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WHERE ANGELS FEEL FREE TO TREAD True Believers' Tales of Heavenly Helpers

It was an angel "in raiment as white as snow," according to the Gospel of Matthew, who rolled the stone from the tomb on the first Easter. And it was an angel in white tennis shorts, says Barbara Anthony, who changed her flat tire when she was stranded outside the Harbor Tunnel.

She was driving from her home in Seabrook to a dog show in Wilmington when she pulled her car onto a narrow shoulder to wait for help as tunnel traffic whizzed by.

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"I didn't think a thing when he pulled over," she remembered. A young man in white tennis shorts and a yellow shirt got out of a late-model white station wagon. Though Mrs. Anthony asked only to be driven to the next exit to call for a tow truck, the young man insisted on changing the flat tire.

He could have been any college student heading for the beach that day, Mrs. Anthony remembered, except "the eyes were so blue. They were like hot ice."

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He changed the tire "like, instantly," she said. And when he stood up, after sprawling on the dirty pavement to place the jack, his clothes were still spotlessly clean.

"It was a surprise, but it wasn't," Mrs. Anthony said. "It's a job. It's a task that they do."

Angels, which figure prominently as messengers of God at turning points of biblical accounts, apparently continue to appear, unsensationally, in the humdrum of many modern lives. But they are less a part of contemporary conversations about faith and skepticism about faith.

Mrs. Anthony is 58 years old, an outgoing woman with a great puff of white hair, who has always believed in angels as part of her Lutheran upbringing. But she didn't come face to face with them until the tire changer in 1986. And she didn't feel comfortable talking about that experience and others like it until the publication in 1990 of "A Book of Angels," by Sophy Burnham, a Washington author and journalist.

The book covers Ms. Burnham's own experiences, those of others, and a survey of the place of angels in the traditions of various religions. It prompted an outpouring from hundreds of people who wrote the author about feeling the presence of angels, praying to them as guardians and even seeing them, either in human form or the artistic renderings with wings and halos. Ms. Burnham culled the best of these letters for a book in 1991, "Angel Letters."

For many of the letter-writers, including Mrs. Anthony, reading "A Book of Angels" was a catharsis for stories of their own that they had yearned to tell, but had withheld for fear of being scoffed at.

"I don't think I've been chosen by God or anything," said Mrs. Anthony, a former English teacher and press office editor at the National Institutes of Health. Angels, she says, "are there for all of us, but we're just not always aware of them."

Mrs. Anthony couldn't miss, however, the man who sat across the Washington Metro platform from her, on and off for about a year, as she commuted to work. It happened during a year that was turning out badly. Her 37-year marriage was ending in divorce. Her father, with whom she had been closest in a close family, had died the year before. Her mother was near death in a nursing home. "I probably was feeling alone and unsupported at this point," she said.

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The man sitting on a bench across the platform looked exactly like her father. He even sat as her father used to do, Mrs. Anthony said, legs splayed to make way for a large belly. "The first day I just stared," she said. "The second time, I smiled and he just kept staring."

He didn't appear every day, but when he did, he didn't always board the train when it stopped, but just looked at her. Mrs. Anthony said she didn't cross to approach him, assuming that if the man were meant to contact her, he would have arranged it himself.

"I think that this presence was sent to let me know I wasn't alone. I didn't need to be frightened," she said. "At first it was eerie. After a time, it was comforting to know he was there."

Mrs. Anthony doesn't demand belief, only respect for these accounts of unexpected comfort in dire times. "These things are so personal you hate to cast your pearls before swine," she said.

Jennifer Ailstock, 37, a school secretary from Arlington, Va., had tried to tell her husband and her best friend about how someone -- angels, she believes -- changed the wet bed of her 4-year-old daughter in the middle of the night. But relating the experience "was awkward," she said.

Mrs. Ailstock never saw anything, but as she stumbled in the night 2 1/2 years ago to change her daughter's bed, she felt a presence and could see that the sheets were being tucked in with little effort from her. "It was instantaneous," she said. A small help, but one that made her feel as if the drudgery was "more than worthwhile."

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With the publication of Ms. Burnham's books and the subsequent publicity, "it's as if the dam has broken, and everybody feels free to talk about it," Mrs. Ailstock said. "Which -- is good."

Sophy Burnham grew up in Baltimore County's Greenspring Valley in the 1940s and '50s. "I was not a believer in angels," she said, "and I was not really a believer in God intellectually." That apparently didn't matter to the angels that she believes to have intervened later in her life. "So you don't have to acknowledge this spiritual dimension within a formal denomination," she said.

While skiing in France when she was 28, Ms. Burnham suddenly went into a fall, flat on her back and sliding downhill headfirst. Near the lip of a cliff, with rocks strewn below, she felt herself bump against a pair of legs. They belonged to a man in a black hat, black parka, black pants and black skis.

After she thanked him, he began a swift herringbone step up the hill where she had fallen. Ms. Burnham's then-husband, who had stood helplessly as she fell, said he had seen the skier plunge from nowhere to intercept her fall.

Perhaps he was just a man making a last run before ending his vacation, Ms. Burnham thought. Perhaps not.

"I knew it didn't make sense in the rational, scientific world I was brought up in," she said during an interview in her Georgetown town house.

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Among the photographs on the desk in her sunny office is one sent by a reader who felt compelled once to aim her camera through the window of an airliner in midflight, though she saw nothing at the time to shoot. The developed photo shows the outline of a large robed figure.

Ms. Burnham says she appreciates all religions, but doesn't belong to any particular one. She thinks of angels as "spiritual helpers," who are for everyone, though not everyone is aware of them. "It was fascinating to me that so many letters were from women," Ms. Burnham said. Angels probably intercede as much in the lives of men, she said, but men may be more inclined to call it luck.

Boys and girls both seem to have experiences with angels, Ms. Burnham said, because children have "a sense of wonder." From adolescence to middle age, when most people are steeling themselves with self-reliance in pursuit of life's ambitions, angels fTC are less apparent, she said. "Later on, when you're beaten to a pulp and able to get on your knees and cry out for help, they come back."

If angels seem obscure these days, she says, this is due partly to modern skepticism about the non-rational and partly to the cacophony of radio and television overwhelming the silence and solitude that open people to spiritual experiences.

The opening to angels' ministrations came for Baltimore author Jane B. Wilson as she was suffering from cancer, and doing research for a book about local cemeteries, "The Very Quiet Baltimoreans," published last November. In studying urns, slabs and vaults, she was struck by how "there's a difference if you put an angel on it. It's an overpowering symbol of life after death."

Mrs. Wilson's cancer returned five years ago, after a nine-year remission. Now, when her disease is at its worst, "sometimes I think I've heard the swooshing of the gown, or feathers of wings." "That sounds like nonsense. But there's so much of the world that can't be explained," the 57-year-old retired librarian said. "I'm going through a bad patch right now, so it's more likely that I'll hear it now or in the next few days."

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Mrs. Wilson never wrote to Ms. Burnham, though she was an avid reader of "A Book of Angels." Her home on Otterbein Street is filled with angels in porcelain, cloth, paper and pictures, mostly gifts from friends.

She has survived long past the projections of her doctors, but recognizes that her time may be short. And when it comes, she wishes for an angel, sculpted in bronze like the one on her favorite monument. It's a winged and gowned "Angel of Death" in the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cemetery on Belair Road. "If I were able to afford one after my death, I would love to have one on my grave," she said. "To go up and touch one is an enchantment."

Talking about them is still part of the study of literature and theology.

They are main characters of Sister Bridget Marie Engelmeyer's course at the College of Notre Dame on John Milton's epic, "Paradise Lost." Sister Bridget Marie has spent 50 years teaching the story -- of the struggle depicted in Christian Scriptures between angels who chose to serve God and those who rebelled.

Milton's angels are anchored in God, their source of power, Sister Bridget Marie said, whereas Ms. Burnham's angels seem to "dangle" without origin. But she appreciates Ms. Burnham's book as "a fine compendium of literary references to angels."

In Christian tradition, angels are pure intellect, able to know intuitively rather than through experience. They are messengers of God, and their interventions are by the will of God. In the training of Roman Catholic priests, for instance, angels often come up in the context of the work of theologians such as Thomas Aquinas.

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At St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, the Rev. Gary McAuley, a professor of liturgy, cautions against ascribing independent power to "satellite" figures such as angels, at the risk of losing sight of God at the center of faith.

"There is always a risk in any religion to seek the extraordinary, the fascinating, the miraculous," Father McAuley said. "The journey that we talk about is quite ordinary, living day to day with faith."

The experiences of many of Ms. Burnham's correspondents tend to be less supernatural than they are small epiphanies in daily life. Her readers seem to appreciate Ms. Burnham's books as an attempt to peek under the veil of rational life at what she and others believe is a guiding spiritual reality.

Regina Ash, 77, of South Bethany, Del., has had the company of a guardian angel since she was a girl growing up on Caroline Street in Baltimore and going to Mass at St. Paul's, a Roman Catholic parish that closed in 1968.

Whether it's a reminder out of the blue to buy matches with her cigarettes, or a timely word of advice on how her son could avoid being sent to the Vietnam War, "I always make sure the angel gets the credit," Mrs. Ash said. "I tell people about it."

When Mrs. Ash was worrying about her son's imminent deployment to Vietnam from a West Coast Army base, a substitute French teacher in the parochial school where Mrs. Ash taught told her of a way to avoid overseas duty.

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The substitute said that before being shipped overseas, Army units would be asked for volunteers to stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. Mrs. Ash advised her son of this, and when his unit was asked, he volunteered for the job and was accepted.

Mrs. Ash never saw the substitute again. Just a coincidence, perhaps. "But if it happens to you, you know it," she said. "I know it was an angel, what else?"

Ms. Burnham has received hundreds of letters to this effect. Many of them are now in an angel archive at Georgetown University, Ms. Burnham said, providing a "wonderful sense of late 20th century experience."

During the interview, a man knocked at Ms. Burnham's door. He wanted to borrow her garden hose. Ms. Burnham didn't know him, but said he could use the hose if he could just unscrew it afterward from the nozzle where it had been stuck too tight for her to wrest it.

He would be glad to. "An angel," she said.


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