Photo credit: Ismael Sanchez
Readings: Genesis 8:1-5, 13-19, Matthew 5:25-20, Heaven and Hell #533 (see below)
There is a story about Swedenborg that is beloved by his followers. It goes like this: A young girl who grew up in Swedenborg’s neighborhood kept asking him to show her an angel. So one day, he agreed, and took her inside his summer-house and placed her in front of a curtain. He said, “Now you shall see an angel,” and drew the curtain aside, revealing a mirror in which the girl could see her own reflection.(1)
This charming anecdote gets at the heart of Swedenborg’s optimistic and humane theology. He says many times during his works, all human beings are born for heaven. Yes, we have to make the conscious choice to follow that path, but it is nonetheless God’s intention for all of us. Contrast this with the vision of Jonathan Edwards, an American preacher of the same period, who preached a famous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” whereby he described each of us being as spiders held by a slender thread over the pit of hell by a wrathful God who abhors us, and that it is God’s hand alone that prevents our burning forever.
Certainly, Edwards must have imagined that the specter of such a fate would provoke a necessary anxiety in his listeners, so that they might surrender to God’s grace. Fear persuades. We know this not only from religion but from politics, advertising, and from our own lives. But fear can only take us so far. It can motivate external action, but it cannot create a heavenly internal, a heart built on the stuff of heaven: mutual love. Mutual love can only be embraced through the relinquishment of fear, of self-preservation, of resentment. We can only love when we make ourselves vulnerable, make ourselves empty of our presumptions, and trust in a God who desires our eternal happiness above all.
Swedenborg’s positive vision includes such a God, one that begins with the assumption of our belovedness, not our sinfulness. Of course, we must willingly step into this vision, put our skin in the game, but it is not so much a matter of doing particular things in a particular way, or believing in particular religious notions. But rather, it is about being committed to loving the truth, even when that truth indicates we need to change. It is about being devoted to learning how to love others, even if that means hearing what we don’t want to hear. It is about trusting that the faithful practice of self-relinquishment means that the vision of our true selfhood in that mirror will become ever clearer.
And so, we heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the ultimate simplicity and accessibility of the path to heaven. He writes similarly elsewhere:
…we can see that it is not as hard to follow the path to heaven as many people believe. The only difficulty is finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control, since they are the source of all our evils.
Oh really Swedenborg, is that the *only* difficulty? Finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control? Is that all we have to do? I am sarcastic in jest, of course, for he is right: the path is not complicated in principle. We do not have to belong to a specific religion, or a specific ethnicity, we do not have to perform specific rituals or believe counter-intuitive things. We just have to try our best to leave the world a better place for us being here. We just have to try our best to love each other as much as we can. We are born for this path, and God and all the angels in heaven are behind us as we make our way. We hear this reflected in Jesus’ words, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:30)
But just because the way to heaven is simple in principle doesn’t mean that the living of it is easy. It can sometimes feel pretty hard. There are many layers to this work of being a good person. There are depths to be plumbed. For example, we might find it easy to not be overtly racist, but it is much harder to face and eradicate learned unconscious racism, to accept our white privilege, or other privileges. We might find it easy to respect women in our family, but it much harder to publicly stand against misogyny in the workplace. We might find it easy to protect the earth by recycling, but much harder to divest from companies taking advantage of the earth. We might find it easy to give our heart to someone, but much harder to authentically apologize when we are wrong. There is always work that we can do to open our hearts, be more courageous, more loving, and more truthful.
Finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control. It is simple but its not small. It is straightforward but it is not easy. The work continues throughout our lives because the way to heaven is not a test, but a journey. The question is not so much “What do I need to do to become an angel?” The question is: “How free do I want to be?”
We heard in our reading about the moment that Noah and his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark. They had been set afloat and tossed around by the floodwaters for almost a year, and finally the waters had receded.
Going out of the ark' means freedom….The time that Noah spent in the ark, surrounded by flood water, symbolized being in captivity — that is, being tossed about by evil and falsity or, what amounts to the same thing, by the evil spirits who spark our spiritual battles….
The Lord's presence involves freedom; the one is a consequence of the other. The more present the Lord is, the freer we are. In other words, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act. That is the nature of the Lord's influence, coming by way of angels.
The world, our egos, have plenty to say about who we are and who we should be. The influences of hell piggyback on these messages we receive, intent on subjugating and dominating us, decreasing our sense of hope and possibility. We hear: you are not enough, you are too much, you need to look this way, own this thing, choose this product. We hear: you shouldn’t help them, it’s not your responsibility, it’s a hoax, it’s fake news, you should be very scared. We hear: you must control this, we must control them, own them, destroy them, get your way, get all the power, never apologize. We hear: your anxiety will prevent it, your disowning them will teach them, be small, be quiet, close your eyes, scroll your phone. And so we remain surrounded by the flood water, gulping for breath, splashed and sprayed and shivering, in an ark only three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high, when instead we could be living in the whole wide world.
The more we buy into what hell is selling us, the smaller and more cramped our world will be. But, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act. The more we love goodness and truth, the more we are brought into the influence of the Lord and the angels. We read further:
But once a person has been set free, that is, been regenerated, they are led by the Lord through angels so gently that no yoke or dominion exists at all, for they are being led by what is joyful and pleasing, they are being loved, and they are being shown respect.
The influence of hell means only to make us nothing, and out of that nothing to have us strike out, and plunder, and scream, so to fill a void that can never be filled, to make ever more minuscule a selfhood that knows it was made for love, and to make ever larger a selfhood that is captive to avarice and superiority and fear. This is a desperate search for freedom that has instead settled on a lack of restraint.
The influence of heaven, however, is not undergirded by domination but by love and respect. The irony is that hell would have us be nothing as an insult, to break us down, but heaven would have us be nothing so that there is room for us to learn how beloved we are. The more present the Lord is the freer we are.
Now it might not always feel that way. As we grapple with the complexities of our lives, as the good choice, the right choice, becomes less and less obvious in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world, we might well feel less free, more confused, increasingly ambivalent. This is of course, normal and reasonable. Freedom is not the same thing as decisiveness or clarity. Freedom is not the same thing as ease or flow. Freedom is simply about having the ability to choose who we will serve. Freedom is about letting God pull back the curtain from the mirror and seeing our reflection there, and then really believing that it is us, that it is our future, and our present. When we believe that this true, when we know that it is so, the stakes change. We are no longer trying to be good enough, but to live into what is already true about us, into what God has already ordained for us. And on this road, even our flaws and our mistakes become a pathway for learning, a way to embrace a blessed emptiness into which God pours a love that rebuilds us.
So, as we consider our own spiritual journeys, as we consider our final theme for our angel series, “Becoming an Angel,” we might also consider this quote attributed to novelist Paulo Coelho.
Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.
We are all meant to be angels. And, unbecoming everything that isn’t really us, is really hard work. A lot of the things that aren’t really us, well, they really feel like they are. It will be difficult to let go. But who you were meant to be…you were meant to be an angel. In God’s past-present-future eyes, you are one. In each moment, now and forever, God is inviting us to come out of the ark, and into the sunshine.
Genesis 8:1-5, 13-19
1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 2 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. 3 The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.
13 By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” 18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Heaven and Hell #533
We can now see that it is not so hard to lead the life of heaven as people think, because it is simply a matter of recognizing, when something attractive comes up that we know is dishonest or unfair, that this is not to be done because it is against the divine commandments. If we get used to thinking like this, and from this familiarity form a habit, then we are gradually united to heaven. To the extent that we are united to heaven, the higher levels of our minds are opened, and to the extent that they are opened, we see what is dishonest and unfair; and to the extent that we see this, these qualities can be dispelled. For no evil can be banished until it has been seen. This is a state we can enter because of our freedom, since everyone is free to think in this way. However, once the process has started, the Lord works his wonders within us, and causes us not only to see evils but to refuse them and eventually to turn away from them. This is the meaning of the Lord's words, "My yoke is easy and my burden light" (Matt 5:30).
It is important to realize, though, that the difficulty of thinking like this and also of resisting evils increases to the extent that we deliberately do evil things - in fact, to that extent we become used to doing them until ultimately we no longer see them. Then we come to love them and to excuse them to gratify our love and to rationalize them with all kinds of self-deceptions and call them permissible and good. This happens, though, to people who in early adulthood plunge into all kinds of evil without restraint and at the same time at heart reject everything divine.