Fra Angelico was exhausted.
Today had been one of those days where he hadn’t finished his work in time, and so had to continue until it was done. His back had already been stiff and aching, and his eyes bleary. But he’d pushed through, and continued inking the letters on the Gospel page.
Now he collapsed on his cot in his small, whitewashed cell, a single candle burning on the chair, a simple, his only decoration a pine cross on the wall .
He loved this little room. It was so simple, so peaceful. It made it easy to tune out the sounds of the world and focus on his rosary, which he prayed every night.
This night, he wondered if he should give it a pass. His eyelids were heavy, and he kept having to sit up, take a deep breath and shake his head from drowsiness.
He pulled his long, walnut rosary from his belt, blessed himself, and started in on the Creed.
As he prayed, his mind floated around and wandered, listening to a single cricket in the hallway, the grunt of a friar turning over in his sleep in another room, the creaking of his cot as he moved position.
He cleared his throat and tried to focus again on the first Joyful mystery. So long as he kept trying to focus, and was patient with himself, he knew that Our Lady wouldn’t mind if his tired thoughts wandered.
“A good night for a rosary, isn’t it?” Eändelion said. Fra Angelico’s eyes snapped into focus.
His guardian angel sat in his chair, relaxed in his robes of red studded with copper stars, his blond hair bound free of his face.
Fra Angelico sighed. “We have a new task?”
Eändelion smiled. “We do. Are you coming?”
“Of course I am.” Fra Angelico took a deep breath, and glanced at his pillow. Perhaps he could just ask for a brief nap. Then he would be refreshed…
The letterheart appeared out of the air and hovered over his pillow. It signed two letters in its golden core. N.o…
“Can I get a short rest?”
The letterheart shook its wings.
“I’m extremely tired,” he tried.
The letterheart jumped through the air and touched a wing to his cheek. An instant burst of warmth blew from his cheek through the rest of his being, dulling his exhaustion for a while. He felt like he’d just been given a jolt of energy.
Fra Angelico took a deep breath and inhaled the scents of apples and incense. He blessed himself to finish his prayers for now, and tucked his rosary back into his belt. “Well,” he said, standing up and looking at Eändelion. “You’re going to have to finish my rosary for me later. I’ll be too tired on my own.”
Eändelion nodded and stood. “I promise.” He placed his hand on Fra Angelico’s shoulder and then reached toward the wall, grabbing an invisible handle and pulling open a door in a splay of pale light and letters.
Fra Angelico smiled. He wondered how many other doorways there were around the monastery. He plucked his cloak lying on the chair and tossed it around his shoulders.
“We have a quick stop on Mount Carmel,” Eändelion was saying softly as he stepped through into a dark room. “Then it’s to the forges in Angelium.”
Fra Angelico’s ears pricked up. This should be very interesting. “What’s in the forges?” He followed the letterheart through, and the door closed behind them, the wall swallowing up the cracks and edges.
“A new shipment is coming in from Deep Heaven. We will be delivering one to England.”
“New shipment of what?”
“It will be easier to show you.” Eändelion smiled, and gestured Fra Angelico to follow him.
The room was dark, faintly lit by slow morning light. It was a large room, lined with tables and chairs smelling of olive or almond wood. The air seemed to prickle with energy, like sunlight trying to shine out of the air itself. It felt like a place of great and ancient power. “Where are we again?”
“The oratory of Stella Maris on Mount Carmel.”
Excited, Fra Anglico whispered, “In the Holy Land?”
Fra Angelico grinned. Travelling by angel did away with months of travel to reach these places. Not to mention that the Saracens were often hostile to the monks administering to the poor and pilgrims. “It feels very old.”
“It is. It’s built on a mountain sacred to the ancient prophets. All peoples, really. Even the pagans revered this mountain.”
Just then, Fra Angelico banged his ankle into the leg of a stool, and gasped from the pain. The stool staggered around and hit the table loudly, causing a lone pitcher packed with densely fragrant hyacinths to shake and tilt off the edge.
Eändelion reached out calmly and caught it before it hit the ground. He replaced it on the table, pressing a finger to his lips. “The monks are yet abed,” he whispered.
Hopping around and reaching for support, Fra Angelico bit his lip and waited for the pain to die down.
The letterheart ducked down and inspected his foot. Then it bobbed up and down as if to say ‘everything’s fine’. It flew up and out into the hallway.
Setting his foot down again, he glanced up at the angel. “Sorry. I couldn’t see where I was going. So what are we here for?” he asked.
Eändelion stepped into the hallway, looking for something. “I’m looking for the clothes room.”
“Did you already speak to the Principality?”
“He asked us to come. Ah, here it is.”
Fra Angelico was having a hard time seeing the details around him, but he vaguely gathered a room stacked with neatly folded piles of cloth, brown burlap, cotton and other kinds he couldn’t tell. The scents of lavender were strong, coming from sachets tucked into the clothes, and bundles of purple flowers hanging from the ceiling. It was almost overwhelming.
The letterheart floated into the center of the room and glowed brightly.
Fra Angelico stared at it. “Why didn’t you do that earlier?”
The letterheart bobbed its wings, as if to shrug.
“Here, take this,” Eändelion said, reaching for one of the folded piles and handing it to the friar.
“What is it?” Fra Anglico unfolded it and held it out. It was a long, brown tunic that hung from the shoulders, definitely wool, and smelled faintly of a barnyard, or sheep.
“They call it a scapulare. It’s a sturdy garment that monks often wear.”
Fra Angelico frowned. “So why are we here taking a garment from Carmel?”
Eändelion smiled and headed over to the wall. Again, he placed his hand on an unseen handle and pulled a door open, bursts of light and symbols pinwheeling around the edges of the frame.
Through the door, Fra Angelico saw a path between gigantic trees, their trunks a coppery gold marbled with red and white, sweeping up into canopies of brilliant green and yellow, shot through with seams of rich orange.
In the same instant, he was crushed by the great weight of all the glory. It was so holy and so beautiful it was pressing him into the floor. He couldn’t breathe. His bones would shatter in a moment.
Eändelion offered him a vial of bright gold drink. “Here, this will bear you up.” He pressed it the friar’s trembling lips.
Fra Angelico managed to swallow a drop and the pressure eased, like a mountain melting away.
“What was that?” he gasped.
“You are an undead mortal about to enter the fringes of Heaven,” Eändelion said, stoppering the vial. “You are yet unready to handle the glory.”
Clutching the scapulare tightly, Fra Angelico stepped through the doorway and jerked his head around, trying to see everything at once. It was a world of giants.
He stepped onto a path paved with colored glass, beneath which ran a stream of bright, diamond-like water. Each piece of glass was stamped with a symbol so beautiful that Fra Angelico wanted to stop and stare. It was like walking on stained glass windows rippling with light.
He inhaled rich and incredible fragrances, and thought he smelled honey, bitter oranges, wafts of jasmine and beeswax, woody frankincense.
He thought he saw mountains of massive size and depth in the distance, capped with snow and vast structures of gold and stone, like glass palaces. Through gaps in the canopy, islands seemed to float in layered oceans of shifting clouds. The sky was a riot of colored starlight, arranged in dense and detailed constellations.
“There are stars in Heaven?” He pointed up.
Eändelion glanced up. “Those aren’t stars. Those are angels.”
“What are they doing?”
“Dancing, singing, caught up in the glory of God.” Eändelion took off at a brisk trot. “Come, when you die, you can have plenty of time to explore all this.”
Fra Angelico froze. Dying didn’t sound exciting. He looked around again. But if he could come to a place like this, then it would certainly be worth it.
He hurried after his angel and the letterheart. The sounds of song and chant came at him from all sides, a thousand different songs combining into one massive melody. If he listened hard, he could isolate some of the different strains, and each one made his heart beat like an ecstatic puppy.
He thought he saw rivers of light pouring through the forest, and lanterns hanging on each tree. The more he stared, the more he saw that every point of light in this world was an angel, gloriously winged and dressed in rich, multicolored robes embroidered with precious gems and metals.
Up ahead, the forest broke open and a wall so massive it seemed like a mountain filled the world. Fra Angelico pulled up short, staring at the incredible bulk of the walls, sheer, painted with vast frescoes of archangels. Clouds sifted across its ramparts, billowing in the light that came from the other side.
A huge open door led into the cavernous depths of a fortress, lined with topazes and careful detail work. Fra Angelico was surprised to see angels carving details into the lintel of the door, like masons working on a cathedral.
“What are they doing?” He asked.
“Building.” Eändelion shrugged, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Angels are builders, makers, organizers. Our passion is to bring order and beauty, and we are always expanding Heaven, expressing our creativity where we can.” He pointed at the islands in the sky. “Anything we can do to express a facet of the glory of God, we do. I wish you could see it all.” He smiled.
Fra Angelico took a deep breath. Visiting Angelium had a dizzying effect on him. “So what is this place?”
“One of the many forges in Angelium.” Eändelion headed into the passageway. Fra Angelico thought that his entire monastery could comfortably site within the doorframe. He felt like an ant walking into a giant’s home.
Ribbons and cloths of grey and rosy gold hung from the walls, floating in unfelt winds, playing with the light from Seraphite lanterns. Huge depictions of ships stacked with gleaming, armored angels occasionally came to view when the tapestries dropped to rest.
Fra Angelico would have stopped to stare forever if the letterheart hadn’t flown into his face, tapping his tonsure to keep him focused. “Sorry,” he muttered, hurrying to catch up with his guardian angel.
The passageway opened into a vast shipyard, so big it boggled his mind. Angels of varying sizes and colors worked on crafting beams together, hauling cords and crates along ramps and massive quays. Water as clear and bright as diamonds in sunlight filled the floor.
Fra Angelico was shocked into stillness to see some angels so great that their smallest finger was greater than an oak tree. They worked forges as great as stars, rivers of gorgeous molten light pouring into vats and slats of etched glass.
“What are those?” Fra Angelico couldn’t help but point, his mouth hanging open.
“They are all Virtues, the Shining Ones who govern nature, in charge of miracles, seasons, stars and motion.”
“But, Milanwen is a Virtue.”
“You mean he’s small?”
“I told you that much of what we show you is for your benefit. He presents himself as small to you. You could spend a thousand years in this spot alone and have not seen everything that happens in this single forge.”
Fra Angelico saw a flight of angels soaring upward, and followed them with his eyes. He reached out, feeling for the parapet wall to steady himself.
The ceiling overhead was an arched network of massive mosaics hung with lights, tapestries and choirs of chanting angels. Teams of thousands of angels flew in formations, carving pieces of stone and glass and fitting them to the ceiling to make depictions of something that looked like a city, or a world. In fact, the longer he stared, the less it made sense to him.
“What are they doing?”
Eändelion grinned. He reached the edge of the parapet and rested his arms on the edge, staring out over the forgeworks. “Those are other Virtues. They are constantly trying to depict Deep Heaven, where dwell the greatest glories and mysteries of the Trinity.”
“Have you been there?”
Eändelion nodded. “Since the beginning.”
Just then the great far walls of the forge split down the center, grumbling and groaning on hinges as broad as cathedrals. Clouds of angels in colored robes parted in the air, joining together with the great Virtues to chant a song so ancient that Fra Angelico felt like the tiniest of green buds poking its head out of the earth in Spring, to find a forest as old as time itself.
Beyond the doors he saw the heaving billows of a sea as bright as glass, banks of brilliant clouds and constellations hanging over the waters. Statues greater than the entire world itself rose from the deep, holding vast incensers or braziers. That was when Fra Angelico could see that all clouds came from those scented thuribles, their bowls as deep as a planet. In the dim distance, he thought he saw a dim wall studded with gates. But given the distance, he couldn’t imagine how great they were.
“Whats on the other side?” he asked.
“The edges of Deep Heaven,” Eändelion said wistfully. “These boats are a way to cross.”
“You can’t fly there?”
Eändelion grinned. “Of course we can. But we have all eternity to enjoy everything, so we love taking our time.”
Just then, deep horns blew like the advent of a triumphant army. A fleet of ships sailed out of the brightness, one of them heading toward their forge.
“Where is that sunlight coming from?” Fra Angelico asked, holding up his hand to see better.
“That’s not sunlight,” Eändelion laughed. “That’s the glory of God. We have no need of stars or suns here.”
The friar stared at the ships, each one with multiple levels like storeyed cathedrals, the sails as great as entire vineyards, embroidered with layers of images, tiny pictures blending together to form great tapestries.
Fra Angelico’s tired mind was dulled by the amount of delightful detail pressing on him. It was too much to take at once. He pressed the brown scapulare to his eyes to steady himself.
When he opened them, one of the ships had docked at the quay below, the side of the vessel opening up to reveal hundreds of levels of storage rooms and bays, packed with angels and stacked with rows upon rows of armor ribboned to racks.
“Is that the shipment you mentioned?” he asked.
Eändelion nodded. “One of many. They are crafted by the smiths of the Second Triumvirate of Choirs, at the behest of Heaven’s Queen. She has approved a plan to make it easier for man to enter Heaven.”
“Really?” Fra Angelico’s ears pricked up. “Can I wear one of those?”
“Yes, but it will look different when it reaches the mortal realm.”
Eändelion pushed off the parapet, his wings bursting from his shoulders. “Yes.” He glanced down with a smile. “Do you know how hard it is to hide the true, miraculous nature of things from mortals?” He shook his head. “There’s the true miracle.”
“You mean like Our Lord at the Transfiguration, and how He showed the apostles what He was really like?”
“Exactly. After that moment, He hid His true glory from them again.”
“Where are you going?”
“We need to deliver this cloth to the forge.” Eändelion reached down and placed his hand between the friar’s shoulders, just below his neck. They both rose into the air the way they had on the visit to Capernaum, and flew from the edge of the hallway down into the bustle and song of the quays.
The air was thick with so many angels that Fra Angelico had never seen so many people in one place at once. He had visited Rome one year during Christmas, when the Basilica of St. Peter had been choked with thousands of pilgrims. All that was nothing compared to all this.
The letterheart to his side, Eändelion took them over the cascades of armor being removed from the ships and trouped into storage bays within the walls. There were already so many there that they blent together into a wall of glassbright scalemail, each one pressed with the same symbol, hung with rich cloth at the shoulders, and edged with feathered gold.
“What is that symbol?” Fra Angelico pointed at the armor. It was as dense as an illumination, layered with light, and seemed to move on its own.
“The Throne of the Queen. The name of Our Lady herself.”
Fra Angelico’s heart skipped a beat. “What does this armor do?”
“I’ll tell you soon.” Eändelion brought them to land on a great platform lined with smaller forges, manned by angels in gleaming white armor and yellow silks.
Milanwen’s grey robes fluttered in the blast from the forge as he stood away from his desk. “Welcome to Angelium again,” he smiled to Fra Angelico in his quiet, grey way.
Fra Angelico could do nothing but smile, and hold out the scapulare.
“Perfect,” Milanwen murmured deeply. He took it and gestured to one of the angels who held a suit of Marian armor.
The attendant angel laid the armor down on a slab of marble before the open mouth of the forge. Fra Angelico tried to peer into the depths of the fire, but it was too bright for his eyes to handle, and he teared up.
Milanwen laid the brown, cotton cloth over the armor, and taking a hammer and nails made from translucent green stone, he hammered them together. He turned toward the open doors facing Deep Heaven, and with a bow, plucked a golden chain straight out of the air.
Fra Angelico stared. One end of the chain hung in the air as if passing through to another place. Milanwen grabbed the other end and hammered it into place on the armor. Then, he and his attendant angel slid the cloth-covered armor into the forge, waited a moment, and pulled it out again. The chain had now disappeared, but Fra Angelico could feel its intense power in the air like a solid beam of sunlight. The letterheart studied the line of light, as if peering at the details on a manuscript.
He tapped Eändelion’s arm and pointed. “What was that chain?”
“It connects to the throne of the Queen. All these armors will be bound directly to her.”
“I’ll tell you soon.”
Taking up different hammers, the two angels pressed and beat the glowing pile like a gleaming jewel, forcing it into a narrow, slim shape.
“Are they destroying it?” Fra Angelico asked, somewhat worried.
Eändelion shook his head. “In Heaven, nothing is destroyed. It is being changed. Granted,” he waved his hand at the storage bay of armor. “What you see is what your mortal eyes are interpreting.”
“So all this doesn’t actually look like what I’m seeing?” Fra Angelico said.
Eändelion smiled, and nodded slowly. “Exactly. Your undead eyes are limited to a tiny amount of what I can show you.”
Fra Angelico took a deep breath and shook his shoulders. “I’m definitely coming back here someday,” he promised himself.
The letterheart pressed into his chest warmly, and then flew over to the pair of working angels.
They had fashioned the cotton, chain and the armor into a single thing, a narrow strip of something too bright to look at. The attendant angel turned and reached for a long, narrow box sitting on the desk, and held it open.
Carefully, Milanwen picked up the bar of light and placed it into the layers of green silk. Then the box was closed and the light disappeared.
Replacing his hammers on his desk, Milanwen handed the box to Fra Angelico. As he did, the box shrank even further until it was about the length and thickness of his forearm.
“What is it?”
Milanwen patted his shoulder. “Heaven’s Queen is visiting the world soon. This is her gift to a Carmelite. Your angel will tell you more on the way.”
He reached out and pressed his palm against the air, grey mist frothing out from round his fingers, streaming into the shape of a door lined with light and painted with beautiful words. Fra Angelico assumed they were in Angelic.
Then Milanwen pulled open the door to reveal another forest, this time dense with oak and split by seams of alder. The sky was overcast, hints of sunlight filtered through the leaves. Eändelion hugged Milanwen quickly, and then pushed Fra Angelico through the door, followed by the letterheart.
Fra Angelico found a simple forest path, well worn between clouds of golden gorse nestled between the trees. Streamers of hops flowers twirled up around trunks and branches, some in green-yellow clusters, others as paler cone-shaped catkins. The earthiness of hidden fox grape and mats of honey-scented alyssums filled the air.
A pack of deer stared at them and then loped off into the woodlands, calling to each other in throaty barks. Whitethroats and swallows flitted through the leaves, burbling to each other, avoiding the more raucous ravens.
“So where are we going?”
“A hermit’s cell. He will be the father of the Carmelites here in England.”
“And this is for him?”
“Yes. It’s a garment that he and all men can wear.”
“And it’s an armor to protect from evil?”
Eändelion tilted his hand in the air from side to side. “It’s much more than that. It brings with it many promises from the Queen of Heaven. It will not save anyone against their will. Each wearer must cooperate with Heaven’s desire to benefit from it.”
Fra Angelico looked down at the box. “So what was that chain I saw?”
“That is a special privilege from Heaven. It’s called the Sabbatine privilege.”
“if you die well, then on the Saturday after your death, Our Lady herself will come to you and take you to Heaven.”
“So if I died on a Friday…”
“Exactly. Perhaps a few hours cleaning up in Purgatory.”
Fra Angelio hugged the box to his chest. “So what else do we have to do?”
“Observe chastity, pray the Rosary daily, and wear this scapular always. This is the Queen’s pledge of peace, and her special protection until the end of ages.”
“That’s amazing.” Fra Angelico breathed.
Eändelion patted the box. “We angels are often jealous of you mortals. Holy jealousy, that is. There is much that you receive that we can’t. We are glad to share in the glory and beauty of what you are given.”
Fra Angelico stopped and stared at the box in his hands. “So if I wear this, I’m guaranteed to go to Heaven?”
Eändelion shook his head. “Keep up, don’t slow down.” He grabbed Fra Angelico’s elbow and hurried him along. “As with every gift from Heaven, what you do and how much love you have is important. This just makes it easier for you.”
“So everyone wearing one of these is connected to Our Lady’s throne?”
“Exactly,” Eändelion smiled. “Wearing one of these is a silent prayer, a sign of your dedication to her. It is her garment.”
Ahead, the forest faded into a grove split by a frothing stream, hemmed by willows and pines and thickset oaks. A cluster of small homes made of sticks, wattle and white daub housed hearthfires and warm light. The grove was covered under a dome of light like a roiling topaz.
Fra Angelico saw the faint outline of a great Principality with his symbols of office standing on the crown of the dome, surrounded by his ring of words. Angels that looked like faint shadows of light passed into the houses regularly, talking to each other, and carrying messages to the principality or disappearing through doors into what the friar guessed was Angelium. They seemed to be lining the houses with flowers made of light and diamonds, hanging streamers braided in different colors, as if for a great celebration.
“And this is as far as we go,” Eändelion said, pulling Fra Angelico to a halt. An angel came down the road toward them, , his bright orange clothes embroidered with brilliant copper patterns. His wings looked like solid flakes of bronze sunlight, a halo of light bursting from his head like a disc of faceted chrysolite.
“Welcome, good travellers,” the angel said with a great smile, evidently bursting with pleasure to see Fra Angelico. “Thank you for your efforts this day. We prepare for the advent of our Queen.”
Fra Angelico held out the box and bowed. He wished that he could wear it himself.
The angel took it gracefully, bowed deeply, and then turned and floated back toward the grove of homes.
Eändelion sighed. “Time for me to take you back now,” he said, pushing open a door in the air. Fra Angelico saw his own simple cell, lit by the single candle.
“I’ll see you soon?” he asked.
“Always. I see you all the time.” Eändelion winked.
The letterheart spiraled around Fra Angelico’s legs and then touched his tonsure with a wing, as if saying good bye.
Fra Angelico stepped halfway through the door, and turned to look one last time at the cascade of angels around the homes. “Wish I could stay to see this,” he murmured.
At that moment, it was like the world behind the smallest home split into a coruscating wall of windows and fragmented light, bending backwards like doors hauled open from the other side. An explosion of brilliance filled the forest, blotting out the sunlight, every color becoming darker and richer, every scent stronger, every sound clearer. Armies of angels poured through, filling the air in reams of armor, wings and ornamented silks.
A single person was coming through the light, so bright that Fra Angelico couldn’t breathe. The sense of that vast, crushing glory was pressing on him again. And yet, his heart leaped into his throat in such excitement and joy. He recognized who was coming, before he could even see her.
And then Eändelion closed the door, a whisper of words in the friar’s mind, “This is not for you my friend.”
Fra Angelico stumbled into the silent darkness of his cell, breathing heavily, suddenly exhausted all over again. He slumped onto his cot, running his mind over the trip to Mount Carmel, then the incredible forge in Angelium, and then glimpse of that figure in the light.
He kicked off his shoes, lay back and pulled out his rosary again. Glancing over at the crucifix, he replied to Eändelion in his mind. “I’ll pray what I can for now, but I’m not staying awake long. You’ll finish it for me?”
A thought entered his mind, no words, just the full thought.
“Of course I will.”