I keep seeing an image from a fairy tale: the handless maiden, moving through the dark forest, following the light cast by an angel. She’s leaving home again. A few years before, she left her parents, her arms tied behind her back. She could have stayed at home, dependent on her parents for wealth and security. But it wasn’t wealth she wanted. She wanted to be with compassionate people who would embrace her in spite of her disability, and perhaps teach her to embrace her own. Eventually, she found her way to a king who married her and made her a prosthesis: a pair of silver hands.
Now she’s leaving the king, the castle, her beloved mother-in-law, and all her loved ones. Once again, she’s headed into the dark wood, going by faith alone. I met her there, and, filtering her thoughts through my heart and mind, I wrote a poem.
The path is difficult
and I am heart-stung
again, and bitten
by old bugs. Briars
tear the clothes I made
with such care, and my
mind is drawn into old fevers.
Yet there is a light in the woods.
The darkened mind
would have me think
and follow another
path to success
yet angels whisper
where they are hardly heard
and I listen
under the roar of
my stung heart
I wish to be an angel
I wish to regenerate.
The handless maiden is in a tough spot. The devil is after her again. The king is away, at war. A few days ago, her mother-in-law took her aside and said: “The devil has led your husband to believe that your son is a monster. The baby is not safe. You must leave before he returns.” She tied the infant boy to his mother’s back, packed some provisions, and sent her off into the dark forest. The two silver hands, made for her by the king, swing underneath her pack, clanging in the air.
An angel appears on the path ahead. The handless maiden follows the illumined figure to a cottage, deep in the woods, where a strange sign over the door reads: “Here All Dwell Free.”
It’s a simple house, as I see it. A few rooms, a few beds, and a kitchen with a hearth. It is lit, all around, by a quiet circle of light. The vegetables in the garden have grown luscious in that luminous field, the tomatoes hang heavy on the bending vine, and the squash and pumpkins swell under their leafy umbrellas. Here, I feel that all the words spoken, all the songs sung, even by the birds, deepen the Quiet.
When she steps over the threshold, the angel who lit the dark forest is now just a middle-aged woman, dressed in blue flax and a white apron. She unties the infant boy from his mother’s back. He is looking around him with his big brown eyes. They are glazed with wonder, weariness and hunger. Even though he is no more than six months old, his eyes have already seen too much. His mother, who has never been able to hold him in her arms, has named him Sorrowful.
I find this place very peaceful and open. Here there is space for all my questions and imaginings. How can we heal the wounds of the past that afflict the present and the future? Do angels walk among us? What does it mean to be an angel? Can we be angels too?
The other day a book began to shine on my shelves. Emanuel Swedenborg: Essential Readings, edited by Michael Stanley. Swedenborg was born on the 29th of January, 1688. He lived the first part of his life as an inventor and scientist, and then, at the age of 53, he began to dream and receive visions. They culminated in a spiritual awakening that led him to write books about the afterlife. He had the audacity, not only speak about angels but to speak with them, and his conversations challenged the Christian mythology of angels and the afterlife.
Swedenborg’s angels are advanced human beings. They have the experience of a thousand lifetimes. They remember what they have lived and learned, but they have relinquished all attachment to the past. Now, they serve the living, the wounded, and the dying. “…Their inmost joy,” writes Swedenborg, “is to transport into heaven someone rising from the dead.”
Through his visionary conversations with angels, Swedenborg gathered that the closer one gets to divine love, the more inspired one becomes. The more you love, the more you marvel; feel and create. His angels experience sorrow, especially over the pain caused by human ignorance, but they have become adept at letting the narrower, egocentric view go, and returning to the primary state of love. By this means, they renew themselves over and over again. It is no wonder that the handless maiden’s hands grow back during time she spends in the house of the angels. They continually practice self-restoration.
Sorrowful grows up in the cottage, and I find him Christ-like, this wise little boy. His mother has told him that his father does not live in the world, but in heaven. He doesn’t know his worldly father, but he is six years old now, and he’s starting to wonder about him.
I feel an urge to speak with him, to see him better.
He sits across from me at the wooden table by the hearth in the kitchen. It is very quiet, only the crackling and the occasional pop of the fire can be heard. The air is filled with the pure smell of bread fresh out of the oven.
I ask him: “Why do they call you ‘Sorrowful?’
He speaks in a high, thin voice. “Because I am in a state of sorrow and I don’t know how to move out if it. One day I will know how, when I am an angel.”
“Why are you in a state of sorrow?”
Because everything dies. I loved a flower once, but then it died. Another one came along but it was not the same. Why love at all,
when everything dies?”
“It’s a good question….”
He shifts in his chair. He’s been drawing something. “My father who lives in heaven doesn’t die. He lives forever. My mother tells me that when I die, I will return to him, and then I will live forever, too. But the angels don’t say that.”
“No. They tell me that I have a worldly father. They say that he is a man like every other man. I don’t believe I have a father in this world, but if I did, I wouldn’t want to love him.”
“Because he will die.”
“But surely you love your mother and she will die.”
“My mother won’t die.”
“Does she tell you that?”
“Do the angels tell you that?”
“So how do you know she won’t die?”
“Because nobody can harm her, not even the devil. She will live forever because she’s not afraid, and her love is stronger than death.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Yes I am sure, and it is my mother’s love I want to know one day. I want my love to be stronger than death. Then, when things die, my love won’t die with them.”
“Would that make you an angel?”
“Don’t you need wings?”
“No, you just need to have a love that is stronger than death.”
“Would you be changed in some way?”
“Only in the dark. Then you become a light. See, it looks like this.”
He shows me a picture of himself, in the dark, his outlines completely lost in the light, his limbs like a star.
I keep seeing that star in my mind’s eye. I don’t want to let it out of my sight.
Artwork by Edward Burne-Jones and Eleanor Vere Boyle