Inner Life

Dancing with Angels

George Browning discusses "the place where heaven and earth meet"

By George Browning

October 9 2017When I was a young boy attending boarding school in the northern hemisphere, Michaelmas Term, the final term of the calendar year (but first of the academic year), was a favourite, partly because it heralded the beginning of the football season and partly because it heralded the approach of Christmas.
Michaelmas gains its name from Michael, or more specifically St Michael, the archangel, whose day is celebrated, with all other angels, on the 29th September. Now, don’t turn immediately off, as if I am employing the same vocabulary as fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dancing with angels is a metaphor for being at the point where heaven and earth meet – and who would not want to be there!
‘Angel’ essentially means a ‘messenger’. I am very open to, but agnostic about, the existence of beings in the spiritual or heavenly realm who might be known as angels, cherubim or seraphim.  Teaching about them escalated in the Hebrew world after the exile (586 BC) when a sense of the remoteness of God hightened and the need for intermediaries between the human and the divine increased. The New Testament is not silent on the subject, (the Book of Revelation having most references), but the New Testament position could be well summarised in the letter to the Hebrews which states that the incarnation of Jesus has removed the need for any intermediary.
But the need for insight, inspiration, flashes of light, new understandings, a sense of direction, an awareness of the sacred, has far from diminished, indeed in the face of the banal distractions of the modern world such sources of inspiration or ‘messages’ are as important if not more important than ever. So too is the need for a guardian who will protect us from the perils of the world and our own foolishness. The question is: are we open? Do we know how to listen, or even where to look? The Christian narrative is an affirmation that God ‘speaks’.
There is ample evidence that we are open to narratives of death and destruction. Any analysis of daily news clips will confirm this predilection: but we may not be as open to narratives of life and light. There are of course reasons for this. In a macabre way it is comforting to hear of the misfortune or mistakes of others, we may be tempted to value ourselves positively by comparison. All heroes, even the most ‘saintly’, are fallible and in the end disappoint us: institutions such as the Church are easily corrupted. However there are reliable constants that we ignore at our absolute peril.
“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”.  “It is more blessed to give than receive”. “What you hold on to you lose, what you give away you keep”. “We are but dust and to dust we shall return”. These are examples of constant verities that come to us from sacred writ. The bible is hardly known these days and is demeaned in equal measure by literal fundamentalists as it is by Dawkins or Hitchins. 
But I want to take us to the points where heaven and earth meet, the point which the bible exquisitely describes as the place where angels ascend and descend. Jewish and Christian traditions are born out of such places. Indeed all the great religious festivals in both traditions emerge originally out of the meeting of natural ‘religion’ and its interpretation in ‘revealed’ religion.
So where in our contemporary world are some of these places where the angels of God ascend and descend? Ironically one such place is in the terrible disasters, natural and human caused, where it becomes blatantly clear that our belonging to one another is of far greater importance than our ‘independence’. Recent shared suffering in the Caribbean will have some of these hallmarks. Triumph over tragedy (invictus games) is where angels ascend and descend. We are essentially a society, a communal people, independence is an illusion, our identity is found in our belonging and the nourishing of our belonging is where meaning lies. In disasters we find a sense of care and responsibility for one another that the normal competitiveness of life steals from us. Here we meet the angels.
Another such place is the exquisite beauty and yet frailty of the natural order. In our world of technology and artificial intelligence we can manipulate, exploit and throw away what is; and do it after our own image and likeness, but we cannot add one jot or tittle to what is given. We can diminish it, but not increase it. The natural order with its balance and rhythms is a given. The natural order, experienced through dawn and sunset, the song of a bird, the lapping of waves, the desert blooming are all moments for taking off the shoes for we are on holy ground. We know this. We all know this. It makes utterly incomprehensible the persistence of our political elite with ventures like the Adani mine. Adani would cut down anything to do with angels ascending and descending. But that is another blog. 
Hospitality to strangers is another place, for as scripture reminds us, through it we may well be sitting at table with angels, unawares.
May I venture one further place where the angels ascend and descend?  It is the place of reconciliation. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael together arranged his funeral. Surely this was a meeting place of the angels. At the end of Rwandan genocide Tutsi and Hutu found a way of living again in the same villages. At the conclusion of Gallipoli, Ataturk declared the fallen allied soldiers Turkish sons as well. The world desperately needs more reconciliation. The Middle East cries out for it. We all need it in one way or another.
The angels of God are not ascending and descending where the political elite gather, where finding difference with the other side is more important than commonality. The angels of God are not ascending and descending where xenophobic words attract public support. And above all the angels of God are not ascending and descending on a global population who would rather exploit an extra dollar this year than invest in the ongoing fecundity of the natural order for succeeding years. This natural order still has the capacity to support life, including human, as far into the future as we can look back into the past, but by our actions, despite all the knowledge at our disposal, we are still prepared to put everything at risk and steal the future from those yet to be born.
Happy Michaelmas! This is a time of insight, meaning and direction. May we seek to find ourselves at points where the angels of God are ascending and descending, as Philip once declared they were on the Son of Man.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 3 October 2017. See