Encounters with angels
A British Theology student, researching angel encounters, found that they happen to people of all religious traditions.
Share International: Have you had replies from people of all faiths?
Emma Heathcote: I now have around 450 letters, and while the majority are from Christians, I have also heard from Jews, Muslims, Hindus and many atheists.
SI: Is it more difficult to hear about angel experiences from non-Christians?
EH: Yes; I hadnt realized how difficult it would be to hear the testimonies of people from other faiths. The Jewish perception of angels is connected with mysticism and the Kabbalah, so a lot of people who have had experiences from the Jewish tradition do not want to come forward unless they are very liberal in their thinking. Also, writing these accounts is a hard thing to do, because they are so personal. Many people have written saying that Im the first person theyve told, or its only me and their husband theyve told. People ask me not to mention their name because if anyone found out theyd be completely ridiculed. So its quite a big step for some people to write them down.
SI: Do angels appear in all religions?
EH: As well as the frequent mention of angels in the New Testament, angels are mentioned in the Koran, the Hindu scriptures, Greek mythology and the Old Testament. The Greek word for angel is angelos, meaning messenger; the Hebrew word is malakh, meaning divine spirit, and the Persian word is angeros, which translates as courier. Angels are mentioned in all religions and they always seem to play the same role.
SI: What is that role?
EH: For many people who have written to me it has given them hope, calm and reassurance, and has often helped them out of a difficult or dangerous situation. I heard from one man who was waiting to cross a busy road on his way to work. Seeing a gap in the traffic he stepped out, only for an elderly lady hed never seen before to stretch her arm out in front of his chest with such force it prevented him from crossing. Seconds later a sports car sped past which would otherwise certainly have hit him. He turned around to thank the woman, but she was nowhere to be seen. In that kind of life-threatening situation the angel often then disappears.
SI: Do many people experience angels that disappear?
EH: Yes. From my research, angel experiences seem to fall into five main categories. The first is visual, where the angel appears in either traditional winged-angel or human form, or often as a figure in white. The second experience is an unexplained strong, sweet scent, which is very common at the time of a death. A third category is hearing a voice or a choir of angels, often inside a place of worship.
A fourth category is an actual physical feeling, which often happens to elderly people. The feeling of wings being enveloped around them is a common occurrence. One elderly woman wrote to me and described how, when her husband died, she hated going to bed because she missed him so much, and described how she would see and feel her duvet turn into a pair of angelic wing-like, comforting arms. Interestingly, she was an atheist. Ive heard from several people who, at a time of needing comfort, experienced wings enveloping them but there was no visible angel. Another kind of physical feeling is touch. One woman wrote to me relating how, at her sons funeral, she saw an angel and felt it touch her cheek. Countless people who have written to me have not only seen, but have felt the touch of an angel.
The fifth category is light: either a beam or a ray of light. Often at the time of a loved-ones death, a ray of light seems to shoot upwards. One writer described seeing her father slip from the bottom of the bed, stand next to an angel, look around the room and then pass upwards into the beam of light. The mother was also in the room, and although she didnt see this, she sensed what was happening. Many experiences happen around death, hence the expression the angel of death.
SI: With so many experiences taking place around the time of death, have you heard of peoples experiences in hospital?
EH: Yes. A Hindu woman in her 40s, in hospital with a leg injury, wrote to me explaining how she had seen angels waiting patiently at the end of the bed of two patients who she knew were dying. Another woman who wrote had spent a night in hospital and was kept awake by a dying patient who, all night, had been sitting up trying to reach out to the end of her bed. Unsuccessfully, she had shrugged her shoulders, muttered something, and gone back to sleep. Patients on the ward were aware that she was talking to someone and the writer saw an angel at the bottom of the patients bed. The next morning the restless woman had died.
SI: Do you think that interest in angels is higher than it has ever been?
EH: Yes. The American magazine The Skeptic reported that the greatest growth area in belief is angels, with a poll finding that seven out of 10 people believe in angels, and one in three have witnessed the presence of a celestial being.
SI: It might be even higher if you consider that many angel experiences took place with angels that looked like ordinary men and women?
EH: There are many sorts of angels. Some people imagine just the traditional image: halo, wings etc. But some angels appear as a figure in white, or as a normal human being but there is always something different about them.
SI: What distinguishes them, so that people think of them as angels?
EH: The angel is usually a person not known to the individual. They turn up, often with split-second timing, at a time of immediate danger. They perform their deed, often do not speak and then disappear. Several newspapers have quoted me as saying that they go up in a puff of smoke. That is not the case but they do often disappear. In one letter I received, a family were touring Wales when their car became stuck in a muddy lane. Out of nowhere four hikers came to help them, and lifted the car out of the mud and onto dry land. When the family turned round to thank them, they had disappeared. There were fields surrounding them on all sides there was nowhere the four men could have gone.
I am particularly interested to hear about such group experiences because it refutes the sceptical psychologists who put such events down to being all in the mind.
SI: Have you also found journalists to be sceptical?
EH: Yes, it is very unfortunate that the media need to search for a logical explanation for everything. Some letters I receive, however, have several witnesses to the event, which cannot therefore be easily dismissed. One man wrote to me about an incident in hospital when his wife was seriously ill on a ventilator in the intensive care ward. He was visiting her with his two sons and his parents. Her condition became critical she had a 50-50 chance of survival. Suddenly her husband saw an angel standing at the end of the bed behind the metal bars. While he wondered whether this was simply the result of being stressed and upset, his son turned to him and asked: "Dad, can you see that figure behind the bed?" The younger son then replied: "Its an angel!" and his parents exclaimed that they "had never seen anything like it." When a nurse came over, they asked her if she could see anything unusual, and she replied: "Oh my goodness there is an angel!" The angel then disappeared, and from that moment the woman made a full recovery.
There was another case in a small parish church near London. A young couple had moved to the area and the wife asked to be confirmed. She was at the font waiting to be confirmed and the vicar felt a strange sensation of warm oil all over his body. He noticed all the congregation were looking intently at the woman and when he turned, there was an angel standing next to her with its hand on her shoulder. One witness fainted she was Catholic and later asked to be confirmed Anglican because of the miracle she had seen. All the people near the font of the church saw the angel. The vicar gathered these people together the next day and found that they had all had the same experience.
SI: Did you hear of any accounts relating to the time of Princess Dianas death?
EH: An Anglican and a Sikh woman described in separate letters seeing a host of angels in the room with them as they watched the funeral of Princess Diana.
SI: Have you heard from any other categories of people about their experiences with angels?
EH: Yes, I have heard from about five blind people and from their accounts it seems they experience the same as sighted people. It is an interesting area which I hope to research more.
SI: Have you heard from younger people?
EH: I have heard from many people aged between 20 and 40 about experiences they had as children. The first letter I received was from a Justice of the Peace in her 60s relating an experience that happened when she was 22 years old. She was working in the casualty department at Guys Hospital in London. A three-year-old girl was rushed into casualty followed by her hysterical mother, a policeman, a witness and a distraught juggernaut driver. Apparently the child had been playing in the road when the juggernaut had driven over her. The driver felt the wheels go over her and was extremely distressed. All four people had seen the accident. The doctor examined the child and there was nothing wrong. X-rays were taken and everything was normal except that she was unconscious. Eventually she came round, looked up to her mother and said: "Wheres the man in the long white coat?" The doctor stepped forward but the child said: "No, there is a man in a long white coat and he picked me up when the wheels went over."
SI: Do you think your work could have a synthesizing effect on the religious communities if it shows that angels are appearing to all the different groups?
EH: If everyone is having the same experience in all the religions, then this is very exciting. The reason the media have shown an interest in my work is that I am the first person in the UK to research this area. There have been many books about angels, but on the whole from a Christian or New Age point of view.
SI: What do people from different religions experience?
EH: Exactly the same, often seeing the human form of angels. A couple of Muslims who wrote had smelled a strong perfume at the time of a death, and a Hindu woman smelt the perfume of her fathers favourite flowers when he died.
SI: You have had around 450 letters. People must feel very strongly about their experience, to make the effort to write. Does this show in their letters?
EH: Yes, their experiences were very vivid and thought-provoking. One woman wrote to say that when her husband died the undertakers came and dealt with his body while she waited in the garden. When she came back to the bedroom to make the bed she noticed an intense smell of flowers. She thought it must be an air-freshener the men had used, but when she read an article about my work she realized it must have been an experience and it gave her great reassurance.
SI: What do angels look like when they appear to people?
EH: I think people see different kinds of angels. Some people see the traditional eight-foot angel. I heard from one man who was walking his dog on the canal towpath. He was a scientist with three degrees an intelligent, logical person, and a Christian. He felt an eerie atmosphere and sensed danger so he prayed, and immediately a six-foot angel appeared in front of him like his protector. Other people have seen fuzzy balls of light, smelt a strong scent or heard a voice. Some sceptics ask me why angels dont appear in the one form. To my mind, if your husband had just died you would not want an eight-foot angel suddenly appearing. It would frighten you. I think the experience is given in a guise that you can cope with, to suit the individual.
SI: Do you think humanity is moving into a more spiritual time?
EH: I think it has to. Religion is in such decline, we have to find something else. The majority of my generation has grown up without any kind of religion, and man needs something.
SI: Do you, personally, believe that angels exist?
EH: Before I embarked on this research I approached the subject with a certain scepticism. As more and more letters came in with such amazing stories, I came to believe that people really believed they had seen angels. Now I genuinely feel there are angels out there and that, whenever and wherever they appear, they are a comforting presence.
From the July/August 1999 issue of Share International