When Divine Messengers Visit

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During Advent, members of Pilgrim will tell brief stories of how God has manifested in their lives.  Johanna, a young Biblical scholar, told her story Dec. 21.   The following are her words:

In Luke chapter one, the angel Gabriel appears to the young Mary to announce her coming pregnancy. Gabriel enthusiastically commands her to “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (v. 28). In spite of the angel’s words, Mary reacts less than joyfully: “When she saw (him), she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was” (v. 29). It is clear from Gabriel’s response (“Do not be afraid…” v. 30) that Mary was not joyful at being counted among God’s favorites, but rather, afraid.

It seems illogical to fear God’s blessing, but Mary’s reaction shows that she knows the biblical traditions well. While researching a paper for school, I came across Jon Levenson’s work on a “beloved son” motif found throughout Genesis. Everywhere a son is considered beloved, often in spite of inferior birth order, his belovedness proves to be not only a blessing but a danger to his life. Abel was murdered because Cain was jealous of his favored status. Isaac was favored over his older brother and was almost sacrificed, on God’s command. God allowed Jacob to usurp Esau’s blessing but it led to exile and the threat of death. Joseph and Benjamin, both favored by their father, faced near death because of their status. 

God’s blessing therefore has a darker side; it threatens life, well-being, and family. This theme is reflected not only in the stories Levenson discusses, but throughout the Bible, in all its diverse sources and traditions. Abraham was chosen by God to leave his family, land, and possessions behind. It wasn’t until he had lost all hope of offspring that God gave him Isaac, and then God asked for Isaac back. Later, prophets like Jonah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, suffered a similar “blessing”: persecution, imprisonment, and death. God even asked Ezekiel to eat human feces, although when Ezekiel protested, God agreed to cow dung instead.

Mary knew these stories, and they must have come immediately to mind when she heard Gabriel pronounce, “Blessed are you among women!” She was right to be afraid. Becoming pregnant before her marriage to Joseph was a threat to her life, reputation, and well-being. God asks the most from his most favored, and that is what stuck in my mind when I read this story with the Pilgrim Way group in October. 

Although I don’t consider myself specially favored by God, I have often accused God of asking too much of me.  I have felt anxiety eat me up as Mary must have, waiting to find out what would happen when her pregnancy was discovered.  Awhile ago, I got very sick with anorexia. As I waited to get into treatment, my condition worsened. The anxiety that caused me to starve myself in the first place was exacerbated by prolonged starvation.  The same anxiety was further multiplied when childhood trauma that lay at the root of my eating disorder began to surface. The memory came back in a rather violent physical form; I constantly felt as though I was choking.  I needed inpatient treatment, but the only inpatient facility in Minnesota available to me at the time was Methodist EDI, which admits people based on their physical status—for the most part, only those who are in danger of imminent death. My labs were safe, and my weight was still relatively normal due to a lot of muscle mass, although my body fat was very low. I knew this could be an obstacle before doing the intake, but I also knew I couldn’t survive much longer in the outside world with the sheer terror caused by post-traumatic stress. So I waited anxiously.

That was when I had a dream, my own divine messenger. In it, I heard someone come into my room at night. I was terrified but paralyzed. The next morning (still in the dream), I found that my bookshelf had fallen over and made a huge mess. My sister was there in the dream and she began cleaning up the mess for me. I went to the bathroom, and on the way there I met a dietician who showed me the amount of food I should eat to be healthy. In the bathroom, I saw that my sister had thrown out a bunch of lettuce and tomatoes (diet food) that had been on the shelf before it fell. I went back to my room to eat what the dietician suggested, and I saw that my sister had transformed my vertical bookshelf into a horizontal one that ran along the floor. I realized that no one had come into my room the night before; the bookshelf was unstable and fell on its own.  I had always had a tendency to arrange things precariously in my room, something my sister has commented on in real life, joking that the reason I kept my room so messy when I lived at home was so that no one else could come in. Looking back, I can see how true her statement might be; my messiness and precarious organization may have served a subconscious need to protect myself against nightly intruders. But the bookshelf my sister gave me in the dream was stable, balanced, and grounded, its contents ordered instead of chaotic. She had saved me from the mess and instability of my life.

I knew this dream was a sign to call my sister, who lived in another state. She mentioned a friend that worked at a treatment center in Florida called Renfrew, a residential facility that bases the length of stay on physical and mental status (as one might expect from mental health treatment).  I stayed there for three months, the beginning of a long journey toward recovery.

It was hard to go to Methodist and hear that I wasn’t thin enough for them, that I was too crazy to be admitted to their floor–the doctor told me it was not locked, unlike every other eating disorder facility I have heard of. (I found out later from some of its patients that it actually is locked, meaning sharps and alcohol are restricted.)  I felt very ashamed, like Mary must have when she became pregnant with Jesus. But when I learned more about Methodist, I saw that the treatment offered there would not have helped me the way Renfrew did. God’s way, with all of its agonizing uncertainty, was right in the end. Like Mary, I had only to wait—as hard as that is—for God’s plans to be born in my life.

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