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Provehito in Altum
I ONCE went to a lecture by some bigwig philosophy professor from
Philosophy was, for me, a dead discipline. Materialists believe that. To them, it’s a waste of time. Read Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins, or Hawking if you don’t believe me.
I don’t remember what the bigwig had to say, save one thing. “Angels don’t dream. What would be the point?”
I don’t remember the context in which he said it. I’ve tried many times since. I’ve since decided it had to do with death. Once that greatest of mysteries has been encountered and passed, the need for dreaming, assuming a consciousness carries on, would cease, for that mystery would solve all others absolutely and eternally.
That’s what I imagine he said. Of course, as a materialist I dismissed him before I even got to UCSD. There was almost certainly a traffic jam going there, which would have only added mass to the angry lead over my ears.
I died and became an angel. Imagine my surprise when, living in Heaven, I dreamed when I slept, which itself was a surprise. Angels sleep!
You might ask: What do angels dream of, Ray?
My answer: anything they want.
Death did change the dream state dramatically. Mortal dreams are distorted and often disjointed. Time becomes fluid, as does place, as does many times the dreamer. The hash of the previous day interferes. The subconscious comes out to play, and its playground is often a dark rabbit hole of good and bad. The mortal wakes often not remembering what he or she dreamt of.
Death rationalizes the subconscious. That’s how I thought of it. Generally speaking, the jumbles and randomness are stripped away. The subconscious continues on, but its role is circumscribed, even if the denominator is still too large even for angels to comprehend.
Inspiration often comes to mortals when they dream. There’s a reason for that. It’s an effective way for God to interact with a person without the interference that their waking consciousness, blinding as it is, would surely throw in the way. He (I’m using the male pronoun only because when He talks to me it’s in a male voice—actually, my grandfather’s voice; but many angels call God She; many still don’t have a gender-based notion of God at all) can interact with their souls much more directly. We angels remember our dreams.
Do we have nightmares? No. That’s not to say that our dreams aren’t sometimes scary. But again, it’s fear experienced with the direct knowledge of death, something mortals cannot know. We went through the singularity and came out the other side, which makes our experience of fear qualitatively different. If we feel fear, it is almost always for the wellbeing of a mortal we have been charged with saving or bringing through the singularity.
Calliel often inhabits my dreams. He told me I often inhabit his. Sometimes we dream the same dream. I wanted to ask him about the one I had that first night, because I’m sure he had it too and thought it very compelling, as I did.
Here it is.
I found myself in an Old West desert town. Wind whipped dust into my face. I blinked against it and lowered the brim of my cowboy hat and marched up the center of the street.
I was the star player in a showdown. I felt down by my hip. Sure enough, I had a six-shooter ready to go.
I was wearing black. Did that mean I was the bad guy?
A wind-washed whistle sounded out to my right. I looked quickly in that direction, thinking that an ambush was underway. The whistle came from the shaded porch of the general store.
It was Calliel. He motioned with his head for me to come to him.
I did. When I got within range, he adjusted the brim of his hat back. “Just got word that he’ll be comin’ shortly. You ready?”
“Who is ‘he’?” I asked.
He snorted. “A pretty seriously nasty pile of horseshit. The problem is,” he went on, “you can’t outdraw him. He’ll tag ya before you even get to your pistol. You can’t finish him that way.”
“Wanna bushwhack ‘im?” I asked. I felt fear then, but it wasn’t for me. It was for Deanna. Was this dream about her?
“Don’t need to.”
“You’ll see soon enough. Here he comes now. Good luck, partner. You’ll know what to do.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because,” he grinned, “I trained you.”
He nodded in the direction of the far end of the street, gave me a hard pat on my shoulder, and turned and went back into the store.
I looked up the street.
It was a large man also dressed in black, also armed. He was more shadow than man, dark and malevolent.
Something inside me became very angry, and I stepped off the porch to the middle of the dusty thoroughfare.
It was Martin Franks.
Calliel introduced me to Oblivion: the end of the line for souls who don’t do the work necessary in life to follow their God-given calling. Souls who make such a choice don’t move on. They didn’t do the work, which serves as a bridge, almost literally, to everlasting life. Death is an impassable singularity for them, a black hole. Their dead souls dissolve inside it. It is the fate of the vast majority of humankind.
That’s what I was looking at now. Oblivion with a face and a body. With Martin Frank’s face and Martin Frank’s body.
He moved to within twenty paces or so of me and stopped. “Who are you?” he demanded in a low growl.
Oblivion washed over me in cold waves. Wind whipped dust up between us.
When I was a mortal, Oblivion terrified me in a way nothing else ever had. Calliel had sent me there twice for just a fraction of a second each time, and it was more than enough for him to get my undivided attention.
When I died, I saw and understood what Oblivion actually was. It was God’s recycling system for dead souls.
And so, standing there in that windswept street, I wasn’t frightened—not for myself at least.
I wasn’t going to move. Becoming angrier by the second, I etched a line in the dirt with the toe of my boot, keeping my stare on him. “This is as far as you go.”
Martin Frank’s shadow seemed to deepen. He bellowed, “You don’t tell me what to do!”
He jerked his pistol out, lightning-fast, and fired.
I was an angel, and so knew I wasn’t going to die again, no matter how vicious that bullet was. It smashed into my forehead and everything went black. A moment later I saw light. I looked up. The world had become much, much larger.
Franks stared down at me. “No! No! You can’t do this! Nooooo!”
I looked down at myself. I was … a raven! I had become a raven!
He tried stomping on me. I hopped out of his way and leapt into the air and flew away, exulting with the sensation of being a bird. His yells followed me out of town, dying slowly away.
I knew what I had to do. I knew what I was looking for. Or, rather, who.
I glided over barren desert and then an arroyo, one that looked strangely familiar. I was a hundred feet up and looking down, looking around, when I heard it: the sound of a baby crying.
I saw it a second later. It was lying on its back naked in the shade of a large boulder.
I swooped down for it. I landed next to it and wished myself into a man. Everything went black again and I found myself standing on two human feet once more. The tip of my right boot was an inch or so away from her … from Deanna.
I picked her up. She wailed and reached for me.
I stared down at her. Tears welled up and poured down my face, and dropped on her tiny pink tummy.
I didn’t feel anger, no. What I felt cannot be adequately described with mortal words. It was anger raised to a degree that I finally understood the full meaning of the term smiting. Because that’s what I wanted to do to the shadow that was Martin Franks. I wanted to smite him.
I raised my head and, with Deanna, cried to the blue sky.
I woke before five. I got up, wiped my wet face, peed, then went to the bedroom window and parted the drapes. The view wasn’t of my yard in Heaven, but the desiccated patch of blonde earth bordering this angelic abode at the outskirts of
. I thought I might do
something about that; I might xeriscape it or something before my assignment was
completed, make it pretty. I wondered why Calliel hadn’t done it, then thought
of the dream. Chula Vista,
I considered the shadow of Martin Franks and murmured, “An evil man is a wounded man.”
I closed the drapes and held up.
But a good man is also a wounded man. The state or degree of woundedness is therefore no excuse for a life lived in evil. If anyone knew that, it was I.
By all rights I should’ve dissolved into Oblivion at the moment of my death. I lived most of my mortal life in a wretched state of wickedness. Oh, I didn’t slaughter people and I didn’t abuse animals; I didn’t head up a white supremacist group or, as Martin Franks did, molest children. But I didn’t need to do those things to live in the same state as such folks who did. Their actions and mine might have been completely dissimilar, but their origin was one and the same.
Calliel came to me. He saved me.
No, that’s incorrect. He didn’t save me—I did. I could very well have stayed in my familiar and comfortably numb state of wickedness and to the very last defied him and his friendship. I damn well gave it my college best. I fought him with everything I had. But something inside me—something that was mine, that was more me than the me I was so sickeningly familiar with—fought for the light of his companionship and caring and against all odds broke the surface. I think the fight was over then, even though I had months of recovery left. Even then I tried to kill that thing, that truer—that truest—bit of me. Even then I kept rejecting Calliel and sending him away. But his strength—his human strength, not his angelic strength—was far superior to my wickedness. He took my very worst and kept coming back for more. He loved me. My wickedness, in the end, stood no chance.
The wounds life left on my spirit couldn’t compare to the wounds my own nastiness had. When I was mortal I justified my bullshit based on those life-wounds. I made life and wickedness one and the same, and therefore absolved myself of all blame. I did so-and-so because Mom died of a horrible disease or because my dear sister died of a drug overdose and I couldn’t get there in time to stop her. I did such-and-such because humanity was a giant sucking cesspool that refused to recognize my greatness. I did such-and-such because I was alone and lonely and no one loved me.
But I couldn’t blame my wickedness on the circumstances of my life. Evil men are wounded men. But good men are wounded too. The wounds aren’t to blame. Something else is. And that something all human beings are wholly responsible for.
A human soul is, ultimately, a free soul. I say ultimately because that freedom is constrained by many factors. But none of those factors is absolute, meaning that none can claim absolute sovereignty. Again, it comes down to responsibility.
I dressed after eating breakfast and brushing my teeth. My closet was full of new and (of course) perfectly tailored suits, shoes, and boots. I picked one, chose a tie, then gave my earthly Tyler Bros boots a quick brush. I went to the mirror to inspect myself.
As a mortal I concerned myself with simply appearing appropriate and professional, and my clothing reflected it. I didn’t stand out. I didn’t care to. I dressed the way I did because it was expected.
Calliel, as Calliel did in so many ways, showed me a different way of being. I remembered the way he looked while on Earth while trying to save me. His clothes looked good on him. They didn’t just fit his body; they fit his spirit. They were an extension of his physical being, and both were in perfect harmony with the other. I was certain that he didn’t stand out to the numb masses, even clothed thusly, but that wasn’t his fault. The few with eyes truly opened would have noticed him and felt as I had, had they been near him.
When I got to Heaven I determined that I too would honor my spirit with clothing to match it. But it turned out to be a bigger problem than I thought it would. Getting the metaphysical gunk I’d covered my soul with off took some very serious effort. Heaven, as you might expect, is ideal for such a task. Long walks, meditation, and lots and lots of prayer. Even a fair bit of writing and crying.
Who was Raymond Douglas Wilms really? And what outer vestments would reflect that man—that angel—to the best and highest degree?
Again, my grandfather came to my rescue. When I was a boy I saw him on occasion when he dressed up. He had two tailored suits that made him look … well, I can’t describe it even now. His grandson could only admire him even more from his knee.
I wanted to look like that.
Calliel took me to a tailor he knew in a nearby village. (Yes, Heaven has villages.) His name was Johanne and he looked about thirty, though he told me he lived to a hundred one. His mortal life was spent in
in which, he told me, he died in 1922.
“What’s Earth like these days?” he asked.
Calliel glanced at me, and we both shook our heads.
“That bad, eh?” he replied. “I gotta tell ya, I couldn’t be an angel. That’s really tough work, that is. The toughest. I really admire you boys. You gotta be meaner n’ junkyard dog to go back down there and deal with …” he waved his hand in disgust “… it. Them.”
There is money in Heaven, and an economy. But it’s nothing like economies on Earth. It’s fair, equitable, conscientious, inclusive, humane, wholly and unfailingly compassionate and generous. I paid him for his time and left. Two hours had passed; it was mid-afternoon.
“Your new suits will be ready this time next week. Drop in then.”
“Excellent,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’ll see you then, Johanne.”
Calliel and I waved at him from the horse-drawn carriage (yes, animals go to Heaven; and some, like this horse, whose name was Darus, enjoyed being work horses. How that’s ascertained can be discussed at some other point), and we left.
A week later I had my first new suits.
Calliel gave me an approving nod as I stood before the wraparound mirrors in Johanne’s shop. “Now that’s you, partner,” he declared. “The Raven has arrived.”
Indeed, I had.
I looked at myself in the mirror in the bathroom of the angelic home on Earth. I looked into my eyes.
Calliel warned me that my first trip to Earth would be, at least at the beginning, “different.”
“You’ll have Oblivion on you.”
“I’ll have nothing on me?” I replied. “How is nothing anything?”
He chuckled. “Mortals can sense it. When you get down there the first time, you might scare the hell out of a few of them. You won’t have to do anything to do it; they’ll sense Oblivion on your person and probably try to get away from you. Try to use it for some good, if you can, because it’ll be gone the next day.”
“Did you use yours for good your first day back?”
“I did, actually. My first assignment was to
, in 1881. I got down there and decided to wet
my whistle. The barkeep was a violent letch who kept working girls in horrific
conditions upstairs. I gave him a bit of what’s-what and he fled. I musta been
ripe with Oblivion ‘cause he went and hung himself that very night. The next
few months while workin’ my assignment I looked after those women and got them set
up in much better circumstances. Most of ‘em weren’t much better than that man
and didn’t last much longer than he did. But a couple of ‘em saved themselves
and made it to Heaven. I keep in touch with ‘em.” Albuquerque, New
I knew what I needed to do this morning. I needed to talk to Dan McQuinty, Deanna’s secret math tutor. I had no desire to scare the hell out of him, and hoped that the Oblivion clinging to me had evaporated. I adjusted my tie and made my way to the front door. I took a deep breath and opened it. Dawn’s bright early light streamed through.
God’s raven was on duty.