In Love’s Service Only Wounded Soldiers Can Serve: Thornton Wilder’s “The Angel The Troubled the Waters”

As discussed with paper-throwing panache by Paul Zahl at the 2009 Mockingbird Conference in his […]

Drake / 3.28.09

As discussed with paper-throwing panache by Paul Zahl at the 2009 Mockingbird Conference in his session “Grace in Literature,” one of Wilder’s three-minute plays for three people:

THE NEWCOMER, an invalid

A great pool of water.

The pool: a vast gray hall with a hole in the ceiling open to the sky. Broad stone steps lead up from the water on its four sides. The water is continuously restless and throws blue reflections upon the walls. The sick, the blind and the malformed are lying on the steps. The long stretches of silence and despair are broken from time to time when one or another groans and turns in his rags, or raises a fretful wail or a sudden cry of exasperation at long-continued pain. A door leads out upon the porch where the attendants of the sick are playing at dice, waiting for the call to fling their masters into the water when the angel of healing stirs the pool. Beyond the porch there is a glimpse of the fierce sunlight and the empty streets of an oriental noonday.

Suddenly the Angel appears upon the top step. His face and robe shine with a color that is both silver and gold, and the wings of blue and green, tipped with rose, shimmer in the tremulous light. He walks slowly down among the shapeless sleepers and stands gazing into the water that already trembles in anticipation of its virtue.

A new invalid enters.

THE NEWCOMER: Come, long-expected love. Come, long-expected love. Let the sacred finer and the sacred breath stir up the pool. Here on the lowest step I wait with festering limbs, with my heart in pain. Free me, long-expected love, from this old burden. Since I cannot stay, since I must return into the city, come now, renewal, come, release.

[Another invalid wakes suddenly out of a nightmare, calling: “The Angel! The Angel has come. I am cured.” He flings himself into the pool, splashing his companions. They come to life and gaze eagerly at the water. They hang over the brink and several slide in. Then a great cry of derision rises: “The fool! Fool! His nightmare again. Beat him! Drive him out into the porch.” The mistaken invalid and his dupes drag themselves out of the water and lie dripping disconsolately upon the steps.]

THE MISTAKEN INVALID: I dreamt that an angel stood by me and that at last I should be free of this hateful place and its company. Better a mistake and this jeering than an opportunity lost.

[He sees the Newcomer beside him and turns on him plaintively]

Aie! You have no right to be here, at all events. You are able to walk about. You pass your days in the city. You come here only at great intervals, and it may be that by some unlucky chance you might be the first one to see the sign. You would rush into the water and a cure would be wasted. You are yourself a physician. You have restored my own children. Go back to your work and leave these miracles to us who need them.

THE NEWCOMER [Ignoring him; under his breath]: My work grows faint. Heal me, long-expected love; heal me that I may continue. Renewal, release; let me begin again without this fault that bears me down.

THE MISTAKEN INVALID: I shall sit here without ever lifting my eyes from the surface of the pool. I shall be the next. Many times, even since I have been here, many times the angel has passed and has stirred the water, and hundreds have left the hall leaping and crying out with joy. I shall be the next.

[The Angel kneels down on the lowest step and meditatively holds his finger poised above the shuddering water.]

THE ANGEL: Joy and fulfillment, completion, content, rest and release have been promised.

THE NEWCOMER: Come, long-expected love.

THE ANGEL [Without turning makes himself apparent to the Newcomer and addresses him]: Draw back, physician, this moment is not for you.

THE NEWCOMER: Surely, surely, the angels are wise. Surely, O prince, you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught; the sin into which all my endeavors sink half performed cannot be concealed from you.

THE ANGEL: I know.

THE NEWCOMER: It is no shame to boast to an angel of what I might yet do in love’s service were I but freed from this bondage.

THE MISTAKEN INVALID: Surely the water is stirring strangely today! Surely I shall be whole!

THE ANGEL: I must make haste. Already the sky is afire with the gathering host, for it is the hour of the new song among us. The earth itself feels the preparation in the skies and attempts its hymns. Children born in this hour spend all their lives in a sharper longing for the perfection that awaits them.

THE NEWCOMER: Oh, in such an hour was I born, and doubly fearful to me is the flaw in my heart. Must I drag my shame, prince and singer, all my days more bowed than my neighbor?

THE ANGEL [Stands a moment in silence]: Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back.

[He swiftly kneels and draws his finger through the water. The pool is presently astir with running ripples. They increase and a divine wind strikes the gay surface. The waves are flung upon the steps. The Mistaken Invalid casts himself into the pool, and the whole company lurches, rolls or hobbles in. The servants rush in from the porch. Turmoil. Finally the no-longer Mistaken Invalid emerges and leaps joyfully up the steps. The rest, coughing and sighing, follow him. The Angel smiles for a moment and disappears.]

THE HEALED MAN: Look, my hand is new as a child’s. Glory be to God! I have begun again. [To the Newcomer] May you be the next, my brother. But come with me first, an hour only, to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I – I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood. Only an hour… my daughter, since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us…


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12 responses to “In Love’s Service Only Wounded Soldiers Can Serve: Thornton Wilder’s “The Angel The Troubled the Waters””

  1. Joshua Corrigan says:

    Ha! What a moment of pure abreaction! So glad to have been there.

  2. Jeff Hual says:

    I read this for the first time at JFK while waiting for my flight and ended up abreacting in the middle of a crowded resturant.

    The funny thing is, I can’t read this without being deeply effected by it, even now. It seems literally to be a dogwhistle for me. When I tried to read it to my wife a little while ago, it effected me as if I were reading it for the first time.

    Thank you all for an outstanding conference.

  3. Jeff Hual says:

    Meant to say it affected me, not effected me…sorry, got home after midnight last night and am running on pure coffee at this point, but the conference was certainly worth it…much thanks to all of you.

  4. sbrbaby says:

    I love the painting reminding me that Jesus was wounded too… I hadn’t thought about it until now. What hope there is in that!

  5. Colton says:

    INCREDIBLE words. thanks for sharing. hate that i had to miss what was, by all accounts, a sublime weekend in NYC.

  6. John Stamper says:

    Hey Drake. Thanks for drawing everybody to this moment of the conference.

    I think this will come up time and again for us at Mbird, in our lives and ministry, and so is especially worth us thinking about.

    It’s just such a shocking idea — that a person’s affliction, perhaps even a moral affliction, may be essential to how God uses him in love and service to others.

    One thinks of course of St. Paul begging to be delivered from his own “messenger of Satan” in his flesh, but also when he writes in 1 Cor:

    “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

    And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are”

    PS. As an aside, my own personal take on THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and especially on all the love that Tolkien showers on Gollum, the special pity and belovedness he has for this most wretched of his characters — my take is that the whole of LOTR is basically one gigantic symphonic riff on this passage from 1 Cor 1.

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