Thursday, January 1, 2015
Angels Ascending and Descending
I didn't make it to Midnight Mass this Christmas Eve, nor to a service on Christmas morning. The weather, my energy level, the crush of social obligations all factored in.
But the day after Christmas, I accompanied a friend to the chapel at the long-term care facility where she lives. She's a remarkable woman--a member of a well-known and very wealthy English family who as a young woman immigrated to Canada to work as a nurse, founded a non-profit organization in support of children living with HIV/AIDS and their families, and came out as a lesbian in her late fifties after the collapse of her marriage. Two and a half years ago, a brain bleed left her incapable of walking or stringing together more than a sentence or two, on a good day.
At the service, I was the only congregant out of fifteen who didn't arrive in a wheelchair. It wasn't the Christmas Mass I might have bargained on. But it was a remarkable lesson in what it really means to believe that we find God in our flesh. The celebrant kept an eye on people who were drifting off, gently encouraging them to focus on the service, helping them to find their place in the hymn book.
In Genesis 28, when Jacob has his vision of God's angels on a ladder, they ascend and descend, not the other way around. They go from earth up to heaven before they descend from heaven to earth.
It's the ground-level, utterly physical conditions of our lives that enable and nurture our spiritual awareness. Angels don't start by coming down the ladder from heaven to meet us. They begin by ascending the ladder from earth to heaven. We meet the Divine in and through our bodies. Our bodies aren't a distraction from the search for God, or God's search for us. They're the ladder without which angels go nowhere.
We experience the Sacred in the only bodies we have. We often need a reminder, like the one I received last Friday, that this is true amidst weakness, infirmity, sickness. But I'm not so sure we don't need to hear that message amidst strength, vigor, and health, as well. Legs that run, arms that lift, eyes with clear vision, rib cages that expand and contract with our breath, hearts that pump reliably: it's easy not to notice them, easy not to practice mindfulness. It's gratitude that reveals them as ongoing miracles.
If that's true of limbs and lungs and hearts, it's true as well of the possibilities of pleasure: as men, experiencing our life in and through male bodies--the only bodies we have--our erotic desire is a powerful bridge between flesh and spirit, a uniquely intense locus of our embodiment, the place where we experience that, as Tony Kushner put it in Angels in America, "the body is the garden of the soul."
It's gratitude that turns eros into prayer, a gateway through which we pass to become the angels of Jacob's vision, ascending the ladder from earth to heaven, if only we allow pleasure to open our hearts rather than close them off. This is true when you're alone, falling into the miracle of the pleasure you're capable of giving yourself. It's true when you're with a partner or partners, becoming for another the angel who in your ascent extends a hand to draw him up from below, becoming the one who takes a hand offered from above , for the healing of yours souls. And then descending more deeply into the world of all flesh, which longs for and stands in desperate need of repair.