The 1987 movie Wings of Desire is about angels. These invisible, immortal beings move among the unsuspecting populace, hearing their thoughts and comforting those in distress. It is set in a Berlin which though 30 years old resembles most big cities today: throngs of distracted cosmopolitans are constantly rubbing elbows but everyone feels isolated and estranged. This was before smart phones! One angel falls in love with a human, a lonely trapeze artist, and chooses to become a man himself to enjoy food and other sensory pleasures. He craves the genuine if limited existence in the world, and takes a body to experience human love. They unite in the end, and when they meet it's as if they've always known each other. Their romance is continued in the sequel Faraway, So Close! Both movies are now cult classics. The film didn't impress me when I saw it in my early twenties. I couldn't get past the subtitles. But the notion of angels in our midst did stick. And I'm not alone.
In a not so recent Time Magazine poll, the majority of Americans, or nearly 70%, believe in angels. The poll was for an article published in 1993, which I remember reading as though it were only yesterday. Now you may think that the fact of our living in a predominantly Christian culture would explain our cherubic predisposition. Because eighty-three percent of Americans identify as Christians. But over half of Christians are Protestants, and though angels feature prominantly in the Bible, Protestantism excludes these lightsome spirits. By contrast, the other major world religions, Judaism, Islam, as well as Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, affirm the existence of angels. Winged features even appear in depictions by ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Assyrians.
It is believed that medieval theologians conjured angels to reconcile an inaccessible God with fallible humankind. That to bridge the gap between the mortal and eternal and cope with fear of death and eternal damnation, winged spirits were created to ease man's arduous journey from the here to the hereafter. And you can understand the modern appeal. Underlying so much calamity, war, disease, drugs, sorrow and fear is the belief in a force more potent than any earthly power to provide what we all yearn for in our hearts: peace. Aren't superheroes modern angels? Like angels, they are superior minds freed from the frailty and limitations of perishable bodies. Like aliens, they are a form of extra-cosmic intelligence. In place of wings, they have capes. Angels are believed to assume bodies as needed to carry out a task, which usually involves rescuing a person in distress or helping us cope with fears. Angels are said to disguise themselves as a dream, a comforting presence, a pulse of energy, or a person, to get their message across. As one author claims, angels give people only as much information as we can bear, and in a form that we can bear it. In moments of heightened awareness, as occurs when everyday life gets disrupted by a fear or obstacle, angelic experiences occur more frequently. Angels help us not escape hardship but to better cope with it.
The hierarchy of angels based upon the work of 5th century thinker Dionysius includes nine choirs and recognizable entitites like cherubim and seraphim. There are angel experts who will tell you that each of us has a guardian angel. These wise, loving and largely ignored beings offer help whether we ask for it or not. Of course to solve the problems of Earth we will have to do it ourselves, with or without supernatural guidance. In this spirit, some therapists take it a step further and invite their patients to get in touch with their inner angel. This is frowned upon by traditional church leaders who accuse these angel psychotherapists of trafficking in discount spirituality, but the fact is that humans can only invent what we have lying dormant in ourselves, what we are. Is it too much of a stretch to say that you are a guardian, and me? Or that we can be?
There are four levels of consciousness. The demonic, the animal, the human and the divine. The demonic seeks to harm others for the pleasure of seeing people suffer. The quintessential demon was Lucifer. It should be remembered that Satan himself was once an angel. Animals exist for the gratification of the senses. They eat, sleep, breed and defend their territory. Sound like anyone you know? If like me you spent a part of your college experience in a fraternity, then probably. Humans are characterized by conditional love. We love our significant other for what he can do for us, how he makes us look or feel. But divine love, the love angels have for us, is universal in scope and unconditional in nature. Angels love just because. It is an outflowing of their essence.
All too often humans descend into the bestial. Sensory gratification dominates our lives. But we can also elevate our love to touch the sky. We can become angels on Earth. Every time you lend a helping hand, or a shoulder, or a compassionate ear, you are playing guardian angel to some mortal in distress/angel-to-be. You too are the stuff of stardust. Just leave the cape at home. Wings are overrated anyway. You can learn to fly without them.