An old tradition says that guardian angels are appointed to children at the time of their birth. The seventeenth-century mystic Amos Komensky (1592–1670) declared that each child has an angel "given to him by God and ordained to be his guardian, that [the angel] might guard him, preserve him, and protect him against all dangers and snares, pits, ambushes, traps, and temptations."
Those men and women who claim to have seen their guardian angels generally describe them as appearing youthful, commanding, beautiful of countenance, and often majestic and awesome. Manifestations of light often accompany them, which lend to the grandeur of their appearance and the feelings of profound reverence that suffuse those who encounter angelic beings.
Not all angels appear as blond, blue-eyed entities in flowing white robes. Angels are thought to have the ability to appear in a variety of forms and with a wide range of physical characteristics. They seem completely capable of shaping reality in the three-dimensional world to suit their heavenly purposes. In certain cases, they may even reveal themselves as beings of pure light.
According to a poll conducted by Time magazine and published in the December 27, 1993, issue, 69 percent of Americans believed in the existence of angels, and 46 percent were certain that they had their own guardian angels to watch over them and to guide them. Of those men and women polled by the news magazine, 32 percent claimed that they had personally felt the presence and/or guidance of ethereal entities in their lives; and 15 percent believed that the heavenly helpers who ministered to them were the benevolent spirits of humans who had died, rather than higher spiritual beings with special powers. A similar poll conducted by Self magazine for its December 1997 issue found that 87 percent of readers believed in angels.
All religions have some tradition of a guardian angel or type of spirit guide assigned to each individual human soul. In the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Vedas, the word for angel is angira; in Hebrew, malakh, meaning "messenger," or bene elohim, for God's children; in Arabic, malakah; and in India, multiwinged angels or beings are called garudas. As early as the third millennium B.C.E., the written records of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia recognized a hierarchy of supernatural beings that ruled over various parts of the Earth, the universe, and the lives of human beings. They also believed in lower levels of entities that might be either hostile or benign in their actions toward humans. The Mesopotamians wanted to be certain that they were well protected by their spiritual guardians, the shedu and the lamassu. The lamassus were portrayed in art as grotesque creatures that looked like lions or bulls with human heads and large wings, and they were often represented by statues at the entrances of temples to ward off evil. The people of Mesopotamia considered them to be guardian spirits. An ancient magical text of the Mesopotamians invokes the good shedu to walk on one's right hand and the good lamassu to walk on the left.
In nearly all stories of angels, the beings appear to be paraphysical—that is, they are both material and nonmaterial entities. Although they originate in some invisible and nonphysical dimension, they are often seen to manifest as solidly in human reality as those humans whose lives they affect. There is no question that in both the Old and New Testaments angels are considered fully capable of becoming quite physical and material—at least long enough to accomplish their appointed mission of rescue, healing, or guidance. Throughout the Bible there are accounts of angels who wrestle with stubborn shepherds, guide people lost in the wilderness, and free persecuted prophets from fiery furnaces and dank prisons. Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) himself was fed by angels, defended by angels, and strengthened by angels.
Although popular culture has for centuries perpetuated the idea that humans become angels when they die, the holy books of the great world religions are in agreement that angels are an earlier and separate order of creation from human beings. According to these ancient teachings, humans were created a "little lower than the angels," and mortal men and women do not join their guardian spirits in the heavenly realm until after death—or, in some traditions, until after the Final Judgment. But even though humans are "lower than the angels" and made of material, physical substance in comparison with their ethereal, heavenly spirits, the scriptures of various faiths state firmly that the angels are not omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient— and neither are they immune to falling into temptation or into error: "Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error" (Job 4:18).
A number of religious traditions teach that each human individual has a good and a bad angel that remain with him or her throughout his or her entire earthly lifespan. Others maintain that there are two unseen angels that hover near each person, and it is the task of the one to record the good deeds; the other, the bad. The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) gave expression to this concept in his poem "The Golden Legend" (1851):
He who writes down the good ones, after each action closes his volume and ascends with it to God. The other keeps his dreadful day-book open until sunset, that we may repent.
The sacred writings of Islam also proclaim that every human is guarded by two angels— one taking the day watch, the other, night duty. As in Longfellow's poem, these two vigilant guardians record their human's good and bad deeds for Judgment Day.
In addition to their task as guardians, the benevolent unseen companions have as a considerable portion of their earthly mission, the task of guiding their humans toward spiritual awareness and leading their human wards to a clearer understanding of their true role in the cosmic scheme of things. Episcopal bishop Philip Brooks once observed that there is nothing clearer or more striking in the Bible than "the calm, familiar way with which from end to end it assumes the present existence of a world of spiritual beings always close to and acting on this world of flesh and blood.… From creation to judgment, the spiritual beings are forever present. They act as truly in the drama as the men and women who, with their unmistakable humanity, walk the sacred stage in successive scenes. There is nothing of hesitation about the Bible's treatment of the spiritual world. There is no reserve, no vagueness that would leave a chance for the whole system to be explained away in dreams and metaphors. The spiritual world, with all its multitudinous existence, is just as real as the crowded cities and the fragrant fields and the loud battlegrounds of the visible, palpable Judea, in which the writers of the sacred books were living."
The teachings of Islam state that there are three distinct species of intelligent beings in the universe: first, the angels, a high order of beings created of Light, the malakh; second, the al-jinn, ethereal, perhaps even multidimensional entities; and then human beings, fashioned out of the stuff of Earth and born into physical bodies. On occasion, the al-jinn can serve as helpful guides or guardians, but they can also be tricksters.
There are numerous admonitions in the New Testament to be cautious of any manifesting entity and to test it to determine its true motives. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God." (1 John 4:1) While such a passage is easily quoted, its admonition is much more difficult to put into practice when people are warned in 2 Corinthians 11:14, "Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
A general admonition mentioned by several spiritual teachers is never to enter meditation or prayer with the sole thought of obtaining ego aggrandizement or material gain. Selfish motivation may risk one becoming easily affected by those spirit beings who rebelled against God and became ensnared in their own selfish lust for power.
On December 12, 2000, the London Times reported on the two-year study of the phenomenon of guardian angels that was conducted by Emma Heathcote, a Birmingham University researcher. Heathcote's study, the first academic research into the subject of angels, examined the stories of over 800 Britons who claimed encounters with heavenly beings. Almost a third of those who contacted the researcher reported seeing a traditional angel with white gown and wings. Another 21 percent saw their guardian angel in human form. Others experienced the sensation of a force around them or being engulfed in light.
In one of the more dramatic accounts in Heathcote's research, an angel appeared during a baptism at a village church in Hertfordshire in front of 30 witnesses, including the rector, churchwarden, and organist. Confirming the story for journalist Carol Midgley, the rector said that he was baptizing a 22-year-old woman who was about to be married but had never been christened. Suddenly there appeared before the rector "a man, but he was totally different from the rest of us. He was wearing something long, like a robe, but it was so white it was almost transparent." The angelic figure didn't have wings, and he simply stood there silently, looking at those assembled for the baptismal service. Children came forward with their mouths open. People said later that they felt as if "warm oil" had been poured over them. Then, in a few seconds, the angel was gone. But, the rector stated, the appearance of the angel had changed the lives of everyone present that day.
Other witnesses of angelic activity told Heathcote stories of seeing guardian angels at hospital beds and deathbeds, ministering to the ill or manifesting to escort souls to heaven. A good number of accounts reported the appearance of majestic beings to allay people's fears, to let them know that they were not alone in dangerous or stressful situations.
Rather than external entities presenting themselves to provide assurance of a celestial helping hand, psychotherapist Dr. Susan Blackmore theorizes that angel sightings are merely apparitions created by the brain in times of crisis in order to provide comfort. Though she might agree with Blackmore that certain angel sightings might be "crisis apparitions," Heathcote returns to the baptism in the church in Hertfordshire as an incident to give the staunchest critic pause to wonder: "I interviewed a lot of people about that angel," she said, "and everybody told the same story. Their descriptions were totally consistent."
Emma Heathcote said that although humans have been preoccupied with angels for centuries, humankind may now be going through an increased period of interest in the heavenly beings because "people are feeling a spiritual shortage and angels fill the gap." In her opinion, men and women in contemporary times fashion their own faiths in what often seems like a "spiritual supermarket" of choices available to them. "They might take a bit of Christianity, a bit of Judaism and Buddhism, together with a belief in angels to create their own eclectic religion," she said.
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