I have always had this thing for fallen angels. Firstly, right off the bat: I admire them for when they still haven’t fallen, when their wings are still unfurled and erect and beautifully covered with crystalline courage, and when their brow is still knit with the studious exertion necessary to ascend to places where I dare not proceed, where I cannot follow, because I lack the perseverence, the enthusiasm, the vocation, to travel in their aerial path. But secondly, I have grown to admire them even more for when they step away from their trajectory, to interrupt their ascension into spheres of incorporeal self-abnegation. Once their bedraggled wings are folded, their spiritual pursuits are discontinued, and their next step is a vertiginous drop: they need to break away from lofty commitments, to tear away from the Church that placed them, and begin the long way down to a more earthly existence. This rupture, this fall from grace, in my opinion, takes even more courage and even more endurance than the flight up. They must be given credit for having wanted to be angels in the first place.
I’ve always known that I could never be among their number. Call me selfish, call me uninspired, call me afraid, but I’m satisfied to collect just a tiny number of souls around me and attend, or try to attend, to their spiritual needs. As for the rest of the world and the humanity it contains, it can take care of itself, or not, for all I care.
It takes a special type of person who aspires to assuage the cares of the world, to pull from the fray as many victims as they possibly can, to protect, defend, alleviate, console, encourage. Giving succor to strangers is indeed a weird enterprise, but some people are eager to give it a try. But there’s a trade-off: determined to relieve the suffering of others, they must leave themselves in second place, or perhaps even last, for angels don’t worry about the danger they might get themselves into, they just yearn to give of themselves to others. Who those others are, I know not how they are chosen, but I imagine that if you’ve advertised yourself as an angel, they come flocking to you. I understand how the promise of such a life attracts these kind and generous people, for being a man or woman of the cloth gives one purpose and satisfaction, although, again, I could never have chosen it for myself. Me, an angel? I’m hard pressed not to punch out the lights of those who annoy me. Turn the other cheek? My cheek is already too busy with my sarcastic tongue in it, with rasping deprecations following right behind.
But I do admire an aspiring angel. I have known some from afar, some from books, and one from up close who to this day inspires me on a personal level to do better, to be better, to see others better. He is no longer a priest, which is the church’s great loss. He joined a church that had but a couple of handsful of participants in Sunday mass, and in a year’s time raised it to where they were busting up to the rafters. Even I went to see him, and that’s saying something! It was on a day back in the 90s when my parents became the godparents of a man newly baptized, a man dying with AIDS, who could look forward to being part of the church for a few more weeks or months. For the half-hour the rite lasted, there reigned complete silence in the house of God, save for the muffled sniffle or the sob caught before it could leave the throat, as a thousand eyes looked on to one of the better-known and loved sacraments of the church, but which usually involves a tiny baby. In spite of the fact that this priest is no longer alligned with the church, to me he will forever be Father Michael, his deep humility permanently surrounded with the aureole of the noble and the holy. Nothing cynical about an ex-priest who still holds moral and spiritual influence, years after he left the priesthood, for even a miscreant (in religion, read sinner) recognizes the purity of soul of a true angel, who gives and sustains and ministers to others without asking for anything in return. Even a tired, old atheist like me recognizes it, and stands in awe of the angels’ colossal undertaking. Helping humankind is a sublime mission; humankind is redolent with conflict, selfishness, doubt, rancor, and a thousand other negative attributes, with very few positives, so trying to help it must be like subduing an enormous writhing snake to find out what’s wrong with it or what it wants.
On top of that magnificent, and terrifying, responsibility, the angel, in most cases, is also made to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Talk about hampering one’s life in order to give of oneself to others! But neglecting one’s intimacy with even one close friend means that you are even more available to the masses, 24/7, including Christmas; having nothing to possess liberates you to be concerned only about what others own, and own up to; knowing your place in an orchestrated hierarchy where orders come from the top and laws, however arbitrary or contrary to common sense, must be strictly followed, is exemplary in the dissemination of succor. Imagine, a pregnant woman who doesn’t want her baby has to be counseled in only a certain way, for even angels, or perhaps, especially angels, need to know protocol, toe the line of dogma, follow the rules. For an angel who has second doubts, or who entertains the possibility of bucking the laws, the next step is to become a fallen angel.
Oh, but the fallen angel is usually maligned, misconstrued and misunderstood! True, they’re all different. There are as many reasons for the angel to fall as there are angels: each interrogates himself differently, with wildly varying questions that he poses, and of course, with the corresponding divergent answers, if there are any answers at all. Some lose faith, which in the face of despicable and unworthy humanity is no surprise at all. After all, who can defend humanity for any length of time with any sort of sincerity at all? Some fall in love, with one real live person above all others, and, like any of us at any time, fall out of spirit, for, like Pascal said, the heart has its reasons that Reason itself is completely oblivious of. We can try our hardest to force our heart not to be a leader, but sometimes the heart leads us, in spite of us. How else do angels fall? Sometimes zeal wanes, and without zeal, religiosity is dead in the water. The zeal that sustains many angels and that keeps them looking for new ways to help others sometimes ebbs, leaving only frenzy. Religious fervor, especially in the light of the reality of humankind, is often not sustainable. Perversely, many find that those who supported them on their way up to angel status will turn on them as they fall, disparaging their lack of fortitude, which is of great irony, since those doing the vilifying never possessed the wherewithal to be angels themselves. I think it is this that bothers the laity the most: they hide their mediocrity from themselves by insulting those who have achieved some success in becoming angels, were it only for a while, which reminds one of a fat slob of a soccer fan imprecating a player for having missed the goal.
Nothing lasts forever, and even expert angels find it difficult to sustain the ardor and feed the spirit long enough to last their whole life through. We shouldn’t turn our backs on expat angels who could not perpetuate their passion forever. On the contrary, we should praise them like we do soldiers returning from the battlefield, and thank them for their devoted service, honor their care and worry while they carry on with life as best they can, and make sure that they suffer not from post-traumatic stress disorder which is what awaits anybody who works with humanity for any reason and for any period of time. They should receive a pension, even, but lacking that, they should at the very least get our eternal gratitude, for they gave a damn, and they gave themselves to others, with no thought as to what, in the long run, that cost could be.
But critics tend to just look at the fallen angels’ decision to step down from their service, and to neglect the entirety of that service, which sometimes lasted decades. To think that fallen angels have to contend with recriminations from those who have absolutely no right to judge, who pelt them with slurs usually meant for traitors, who accuse them of abandonment, who cast aspersions as to their sincerity while they were still priests and nuns, only adds to the difficulty they encounter when trying to step away. I say to these critics: let the fallen angel step away. If you want them to continue shouldering the responsibility of being in the service of God, why don’t you step up to replace them? Why judge them harshly for desiring a hiatus, or a cessation, of a task so arduous that you know you could not fulfill for a day? On the contrary, you should pray for them the way they prayed for you, you should now succor them they way they succored you, and allow them to come back to the ranks of the mere mortals. Many of them are spent, physically, emotionally, and to burden them with acrimony and guilt is so incompatible with the religion you are supposed to practice and to uphold. Instead of shunning them, keep them in your lives, for they have proven their worth, and some of their goodness might rub off on you.
What would Jesus do with Fallen Angels? He would have kind words for them, would see to it that they had a roof over their heads and food to eat, that they were treated by a society like the worthy heroes they are. He would be proud of their time in service, however long, or short, that was. Jesus would not treat them as deserters, for the Only One that was ever asked to pay the ultimate price was Himself, and no one else.