Angels may have different meanings to different people, but I can assure you that they are not little chubby babies with wings. Neither are they lifeless doctrines or pious maternal presence that keep little children from falling off rickety bridges into running water. Angels are much more vital than that, and, quite frankly, I do not know how we would get to Heaven without them.
While I have always accepted the teachings of our faith about the celestial beings, for many years those doctrines remained abstract, no more than an object of intellectual faith. But angels became real to me one rainy morning in 1998 when I was driving to meet some friends for a prayer service. I admit that the wet highway should have been more of a concern to me, but I was inattentive – and running late.
Out of nowhere a gust of wind clipped the back of my light Toyota truck as I was rounding a bend in the road, and my little truck went into a terrifying tailspin. I felt myself whirling like a child’s top through traffic with cars in front and in back of me. As the truck lost control, the abstractions of faith were farthest from my mind. Something deeper welled up within me, and I instinctively yelled out, “Angel, help me!” I have no idea why that was my split-second reaction, but it was inspired.
Incredibly, my spinning truck slid sideways through a hole in traffic that opened up at that precise instant and didn’t collide with or even touch a single car on the crowded highway that morning. Then the real trouble started. I was headed for the median strip at sixty-plus miles per hour and was either going to flip and roll numerous times like an Indy 500 crash or dive wildly through the median strip and plunge headlong into oncoming traffic. The speed and momentum of the car left no other options. It sounds trite, but my life really did flash before my eyes at that moment.
Just before hitting the median strip, however, the truck snapped out of its tailspin and went into the grass broadside. It did not crash into the opposing lanes or flip as I had expected. It just stopped! The laws of physics seemed to be suspended for an instant even though my body did not quite get the message and my head hit the window on impact.
A Powerful Presence
Right then – as God is my witness – I felt a distinct, powerful “presence” just outside the driver’s window of my car. I cannot describe it with scientific precision, but the perception was a sort of concentrated intuition, a clairvoyant sense of someone standing there watching me, and as clear to me as anything I could see with my own eyes. This “man” seemed to grab the top of the car as if it were a child’s toy and proceeded to lower the truck gently to the grass so that it did not flip or roll as it should have. During my last wisp of consciousness, the truck trundled calmly onto its side, and I watched the grass rise gently to my window with the side-view mirror pushing into the sod in what seemed like slow motion.
I was awakened some minutes later by a couple of Good Samaritans who had seen the spin-out and stopped to help. Soon I was in an ambulance being rushed to the hospital where I was cared for and discharged an hour or so later with little more than a bandage on my forehead. The accident had knocked me out for a couple of minutes and had given me a nasty bump but, thankfully, I was spared a concussion.
Now, I ask you: The mysterious gap in traffic, the truck coming out of a violent spin and straightening out at the last second, avoidance of contact with any other cars, the suspension of the laws of physics, the easy let-down in the median strip, the absence of any serious injury – who did that for me?
But Why Are There Still so Many Accidents?
For a man of faith, it is not difficult to answer the question of “who”, but the inquiry does provoke a few other related thoughts: If angels are sent by God to guard us against harm, why are there still so many accidental and violent deaths? The Church teaches that everyone is given a guardian angel, but clearly, a lot of people are not saved from harm by their angels as I was by mine. Are the angels simply arbitrary in their judgments of who needs to be saved and who is allowed to die? (I’m being honest here.) But then again, is it the guardian angel’s job to stop every bad thing from happening in this world? If that were the case, what would happen to free will or the law of cause and effect? Or are angels commissioned to protect us in another way, which sometimes involves our physical protection and sometimes not?
It is this latter question that gets to the point of the matter, I believe. Quoting St. Basil, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that guardian angels act as “protectors” and “shepherds”:
From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth, the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God. ( CCC 336)
Angles care About Heaven, not Earthly Well-Being
Note that the Catechism does not specify the ways that the angels protect and shepherd us, but clearly the Angels’ “watchful care and intercession” has everything to do with getting us to Heaven, not necessarily with increasing our well-being in the world of time. It is also a teaching of our Church that a person’s temporal life determines his eternal fate. The angels, it seems, are servants of that temporal-eternal mystery, which leads me to the conclusion that they may intervene at times to prevent tragic circumstances in this life – that is, when preventing tragedy is for our eternal welfare.
My brush with death caused me to think back on a college acquaintance who actually died in a car crash. It was a solitary accident where he alone was killed when his car veered off the road and hit a telephone pole. The cause of the accident was never determined. It did not matter. He was all of twenty years old. It was a devastating tragedy for everyone who knew him and a brutal wake-up call for a bunch of his friends afflicted with the immortality complex of youth.
But I had to ask myself this question: Why didn’t his guardian angel save my friend from that tragedy? If I embrace the mystery of the guardian angels as “shepherds” leading us to eternal life, I can think of a couple reasons why his angel didn’t prevent that car crash.
Perhaps my friend was “ready” to enter eternal life. The length of a person’s life is of no importance to God who is outside of time. He is more concerned about our soul’s preparedness for Heaven than about how long we live. In the spectrum of years, our souls may be prepared for death sooner rather than later. Psalm 24 asks the question, “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in His holy place?” And then it gives the answer: “The man with clean hands and pure heart, who has not desired worthless things.”
Some twenty-year-olds, while adults, may still retain a childlike innocence of soul that preserves them from the worst possible obstacle to eternal salvation, namely, serious sin. I cannot estimate the state of my friend’s soul at that time, but I can attest that he was by no means a hardened sinner. Perhaps God in His eternal vision saw that my friend was heading toward a life or lifestyle that would threaten his salvation later in life. So, as we sometimes hear at the funerals of young people, God simply took him in his innocence. That is not a pious justification to save God from reproach. The Lord, the One who has authority over life and death, had apparently decided that it was his time to enter life – before spiritual death came calling. It was an act of God’s supreme Mercy. So my friend’s guardian angel stood down on that fateful night and performed his other important task, that of shepherding a soul from this world to the next.
Life IS Fragile
Another possible reason why my friend’s angel did not intervene was to show the rest of his companions a truth that we desperately needed to learn about life. It is fragile. We are fragile. The sorrows of this life can’t be sugar-coated or avoided. We need some greater strength to sustain us in the face of them. With my friend’s tragic death, gone were all the illusions of power and strength that young people, particularly young men, nurture about themselves. We were faced with the raw truth about living in the material world and were shown how puny our personal resources can be to meet its challenges. I think that is called humility. Did everyone get that message at the time? I doubt it. Yet, every one of us carried the memory of our friend into our adult lives, and to the extent that his death strengthened our faith or at least made us more mature individuals, it served a purpose in God’s mysterious plan for the salvation of each of our souls.
So, why did God let my friend die in a car accident and not me? I wasn’t ready. Too much sin. Too little repentance. I needed more time to get my soul in order.
Years later I apparently had not absorbed the full message of my friend’s death in college because God gave me my own near-death experience – and miraculous rescue by an angel – as an unambiguous reminder.
Now, with the perspective of age and the humility of experience, I think I have a better grasp of why God’s mysterious helpers sometimes stand aside and sometimes intervene in the catastrophic events of our lives. They are shepherds who “lead us to life.” My guardian angel may have saved my body that day, but really, he saved my soul.