THE ANGELS’ APPRENTICE, HLC
Why is Scripture in the Episcopal liturgy for 9/30/18 like a Norse folk tale?
Ask Dr. Matt Miller, BA, MA, PhD!
Apprentice Angels and Guardian Angel Training
On September 30, 2018, the texts assigned in the Episcopal liturgy (Proper 21) describe an Apprentice Angel Program, with God the leader of the Guardian Angels, and ourselves plainly marked as Apprentices learning Guardian Angel behavior from those Angels led by God. This general picture is amplified by hymn or prayer texts added to the Readings.
In the opening Processional Hymn (WLP 819, Guide my feet, Lord), the parishioners sing, Guide my feet Lord … Hold my hand Lord … Stand by me Lord, while I run this race … ‘cause I don’t want to run this race in vain. The implication is clear: without Divine aid, our lives will fail. We can’t do it alone. Each parishioner, in singing this hymn, asks God to be his or her Guardian Angel in life.
We are not surprised to learn, in the first Reading, that God does act as a Guardian Angel. In the text, Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 and 24-29, the Israelites in the desert get tired of eating manna and wish they had meat. They complain to Moses and Moses complains to the Lord. The Lord tells Moses to gather seventy Israeli elders at the tent of meeting. Moses does so, and Then the Lord came down in a cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Moses is delighted, and says, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"
In this reading, we see the Lord has a protective spirit he can impart to others, which will give them the powers of angels. This makes them strong enough to carry on with nothing to eat but manna. They are able to rise above their animal appetites. He can make us like the Angels if our faith does not waver.
Psalm 19:7-11 summarizes the Guardian Angel role neatly. Guardian Angels follow perfect laws that revive the soul and make the heart rejoice. They speak words of wisdom that clarify these laws to us, and for following these laws we will receive a great reward.
But an even deeper lesson awaits: that we can and indeed should be Guardian Angels for each other. We learn this in the second Reading of Proper 21, James 5:13-20, which says we can be Guardian Angels for each other by praying for others, and bringing them back from moral wandering. This idea is further developed in Hymn 545, Lo! What a Cloud of Witnesses, where we learn that we should imitate these exalted dead souls and Jesus, by being Guardian Angels for others. This Hymn text says those souls who imitate Him now will be rewarded after they die.
Thomas a Kempis in the 15th century wrote The Imitation of Christ. There he reports long conversations he had with Jesus, in which Jesus explained to him exactly how to follow His path in our own lives. Being “an Apprentice Angel” is what he called the imitatio Christi, or Imitation of Christ.
In the Gospel Reading, Mark 9:38-50, we learn that trying to be a Guardian Angel will bring anyone closer to Jesus, whether they are Christian or not. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”
He goes on to say no stumbling block should be put before people acting out the Guardian Angel role, even if they are not His followers. Here Jesus views Guardian Angel behavior as so primary that it will bring anyone closer to Him. Being an Apprentice Angel has the power to make true Christians of us all.
Proper 21 provides a review of the Guardian Angel role in Christianity, encouraging us to listen to the Lord’s counsel and obey it in this life, so that when we die we will be crowned in glory. And what is that counsel? That we should live like Guardian Angels in training.
So we see in Proper 21 a description of what makes a good Guardian Angel. We receive assurance that the Lord is the highest form of Guardian Angel. We are encouraged to imitate good souls and Jesus by acting like Guardian Angels for others, because trying to be a Guardian Angel will bring any soul closer to God. And we ask the Lord to be our Guardian Angel.
These texts describe an Apprentice Angel Program, with God the leader of the Guardian Angels, and ourselves plainly marked as Apprentices learning Guardian Angel behavior from those Angels led by God.
Apprentice Angels and “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon”
If God is really sponsoring an Apprentice Angel program within Christianity, might it not also be at work outside formal religion? Can we find a text outside the Bible that describes a hierarchy of spirits, helping us forwards? In a secular or worldly text, the pattern will not be stated directly, but implied or suggested by something that looks like a hierarchy of Angels.
A good example, taken from far outside Christian culture, is the traditional Norse folk tale, East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, in Olive Beaupré Miller’s The Book House, Vol. 7 (The Magic Garden), p. 31. Here there is no Supreme Being, no Jesus Christ – for the Vikings knew little of such things and cared less.
But we find the same idea that there is a hierarchy of spiritual wisdom, and the earnest seeker in good faith can work up that hierarchy to glory – just as we saw in Proper 21, where the good souls who have been Guardian Angels for others during their lifetimes lead us higher to Jesus, and Jesus leads us higher to the Lord, the greatest of all Guardian Angels, master and architect of the Apprentice Angel Program.
In the Viking tale, the idea of a hierarchy of paranormal wisdom is represented when the modest and virtuous heroine follows up a tiny clue from the White Bear, that to free him in his Prince form she must find him in the castle that lies East of the sun and West of the moon. Heading in what might be the right direction, she comes upon a little old woman who is very kind to her, and gives her a golden apple with magic properties which turns out to be essential to finding the Prince.
Why does she do this? There is no reason, except that it will help the modest and virtuous maiden reach her goal. The little old woman is a Guardian Angel figure.
Two more old women give her places to sleep on her journey, and each gives her a precious, magical gift for no reason on earth except that they want to help. Why? The maiden is trying to rescue the Bear and return him to his human form, so she is also acting as a Guardian Angel. Because She is acting like a Guardian Angel, older and wiser Guardian Angels appear as little old women and give her magical assistance. Without their gifts she could not have succeeded.
The third little old woman sends her to the East Wind, who cannot blow that far, but takes her to his brother West Wind, who can blow farther – but still not that far, so he takes her to his brother the South Wind, who can blow almost that far – but not quite, so he takes her to the North Wind, who actually did once blow all the way to East of the sun and West of the moon, but was so puffed out when he got there he could hardly blow at all. The North Wind takes her there, and her gifts from the three old women get her inside the castle. None of these helpers ask payment from her – they help because she is trying to save the White Bear. Since she is being a Guardian Angel for the White Bear, they become Guardian Angels for her.
And, as you see, she works up a hierarchy of angelic helpers, each helper contributing a little more and sending her on to another who is more powerful still, until the North Wind is strong enough to take her where she needs to go if she is to rescue the White Bear. The architecture of the paranormal is much like that in Proper 21, where it seems the souls of the virtuous dead will help us if they can. If they cannot, they will lead us to Jesus, and Jesus will lead us to the Lord. But they are all guardian figures, and all angelic.
At the end of the story, she has used her magical gifts to find the Prince, but the Prince cannot be rescued unless she can get him out of the clutches of a witch woman and her gang of trolls, who put the spell on him in the first place. She brings a shirt with three spots of tallow on it that fell from her candle when she watched the White Bear sleeping.
He says he will marry the woman who can clean that shirt, and asks the witch and her trolls to try it. Again we work through three little old women, but this time they are wicked spirits. Each one, in trying to wash the shirt, makes it blacker and spreads the dirt around worse than the other two. So now we are descending the hierarchy through harmful spirits of increasing power – climbing down the other side of the hill we rose up to the North Wind.
When the virtuous maiden intervenes and shows she can wash the shirt clean without any trouble, the prince chooses her and repudiates the troll women and their witch leader. They fly at him in a fury – but the shirt-washing has delayed them until sunrise, and the first rays of the sun make them pop like bubbles before they can get back to the safety of the castle.
While this story is not Christian, it parallels ideas about higher beings that we saw in Proper 21. If we have good intentions, higher beings will step up to help us forward. If we have mischievous intentions, we will attract harmful spirits more interested in tripping us up.
And, in the end, we have to ask – if there is only one Supreme Being, one Godhead, then on some level, even without the counsel of Jesus, must not all spiritual people be aware of the same high God? I think we can believe, with Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, that all good service done in an evil spirit’s name goes nonetheless to strengthen good spirits – and all evil service done in a good spirit’s name goes nonetheless to strengthen evil spirits.
This means that magic little old ladies and wind spirits could not act like Guardian Angels if they were not serving the Lord. Witches and trolls could not refuse to act like Guardian Angels if they had not refused the Lord. The Lord is not deceived by names, for He can read hearts. Wherever one person does good service to another, two are gathered in his Name, for His Name is Love. And wherever two are gathered in His Name, there He is.
So when three ladies and four winds help the virtuous maiden, seven times Jesus is there, and smiles upon them. This is how the virtuous maiden finds her Prince. When the witch and her trolls bargain for the Prince, because she steps up as his Guardian Angel, Someone Else steps up and gives her the magic power to clean the shirt the others only make more dirty. She and the Prince are gathered in the name of love, and because they are gathered in the name of the Lord, He is there with them. And their reward is also the Lord, for it is the lifetime of Love they share.
The true Angels’ Apprentice learns that the teachings of Jesus permeate ordinary life everywhere. Again and again we find parallels to the message of the Bible in common story-telling. Unlike fine furniture that puts a showy veneer over a cheap base wood, ordinary story-telling puts a cheap veneer over the powerful message of Jesus, that we can win our way to the angel world some day, by acting like angels here and now.
The Angels’ Apprentice, HLC exists to help people make Guardian Angel choices in their relationships with all things. This blog will shadow the Readings for each Sunday in the Episcopalian liturgical year, with ordinary stories that teach the same lesson as the most recent Readings, about how to be a Guardian Angel and what good things may happen if you do.