What is it like to experience the presence of an angel?
Sometimes in the Scriptures you get the feeling that angels were appearing all the time. No, their appearances were rare. The Scriptures recorded the “headline events”, so to speak. Most of us have never seen angels. Not yet.
But some have. In fact many of us sometimes sense that “something” is going on around us behind the scenes, don’t we? My wife was once driving alone. The light turned green, and as she was about to proceed she heard a loud voice: “STOP!” So she stopped, just as a car sped across right in front of her. Her guardian angel? ?
Remember that Bodiless Powers have no bodies. This means that to be seen by us, they must take on an appearance. Could an angel be photographed? Do they somehow manipulate our brains or the light waves? Or…? Who knows? C.S. Lewis in Perelandra, the second of his fictional “Space Trilogy”, imagined “archons” (archangels) trying to assume a form that mortals could cope with. First they tried enormous blocks of light falling one upon another. People couldn’t handle it. Then it was huge wheels moving slowly, slowly each within another, which meant nothing to people. Finally they took enormous human forms at a distance, oriented at an angle different from those on Perelandra, their hair flowing wildly behind them, because they lived in another world, not ours. Is it something like that?
Sometimes they appear in a sweet consoling form that a child can love. Sometimes they are frightening: their first words are “Fear not!” Was this because of their appearance? or because people were startled to see them where no one had been a moment before? Imagine the Virgin Mary at her Annunciation. Or Zachariah finding someone with him behind the curtain of the altar of incense. Often they appear in human form, and only later does it become clear who they are. Sometimes it’s obvious from the beginning. Sometimes they are radiant with light, as at Christ’s Resurrection. Sometimes their form is not described. Is this perhaps because it is not describable? And then there were Isaiah and the six-winged Seraphim, and Ezekiel and the Cherubim. Ezekiel tried the best he could to describe his utterly incomprehensible vision, but no one could ever make a painting or write an icon of all he saw. And there is another form: “He makes his angels ministers, and his messengers a flame of fire.” (Hebrews 1) What to make of all this? “It is a mystery.”
Now, from a few Old Testament passages, let’s try to get a “feel” of what the experience is like. I love these “numinous” stories.
1 Genesis 18: Abraham and Sarah, childless in old age, sit in their tent in the noonday heat. 3 men walk up. Showing Middle Eastern hospitality, Abraham has Sarah fix a meal for them. (An icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah hangs above the entrance to our temple at Saint Nicholas.) Slowly It becomes clear (it doesn’t say how) that these are more than men; they are 3 angels also called “the Lord”, but still their appearance was that of 3 men. This mystery has become the basis of our Orthodox icon of the Mystery of God the Holy Trinity. (If you haven’t, read the rest of this story. The dialog between the angel and Sarah is funny.)
2 Judges 6: The Jews are at war. An angel of the Lord sits under a tree while young Gideon is threshing grain. The angel, whose form obviously is that of a man, says “The Lord is with you, mighty man of war!” Gideon responds: “Me, sir?” The angel says “You are to lead the battle”, and tells him to prepare a sacrifice of meat and bread for the Lord on a rock. Gideon does so. The angel of the Lord touches the offering with his staff. Fire rises from the rock and consumes the sacrifice and the angel vanishes. Gideon is terrified: “I have seen an angel of the Lord. I will die”. For he knew that mere mortals cannot endure the presence of these holy ones. But God assures him “You will not die”.
3 Judges 13: Manoah and his wife are childless. While she is in the field a strange man visits her with a message: “You will have a son who will deliver Israel from the Philistines.” She tells Manoah that his appearance was frightening “like that of an angel”. The “man” then visits them both. Manoah asks “What is your name?” The “man” replies “Why do you ask my name? It is Wonderful!” and tells them to offer a goat on an altar. They do so. The fire lights spontaneously, and as it goes up the angel of the Lord ascends in the flame and is gone. Manoah said “We shall surely die for we have seen God.” But instead they had a son, the mighty Samson.
4 2 Kings 6:17: Syrian troops are hunting the Prophet Elisha and his servant. His servant wakes to see they are surrounded. “Master, what shall we do?” Elisha said “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” And he prayed “Lord, open the young man’s eyes.” His eyes were opened and “Behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire ’round about Elisha”. And they are delivered.
Why do people experience the presence of angels so seldom?
Maybe with some people blind skepticism makes them immune – so that even if an angel bats them over the head, they will not believe. Here’s why rational people should believe: 1 Mathematics now calculates up to 10 dimensions, making it clear that there is reality beyond our 3 dimensions, even if we don’t experience it. Scientists now speak seriously of other worlds beyond our own. Physicists today don’t even know what matter and energy are. Atoms and what lies inside them are mostly space. Even our reality may be just an appearance. 2 If you’re waiting for science to prove the existence of angels, forget it. Science can deal only with that which will hold still to be weighed, measured or analyzed – which bodiless beings won’t, don’t and can’t be. 3 For those who believe in God: God has created many beings in our world. Why would he not have done the same in other worlds? Indeed people in almost all cultures have claimed contact with spirits and “gods” from beyond our world, both holy and fallen (think of the Aztecs), and maybe some in-between. Until recent times almost everybody has believed in them.
I think another reason why few people today don’t have contact with angels is we make it so hard for them to get through to us. We surround ourselves with noise and light and commotion. We rarely hold still and keep quiet: instead it’s continual music and talk, television and computer and smartphones, texting and tweeting. (I confess myself guilty of this.) How do you expect an angel to get a word or an appearance in edgewise? If the shepherds on Christmas Eve had been buzzing around in a Ford pickup with the music blaring, they’d likely have missed the whole thing. But in the quiet and the stillness…it might be different. We miss so much.
But the most important reason we are unaware of the other world is that, according to the book of Genesis, we have all lost our natural awareness of it. Once we saw and knew the angels. Now only rarely can we feel their presence.
However, we often do know the invisible presence of the evil spirits, whether we call it that or not. We all have felt them tempting us, how they push us, pull us towards evil, things we know are wrong and stupid. They want to gain control over us, destroy our freedom, ultimately to enslave and destroy us and make us like themselves and their Master. Why do we not feel the holy angels tempting us? pushing us to be good? Why are the holy angels so gentle with us? Because they want us freely to choose love, choose goodness, choose the will of God, so that we become like Christ.
Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:14: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Brothers and sisters, this is essential to remember: We may have human “enemies” whom we need to guard against, but the ultimate enemy is Satan and his hosts. Our “enemies” on earth are our fellow victims of his subversion, of his fallen powers of destruction.
Living in the Unseen World around us
For no obvious reason all things around us fall apart – including us, for we all die. But we also see good things happening for no obvious human reason, goodness and truth and beauty arising seemingly out of nowhere. People speak of tides of history, irresistible movements in the way the world is going. These are reflections of movement of invisible powers behind the scenes, of larger, greater motion in the higher and lower worlds, things both good and evil. You notice how institutions and organizations take on a life of their own and no matter how we try we can’t seem to control them. I’m tempted to take current American politics as an example. Sometimes I think the guardian angel of our government is on strike. But let me speak of something I know better: Anglicanism, at least the Anglo-Catholic part I knew 50 years ago, had such great beauty, such reverence, piety, splendor in its worship, deep theology and spirituality, a growing monastic movement. Southeast Wisconsin alone had 4 women’s convents, all now gone – as is most of Anglo-Catholicism. For 20 years I played an active part in a movement trying to recover and restore it. There was no earthly reason, as we say, why all this glory should be lost. But it could not be done. We were rowing against the wind. Looking back I think Anglicanism went wrong for “no earthly reason” indeed. Something more than human was going on. “There was war in heaven”, and I really think a dark angel won, and there was nothing we could do about it. Thank God for the rise of the Holy Orthodox Church in the West.
With these unseen forces all around us, should we therefore stop trying to do good, to make the world better? Should we give up? Certainly not. Christ commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do as much good as we can. We’re in trouble with him if we don’t. And if Satan comes at you, don’t just sit there; fight him. Tell him to go to hell. But we should not expect to control the winds and the waves. We are not the masters of the world. They are, the great angels and archangels above – and from on high He is, the Lord of the bodiless powers, the Lord of all.
So when things go wrong for you, don’t get discouraged. It’s rarely all your fault.
You had unseen “assistance” from below. And when things go right, don’t feel overly proud. You had unseen help from above, whether you knew it or not. Try to remember always, even if you are alone: you are not alone. Pray to your guardian angel, for “He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
And when the world seems to be falling apart, hang in there, brothers and sisters. Finally it will all come to good. At the end of the war in heaven, we are promised that Michael and his angels will triumph, and our Lord Jesus Christ will set all things right again.