James Walton

We believe in angels

Nearly 40 per cent of Brits and over 70 per cent of Americans think angels exist. James Walton explores the strange resurgence of faith in heavenly helpers

We believe  in angels
Text settings

Among the more neglected victims of the recession have been the authors of misery memoirs — or ‘mis-mems’ as they’re rather heartlessly known in the trade. As if these people hadn’t suffered enough at the hands of their drunken, violent and/or abusive families, the credit crunch brought more bad news. The books sections of supermarkets began to think that misery was something we could now get for ourselves without the help of reading. What they’d offer instead was a bit of comfort: a belief that, despite appearances to the contrary, we’re surrounded by powerful forces with our best interests at heart. In other words, the way was open for the return of angels.

The big angel book of 2010 looks set to be Angelology by Danielle Trussoni, a much-hyped thriller from Penguin, due to be published in April, based on the age-old struggle between human beings and the Nephilim, those pesky descendants of the fallen angels — and complete with a cover-up by the Catholic Church. (Think Dan Brown meets Dan Brown.) But when the Bookseller magazine officially identified the supermarket trend not long ago, the market leader was far more typical of angel titles as a whole.

Angels in My Hair is the autobiography of Lorna Byrne, an Irish woman who claims to have seen angels every day since she was a baby. Not only did the book become a bestseller, achieve six-figure sales in America, attract queues of weeping fans to Byrne’s signings and gather endorsements from the likes of William ‘Ken Barlow’ Roach (‘Lorna beautifully and graphically describes angels and how they work’). It also led to interviews with several newspapers, who quoted Byrne with a remarkable lack of scepticism. ‘I see angels all the time I’m awake,’ she told the Mail. ‘I see people’s guardian angels — we each have one — and other types of angels, too, including archangels and cherubim.’ ‘Their wings,’ she added for the Telegraph, ‘are beautiful beyond words.’

But, as it turns out, Lorna Byrne is by no means alone in her gift. Possibly undetected by Spectator readers, an entire genre of angel books has grown up in recent years — and thanks to those supermarkets, to daytime chat-shows and, of course, to the internet, they’re becoming ever more mainstream. And the audience is certainly there. According to polls, around 40 per cent of British people believe in angels. (In America, the figure is 71 per cent — as opposed to 47 for those who believe in evolution.)

And yet, for all this new-found respectability, my guess is that if almost anybody reading this magazine opened any of these books, they’d be genuinely shocked at what now passes for mainstream belief. Take Angel Whispers by Jenny Smedley, who ‘lives in Somerset with her husband and their reincarnated dog KC’. On page one, we learn that ‘scientists say there could be 21 dimensions between our Guardian Angels and God’. (Who these scientists are, Smedley never specifies — but I bet Richard Dawkins isn’t one of them.) Luckily, however, she doesn’t bother with ‘all the complicated hierarchies… because there are only four types of angel that you really need to know about while you’re here on Earth’. And so, on page two, she begins with the humblest of the lot: the ‘odd job angels’, who get us parking spaces and find our lost keys. These helpful beings, she tells us, ‘are normally unseen except perhaps as the little black dots that you sometimes see zipping across the room out of the corner of your eye’.

As a rule, these books contain four basic elements. Smedley seems to be the only author with little black dots, but in every case there’s a taxonomy section, with careful distinctions drawn between guardian angels and dead relatives, archangels and Earth angels — who come disguised as kindly passers-by. We’re then reminded that children are naturally psychic — which, among other things, explains why newborn babies don’t make eye contact. It’s because they’re looking at the guardian angels on your shoulders.

Next come the personal testimonies: letters (‘edited only for spelling’) from grateful beneficiaries of angelic aid. From these it’s clear that, where angels are concerned, no job is too big or too small. In The Miracles of Archangel Michael by Doreen Virtue PhD, one woman avoids a car crash when Michael suspends the laws of physics. (‘He later told me that he’d altered the conditions of time and space to keep me and my children safe.’) In Jacky Newcomb’s Dear Angel Lady, another reports that ‘My angel put a feather behind my daughter’s seat where she sits in bingo... She went on to win three times.’ Angels are also thanked for preventing plane crashes, fixing DVD players, curing incurable diseases and getting correspondents home safely when drunk.

The fourth element is maybe the most crucial: when the writers inform us how we too can get in touch with our angels. Essentially, we can just ask — but a few simple preparations will help increase our positive energy and raise our vibrations. We can meditate, go vegetarian and put lots of greenery in our houses. ‘Plants,’ explains Virtue with characteristic matter-of-factness, ‘absorb the energy of our fear and stress the same way that they absorb carbon dioxide.’ Nor should we worry that we might mistake fallen angels for the good guys. After all, as Virtue says, the fallen ones ‘have bony, leathery, batlike wings; squashed faces; and giant talons with claws’.

As for knowing whether contact has been made, the proofs are wide-ranging. A few lucky people might get to see a ten-foot-tall winged creature glowing with light. But other signs include feeling comforted, smelling a nice smell, having a vivid dream and seeing a white buffalo. There’s also those telltale feathers, of whatever origin. One of Newcomb’s correspondents once saw ‘lots of beautiful white feathers’ on the way into the hospital where she was visiting her sick grandfather. On the way out, with grandad duly on the mend, she spotted ‘a poor, mangled seagull and sure enough, feathers were blowing all down the path. So this time my angels played a joke on me.’

But, reading these books, it’s soon apparent that a belief in angels is generally accompanied by a belief in plenty of other things as well — and not just the usual array of chakras, crystals, Tarot cards, ley lines, fairies and benign visitations from the dead. (‘The deceased,’ you may be pleased to know from Doreen Virtue, ‘receive nearly round-the-clock mental health care from the moment they arrive in heaven.’) You also have to accept that any problems you have may be due to something that happened in a previous existence. ‘You could suddenly understand,’ for example, ‘that your aversion to turtleneck sweaters stems from that past life in which you were hanged.’ Most of the authors agree that the world now contains a number of ‘Indigo children’, who could well be reincarnated Atlanteans. Either way, they’re so psychically sensitive that in early life they’re often diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — but, as the end-times approach, they’ll lead humankind in a great evolutionary leap.

And all this, remember, from writers whose books come garlanded with approving quotes from proper newspapers, and who are regularly invited to give their views on terrestrial television. So, what on earth is going on? Well, the prevailing idea that everybody’s beliefs are equally valid obviously helps: a common refrain in these books is that if you ‘really feel’ you saw an angel, you probably did. Freudians may also notice that most angel books are written by and for women — and that the angels definitely tend to the hunky males. ‘You can see the figure more clearly now,’ says one of Jenny Smedley’s guided meditations. ‘It is a man. He has a gentle yet powerful face. It’s almost feminine but also strong. He is holding out a hand to you...’

Yet, there are surely other primeval impulses at work as well. The last angel craze of similar size was, I’d suggest, the Victorian one that influences Christmas cards to this day. It, too, happened at a time when Christianity was under threat from science — and, as Emile Cammaerts (not G.K. Chesterton) pointed out, when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. In this context, the most harmless justification of the angel phenomenon might be that it offers all the nice bits of religion — life after death, protection, the notion that there’s more to the world than meets the eye — without any of the tougher demands.

At the same time, the mainstream churches have created a handy gap for the New Age version of angels to fill. Children at Catholic schools would once have been left in no doubt about the individual guardian angels looking after each of them. Now the Encyclopedia of Catholicism relegates this idea to ‘pious Catholic belief’, with a stern reminder that ‘it has never been part of Church dogma’.

So angels, it seems, fulfil a need, and if the churches aren’t willing to be the primary source any more, then other people — most kindly described as less theologically literate — will necessarily step into the breach. At the end of Dear Angel Lady, Jacky Newcomb briskly answers the most common questions she’s asked: from ‘What is the purpose of life?’ to ‘Are angels real?’ (For the record, the answers are ‘To learn and grow as a human soul’ and ‘Yes’.) One exchange, though, may be especially telling. ‘I want to teach others about angels and run classes. Do I need a qualification?’ goes one popular query. ‘No,’ Jacky replies.

Detail from Blake’s ‘Christ guarded by Angels’, Victoria & Albert Museum, London