Let me say up front that I don't believe in the kind of angel that most of us have seen in that simplistic Victorian painting of the giant female angel gently and safely guiding two children over a dangerously shaky bridge. I just don't think the Good Book ever intended to convey that sort of mental picture -- mounds of blond hair and a wingspan the size of a house -- when imagining God's special secret-service agents.
One of the Gospels, in fact, describes an angel inside Christ's empty tomb simply as "a young man in a white robe." No gossamer wings, no flaming sword, no John Williams movie score to accompany the most significant event in the history of humankind. Just some guy in a robe, which makes it that much more believable.
Our own modern, suburban myths, too, tell of hitchhiking angels who, after warning us about dangers ahead, disappear from the backseats of cars. Though these stories seem to be closer to the truth, they can just as easily devolve into tall tales, such as when Pecos Bill created the Grand Canyon with his giant plow.
Angels, it seems, have gone the way of Santa Claus, who has been cosmetically de-evolutionized -- thanks in part to American author Clement C. Moore. Far from being a jolly, fat guy with a white beard and a red suit, the real Santa Claus was a lowly, pious bishop from Asia Minor by the name of Nicholas, a patron of ships and children.
Still, we need not fear setting aside the extraneous mythical decorum of otherwise truthful people or events, for nursery rhymes and fairy tales can be good for us all. The real thing, though more underscored and subtle, can be every bit as exciting and captivating as the girl with the spider-webs in her beehive hairdo, or Paul Bunyon and his blue ox, Babe.
Mother Teresa is, for instance, a true, living miracle if there ever was one. It's obviously far less of a stretch to picture her helping children across a rickety bridge than it is to maintain the belief that some Clairol-blonde is watching over them, and us, with all our best interests in mind.
The first angel I ever knowingly encountered was disguised as an old man. I still don't know what form angels actually take in their pure state. God, of course, must see them as they are, while we may unwittingly encounter them as strangers on a bus or the homeless person on the corner.
At least, that's what I've come to believe, ever since that breezy Saturday morning in 1961 when my grandma and her daughter, my aunt Heidi, came to visit for the weekend.
Heidi, my brother Randy, and I, all approximately the same age, went out on a search-and-seizure mission which took us down the back road leading to the store. That day was Grandma's birthday and, while she still slept, we quietly slipped out of the house to comb vacant lots for wildflowers.
Our intention was to present them to her, with grand, game-show flair -- a kind of gift-package extravaganza that included other homemade surprises we hoped would make her feel like Queen for the Day, a popular TV series at the time. Our plan quickly began to unravel, however, because it was still winter, and every vacant lot we came across contained nothing but the familiar terrain common to the area: a few rocks, and a flowerless weed or two.
We'd reluctantly given up and had turned to go home when we suddenly heard footsteps accompanied by a nondescript, whistled tune coming from the area we'd just abandoned. As we turned around, to our utter amazement, a tall, grey-haired, older man in khaki pants and a light blue cardigan, was casually walking away.
We were dumbstruck. The man seemed to have come out of nowhere.
"Where'd he come from?" whispered my brother, as though we were standing on hallowed ground.
"Let's follow him," Heidi murmured. But, almost unconsciously, we'd already taken the first few halting steps -- as if we were being compelled more than drawn by mere curiosity.
In the very next lot the stranger passed, our expectations were met. I think it was Heidi who spotted the wildflowers first, their rich golden petals bent slightly by the breeze -- just enough of them to make a generous bouquet. Until that moment, the lot had been no different than any of the dozens of others we'd passed earlier. The flowers seemed somehow foreign and out of place, and we laughed out loud at the wonderful strangeness of it all.
As we gathered them, I turned to acknowledge our elderly benefactor, but he was gone.
Maybe he was just an old guy from the neighborhood. Maybe the flowers had been there all along -- we'd just somehow missed them. Maybe, just maybe, there was no miracle after all. No answer to some ordinary children's unarticulated prayer for a few flowers to give to Grandma on her birthday. Maybe the whole thing was just an incredible set of coincidences.
I think all miracles have a big "maybe" attached to them. Not one can't be explained away. Often, miracles are deceptively ordinary. And we can easily miss them, just like the angels.
Still, I 'm convinced this one was genuine. It had the one ingredient I believe most wishful-thinking kinds of supposed miracles are missing: spontaneity.
For the truth is, none of us ever expected what happened to happen. We weren't looking for it in the least. And it didn't occur to us to conjure up something extraordinary or supernatural.
The whole amazing thing simply unfolded, and we were swept away in the powerfully subtle wonder of it all.
A long time ago, Jesus said, "Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Likewise, it seems to me, the faith of such children is a doorway to the miraculous, with a booth located just this side of the border. And there's an angel waiting in the booth, ready to lay an "L" ticket on all comers brave enough to experience the ride of their lives. You just might miss it, though, if you're looking for gossamer wings.
That angel's more likely to be wearing khaki pants and a cardigan.
This article originally appeared in The Door- November/December 1995. Copyright 1995, The Door. It now can also be seen on Catholicc Digest's web site at http://www.catholicdigest.org.
Reprinted with permission of the author and Youth Specialities.