Wrestling and resisting

They are also held accountable for less comfortable feelings: inferiority, shame, terror, impossibility of achievement. There is nothing subtle about such angels; they are as strong as demons and, in their purity, more implacable and challenging. In the Old Testament, Jacob wrestled until dawn with an angel (in fact, described only as “a man”, like those angels in the Tennessee diner) who represented his own sins to him. The angel refused either to listen to him or to accept his repentance; on the other hand, he did not simply break away. He let Jacob test himself all night against him, and in the end blessed him. In the same way Rainer Maria Rilke, the greatest German poet of the 20th century, was tormented by angels all through his “Duino Elegies”:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’

hierarchies? And even if one of them suddenly

pressed me against his heart, I would perish

in the embrace of his stronger existence.

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror

which we are barely able to endure and are awed

because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Each single angel is terrifying.

Rilke saw his particular angel as strong, still, radiant, a pure divider “between the Here and There”. But his angel also meant that “There” could be “Here”, within Rilke. This was the being he had to wrestle with in order to write poems. The angel not only brought inspiration to him, but also challenged him constantly to be better than he was. And it carried his own significance into the universe. “Shine, oh keep on shining!” he cried in “To the Angel” in 1913. “Make me known to the distant stars…”

This sense of vital two-way communication, still not wholly explained by the synapses of the brain, is the chief reason that angels keep intruding into the 21st century. Their very persistence is a sign of the potential, and the defiance, of human imagination. When Antony Gormley, the sculptor of the “Angel of the North”, was asked “Why an angel?” he replied: “Because no one has ever seen one, and we need to keep imagining them.” The first part may not be true; but the second is.

Among the imaginings is that ultimate and common dream, that humans may become angels themselves. Christian and Muslim mystics both believe it, as the natural progression of the spirit to a purer and higher state. But ordinary, not very religious people find themselves hoping for it too. Humans in angel guise, with haloes askew and briefcases still tightly clutched among the clouds, remain a favourite of cartoonists. Typically, the new arrivals are surprised and disconcerted by their heavenly state. But most surprising of all, to any experienced passing angel, would be the implication that from now on they will have nothing much to do.