Angels

Why angels? Lord knows. Many tasks have been assigned to them in Jewish and Christian tradition, in folklore and folk theology. People have been guessing at it for 4000 years, probably longer. -- SpiritHome

Those who say, "Our Lord is God [alone]," and wholeheartedly pursue the right way upon them do angels descend, saying "fear not and grieve not, but receive the good news ... We are your supporters in the present life and the life to come." -- The Koran

Praise be to Allah, Who created (out of nothing) the heavens and the earth, Who made the angels, messengers with wings,- two, or three, or four (pairs): He adds to Creation as He pleases: for Allah has power over all things. -- Qur'an, 35:1

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. -- Jesus

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and he delivers them. -- Psalm 34:7

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God. -- 1 John 4:1

Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. -- 2 Corinthians 11:14

What are angels? Messengers from God? Messengers across the transition zone?

The literal translation of 'angel' is 'messenger', from the Greek angelos for messenger.

Angels first appeared to man in the form of mortals, it was only later angels had wings. Winged creatures, known as valkyries, appeared to the Vikings.

Angels have no physical existence, but can take on a physical form, usually a human form, to make their presence known. The traditional Eastern Orthodox term for angels is asomata, meaning 'bodiless [ones]'.

Do encounters with angels really exist?

Deepak Chopra (in How to Know God) gives an account of an encounter with angels.

An old man who had served in the Great War is walking home, he can barely see, one eye was lost in the trenches, the other severely damaged by mustard gas, the sun is in his eyes, around the corner come two lads on bicycles, just at the inevitable point of collision, an angel appears, lifts the bicycle out of the way and sets it down with occupant at the side of the road. The old man walks on down the road as though nothing has happened and refuses to answer any questions.

Later, when he was dying, Pere Lamy Pascal, a priest, admitted to an angel coming to his rescue. Angels and divine intervention were an everyday part of his life.

Paulo Coelho encounters angels and the devil or a personal devil (which he compares with the encounter Jesus had with the Devil in the desert) during his pilgrimage along the medieval Road to Santiago. He goes in search of angels in the Mojave Desert. [see The Pilgrimage and The Valkyries]

Joan of Arc, Jeanne d'Arc, was an illiterate who could neither read nor write, had never used a sword. From the age of 13 she conversed with angels. Aged 16, she had a vision that the French would be defeated by the English. She begged to be allowed to lead an army into battle against the English. She refused swords she was offered, instead she told where an old sword would be found buried beneath the altar in the small chapel of Ste-Catherine-de-Fierbois. The English were driven out of France. Aged 19, Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake as a heretic. With her dying breath she refused to recant. The record of the time states: 'Until the last, she declared that her voices came from God and had not deceived her.' It was not until almost 500 years later in 1920 she was recognised as Saint Joan of Arc.

Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic who influenced John of the Cross, describes an encounter with an angel, an encounter with which Freud would have had a field day. A beautiful being who seemed to be on fire, who repeatedly thrust into her a gold spear with an iron tip from which erupted fire, she experienced great pain which made her moan, which brought her great pleasure.

A quarter of a century after his successful solo flight across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh told a tale that was equally amazing. He claimed that he had been accompanied on his flight by a host of angels who conversed with him and kept him company.

Without turning my head, I see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision. There's no limit to my sight my skull is one great eye, seeing everywhere at once.

These phantoms speak with human voices friendly, vaporlike shapes, without substance, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in or out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there. Now, many are crowded behind me. Now, only a few remain. First one and then another presses forward to my shoulder to speak above the engine's noise, and then draws back among the group behind. At times, voices come out of the air itself, clear yet far away, travelling through distances that can't be measured by the scale of human miles, familiar voices, conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unobtainable in ordinary life.

Marilynn Carlson Webber had four angels dressed in black appear to her in a dream. Asked for whom they were mourning, she was told she, as unless something was shortly done, she was going to die. She sought medical help, and indeed it was true, she had a fatal tumor, and unless she had immediate surgery, she was going to die. The surgery was successful and she lived.

From angel, we get the word angelic, and the original depictions of angels were as beautiful beings, but angels are not always so, when we need them we can call upon warrior angels, huge, terrifying creatures with flaming swords.

Joyce Story, a frail, partially disabled woman came to the rescue of a woman who was being beaten in a car park by a mugger, a huge man over six feet tall, his face hidden by a ski mask. Joyce hobbled over and told him: 'No! In the name of Jesus, no!' The mugger paused temporarily and looked at her with contempt. His eyes then filled with terror as he looked over her shoulder, he backed off, then turned and ran for his life. Towering behind her he caught glimpse of a warrior angel at least nine feet tall.

John Patton and his wife were missionaries in the New Hebrides. They were not wanted, and one night the natives decided to attack, burn down their house and kill them. The attack never took place. A year on, talking with the local chief, they learnt they were not attacked and killed that night because the natives had seen giant men, glowing with a strange light, each with a drawn sword, guarding the house.

Kay Kallander worked as missionary nurse in Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Each night was disturbed by strange sounds, voodoo, people were robbed and killed, but she herself never came to any harm. Curious, she made inquiries, to be told no one would dare rob her house because her house had four guards, very big, very dark men, very frightening men, standing guard at the four corners of her house.

Kay Kallander employed no guards. She believed the four guards the locals so feared, which kept her safe at night, were four warrior angels standing guard.

A Mormon variation, has two female missionaries visit a house. They are a little too pushy, which they later regret. A man screams and shouts and slams the door in their face. They then learn from an FBI wanted posted, that the man is a serial killer and rapist. Asked why he did not invite the two women in, rape and kill them, the man said 'I would have, except that they had three huge dudes with swords standing behind them.'

Avenging angels are mentioned in the Bible, angels who annihilate thousands. God's executioners when He does not want to get His hands dirty. [see 2 Samuel 24:15]

Satan, Diablo, he goes by many names, is a fallen angel. There is surprisingly little in the Bible, as to why Satan fell from grace, apart from a reference to the sin of pride. That is there is little in the official books. There is more in the Book of Enoch. Enoch was an angel, who for whatever reason, has been all but expunged from the Bible, like a person declared persona non grata in Stalinist Russia, airbrushed out of existence.

To learn more of how Satan came to fall we have to turn to the Koran (or Qur'an depending how you prefer your spelling) [7:11-18]:

We [the Divine We] said to the angels, "Prostrate yourself before Adam," and they all prostrated themselves except Iblis (Diablo); he was not of those who bowed down. God said, "What has kept you from bowing down when I commanded you?" He said, "I am better than he; you have created me out of fire, but he was created out of clay." God said, "Get down; it is not for you to show insolence here; so go forth, for surely you are one of the least of beings." He said, "Then grant me some respite until the day of resurrection." And God said, "Then, be one of those given leave."

"So now that You have let me go astray, I shall surely do my best to waylay human beings from Your straight path. I shall place myself ahead of them, or come up behind them, or from the right or left, and most of them You will find are not grateful (for Your Mercies)." God said, "Go thee, disgraced and expelled, and those that follow you, I shall surely fill Hell with them."

But elsewhere in the Koran, Satan is referred to as a Jinn. Jinns are spirits, but not angels [Qur'an 18:50]:

Behold! We said to the angels, "Bow down to Adam": They bowed down except Iblis. He was one of the Jinns, and he broke the Command of his Lord. Will ye then take him and his progeny as protectors rather than Me? And they are enemies to you! Evil would be the exchange for the wrong-doers!

In his novel My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk grants an entire chapter to allow the Devil to give his account of his fall from grace.

The word Satan, in Hebrew is derived from enemy or adversary. His other name Lucifer, means 'light-bearer', which refers to his state before the fall.

Jesus saw the moment when Satan fell from heaven 'like a flash of lightning.'

The work of Satan seems to be almost redundant as man seems to be more than capable of evil without the need for a helping hand.

The original meaning of evil, was not bad as the opposite of good, but one who opposed, therefore the evil angels were originally those who set themselves up in opposition or who disagreed with God.

Like The Flowing River, a lovely collection of vignettes, thoughts and reflections by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho contains the short story 'These Are My Friends', a short story about the Devil.

The reason the king is so powerful a boy is told by a devout lady in the street is because he has made a pact with the Devil. In another town the boy overhears a man say that as all the land around belongs to one man, the Devil must have had a hand in it. When a beautiful young woman walks by, a priest angrily exclaims she must be in the service of Satan. Curious as to who this is who can make people rich and powerful and beautiful, the boy seeks out the Devil. When he finds the Devil, he states: 'They say you can make people powerful, rich, and beautiful.' 'Not really,' replies the Devil. 'You've just been listening to the views of those who are trying to promote me.'

If myth is to be believed, the angel Jibra'il (Gabriel) came to the Prophet Muhammad (then not yet a prophet) in a cave and dictated to him the Koran (Qur'an).

The Koran teaches that angels are the messengers between heaven and earth, messengers across the transition zone. Angels occupy a state between man and God, that is the transition zone.

Belief in angels is one of the central tenets of faith of Islam.

The earliest Biblical account of angels is in Genesis. The passage 'Let us make make man in our image, in our likeness', raises the question, why the plural, is God more than one, or is it a reference to angels?

The ancient rabbis thought this to be a discussion between God and angels. Jewish texts from around 400 BC, talk of a discussion between the angels over whether man should be created. The feeling was man should not be created, that he would be too much trouble, but God held the trump card and his view prevailed.

Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed, gave this view of angels:

... This leads Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that God, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. God burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the 'angels which are near to Him', through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move .... thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from God and are the intermediaries between God and all the bodies [objects] here in this world.

According to Mormon myth and legend, the founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints Joseph Smith, was shown where to find ancient scriptures by the angel Moroni, Smith then had angelic help to translate the scriptures written on gold plates into the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith gave a detailed account of this first encounter:

While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.

Early founders of the church with Smith who also claimed encounters with angels were Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Although all three eventually became disaffected with Smith and left the church, none of them retracted their statement that they had seen and conversed with an angel and defended their claim of angelic visitation right up to their deaths.

The Mormon view of angels is different from what could be called the classical view, in which angels are seen as intelligent sentient beings, not man and not God. To Mormons they are humans on a different plane, part of their spiritual development. The angel Moroni, was a former human, and knew from a previous existence where the scriptures were buried.

Much great art depicts angels. The Russian artist Marc Chagall, devoted his life to painting angels. He was inspired to paint by a vision in which he saw an angel bathed in an unearthly blue light. The visionary William Blake had many visions and encounters with angels. Some of the best work of the Russian artist Dasha Balashova is of angels.

Itinerant Baptist preacher Howard Finster turned to pop art following a visit from an angel. His work includes album covers for R.E.M and Talking Heads.

Handel's Messiah was an inspiration from angels and an attempt to capture their voices. On completing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' Handel is reported to have exclaimed 'I think I did see all Heaven open before me and the great God Himself.'

Later in life, Handel was to compare his experience with that of Saint Paul: 'Whether I was in my body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not. God only knows.'

Few people could fail to be moved by the Messiah, be it a massed choral performance in Lincoln Cathedral, or the subtleties and intimacies of a Baroque performance by an early music group like the Scholar Baroque Ensemble.

Hildegard von Bingen received her work through visions and what she described as a strange light. She described herself as 'a feather on the breath of God'.

A white feather is believed by many to be evidence of a visit by an angel. Tangible evidence of communication from across the transition zone.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho attributes special significance to finding a white feather. In addition to the presence of an angel, he sees it as a sign to start a new book.

R J Ellory's powerful novel A Quiet Belief in Angels starts with the finding of a white feather, only in this case it heralds a visit from the angel of death.

Rumor, hearsay, folklore. Whichever way it laid down to rest or came up for air, rumor had it that a white feather indicated a visitation of an angel.

Morning of Wednesday, July twelfth, 1939, I saw one; long and slender it was, unlike any kind of feather I'd seen before. It skirted the edge of the door as I opened it, almost as if it had waited patiently to enter, and the draft from the hallway carried it into my room. I picked it up, held it carefully, and then showed it to my mother. She said it was from a pillow. I thought about that for quite some time. Made sense that pillows were stuffed with angels' feathers. That's where dreams came from the memories of angels seeping into your head while you slept. Got me thinking about such things. Things like God. Things like Jesus dying on the cross for our sins that she told me about so often.

The role of angels is not to prevent danger, but to act as a guide when danger presents itself. Many of the stories of encounters with angels, is when all hope seems lost, an inner voice, or maybe even a physical apparition, guiding us to safety.

Daniel, thrown into the lion's den, was protected by a guardian angel.

When Paulo Coelho embarked on his pilgrimage on the Road to Santiago to obtain his sword which had been denied to him by his master J, he discusses with his guide Petrus, his guardian angel. When he embarks on another task set by J, he goes in search of his guardian angel. [see The Pilgrimage and The Valkyries]

Synchronicity: I was writing these thoughts on angels, I had read in The Big Book of Angels an account of Charles Lindbergh's encounter with angels during his solo transatlantic flight, I turned on the radio. It was an archive programme looking at press reports of yesteryear. It was ten years after Charles Lindbergh's successful solo transatlantic crossing and he was living in Sevenoaks in Kent to avoid the press. The programme played a BBC archive recording, a live interview with Lindbergh following his successful flight!

Synchronicity: I was in Brighton talking to Colombian artist Angel Luna. I suggested that she look at the art of Dasha Balashova. It was only later that I recalled Dasha's lovely paintings of angels. Later that evening I was walking along the sea front, I looked out to sea and saw a full moon rise over the pier. [see Synchronicity and Paulo Coelho]

Synchronicity: Not many days after I had written about angels I found myself talking to a girl about a book she was reading. The book was about angels. We quite naturally talked about angels. I then received an e-mail with angels! [see Synchronicity and angels]

Websites (view with extreme caution)

Further reading

Juan Arias, Paulo Coelho: Confessions of a Pilgrim, HarperCollins, 2001

Margaret Barker, The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and its influence on Christianity, SPCK, 1988

Margaret Barker, The Book of Enoch and Cosmic Sin, The Ecologist, January/February 2000

Beliefnet (ed), The Big Book of Angels, Hinkler Books, 2003

Daniel Berrigan, Daniel: Under the Siege of the Divine, Plough Publishing House, 1998

Deepak Chopra, How to Know God, Rider, 2000

Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage, Harper Collins, 1997

Paulo Coelho, Manual of the Warrior of Light, HarperCollins, 2002

Paulo Coelho, The Valkyries, HarperCollins, 1995

Paulo Coelho, By the River Piedra I sat Down and Wept, HarperCollins, 1995

Paulo Coelho, The Devil and Miss Prym, HarperCollins, 2001

Paulo Coelho, Like The Flowing River, HarperCollins, 2007

R J Ellory, A Quiet Belief in Angels, Orion, 2007

Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, Rider, 1989

Mathew Lewis, The Monk

Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red, Faber and Faber, 2001

Keith Parkins, Christian Theology and Gaia, April 2000

James Roberston, The Testament of Gideon Mack, Penguin, 2007

Jane Williams, Angels, Lion, 2006


Religion and Symbolism
(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- August 2008 rev 4