Apologies for not blogging very much over the last few days. I intended to blog every day during our fantastic pilgrimage to France, but if you’ve ever been on one of my pilgrimages you realize it is “go, go, go.” Most mornings we had a wake up call around 5 or 6 and were on the road before 8 am. Evenings were taken up with dinner, fellowship with pilgrims and catching up on sleep. Add to that the irregular WiFi as you’re traveling and blogging got the push.
Some folks on Twitter picked up a comment that at Mont St Michel I had an encounter with my guardian angel. They wanted to hear the angel story. I’m afraid it is not really all that dramatic in the re-telling although it was certainly dramatic in the experience.
I was on a hitch hiking pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem in the summer of 1987. The first leg of my trip was delayed because I missed the ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. It was my plan to travel from Cherbourg to Mont St Michel as the first leg of my journey. God had other plans. Because I missed the ferry to Cherbourg I had to take the next ferry which was sailing to Le Havre. Le Havre is further East along the Normandy coast.
I got off the ferry late in the afternoon and needed a place to stay. I was going to land in France late morning which would have given me time to hitch the fairly short distance to Mont St Michel. Instead I found myself in Eastern Normandy. Looked at the map and saw I was close to a town named Lisieux. I was a young Anglican priest remember, and had only ever heard of St Therese, and what I knew I didn’t like. The little French girl with flowers was not to my taste to say the least.
But I reckoned there would be a pilgrimage hostel of sorts at Lisieux. I got there and met St Therese in a story I have told elsewhere. After Lisieux I headed West towards Mont St Michel. Some nuns in Caen gave me a room for the night and I found a hotel in Coutance. The following day I headed for Mont St Michel. It was raining heavily. I was soaked through and making little headway. Then a junky little Citroen 2CV–one of those funky French cars that looks like a washtub on wheels pulled up. A little old lady gave me a lift and when she heard about my trek invited me back to her farmhouse, gave me a warm lunch, dried out my clothes, told me to have a nap and when I woke up she said she would drive me the rest of the way to Mont St Michel.
I made my way up the famous mountain and found the religious community’s quarters. They live in the former Abbot’s lodgings on the left hand side as you approach the monastery at the top. They welcomed me, showed me my room and I joined in their life for a few days.
The atmosphere on the mountain when the tourists have gone is amazing. The silence and birdcall, the distant horizon of the sea and the feeling that you are separated from earth, suspended between two worlds is simply amazing and overwhelming. A tourist visit to Mont St Michel is great, but to be there in solitude takes you into another realm completely.
That night in my simple room I woke at three am. I was wide awake and aware of a presence at the foot of my bed. It seemed to me to be about seven foot tall. Very strong and calm. Very powerful and full of peace. In my mind I asked “Who are you?” The reply is “Your guardian angel. I am walking with you on this journey.” I asked is I could know the angel’s name and he agreed, but I was to never tell anyone else. I then rested in that presence for what seemed a very long time before I eventually went back to sleep.
The memory of this experience is not only still vivid in my mind, but the awareness of that angel’s continued presence is also strong almost daily if I stop to make myself aware.
So I stop to analyze–because that’s what I’m like–and I’m aware that my angel experience could very well be nothing more than a subjective experience within my own mind. The doubter would say, “You had been through some stressful times of transition in your life. You were setting out on a great adventure with many unknown factors. You were tired. You had walked a long way. You got soaked and discouraged. You were also therefore in a highly impressionable state of mind. You were open to suggestion. Furthermore, the wonderful experience of being at Mont St Michel lent itself to that context of suggestion. The whole place was transcendent with the proximity of sea and sky. Furthermore, and most importantly, you believed in angels and you wanted to have an angel experience.
In other words, you made it up. It was a figment of your imagination. It took place at three in the morning. That is well known to be a time when the mind is particularly susceptible to suggestion because that is when you are in the deepest realm of sleep. If you didn’t actually dream the whole thing, it was the next best thing to a dream. You woke up, but you were still in a semi-dream state. Your mind produced what you understood to be an encounter with your guardian angel.
This was not real. There are no such things as angels. If you had been at Harry Potter World you would probably be telling us that you had an encounter with Hagrid.
I am aware of this cynical viewpoint and I cannot dismiss it. All of that may very well be true, but then I am reminded of St Joan of Arc’s comment at her trial–or perhaps it was words put into her mouth by George Bernard Shaw in his play about Joan…either way, the judges at her trial dismissed her visions as being “all in her imagination” and she replied, “Of course. How else would God speak to me except through my imagination?”
Which brings me to consider the cleverness of the girl. Our imagination is not to be dismissed lightly. In our scientific and cynical age we pooh-pooh the imagination. Thinking it is not good for much more that enjoying fantasy literature or sentimental New Age notions. But of course the imagination is arguably the most powerful and important aspect of our minds. All the great art comes from the imagination. All great inventions begin with the imagination. All great literatures is bred in the imagination. All prayer, religion, spirituality and inspiration springs from the imagination.
The imagination is our portal to eternity. It is the creatively human aspect of our mind which is most like God the Creator because God’s imagination is always working, always creating, always making unexpected connections and bringing about unexpected encounters.
This is also what it means to have an abundant and faith filled spirituality. The imagination should be alive and active in our prayer lives. The imagination is a great gift which opens us to understand more fully the creatively abundant mind of God.
Was my encounter with the angel all in my imagination?
Of course. How else would my angel be in touch with me except through my imagination?