[Note: In preparation for our Thanksgiving get-together this year, my mother-in-law asked all of the extended family members (of a capable age) to write a short story describing one day with a superpower of their choice. I did not entirely follow the directions, but this is what came to me. It’s a foolish and wordy ramble, so read at your own risk.]
Emily Dickinson poem 1544:
Who has not found the Heaven — below —
Will fail of it above —
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove —
“You wish to have super power for a day?” asked my guardian angel. He dropped the indefinite article, doubtless in an effort to make sense of my request, and he had the same tone that I would use if one of my children asked for permission to wash the dirty dishes.
“Yes, that’s right,” I replied. “Just for a day.” In my dream, I did want a superpower, and I was too careless to correct my angel’s missing indefinite article. A super power would not normally make it onto my wishlist. However, you must keep in mind that I was sound asleep and dreaming. Therefore, there was no real accounting for my request.
In hindsight, my angel clearly had no concept of what “a superpower” meant. He had corrected my request in his mind to “super power” because he understood each of those words in their clear and straightforward metaphysical senses: “super” simply meant “higher” or “more enduring” while “power” simply meant “more fully able to realize its true intent or telos.” My own telos, as a human, was to perceive and enjoy God and to render thanksgiving back to God for His goodness and for the goodness of everything within God’s creation. My angel understood me to be asking for a day with a more enduring and properly functional existence, i.e. being able to know and perform all that I was intended to know and perform. In summary, my angel thought that I was asking to have a glorified body for a day, the kind of body that we were made for and that each of us will possess after the general resurrection.
If I’d been awake, I not only would not have asked for a superpower, but I probably would have realized that this concept would be misunderstood by my angel without a careful explanation. Guardian angels—although they are intimately and immediately present with us from our conception to our death—don’t actually experience most of what we experience, and they don’t watch most of the movies that their humans watch. Instead, our guardian angels are focused exclusively on giving praise and thanks to God for his continual mercy and grace to their beloved humans. Whenever we are engaged in an activity that we actually recognize and enjoy as a gift from God in a fairly complete way (a very rare experience for most of us humans), then our angels do share our conscious experiences because we are actually doing that which we were created to do. When we function properly, we join our angels in their constant task of bringing thanks and praise to God. In fact, when fully functional, we take a leading role that our angels delight to support. Guardian angels look forward to these fleeting instances as moments of sheer bliss. As a guardian angel assigned to a particular human from the dawn of time, they hear the unique timbre of our particular modes of enjoying God as something like sounds that they were created specifically to hear and to participate in with their own voices.
Most of the time, however, our angels hear very little from us, and they simply do battle with the demons who are continually tormenting us. This battle does not look like what we might expect. By singing praises to God for the beauty of all that God made us to be, our angels are doing battle. While we are watching films about superpowers, our angels are glorifying God for the beauty and goodness displayed in every one of the unique qualities and giftings with which God designed us. Although this may not sound like “doing battle,” by giving glory to God for us, our angels confound the devils and imps that revel continually in our distraction from God.
Generally, this happens without much strife or effort on the part of our angel, but occasionally the conflict over the health and direction of our souls gets heavier, and our angel actively engages with the enemy by gently speaking to us directly. Out of deep respect for us, our angels will only discourse with us in the quietest and most elemental ways. They whisper truths to us about how beautifully and uniquely God has made us. They breathe of God’s love and desire to commune with us. They let us know what a marvel it is to them how God came as Jesus Christ to be united with us, becoming one of us and inheriting Mary’s entire humanity. They sing with quiet trembling of Jesus going even to the point of becoming our sin and joining us within death itself before rising from the grave to ascend and to seat our humanity upon the throne of God. They grow most hushed and referent when they encourage us to listen for the voice of God’s own Spirit who lives with all of God’s children until the end of time but whose gentle, reasoned voice we are almost always too frantic to hear. At only the rarest times, will they appear to us or give us direct and open help.
With all that they have to do, I was hardly surprised that my guardian angel didn’t have any real grasp of pop culture trends or blockbuster movies that would allow him to understand my request for a superpower. Only very infrequently, holy women or men who have come close to dwelling within the ceaseless realm of prayer will watch something like a superpower movie while continuing in their steady communion with God. In these cases, a few angels do get to know something about the modern popular notion of superheroes and superpowers. However, even this knowledge would hardly be recognizable to most of us, and it is mixed with elements of sorrow that would at first be disorienting to most of us. Honestly, because most humans so rarely connect even their highest joys with a sense of gratitude to their Creator at any conscious level, most angels have not ever had any opportunity to learn anything about even the most sublime points within the artistic and literary classics.
This explanation of my angel’s mistake has been a long digression, and it is high time that I got back to what happened. My angel followed up by saying, “Do you realize that this will be very difficult for you to bear within the current state of things in this world?”
Not feeling any need to wonder why my angel would say this (at least while I was still dreaming), I simply said, “Yes, that’s fine.”
My dream did not last much longer. As I slowly woke to the morning light and to the sound of a car door closing outside on the street, I heard my angel say: “This will afflict you for only a day. I earnestly desire that you may find wisdom and encouragement in this experience that you have requested from me.”
As I awoke fully, a myriad of voices seemed to be singing a beautiful but heartbreaking song. It began to overwhelm my mind, and I ask Elizabeth, “Can you hear some kind of singing?”
She answered a little testily, “What? No. If you don’t start your shower quickly, you’ll get Nessa late for school.”
Making my way slowly to collect my towel, stepping into the dark bathroom and closing the door behind me before turning on the light, I continued to hear voices from all around me. Their songs were in words that I half-understood although without being able to put their words into words of my own. They were like long ballads, telling stories of obscured beauties and broken joys. I thought of Entish in which every name tells an entire story. Turning on the water and stepping in, I found the sound was only a small part of how the world was now going to make itself known to me. Water, I’ve heard, carries memories within it from the dawn of time. These memories were not consciously present to my mind, but the warm water flowing over my shoulders carried an uncanny sense of having washed over a thousand other surfaces: shoulders of slaves as the rain fell upon them in the fields, rocks over which the melting snow coursed in rivulets, breaking waves casting spray across the sea’s surface. In the flow of this water, my back felt an ancient kinship, a oneness even, with the soil, stone and flesh of a thousand years and more. This was both a comfort and a grief. Washed in this water, I waited with numberless particulars of creation for something like a recompense or a restoration. Perhaps the best I can say is that I felt as if I was united to all of these middle lines of Hopkin’s great poem:
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
After dressing myself, trying all the time to accept all of the new sensations and sounds as something normal, I somehow I made it through a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. Eating and drinking, however, was even more intense than the shower had been. My cereal and milk carried with it, into my very gut, the full histories of sun in fields, the cold steel of dark machines in hot processing plants, long sojourns in and out of transit and storage facilities from a disorienting array of disparate locations across the globe. I had the sense that unprocessed foods from nearby fields might leave me feeling alive to the soil under my feet, but this meal left me feeling that my core was somehow torn apart and rooted simultaneously within in a dozen or more far-flung places throughout the world.
Finally, I opened our front door and stepped outside to get into my car for the drive to work. This turned out to be almost insufferably disorienting in ways that are profoundly hard to know how to describe. First of all, the outdoors was utterly and astoundingly alive in a way that I can only turn to George MacDonald for any help in describing. Secondly, within the context of this living world into which I had stepped, I somehow had the feeling that I was facing an excruciating tourture as I climbed into my car. Enmeshed as I was within the living world that held me transfixed at my doorstep, I could not comprehend what it would mean to be carried alone at high speeds in a box of steel and glass, powered by the concentrated combustion of fossil fuels along roadways of concrete and asphalt.
To try to express what I was experiencing, I must turn to the one master who, alone out of everyone that I have read, has made such a concerted effort to put into words a description of how creation is actually constituted. This passage from George MacDonald’s Lilith describes a man who is alive within a kind of Eden. C.S. Lewis can only imitate this master within all of his most lyric passages describing a fully alive presence within God’s world: think of the creation story with The Magician’s Nephew, the account of climbing “further up and further in” within the restored Narnia at the end of The Last Battle or of those in The Great Divorce who stumble off the bus into the meadows on the outskirts of heaven. All of these accounts, however, describe mankind in touch with a creation that is rejoicing. In contrast, I found myself in a profound living communion with an Eden held hostage, oppressed and tortured. Still, I have no better way to introduce you to this sensation than to turn to MacDonald, asking you only to convert, within your own mind, all of the notes of ecstasy and bliss into notes of loss, suffering and intense longing for a departed glory. Although I was wore shoes and was in downtown York, PA rather than a pastoral setting such as this, the world still reached out to me in this same way. Just as the protagonist does within this passage, I stepped out into the early morning half-light:
A wondrous change had passed upon the world—or was it not rather that a change more marvellous had taken place in us? Without light enough in the sky or the air to reveal anything, every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes. Nothing cast a shadow; all things interchanged a little light. Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony! I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is! Sense after sense, hitherto asleep, awoke in me—sense after sense indescribable, because no correspondent words, no likenesses or imaginations exist, wherewithal to describe them. Full indeed—yet ever expanding, ever making room to receive—was the conscious being where things kept entering by so many open doors! When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.
Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was! I lived, and nothing could touch my life!
As I said, imagine all this but within the context that Paul describes in Romans 8:19-22:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
I stood on my doorstep on North Newberry Street and felt that the trees growing along the sidewalk (which I had stopped to enjoy many times over the last seven years) had suddenly entered “the hall of my being” where they had taken up a lament for my lack of tending and attention. I felt that all the plants and stones of the whole morning around me—from the bushes of Farquhar Park to the grasses beside the railroad track—longed with a painful hunger to have my care and particular consideration, longed to share their individual joys with my own joy in a mingled dance of restored fellowship.
Out of all this longing, I had to extract myself and climb in behind the steering wheel of my car. I’ve read that medical professionals used to think that they human body could not survive speeds over 75 mph. With the invention of trains, automobiles, airplanes and rockets, we have roared past that threshold ten times over. However, there may be a truth, still, to this intuition. Our bodies can, in some superficial sense, prove immune to such speeds, but we may not realize what damage is done to our souls. Driving in my box of metal and glass past a thousand fields and forests as well as a dozen streams, creeks and rivers—all of them calling to me as a son of God who belonged potentially to each of them as an instance of paradise itself—I arrived at my office utterly pummeled by the sad grandeur of a fallen world desperate for communion and perpetually rushed past in an astounding disregard of particular places as so many individual manifestations of Eden.
Sitting down to my computer in a windowless office without so much as a potted plant, I had some relief. Slowly my mind cleared a little from the vivid sounds and images of life as well as the deep calls of ancient hillsides and rushing waters all dancing perpetually with arms and voices outstretched to me. In contrast, my office had the stillness of a tomb. It was not completely silent, for I could tell as I leafed through books or even scrolled past information on my computer screen that the words and images there were not entirely dead. Once or twice, I read a sentence or two out loud and found that the sound brought more than just audible vibrations into vivid reality around me. I could tell that human speech and art and architecture would all be alive in their own ways with meanings and stories reaching deep into the lives of others. Nonetheless, alone and looking mostly at columns of numbers and technical formatting codes, I was able to isolate myself from all of this with relative ease, and I could almost forget my glorified body.
A couple of hours into this blessedly quiet work, my phone rang, and I picked up the receiver to hear the first human voice since that of my wife, Elizabeth, telling me to hurry up and shower so that I would not get our children late for school. On the phone was a mother and her son interested in homeschooling resources such as local co-ops, curriculum or online courses. The mother had recently taken her ninth grade son out of school because he was wanted to slow down and perhaps find some more like-minded friends after the unexpected death of his older sister. She had been a junior, just two years ahead of him. Both children had attended a small Christian classical school together and were very close. When they had to move recently because of their father’s work, the two children had decided to attend a large public high school together. It had been going well, but the two of them were a help to each other. Now with his sister’s death, the young man wanted to adjust his schedule, allowing time to grieve. He also hoped to find some friends who could better understand his loss at his sister’s death.
Hearing their story, I began to share some of their pain. I slowed down a little to listen and to consider what help I could offer. Putting the name of their town and state into my computer, I found that there was a large active co-op not far from them. Hearing of the young man’s love for literature, I also recommended that they consider an online course in poetry that we would be offering soon. I gave them the name and number of the principal of our online program so that they could contact her to learn more. We were close to concluding our conversation when the young man shared a few lines that he particularly loved from “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton:
For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
This recalled a line from a book that I had recently read, and I picked the book up, wishing that I could somehow point out the passage to him through the phone. Taking up George MacDonald’s Lilith, I put my fingers on the lines: “Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. …None but God hates evil and understands it.” As my fingers moved over the lines, preparing to read them over the phone, I found that I was no longer sitting in my office chair but was seated at a table in a dining room that I had never seen. I was seated, book in hand, beside the young man and his mother with whom I had been speaking over the phone.
This was rather disconcerting to all three of us, even an embarrassing invasion of both our privacy in some strange sense. We looked at each other awkwardly, they knew that I must be the person with whom they had just been nearing the end of a meaningful phone call, and I could think of nothing to say in our uncomfortable silence.
Finally, I said, “I’m so sorry. This is very rude. I wanted to show you this line in this book and suddenly I found myself here with you at your table. I honestly have no idea what has happened.”
Both of them were quite gracious to me and could tell that I was as confused and at a loss as they were themselves. Before long, I found myself sharing my dream with them from the night before along with a brief account of the entire wild and somewhat painful day that I was having, evidently possessed of a glorified body. To my relief, they were neither incredulous nor awkwardly impressed by my account. They both seemed to take it at face value and clearly felt a kind of straightforward compassion for my strange predicament. The young man suggested, rather practically, that if I could just desire something back in my office, I would be likely to find myself back there. He theorized that this was one of the abilities possessed by my glorified body and suggested that I give it a try, this time intentionally rather than accidentally. I thank him for this suggestion, and we said our goodbyes. However, it turned out to be slightly difficult to think of something in my office that could kindel the kind of desire that was sufficient to transport me their. I love my work and take real joy in it. However, sitting at the table with this mother and son, I found myself trying in vain to conjure a particularly strong desire for any specific object within my office. They laughed with me at my situation as I described my office to them, and we tried to think of what I might focus upon in my thoughts.
Finally, the young man suggested that perhaps it was not simply a desire for just any object that could transport my glorified body from place to place. As we considered this together, the mother pointed out that Christ in the gospel accounts always seemed to arrive somewhere in order to be with specific people for a particular purpose. I broadened my thinking beyond my little office then to other offices and to my co-workers, continuing in my thoughts until I came next to my wife and children. Still, my glorified body remained fixed, rather normally, in my chair at the dining room table of my new-found friends. Continuing to chat with me patiently and matter-of-factly about my predicament, we joked about me needing to take a train or plane back to my home. Then the young man asked me a question, “What would you most like to share with someone else right now? If you could say something or show something to anyone in the world right now, what would it be?”
I thought for a moment and said: “I would like to take a walk with my family near our home along Willis Run. I would like to eat a simple lunch with them along the rail trail where Willis Run empties into the Codorus Creek while I am still in this glorified body so that I can chat with them about what the world is like when your full humanity is restored, when you are no longer dead but alive. I want to walk slowly, rest often and finish this strange day quietly with them, listening and sharing all that I can share.”
My two friends smiled, and the mother said, “Your visit with us has been such a blessing to us in our recent loss and sorrow. My son must be right. Say something to your wife or to one of your children, and I think you will find yourself with them.”
With a look of thankyou, I picked up my book. Then, almost closing my eyes, I said, “Elizabeth, can we pick the kids up early from school and pack a picnic lunch to eat together?” As I looked up again, I was seated in a rocking chair in my own kitchen, and I was looking into the rather astonished face of my dear wife.
We did end up walking slowly together for the rest of that day, picking the kids up from school and making our way to the creekside with a simple meal to share. Along with listening as I related any tidbits that I could put into words from the songs and stories and shimmering lights that surround us, everyone took turns reading several favorite passages out loud from several of our favorite books. I could hear these familiar stories as realities almost like the creation surrounding us. As we chatted about these stories, everyone in the family could sense this closeness with the worlds of our beloved stories. As I tried to explain what the world was like through the senses of my glorified body, one passage that I shared was from “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” by C.S. Lewis. This was first delivered as a lecture in 1956 and then published posthumously in the 1966 collection of essays called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature:
We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.
As the day passed, Elizabeth and the children flattered me with a thousand questions. Some were about the flights of insects from flower to flower. Others were about the contours of hillsides shaped by mythic glaciers. Although we hardly moved at all, the entire world around us spoke volumes. As we enjoyed this strange holiday together, I tried to thank God ceaselessly in my heart so that my guardian angel might be able to share in some of my joy. Truth be told, however, even with a glorified body, communing with my Creator did not come naturally. I was lost in the goodness of His world and in the love of my family who were kind enough to stop everything and to experience a little of what it’s like to have super power for a day.