Have you seen any angels lately? A whole crowd of people sighted one recently in Texas. I got the news in an urgent e-mail from my niece just a few days ago. “Uncle Bob,” she wrote, “we need your prayers. My daughter Jacquelyn and five of her friends were in a terrible accident last night.” She then went on to relate the story. “You know how kids are,” she told me. “It’s hard to know how this crash occurred, but the facts we have are these. Jacquelyn was driving one car, with two of her friends in it. Another car followed with three friends. As they were crossing a bridge, the second car crashed into the back of the first, bounced right up on top of it, smashed in the roof, flipped over and plummeted into the river. Everyone in the first car crawled out alive, with only minor injuries. That in itself seemed miraculous. But as they stared down into the water with horror, the other car sank to the bottom. Then two heads popped out of the water and began screaming that Carter, the driver, had hit his head and was unconscious. His seatbelt was jammed and they couldn’t get him out.
“Suddenly someone appeared out of nowhere. He stepped up onto the railing of the bridge and plunged into the river. When he surfaced, he yelled for a knife or a scissors. A woman reached into her pocketbook, found a scissors and threw it to him. He grabbed it as soon as it hit the water and disappeared below. Thirty seconds later he reappeared, dragging Carter lifeguard-style toward the shore.
“By that time the police were already there. An ambulance soon arrived. People pulled Carter out of the water. Someone threw a blanket over him. Someone else began to breathe air into his mouth and pump his lungs. He started to breathe. When things settled down, they turned to talk to the rescuer. He had disappeared just as suddenly as he had appeared.” My niece concluded her e-mail: “Was that an angel?”
Somehow I think so. Angels manifest God’s presence and intervention in our lives—what we commonly call divine providence. The Scriptures tell us about many of them. The angel we know best, I suppose, is Gabriel. In Luke’s first chapter he appears to the Virgin Mary and reveals God’s seemingly impossible plan to her. It is to Gabriel that Mary summarizes her whole spirituality: “I am the servant of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.”
Michael too is well-known. He appears in the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation and the Letter of Jude, and he became a very popular figure in Christian tradition. Here in Rome I often see him standing on top of Castel Sant’Angelo with a sword in his hand, dressed in a coat of arms. He symbolizes God’s help in Christian combat, the battle that all of us wage in daily life. Michael says to us: God is always fighting at your side, helping you to overcome the power of evil.
Then there is Raphael, about whom we read in the Book of Tobit. He accompanies Tobiah on a long journey, during which Tobiah marries and then returns home to cure his father. Raphael’s name in Hebrew means “God heals.” He brings healing to Tobiah and his wife, Sarah, and to Tobit and his wife, Anna.
There are many other angels besides these. We all remember the choir of angels that sang at the birth of the Lord in Luke’s Gospel (2:13-14). Luke also tells us of a nameless angel who comforts Jesus during the agony in the garden (22:43). In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, unnamed angels play a key role, appearing to Joseph on four occasions and telling him what to do.
Actually, angels are found not just within Christianity, but also in Judaism, Islam and other religions. They appear as messengers, companions, guides, singers of good news, chanters of God’s praise in the heavenly court.
So be on the lookout for angels. In case you’re having trouble finding them, let me suggest some clues, or what analysts might call archetypes. As I look for angels, I think of three models.
Gabriel types. These are messengers. They enter our lives suddenly, say something that changes us dramatically and then disappear. Several of these have appeared to me over the years. Back in the late 1960’s, when I was a graduate student in Washington, D.C., a fellow student came up to me during a break in a two-hour class and asked me what my program of studies was. He was much older than I and, I later discovered, was an experienced university vice president on sabbatical. I told him the program my superiors had asked me to pursue. He said to me, without a second’s hesitation, “That doesn’t make any sense at all today. Here’s what I suggest.” He then outlined a completely different program of studies with a completely different field of specialization. It made sense to me, but I doubted that it would make sense to my superiors. Much to my surprise, they agreed immediately. The decision affected not just the direction of my studies, but the direction of my life for the next 35 years. The messenger, whom I wish I could thank profusely, slipped away suddenly from the university. I have never seen him again.
Raphael types. These appear unexpectedly as companions on a journey. Actually, I have been blessed with many such apparitions, particularly on airplanes. One occurred recently during a trip from Rome to Paris. This angel appeared as a tall Japanese woman, dressed elegantly in a long black overcoat and a black hat, which she never removed, a startling vision in the context of contemporary airplane dress. She spoke with me for an hour with eyes unraised, telling me that she worked with a computer firm, specializing in rapid data communication, but she was convinced that her society was losing its sense of values. So recently, in the evenings, she had taken up an apprenticeship in the traditional Japanese tea-serving ceremony. When I asked her to tell me about it, she put it this way: “You learn the centuries-old ritual of serving tea, but the important thing is the spirituality that underlies it. You serve each person as perfectly as you can, knowing that this may be the only opportunity in your life that you will have to do this.” Then she added: “When I retire, I hope to teach this to children in Japan.” That left me meditating for days.
Michael types. They protect us, fighting on our side. Sometimes I call these Psalm 91-types: “For to his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways. Upon their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone” (91:11-12). This kind jumps into the river to save you or grabs your arm as you are about to step in front of a car. I can think of four of these in my life. One appeared to me on a number of occasions. The other three arrived at the time of a fierce battle, fought at my side and then disappeared. The struggle in each case was violent, even if spiritual. These angels helped me survive the combat. In reflecting on their role in my life, I realize that military metaphors are out of style today for describing the spiritual journey, but over the centuries they have had a pervasive role in Christian devotional writing. Erasmus used combat as the primary metaphor for Christian life: “In the first place, you should bear continually in mind that mortal life is nothing but a kind of perpetual warfare....” So I am grateful to the angels who have helped get me through.
The basic message of the Gabriels, the Raphaels and the Michaels is the same: “The Lord is with you. The Lord loves you, listens to you, speaks to you. The Lord will even send angels into your life to strengthen you. You are never alone. God exercises a personal providence in your life.” Angels speak not just a generic word of God. They speak a word of God to me.
An interesting add-on: the visits of angels leave joyful memories. In Luke’s Gospel the angels announce to the shepherds “tidings of great joy, which will be to all the people.” And a choir of angels appears singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” The angels sing good news. They assure us that the reign of God is really here among us.
Another e-mail from Texas! The angel has been sighted again. He appeared in the hospital two days after the accident to see how Carter was doing. He is the father of two and was a swimmer in college. As soon as he stopped his car on the bridge, he was sure he could make the shallow dive into the river where the car was submerged. He said that when he caught the pair of scissors the woman threw him, he felt this was divine intervention.
My niece agreed. So do I.