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The Times, December 15th 2006


Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new born king,
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled…..

What will you buy at the 'one-stop angel shop'? Maybe a set of Angel cards to make you feel good. You'll need an Angel Bag (£8.95) to keep them in. The Angel Abundance in a Box (Kit) looks value for money, with dowsing board, pendulum, guide and 36 cards. Curl up with 'How To Make Your Angel Work For You.' Myself, I fancy a Healing Angel Pendant with an amethyst for £26.99 or – to make sure I don't indulge too much this Christmas – a Guardian Angel pendant with moonstone for just £22.99. 'Mystical shopping,' this is called - a genuine case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

As an antidote to New Age flummery, the faces of God's messengers gaze out from Christmas cards, their faces grave and sweet as they kneel beside the manger, or start their choruses, 0-mouths raised to the heavens, dispatching the shepherds to Bethlehem. Apple-cheeked cherubs bear no resemblance to the cherubim brandishing flaming swords who sent Adam and Eve packing from Paradise, yet at Christmas they're around us in abundance: close cousins of the Christ-child. And of course, in real life, our children are enshrined forever in the folk-memory of school nativities: angels in tinsel crowns and white nighties – spirits of Christmases past.

The other day somebody asked me, 'Do you believe in angels?' My answer should have been 'No', but I'm too honest. Muttering 'I don't know,' I finger the little metal one in my purse, carried for good luck. Bookshops thin on theology will stock the latest beautifully-illustrated book on the shining ones, the messengers, the intermediaries between heaven and humankind. Whisper to a sensible man that you're sure his child is being watched over by a benevolent spirit and a shade of relief will cross his face, before the mask of rationality slips down again. A recent internet poll asked 'Do you have a guardian angel?' and 3% hit 'No', 19% didn't know, whilst 79% gave a resounding Yes. Maybe that's why angel tattoos are popular with those who live life in the fast lane.

Why is Anthony Gormley's 'Angel of the North' Britain's most famous piece of public sculpture? The universal fascination with angels ( a search offers thousands of websites) has nothing to do with human yearning/ gullibility/spirituality in a secular age. For ornithanthropus - the winged human – is a part of all mythologies, flying through the human soul for centuries. The Egyptians had Horus, and the Cambodians the bird-headed God Garuda, but the earliest known depiction of a 'pure' human with added wings is on a Sumerian stele, dated at about 2,300 BC. The Iroquois tribe defines an angel as 'a spiritual being assigned to help human beings carry out their duties.' Famously, the prophet Mohammed told how the Archangel Gabriel (Jibril) appeared to him and ' descended in his own form, of such beauty, of such sacred glory, of such majesty, that all my dwelling was illuminated. He is of a whiteness brighter than snow, his face is gloriously beautiful, the waves of his hair hang in long tresses….'

This androgynous creature - familiar from so many depictions of the annunciation, holding a long-stemmed lily - took twenty years to dictate the Koran. He/she sounds much more attractive than angels described in the Old Testament – weird hybrids with inspirationmultiple wings and faces, moving with the help of wheels. The seraphim burn brightly and sing 'Holy, holy, holy'; the warrior angels of the ancient Israelites do battle against the Assyrians; chief amongst them is Michael who guards Israel and is far removed from any peaceful, saccharine spirit. Angelology consists of layer upon layer of stories, the celestial hierarchy grouping the heavenly host into nine tiers like 'thrones.' 'dominions' and 'virtues'– all with a different job. Plain old angels are just one of these groups, hovering close to humans, their wings facilitating the round trip between earth and heaven, carrying messages and petitions. And of course the archangels are powerful, although who knows how many there are? Jews recognise three (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael – with Uriel a possibility); Christians are equivocal but name up to seven; Moslems say the number is four – Mikal, Jibril, Izrail, and Israfil.

Once you start reading about angels it becomes addictive. That's why I'm sitting in my local church, St Stephens, in Bath waiting for the angel event to begin. Theologian Jane Williams, wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is launching her new book 'Angels' and all the illustrations, by artist Linda Baker Smith, are displayed around the building, paintings on wood lit magically by tea-lights - at once part of the tradition and very new. There is Tobias led by protective Raphael, there Joseph receiving an angelic warning in the dream, Michael the warrior….and so on. As the audience wanders around before the talk, entranced by the art, I find myself thinking that we could be in an Eastern Orthodox church reverencing the icons, but that what has brought us here is more than faith. It's the old fascination which prompts the first question to Dr Williams, 'Have you ever experienced an angel?' About 200 people wait eagerly for the reply.

But she evades, saying the book is about angels in Christianity and Judaism but isn't 'personal.' You can sense the disappointment. Those of us who don't know what to think about the idea that there might be – at this very minute – an unseen angelic host all around us, long to hear the Archbishop's wife tell a tale of sensing an angel. But she keeps anecdotes to herself, although she says ' If we reject angels we lose some wonderful stories.' Linda Baker Smith, maker of those luminous images, is more forthcoming. She believes in angels: 'I've always thought there is a guardian angel, even during the worst of times.' Just after she got the book commission her sister, Julie Stone, was diagnosed with cancer. She died after Linda had delivered her work, 'But I kept on painting angels. I couldn't stop. It was a form of therapy.' Linda explains her belief thus: 'It's like the radio is tuned to one channel, but all the time all the other channels are there.' She feels that angels share our human sorrow that we sometimes can't do anything to take away pain and loss.

Angel stories on the internet and in books usually amount to some sort of coincidence and/or intervention. Something bad is about to happen, a stranger comes along, and disaster is averted, or the victim feels inexplicably better. The convention is that the stranger then mysteriously disappears, although I suspect that where the tales are true it was just some kind person who stopped to change a tyre (or whatever) then went on his way, To me human kindness is as exciting as divine intervention. Perhaps that's why the 1946 Frank Capra film 'It's a Wonderful Life' still resonates so powerfully. An angel appears to save the life of James Stewart's character, George Bailey, who wants to kill himself because he can't account for money suddenly missing from his business. Plump Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd Class, waiting 200 years to get his wings, announces, 'I'm your guardian angel.' That it all comes right in the end goes without saying - and we learn that 'each time you hear a bell tinkle it means that somewhere an angel is getting his/her wings.' But the point is, what really saves George is his own goodness, and the reciprocal goodness of others.

The angels who mooch around postwar and 1980s Berlin in 'Wings of Desire' look very different. No wings here either, but Wim Wenders's Elohim are wrapped up in dark overcoats as they loom over the city, listening acutely to the tremors of the human heart, and trying to offer succour to the desperate and lonely souls they meet. Perhaps it is no surprise that movie writers and directors have been drawn again and again to the theme of angels, since cinema purveys dreams and fantasies like no other medium. What else was Superman but the archetype of the guardian angels in the '40s – a flying being transformed from the everyday geek into an avenging angel on the side of Right? 'Heaven Can Wait' (1978), 'Always' (1989), 'Michael' (1996), A Life Less Ordinary' (197), 'City of Angels' and 'What Dreams May Come'(1998), not to mention the powerful trilogy 'The Prophesy' made for American television – are just a handful of the movies in which angels have a walk on part, if not the starring role. In 2003 Emma Thompson played an angel in the HBO series 'Angels in America' (also starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep) which followed the interconnected lives of people afflicted by the AIDS crisis – and, naturally, by intense spiritual longing.

That prompts the question, 'What are angels FOR?' The blue-clad creatures behind the Virgin in the C14th Wilton Diptych are direct ancestors of Linda Baker Smith's contemporary creations, and it is not difficult to see that line of beauty as paralleled by an equally direct one of human need. Philip Pullman's angels love each other intensely, Wim Wenders's Damiel chooses human love over the life of the spirit, David Almond's "Skellig' appears as a tramp in a shed and is saved by the affection of a boy, and of course Milton's Lucifer is the fallen angel who we identify with far more than with Christ, because of his all-too human psychological flaws. This is to see angels as manifestations of ourselves, part of the collective Jungian unconscious – a solipsism which will irritate those with faith who regard them as harbingers of something infinitely better.

Yet many of us do join in, as best we can, even if unsure of the lyrics, I can readily trust in the intervention of everyday goodness and accept that there are mysterious coincidences,inspiration pieces of extraordinary serendipity which make us gasp, diminishing the unknown terrors of the universe. I have no idea if the spirits of the beloved dead go on, hovering about us to offer protection, but suspect that – long, long ago - the hope it might be so first prompted a belief in angels.

Now – here is the most bizarre thing. I had just typed the above on my new Mac when the full stop went mad. With a sound like ticker-tape it raced along, line after line, totally unstoppable. Terrified I would lose this copy, I went to 'Save', but where the saved title ''Times/Angels' had been, there was just a row of stops, and a reprimand from the computer that I cannot label a document thus. Then the dottiness stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Truly disturbed, I deleted the rows of points and replaced my title.

Was it a 'sign?'

Let me reassure the angel in the machine that I am happy to stop and listen to the message that somewhere down the road something good, something amazing, is happening and you'd better hurry along, in case you miss it. It isn't sentimental to wish blessings sung over every newborn babe, and we cannot afford to close our ears to 'Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.'

Can we?

ANGELS by Jane Williams is published by Lion at £9.99




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