A small light feather on a path at Walsingham. ‘Did you know that it’s said they are messages from a dead relative?’ a friend, recently bereaved, asked. I didn’t know that, and it seemed a rather curious belief. I had to agree with my friend’s comment ‘I’d hope for a little more of a message than a feather.’
Reflecting later on this I remembered a story I heard long ago, in which small angel feathers fall from a passing angel and people realise the closeness of the angels and another world intersecting with theirs.
I love the Feast of St Michael and All Angels (29th September). I trained initially as a scientist and like many other scientists the more I studied the more aware I became of the wonder and ever growing nature of the universe. The Feast of Michaelmass reminds me of the many dimensions of creation, and the possibility of beings within these dimensions intersecting with ours. Newman speaks of angels as those “who are among us, though unseen, ever serving God joyfully on earth as well as in heaven.”
A recent article discussing chaplains in the trenches of the First World War tells of soldiers relating how they had seen angelic beings at times of fear and distress. Emma Heathcote-James in her book Seeing Angels, based on her Ph D thesis, describes her academic study, and persuasively shows how people of different backgrounds, education and culture, reported having seen angels.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6. 1-3)
This visionary passage from Isaiah invites us to be open to the possibility of angels around us as we worship. In worship, and especially at Mass, we become sensitive to new realities, spiritual realms, we ‘lift up our hearts.’ The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst wrote a lovely essay ‘How to see an angel’ in which he suggests that as we worship we do so ‘with angels and archangels’ and perhaps at the heart of the Mass, as we focus on worship, we may get a glimpse of an angel worshipping with us. A beautiful thought.
The feather on the path could then be, not so much a message, as a reminder that there are ‘more things in heaven and earth,’ and an encouragement to see and engage with the closeness and vastness of God’s kingdom.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!