Last night I sat with my sister and we watched as her belly moved in crests and troughs- waves rippling across the skin. Zachary seemed to be restless. We flipped through the pages of her childbirth book, with its diagrams of women's torsos, the queer shapes of the insides before and after pregnancy, how they are squished by the baby. On one page there is a pelvis floating in mid air with a baby passing through it. What struck me is how precariously close that precious baby head is to the bone. There are also diagrams of unsightly tears of the perineum area, how the abdomen is cut for a Cesarean, etc., etc. and again I wondered, why childbirth is so...perilous. Couldn't nature afford a little more space between the baby's head and the mother's pelvis? Why must we be ripped, torn, cut into like a cantaloupe? And then I thought, well, if this world itself is perilous and seemingly always on the edge of destruction (famines, wars, ice ages, epidemics), why would the portal to it be any different?
I have sat next to people on the verge of that second great portal- death. I have watched them moan and thrash about. They too exhibited a restlessness, an awareness and apprehension of moving over a threshold. John O'Donahue, the Irish poet, philosopher and former priest talks about “thresholds” or the demarcation lines between two territories of spirit. Birth and Death are the grandest of all, but there are many others that occur during our lifetimes, lesser situations where we seem to move from one spiritual/emotional/mental plateau to another. The reason for them is inherent in the etymology of the word; threshold comes from the word “thrashen” which means to separate the grain from the husk. O'Donahue says that if we “cross worthily and heal all patterns of repetition” there is an “emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and holiness.” This seems to me, soulwork; thresholds are passages for the spirit to move though in order for it to find its essence. Birth and death seem to be milemarkers of some sort. I wonder, though, if the soul is in someway assisted through these tricky junctures.
This morning I was walking my dog and I came upon a crumpled piece of garland. It looked like an angel's halo after someone had run over it with their car. Shortly after that and most coincidentally, I sat down to meditate and read a passage from Incandescence. The woman mystic of the day was Hildegard von Bingen; here is a verse:
O, angels with shining faces who guard the people.
O, archangels, who take honest souls to heaven.
O, virtues and powers and principalities and
dominions and thrones.
O, cherubim and seraphim.
Are these helpful intercessors real? Are there angels whispering in my nephew's ear to comfort him before he moves through the portal? Before my father died, he wept so passionately for the dead who had suffered and passed on it was almost as if they were in the room with him. He used to see them on television, in the stands of a Red Sox game, on the evening news. He was both astounded and comforted by their presences. So maybe angels are real and not the winged, fairy-like creatures of lore but boiled down essences of love and charity. They have successfully completed passage through all of their thresholds.
O'Donahue says the “visible world is the first shoreline of the invisible world.” This gives me a great deal of comfort as I sit under the ficus tree, asking my father's now angelic soul to help my nephew's burgeoning soul through the birth portal.
Maybe every birth is a miracle and every death is a miracle. Maybe what makes them miracles is the element of perilousness in conjunction with the elements of God. And these elements of God present a love and a faith so steadfast, the soul is soothed and able to progress through its portals. Maybe you can call these entities angels, by their purity, by their charity, by their evolution.