For close to 15 years, I forgot about the existence of angels.
I didn’t exactly decide I no longer believed in them. I simply didn’t think about them, and if I ever did, it was a passing thought about how corny the depiction of angels usually is.
I rediscovered angels by putting a baby to sleep at night.
When my first child was a newborn, I realized one night, to my surprise, that without really noticing it, I had developed a habit of asking God to send his angels to protect her.
Back then I worked at Vanderbilt University and became a regular at a Greek Orthodox cafe and bookstore near campus. I loved its quiet beauty, its ancient books, and its veggie chili. I got to know Father Parthenios, an Antiochian priest, and his wife (known to all as simply “Presbytera,” or “priest’s wife”), who ran the place together. One afternoon, late in my pregnancy, Presbytera handed me an icon of an angel and told me it was for the new baby. I appreciated her kindness but wasn’t particularly spiritually moved. I’m a Protestant, after all. At the time I felt no particular skepticism toward icons or angels, but I didn’t feel a deep connection either. Still, I hung the tiny wooden icon on my daughter’s wall.
Months later, as I prayed for my daughter before laying her to sleep, I would point out the icon and ask that angels would be near and protect her. I don’t know what changed in my mind or heart. My only explanation is that the towering responsibility—and love and vulnerability—of motherhood opened my heart to ask for help wherever it could be found.
I keenly sensed my daughter’s smallness and fragility in this giant cosmos and knew that all the passion of my maternal love wasn’t enough to keep her safe. I was small and fragile too. And yet, in our ordinary house in the vast darkness of night, I believed I wasn’t alone.
The weird stuff
The Book of Common Prayer contains various prayers for Compline, the name for the church’s tradition of nighttime prayer. One offering includes the line “Give your angels charge over those who sleep.” This Compline prayer dares us to believe in a crowded cosmos.
As children of the Western Enlightenment, we have emptied the cosmos of supernatural life, as surely as industry emptied Cape Cod of cod. Our default now, however subconsciously, is to imagine the cosmos as an empty sea on which we drift alone. It’s not full of enchantment, not teeming with mysteries, and certainly not crawling with angels.
But this was not always the case. The historic church imagined a universe jam-packed with angels, and ancient Christian leaders talk about angels a lot—more, frankly, than I am comfortable with. Thomas Aquinas called them “intellectual creatures” or “incorporeal creatures.” In the fifth century, Dionysius the Areopagite wrote, “Angels number a thousand times a thousand, ten thousand times ten thousand … so numerous indeed are the blessed armies of transcendent intelligent beings that they surpass the fragile and limited realm of our physical numbers.” Hilary of Poitiers wrote that “everything that seems empty is filled with the angels of God, and there is no place that is not inhabited by them as they go about their ministry.”
What was assumed for centuries—that the universe is buzzing with divine life—is something I have to stretch to believe. Yet my ambivalence about angels is not due to reason. It stems from a failure of my imagination, an imagination formed by a disenchanted view of the world—the empty ocean of the cosmos.
Believing in the supernatural can frankly be a little embarrassing in my urban circles. Angels? Like the cheesy figurines lining your aunt’s bookshelves? It wasn’t that I rejected a belief in angels so much as that they were drained of reality. They had become silly, sentimentalized into parody.
We Christians can be tempted to make our faith less enchanted. We try to prop it up with respectability. But the fact is, we still believe in a lot of weird stuff. If we do not embrace an enchanted cosmos—the weird stuff—we miss the fullness of reality, the fullness of God, and we will never fully embrace the mystery of our own lives. To endure mystery, we must learn to surf the teeming waves of wonder.
A doorway into the supernatural
Night is a time when we hear the whispers of a crowded cosmos and wonder about hidden spiritual realities. Our imaginations run wild with possibilities—every culture on earth is filled with stories of ghosts and other spirits that appear in the night. When we pray, in the Compline tradition, for angelic aid, we brush against the uncomfortable reality of a universe beyond what we can see, measure, or control.
Prayer itself, in any form, dares us to interact with a world beyond the material realm, a world filled with more mysteries than we can talk about in urbane company. In one sense, prayer is completely ordinary. It’s common and daily. And yet it’s a doorway into supernatural reality. Gussy prayer up as a moment of silence or wrap it round with scripted and beautiful words, but still, in a culture that imagines the world in only three dimensions, prayer is inevitably and blessedly undignified.
When I became a priest at a local church, supernatural phenomena became unavoidable. It’s common for parishioners to approach a pastor on our staff asking for help with an unexplainable spiritual encounter. Physicians, professors, and businesspeople—by all accounts intelligent and well-adjusted—ask if we could maybe come pray at their home because they think they saw a demon or had some other unexplainable experience. Eventually priests learn to respond to the supernatural like plumbers respond to a call about a clogged drain. It’s part of the job.
But it wasn’t ultimately being a pastor or any odd experiences that led me to a deeper belief in the supernatural. It was prayer.
Prayer expands our imagination about the nature of reality. And it often precedes belief. Most popular understandings of prayer get this backwards. We think of prayer as mostly self-expressive—as a way to put words to our inner life. But prayer actually shapes our inner life. And if we pray the prayers we’ve been given, regardless of how we feel about them or God at the time, we sometimes find, to our surprise, that they teach us how to believe.
This is especially the case in times of suffering and sorrow. In times of deep pain in my own life, the belief of the church has carried me. When we confess the creeds in worship, we don’t say, “I believe in God the Father …” Instead we confess, “We believe …” Belief isn’t a feeling inside of us, but an external reality into which we enter. When we find our faith faltering, sometimes all we can do is fall on the faith of the saints.
The Scriptures, the songs, the sacraments, and the prayers of the church give us a lifeline in pain. When we want to know God but are too weak to walk, these practices carry us.
An act of surrender
What I most love about praying for God’s angelic protection at night is that it pulls together supernatural cosmic strangeness and the most quotidian of human activities: sleeping.
We sleep each night in our ordinary beds in our ordinary homes in our ordinary lives. And we do so in a universe filled to the brim with mystery and wonder. We always sleep in a crowded room in our crowded cosmos, so we ask for crazy things—that God send unimaginable supernatural beings to watch over us as we drool on our pillows.
Every day, whether we like it or not, we must enter into vulnerability in order to sleep. We can be harmed. We can be robbed. We are at the mercy of those around us, and at the mercy of the night.
Sleep reminds us of how helpless we are, even merely to stay alive. In the Christian tradition, sleep has always been seen as a way we practice death. Both Jesus and Paul talk about death as a kind of sleep. Our nightly descent into unconsciousness is a daily memento mori, a reminder of our creatureliness, our limitations, and our weakness.
But of course our bodies and brains are not inactive in sleep. A whole world of activity happens inside our heads. We dream. We fight illness. We form, sort, and strengthen memories from our days. Scientists tell us that learning actually depends on our sleep. Information that we take in during the day is subconsciously repeated in our brains so that we can absorb it.
And crucially, all of this happens without our knowledge, consent, or control. Our bodies require us to loosen our grip on self-sufficiency and power if we are to thrive. Both physically and spiritually, then, we must be willing to embrace vulnerability if we are to learn or grow at all.
Each night, the revolution of planets, the activity of angels, and the work of God goes on just fine without us. For the Christian, sleep is an act of surrender—and a declaration of trust.
The ergonomics of salvation
Several years ago, my father had a massive heart attack on a cruise ship. My brother, sister, and I got a message from our mom letting us know, but for a day or so we couldn’t get any more information. Finally we got through to the ship’s doctor and found out that Dad was going to be medically disembarked and transferred to a hospital in South America. But first, the ship had to sail all night to make it to shore.
I remember lying in bed that night, thinking of my dad and mom rocking back and forth on a ship in the middle of the ocean. I knew I could not save them, visit them, or even call them. There was nothing I could do to make the ship move any faster. And with such a keen sense of my own powerlessness, I fell asleep quickly—like a child who knows it’s not her job to run the New York Stock Exchange since she can barely manage her times tables.
Like practices of prayer, the practice of sleep helps us rest in God’s care in moments of utter frailty, when we have no promise of how or when morning will come. This is the ergonomics of salvation, the way we learn to walk in a world of darkness.
There is more mystery in our brains and bedrooms than we could ever pin down. And so we lie down and sleep each night knowing we aren’t left alone.
Taken from Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright © 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
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