When my son was a little over two years old, he had serious pneumonia. His temperature was high and he was in a bad state. The doctor came daily to check on his little patient. The illness was heading towards its climax, the doctor had been sitting by the bedside with me for an hour observing the heavily breathing child with great concentration. The thermometer had risen to above 40 degrees and when my son was awake it was clear that he recognised neither me nor his surroundings. I asked the doctor whether there was anything else he could do. He looked at me in surprise. It was only now that he noticed my fear. And what did he do? He looked calmly at me, smiled and said: “If I am not worried, why are you?”
I still remember that I was very surprised about this response. Was that really the case? Did I not need to be worried if he wasn’t? Did I have that much trust? I decided to give this some thought. From then on I observed not just my child but him as well. He sat there without any haste, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, his look calm but fully concentrated on the child. He was working. In his profession. At this moment he was nothing but a doctor and there was only one patient – my child.
A little later I asked cautiously into the concentrated silence: “And what do you see that you are not worried?” He did not turn his eyes from the patient and answered quietly: “He is doing that very well. I would love to have my students here. It’s a textbook case – except in textbooks you don’t have to go through the whole process. Here the process is taking place and you can observe a great illness at work which takes the person to their limits in order to completely transform them.
“I anticipate,” he said, turning towards me, “that his temperature will soon start to fall slightly and his sleep will become calmer. Once that has happened I can go home and will return tomorrow morning. Then the worst is over.” And that is precisely what happened. And once he had gone, still leaving a couple of instructions about treatment, I too could sleep reassured in the knowledge that my child was in good and capable hands.
Did my prayers bring about such a positive course to the illness? No! I did not pray any more or any less than usual during this time. Healing in this case was brought about because the child was in the right surroundings. The child was given proper time to be ill at home embedded in warmth and love. There was no external cause to derail the progression of the illness. And there was a doctor who was competent to support, evaluate and influence the disease process.
I had become acquainted with this doctor purely by accident – as the saying goes. We had had a long conversation at the time. But looking back, I began to suspect that such accidental meetings between people provide an insight into the way that angels work. When I became acquainted with the doctor, I was pregnant with my son who was now ill. Was this a first encounter whose dimension did not become clear until two years later?
My responsibility and my freedom
A full understanding of this goes beyond my abilities. That I become acquainted with the “right” people in my life, that I meet them at all in our big world requires higher abilities – those which can bring together what belongs together. But once the encounter has happened, my angel immediately leaves me in freedom again. There was no hint or help as to whom I should call when my child fell ill. The decision was left to me alone. I might also have gone to hospital or to another doctor. And the decision as to what treatment to administer is not taken by a higher being either, it is taken with great care by the responsible people involved.
That the doctor comes each evening is not the result of intuition either but of his professional responsibility. I learn: everything that can be done with human strength is left by the angel in my full, free responsibility. Loving divine forces only begin where human powers end. Not by doing magic – no. But by bringing me together with people who possess abilities which I do not have. The dramatic course of the illness went beyond my abilities. They did not exceed those of my doctor by a long way.
My inner appeal, my devotion, my prayer can provide the basis and opportunity for my angel to work with me. If I overestimate my human abilities and fail to take higher matters into account, my angel is condemned to inactivity. If I only ever any longer connect with the people who currently surround me and no longer want to meet anyone new, I also limit significantly the opportunities for my angel. And then there is of course also the possibility that I locate the field of activity of my angel in quite a different place from where it is meant to reside: if I shift my own responsibilities on to my angel.
When trust in God is misplaced
We are standing on a wonderful hillside in the Black Forest and are sledging. I admire the skill of my children. Every time I go down, I am almost thrown off the sledge. There are trees on the slope, brambles on the edges and a profusion of wild rose bushes. You have to be sure of what you are doing to make it round the bends.
We are joined by a new family. The older children throw themselves happily on their sledges and off they go. Their mother with them. The father is still standing at the top with the youngest – perhaps four or five years old. “You can do it too,” the father says to him and lifts him on to the wooden sledge. “I’ll give you a push and then you simply follow the others. Can you see what fun they’re having?” And he sends his child down the slope with a good push. His run lasts about 20 seconds and the ends at full speed and without any attempt at steering in the bramble bushes. One couple remarks drily: “His guardian angel must have been asleep.”
Wrong. The only ones sleeping were the people. The father was nowhere near the point at which he might have been overwhelmed by the situation. But he neglected his responsibility – his, not the angel’s. At the point at which his child’s skills were insufficient his trust in God was misplaced. The child could and should have been able to rely on him. What was lacking was human responsibility, not responsibility of the “guardian angel”.
But was it not bad that the angel permitted the child to suffer pain due to the negligence of the father? It appears to me that the law which forbids the angel to violate human freedom is an iron one. Where human beings can act in freedom all the consequences follow directly and without interference – both in good and evil.
But another thing still happened on the slope. The mother and the older children were a good kilometre further down and were not aware of the accident. The father had to face the situation alone. But he did not remain alone at the site of the accident. Many who saw him there hurried over to help, freed the child from the thorns and tendrils, checked that he was not seriously hurt, fell into conversation with father and child, fetched hot tea and biscuits, and strangers became acquaintances.
Might it not be the case that people met one another here who in a few years’ time might have important things to do with one another and look back with gratitude to this moment at which they met fortuitously? And was it not the angels who were at work here once again to turn a bad situation to good?
Learning “angelic” is worth a try
I have got into the habit of paying attention to what angels do when people complain – because they are unhappy for example – that the angels are not doing anything. Because if I only miss the action of the angels at the point where I want them to relieve me of my responsibility then my human freedom will taste rather bitter – after all, why don’t they jolly well intervene when everything goes wrong. And instead of questioning all the things I am prepared to tolerate, I will accuse them of all the things they are prepared to tolerate. We all know the question: why does God permit injustice, suffering and war?
But anyone who learns to love human freedom and human responsibility will notice that all the forces we need are made available to us to help us in our difficult tasks. And if we are not alert enough at a certain point and fail to grasp something, then our helpers will plan ahead for the next encounter and, as Goethe said, still build something good out of the stone we have placed in our path.
Sometimes I try to learn a bit of “angelic”. I follow the example of my doctor. When my children ask me whether they have the ability to do something, I tell them that I have confidence that they can do it. And when it becomes clear at some point that they have become stuck, then I am happy to use my abilities to help them to progress. And when everything goes wrong? Then I attempt to find the stone out of which something good can be built even so.
And when they are faced with something that exceeds all our possibilities? Then I seek out in the spirit our friends and acquaintances, particularly those whom I have not yet known for that long, to see whether they don’t possess the abilities I am lacking and have simply not yet discovered.
And sometimes, when I am faced with tasks of which I am sure that they far exceed my possibilities and do not find anyone who can relieve me of them, when I am sitting alone full of doubt and want to give up, then it seems to me as if someone were standing behind me who says with a gentle smile: if I have confidence in your ability to do it, why shouldn’t you? Then I know once again that I am never alone, that I may act to the best of my abilities. And when I have reached the limits of my strength, then angelic powers will already have prepared the next step.
About the author: Alexandra Handwerk is a self-employed anthroposophist.