yes," he said. "You would see the sun, and not much else, beyond what you were busy doing. But the stars are always there despite the changes taking place near the surface of this planet. The laws that govern their existence remain also, although you cannot see them."
The sky above me was hung heavy with stars, like a tree bearing fruit; but it was the darkness that contained them that seemed to hold the greater mystery. I stared into that strange sky as if there were nothing else in the world to see.
"The heavens were intended to be like the memory of the material world. We knew your scientists would read the history of the cosmos there, where there is no life to obliterate the tracks of what first took place. I sometimes wonder what control man would have won over this planet, had he never been able to see the other planets and the moon as they wander against the fixed stars.
"But just as memory is open to retain anything that exists, and save it from the erasure of time, so the heavens are also a reminder of their origin and ours by their order and immensity."
"This is not about the stars, is it?" I said.
"Even the stars are not about the stars," Michael replied, and he began to quote the psalm.
"I see it now, " I said. "The Law of the Lord revives the soul. That is what Modernism stole from me."
"It is a fundamental right of every creature to know God's will for it," Michael said. "Most have it expressed in their structure or their instincts. For us God's will is known in the true sense, so that we can will the good in truth. As the psalmist says elsewhere, 'The light of your face, Lord, is signed upon us.' Yes," Michael added cheerfully, "Now I can see your difficulty. The question is not whether you will eventually see God in glory, but rather what sort of creatures you are to begin with. The theories you mention are wrong on two counts: they separate man's freedom from God, and his nature from his freedom. Result: boredom with life."
"Then perhaps you can explain it to me," I said. "How close is the human mind to God?"
"There is nothing between them," he replied. "Although they are quite distinct and infinitely removed in power."
"We can't actually see God, then, or be directly aware of his existence in this life?"
"You can see that he is absent. That is very important. You are quite right in fearing that if those theories were correct if human reason could not determine the good or know God as a metaphysical principle then he could never enter your soul as a friend through grace. There would be no soul to enter.
"It might help to imagine that God is directly behind you, holding a lamp. You do not see the light, but in it, you see everything else. As Scripture says about the Word, 'It was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world.' In grace, you are turned around to point in his direction, and in the light of glory, you will see his face."
"How would you answer people like that?" I asked, since although it was a comfort to hear these things from an archangel, one wants to see error refuted as well as exposed.
"Yes, well; weeds among the wheat, weeds among the wheat!" said Michael, with a shrug almost of resignation. "We are forbidden to launch a selective outbreak of bubonic plague," he added in wistful explanation, "or a lightning barrage."
"I was not thinking of apologetics as one of the martial arts," I said. "All I want to know is what sort of creature I am and how far away I am from God."
"You are a corporeal spirit, created to love God in truth; not to serve him blindly as do the animals. As to your distance from God, in a personal sense, that has to do with sin and grace; but if you mean in general, where is a human being, or any rational being, placed with respect to God, then the answer, as Scripture says, is that you are made in his image and you can see him reflected in the mind."
"But you have already taught me that everything God made resembles him in some way," I said. "How does the mind differ?"
"It differs in that God is also a spirit. God made the Earth, but he has no mass; he made the trees, but he does not grow and change. And yet he made you and me and, like us, can know and love."
"But not in the same way," I said. I was so used to Michael avoiding any direct comparison between creature and Creator, that I instinctively moved in to supply what I had expected him to say.
"No," he agreed, "not in the same way. An image draws its form from the original. You can see from your own experience that none of the powers of your mind are self-sufficient. They all reach out for confirmation in something beyond themselves. Human thought is staggeringly complex more complex that it should be most of the time. It begins in physical experiences, moods, sounds, colours all of these are events of nature, governed by the same network of cause and effect that determines non-rational things. But thought ends in ideas that do not belong to the material flow, which proves that it could not entirely have begun there.
"Memory, for example, begins in the events of your life, unrolling in time. But it gathers them together in one moment as if time did not exist. It is a temporal function that assumes the eternal; and because you can remember your past and anticipate the future, you can know your own existence and be responsible for it. You will not find the notion of responsibility anywhere in the physical or biological orders.
"Human reasoning also begins in the experience of material things, but whether you engaged in a chain of reasoning, or simply taking note of a state of nature like this rain for instance the light of truth is always there."
"I did not know that I was particularly close to God when I remark that it is raining," I said.
"Close? Why you could storm Heaven with a sentence like that. Did you not know that 'to be' is one of the names of God? The rain will pass, and the weather will change, but you would know nothing of passing events or changing things without some intuition of what it means to exist at all, and that light comes only from the Being that never changes. Animals, you will notice, react to things, but they have no curiosity about them. For them nothing exists in itself, but only in relation to their wantts.
"Or again, ask yourself where certainty comes from. Why are you certain when a proof fits in mathematics? Why are you certain that this is happening to you now, and that it is not all a dream, or your own imagination?"
"Because it is obvious," I said. "Look at everything. It is all here."
"What you see are stones and mortar. What you see in my case, I will not even begin to discuss. None of these things haye, in themselves, any power to evince certainty. They do no more than what the physicists say they can; and in reacting to the ambient colour, your eyes do no more than react to stimuli. But certainty is a spiritual criterion; it is the mind's response to truth, and it comes from God.
"The same thing is true of the will. You choose one thing over another, but in every choice you are looking to choose which of your options is the best. Behind all the decisions lies the perception of a good that is contained in no particular thing, but is the measure of them all. That can only be God."
Michael came to the end of his lecture, but I was still trying to fit the pieces together.
"Now I am confused," I said. "Do we say that the mind is a reflection of God because he is shining something on it, or because of what the mind can do in itself?"
"Both. 'In his light, we see light,' but it is we who do the seeing. Some people will always think that the further they go from normal human experience, the closer to God they will get. Nothing could be more mistaken. Human nature is not an accident. The mind was deliberately constructed to be a mind: finite but true. It is precisely the normal, finite use of the mind, words, syntax and all, that is illumined by eternal truth. Whether you say that it is raining or that God is good, the principle is the same. Similarly with your free actions: everything that you do is important. You do indeed choose the good that is God when you choose to act in accordance with right reason and the truth of things."
"Do you think that the theologians I was telling you about are trying to flee human nature?" I asked.
"They may; but sometimes I wonder if they have remembered what a mind is. There are three intellectual powers and they work together. The old Pagans confused them, but in your age, they are divided, and have taken up separate careers. There are extensive therapies of the soul, that work with the memory, while ignoring the rational judgement of what should have been done in the past, and the commitment to repent and amend. Or again, they have limited the human intellect to the task of analyzing material facts, and converted the moral life into a quest for freedom, ignoring the question of what is worth doing with that freedom."
"Some say that is an impossible question to answer; God does not will the same things for everyone," I said, having returned to my original difficulty.
"Perhaps these people would rather have been created as angels," said Michael sarcastically. "For us the moral life consists almost entirely of positive directives. We are bound in a general way only to what obliges all rational beings: to love and serve God and his image."
"I don't think it would suit them to be angels," I said and then aborted the rest of what I had intended to say. It is well known which commandments are victims to cultural relativism, and it was not something I cared to discuss with a pure spirit. Still, they have a point. We intervene constantly in nature, and not only for survival but also for comfort and entertainment. Surely the whole purpose of technology is to triumph over nature.
"It is not a triumph," Michael interrupted my thought, "but a participation. You bring nature to participate in human life, almost as your own lives participate in the divine wisdom. Nobody triumphs over nature; at best we can only serve God through it."
But I was too happy to worry about the right use of technology. I was free at last; free from the loneliness of doubt. I looked up once more into the umbrella at the splendrous stars above, whose network of light within the web of space is an image of the much brighter network of created spirits united in the common light of truth.
"Image of God," I thought, amazed at the dignity of it, when even ordinary human words and actions touch the edge of eternity. And whenever a child is born: can it really be that another image is brought into the world, to know God and to love him?
"Who is like God?" said Michael serenely, which in this case I took to mean 'yes.'
This book is reproduced with the author's permission.
Copyright © Catherine Dalzell 1995, 2009
All rights reserved
Illustrations Copyright © Gordon Gillick 1995
Version: 1st December 2009