October 11th, 2013
|03:33 pm - ON ANGELS|
(behind the cut, bigger photos)
Concerning the nature of angels, an interesting debate unfolded among philosophers and theologians of Late Antiquity. Some argued that, like humans, they have physical bodies. Others maintained that angels are purely spiritual or immaterial.
The first view has found its counterpart in visual representations portraying them as possessing not only heads, torsos, arms, and legs but also even navels. A strange approach, indeed. For if angels exist at all, then either they are eternal or everlasting, in which case they have never come into being, or else they are brought into existence ex nihilo, by the direct divine act of the Creator. One way or another, surely they are not born from other beings, they are not flesh of other flesh. So, why would they have navels?
Then again, the greatest artist of High Renaissance, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 - 1564), follows the very same convention in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where the very first human, Adam, is portrayed with a navel. Interestingly enough, angels and even the God Father himself are endowed with navels, too.
The view that has eventually prevailed implies, however, something else; namely, that no matter how we might choose to represent angels, these images are but visual metaphors rather than real simulacra. For, in reality, angels are pure spirits, disembodied intellects, the bundles of mental energy not attached to anything physical. This leads, however, to some interesting problems. For if they have no physical bodies at all, and thus have no senses, then how can angels see, hear, feel, smell, or taste? How do they perceive the world? How can they relate to us? What is this thing mediating between their surroundings and their subjectivity? If not senses and sensations, what anchors them to the reality?
In Wim Wender's movie, “The Wings of Desire”, Peter Falk credited as playing “himself” but reality being… well, let us not yet reveal too much. In “The Wings of Desire” angels "see" the world in black and white, an illuminating poetic device curiously eschewed in the “City of Angels”, a loose American remake starring Nicholas Cage. To me, it is this first sip of hot coffee, a gentle kiss of breeze on my neck, a crimson dawn as sensuous as her lips, feeling the taut strings of a stunt kite tugging on my arms, holding her hands, a dance late into night, an aroma of her hair, this magical moment right before our lips meet, a soft alabaster of her skin under my touch, falling in love. To them, it is but a set of highly abstract mathematical equations and complex geometrical figures. We surely feel their calm soothing love but, some days, what we really need is passion. And passion is what their love lacks.
In turn, maybe sometimes angels need our passion, too. For, thinking about it, can we truly flourish if we are but disembodied minds? Don't we need pain to develop empathy and compassion? Can we build up fortitude and courage without overcoming obstacles and fear? But angels lack all of this. Their senses are dormant if existent at all, they agape-love is dispassionate. Thus, perhaps, something about them needs to thaw and open up, too, so they can transcend their sophisticated yet sterile mathematical ideas and ethical imperatives, awaken their senses, and open and use their hearts rather than just their intellects. Maybe, to be truly happy, they have to learn how to feel and not just how to reason. Perhaps that’s the only way to transcend the world of black-and-white.
Sometimes angels climb up high towers of churches and hang out on roofs of the tallest buildings as if waiting for the gift of a dawn, as if trying to catch the last rays of the setting sun. I do not know what they expect to see and feel. But it looks like something is missing in their lives and some sadness pervades their existence. For there is always a price to be paid for not having senses. No matter how high they climb, no matter how high they fly, they always miss out on this blue indigo red orange golden yellow wind we feel on our faces.
Sometimes angels fall.
They fall in love.
When an angel falls, I tell you, it’s not a small matter. Angels fall badly and deeply. Interesting things happen then, like thunders and lightning, sometimes even a rain and then a double rainbow. Some of the angels’ parts fall, too. That is, they fall off and then fall, for example their wings. Also, they lose all of their accessories, starting with their armor and shield and ending with their clothes and underwear. It ain't all bad, really. If you are clever and not just mathematically inclined, I mean, if you can see beyond the world of pure algebra into the world of supply and demand, if you have some street smarts, you may realize that your armor and shield are nice commodities that can fetch you a hefty lump of cash. Not a bad start on a new path to becoming fully human.
When angels fall, not only do they lose their armor, clothes and all the rest, they also take on human bodies. Now they have to learn everything from scratch including how to control parts that even for a mature human being are so darn hard to control. At first even their best efforts fall short, are humorous, sometimes even outright comical. They stand out there completely naked in those brand new beautiful human bodies and it all really shows. They are like teenagers who cannot hide anything.
I still remember when, being a young and immature man, I was forced to pull myself through some moments of real awkwardness. And I was wearing clothes. Now, imagine a naked ex-angel facing the same predicament. For the first time in his life he has been burnt by the sun, or bitten by a mosquito, or his tummy tells him something but he has not the slightest clue what it is, except that it hurts. Up to this moment no sensations at all but now his body is aching and itching. It's got to be seriously frustrating, yes?
Some of them, those who are really wise, understand why they have fallen, the whole process of falling, and what comes next. They take it slow and easy as if it is a Sunday morning, they taste the waters. They may even have a premonition that it is but the beginning of a long process and that the best is still to come. But some of them, those who are less fortunate, are pretty confused, freak out, run away and splash against the walls they used to be able to penetrate at will in their immaterial angelic “bodies”. After all, they are not angels any more, now they are made of physical stuff and, trust me, physical bodies sometimes really, really hurt. For them nothing is easy. They need to learn fast how to take good care of their new endowment.
Fortunately, fallen angels have really good looks; it is one of the perks of being an angel in a previous life. They are Peter Falk kind of good looking, when he was young, or Nicolas Cage kind of good looking. I mean it in a very sincere flattering way; I am not envious about such things. Good looks frequently help. Just imagine that someone whom you deeply and passionately love sees you completely naked and you have no control at all over what happens to your body. Fortunately, you have a choice to look like a Nicolas Cage or like a Rush Limbaugh. I surely know what I would prefer. But I digress. What I am trying to say is merely that a transition from being an angel to being a human is difficult and that it definitely feels weird, especially to an angel. That's all.
Now, according to the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures we have been migrating in the Grand Circle of Life and Death, driven by our own karma accumulated since time immemorial. Thus, at one time or another, each of us is reborn in this or another form: sometimes as a human, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a hungry or thirsty ghost, sometimes as a being suffering in one of many hells, and sometimes as some kind of celestial or divine being. What drives us around the circle are various dispositions, desires, and cravings, especially anger, greed, and ignorance. But no matter what obstacles we may encounter, no matter what we are inclined to do, it is ultimately up to us to respond to it. And, fortunately, we can use our free will to choose our response. Yes, sometimes we yield to our anger and cravings and attachments and are reborn in less than auspicious conditions. But, ultimately, each of us has an ability to resist whatever temptations we have and to choose freely the path of wisdom-compassion.
I do not know how much of this story is true. But I do not rule out that, right now and here, I simultaneously occupy all planes of existence depicted in the myth of the Circle of Life and Death. That is, perhaps, I am both a human and an animal, both a ghost preoccupied by hunger and thirst and a heavenly being preoccupied by pleasure, both a demon suffering in hell and an angel enjoying the joys of celestial existence. Maybe the ultimate meaning of this myth is that, all of the time, various realms of existence coexist and coalesce in each and every one of us.
Be it as it may, the fact is that most of us do not remember our previous lives and especially not when we were angels. I surely do not. Maybe I have never been an angel, never have fallen, always been just a bear, or a wolf, or a ghost, or a hungry spirit, or a human, or something, I don't know. The fact is that, if I could, I would definitely give up my wings for the smells and tastes of a fresh apple pie baked by my Girl. Even better, how about a slice of home-baked sour dough bread served with peanut batter, toasted sesame seeds, and fresh ripe strawberries? Can there be anything more divine? Also, if I could make a breakfast and coffee for her, served them in bed, why would I worry about an armor or a shield? Provided we can lift a wing-shaped rainbow colored kite up to the sky, would we need any other wings to fly? And I would also gladly trade an ability to understand the proof of Fermat's last theorem and other sophisticated mathematical equations for another opportunity to see and feel and take fully in the hues of sun emerging from the ocean.
Then, again, dropping one's wings, armor, and especially shield comes with some risks. Sure, there is no such thing as a bad dawn, especially if it involves waking up with the Girl in my arms. Sure, there is nothing better than a long lingering cuddle lasting late into a lazy hazy morning. And how about a freshly brewed cup of cappuccino served in bed with a hope for another dawn, and another breakfast, and another long lasting lingering kiss and embrace? But, let us be clear about it, too, nor is there such thing as a free lunch.
"The Six Ways" (or "The Six Realms of Existence"), by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827); translated by Robert Haas:
Bright autumn moon --
pond snails crying
in the saucepan
The Hungry Ghosts
Flowers scattering --
the water we thirst for
far off, in the mist
In the falling of petals --
they see no Buddha
In the shadow of blossoms,
voice against voice,
We humans --
among the blossoming flowers
The Heaven Dwellers
A hazy day --
even the gods
must feel listless
A hazy dawn or not --
I am so grateful
to be born a man
Your story--and I'm sure Wender's too--is very different, and absolutely lovely, and no one would think you were copying Tolstoy. I think minds do work similarly. I like the variations on the theme.
I knew you'd love the Tolstoy. It's a work that means so much to me. It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.
oh, I know, I did not mean copying and no one would think so. I meant the whole theme of / take on the nakedness. I borrowed it from Wender and, sure, added some personal touch to it. WW is very lighthearted about it. I tried to be even more humorous.
If you did not see "The Wings..." I very strongly recommend it. I saw it several times and always loved it.
I'm tearing up quite a bit now reading Tolstoy. I always loved Tolstoy and his gentle heart. Very deep influence on me. I think it is because of Leo (and Gandhi, and Mahayana Buddhism) that I am now a vegan (my previous story, October 02, is about it).
Again, thank you so much for your encouragement and also for the link to Tolstoy.