In my early twenties I lived at the Findhorn Foundation, an educational center in the north of Scotland. Each December community members gathered to place their names in a hat for a game of “Angels and Mortals.” We each secretly drew one name from the hat, and that person become our “Mortal.” For the next month, until Christmas Day, each “Angel” was responsible for overseeing the care of our fatefully chose “Mortal” by anonymously leaving small gifts or arranging special happenings.
One year I drew my roommate Karen’s name from the hat. I began to plan what I would do for her. Knowing she was diabetic, I purchased a sugar-free carob bar and stashed it under her pillow.
When she discovered the carob bar the next morning, she sighed, clearly exasperated.
“My Angel doesn’t have a clue about what I like,” she said.
She missed the momentary hurt that registered on my face. I bit my lip, knowing I could not react to any of her comments without divulging my identity.
“I know what I’ll do,” said Karen. “My friend Carol wrote a long letter to her Angel with a list of everything she liked and wanted. Carol figured her Angel had no idea who she was or what she liked, because the gifts were so off base. I think I’ll do the same. Then I won’t be so frustrated. It should save a lot of hassle for my Angel, too.”
Later that day I received a three-page letter addressed to “Karen’s Angel.” She carefully outlined what she wanted and noted she hoped the letter would help as “you clearly don’t know me very well.”
I read the list and began to incorporate what I could. I also created other surprises, like finding someone to read Karen a story in the evening and then tuck her into bed with a cup of hot tea. I created a treasure hunt, complete with mystical clues about the stations on life’s journey. The hunt took her to remote parts of the sprawling, nineteenth-century hotel where we lived. The clues brought her back to the same starting place, where a final note read:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– TS. Eliot, 4 Quartets
Karen gave me a detailed description of her treasure hunt that night. “It was so cool!” she exclaimed. “I think I’ll set up the same treasure hunt for my Mortal.”
For once, I knew I had scored.
Christmas morning arrived. The community buzzed with an extra level of holiday excitement, as this was the day our Angels would be revealed. Each Angel had wrapped one final gift for his or her Mortal and placed it under the tree. The card accompanying the gift was signed with our earthly names.
Someone dressed as Santa began to distribute the gifts. Excited squeals of laughter punctuated the gift opening as Mortals discovered the identity of their Angel.
Karen opened her gift.
“Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed as she read the card. She looked across the room and smiled at me. “Thank you!”
I smiled back. “You are so welcome!”
A couple of minutes passed. Karen was standing at my side, her brow creased with concern.
“Judith, id I hurt your feelings with some of the things I said?”
I reached up and gave her a hug.
“No, Karen, not at all. I learned a lot about giving and receiving.”
In truth, I had learned a lot. In Buddhist teachings, they speak “princely” and “kingly” giving. When I gift someone, do I extend that present with as much inner wealth and generosity as a prince, or a king? Do I give fully and completely, or am I miserly in my giving, worried about my own loss?
That December I learned an equally great art, that of “princely” and “kingly” receiving. Can I receive the gifts offered me with as much grace as a prince or king? Can I receive the love embodied in each gift, regardless of whether I like the object or not? Can I hold that gift with gratitude, as if I held a precious diamond in my hand?
I began to see that I can experience giving only if someone else is able to receive. I can extend the same grace to another person by deeply appreciating the gifts I receive. In a culture that focuses so much on getting, we seem to have lost the art of receiving. Perhaps Karen, like so many of us, wanted to get the things she wanted more than she wanted to receive what her Angel had to give.
I wonder how many gifts my celestial angels have tried to give me that I have been unwilling or unable to receive? How often have I rejected gifts because they were the wrong color, the wrong material, poorly timed, too expensive, too cheap, too big, too small . . . the list is endless. In the process I realize I have cut myself off from the love that was embodied in those packages. I have divorced myself from the grace my angels tried to extend.
“We are each other’s angels,” a friend recently reminded me. I continue to practice the art of both kingly giving and receiving. I’m far from perfect. I hope I haven’t offended my angels too badly with my pauper’s skill.
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