Thousands of thousands stand around thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound thy praise; but who am I?
About this time of year I begin to notice angels. Not literally so much (if at all – O ye of little faith!) but in the Psalms, scripture readings and the hymns I sing. (The advantage of singing the Divine Office online with the monks of Glenstal Abbey is that I can sing out as loudly, in as badly pronounced latin, and as out of tune as they do!). Suddenly angels are everywhere – online, in art, television dramas, in the newspapers and referred to in the novels and books I am reading.
The reason? My internal liturgical clock is reminding me that very soon it will be Michelmas(s), the Feast of S. Michael and All Angels on the 29th of September. Once an important marker of the passing of the year (and still there is Michelmas term at the ancient Universities, traditional rent due day, one of the English law terms, and the election day of the Lord Mayor of London). It is one link left with the Christian fabric of Western society in the public domain — though generally they are fading away and being replaced either by secular calendars, or ‘multi-faith’ feasts (as long as they are not Christian ones).
Although we may curse them when wanting to access government services, buy a clove of garlic or some bananas, at least Malta retains Christian feast days as holidays. This reminds us of the sacred passage of time, punctuates the daily round with religious celebrations, fasts, days of religious obligation or reflection — the ground bass of our civilisation; the infrastructure which holds us ideologically together. Of course — again as Malta has shown us these last few years — this binding element of the Christian story is no automatic protection from wrong-doing. Indeed the very ‘auto-pilot’, routine, nature of it can be its undoing as we become immune to the meaning or simply careless of the lessons, personal and political, that a public marking and binding of Faith can bring. Nonetheless, to live one’s life by the liturgical year and seasons brings its rewards and it is a discipline that few of us are so holy and regular in our devotions, we can afford to ignore!
And so back to angels. The quotation at the start of this blog is from John Mason’s wonderful poem made even more moving and powerful when sung as a hymn to Ken Naylor’s mystical tune ‘Coe Fen’. It looks in hope to the angel host that stands, a mystic multitude, around the throne of grace. In the C17th when John Mason lived (c. 1646-1694) and wrote (very near where the Canon Chancellor ministered in Northamptonshire, and my uncle doctored in a private lunatic asylum – a place John Mason would have benefitted from one thinks) visions, of angels or devils, in dreams, dark churches or the dark of the night were not uncommon. John Mason’s life was a sad, indeed tragic, one — what with his nightmares and apocalyptic visions, his obsessions bordering on madness, the poison of the quinsy (which eventually killed him) and all the other pressures of mental ill-health for which the C17th had no insight, cures or help. Worse, his dead body found no rest either and was exhumed by the next Rector of the parish (a warning to all clergy!) since a devoted, but unhinged, band of Mason’s followers refused to accept he was dead. A turbulent life in turbulent times when few were unaffected by religious troubles — spies in every parish, riots and persecutions, burnings, priests and pastors hung, drawn and quartered — most having to hide their faith, living in fear of what change they might next have, reluctantly, to embrace. It is no wonder that Mason’s faith was one of dread, of awe of the Almighty’s power, and the unworthiness of man. His sense of wretched inadequacy overpowered him at times and it was only the thought of angels that gave him hope — as perhaps it might us too. Angels’ ‘gold’ of praise in heaven inspires and lends strength to our small ‘mite’ of praise on earth, he thought, which we beg God to treasure. They behold God’s face, while we catch the mere sound of God and the trace of His footsteps in the sand as He passes.
That is why, should someone should ask me whether I believe in angels, I would tell them that I need, like John Mason, the angelic host to borrow a small voice of praise, an inadequate word of prayer; to afford me from their full vision a comforting glimpse of the shadow of the Almighty. I need angels to show me the way; to guard me by night and guide me by day. I want angels to protect me from the evil one and all his manifestations: to light my path with God’s word and lend me His lantern for my feet as I stumble along life’s path. I believe angels can whisper the Word of God into my sleeping ear, into my daydreams and my midday fantasies; they can save me from the terrors of the night. They can save me, too, from arid rationalism, the religion of the head, a Christianity purely moralistic and regulatory; without tears or passion.
At God’s command, angels may carry me back to the ante chambers of heaven where I might see, at least as flickering shadows, the heavenly host at praise around God’s throne — and by that power lent to us by angels our faith may be inspired, renewed, so that with the angels we may together sing: