Thursday, August 05, 2010

Peter and the Fallen Angels

One of the customs our community inherited from the Founder's seminary days is that of dedicating the first week of the month to particular devotions: Sunday obviously gets pride of place, going beyond “devotions” to the Blessed Trinity, and Friday and Saturday area already “assigned” by Catholic devotional tradition. That leaves Monday-Thursday. Today being the first Thursday, we look especially to the Holy Angels.
Looking toward this, I found myself yesterday reflecting on the mystery of the fall of the angels. We find just a hint of it in today's Gospel, with Jesus' surprisingly sharp words to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are not thinking as God does...”

Wasn't that the problem all along?

Spiritual writers (and Catholic tradition itself) usually speak of God subjecting the angels to a “test.” Just today I read from Blessed Columba Marmion, “It is necessary that here below, such a creature [rational and free] be on trial before God, and that it renounce, freely, its own gratification so as to recognize God's sovereignty and obey his law. The holiness and justice of God require this homage.”
I find the language more juridical than theological, so I stayed with this “problem” a bit. What if there were an even more basic dimension to that first sin than “failing a test”? What if the whole issue came down to the mystery of love as a “sincere gift of self” (which is also the characteristic of Trinitarian life)? To “enter into the joy of your Lord” a creature would necessarily have to be conformed to the Lord, be like the Lord in what constitutes joy for Him. Otherwise, the joy of the Lord would be no joy to the creature, any more than my sharing a favorite Bach cantata would be a delight to Sr. Helena, a jazz aficionado.

Of course, it is something more foundational than superficial enjoyment we're talking about here. When Jesus told us that someone who seeks himself (or seeks his own life) will lose it, and the one who loses his life “for my sake” will find it, he was not telling us of an arbitrary law: this is the nature of life. So what if the “test” of the angels was really an opportunity of love and adoration that some of the angels rejected, thus choosing an existence characterized by self-seeking (which cannot lead to happiness)?

I imagine that God and the angels, his first creatures, could have enjoyed millennia of paradise together in the angelic equivalent of Eden. What if then, as they were “walking in the garden at the breezy time of day,” God floated the idea (with God, as good as done) of creating a material cosmos, and angel-like (free, rational, relational) creatures made from its very dust, so that he could take on a body like theirs and walk among them, too? (According to the Fathers of the Church, the fall of the angels was related somehow to the mystery of the Incarnation.)
The very proposal was, for each angel, an occasion to marvel at what was, truly, a revelation made to them, a gift of divine self-disclosure, and so an offer of a deeper relationship with God.
Some (and tradition suggests that they were not the majority) received the Gift in serene surrender and adoration, and were surprised at the overwhelming increase of grace and glory they experienced as the Heaven of Heavens opened up before them. Their response was itself a “sincere gift of self” (angels have no other “self” to give than their intelligent freedom). But there were others who spurned the invitation, despising the very thought that the God of glory should be so insanely self-emptying. They turned away in disdainful refusal and set out on their own path. They would no longer walk with God, ever.

In a case like this, we have not so much a “test” (which could be misinterpreted in an arbitrary, jump-through-the-hoops manner) as an offer of love that, rejected, “proved” to be “for the rise and the fall of many.” (I don't know what it's like in other languages, but in Italian, the same word means both “test” and “proof.”)
And now we have Peter in today's Gospel. He enjoys communion with the Lord on a day to day basis, and this has just been confirmed: “Blessed are you, Simon, Son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Heavenly Father!” And so Jesus began to broaden that revelation to include the mystery of his suffering. We can also read into this his unspoken invitation, “Stay with me and keep watch with me.”

The gift of this revelation wasn't set up to be a test, but it turned out to be one when Peter couldn't bear to hear Jesus' shocking, dismaying prediction--and look whose side he ended up on! “Get behind me, Satan!” Those were the same words he used in dismissing the Tempter in the desert, who offered him all the kingdoms of the world—for the price of an act of worship. (How crazy is that: Satan wanted from Jesus the worship he himself withheld upon the very idea of the Son of God coming in flesh!)

I am beginning to suspect that we “fail the test” (no matter what the immediate circumstances) when we don't see it in terms of communion with God, but only see its implications for us.  

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