Clouds and darkness are his raiment

One of the benefits of a fine early autumn is some beautiful sunsets. They are often better than summer sunsets, and this is because they include clouds. I have been a (very proud) member of the Cloud Appreciation Society since 2008, which, given that it takes me ages to get round to joining anything on-line, means that I have been admiring and enjoying clouds for a long time. They are dynamic; they are infinitely various; you cannot encompass them, but you can create one if you are really lucky and gifted. They are silent, but they look as though they are creating waves of sound.

cloud patterns by the sea
Surging chords above a steady bass

We can categorise them, but we keep having to find new terminology, because of their variety; we added a new one only this year. The one thing we can say with certainty about them is that they are beautiful. Even a seemingly uniform layer of grey stratus cloud turns out to have amazing potential when underlit by a setting sun (see below).

Pictures of God

If you want to paint God, and not only in the Western artistic tradition, you tend to picture him surrounded by, or resting upon clouds.  It is the clouds which indicate that it is God, not just an old man.  They are the symbol of divinity (because of course, we have no idea what God looks like).  It’s partly because clouds are above us (unless we go up a high mountain or in an aeroplane), so you have the whole idea of aspiration, for reaching for something higher than ourselves.  Clouds are one of God’s most frequent accompaniments in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, his natural element once the gates of Paradise are shut.

Old Testament clouds

‘Clouds and darkness are his raiment’ is from Psalm 96, and it is a thrilling description of God.  There are lots of clouds in the Old Testament, sometimes as tools of God (the cloudy pillar in Exodus, the screen in Egypt Ps 104.39, the ‘little cloud […] like a man’s hand’ 1 Kings 18, which turns so quickly into a skyful of louring cloud and torrential rain), but mostly there to veil the Lord from human sight.  Simply the cloud itself can represent God: ‘the cloud filled the house of the Lord […] the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord’, 1 Kings 8.11.

Moses finding God in a cloud

God appears to Moses ‘in a dense cloud’ (Exodus 19.10), he calls to Moses ‘from inside the cloud’ (Ex 24.16), and Moses’ authority is established beyond question when he goes up and into the cloud to be with God (24.18).  One of the things that strikes me about this narrative is how disoriented Moses must then have been.  If you climb (or usually nowadays, for most of us, fly) into a cloud, you lose all your reference points.  There is no up, no down, no where from, no where to.  There is only presence and there is now.  This is the only place to meet God.  This is completely different from Adam and Eve’s easy relationship with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the day.  After the Fall, when God is present, he is usually veiled in a cloud, and this continues in the New Testament.

New Testament clouds

The Holy Spirit overshadows Our Lady and she conceives Jesus.  God’s voice comes out of the cloud when he is baptised by John.  At the Transfiguration there is a ‘bright cloud’ with God’s voice. Clouds mean God’s presence, mean heaven; and the disciples’ hearts must have sunk when they saw Jesus disappear into the cloud at the Ascension, because instead of the cloud being above or around all of them, it now divided him from them.   And of course, they would have known about the prophecies in Daniel (the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven) even though the similar clouds in Revelation had not been written about yet.

stacked different clouds
So much room among the clouds
Clouds in the Psalms

The clouds in the psalms are a bit different, because they are not just symbols of God’s greatness, but real observed clouds, which make the psalmist think about God.  God rides on the clouds (Ps 67).  He answers, concealed in the storm cloud (Ps 80).  Clouds and darkness are his raiment, as we’ve already seen.  He makes the clouds his chariot (Ps 103; I hope this is the psalmist recycling the Helios and Phaethon myth, because I’ve always loved it, but I have to admit I don’t have any grounds for that!).  Some of the references just seem like exuberant appreciation of natural phenomena: he summons clouds from the ends of the earth…..from his treasuries he sends forth the wind (and there’s Aeolus with only a bagful) Ps 134.  He calls the stars by their names and covers the heavens with clouds (Ps 146).

Real clouds

These clouds bring rain, seen as a blessing (Ps 83; cf. the Irish superstition that every drop of rain that falls on a wedding brings a blessing, just as well, really);  they make shade, which is both respite and refuge (Pss 62, 120).  But they aren’t only real clouds, as there is a rather nice version of the pathetic fallacy here, long before the Romantics : when God is angry, he conceals himself in a dark cloud, a black cloud (Ps 17), a storm cloud (Ps 80);  the clouds that take people to heaven or bring them back down again are white.  Darkness is as effective as clouds as a covering (that’s why we can only see clouds at night if they are noctilucent), so God can use either or both.  Clouds bring a dynamism to our idea of the Almighty.  When he walks upon the wings of the wind (Ps 103), I imagine him like a power skater with each foot on a blade of cloud (Ps 17: ‘a black cloud under his feet [..] he flew on the wings of the wind’), like one of those skaters in the park that you need to get out of the way of, as Ps 67 warns: ‘Make a highway for him who rides on the clouds’.  Riding on the clouds is exciting.

Other weather events

I was surprised to find that there are more earthquakes and storms associated with God in the Psalms than there are clouds, but I think this is because we do tend to take clouds for granted except when their beauty catches us unawares.  Obviously if you are calling for God to come and sort out your enemies, you are hoping for earthquakes and tempests as being more destructive and certainly more showy.  But when Elijah goes to meet God, first there is a mighty wind, then an earthquake, then fire, and the Lord is not in any of them.  He is a still small voice, or a gentle breeze (choose your translation).  When you are the Almighty, you don’t need to shout, you just be. I am who am.

Like the clouds.  They are just there, raising our hearts because we look up to see them.  If you are ever feeling at all down, go to the Cloud Appreciation Society , click on the gallery of photographs, start the slideshow and just watch.  Artists try to paint cloud and rarely succeed.  God does it every day.

stratus at sunset
Here’s one he made earlier…

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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When did you last see an angel?

Thinking about angels

I love the idea of angels. My larder door is papered with postcards of them.

Postcards of angels on a door
Door full of angels

The peculiar metal light fitting in our kitchen is festooned with little angels, so that I have a chandelier full of them. They vary from paper to wood, to ceramic, to metal, to glass, to fabric; they are all completely different.

Small angel figures attached to a light fitting
Flying angels


Some have faces, some just a suggestion of features, some not even that.  Most have wings, but not all; some are male, some female. Some have musical instruments, a couple hold stars, some have music sheets, one has a fish and a bucket (possibly Tobias’ angel?).  They come from all over the place.  I have another large collection which goes on the Christmas tree, and we have extra angels on duty around the various family cribs.  The feasts of the Archangels (September 29th) and of the holy Guardian Angels (October 2nd) are just coming up and I’ve been looking at the psalms for them.

…and where we get them from

From our early years, when we hear about having a Guardian Angel, into later life listening to them crop up in Sunday readings, they are a mysterious but real presence, and a very comforting one. Our ideas about them are shaped partly by the pictures we see, just as I discussed in the blog on musical instruments. They range from the cuddly little cherubs (with or without bodies), through the strange six-winged seraphim, to the much more anthropomorphic named Archangels (Michael, Raphael etc) and the important but unnamed great angels in the Gospel narrative (the Angel of the Annunciation, the Angels in the garden of Gethsemane).

More complex figures than we might think

Apart from Guardian Angels and cuddly cherubs, angels can be quite intimidating.  In the Old Testament, they occur in slightly odd stories, like the visit to Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18, where the number of people and the pronouns keep changing.  Here I think the angels are being a periphrasis for God himself, and the writer is trying to be hyper-respectful and cautious.  The angels are shadowy figures.  The information we think we have turns out to be traditional rather than scriptural.  Even the original angel who bars the gates of Paradise is not actually supported by the text in Genesis. King James Version :’he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way’. Jerusalem Bible : ‘in front of the garden he posted the cherubs, and the flame of a flashing sword, to guard the way to the tree of life ‘ (Genesis 3, v 24).

What angels are for

The basic meaning of the word angel is a messenger.  God sends them with a message or to do a specific task (or both).  The mechanism is left unclear.  The angel turns up, gives the message, and leaves.  It is usually described as ‘the’ angel, or ‘his’ [God’s] angel, ‘the angel of the Lord’, only occasionally ‘an’ angel and they are usually singular in the OT and plural, funnily enough, in the NT.

Angels in the Psalms

The Psalms are the exception here, as they talk about angels mainly in the plural, almost in the lump, and they don’t actually mention them very often at all.  I think this is because the relationship between the psalmist and God is so direct (I talked about this before in the yearning psalms).  Where angels occur elsewhere in the OT, they are an agency of God, whereas in the psalms, God simply does everything himself with his own hand (Ps 145/146, for example).  Angels do crop up a few times.  There are destroying angels (carrying out God’s will) in Psalm 77/78.  More usually the angels are there to protect and to rescue (Pss 33/34; 90/91), but their main purpose is to praise (Pss 102/103; 134/135; 148/149), and to be there to do God’s will (Pss 34/35; 102/103; 147/148).

Agents of God

The idea of the angels being God’s agents makes sense if you have a lively fear of the Lord (the beginning of wisdom, Ps 111/112, and also Proverbs 9,10), because God is too much for us to cope with. There are some fascinating references to this in modern films and even sci-fi.  In the story Hell is the absence of God by Ted Chiang, even the angels appearing causes death and destruction.  The same thing happens in the film Dogma, and in The Adjustment Bureau, the angels cause havoc (while wearing suits and hats), but this is clearly nothing compared to what might happen if the boss were to intervene.  There is a wonderful line in Psalm 38/39,v 14 : ‘Look away that I may breathe again before I depart to be no more’, where the psalmist cannot withstand even the look of the Lord to whom he prays.  I warmly recommend both these films because they accept a basic religious premise and take it seriously (that’s why I like Ghost, as well, but he’s not an angel).  Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is a bit too cuddly for me, but he raises an interesting question.

Be an angel

If angels are simply one way in which God carries out his will, can we stand in for angels? Or to put it round the other way, have we come across angels and not realised that they were?  The confusion between angels and people isn’t only in the Old Testament.  Paul encourages the Hebrews to be hospitable to strangers ‘for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Heb 13, v 2), which is the other way round, being nice to people because they might be angels, like Baucis and Philemon in the Greek myths.  I think I’ve met angels at least a couple of times, where I needed help and someone just appeared, contributed it and then went away.  Even if they were people, they were angels for me.  And once or twice when talking to someone who was upset about something, when I’ve been able to comfort, I’ve wondered afterwards whether that was getting a chance to be an angel for someone else.  We even say, ‘Be an angel and …’ when asking for help.

Sensible angels with their feet on the ground

NT angels tend to be less scary than OT ones.  They start by saying ‘Fear not’ (the angel at the Annunciation, the angel to the shepherds, Joseph’s angel).  They give sensible advice about avoiding Herod.  They come in a chorus, to sing (I like this version, and when the congregation seems scanty, remember they aren’t the only ones singing). They come to comfort Jesus, to minister to him.  They are practical, rescuing Peter from prison and reminding him to put his cloak on.  They talk in a friendly but firm way to the women after the Resurrection and to the apostles after the Ascension  –  more sensible advice.

Scary angels

There are frightening angels in the book of Revelation, which borrows a lot from Daniel, but in both books they are there to do God’s will and it is clear throughout that he lets them go only so far and no further.  And it’s the wicked who suffer.  Those of us who are trying to be good should be comforted by the idea of angels.  They are on our side, so long as we are on God’s side.

Musical angels

My favourite musical angels are the ones in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, the Guardian Angel who exults over the saved soul she has cherished for so long, and the Angel of the Agony (in the Garden) who pleads for the soul before God.   Wonderful music, quite impossible to have on in the background, because it’s so gripping you have to stop what you are doing and just listen.  There are angels in Messiah, of course, solo and en masse, and I really like that they are the whole of the Chorus instead of being the rarefied version that Mendelssohn gives us in Elijah, with just three female voices (Elgar has a female-only chorus of ‘Angelicals’, but the main group nearer God is all the voices together).

One of my favourite hymns is Angel voices, which was written to celebrate the installation of a new organ in Lancashire in 1861.   I especially like the third and fourth verses, with their references to ‘craftsman’s art and music’s measure’ (verse 3 ) and ‘our choicest psalmody’ (verse 4), where I really feel that it’s written for me.   Sometimes we can be angels for each other, but maybe our most frequent angelic activity is joining in the singing!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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