I will sheepishly admit the first few times I was called an \”angel\” in the course of my work, I probably internally basked in whatever glow was lingering from whatever situation I assisted in, but as I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser) the less I feel comfortable with that term used to describe me and others. Lets look at this closer; it\’s bigger than me not being able to accept a compliment graciously.
Technically, angels are beings of spirit that are not of our species and we don\’t become them ever, in life or death. \”Angel\” is also used in a broader sense as \”God\’s Messenger\” which any of us can be when we bring love and care into a situation where there was previously a void. I think that were all called to bring Divine love into many situations and the \”Corporal Works of Mercy\” are good places to start. The Church calls us all to serve and open the door to good works and even miracles (when God wills and allows natural law to be suspended) but the Church tells us to be \”saints\” not \”angels\”.
Recently I read a story about a woman who was in a committed relationship with a man in the military who was later injured and became a quadruple amputee. She was described as an \”angel\” in the article. I\’ve also seen articles about people who do other kind and selfless things being called \”angels\” and again, I squirm. Why does this make me so uncomfortable?
I think that we sometimes use terms like \”angel\” or \”hero\” to infer that others have some innately superhuman capacity that we don’t have (and may not want) because if we simply admit that someone (like the woman devoted to her injured beloved) is actually a really virtuous person then we have no excuse to not attempt to cultivate virtue in ourselves.
It might seem harmless to flatter people and consider them exceptional, but few of us get through life without serious challenges that require virtue to successfully navigate. If we consider the virtuous as “those other, better” people then we might give up one our own capacity to rise to the occasion when our strength is needed.
When I worked for a hospice, one of the most amazing parts of the job was watching the evolution of the caregivers who often went from \”I could never ever _____ even if my parent needed me to\” to \”this is really hard but I’m sort of doing it\” finally to \”it was really hard to care for my dying parent but I did it and I am proud of myself.\” Properly caring for the dying takes everybody working together, not just waiting for the “angel” hospice nurse to arrive. I’m friends with many hospice nurses — perinatal, pediatric, adult — and we are generally good and decent people with virtues, but we’re humans with goofiness and foibles like everyone else and we don’t want to be put on pedestals because we will inevitable fall off. We aren’t there to dazzle and rescue but to teach and support.
In my own life, when my mom was in a severe car crash that necessitated a helicopter ride to a Neuro/Trauma ICU and life support when she was unconscious, I was afraid and didn’t know what to do. I felt unprepared and uncertain of what was expected of me, and “angel” of a person sent to fix everything would have seemed ideal at that moment. I sent God a big and sweeping prayer for guidance and strength and suddenly felt a very small and specific answer (so sudden, small and specific was the answer I remember being stunned). “Wash her hair.” Well that was simple enough, so…I did.
She later said having her hair washed was her first memory after the crash.
There are people I observe in the world who demonstrate virtues that are weak in me. I recently accepted the hospitality and generosity of a couple who lent me their house for a professional retreat. If I owned that same house, I might let people stay, but not in my room; I would keep part of it just for me and tell myself that I was generous in sharing the rest. The night I stayed there, they were elsewhere and I ended up in their room (where they routinely allow others to stay). I finally mustered the courage to admit to myself that I was receiving something that I would not have been generous enough to offer another person. It would have been much more comfortable (and cowardly and evasive) to just tell myself that my host was an “angel”. It was much harder to admit that I was given a gift by a regular person who consistently cultivated in herself the virtue of generosity. Gulp.
My challenge to you (and for myself) is to be willing to see the virtue in others as an example and encouragement for what people can accomplish when we work at it. My faith and experience have taught me that this is best accomplished when we are humble in asking God for guidance but also committed and brave enough to take tentative uncomfortable steps in faith to the unknown and uncomfortable. The people we want to coin “angels” did that already. Don’t minimize their sacrifice and example by plopping a halo on them and moving on. Learn from them so we can become saints together.