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The Art of being an angel

“…At this hour the soul floats weightlessly

through the city streets, speechless and invisible,

astonished by the smoky blend of grays and golds

seeping out of the air, the dark half-tones…”

- Edward Hirsch, Poor Angels

My education on the real nature of angels began in Pictou County Nova Scotia. There, Father Colin Mackinnon, the local priest in Lismore and Arisaig parishes, was someone whose angelic presence carried a studied message of peace. I can still hear his voice addressing the congregation. “My dear people…” was the way he always began his homilies.

Here in Paris, on the sidewalk and in classrooms, I have been speechless before other kinds of angels.

Michel sits on a little pillow in front of a bakery I pass on my way to school. To many in a hurry, he is invisible. He is a thin, bearded man with gentle hazel eyes. The first day I stopped to talk to him he rose from his seat to meet my gaze.

“It’s cold but I’m not cold.” he proclaimed. "Im used to it. I'm from Normandy."

As we have spent time standing together, I have learned that his hometown is “L’Aigle” the French word for eagle. Like many places in France, it is famous for good food. Now I know it also provides another of nourishment: companionship.

Twice a week on my way to classes about the mystery of the Trinity and the hilarious dogmas about the Virgin Mary, I relish finding Michel at his usual spot. I can’t put into words the feeling of his presence. But I can say that I am the pauper in our relationship. Michel’s peace is the wealth I seek.

And then there is Constance: a real, live guardian angel who does seem to float weightlessly above the mundane.

As it happens, Constance was the name I chose when I was encouraged to name my guardian angel at St Francis Church in Hoboken, New Jersey many years ago. There, another angelic priest confided to the congregation that he called his preferred pure being Guido.

I didn’t imagine ever actually encountering Constance when I named her, but all these years later there she was heralding her kind of peace. In one of my classes here in Paris, she sat near me in adorable disarray. Her veil was often slipping off, her habit loosely wrapped around civilian clothes.

She was always smiling when she wasn’t falling asleep during our lectures. Until the day she arrived alert to present a thrilling talk on the cinema she saw in stained glass windows, each panel telling another part of a story.

Ever since we’ve shared regular walks together by the Seine River. I am fascinated by her religious life. Her example is daunting. Her daily work schedule – she is a teacher – is irrigated by several pauses to pray with her order. She is definitely as constant as I am erratic. But our ways of finding Grace seem to complement each other when we compare notes.

Last weekend, veering far from constant routine, I didn’t feel like going to church. My heart was yearning for the spiritual sustenance that organized worship can prepare my heart to receive but often cannot completely fulfill. While I am grateful to be in the company of angels at a mass, there is something about the extraordinary souls who carry the message of hope beyond hallowed halls that touches me more deeply.

So imagine my astonishment at finding Michel standing at a cafe I stopped in at on Sunday instead of going to church.

Poised at the counter enjoying a coffee, he held two big shopping bags. “Necessities for the girls” he explained, referring to the daughters his begging helps to provide for.

We stood together for some time in silence. Then I asked about his wife whom he has never mentioned all this time.

“She is gone,” he shrugged and pointed upwards. She was from Algeria. “We were mixed,” Michel said softly. His eyes watered a little but he kept smiling. “Well, time to go and wake up my daughters,” he said.

When I asked him if I would see him by the bakery later he reminded me, “Today is the Sabbath. Everybody needs a day of rest...”

Maybe that is every angel’s unwitting message: Rest and be ready to recognize the dear people whose presence makes gold the dark halftones of day. In Pictou as in Paris, why, everywhere, there are angels heralding the peace born of silent hours shared.

Magdalena Randal is an artist and filmmaker from Nova Scotia currently studying in Paris.

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