“Give your angels charge over those who sleep.”
– The Book of Common Prayer.
By Tish Harrison Warren
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 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.
A Crowded Cosmos. Most of us who are educated into even mild sophistication – including Christians – proceed as if God is distant, as if the world is ours to control. 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.”
I cannot even imagine living with this view of the universe, where you can spin around on an average day and bump into a thousand angels. 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.
We Christians can be tempted to make our faith less enchanted. We try to prop it up with respectability. If we do not embrace an enchanted cosmos, we miss the fullness of reality, the fullness of God, and we will never fully embrace the mystery of our own lives.
“Give your angels …” 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. This nighttime prayer calls us back to the supernatural.
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 – intelligent, well-adjusted, sane people – 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.
We are discipled by nearly every impulse of our culture to believe that the here-and-now is all there is; that the only hope offered for us is found in what we can taste, smell, feel, and see. To believe in something beyond the material world we have to take up practices that form our imaginations – and hearts and minds – in light of the resurrection, in light of the possibility that, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”
An enchanted universe. The universe has never been anything less than enchanted. We may cease to wonder at mysteries beyond our reach, but that doesn’t diminish them one whit. The cosmos doesn’t need our validation. It is we who have been impoverished.
And yet we can never quite shake the sense that maybe – just maybe – there is more. We wonder if our ordinary lives are part of something unseen and holy, a grander story in which we might take our place.
The unseen is part of our experience of human vulnerability. We don’t just feel vulnerable because we face loss, sickness, or death. We feel cosmically vulnerable. We feel our smallness in a vast universe. We sense that maybe there are forces of evil and good in the world that can’t ever be proven or disproven under a microscope. We suspect on some deep-down level that there is more teeming in this vast ocean of reality than any of us imagine.
On a dark night, when thunder roars and branches sway maniacally against our windows, my children are comforted when I tell them, “I’m here, you are not alone,” because they trust me and love me. But the same idea can be the nightmarish twist of a horror film – “the call is coming from inside the house.” Sensing that the world is crowded with mystery is a gift or a terror, depending on whether unseen things can be trusted or not.
Prayer calls us into supernatural reality. And it also teaches us the nature of the God who governs both what is seen and unseen, the maker of aardvarks, angels, and who-knows-what-else.
While we sleep. We go to sleep each night in our ordinary beds in our ordinary homes in our ordinary lives. And we go to sleep 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.
We are all helpless when we sleep. No matter how important our job is, no matter how impressive we may be, in order to live we all have to turn off and be unconscious for about a third of our lives.
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 can wake up in a new world of loss that we could not have imagined the night before.
Sleep reminds us of our helplessness. Asleep, we have nothing to commend us; we accomplish nothing to put on our resume. Because of this, sleep is a counter-formative practice that reminds us that our assurance is not the sum of our productivity, prowess, or power.
Or even in our ability 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. When we go to sleep, we get as close as we who are alive and healthy come to the helplessness of death. And we do it every night.
God designed the universe – and our bodies themselves – so that each day we must face the fact that we are not the stars on center stage. We are not the primary protagonist of the earth – or even of our own lives. Each night the revolution of planets, the activity of angels, and the work of God in the world goes on just fine without us.
There is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. There’s a mad, mad world to tour, and we don’t bear its weight on our shoulders. We are limited people, and there is more mystery in our own brains and bedrooms than we could ever pin down. And so we lay down and sleep each night knowing we aren’t left alone.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practics in Everyday Life. This essay is taken from Prayer in the Night. Copyright © 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by lnterVarsity Press. Downers Grove. IL. www.ivpress.com.