Book Review: In the Presence of Angels

This blog post is part of the Patheos Book Club discussion of In the Presence of Angels: Reflections on Mattie Pearl and Emanuel Swedenborg by Andrea R. Garrison

In the Presence of Angels is a short, simple meditation by Andrea R. Garrison on the passing of her mother, Mattie Pearl. Garrison recounts her own spiritual journey – her innate belief in the presence of angels and spirits, the stories she heard from her mother of the spiritual connection between her grandfather and his parents, and finally the vivid dream she had of her mother after her mother passed away. Throughout the book and particularly in an appendix at the end, Garrison shares passages from the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg describing the nature of angels and the way that the spiritual world (heaven and hell) interact with this physical world.

It’s the kind of story I’ve heard many times from many different people. That’s not a criticism – I love hearing these personal stories, and this is a beautiful story, beautifully told. My first response to the book is simply, “Yes, that’s true – this is the way life and death work.”

There are even details that some might not realize are common, but that I’ve heard from several people who have been close to someone dying. Garrison reports, “[My mother] described how she saw the most beautiful flowers. They were exotic flowers, ones she had never seen before. She also saw the brightest and most spectacular colors. Her ears were filled with incredible sounds and the most enchanting music.” I’ve heard remarkably similar things, in particular the mention of seeing (and sometimes smelling) flowers. Garrison continues, “She saw loved ones and friends who had passed away. In particular she was having daily conversations with one of her best girlfriends, Catherine, who had passed on about a month prior.” Again, this is so common in people as they draw near to death. Is it dementia? Is it spiritual vision? I think it could be either one – or both – and I see nothing wrong with choosing to believe that these visions are real.

Garrison describes her own vivid dream of seeing her mother after her mother had died: “I had a wonderful dream. I was with two very dear friends and we went to visit Mom in her new place. She was delighted. She was smiling and so grateful for her three special visitors. We were all happy and delighted to be in her presence as well. She thanked us for visiting her and she smiled. It was so special. Words cannot describe it.” Again, even the details are familiar – I have talked to many, many people who see loved ones, who usually either just smile or say something like, “I’m OK.” But that doesn’t take away from the power of each individual story.

I’m not sure how aware people are that this kind of story is so common, because in some contexts people are afraid to share their experiences on the death of a loved one. They might mention a vivid dream to a close friend, but I suspect a lot of people are hesitant to tell others of waking visions of departed loved ones, for fear of being called crazy. But as a pastor – and perhaps because I am a Swedenborgian pastor in particular – I hear these stories all the time. If everyone openly shared them, I think that stigma would be gone in an instant – as it is in some cultures – and it would be recognized as a perfectly normal experience. (An important note, though – we were taught in seminary that a. we should reassure people that they were not crazy for seeing loved ones who had passed on, but also b. we should reassure people who did not have vivid dreams or visions that this was not an indication that their love was somehow any less real.)

There is one specific point that I want to address, but that will take its own blog post: the idea that people are essentially “angels in training preparing for a higher level of service.” That idea is affirmed in Swedenborgian theology, but I realize that it runs counter to much of Christian tradition. As I say, I’ll address that in another post. (Update: that blog post is here.)

Laying that aside, though, this is a nice book. I don’t think it will convince anyone who doesn’t already believe in life after death or angelic visions that those things are possible. But for those who do, it’s a gentle, meditative affirmation of that belief, that the loved ones who have passed on are still with us in a very real way.

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