After a 300-year hiatus, angels are flying high.
Once relegated to Christmas cards and comic movie roles, angels are reclaiming their historic role as messengers of God, heralds of spirituality. Belief in angels is soaring across the religious spectrum, from mainline Christians to new-age seekers troubled by a chaotic world.
"People are so in need of knowing they're not alone, that there are angels who watch over them," said Eileen Freeman of Mountainside, N.J., whose AngelWatch newsletter has 1,200 subscribers. "We've come through a very materialistic period in this country. People are searching for a deeper spirituality."
Ms. Freeman, who has a master's degree in theology from Notre Dame University, claims a close relationship with a guardian angel she calls Enniss. Her new book, "Touched by Angels," chronicles other people's angel encounters.
"I tend to call myself the angels' P.R. woman," Ms. Freeman said.
Best-seller lists abound with angel books, and more are in the works. Sophy Burnham's "A Book of Angels," which opened the floodgates three years ago, is in its 25th printing, with 450,000 copies in print.
"In 1990 everybody thought we were nuts putting out a book about angels," said Linda Kramer of H. J. Kramer Inc., which has published three titles on them by Terry Lynn Taylor.
Caroline Sutherland of Seattle is among people who say they have experienced angel visitations.
It was 7:30 a.m. and Ms. Sutherland was the first to arrive at the holistic medicine clinic where she worked as a counselor. Fresh from several days of intense meditation, she glowed with a sense of peace and inner warmth.
Suddenly she knew she was not alone.
"I felt there was a heat and a light in the room. I looked up, and the whole back wall of this small room fell away. Standing there was a 12-foot-plus guardian-angel-being."
The figure had wings and a head and a "flowing effervescence" aswirl in beautiful colors, like the aurora borealis.
"Everything was telepathic," Ms. Sutherland recounts. "The words I heard in my mind were, 'Behold the angel. Will you do my work?'
"The presence was so strong and so vibrant, and the room was filled with light and love. My heart was tingling. There was no mistaking in my mind it was a guardian angel, no doubt at all. I felt a great sense of peace and love. The whole experience lasted 30 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime."
As a result of that angelic encounter eight years ago, Ms. Sutherland started a cottage industry selling "My Little Angel" stuffed dolls and "positivity" audiotapes, designed to enhance children's self-esteem and reduce stress.
"I believe the angels were behind this project," said Ms. Sutherland.
Match made in heaven
Hope MacDonald and her husband, Dr. Harry MacDonald, senior pastor at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle, have been married nearly 46 years. Apparently it was a match made in heaven.
As students, they were on the verge of breaking their engagement when Harry suggested they pray for guidance.
"In the middle of the prayer," Mrs. MacDonald recalls, "suddenly the room was filled with an overwhelming presence."
A beautiful, glowing white figure filled the doorway and advanced toward them, laying an outstretched hand on each head.
"The room was filled with such a sense of peace," said Mrs. MacDonald, who later wrote "When Angels Appear," a collection of angel encounters. "The message was that God wanted us together. It was so beautiful."
What is an angel?
What is an angel? The word comes from the Greek word for
messenger. Most religions espouse a belief in angels, but public acceptance of such spirits declined during the Age of Enlightenment about 300 years ago.
A decade of research and writing on near-death experiences may have paved the way for a new look at angels. Many near-death chronicles, including Betty Eadie's best-seller, "Embraced by the Light," include angel visions.
Cancer patients and their families sometimes report seeing angels, said the Rev. Percy Randle, director of pastoral care at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
"There was this presence," Mr. Randle said, "and they looked over in the corner, and there was this angel standing there. Everyone I've talked with has seen it as something positive, not frightening. We all wonder about what's on the other side."
Angels are a gateway to spirituality for people who find the Judeo-Christian image of God too threatening, said Joan Webster Anderson, author of "Where Angels Walk." Angels are not a spiritual end in themselves, Ms. Anderson said. "They really should lead us to God eventually. They are messengers; they are not the message."
Ms. Burnham said angels may take the form of voices, visions, nudgings, intuition or coincidence.
"It's anything that carries the message of hope," she said. "They are spiritual beings. Everyone comes with two or three guardian angels when they're born. For the most part, only children and mystics will see them."
Beginning of quest
Ms. Anderson's own angel quest began 10 years ago, when her college-age son and his friends were rescued from a Midwest snowstorm by a tow-truck driver who appeared out of nowhere.
After announcing his safe arrival, her son, Tim, ran back to pay the driver. The tow truck was nowhere in sight. There was only one set of tire tracks in the snow, Ms. Anderson said, and they belonged to Tim's car.
Why, then, don't the angels always come through? Why don't they shield the innocent from disease or gang bullets or the brutality of war?
"Angels are not our bodyguards," ventures Ms. Freeman. "Angels are our spiritual guardians. It's not an angel's responsibility necessarily to stop evil in this world. Why don't we prevent those things?"
If angels can do all this, who wouldn't welcome a visit? For those who feel that heaven can wait -- but they can't -- there are books and workshops that purport to summon the spirits.
Some authors admit to uneasiness over books that portray angel contact as a kind of new-age channeling. The field is ripe, they concede, for spiritual hucksters to prey on the vulnerable.
"I have received in the mail solicitations for purchase of 'angel food,' " Ms. Anderson said. "It's supposed to get you in touch with your angel if you eat this food."
Ms. Freeman warns against people who hire themselves out as intermediaries to the angels. She says angel communication is direct, brief and free of psychobabble -- and angels never urge people to do evil.
"I've had people call me and say they could help me set up a 900 number by which I could give people angel messages or tell them the name of their angel. People want a quick fix."
Even the most sincere faith can be misguided, said Les Steele, religion professor at Seattle Pacific University.
"We attribute things to God that have nothing to do with God," he said.
A CHILD'S EXPERIENCE
By the time she was 5, Eileen Freeman was afraid of nearly everything -- dogs, the phone, the vacuum cleaner. When her grandmother died, Ms. Freeman trembled in fear that her grandmother's spirit would snatch her away. She says her guardian angel laid her fears to rest.
"My angel came and stood at the foot of my bed, and there was the most incredible light. He said not to be afraid. He said, 'Your grandmother is not in a cold, dark grave; she's in heaven with people she loves, and she's happy.'
"I remember the eyes especially because they were so brilliant and so compassionate and they looked right through me.
"I felt all the fear drain out of me the way water drains down a drain or infection drains from a wound. All the fears disappeared overnight and never came back. That's one of the reasons I know it really was an angel and not a dream or a childhood fantasy."