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‘It is an understatement to say that angels have gone out of style. We prefer not to think of them for fear of being confronted with a painful and insoluble dilemma. Either we must affirm with the Church the existence of these mysterious beings and thus find ourselves in the disagreeable company of the naive and uninformed, or else frankly speak out against their existence and be in the equally unpleasant situation of rejecting the faith of the Church and the obvious meaning of the Gospels. The majority, therefore, choose to express no opinion at all.’
Angels, however, refuse to be consigned to a liturgical waste basket. Popular belief in them will not go away. In fact, belief in angels is at an all-time high, rivalling the level of angel beliefs that peaked during the Middle Ages.
What accounts for this new popularity of angels? There are several major factors. Perhaps the leading factor is a collective sense of lack of control. Every day, we turn on the radio or television and get a litany of bad news. We feel overwhelmed by pressures and circumstances that seem beyond our influence: drugs, crime, homelessness, economic problems, political and social instability, war, disease, famine, and an increasingly toxic environment. We long for help – some sort of divine intervention that, at least if it cannot change things on a large scale, can at least brighten our own little sphere.
Another significant factor in the popularity of angels is that they are an appealing form of divine intervention. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, who is abstract and has no form or face, angels are personable. According to our mythology, they can assume the form of beautiful humans. They are loving, benevolent, wise, patient and capable of bestowing miracles – or so we perceive them to be (according to Scripture, however, angels will punish humans if that is God’s directive.) We view angels as always with us – they never desert us, no matter how poorly we perform. And even though they do not always save us from catastrophe, they stand ready as a source of strength to help us through all our trials. We seem to have a great, collective hunger for spiritual guidance that is personal and intimate, a hunger that is not being met through conventional religion. Angels are our personal companions, our guides, our protectors.
Another major factor in their current popularity is our increasing openness to paranormal experience. Popular interest in the paranormal and things spiritual has gone through cycles in the past. The present interest is part of the so-called Aquarian Age or New Age, which gained momentum around the 1960s.
A most unusual angel encounter, which involved the archangel Michael, happened to a dear friend of mine, Juliet Hollister. The encounter is unusual because it featured a vivid visual apparition, clear telepathic communication and some odd synchronicities with other people.
Juliet is founder of the Temple of Understanding, the second oldest interfaith organization in the world. Juliet has travelled the world and has had audiences with, and has been entertained by, an impressive list of heads of state, spiritual leaders and other luminaries.
One might think that Juliet’s work with the leaders of the world’s major religions would bring her into constant contact with the angel kingdom. Far from it. Many of those leaders with whom she works are openly skeptical of the existence of angels, considering them metaphors or literary devices.
Her earliest encounter with other worlds took place when she was a child growing up in a suburb of New York. Juliet was fond of her grandfather and looked forward every summer to visits at his home. One afternoon in 1920, when Juliet was eight, her mother told her, ‘Grandpa has gone to another world.’ Two years later, when Juliet once again visited her grandfather’s old farm, she looked up from playing in the garden to see Grandpa, looking solid and real as if he were still alive. She received a mental message: ‘Surprised, aren’t you, little granddaughter. I just popped by to let you know I am keeping an eye on you.’ And with that, he was gone.
Juliet told her mother, who dismissed the episode as a trick of afternoon sunlight and a child’s imagination. Juliet knew better, and repressed talking about Grandpa’s visit.
Juliet’s encounter with the archangel Michael took place in October 1984, as she was preparing for the sixth Spirit Summit Conference sponsored by the Temple of Understanding. The conference was to take place at St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, located in Manhattan, New York. The audience was expected to number eight to ten thousand people – a standing room only crowd inside the giant and elegant cathedral.
At the end of the daylong conference, a candlelight ceremony was scheduled to take place. Juliet was to be included in this ceremony, delivering a fifteen-minute talk on the Temple, its purpose and its activities. The prospect of making a speech in front of so many of the world’s religious leaders and so many people made Juliet nervous. She slaved away over her speech, and rehearsed it again and again.
The conference was on Sunday, October 7. The final rehearsal was slated for the Friday night before. Juliet travelled to Manhattan on the Friday afternoon and settled into her hotel room. She took a shower and lay down to rest.
As she was getting ready to rise and dress, Juliet suddenly became aware of a presence in the form of a huge column of light standing at the foot of her bed. She perceived the outline of a figure and sensed that it was an angel, though she did not see wings or a face.
Juliet was startled but not frightened. She’d believed in angels all of her life, and knew they didn’t show up without good reason – just to check out a hairdo, as she put it later. As she studied it, the presence began to communicate telepathically with her.
‘You’re going to be speaking at the cathedral, and angels have a lot to do with holy, sacred places,’ the angel told her. ‘We guard them. Millions of people don’t believe in us, but we are real entities. On behalf of the angelic kingdom, we would appreciate it if, when you make your speech, you would tell the people about us, that we are real, that we love the human race, and that we would like to work on behalf of it. But we can’t unless we’re invited to do so. We don’t enter the life of a human unless we’re asked. We are very eager to help.’
This message overwhelmed Juliet. Never had she thought of saying anything about angels in her little speech. She replied to the figure of light, ‘I really do believe you’re an angel. In fact, I kind of think you’re the archangel Michael, although there’s no reason why I should have one of the top ones show up. I’d love to do anything to help this planet and all the people on it, but I don’t altogether trust myself here. I tell you what, I’ll make a bargain with you. I’ll do it if you do something to confirm that I’m not hallucinating, that I’ve got this straight.’
The form of light disappeared. Juliet rose, dressed and left the hotel to hail a taxi to go to the cathedral. It was a blowing, cold evening at rush hour on a Friday night. Anyone who has ever been in New York under those conditions knows how difficult it is to find a free taxi. Dozens and dozens roar by, all occupied, no matter where you are in that huge city. And so Juliet stood on the corner waiting in vain for a cab. Fifteen, twenty minutes went by. She grew anxious about arriving on time for the rehearsal.
Then she was struck by what seemed to be a brilliant idea. She said out loud, ‘Okay, Michael, here’s your chance. I’m in a jam. I’ve got to get up to the cathedral and I’m running late. Surely in all of Manhattan, you can find one cab that’s empty!’
Within minutes, a free taxi pulled up and she hopped in. Now Juliet grew up in New York and had been in hundreds of taxis. She always looked at the dashboard for the driver’s photos of his children or wife, or little images of saints, Jesus or the Virgin Mary that are commonly fastened to the dash. But in all her years, she had never seen anything like what greeted her that evening. There stuck onto the dashboard was a cheap plastic statue of a winged form that bore the words, The Right Archangel Michael. And it was huge – nearly a foot high.
For a moment, Juliet couldn’t speak. This was too weird – even synchronicity seemed unable to explain this incredible ‘coincidence.’
The driver was named Tony, according to the license visible on the dash. Finding her voice, Juliet stammered, ‘Tony, tell me, what are you doing with the archangel Michael here in your cab?’
Tony turned to her and said, ‘Lady, let me tell you, he’s a special friend of mine – he’s my best friend Mike!’
‘Your friend Mike?’
‘You don’t know about Mike?’ Tony asked. ‘Hey, he’s the greatest! Let me tell you, my wife, she gets mad at me, she throws the spaghetti across the kitchen or whatever, I call on Mike and ask him, how do you handle women. The kids get in trouble in school, I call on Mike. I can’t pay the rent, I call on Mike. I really recommend him to you – he can do anything! Of course I have him in my cab. Who else would I have?’
Throughout the journey Juliet heard a lecture on the virtues of the archangel Michael, and why he was Tony’s best and greatest friend. At St. John the Divine, she got out and paid Tony, and he drove off, his statue of Michael standing like a guiding beacon on the dash.
Juliet said to herself, ‘All right, Juliet, you asked for a message, and now you’ve got to keep your promise.’ She was determined to keep up her end of the deal, despite some trepidation at the response of ecclesiastical authorities to a message that angels are real.
Inside the cathedral, she asked a docent what angel or angels, guarded it. One graced the roof, but she didn’t know its identity.
‘The archangel Michael watches over this cathedral,’ the docent told her.
The answer was hardly a surprise.
The following night at the conclusion of the conference – a huge success – Juliet said her little piece about how angels are not just pretty Renaissance paintings, but are real, and desire to help humanity. But they cannot do so unless humans ask for their help.
Nobody fainted away in horror at the idea. In fact, for weeks afterward, Juliet received an avalanche of mail, more than she had ever received in her life. The letters were testimony about people’s own beliefs and experiences with angels. ‘They are real!’ was the overall enthusiastic response.
TO TEST OUR CHARACTER
Sometimes God sends angels among us, disguised as humans, to test us. The Bible tells us, in Genesis 18, that when Abraham was camped on the plains of Mamre, three men appeared before his tent. He welcomed the strangers, and refreshed them with food and drink. Abraham was informed that Sarah, his wife, would bear a son. The idea seemed preposterous, for both Abraham and Sarah were quite old, and Sarah had never had children. Soon, she bore a son, Isaac.
Ruth Beck was visited by a mysterious stranger one day as she was about to leave her house.
‘My three children, ages ten, eight and seven years, were waiting for me in the car. I had to close the doors and turn the lights off. Just as I turned the kitchen light off, I heard a knock on the front door. Thinking it was one of the children in the car playing a prank on me, I opened the door. Standing in front of me, to my surprise, was a very tall, handsome stranger. He was very clean, clothes were pressed, all in black. I took special notice that he wore a cloak with a shoulder-length cape effect.
‘He smiled and said, “Could you give me something to eat? I’ve been on the road two days and have a long way yet to go.”
‘Startled, I thought, “I’m in a hurry.” Then I pondered, “What shall I give him?” There were just two eggs in the fridge. I hurriedly scrambled them, and buttered two slices of bread, and made a nice sandwich. I put greaseproof paper around it and put it in a paper bag. I added hot coffee to a bit of milk and poured it into a thick white mug, and took it all out to him. He smiled and thanked me.
‘Then I turned the lights out and went to join the children in the car. They said, “What took you so long?” I replied, “Why, didn’t you see, I fed that man on the porch.” They said, “What man?”
‘He would have had to pass the car twice to get on the porch. I said, “Let’s go look.” They hopped out of the car, and we all stood a few paces from the car. It wasn’t dark yet. There were no trees, houses or anything to obstruct our view. We could see no one!’
These are but a few of the ways that angels enter our world. No two experiences are ever the same. Yet, we ascribe such experiences to the same agents, angels. What are the factors that have shaped our belief in these beings?
CHAPTER TWO BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (#ulink_a9411cb7-7fae-5f3d-b90b-b94739792938)
Spiritual beings who inhabit a plane of existence between the human and the divine – this is an ancient concept familiar to many religions and cultures.
The angel as it is popularly depicted is a crossbreed, descended from the unearthly entities of Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Greek faiths. Its popular image as a heavenly messenger is generally limited to those monotheistic religions that divide the cosmos into Heaven, Earth, and Hell, requiring couriers to shuttle back and forth between the divisions. This particular brand of angel originated in Persia’s Zoroastrian faith and was then handed down to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The word angel itself is a mutation of the Greek angelos, a translation of the Persian word ‘angaros,’ or ‘courier.’ The Hebrew term is mal’akh, meaning ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy.’ Even this definition is ambiguous, for ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’ is used in five different senses in Scripture. It can mean:
1 the Word, given by Cod to the world
2 St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the messiah
3 priests, who act as Cod’s ambassadors to people
Generally, the term messenger or envoy is used in Scripture to mean angels. But messenger is only one of their functions, and these enlightened spirits can be found worldwide, throughout history, playing many roles.
HISTORY OF THE ANGEL
We can only guess at the age of the angel. Images of supernatural winged creatures have been found in ancient Mesopotamia and Sumeria. The Assyrians had their karibu (the source of the word ‘cherubim’), which were fierce, winged beasts possessing features both animal and human. The role of the angel as protector can perhaps be traced to these ancestors, which acted as temple guards in Babylon and Sumeria.
The Greeks made a big contribution to angel lore with their gods, such as Hermes, the winged messenger. Hermes is often credited as being the source of archangel Michael. (Many of the Greek gods were molded into angels by the Church in its attempt to convert the pagans.) The Greeks also had daimones, spirits who came in both good and evil forms, the good ones being protectors. Socrates spoke of his daimon, who constantly whispered in his ear. Daimones evolved into ‘demons’ in Christianization, and in the process they lost their good-natured brethren.
The Aryans who came to India and Persia around 2500 B.C. believed in devas (meaning ‘shining ones’), who were deities subordinate to their supreme god, Dyeus. Perhaps it was from them that angels inherited their most salient characteristic – the ability to shine, or radiate light. The ‘el’ suffix so common in angels’ names is understood in several languages to mean ‘shining’ or ‘radiant.’
The devas made their way into the Veda, a collection of early sacred Hindu writings, where they were depicted in a hierarchical (but still polytheistic) arrangement. According the Veda, devas existed in the three worlds – Earth, Heaven and a spiritual realm in between. They were closely aligned with the elements of nature – fire, water, earth and air – which were considered expressions of their existence. Devas of water, for example, were assigned the feminine role of caretakers, or nourishers, of all living things.
Devas also found their way into Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) in sixth-century Persia. It was through Zoroastrianism that devas evolved into angels. In founding this monotheistic faith, Zoroaster rejected the pantheism of the Hindus and offered instead a single, supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, locked in an eternal struggle against his evil enemy Ahriman. Ahura Mazda is aided in this struggle by the good deeds of humans. He is also aided by seven archangels, the amesha spenta, who are the gods of Babylon and Assyria recycled into more roles more appropriate to a monotheistic religion. They represent the concepts of wisdom, truth, immortality, deserved good luck, piety, salvation, and obedience.
Zoroaster’s brand of angels took hold and was handed down to Judaism, Christianity and finally Islam. Islam’s malaika (again, ‘messengers’) are androgynous beings made of light who act as guardians of humans. Their names and personalities are borrowed from Judeo-Christian angels – for example, Mika’il (Michael) and Djibril (Gabriel).
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