Chapter 4

The Experience of Angels

What is it like to experience an angel? The appearance, or lack of appearance, varies, but one knows immediately that one is in communication with something very unusual. Apart from the dream-vision with which I begin this book, my own encounters with angels have been non-material - indeed, exceptionally spiritual. This is extremely biblical: "He makes his angels winds, and his ministers flames of fire" (Hebrews 1.7). I know my angel, surely my guardian angel in whom I believe absolutely, by his insistent voice in my life. Whenever I have done anything dearly wrong in my relationship with someone else, my angel has made me aware of my misdemeanour in no uncertain way. His insistence that I put matters right, and as soon as possible, cannot be evaded. The things I have done wrong have not been major offences, but instead the tendency to be irritable and impatient with someone who was clearly seeking my assistance.

On one occasion much earlier in my life, a colleague insisted that I should play my part at work. My refusal was a response to imagined injustice, not to the burden of work itself, a "burden" I have always enjoyed. Injustice, though, was another matter, especially as the colleague was of equal status to me, and in no position to make demands. The outcome was that I was cold-shouldered, and the isolation became intolerable. At that point, the angel spoke to me interiorly and reasoned with me. He told me to make my peace with the colleague rather than continue a state of affairs that could have progressed to a smouldering feud. I would, of course, have to humble myself before him and apologize, but the urge was so strong that I obeyed forthwith, and at once harmony was restored. The angel gave me the strength to humiliate myself, so that I could apologize without emotional pain. The matter was clearly trifling, but the mechanism was revealing. It was my conscience that made me seek a rapprochement in a very trivial affair, and this conscience has been my guide throughout my life. Though I am not a particularly guilt-ridden person, when one is traversing the spiritual path even small irregularities may cause one to stumble. This is the price one pays for spiritual progress. What might cause "the man in the street" to shrug his shoulders in complete unconcern is of discomfort to a person of spiritual awareness. By "spiritual" I mean appertaining to God, and some people are aware of this quest and purpose to their lives at an extremely early age.

When I am brusque with troublesome people on the telephone, my guardian angel helps to keep my temper cool, so that I am not in danger of exploding. All this sounds very unspiritual indeed, but if one is confronted by a veritable mountain of work, the irritability, though an undoubted failure which should not be indulgently dismissed, may become slightly more understandable - and to understand all is to become increasingly tolerant. The end of all this naked display of impatience is to attain that very understanding: "To be patient shows great understanding; quick temper is the height of folly" (Proverbs 14.29). I feel I have attained a little of this understanding over the years, but my relapses when I sense injustice show me that a long way still has to be travelled. What I am saying is this: the directive force of conscience is one's guardian angel. My guardian angel also protects me from narrow scrapes when driving, and when walking on dangerous terrain. So often our minds are concerned with other matters when performing these routine actions, but the angel can get through in an emergency and save the day. I never forget to thank God for his providential care, and to salute the angel as a true friend. It is, however, necessary to add that none of us is exempt from tragedies of one type or another. In Chapter 7 I consider the part that the dark angels play in our personal, and even spiritual, growth. Nevertheless, even in the midst of a terrible accident our guardian angel can strengthen us, giving us the courage to bear all subsequent suffering.

In my deliverance work, it is my angel who provides me with the essential way of approach. I only do this work when in a state of rapt prayer, in which I believe I am in close spiritual union with the Holy Trinity. I ask the question, and my angel gives me the answer (I discuss the matter fully in Chapter 6 in connection with angels of darkness.) It is God who provides the answer, but the angel is used to indicate the way ahead. Much as I value the presence of my guardian angel, I do not pray to him. My devotions are to God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In deliverance work I include the names God the Creator and God Most High to the trinitarian formula, since some alien spirits appear not to acknowledge the name of the Holy Trinity, whereas they may respond to the name of the Creator. Why this should be I do not know. I do not discountenance those who pray to angels and saints inasmuch as these are ways towards the Godhead, but a person endowed with mystical awareness does not require intermediaries. Yet, remember, mystical awareness brings with it an awareness of the pain of all the world. To whom much is given, much is expected.

When the manifold functions that my guardian angel fulfils in my life are reviewed, especially those involved in the workings of conscience, it could be argued that it is all simply the voice of the Holy Spirit. I broach this topic later in the chapter, but at this point I include two experiences shared with me by a friend, in order to indicate the relatively circumscribed nature of an angelic apparition:

I was driving up to the Lake District to collect some sheep, towing a trailer, when the trailer destabilized and the car went out of control and charged off the side of the motorway. I was certain I was about to die, but in fact the car ran into a bramble patch, and I stepped out quite unhurt. It took all day to sort out the resulting mess and drive myself home in a hired car, and I arrived back in the country in a thoroughly shaken-up state. I had been feeling very open to God as I drove up, thinking over some particularly beautiful verses of a psalm, and that feeling also stayed with me. I got home just in time for Evensong, which it felt like a good idea to go to. As I knelt down in the church, a remarkable thing started to happen. It's very difficult to put into words, but one could perhaps describe it as a welling-up of invisible light - a feeling of stillness, calmness, sweetness, radiance, distance, deepness - and a specific limitation both in duration (it seemed like a couple of minutes) and space. The radiance reached all round from the focal point (I suppose one's consciousness), but things nearby were held more strongly in it.
I have a small dog who sometimes gets into a nervous state, and then I just pick him up and hold him until I can feel he's calmed down. I had that sensation then very strongly, that I was simply being picked up and held until my state of nerves went away. The message wasn't anything so corny as being personally protected - God might well choose to snuff me out tomorrow in another car crash - but there was something to do with trust, and all being ultimately well.

Here is my friend's second experience:

This was a few months later than the previous occurrence. My daughter had just discovered that she had precancerous changes in her cervix. I was in a state of great misery - not only with a mother's natural worry, but with a deep guilt because I knew that such things were often caused by stress (which lowers the body's resistance), and I was very frightened that I had contribute not only by being a bad mother when she was young, but by my bad behaviour recently which had greatly upset her. I happened to be passing the British Museum with half an hour to spare, so I thought I'd go in and have a good look at the Elgin Marbles. Usually I have the greatest difficulty in actually seeing works of art (or hearing music), no matter how hard I try to look (or listen). There's a barrier between me and the object, and I can't understand it or bring it to life. But this time, as soon as I started to look at the Marbles, the same radiance started to pour out of them, so that each one spoke to me of beauty and truth; and I could comprehend the meaning of every shape, and they filled me with joy, so that I wanted to laugh as I looked at them. This lasted as long as I was in the room where they live, and drained away as I left them, so maybe twenty to thirty minutes, less intense though and more outward-looking than the other time. The message there was again simple - comfort and joy - for life is transient and we are cut down as grass. But none of that matters, because eternity lies all round us and only a veil prevents us seeing it.

Here we have some other properties of angels, channels of light and messengers of purpose and love. My angel is what I also call my inner voice; it instructs me to do something I would far rather not do. A classical example of this (described in my earlier book, The Quest for Wholeness) concerned my reactions to my premature retirement from my medical post. I would much rather have sought medical employment elsewhere, a preference endorsed by all my friends, but the inner voice told me to be quiet and to continue seeing people in my flat for healing and counselling. A year later, I was appointed priest-in-charge of the church in which I had been serving in a non-stipendiary, assistant capacity; and so a completely new work confronted me, one that would have been impossible to perform had I taken a medical post elsewhere.

The guardian angel is not an inner teacher, like a well-known Jungian archetype. This is a complex to be found in the unconscious in many different people in widely different periods, part of the psychic structure of the human being. It is well described in Experiment in Depth by P W Martin. Instead the guardian angel is a practical director that will not let one alone until one has done the proper thing. I prefer the word "proper" to the word "right" in human situations, for we do not know what is right or wrong until the final moral balance-sheet has been set before us after we have experienced bodily death. Yet the "proper" action sets us on the course whereby we may grow spiritually, a growth that always entails service to our fellow creatures in a way commensurate with our own particular talents. Not infrequently it sets us against the majority, so inculcating courage in us. It should be noted that angels are spiritual beings, so therefore angelic encounters are a type of spiritual experience whose characteristically distinctive feature are their circumscribed, or localized, nature, whether spatial in the outer world or intrapsychic in the conscience.

There is an increasing literature of angelic appearances noted by very ordinary (I speak ironically) people in the course of their daily work. It is not without amusement that as professional theologians find the concept of angels more and more difficult to accept, our good friend "the man in the street" is seeing things that make him wonder. Unless he consults a sympathetic psychotherapist (a necessary procedure before any angelic apparition can be accepted as valid and not merely a fantasy conjured up by the mind, with its excellent powers of dramatization), there will always remain doubt as to the true nature of what is perceived. People who are mentally ill are sometimes plagued with hallucinations, which are apparent perceptions of external objects not actually present. Since the encounter with an angel is usually a private matter, it could come into the category of an hallucination, but in this case the person is usually mentally sound, so that one can accept their story without too much doubt. A little doubt is not a bad thing until one has had a paranormal encounter oneself. If the encounter with an alleged angel inflates the ego so that one feels that one is a rather special person, one should beware: psychic inflation is not a pleasant state, and requires special treatment from therapists who are knowledgeable about psychic matters.

A frequent visual form of an angel is that of a tall being with a human face, well over six feet tall, which may envelop a person or else stand a little distance away from them. There is a distinctive aura of light around the angel, and it seems to act as a protective presence, particularly when peril is sensed as being afoot. Sometimes there is no personification, but simply a focus of light. Usually there are the characteristic wings so well depicted in medieval and renaissance Christian painting, but these are usually additions that have been conjured up by the mind of the beholder This brings us to the important point as to whether angels are as they appear to us because they really look like this, or because our minds have translated the formless, non-material nature of an angel into a form that we can recognize and communicate with in confidence. (We shall consider this matter later on in the book.) The pseudo-Dionysius had considerable contempt for the description of the cherubim as winged creatures (we encountered biblical examples in Chapter I), but in the end he sees the value of God's presenting these senior members of the angelic hierarchy in a form easily accessible to ordinary people. The paintings of the great Christian masters of earlier centuries depict angels' great beauty and inspiring human faces, as well as their wings. A far more contemporary painter, Marc Chagall, who delighted in depicting angels, continued this tradition - even if his angels are somewhat less splendid than their renaissance ancestors! It is worth remembering that winged beings and celestial messengers are to be seen in the art of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The celebrated Victory of Samothrace, now in the Louvre in Paris, depicts one of the most wonderful winged figures in existence; though female, it is very like the angels depicted by the Christian Church.

I was somewhat amused recently when a lady who had attended one of my retreats told a friend that she had seen just such a winged angel alongside me as I spoke inspirationally (my way of communication in lecturing, preaching and also writing). I would take this to be the form my guardian angel would assume when visible to a psychically attuned person. Yet even this statement needs qualification. A person like the lady in question would not always see this apparition; it was a gift of grace that brought me and her into spiritual union at that time, and then she was privileged to see what was inaccessible to the other people on the retreat. On another occasion, she might well have seen nothing, especially if she had strained every fibre of her being to do so. The winged angelic figure recognized throughout much of the world is a classical Jungian archetype; but, I believe, unlike the usual archetype, is not merely an intrapsychic structure, but has a validity and living power of its own in the world of experience. Now that the experience of non-material, spiritual beings has been recognized by many psychically sensitive people, a typical winged angelic form has fully established itself in the human collective unconscious, which is the outcome of countless generations of humans and their forebears. The winged angelic form has become an important archetype which symbolizes God's providence for all his creatures.

Angels can assume forms other than the classical winged apparition. Among the most convincing are angels that appear as completely human, sometimes as personable young men aiding stranded motorists in appalling weather conditions or helping people in near danger of drowning. Sometimes they avert apparently inevitable traffic accidents. On the other hand, the appearance may be that of an older man who guides strangers to an unknown destination. The essential feature of all these encounters is the sudden appearance of the form, and its equally sudden disappearance once the work has been done. One may look around wanting to thank or pay the helpful stranger, only to find nobody there.

Recently, I had difficulty in starting my new car; a kindly young man came to my help, telling me that the exhaust was discharging a large amount of fumes. He examined the engine and told me that I was flooding it with petrol. He waited a little, and then was able to start the engine. He turned it off, and told me to wait a little before I started it. As he left I offered him payment; he refused and then vanished. Following his advice, I soon got moving to my destination in the country. He seemed pretty full-blooded to me, with strong muscles and firm skin, and I would hesitate to call him a traditional "angel" - though his origin and whereabouts remained obscure. On the other hand, there were men working in the vicinity, and he could easily have been one of them. What is much more relevant is that he acted as an angel to me, a messenger of God's help, full of concern and active assistance. He may well have had no religious allegiance at all, but I never cease to thank God for his presence in my life and to pray for him. Had he not turned up I should have had to summon professional help, but such a delay would have meant that I would have been late arriving at the religious community I was visiting (It was very important I arrived punctually cause of the tight schedule I had to encompass during my day's stay there.) I often think of Hebrews 13.2, "Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unawares." The writer is clearly recalling the visit of God's angels to Abraham, foretelling Isaac's birth and the destruction of the two cities, but the lesson could be of wider application. If only we were more aware of the present moment, many appearances that we normally fail to register in a mind full of negative emotion would make their impact on us and lead us into new fields of discovery. Nearly all recorded accounts of angelic presences occur in crisis situations, either at their peak or shortly afterwards.

In some circumstances, an individual, distraught by long failure, suddenly hears a distinct voice that gives them hope - and sometimes counsel too. Alternatively, the presence of a brilliant light, sometimes in the form of a cross or other religious symbol, brings hope and direction in a situation fraught with doubt and apparent disillusionment. Nearly all these apparitions, including the traditional massive winged figure, are quite personal. Others in the vicinity see nothing, as was the case of the angel close to me in the retreat. The capacity to see angels is not related to the previous spirituality of the person. Often, irreligious people may be privileged to encounter an angelic presence, while a devout believer may be, as it were, left out in the cold. The capacity seems to be a result of the individual's psychic capacity and the grace of God. After all, Christ taught, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this text means, "I require mercy, not sacrifice." I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners" (Matthew 9.12-13). He said this in connection with his habit (much to the disapproval of the Pharisees) of dining with tax-collectors and sinners. In fact, quite a number of non-believers have been converted spontaneously to religion after an angelic encounter. There is indeed much more to existence than the narrow countries that our bigoted minds define, but only a crisis of belief can effect an extension of our horizons.

It may seem unfortunate that most angelic encounters are distinctly personal; if only they could be more widespread! Yet I believe that a misconception lies in this way of thinking. We have to be worthy of any revelation, or else it will simply be part of the common way and no one will value it: "Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls to the pigs: they will only trample on them, and turn and tear you to pieces" (Matthew 7.6). I have little doubt that the commonest but least spectacular, awareness of angels is an interior psychological release. Someone deep in despair over a real human tragedy suddenly sees the light around what was previously impenetrably dark. It may be an abysmal mistake, a bereavement situation, or even the knowledge that one is suffering from an incurable condition that is shortly to lead to one's death, or else seriously diminish the quality of the remaining years of one's life. One's guardian angel assures one that all is not lost, that he at least is there even if human support is weak and fluctuating. It is then that what was previously unbearable become a challenge, one's inner resources are marshalled, and a new life opens up. A close friend of mine had two angelic encounters some time ago just when she awoke from a good sleep, on both occasions in a convent that she was visiting. On one occasion a presence seemed to embrace her in a friendly way, but on the other she was in a very unhappy state of mind because of a number of personal problems. When she awoke, it was a monk-like figure that greeted her and said quite distinctly that all would be well.

It could be argued that both these encounters were from spirits of the living dead, but they were too diaphanous and fleeting. The spirits (really souls) of the dead tend to be more circumscribed and separate, and show their origin quite clearly, so that one knows the sort of person one is dealing with. Angels, even if they cast a strong form, soon fade into the surrounding atmosphere, and furthermore they bring a spiritual gift of joy, or at least a relief from worry, with them. The living dead are less likely to produce this degree of peace. Admittedly we are on very uneasy ground if we try to pontificate about matters that are accessible to only a relatively few people, but I feel it is important to explore this realm without demur. An angel produces a strong emotional effect, somehow giving information beyond rational explanation. By contrast, the soul of a deceased person tends to give assurance that they are still in some sense alive, and often reveals personal matters of importance to the recipient.

In my experience, visits from the so-called dead have had a definite purpose, giving me advice about such material matters as changing my failing accountant, going to the doctor at once for maladies that I had tended to dismiss as unimportant, and exchanging a large car for a manageable smaller one! My late father as been responsible for these three pieces of counsel. He helped me financially to the best of his ability, remembering that it was possible to transfer only very small amounts of money out of South Africa, where he lived; (he had been a medical practitioner (an eye specialist); and he taught me how to drive some fifty years ago.) Incidentally, it is important to stress that I do not consult mediums; my father's impress is on the mind, quite unprepared as it is for such an encounter. The angel, by contrast, fills me with both aspiration and promised fulfilment on a cosmic level. The result is that I become a more spiritually proficient person (the word "better" would sound rather priggish, and in act an angelic visitation produces anything rather than a pious priggishness).

People have on occasion related the unearthly beauty of angelic singing. It is like an enormous choir singing with an harmonic beauty that would appear to be the basis of all music. I myself have heard this celestial harmony, a music that expresses the very heart of beauty; I do not wonder that Plato included beauty with truth and goodness in his triad of ultimate values. To me this harmony is the "music of the spheres", and a concomitant of mystical illumination. Why should the uncreated light of God that occludes the bodily senses by the very strength of its illumination not have an auditory component also? This would serve to fill the cleansed senses with a fresh draught of ineffable beauty. Whether what I know from experience is identical with the singing of angels I cannot judge; yet there is clearly much in common according to other people's descriptions.

Throughout history, celebrated saints have claimed spiritual intercourse with angels who have directed them on their way. As these encounters are strictly private, one can assess their veracity by their fruits alone. Personally I am always a little wary of people who claim repeated outside angelic encounters, just as I am of those who hear on numerous occasions from deceased friends on the other side of life. My own contact with my father, who shared few of my spiritual interests but was clearly concerned about my well-being after his death, has now ceased, at least on a conscious level. This pleases me, since it indicates that he has more important matters to consider in his new situation, just as I have likewise in my own. Yet my prayer for my parents never slackens, as I would hope is the case with their prayer also. I believe the real angelic contact is an interior one that never ceases. On the contrary, it plays its part in directing our lives along useful channels which we may gain as much benefit from the present circumstances as possible, while helping others to proceed likewise.

Guardian Angels

The biblical authority for believing that each of us has a guardian angel is Matthew 18.10, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones; I tell you, they have their angels in heaven who look continually on the face of my heavenly Father." These angels therefore live eternally in God's presence, and they bring health to us from the Deity. This belief is especially strong in the Catholic tradition of the Christian Church. As I have previously stated, I have little doubt about the presence of my own guardian angel, whom I regard as the master of the conscience and the divine messenger who inspires me in the work I am called on to do.

Yet where does the Holy Spirit come into all this? One dare not be too dogmatic concerning this matter, but I see the guardian angel as a servant of the Spirit, inasmuch as a direct impact with the Spirit might be too shattering in its intensity. We often tend to overlook the function of the ministry of angels and the communion of saints in the vast cosmos. The possibility that every living form is animated by its own particular angelic presence does not offend me; therefore such "nature spirits" as fairies and gnomes, in which humankind has believed from the very beginning of its creation, are well within the realm of possibility. Nowadays such an hypothesis is laughed to scorn by an unimaginative, sophisticated generation, and indeed such spirits are accessible to only a few psychically sensitive people. In this respect, it is worth noting that even a Jungian archetype has a solid basis on which the image is modelled in the mind. Plato observed that we would not recognize the sun for what it is were there not something sun-like about us, while Pascal remarked that we would not seek God if we had not already found him. Our work is to actualize the interior intuition so as to fulfil our own task and enrich the world.

Another phenomenon, well documented and universally described, in which the guardian angel may possibly reveal itself is in the near death experience. As a person moves free of the body in a liberated vehicle that can conveniently be called the soul there is a feeling as if travelling through a dark space, often likened to a tunnel. There is an awareness of a "presence" that is sensed or inferred, but not directly seen. There is something of a telepathic communication between the individual and the presence, which tends to be related to the decision as to whether to return to earthly life or go on to death. It could be that this presence is the person's guardian angel. If the experience proceeds, the person becomes aware of a brilliant golden light that may envelop them or else draw them into it. The atmosphere is one of great holiness, so that the individual is led to identify the light with God, Christ, Buddha, or some other source of sanctity, depending on the religious tradition they know best. It might also be the guardian angel in another form; at present, of course, we can only speculate.

The angelic hierarchy should not be idolized; this is a constant temptation lying in the path of people of low spirituality and poor education: theirs is the way of superstition. But neither need the angelic forms be superciliously disregarded. Our business is to work close to God, and when we pray, our angel brings us close to the divine source. I personally do not think a great deal about my guardian angel, rather, I see us both intensely involved in the work of intercession that plays so major a part in my prayer life.

Origen wrote, men are moved by two angels, an evil one who inclines them to evil and a good one who inclines them to good... If there are good thoughts in our hearts, there is no doubt that the angel of the Lord is speaking to us. But if evil things come into our heart the angel of evil is speaking to us. We are indeed involved in powerful transpersonal forces, which are bipolar. We may rely on the support of our guardian angels, but we must also be prepared to grapple with our demons. The subject of demonic forces is a difficult but essential matter in any work that considers the angelic powers as something more than merely beneficent forces. For that matter, how much of our character is moulded by personal experience and how much is due to demonic influence? I believe my guardian angel forms the apex of my conscience, but many people seem to have little contact with their conscience, acting without regard for the welfare of others. Presumably the guardian angel is there, but is silent and disregarded. And how does it come to be that the angels who are so close to God can alternatively be members of a destructive community?

It is evident that we need to consider the nature of angels and their actions in further depth if we are to succeed in penetrating their close relationship to the human psyche on the one hand and to God on the other, for they seem quite emphatically to unite the two. The classification of the angelic hierarchy into nine orders that was such a notable achievement of the pseudo-Dionysius deals essentially with the beneficent aspect of angelic activity; but in the considerably more open world of the present time, the approach needs to be more embracing, and the psychological implications cannot be ignored. A penetrating survey of some of the functions and activities of angels can assist us in our quest for a deeper co-operation with them in our own lives, and in the service of the greater world; it is to this that we turn our attention in Chapter 5.

Chapter 5
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