Scripts of the onceborn

According to James, the healthy-minded soul trusts in divine providence and, while not ignoring the sin and evil in the world, trusts sufficiently in the benevolent intent of providence to not be intimidated by them.

Figure 1 Angels Damiel and Cassiel briefing each other on the captivating behavior of the citizens of Berlin in Wim Wenders 1987 film, Wings of Desire (used with the kind permission of Reverse Angle Library, GmbH, all rights reserved).

A common religious and literary symbol for divine providence is angels. In the past decade we have seen an explosion of interest in angels, and ample media outlets providing them. When angels are presented as actively intervening in human affairs, they fit best in the escape script described above. But there are artists who take a more minimalist view of angels - reflecting a more minimalist view of divine providence. One of the most poignant stories told of angels in recent memory is the 1988 Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire.31 In this film we learn that angels live in our midst (although we cannot see them), and devote their time to watching us, recording in diaries what impresses them - dispatches from the front, as it were. Near the beginning of the movie, two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, are sitting in a convertible in an auto showroom in Berlin, reading to each other from their diaries (Figure 1). Their tone is admiring and curious with respect to the antics of the humans they have observed: A woman who folded her umbrella while it was raining, and let herself get drenched. At the U-Bahn station, instead of announcing the station's name, the conductor suddenly shouted, "Tierra del Fuego." In the hills, an old man read the Odyssey to a child and the young listener stopped blinking his eyes. These are the things that delight the angels. Damiel, who is pining to become human himself, confesses,

It's great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day for eternity only to the spiritual side of people. But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I'd like to feel there's some weight to me, to end my eternity and bind me to earth. At each step, each gust of wind, I'd like to be able to say, "Now, and now and now." And no longer say "since always," and "forever" ... Not that I want to beget a child or plant a tree right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day and feed the cat, to have a fever, to have blackened fingers from the newspaper, to be excited not only by the mind, but, at last, by a meal, the curve of a neck, an ear. To lie! through the teeth! To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to suspect, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say, "Ah!" and "Oh!" and "Hey!" instead of "Yes" and "Amen." For once, to be enthused over evil.

This is the confession of the faith of a once-born soul. It has all of the elements of gratitude for the wondrous routines of ordinary life, a trait it shares with broken faith in the escape mode. But here it is a disposition formed out of the deep trust in divine benevolence and the corresponding view that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Its elevation of the ordinary is sacramental - receiving the simple pleasures of gravity, sensuality and the passage of time as tokens of transcendent grace. These words come, after all, from an angel, a self-aware agent of grace - at least of graceful observation. Damiel's seeming endorsement of evil in his last remark is folded into his privileged awareness that the Good will have the final word.

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