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Why they come, who they are, what they do for us…
Speaking about angels with author Vinita Hampton WrightDivine Nobodies

Read an excerpt from A Catalogue of Angels
More about angels

Over the past few years, there has been growing interest in angels. Why are we so taken with these heavenly beings?

I think that we carry within us a deep, intuitive sense that we are not alone in the universe. One of our oldest Christian creeds speaks of God as being the creator of things “seen and unseen.” So since the early centuries of Christianity, our spiritual leaders, teachers, and mystics have acknowledged that there are realms of existence we barely perceive, let alone understand. In faith systems all over the planet there has persisted this image of otherworldly beings who come to our aid, who are more spirit than we are. Ancient Judaism included a very active belief in angels as those spirit beings sent by God to help us in various ways. Christianity sprang out of Judaism and continued in the belief of angels. Islam picked it up from those two earlier traditions, plus there were already beliefs in angels throughout Persia and the Middle East.

Another reason that belief in angels continues is that people have personal experiences with angels. And not just a few people, but a significant portion of the population. People don’t always talk about their experiences, because they’re afraid others will think them delusional. Many people who encounter angels are not what we (or they) would identify as devout Christians; it appears that God sends angelic help wherever God wants to send it, and it’s often the angelic encounter that awakens spiritual hunger in the person.

What do you say to those who believe angels reside only in our dreams and imaginations?

Well, I would say that belief in angels should at least parallel a person’s belief in other unexplainable phenomena. For instance, if you believe the Gospel stories of Jesus and the early Church, then you really can’t avoid believing that angels are real beings. After Jesus had fasted forty days and nights and been tempted by the devil (a real devil? or an imaginary one?), angels came and ministered to him. An angel came to encourage him during that awful night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he was saying a final “yes” to God’s will, which included Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Angels came to the prison and physically led out the disciples who had been arrested for preaching about Jesus.

If you believe that everything miraculous—that is, unexplainable—that occurs in Scripture is symbolic or imaginary, then it makes sense you would believe angels to be merely imaginary. Jesus took angels seriously, even saying to his disciples when he was arrested that if he chose, he could ask the Father, who would send legions of angels to his rescue. I don’t think he was speaking in metaphors there.

Do angels ever take human form?

Angels often take human form. This happens throughout the Scriptures, one of the most famous stories being that of the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah, to predict the birth of their son and to let Abraham know that they were traveling on to Sodom and would possibly have to destroy the city for its wickedness.

In contemporary accounts of angelic assistance, it’s quite common for someone to meet another “person” who helps them in some extraordinary way and then simply disappears. For evidence of this type, read the books or visit the web site of Joan Wester Anderson, who has made a career out of tracking and collecting people’s stories of angelic encounter.

Occasionally, an angel takes the form of an animal. According to standard Christian, Jewish, and Muslim belief, an angel can take any form it wishes but often this spiritual helper will come to us looking and acting like another human being. The reason for this is obvious; I won’t run from an ordinary-looking person who is trying to help me, but I might run if some spiritual presence approaches me, because it’s difficult to understand what’s happening with a spiritual presence. I may think it’s a ghost, or even something evil. If it’s a balding man wearing a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and who is pleasant and helpful, I’m much more likely to accept the help.

Are we aware of their presence when we are visited by angels?

Often we are not aware, and if we become aware of it, it’s only after the event has passed. Angels are very good at sneaking in and out of situations. I have edited some of Joan Anderson’s books, and I asked her about this. She said that, in her follow-up of a story—she tries to verify as much as she can, and she’s learned to sense when a story is authentic—she often finds that the person has a foggy idea of what is going on when the encounter is happening, and only afterward does it become apparent. Again, this is probably by design; the angel does not want to frighten a person so much that he or she will resist the help that’s being given.

At other times, the person knows right away. Experiences vary, and I think it has to do with how a person is able to perceive and accept what God is trying to do through the assistance of the angel. We see various types of encounter throughout the Scriptures, as well. When Gabriel visits Mary, she understands pretty quickly that this is an angel. The shepherds knew right away, which is why the first thing the angels say is, “Fear not!” In fact, “Fear not!” is usually the first thing the angels say in the biblical stories.

While we don’t always know we are being visited by an angel, we will sometimes have a very peaceful, calm sense when we’re around the person who is in fact an angel. For instance, when a man offered to walk my grandmother home through a bad neighborhood when she was a young woman and working in the big city, she didn’t feel at all threatened by him, even though he was a stranger. And she let him walk her home. When she unlocked her door and turned to thank him, he was gone. From where she stood, she would have seen him leaving down the street. He had vanished. She knew then that he was an angel.

But before she knew he was an angel, she knew that he was safe and would not hurt her. So it seems that we are given a sense of safety or calm that allows us to interact with the stranger who is actually an angel. And later we figure out that the stranger was in fact not human at all, but a heavenly visitor.

Can you tell us more about how angels influence or interact with ordinary people?

They show up as other people and offer help—a place to stay, a meal, directions, transportation, whatever. When they don’t show up in human form, they sometimes influence us by bringing to us a strong sense of something; a woman is driving down the street and suddenly knows she must stop, although her physical senses give her no reason to stop—there’s no child running into the street—and she stops, and then the child darts out from between two parked cars. Or you are awakened by an audible voice saying a loved one’s name, and you phone that person or pray for him or her, and find out that he or she was at that moment in grave danger.

Traditional Christian doctrine about angels instructs us that they do not read our minds or possess us in any way. Only the Holy Spirit can truly know our spirit and work with us at that level. But angels can send us thoughts and hunches. They can affect us physically so that we are compelled to do something; a classic example is the lost hiker hearing engine noises and walking toward the sound. He ends up finding people and help, but learns that there were no engines anywhere around there. You often hear of a person’s sense of sound or touch or sight being manipulated in a way that helps them.

Angels also assist us spiritually, in ways that I cannot explain. Since the ancient Jews, people of faith have believed that angels assist our prayers and are involved when we gain spiritual insight. They bear witness to all that happens to us.

Since God is always with us, why do we need angels?

I believe that God uses angels because we are not always ready, able, or willing to face God directly. Remember when Elijah fled from the wicked Jezebel, after he had defeated all the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel? The man was exhausted and depressed, and he went out and hid in a cave and asked God to take his life. The guy was wasted. Well, God didn’t enter conversation with Elijah right away. First, God sent an angel, who brought the prophet food and drink, told him to eat and get more rest. This happened twice. Then, finally, Elijah encountered God in the “still, small, voice.”

We speak of Jesus as being our friend, and of God as being our friend, or father. But God’s glory is so beyond us; God’s presence is so overwhelming and so impossible for us to grasp, that God sent Jesus, a man, to help us know how to relate to God. And even Jesus is so beyond what we can know that sometimes we need a person to come along with a tow truck. We need an angel to come by, briefly, and help us on our way.

God wants us to live fully as human beings, and while we’re in the space and time we call our life on Earth, we learn gradually what it is to be spiritual beings, too. We learn over a lifetime what it means to pray. We begin to accept that possibly we have powers of the soul that were not apparent before. Angelic encounters help us begin to relate to a universe and a world of the spirit that we are just beginning to know. The Scriptures say that, eventually, we will be like the angels themselves. We are being prepared to exist as redeemed souls in the very realms of heaven. So it’s not surprising that we hear from the spirits who are already residing there.

Your book explores angels in the ancient writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What can you tell us about angels’ presence in our world today?

With God, and in the spiritual realm, there is no past, present, or future. We just happen to be living in time right now. I think that what the angels were doing centuries ago is not much different from what they are doing today. It’s just that today they drive cars and use the Internet. All that’s small stuff. God sends them to us to help us move toward our full life of holiness. Angels still calm us when we are afraid, still send us messages when we are desperate for information. They still pull us out of physical danger and influence our dreams and our senses in order to help us do what we need to do and go where we need to go. They still help our prayers do God’s will in the world. Together with the angels—as well as the saints, those who have gone before us—we bring God’s kingdom to life in the here and now.

Read an excerpt from A Catalogue of Angels
More about angels


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A Catalogue of Angels
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