I’ve held this inside for more than 40 years. I think you’ll see why.
It was a hot summer Saturday afternoon. The humidity was heavy, and it was like breathing through wet gauze. The leaves of the oaks that shaded the grounds moved with a discouraged droop from air that provided no relief.
I have no witnesses to what happened, but it was something that to this day, more than 45 years later, I cannot explain. Or deny. I’ve tried both. Now it just has to be.
All I know is that I walked into that room alone, my mind on something completely different and ordinary and mundane. (I was checking supplies for the evening meeting.) I was walking through a typical Midwestern summer afternoon in Indiana one moment, and the next walked into another world.
A…. Presence was in that empty room. Not threatening, but totally terrifying. Silent. Motionless. Immense. Powerful. Compelling.
I read a lot about this sort of thing later, and found that I wasn’t the first to have this experience. The word invented to describe the experience: Numinous.*
I felt the urge to back away but couldn’t. It drew me to it. I wanted to fall to my knees, and don’t know how I didn’t. I was fearful, but not frightened.
I was frozen in awe, in the presence of –I can’t think of a better term– an angel. There’s no other way to explain it. I just knew. My only and immediate response was one of awe.
I distinctly had an impression of feathers. Charcoal feathers, but not dark. Grey with darker edges, and the had a slight gloss to them of old gold, a lustre like that. Just not gold. And not white.
And muscles and great strength. All utterly still, like a statue of Ramsees II.
The head was somewhere above the room. And–this didn’t make sense–the figure seemed to be several different sizes all at the same time.
And again, it was utterly still despite that.
This figure was both in the room and not of it, like it was inserted only partially into our world. It was a visitor, a part of this world, but simultaneously beyond it, too. It was only partially visible, but “visible” is misleading. It shimmered in the air, not entirely there, not gone, either.
Perhaps I should explain how I got there.
My wife and I were just out of college and didn’t have children yet. It was the 1970s and, like many of our generation, we had survived the 60s and college and Vietnam and the Sumer of Love and Kent State and JFK’s, RFK’s and MLK’s brutal deaths and the loss of our innocence. We watched 50,000 of our generation die in the mud of the jungle, documented on the nightly news. With commercials for toilet papers and Chevrolets mixed in.
We’d observed, but not partaken in free love and Haight Ashbury and the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention, the draft and mass protest marches and bloodshed right and left. We sat with some hippy friends, and some fake hippies in a tiny apartment and watched Neil Armstrong hop down on the Moon. One Giant Step.
Far out, man. Only it was really, really far out.
We’d looked around in bewilderment at all the turmoil and change and ugliness and, yes, the goodness; all the pain and suffering, and didn’t know whether we had anything in common with our parents and grandparents any more. I sometimes wonder if anyone today realizes what we went through, how we lived collectively in an insane mixing bowl.
Maybe that explains the Angel. I honestly don’t know. It might. But that experience felt so real, so clearly an encounter with something not of this world, that it’s stayed with me all these years.
We had tried to get by all the bad stuff, hanging onto family ties with one hand while being pulled away by seductive messages of empowerment and change and revolution and feminism and freedoms unimaginable and challenges to everything that we used to think was The. Way. Things. Were.
We welcomed friends back from Vietnam, but they weren’t the same guys we remembered. They were changed, strange, scary–Midwest farm boys turned into professional killers who’s minds were blasted and torn by a nightmare they couldn’t wake from. They were lost to their families, to us—some of them forever. We cared for them as best we could, but we didn’t understand.
Our group of friends drifted apart after college, and we got married and tried to get away from the craziness and just focused on the small universe of a reasonable apartment in a bad neighborhood. Shootings. Stabbings. Robberies, that kind of neighborhood. We made a marriage, a home, and clung to that. It was good, if good meant a little bubble of sunlight in a world of blood and storm clouds. We eventually had to act like grownups and got jobs, and started to feel the pull of normal after all those years of weirdness. But nothing was really normal any more. We knew that, deep down.
Long story short, we started going to church again. I’d been raised in one, my wife was a fallen-away Irish-Catholic girl.
It was a small church, with a minister who was trying to shake things up. A totally preppie, square, narcissistic sociopath who wanted to pretend to be a revolutionary, preaching a radical idea that came straight from the human potential movement, that we could be more fully human if we lived lives of self-examination and saw no limits to our potential. And, oh yeah, God was down with that. Like totally.
Far out, man.
Of course, this scared the straight people who ran the little church, and they canned him. A few of us walked out in self-righteous protest and formed a house church. It took us a while to figure out that he was a fraud, too, a pied piper with a bible.
I’m almost to the angel.
My wife and I were leading a retreat at a Quaker retreat center in Richmond, Indiana. Nice place. Wonderful people. We were happy.
Our group that weekend were ruddy-faced, church-going farmers. Hog farmers. Hog farmers in my experience are some of the best people on the planet. Maybe they have to be, given the reaction they get when they tell people what they do. The jokes. They learn forgiveness.
But this was a good group. Honest and down-to-earth. Decent. Kind people. Open to learning something new.
So, I don’t know how to explain it more. The vibe was good. Good people gathering with a good purpose. Maybe that’s what called the angel.
I hope so. Because that’s what was supposed to happen. I’d just never seen it happen. Ever. Before or since. In any church. It’s why I don’t go any more, probably.
I stood unable to move for long moments. The air seemed to hum soundlessly. Space/Time rippled and peeled back the face of the universe I’d always known.
Tears streamed down my face. I felt the Presence was both aware of me and was too far above me to be able to notice me. Both at the same time. I did not hear a noise or a voice or see a burning bush.
I just stood there, mind naked and exposed, and the angel stood, wings spread to span the whole building, protecting.
And after that, what more can you say on Good Friday?
What more can you say?
*Numinous /ˈnjuːmɨnəs/ is an English adjective, taken from the Latin Numen, and used by some to describe the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige (1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). The numinous experience also has a personal quality, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and/or the transcendent.
The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendous, the Holy.