A number of years ago, I appeared on a CNN talk show along with a woman who had recently penned a book on guardian angels. Perhaps they saw an article on angels I had written for a denominational magazine and wanted a Christian voice represented on the program. I was my theological best – after all, I am a theologian – describing the possibilities of angelic beings intervening within normal cause and effect relationships.
It was a call-in show and most of the questions were softballs and the featured writer answered with all sorts of glowing accounts of guardian angel interventions to save little children from wayward automobiles; to insure a car wouldn’t start, thus, saving the driver from death in airplane crash; to providing wisdom about relationships; and pushing a car off a railroad track in the nick of time. No one was particularly interested in my theological input; something I expect when I show up on such programs! The author sailed along pretty well, as I recall, until a question came out of the blue: “When something bad happens to you, where’s your guardian angel?” To which the host added, “Does that mean that your guardian angel was asleep on the job?”
The author appeared dumbfounded and, for the first time, yielded the floor to me. To break the ice, I responded to her pass with, “Thanks a lot! You gave me the easy one!” In fact, this question is essential not only to speculation about guardian angels but to any suggestion that powers from the spiritual world intervene in our lives.
Grant Schnarr, in a new book titled Ghost Brother Angel, has written an honest account of encounters with the spirit-world, quite possibly with a brother whose death was buried in silence and avoidance, but whose presence was felt at various times in the household. Losing a brother, even one you never knew, can leave a serious void in your life. In Schnarr’s case, the predominate feeling tone in his home was fear, denial, and danger. This fearful feeling tone carried through to his adulthood. Still, at certain times, Schnarr felt a presence, revealed in curious and synchronous events. Could this be his brother?
Schnarr’s book lacks the superficiality found in many books on guardian angels and that is a commendation. It is a truly realistic attempt to describe how spiritual forces work for our personal healing. Scharr asks the question: Was his brother there all along, protecting him and his children in times of crisis? In retrospect, it appears so.
But, back to the original question, one that I don’t have answer for, but one that deserves open-spirited reflection. Do guardian angels have a role in our lives? Where are they when tragedy strikes? Can they leap tall buildings at single bound or are they part of the causal web that also places limits as well as possibilities in our lives?
Schnarr describes a number of unexplainable but life-changing synchronous moments. I have no doubt that synchronicities occur in our lives. Leslie Weatherhead, the great English Methodist preacher, proclaimed that when I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t. Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity as a way of describing meaningful coincides whose purpose is to provide guidance or opportunities for transformation, if we pay attention to them. Both Jung and Weatherhead believed that there was a gentle and subtle force moving through our lives and psyches, aiming toward wholeness and spiritual maturity.
I don’t know if guardian angels intervene in our lives or if we have personal spiritual helpers. Some people speak of spirit guides and I suspect that, if these exist outside our psyches, they function in a similar way to guardian angels. They do not compel, but provide guidance. They work within the same causal processes that we do. I compare their power and role to that of intercessory prayer, or praying for another, which scripture identifies as God’s Spirit praying within us and interceding on our behalf. Our prayers make a difference and create a positive field of force, theologically speaking, around those for whom we pray. They create an environment that enables God to be more active in our lives and this can be a tipping point between health and illness of mind, body, spirit, and relationships. But, our prayers are one factor among many that influence each moment of our lives. I still pray – and often a lot – because, regardless of how much difference it makes, prayer makes a difference to me and, I believe, to those for whom I pray.
Now, I was delighted that Shnarr’s guardian angel wasn’t all “touchy feely” and didn’t appear at his beck and call like a spiritual concierge. In fact, accounts of angels in the biblical tradition – and in Shnarr’s book – are anything but nice. They often bring on disorientation as a prelude to creative transformation. Shnarr’s ghost brother pushes him out of his comfort zone; Jacob wrestles all night with an angel and discovers a new name; Isaiah is stunned by the presence of God’s angelic host and finds that his calling is to be a prophet of challenge as well as hope; Mary receives a marvelous invitation – and a dangerous one, too – to become mother of the God’s Beloved Jesus; and Joseph Jesus’ father receives a dream, convincing him to care for Mary and her/their child.
Angels can shake up your world, and that’s good news! Even if they don’t guarantee smooth sailing, angels, at the very least, symbolize the wisdom and energy that guides us, mostly unconsciously, throughout our lives. When we call on angels – whether the angelic is the healing force in our psyche (Jung), divine ever-present wisdom, or a spiritual being – we open the door to new possibilities for healing and growth.
I don’t truly know what our “angels” can do, but I know that calling for divine help in any positive form opens us to synchronicities and guidance we would not otherwise receive. Perhaps, the caller’s question is unanswerable, or perhaps in the intricate and dynamic web of life, we are the ones who are asleep on the job and miss guidance that might protect and inspire.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.
 “Angels: From Bethlehem to Bloomingdales,” The Disciple (December 1995), 2-4.