Many historical accounts of meetings with angels or messengers of God have been recorded. Joan of Arc had ongoing conversations with angels and prophetic visions of battles and finding lost swords. The prophet Muhammad is said to have received the Koran from the angel Jibra’il (Gabriel). The Aviator Charles Lindbergh reported conversations with phantoms that accompanied him on his solo flight across the Atlantic. These friendly, vapor-like shapes were able move back and forth through the walls of the plane as they discussed his navigational tactics and reassured him.
In our modern times, there are innumerable reports of people receiving guidance and information from all kinds of different beings, especially during challenging events in their lives. People report hearing guiding words, being touched or lifted to avert a dangerous situation, or smelling a pleasant fragrance around the time of someone’s death. There are also reports of people mysteriously appearing and then disappearing in the middle of a traumatic event and offering assistance and calm at a critical moment. Sometimes these beings are even described as the classic image of an angel, with glowing auras or wings.
Beliefs in beings who are intermediaries between humans and God permeate many different cultures and religious traditions, from primitive indigenous cultures to all of the major world religions. A 2007 Pew poll found that as many as 55 percent of Americans believe they have been protected by a guardian angel during their lifetime; the percentage of people who believe in the existence of angels is even higher.
The word “angel” usually means a messenger of God, but the word can also refer to any spiritual beings who guide or carry out God’s tasks. For the purpose of this article, when I use the word “God,” I’m referring to the supernatural creator and overseer of the universe, who has many different names and forms in the varied spiritual traditions and world views from Wakan Tanka, the great spirit of the Lakota, to Elohim of the Jewish faith.
In some belief systems, angels manifest for a specific task; and, after they fulfill their purpose, they cease to exist. In other traditions, the angels are immortal and manifest eternally in the world as certain qualities. For example, the angel Gabriel is thought to deliver God’s justice and power, while the angel Raphael manifests God’s healing forces. A Christian who is suffering and in crisis in the operating room might perceive Raphael as an unexplained member of the surgical team who appears bringing comfort and soothing words.
In polytheistic faiths, individual Gods can sometimes fill the role of these specific angels. The trickster, who is known as Coyote in the American West, as Anansi to the people of West Africa, or as Puck to the Celtic people, is a God who brings transformation, raises awareness, and acts as an equalizer. These gifts come through the tricks and mischief that he brings. People might experience the trickster directly in an encounter with a physical presence in their lives, as a vision, or, when things are going wrong, and they feel like the universe is playing tricks with them.
It’s important to note that in most cultures, angels are not always beings of light who are here to help humans. In the Christian faith, Satan is thought to be a fallen or dark angel who, although still an agent of God, brings challenges and hardships. Islam divides intermediary beings into angels, demons, and djinni (or jinn, see the following article by Robert Schoch). The djinni may be either good or harmful. In most cultures, the dividing line between good and bad angels is not clear. Trickster, for example, may act benevolently in one situation but with evil intent in another. As with the Fairie spirits of the Celtic faiths, common folklore states that if you encounter a spirit, you need to be very careful. They may bring blessings into your life, or they may bring you great trouble.
Taking a closer look at Fairie can reveal some of the complexity of beliefs about all kinds of angels and spirits that can influence our lives. What exactly fairies are is debated in metaphysical circles. Some think they are the recently dead, who are in some kind of transition to another place. Others say they are elementals, such as gnomes or sylphs, who are respectively associated with the earth or the air. These spirits take care of the physical qualities of the world and are present wherever those elements manifest. Others say fairie are demoted angels, demons, or even pagan deities.
There are also debates about the evolutionary hierarchy of these ethereal beings. For example, in the Hindu traditions, the Devas are benevolent spiritual beings who are thought to be more evolved, or closer to Brahma, than the Ghandarvas, who are the nature spirits connected with trees and flowers. In the Christian tradition, there is much debate on which angels are closer to God and which are closer to humans. For example, Thomas Aquinas proposed angels occupy concentric spheres around God. In the first sphere he placed Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; then come the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers; and lastly the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.
Seraphim, one of the groups of angels closest to God, often are portrayed as fiery six-winged beings and called the “burning ones” as they sing or extoll God’s praises. They are described in the Book of Enoch and the Book of Revelation. Recently an image of a Seraphim, which is thought to date from the fourteenth century, has been rediscovered in Istanbul. It portrays the six-winged angel with two wings over the face, two out to the side, and two down over the body, leaving only the face visible. The abundance of wings is thought to represent the purity of this being and his closeness to God. The face is the only part recognizable as a human trait, the rest of the figure being spirit.
Most worldviews place angels and spirits on some type of evolutionary continuum. The Ghandarvas and elementals, such as sylphs and salamanders, are often thought to be less evolved and more like primal nature energies. The Latter Day Saints believe that angels are former humans or the spirits of humans yet to be born and thus close to human in personality and wisdom.
The thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi wrote: I died as inanimate matter and arose a plant, I died as a plant and rose again an animal. I died as an animal and arose a man. Why then should I fear to become less by dying? I shall die once again as a man To rise an angel perfect from head to foot! Again when I suffer dissolution as an angel, I shall become what passes the conception of man.
The winged Seraphim might be a way of imaging that further evolution we can’t fully comprehend.
In the Native American and in many other indigenous traditions, the nature spirits can be both elemental and, at the same time, evolved and close to the creator spirit. This perspective indicates a more holistic and circular understanding of the the interrelation of beings.
Many faiths hold that the spirits, one might encounter are evolving beings just as we, though with much more diversity. Carlos Casteneda described the spirit world as being similar to the physical world with its many species of animals, only that there are umpteen kinds of ethereal inhuman beings. Also, similar to the human organic realm, there are the harmless, somewhat dangerous, and the very dangerous beings, ranging from the irrational to the highly intelligent.
Angels and spirits have their own intentions, concerns, and desires. They may be quite neutral towards us or, at other times, become aggressive in the same way a physical person we encounter might be a danger to us as he attempts to meet his own needs. Castaneda again describes how some beings have only self-interest while others can help an individual in some way and even become an ally.
Most traditions state that you have a choice in how you interact with angels or ethereal beings. If you keep your wit and intelligence, you can navigate through the interaction successfully. A key to success is to treat whatever or whomever you encounter with respect; and, just as with any organic being you encounter, you should trust your felt sense or intuition. In the physical world, there is a chance we might encounter a saint or realized being who could illuminate our spirit or guide us. We then listen and decide for ourselves what to do with the information or guidance. It’s no different in the spirit realm.
Some encounters with angels seem to be a meeting with a higher, or more spiritual, part of ourselves. For example, when we’re in a crisis, we might encounter a being who reminds us that we will be OK. In that crisis moment, people trust the messenger and the validity of the message. The angel may manifest as a distinct entity but may be, in a spiritual sense, part of a larger source with which we are connected. Perhaps this is why we may feel immediate trust and receptivity; we usually have the same instant receptivity when we hear our own inner, intuitive voice.
Another possibility is that the guide we encounter might be a version of ourselves from a different time or place in our evolution. Robert Monroe, who wrote Journeys Out of the Body, came to realize that one of the favorite guides he encountered when he was a young man was, in fact, himself. Close to the end of his life, he realized he would conduct conversations with his younger self while in an out-of-body state.
A friend of mine who has lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences describes a similar understanding. Sometimes when he is talking to a person in a lucid state, he will slow down and listen more attentively. Then, the entity he’s talking to becomes quiet and has nothing to share. In these cases, he feels that the encounters are conversations with a projection of himself. On other occasions, he encounters beings who offer energy and information that becomes stronger and clearer when he’s calm, present, and more conscious. These highly energized, informative encounters seem to come from another source or, perhaps, a part of himself that is further removed from his conscious awareness. He intends to continue this kind of dreaming and exploration in order to contact those energies and expand his consciousness.
Regardless of a person’s belief system, most spirit and angelic encounters bring a sense of spiritual luminosity into the person’s life. Contacting spiritual beings, or more spiritual parts of ourselves, is a mysterious and wondrous part of human existence. Many of the saints and sages through history have had spiritual encounters with higher forms of consciousness. These encounters occurred because of the person’s practice of prayer or meditation. In many cultures, entheogens, or psychoactive substances, have been used in ritualistic ways to contact spirit to receive guidance, invoke healing, and request blessings for human endeavors. Peyote, psilocybin, and ayahuasca have been used by indigenous tribes in the Americas. Soma, datura, and amanita have played active roles in Europe and India. Different gods inhabit each of these substances and, when taken, are contacted for specific purposes. Similarly, altered states are created in sacred places in order to contact the specific entity that resides there.
In some Native American traditions, the vision quest is used to contact spirit powers. Vision questing uses fasting and dehydration to intentionally alter a person’s physiology and evoke an extreme altered state. An individual in a vision quest would have the intention of encountering and forming a bond with a specific spirit who then becomes a totem for that person. If the quester encountered a dragonfly, he might then later be able to evoke the whirlwind of the dragonfly and take that power into battle. The dragonfly would also help him know his connection to all living beings and the entire world. Warriors returning from a vision quest would share their insights and gifts with their community, thus enlarging their community’s cultural awareness of their interconnection with all of nature. The idea of a totem resonates with the European tradition of a healer/witch having a familiar, an animal spirit that protects her and lends her powers. It is thought that the historical witches of Europe also used psychoactive substances to contact their spirit familiars.
A well-known collaboration between humans and ethereal beings occurred at the gardens of Findhorn. Dorothy Maclean described how the community that she helped found in Findhorn received the help of nature spirits connected with the flora. Several of the founders of this community were able to perceive and dialogue with these devas. More importantly, they paid attention to what the devas were saying. They were instructed how to prepare the soil, sow the seeds, and care for the plants. Their contacts with the spirits produced a deeper relationship with all the plants, bugs, and animals, which allowed them to grow plants in an area that was considered impossible because the earth was sandy and salty.
Due to the secular, materialistic world view of our modern world, very few people actively seek this kind of living relationship with devas or other inorganic beings. When seen through the lens of a mechanistic world, a person would not recognize communication if it did occur and might only label it “intuition”; although in periods of crisis, people do still encounter angels, which might explain why so many people still believe in them.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, gave an insightful talk at one of the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conferences. She described how, during her process of writing, she experienced creativity flowing into her. She proposed this was because of a genius. In the old world, genius referred to the guardian spirit or deity of a person, family, or a place. Today we regard genius as something that a person is. Einstein was a genius. Yet, Gilbert asks us to welcome the old view of genius, a helpful visitation of these genii in our lives. With prayer, practice, and discipline, we can invite the genii in and they can enlarge our lives with mystery and wonder. Once we develop a respectful relationship with these entities, we can channel their gifts into our lives and our communities in productive and meaningful ways.
Gilbert’s perspective has great advantages. We do not have to claim that we are the embodiment of a great force. Such claims by a visionary artist, healer, or athlete can be dangerous. Consider Van Gogh’s descent into madness or the way an extraordinary leader becomes corrupted with the power he wields. Yet we can acknowledge that these angels and genii do occasionally come and visit us. We can respect their gifts, not just in times of crisis but also in our daly life. We can get help when we soul search. And, when we visit a sacred site, we can experience our connection with the many other forms of life that share the universe.
Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is also a clinical hypnotherapist and the author of A Joyful Intuition. See www.AJoyfulIntuition.com for more information.