“‘Now you shall see an angel’; and as he spoke, he drew up the curtain, when the maiden beheld herself reflected in a mirror.” This charming story about Emanuel Swedenborg and a young visitor to his garden may sound like a fanciful legend, but it seems to have actually happened. (See below for information about the original source.) It is a favorite with New Church children, and has been told in New Church elementary schools since the 19th century, often in connection with Swedenborg’s birthday celebrations:
“As this was the eve of the anniversary of Swedenborg’s birth it was thought to be a fitting occasion for giving some instruction concerning him. Accordingly after the dancing, which followed the pleasant and frugal supper, the entire school assembled to listen to a short account of Swedenborg from Chancellor Benade. Although the remarks were comprehensible to the youngest pupils, whose knowledge of the subject dates from yesterday, so to speak, they were nonetheless interesting to the older pupils and teachers. At the close of these remarks one of the students of Theology read a poem which he had ably translated from the Swedish. It told in the metre of the original, of a dear little girl who went to Swedenborg with the request that he would permit her to see an angel. After listening kindly to her child-like prattle he led her to a mirror, and showed her the image of herself, and thus granted her prayer” (New Church Life 1887, 62).
The story has been depicted in a bronze relief on the pedestal of a bust of Swedenborg in Maria Square, Stockholm, by the Swedish artist Gustav Nordahl. (See photos of Nordahl’s 1973 bust from the “Swedenborg’s Sweden” trip co-sponsored by Bryn Athyn College and Glencairn Museum in 1998. See also the 1992 painting below by a third grade student in the Bryn Athyn Church School, Bryn Athyn, PA.)
The poem described above was written by the Swedish poet Carl Snoilsky (1841-1903), and translated from the Swedish by Academy of the New Church theology student Ansgarius Boren:
ON Stockholm’s Southside Mountains children play
Round yards and lumber,
Where butterflies and swallows play as they
In endless number.
Here innocence and joy without a spell
Assert their power,
Until at last is heard the vesper-bell
From Marie’s Tower.
Then Anna to her playmate nods good-night
As to a brother,
And starts for home, obedient, neat, and bright,
To sup with mother.
And as she went she in her mind proposed
The childish measure:
To reproduce, by keeping eyelids closed,
Her last night’s pleasure:
A dream of children fair with flowers in hand,
With golden tresses,
With friendly smiles, with wreaths so bright and grand
And snowy dresses.
“I wonder if the angels look so sweet,”
She ponders quietly,
When at her mother’s door her little feet
Are stepping lightly.
But there she stops, turns round, and—heaves a sigh,
What is there ailing?
Ah! she beholds a little building nigh,
Beyond the railing.
“There, in that house, the kind Assessor stays
He must feel lonely,
Yet he sees angels, so dear mamma says;
Oh! that I only—
He is an odd old man with wrinkled face;
It is the rumor
That in his gentle eye no man can gaze
With wicked humor
I met him yesterday, and—kind he is
He gave me lots of candy and a kiss;
Upon my temple.”
And now she reached the kind Assessor’s ground
—Her face all blushes—
And to his summer-house the way she found
Among the bushes.
The darling of her tender, childish mind
Is worth admiring.
She stands within and says, “Good sir, be kind!
I am desiring
To see a lovely angel.” It is told—
Then she grows pale, for she is not so bold
As her oration.
Yet timidly she looks on that old knight,
He who is able
To speak with angels, there he sits to write
Before his table.
He smiles. “You want to see, my golden ray,
An angel, is it?
You seek your chance; walk out with me, I pray!
You must not miss it.”
Cloudless the sun is setting; all is quiet;
Grand as an aria
Stands forth his garden with its blossoms bright,
And sweet fragraria.
And she is guided through a passage green;
But she walks slowly:
Each moment now some angels might be seen
On grounds so holy.
To her ’tis holy ground in highest sense,
For she supposes
The seer speaks with heaven’s pure denizens
Among those roses.
A window in the stockade stopped their route,
To little Anna quite a nice lookout
Its frame presented.
He says, “There you may see, my sugar pill,
An angel’s features!
Be bold; there are behind the windowsill
No wicked creatures”
Yet is the glass which now receives her gaze,
—That window lonely,
In which, indeed, she sees a handsome face—
A mirror only.
From Swedenborg she then receives a kiss.
She thinks intently,
And, with a basket full of strawberries
Goes homeward gently.
(New Church Life 1887, 62-63) A copy of the poem in the original Swedish is here.
As for the historical accuracy of the story, at least one writer has pronounced it “quite authentic” (Olle Hjern, “Swedenborg in Stockholm,” in Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision, 1988, 329). The anecdote was originally related in a letter from the girl’s grandson, Anders Fryxell, to Bernhard von Beskow, who included it in a biographical sketch of Swedenborg read before the Swedish Academy in 1859. The translation below was published by Rudolph Tafel in 1877:
“My grandmother, Sara Greta Askbom, who was married to Anders Ekman, councilor of commerce and burgomaster, had grown up in the neighbourhood of Björngårdsgatan in the Södermalm, where her father lived not far from Swedenborg, with whom he had frequent intercourse. The pretty maiden, only fifteen or sixteen years old, had often asked ‘Uncle’ Swedenborg to show her a spirit or an angel. At last he consented, and leading her to a summer-house in his garden, he placed her before a curtain that had been lowered, and then said, ‘Now you shall see an angel;’ and as he spoke, he drew up the curtain, when the maiden beheld herself reflected in a mirror” (Rudolph Leonard Tafel, Documents Concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg, vol. II, part II, 1877, 724-725).
Photos: Ed Gyllenhaal
More about Swedenborg’s garden is here: “Swedenborg as Gardener”