The guardian angels have flown off, who used to sit on our right shoulder or walk invisibly a step ahead, keeping us from falling into ditches and temptation. They have disappeared into the ether, tired of being ignored. Maybe they’ve become extinct, due to habitat loss in the hearts of humans. Or perhaps they have simply retreated, like a threatened bird species, to places where they feel safe, such as the bottom of the ocean, or another planet altogether.
In this fractious age I long for the company of my personal angel, assigned to me by God at birth, even though I haven’t felt his presence since I was in pigtails. I remember one summer, out in the fields with friends from my grandparents’ village. An apartment-dwelling city kid, I stand hesitating at the edge of a creek as the others jump across. One of the girls advises, “say a prayer to your guardian angel and you won’t fall in.” How can I ever recover that trust?
But I don’t only want my own angel back. I want guardian angels for members of Congress of both parties, for everybody in the White House, and for the nine Supreme Court justices. I want guardian angels for doctors and nurses and nurses’ aides, and mothers and fathers, teachers, border-crossing refugees, police officers, farmers, and pet owners. I want guardian angels for animals wild and domestic, and for forests and houseplants and vegetable gardens.
How can we get them back? The ancient Greeks left jars of milk and honey at the local spring to make sure its naiad would keep the water flowing through the summer. But how do you lure an angel? Some kind of nectar comes to mind, like the sugar water one puts out to attract hummingbirds. But angels being pure spirits, food won’t do the trick. What about angel decoys? If putting out a duck statue causes ducks to come plunging out of the sky, we could maybe attract angels by becoming angelic ourselves. But that is too much like pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, which are feeling pretty frayed these days. Maybe the desire for an angel’s return might be enough, since that is all that is in our power to offer, just as the simple desire for union with God is said to be the most efficacious kind of prayer.
In the meantime, I’m making an effort to pay attention to the possible hidden presence of angels in my midst. For example, I’m wondering about the wood thrush that sings its heart out all evening long in the maple tree behind our cottage. I have never heard a thrush sing so close, or so loudly and persistently, night after night. It gives me goosebumps, the way he harmonizes with himself (he does this by controlling the two branches of his syrinx, or voice-box, independently). When he pauses between songs, other thrushes answer him in the woods beyond.
The song of the thrush sounds unlike any other music on earth, and more like what I imagine to be the music of the spheres, coming from somewhere out in the universe, piercing and liquid and sweet. Or maybe it’s the voice of an angel—angels in the Bible were notorious for adopting disguises—warbling endlessly at me, saying something like: Pay attention! Don’t think so much. We’re all around you. We never left.
If a state of total alertness combined with total delight is what being in the presence of a heavenly being feels like, then it may well be that the singer in the maple tree and his fellows in the woods beyond are in fact the angels that we thought were gone.