Today we move to chapter five, “The Angel”: Action, Failure and Suffering, in Parker Palmer’s The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. This chapter features a story by Martin Buber, “The Angel and the World’s Dominion.”
To preface this story, Palmer notes that Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher and what he writes come out of that perspective:
From the outset Jews have had to confront suffering and holocaust, to wrestle continually with the stark question, Why? In the midst of Jewish history, Hasidism arose as a mystical affirmation of the spark of light that is always found in the heart of darkness, a spark that can ignite human hope and action even in the deadliest of times. (79)
Here is Buber's story.
The Angel and the World’s Dominion
There was a time when the Will of the Lord, Whose hand has the power to create and destroy all things, unleashed an endless torrent of pain and sickness over the earth. The air grew heavy with the moisture of tears, and a dim exhalation of sighs clouded it over. Even the legions that surround God’s throne were not immune to the hovering sadness. One angel, in fact, was so deeply moved by the sufferings he saw below, that his soul grew quite restless. When he lifted his voice in song with the others, a note of perplexity sounded among the strains of pure faith; his thoughts rebelled and contended with the Lord. He could no longer understand why death and deprivation need serve as connecting links in the great Chain of Events. Then one day he felt to his horror that the eye of All-Being was piercing his own eye and uncovering the confusion in his heart. Pulling himself together, he came before the Lord, but when he tried to talk, his throat dried up. Nevertheless, the Lord called him by name and gently touched his lips. The angel began to speak. He begged God to place the administration of the Earth in his hands for a year's time, that he might lead it to an era of well-being. The angelic bands trembled at this audacity. But at that same moment Heaven grew bright with the radiance of God’s smile. He looked at the supplicant with great love, as He announced His agreement. When the angel stood up again, he too was shining.
And so a year of joy and sweetness visited the Earth. The shining angel poured the great profusion of his merciful heart over the most anguished of her children, on those who were benumbed and terrified by want. The groans of the sick and dying were no longer heard in the land. The angel’s companion in the steely armor, who only a short time before had been rushing and roaring through the air, stepped aside now, waiting peevishly with lowered sword, relieved of his official duties. The earth floated through a fecund sky that left her with the burden of new vegetation. When summer was at its height, people moved singing through the full, yellow fields; never had such abundance existed in the memory. At harvest time, it seemed likely that the walls would burst or the roofs fly off, if they were going to find room to store their crops.
Proud and contented, the shining angel basked in his own glory. For by the time the first snow of winter covered the valleys, and dominion over the earth reverted into God’s hands, he had parceled out such an enormous bounty that the people of the earth would surely be enjoying his gifts for many years to come.
But one cold day, late in the year, a multitude of voices rose heavenwards in a great cry of anguish. Frightened by the sound, the angel journeyed down to the Earth and, dressed as a pilgrim, entered the first house along the way. The people there, having threshed the grain and ground it into flour, had then started baking bread—but, alas, when they took the bread out of the oven, it fell to pieces, and the pieces were unpalatable; they filled the mouth with a disgusting taste, like clay. And this was precisely what the Angel found in the second house and in the third and everywhere that he set foot. People were lying on the floor, tearing their hair and cursing the King of the World, who had deceived their miserable hearts with His false blessing.
The angel flew away and collapsed at his Master's feet. “Lord,” he cried, “help me to understand where my power and judgment were lacking.”
Then God raised his voice and spoke: Behold a truth which is known to me, and only to me from the beginning of time, a truth too deep and dreadful for your delicate, generous hands, my sweet apprentice —it is this, that the Earth must be nourished with putrefaction and covered with shadows that its seeds may bring forth — and it is this, that souls must be made fertile with flood and sorrow, that through them the Great Work may be born.” (79-81)
Where Angels Fear to Tread
So was the angel caring and compassionate, or full of arrogance? Palmer believes he was both:
Our action is often a mixture of ego and innocence, and we will not become whole until we can embrace that simple fact. If we wait for purity of motive, we will never act, or our action will be immaterial. If we abandon hope for a ‘second innocence,’ our action will merely multiply cynicism. (82)
Our most constructive impulse is often accompanied by a destructive impulse, made all the more destructive by the fact that we usually remain oblivious to this sinister energy within us. (82)
This duality was present in the angel, as it is with us. But Palmer reminds us that the angel is not the same at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. If we will embrace the presence of this tension we can grow to greater wisdom as the angel did.
Some see the angel motivated by compassion at the start of the story but Palmer does not. Compassion means being with another. But the angel’s “… relation to that suffering was both visual and vertical: he saw it rather than touched it, and he kept himself above it rather than entering into it.” (83) Only at the end of the story is he motivated by the horror to “journey down to earth” to understand what has happened.
And here is the rub. “What we usually learn, once we are there, is that there is no “fix” for the person who suffers, only the slow and painful process of walking through the suffering to whatever lies on the other side.” (84) Our attempts at “fixing” things is really an effort to distance ourselves from the pain of others.
If you take my advice, and do it right, you will get well and I will be off the hook. But if you do not follow my advice, or do not follow it properly, I am off the hook nonetheless: I have done the best I could, and your continued suffering is clearly your fault. (85)
Meaningful action requires coming close to the others with compassion.
The Healing Power of Failure
Key to the angel’s transformation is his willingness to enter into his failure, to understand it and learn from it. He does not run away from it and minimize it. Palmer tells a wonderful story about a wealthy white suburban congregation yoked with an urban black congregation. After three years of making money and skills available, nothing meaningful was happening for the black congregation. The white congregation asked Palmer to do a sociological analysis to help them “fix the problem.” Palmer writes:
… In fact, I did not view the situation as a problem to be solved. I suggested that in a congregation as wealthy as theirs, among people with so much power, the one kind of poverty that they could experience was the poverty of being unable to achieve the results they wanted. Their frustration with their sister church was, perhaps as close as they would ever get to the daily poverty of inner city blacks who can achieve so few of their cherished goals. (88)
Only by thoroughly embracing failure can we grow in understanding. Palmer concludes this section with this observation:
Rather than holding his [the angel] failure at arm’s length and trying to move on, he entered fully into the pain of it and sought help from the only source left. That is all we can do when we fail so miserably – but if we do it, it is enough. (90)
What Kind of God is This?
Palmer notes that many people are put off by the characterization of God in the story. God seems to be in total control and yet allows seemingly unnecessary cruelty. If God knew how the story would end, why did God not tell the angel?
Palmer counters that the angel did know something of the truth from the start. The problem was that the angel “could no longer understand why death and deprivation need serve as connecting links in the great Chain of Events.”
… The problem from the beginning is that the angel knew the truth but “could no longer understand” it. That is, he refused to accept what he already knew.
Some of us do a lot of that, I think. We know things that we do not want to accept, and so we act as if we do not know them – until our actions and their outcomes force us to acknowledge what we already knew. … (91)
… We are often ready to receive a false blessing no matter what the eventual cost; it takes unusual maturity to turn down. … (91-92)
So Buber’s God might be acquitted of irresponsibility on at least two counts. One, God gave the angel freedom, even to mess up. Two, even if God had reminded the angel at the outset that life demands suffering, the angel still would have tried to circumvent that truth. But those understandings of God do not go deep enough. The truth about God in this story – and, I believe, about God in our lives – is far more radical and unsettling: God is in this mess with us and has the same unfulfilled yearnings that make our human hearts ache. (92)
I have no doubt many will find this controversial. Personally, I think there is an angle from which this must be true. If God has created beings with whom he desires a loving relationship, then those beings must be able to freely chose to love God (or not). God can still be sovereign with confidence that God’s love will prevail and still be open-ended in honoring our freedom to choose, in including us as co-creative partners of the new reality to which God is calling us.
Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Vines do not bear fruit. Branches do. It is through his community that Christ makes himself known. Paul says that we are the body, the physical presence, of Christ. Again, it is through Christ’s community that God is made known. In the Buber story, it is God who awakens something in the angel to take creative action, not God acting independently or God sending an automaton to execute instructions. “… God in this story is a trusting and risking parent who gives the child the power and freedom to live his or her life to the fullest, no matter what.” (94)
A Great Work to be Born
In the final section Palmer writes:
On one level, the lesson God has to teach is simply the truth about nature itself: Seeds do not grow if they are not “nourished with decay.” That is what composting and fertilizing are all about. By ridding earth of decay for a year, the angel destroyed the conditions that allow true grain to grow, and the result was grain that could not nourish people once it was made into bread. This law of nature, God tells the angel, is the law of human nature as well. Decay and shadow, flood and sorrow, must fertilize souls as well as seeds if the fruit of our inner life is to nourish us and others.
But God’s teaching has a more immediate, less abstract, meaning. With it, God is trying to help the angel understand the very process that God and the angel are going through. The Great Work is the work the angel is engaged in – the work of developing compassion by suffering the fires of failure. God is engaged in this Great Work with us, continually expanding the scope of God’s own compassion and experiencing the failures of love. (95)
With all this being true, there is hope that somehow this inescapable reality can be escaped. Enter the vision of a messiah. God does enter into our circumstances to overcome this reality, not over and against us, but with and through us. It is a process of sanctification, of learning to become ever more compassionate.
What parts of the story resonate with you? Which parts trouble you? Why?
Can you recall you times when you or others sought to achieve great works only to end in great disappointment, even horror? How have those experiences shaped you?
What do you think of how Palmer frames God? What encourages you or troubles you about seeing God in this way?