I AM SITTING on the 18th floor of the immense glass tower that houses this newspaper, having an angelic consultation on the telephone with a woman in America who says that my guardian angel is behind me right now. So I turn around to have a look, but I can see nothing except the pale wintry clouds drifting past the window outside.
The woman's name is Jane Howard, and she is one of many Americans who believe in angels (72 per cent of the population, according to a recent Gallup poll, half of whom say they've felt an angel's presence). Jane Howard has believed since she was 11, when she saw her first angel, a "being of light" who came pouring through her bedroom walls. "This was an awakening in me," she says, "and I became an angelologist". Thirty- three years later, she has written a best-selling book, Commune With The Angels, and gives lectures and workshops across the US, "where I give people the opportunity to get in touch with the angelic kingdom". There are many takers: men and women who want their own special guardian angel, whom they can count on when all else fails. "People thought they would have a job for life, a marriage for life, but now they're finding these things are not eternal. So they start looking for something to hold on to, when they are sinking - and you can always hold on to the angels' wonderful wings."
At the beginning of her workshops, Jane likes to play a song by Abba, which she sings down the phone to me. "I believe in angels," sings Jane, "I see good in everything I see..." Even though we are 6,000 miles apart, she's confident that she can summon up an angel for me. "It makes no difference whether this is in person or on the telephone," she says, "because we are dealing with the angelic kingdom."
Jane's voice is quiet and soothing. "I'm sure as a reporter you have a lot of anxiety in your shoulders. You will feel a lightening, a tingling, as the energy from the angelic kingdom blesses you." Angel wings are caressing my shoulders, she says, "and you may be aware of a gentle touching around your face - where they are giving you soft kisses...You are in the peaceful embrace of your divine guardian angel - who was assigned to you at your birth. God knows about you, Justine - His precious Justine - and He is giving you a special friend. You have been touched by angels, and I guarantee that within a week, you'll have an experience which will show you that this is the case."
I thank her, and we say goodbye. "A bunch of blessings to you," she trills. "Have a divine life!"
A FEW days later, I visit the ICA in London, for a lecture by the eminent French philosopher, Michel Serres, entitled "Angelic Orders". The lecture is sold-out, and so crowded that part of the audience has to be moved into a second room, where they watch Serres speak on a video screen. Most of the crowd is young, hip, and dressed in black: girls with long blonde hair, boys with short crops and dark stubble, all smoking Gauloises as they discuss last night's clubbing and tomorrow's university seminar. They are also, in the main, clutching copies of Serres's beautifully illustrated new book, Angels: A Modern Myth.
At the beginning of the lecture, Serres - a member of the Academie Francaise and a professor at the Sorbonne - stresses that his book was written before the new wave of popular American volumes on angels (hundreds of them, including The Angels' Little Diet Book). His thesis is that angels as message-bearers have appeared in different religions for thousands of years; today, we are brought a multitude of messages carried by modern angels: namely, by telephone, the Internet, fax and e-mail; also by satellite, rocket and aeroplane. In the words of Pia, one of the two characters who engage in a philosophical dialogue at the international airport that is the setting for Serres's book, "What we have here is angels of steel, carrying angels of flesh and blood, who in turn send angel signals across angel air waves..."
Serres's lecture, like his book, is esoteric - and often difficult to understand. The questions from the audience afterwards are equally baffling: concerning "the post-war mathematics of communication" and "the problem of spiritual reductionism". At times, I wonder if I am observing a contemporary version of the medieval debate about angels' substance (they were made of pure intellect, according to Thomas Aquinas, and neither male nor female, but able to assume whatever form they chose); and their size (small enough for millions to dance on the head of a pin, large enough for one to be equal to the breadth of the world); and their number (399,920,004, according to a theologian's estimate in the Middle Ages).
The final question comes from a foreign student, who sounds as though he is from Spain or South America. He talks not about theory, but about bodies: "Do these angels guide us to a new body when we die? Is there the possibility of reincarnation?"
The audience titters, as though he had said something rude in a hitherto polite conversation, but he stands his ground. "It is something many people believe in, in many different cultures." But this question is not on tonight's agenda. "I do not believe in reincarnation," says Professor Serres, gently but firmly. Nor, I think, does he really believe in angels, except as elegant metaphors for his philosophy of modern communication.
When we meet, later, at his hotel in London, Professor Serres is accompanied by two women from his publishing company, who are being lobbied by an American television producer. She's handing over her card and talking about the possibility of making a deal - and you can see why she's so keen, because angels are big business in the United States. Where once there were sightings of the dead Elvis, there are now reports of live angels. Such is America's consuming interest in the subject that, quite apart from the slew of books ("115 significant new angel titles penetrated the trade from March '94 to March '95," says Phyllis Tickle, religion editor of Publisher's Weekly), there are three glossy magazines devoted to angels; hundreds of shops that sell nothing but angel paraphernalia; angel artists; angel mail-order firms; and angel sites surfacing on the Internet.
Professor Serres, white-haired, with bushy grey eyebrows and aquiline profile, seems indifferent to this booming market; yet he is not unaware of it. These days, he tells me, "I see angels everywhere. It is not a question of belief, it is a reality. Hermes, the Greek god of communication, was also known as Hermes Angelos - the sender of the message. There are messengers everywhere - you are a journalist, therefore you are an angel."
But I want to know about spiritual angels, not his prosaic flesh and blood variety. Does he believe in God? He looks evasive. Does he go to Church? He seems horrified, and actually blushes at the impropriety of my question. "You are a journalist, not a confessor!" he cries. Eventually, he concedes one thing: "I was raised in the Catholic tradition. My father was an atheist, originally, but when he served as a soldier in the First World War, he was converted, having witnessed a terrible battle."
I ask if his father had seen an angel, and the professor laughs, and says no. So I tell him the story of the Angels of Mons, an angelic troop who were said to have protected a retreating group of British soldiers at the beginning of the First World War. The professor does not look convinced.
ANGELS have not yet achieved the same market penetration in this country as in America, but the signs are unmistakable: the angelic host is being proclaimed here too. Already, in Dr William Bloom, a former lecturer in social psychology at the London School of Economics, we have something approaching a genuine British angelologist. There is no doubt in his mind that angels exist (he believes in fairies too). He is not concerned with the angel merchandising that is spilling into our shops for Christmas (angel cards, angel books, angel calendars, even the occasional angel doll); but, rather, acts as an informal leader of the growing number of New Age angel enthusiasts who are scattered around the country. Along with his wife, Sabrina Dearborn, he runs workshops entitled, "Devas, Fairies and Angels: a practical approach"; previously, in the early Seventies, he spent two years in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, where he conducted a 15th-century ceremony which climaxed in "full communication" with his Guardian Angel and then "the conjuration and subjection of evil spirits".
William and Sabrina are now to be found in Stoke Newington, north London; on their front door there is a sign which reads, "Practise Random Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty". In the kitchen, I meet William, a tall, thin man who looks more like a don than a New Age mystic; and Sabrina, who is American, with short hair and glasses and the manner of a firm but fair school teacher. Their two-year-old daughter, Sophie, is eating wholewheat pasta with soy sauce for breakfast; and her face is painted to look like a small lion. When I arrive, she asks, "Are we going to have a meditation?"
"No, a conversation," replies her father.
Over the past 10 years, he has taught hundreds of people about "how to work with angels", both at Findhorn, a New Age community in Scotland, and in London. He emphasises, slightly anxiously, that his students "are not pink fluffy flakes. They have all come for clarification about experiences they were already having." In his careful, academic way, he divides them into five groups. "The first group work with landscapes and gardens, and include farmers. The second group are in the medical and healing professions. The third group are artists of one kind or another. The fourth group are people who like ceremony and ritual - we've had a Catholic priest, Anglican vicars, and followers of witchcraft. And the fifth group are people in absolutely ordinary businesses - lawyers or accountants or businessmen."
He does not promise that all his clients will see fairies and angels with wings. "People anthropomorphise these beings - but who knows what their actual energy form is? In my own experience, I feel other energies touching my energy body. But you might feel something playful around a flower - and your mind, in interpreting that experience, clothes it in the form of a fairy."
Sabrina, who met William at Findhorn (where she lived from 1976 to 1982), has clients of her own who come to her for psychic healing and counselling. Angels, of course, help her in her work. "I've got my standard team of angels who have been coming to me over the years, bringing energy and information."
"What do they look like?" I ask, hoping that she will come up with something rather more specific than her husband.
"I see them as lights, of extraordinary pigment," she says. "Pure light, as opposed to flat colour. It's a visual confirmation that the communion has taken place."
So, no wings? "No, but I've seen little fairies twice."
IF IT'S angels with wings you're after, you need to talk to a hard-hitting evangelical Christian: someone like Hope Price, for example, a former missionary in Africa who is now married to a vicar and lives in deepest Shropshire. In her recent book, Angels (which has already sold more than 35,000 copies and is still selling well), she has gathered together the personal accounts of hundreds of British people who claim to have seen angels. Mrs Price believes them all, without question.
Unfortunately, she has never seen an angel herself, except indirectly. The person who really saw the angel, she tells me, was her son Luke, who was 11 weeks old at the time. "I had been a health visitor," she says, "and I was very concerned about cot death - so every night, when I put him to bed, I prayed for him. One night, he was smiling at me and then turned to the wall, and started chuckling and gurgling at it. Then I saw a brilliant white head-and-shoulders shape on the wall - a bright light, not a shadow - and I felt this incredible peace, which everyone mentions when they see an angel. I knew it was an angel, without a shadow of doubt, and I knew Luke was seeing a smiling angel's face. The message from the angel was that Luke would be protected - that he wouldn't die from a cot death."
Luke Price is now 20, and as fervent a Christian as his parents, though with a different approach. I ring him in Bournemouth, where he works for a new church called Bliss. ("We use hip-hop dance music," he explains helpfully, "and we also run a club called Jam Funky.") Luke does not remember his first angelic encounter, but tells me about his second one. "When I was seven, I woke up in bed one night and saw a group of guys in a shimmery blue light. I totally remember it," he says. "They had kind faces and they said to me, `Don't be afraid, you'll have a good life - and we'll come back to see you again when you are 19.' "
By the time his 20th birthday was approaching, last March, "I began to ask God what was going on. My relationship with God is like, `He's a buddy', and I said to Him, `This is freaking me out - you're getting so late with the angels.' So I woke up on the morning of my 20th birthday, and there was still no angels - but I was born at 9.40pm, so I always celebrate it then." Luke celebrated by attending his regular prayer meeting, where shortly after 9.30pm he fell to the ground: not from the effects of drink and drugs, of course, but rather through religious communion. "There's this thing called going down in spirit," he tells me, "when you keel over and chill out on the floor. It's when you're in touch with God's spirit. So I was lying there, and all of a sudden I got this picture in my head of me sitting on my bed, and an angel was there beside me. Then I saw myself on my bicycle, with an angel riding behind me, and then working at my desk with an angel sitting next to me."
Luke took these visions to be a message from God: "He was basically saying to me, the angels were there all the time."
HE'S RIGHT, of course. The angels have been with us all the time: Greek angels, Assyrian angels, Egyptian angels; Jewish angels, Muslim angels, Christian angels. There have been thousands and thousands of them, for thousands and thousands of years: seen by mystics and visionaries, recreated by artists in an abundance of different forms, and written about everywhere from the Bible to Paradise Lost. True, the angels went away for a while in the latter years of this century - but now they're back, in our minds at least, and though sceptics will scoff, one cannot deny that their reappearance may signal the return of a more imaginative way of looking at the world.
The only thing that bothers me is this: it seems as though everyone I talk to now has seen an angel, apart from me. Three of my friends say that they have (although they're too embarrassed to go into much detail); and another journalist at work happens to mention that when he was four years old, "I saw an angel standing in my bedroom doorway. It had big white wings, and a big white robe, and I'll never forget it as long as I live." Then I come across a woman called Diana Cooper, formerly a Home Counties housewife, now a "soul therapist", who explains how she moved from scepticism to spirituality after a 7ft-high golden angel appeared to her when she was going through a miserable divorce several years ago. Guided by angels, she has written a book a year since 1992 (her latest is to be called A Little Light On Angels), as well as running an angelic healing class in Esher. She is convinced that "the angels are coming to earth in droves, wanting to help with a rise in human consciousness. They are ready to change our DNA, our cellular structure, so that we can live in love and light." After our conversation, she sends me an interesting fax about her recent sightings of angels of peace, "beautiful luminous beings who were creamy white and fluffy with large soft wings".
I also talk to America's leading angelologist, Eileen Elias Freeman, who has a master's degree in theology and is the author of four best-selling books about angels. Eileen (48 years old, unmarried, and a resident of New Jersey), saw her first angel at the age of five: "a being stepping out of the light, who said `Don't be afraid, child.' " Since then, angels have saved her from entering a lift where a knife-wielding maniac was lurking. ("I heard my guardian angel's voice, saying: `It would not be wise for you to go in there just now.' ") They have also helped her to recover from cancer surgery; and, more recently, to lose 125lb ("I learnt that God is a surer source of energy than caffeine, and that Jesus is a better sweetness than ice-cream"), an experience which she shares with her readers in The Angels' Little Diet Book.
Apart from her published work, Eileen has also written a 1,200 page tome entitled, The Guardians of the Earth, based on insights she received from a team of four angels, which envisages a future in which angels and humans co-operate to transform the world. Although this utopia has not yet come to pass, Eileen is doing all she can to help it along: including setting up the AngelWatch Foundation, which publishes a newsletter detailing thousands of angel sightings across America; and sending 500 angel pins to the firemen and rescue teams working at the site of last year's terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. (Angel dolls were donated by other angel fans to 300 children in Oklahoma City; and stories of angel sightings after the bomb went off have been reported in the AngelWatch newsletter.)
Why, I ask her, do so many Americans now believe in angels? "This is a very fearful world that we live in," she replies. "People need reassurance that God really cares. Sending us angels is one of the ways that God responds to our needs."
BY THIS time, it is a week after my initial consultation with Jane Howard, and I still haven't had the experience she promised - the revelation that I have been touched by an angel - let alone seen an angel, winged or otherwise. So I ring her back, and ask what angelic evidence I should be looking for.
"Angels can come as aromas," she says, "like the scent of roses. Or they can come through electricity, when they brighten a light. Or they can come to you through the radio - through a song that means something to you."
You don't have to see an angel to receive comfort, she tells me. They leave us other signs of their presence. "Oftentimes, they love to put a penny in a place, where you'll find it out of the blue. To me, that's a message from them saying, `Count your blessings.' Or you might see a feather floating through the air, like at the beginning and end of Forrest Gump." Once you start looking, she says, angelic signs are everywhere. "You can see angels in the shape of the clouds, angels in the sky. To me, the signs are there to let us know that we are not alone, that we are loved - so let's love each other."
So I look outside the window again, at the wispy clouds floating past the glass tower. There are no angels in the mist, no wings silhouetted against the sky; nor can I see any pennies from heaven scattered in the office around me. This is, to be honest, a disappointment: it's nearly Christmas, which should be a time for revelations. Perhaps I'm missing something. !
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