I recently read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez with my senior English class. We, of course, were reading and discussing the short story as the great example of magic realism, but at the center of the story is the identity of the old man as an angel.
The girls and I talked about this–how we decide what is divine. In the story, the old man is seen as not being an angel because he is old and homely; his wings are falling apart, with feathers falling here and there. He has parasites all over him and he doesn’t speak what Father Gonzaga says is “the language of God.” The girls were convinced that he wasn’t an angel, too, because he didn’t look like one and he didn’t seek vengeance for what was done to him. We kept our conversation focused on the literary genre, respecting the opinions of others; however, I walked away from the conversation questioning how we decide what is divine and how we allow appearances to cloud that reality. The old man’s feathers were falling off of his wings, but what if they were falling on the ground to be left as reminders to others that angels walk among us, either literally or figuratively?
I once heard that every time you see a feather on the ground, it is a reminder that your guardian angel is near. As a little girl with dark brown pigtails and dirty overalls, I took this literally and always felt comfort in my own guardian angel and his protection over me. I would ride my bike on shadowed dirt roads, alone but confident because my angel was near. I would run through the woods with my best friend, Wendy, feeling secure because my angel followed us. Even recently, as an adult woman, I was walking my children in our small, safe town here in Pennsylvania, only to look down and see a feather. I told my son that an angel was near us, and I saw his eyes fill with wonder. “Who is my angel, Mama? How do you know?” I hope that I’ve instilled in him not a false sense of security, but a comfort in knowing that he is not alone, even when he might feel as if he is.
Faith is that to me–knowing that I am not alone. The feather reminds me of this.
But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve also tried to see it less literally and more figuratively. Angels are among us, and just like the old man in Marquez’s story, they might not look like angels at all. Divinity doesn’t just come in the shape of an angel, a saint, or Jesus. Divinity lives in us; the Holy Spirit is in us all, so in that way, we have an obligation to be an angel to someone else.
My neighbor volunteers in a soup kitchen every Thursday morning; she is an angel. The boy at the grocery store who listened to me, smiling and laughing, as I complained about my grocery list; he was an angel to me that day. The student who left me an opened bar of dark chocolate with a note, “I know how much you love chocolate”; she is an angel.
I am guilty of not seeing the goodness in people from time to time and focusing on the negative in others. I struggle with this daily. But, angels are among us; they are all around us. I wear a feather on a necklace around my neck to help remind me to see the goodness in others, even if it is hard to see. The Divine lives in each person I see; God forsakes no one.
Like the angel in Marquez’s story, some people may be mocked or chided, but God sees them. Let the feather be that reminder to us all to be an angel to someone.