Saturday, an angel incarcerated for 556 years finally saw the light of day.
High up in one of Haghia Sophia’s towering domes, the seraphim had been carefully painted sometime after the church’s construction in 537. It held vigil over the faithful who made pilgrimage to one of Christianity’s most beautiful shrines, until, in 1453, Ottoman Turks overran the ancient Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The pearl of Orthodox Christianity soon was reduced to a mosque. Defenders of the new orthodoxy either defaced or covered over any images which, to them, violated God’s sovereignty.
Yet that angel had never stopped watching. God, in his infinite humor, inspired those devout Muslims to leave the angels intact. Maybe they were afraid of incurring the wrath of the Almighty, after all, or of making angels mad. They must have known that angels can see through plaster and metal.
Yes, angels can see through plaster and metal. Just like my friend who, after nearly three years incarcerated, finally saw the light of freedom again last Christmas Eve. I visited him this past Monday. The Modesto Bee front page proudly commemorated forty years since man had first walked on the moon. For my young buddy, simply stepping out of jail was enough.
At sixteen, this kid had been, believe it or not, an angel. Assisting at daily mass, active in the youth group, shadowing the leader, and dreaming either of becoming a priest or a Marine - better yet, a Ranger - he’d set his sights high. But all of a sudden, he began losing his vision. The clarity of virtue and dedication gave way to the clouds of confusion. His separated father became, once again, a big issue. Suddenly, he had to get back in with his home-boys. Within a few months, he made a bad mistake, and somebody nearly died. Alcohol and pride were in his blood. Soon, he was sentenced.
Visiting my buddy in jail, I was impressed with his recovery. Suddenly, there was the focused young man who had values, and goals, and a future.
Despite all the complex web of power and control and manipulation and watching-one’s-back that are so woven into the daily lives of inmates, this angel-behind-plaster-and-metal began working his way out. Leading Bible study and compromising with no one, he managed to win the respect of his fellow prisoners. Near-misses of violent outbreaks and settling of accounts never seemed to break his spirit. He was seeing outside from the first day in. It was as if he were just a caterpillar, slowly shedding his hardened skin.
Some of us need a bit of lock-down just to focus back on the angel inside.
It takes strong medicine to break the chains of drug-addiction, violence, long-term gang affiliation, or just plain acting-out. Friday, I wrote a letter of gratitude to a dozen or so inmates who’d sent us a deeply moving card.
A masterpiece of meaningful artwork and carefully crafted words from the heart of men who’ve embraced an ancient form of indigenous spirituality, this tribute to our young Aztec dancer who recently nearly died due to kidney failure was a gesture of authentic caring and brotherhood. Though I was well-aware that, for these inmates, their spirituality may still be inter-woven with gang affiliation and philosophies, I couldn’t deny or ignore the power of the message. Something far more profound than woundedness and anger was stirring in the souls of these men. Whatever the statistics may reveal about their activities before and during incarceration, what I saw behind the artwork and in the poetic “palabras” were…faces of angels.
Maybe it’s an old festering wound that needs healing. On Thursday, four of us buddy priests drove to Monterrey for scuba-diving. Tired, skinny, and feeling half-sick, I didn’t jump for joy at the idea. But having been the first of us to undertake this sport, and not wanting to dampen spirits, I too endured the drawn-out rituals involved with cold-water dives. By the time we managed to pull the wet suits on, we looked like glorified penguins.
In Monterrey Bay, you have to tangle with a lot of sea-kelp before you can break free into the open waters. We may have celebrated Mass like angels, but now we were quite something else. Fr. Matt, at one point, got tired of being pulled down, and pulled out his knife. One whack, and he was free again. And so, shivering, we descended into the mysterious ocean deeps.
But another creature had left the deeps for healing. As we were about to enter the water, we delayed fifteen minutes for a rescue mission. A lone seal, perhaps 125 pounds, was resting high on the rocks. At closer view, we could clearly see a large abrasion beside its heart. From time to time, the white puss of a life-threatening infection would ooze from a tiny hole.
Whatever the cause of this unfortunate mammal’s wound, one thing was clear: freedom would only spell death. Safe neither in the refuge of the Bay, nor exposed upon the boulders, this fallen angel had only one hope for deliverance: we’d have to capture it. Together with a park ranger and a pair of volunteers from animal rescue, we priests helped to hound the poor creature into a cage. It was dangerous work. Those teeth are huge. But we knew that, in captivity, this seal would break free from the hard shell of its mortal wound to swim free once again. For what matters, in the end, is that the angel inside, in liberty or in captivity, be free, once again, for life.