Do You See What I See

March 15, 2013 § 1 Comment

Song of the Angels William-Adolphe Bougereau, 1881

Song of the Angels William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881

I heard a talk last night at the Cathedral by an Irish woman, Lorna Byrne, who sees and chats with angels and has since earliest childhood. The angels told her to keep her mouth shut when she was small, as she was already considered “slow” and talking about the angels at the table, hearth, bedside, etc, could have landed her in an institution, or at the very least in trouble with the church. But now she’s nearing 60, it’s the 21st century, she’s written bestselling books, and 600 people came to hear her speak. Many waited over an hour to receive her blessing.

It’s hard not to be interested in someone who says they are seeing angels at the very moment she is speaking to you, that the angels are wearing red, possibly in honor of the new pope, and that there are two of them at the back of the Cathedral waving American flags. (She’s of that generation of Irish people who have a special regard for the U.S., though what she said was it’s God who has the special regard. NYC audiences are not the most receptive to this sentiment. We feel, to put it bluntly, that we’re being ass-kissed.)

It’s also hard not to feel, when a person says God picked her up and took her into his eye so that she could see the world as he did, that if you really believed this happened, you might feel more than a twinge of envy.

I got no sense that she was lying or crazy, though listening to someone answering questions for an hour is hardly definitive. I have no idea what her experience means, but what I find of interest is that the longing for proof of God’s existence—and of the existence of guardian angels and Heaven—is so intense that someone who offers no new insights or charismatic presence or uncanny knowledge, who performs no miracles of healing but simply says, “I see them physically. I see your guardian angel behind you right now,” can have such an effect on people. She sees them, hears them, has been granted a tour of Heaven and has no doubts that God is a real being of endless love.

Lucky her, I think. But why is it that just because she doesn’t appear to be a con woman, doesn’t act crazy, people assume that therefore she’s correct? What about the thousands of people who have said similar things throughout history—if their words do not convince or comfort you, why this woman?

Because she’s one of us, no glamorous personage like the Dalai Lama. Because of the homely yet reverent details about her angelic friends (though we all wanted more). A good story needs those details. A good storyteller knows not to give too many details, like a good liar knows not to come up with three different explanations. And because she seems sincerely humble, and she delivered one part of her message brilliantly. God carried her up and stuck her in his eye, she said—I can’t get over that—but still, if he appeared right here and now, she’d run and hide. She’s a simple Irish lass who doesn’t know why she was chosen.

Nor do I. I can think of many people who could carry the message of hope and love more effectively if God felt he couldn’t simply pick up the phone and hold a worldwide conference call. But He moves in mysterious ways. (“God’s not only a man,” Lisa grumbled, “he has an eye.” My friend prefers the pure energy deities.)

I always want to believe these stories, whether its angels, fairies, aliens or werewolves. I spoke to a woman on the phone today about mental illness, for a study, and she asked me if I ever saw or heard things other people didn’t. “No, but I attended an event last night featuring a woman who sees and talks to angels,” I felt like replying, “and she’s got three bestsellers.”

Best not to confuse things. I cheerfully described all my mental symptoms and complaints while Fitzroy and Mouchette crawled around under the covers, brushing me with soft tails and prickly paws and stiff whiskers. I decided that, if I had to choose, I’d rather see cats than angels.

click here for Lorna’s experience of last night.

Questions About Angels

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

Billy Collins


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§ One Response to Do You See What I See

  • beverlydiehl says:

    I think we convert the things we see/feel, the things we don’t understand, into images and ideas we *do* understand. For example, there are those who contend that some of the fiery chariots in the skies in certain verses in the Bible are UFO’s, or that possibly they were inspiration for the legends of Apollo.

    I don’t believe in angels of UFO’s, per se, and certainly not in a physical body of a male God with a physical eye, BUT, I am open to evidence proving me wrong. I think about radio waves – here are these messages, signals – passing through the air, buildings, and my own body, that I only detect are there if I have the right equipment to recognize and tune them in. Could there be ghosts/angels/alien visitors, what-have you, that some people have the right “equipment” to see? Perhaps.

    But like you, I’m content to see cats.

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