Read an Excerpt
Make for yourself a new heart and a new spirit.
Minutes after a bomb exploded in the Alfred B. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, an Oklahoma woman phoned her sister in North Carolina to share the terrible news. “Oh!” her sister responded. “Can you imagine the angels that were there!”
It wasn’t the kind of reaction one would expect in the midst of tragedy. Positive points of view, if there are any, usually emerge days or even months later, when dust has settled and people have moved beyond those first shocking moments. But the woman in North Carolina was seeing past the immediate horror into a spiritual realm, where even the most terrible happenings can be turned into good.
A few days later, the sisters heard about a woman who had been preparing food for a funeral luncheon at her church, west of Oklahoma City, when the explosion occurred. She packed everything into her car to bring to the disaster scene, some twenty miles away, and as she drove onto an overpass, she had a view of the city. The hair stood up on the back of her neck. A gigantic cloud hung over the skyline, filled with hundreds of angels. She could clearly see them, all facing west, trailing long graceful wings, angels standing silent vigil over the ruins, confirming the revelation of the woman from North Carolina.1
A week after the World Trade Center explosions, word circulated that a trumpeter was playing at Ground Zero. A well-known photographer went to see for himself. In the eerie quiet of lower Manhattan, he could hear the notes as he approached a barricade. “The trumpeter stood in this urban canyon, illuminated by shafts of light caused by the smoke and dust.” Who was he? In a place of such intense security, how could a lone musician be allowed behind police lines? Looking through his lens, framing the unlikely stranger amid the rays, the photographer realized that this was the photo of a lifetime. “But I couldn’t depress the shutter,” he said. He lowered the camera in defeat.
His colleagues reported the same phenomenon. Apparently, no one could snap a picture. “Maybe he’s an angel,” one suggested.
Mark Judelson, executive director of the Arts Council of Rockland, New York, was struck by this event and has written and performed a miniplay about it. Today he says, “I think the trumpeter was the angel Gabriel. With his music, he blessed this site of carnage and taught us to accept loss.”
Who could have imagined, a few decades ago, speaking of angels in such matter-of-fact conversations, allowing these heavenly beings into our lives as mysterious intercessors, cherished companions, dependable protectors? Since the early 1990s—when angels made somewhat of a popular comeback—books, movies, stores, and even Time and Newsweek cover stories have focused on them not as myth but as a unique part of God’s creation. Perhaps at this uncertain moment in history, they are needed more than ever. Peter Kreeft, an angelologist, author, and professor at Boston College has observed that angels “appear on the brink of chaos, or catastrophe, or at least the threat of chaos or catastrophe. They are spiritual soldiers in the great cosmic jihad, the spiritual war between good and evil.” Upon reflection, he says, it seems not such a strange idea. “Doesn’t there often seem to be an unknown, unpredictable, invisible factor in history, especially in times of physical or spiritual conflict, culture wars or spiritual warfare?” Perhaps the emergence of angels in the public consciousness during the 1990s was intended to be that “invisible factor,” a merciful heavenly preparation for the difficult events that were to come.
Terrorist attacks on American soil and subsequent war have ended our peaceful complacency, perhaps forever. Church scandals have betrayed not only children but also the faithful in the pews. Corporate greed and personal corruption have seriously affected employees, stockholders, and retirees. The lack of moral principles in government; the misuse of the Internet; impoverished children in the midst of a society sated with “stuff”; a drug culture connected to more than 60 percent of the crimes in America; an entertainment industry pushing the limits of decency. Consider too the unnerving increase in natural disasters—the floods, tornadoes, and wildfires that can ruin lifetimes of labor in an instant—or the appearance of new and deadly diseases. We who were taught to maintain control over every aspect of our lives have discovered that such control is elusive, sometimes even impossible. In the past few years, nearly every institution in which we have placed our trust has faltered or collapsed, and the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Some have described it as a huge national mourning, with undercurrents of fear and grief even at the happiest of times. Many are poised for additional threats, wondering if God has simply abandoned us.
Yet this may be precisely the time when people can truly grow and change. Tragedy is a harsh refining process, but it creates new substance by tearing away the smug materialism and mis-directed goals that may have driven us in an earlier time. People who rise from the ashes of despair will inevitably make the world a better place, but it is not an easy process. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist and author of the groundbreaking On Death and Dying, was perhaps the first to identify actual stages that people must experience and work through in order to handle bereavement in a healthy way. These stages, whether personal or global, include shock and denial, acknowledgement and intense sorrow, a period of disorganization and confusion, and finally, accep-tance, moving on, and hopefully creating something positive out of the loss. Kenneth L. Pierpont, a pastor and director of the Character Inn Christian ministry in Flint, Michigan, says, “That is the way God usually works. He usually takes us through the valley of the shadow of death before we arrive at the table he has prepared for us. Some dark and difficult days are usually a part of God’s good plan. That was true for the Lord Jesus himself. That will always be true for each of us.”
Gospel musician Thomas Andrew Dorsey wrote the hymn “Precious Lord” while grieving the death of a loved one. “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn,” the song laments. As Dorsey faced his sorrow, though, he said, “the Lord healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest anguish, when we feel farthest from God, this is when he is closest, and when we are most open to his restoring power.” It can be the same for us.
As we travel this challenging journey, we are not alone. As we have learned, angels go alongside us. These marvelous beings, created at the beginning of time, are greater in power and might than any human—just two angels were sent to destroy all of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nonetheless, angels are concerned with every facet of our well-being; an angel even brought food to the prophet Elijah, advising Elijah that he would be of no use to the Lord if he was exhausted. Angels convey messages, warn us, and probably “run interference” with our consciences, prompting us to choose good over evil and strengthening us in times of temptation. Moreover, because they act only on God’s authority and within his plan for us, God has promised us their aid: “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him, and heed his voice. Do not rebel against him for . . . my authority resides in him” (Exodus 23:20–21 NAB). What a great gift. How foolish we would be to disregard it.
Of course, an angel’s role is not always to lift our burden—recall that during Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel was sent to strengthen him, not to take the anguish away. Sometimes angels simply walk with us through our distress, bringing their glory and grace to bear on whatever hardships we face, helping us lift our eyes from the event at hand to the will of God behind the event. Perhaps what we need most in the present uncertain climate is the comfort of angels.
Stories about comfort abound. One hospital patient explains, “I felt a warmth come over me, as if angels were all around. In the midst of my fear, I was flooded with reassurance. Whatever tomorrow’s surgery revealed, I would handle it.”
Describing a chance encounter with an unusual street person, a teenager recounts, “His eyes were full of love. All my worry dis-appeared. I thought, If God loves me, then why should I be upset about stuff I can’t control, like bombs?”
Such episodes of care, reassurance, blessing, and love are balm to our shaken spirits as we come to understand that God’s promise is the only one worth counting on; his path is the true way to peace. Look back at the “coincidences” in your life with new eyes. Hasn’t God been with you every step of your journey, even though you might not have recognized him? Hasn’t he sent help and consolation in trying times, healed your broken heart, brought certain people into your life at the perfect moment? (Could some of those people have been angels in disguise?) Why should it be any different today than it was in biblical times?
The future holds excitement and opportunity. We may grow inwardly in new ways, emerge stronger, holier, and more interested in ministering to the needs of others than to ourselves. We may learn that the people in our lives are far more important than any personal achievement or possession. The Rabbi Harold Kushner once observed that all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating are built on sand. “Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has someone’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.”
As the people whose stories are in this book have learned, we need not fear the future, for we have God’s hand to hold. He has given us everything we need. Peace, hope, and comfort abide in his arms—and in the arms of angels.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth,
and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
—Genesis 28:12 KJV
December 24, 2001, started out like any other Christmas Eve for the townspeople of Moncton, New Brunswick. Last-minute shoppers mingled with church- and partygoers, and despite the rainy weather, a sense of anticipation filled the air. Twenty-four-year-old Tobi Gabriel and her three-year-old son, Gage, were part of the happy throng. Tobi, a resident of Toronto, had driven to her hometown of Moncton to spend the holidays with her son and her mother. Sometime around two o’clock in the afternoon on this gloomy Christmas Eve, Tobi grew restless. She bundled Gage in a warm sweater and sweatpants, grabbed her coat, and headed for the door. “We’re going out to rent a movie, Mom. We’ll be right back.” Her mother, elbow-deep in food preparation, barely noticed.
Tobi and Gage never returned. At about eleven o’clock at night, Tobi’s concerned mother phoned the police. It was almost Christmas, and brightly wrapped presents for her grandson were under the tree. Where could Tobi and Gage be?
It was a little early for the police to suspect foul play. Tobi had many friends to visit and perhaps Gage had fallen asleep while in someone’s home and the adults didn’t want to wake him. Despite a now-freezing rain, there had been no accidents reported. Tobi should have phoned, but she’d turn up. Such “missing persons” usually did.
Early the next morning, Linda Belliveau of the nearby town of Lower Cove went out to watch for her parents, whom she expected for Christmas-morning breakfast. It was dark and wet, and even more so along this shore area of the Bay of Fundy. “I was glad I had left the lights on all night after I’d returned from Midnight Mass,” said Linda. The candles and manger scene were the only sources of illumination along the whole beach.
Despite the roar of the waves behind her, Linda thought she heard a cry, like that of a baby. Impossible. No children would be out on this frigid dawn. The cry sounded again, mournful and frightened. Linda says, “Somehow, I felt compelled to find out what it was.”
Linda hurried toward the sound. Ahead of her, alongside the shore, she saw a strange shape. As she neared it, Linda gasped. It was a car, lying upside down in the sand, just a short distance from the surf.
Linda realized that the car had probably plunged off the steep side of a nearby cliff, an area of highway known for being dangerous. There had been plenty of ice last night. She quickened her step. Surely no one could have survived. Yet she kept hearing that little wail.
Suddenly, she made out a small figure on the sand, crawling toward her. It was a tiny child, scooting along on his elbows and weeping inconsolably. “Honey!” Linda ran to him. “How did you get here? What happened?” His clothes were soaked, and she tore off her own coat to wrap it around him.
The child clutched her. “Mommy,” he whispered.
In the growing dawn, Linda saw what must be a body, floating face down in the water. It was this child’s mother. Was there any hope for her? Linda had been picking up the little boy, but she paused. “I’ll go and help your mommy,” she told him. But the child tightened his grip on her. “No!” he cried. “Don’t go there.”
She wondered what terrors he had been through during the night, what he had seen, how long he had been on this lonely, freezing beach. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” she asked.
“Gage Gabriel. I lost my ducky boots.”
“We’ll buy you another pair,” Linda promised as she lifted him up once more. “I’ll bring you back to my house and get you warm.”
She saw her parents’ car pulling up. She decided that her dad could take charge of the scene because from the way Gage was clinging to her, she knew she’d be going to the hospital with him. This was going to be a Christmas morning like no other.
Tobi Gabriel had died on impact. Preliminary investigations found that she had not been wearing her seat belt and that drugs or alcohol had not been involved. She had probably lost control of the car when she hit a patch of frozen sea spray. At least one passing driver had noticed skid marks on the road at about ten o’clock at night, but police speculated that the accident had occurred several hours earlier because Tobi had been visiting friends and had left for home with Gage sometime after six.
Questions lingered about Gage. It appeared as if he had been lying down in the backseat, asleep. Since the car had rolled over at least twice—and shattered glass had flown—shouldn’t he have sustained more severe injuries than a bump on the head and bruised hips? How had he suffered only frostbitten toes during an estimated twelve hours of below-freezing temperatures, wearing just a wet sweater and knit pants? Had he slept or been unconscious for part of that time? Had he stayed in the car or crawled along the beach? Linda was glad she had left her lights on all night. “Although he couldn’t tell us, I like to think that perhaps he saw Jesus and the shepherds and wasn’t so afraid.”
Perhaps even more miraculous, according to Sergeant Dale Bogle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was that Gage didn’t drown. “Usually, during high tide, the area where the car was found should be under water.” Since Gage was on the beach during a complete tidal cycle, no one knows why the water did not come in all the way to the cliff that night.
Most of it is a mystery, but not all of it. Sergeant Bogle was visiting Gage in Amherst Hospital just a few hours after his rescue, asking him some gentle questions, when the little boy looked up. “I saw two girls,” he announced matter-of-factly.
The officer was taken aback. “You did? Where?”
“Standing in the water, next to Mommy,” Gage answered. “Their dresses were white.”
“Did they talk to you?”
“No. They smiled at me. They smiled at me all night, until that other lady came.”
Gage reported the same story to his dad, and later his grandmother, and added that the girls seemed to have wings. “Were they ladies?” his grandmother asked.
“No,” Gage was definite. “Girls!”
How could a child of three come up with something like this? Sergeant Bogle voiced this question as he shared the story with his fellow officers. They had no answers. No one had interviewed Gage yet; there had been no chance to plant such an idea in his mind—if anyone would. No one was sure that Gage had ever been told about angels.
Gage now lives with his father; his grandfather calls him “a gift from God.” He seems happy and well adjusted and rarely speaks of that difficult night. For those who care about him, there remains just a little hint of mystery, of wonder, of joy, in the midst of loss—and the hope that the “girls” who comforted him on that dark and lonely beach will watch over him forever.
Guardian in the Tower
Not only do baptized Christians receive an angel,
but every member of the human race.
—Saint Thomas Aquinas
It started as an ordinary day for Genelle Guzman, a then twenty-nine-year-old administrative assistant for the New York Port Authority. For the past nine months, she had been working at a computer on the sixty-fourth floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. She would have liked a more stimulating job, but, born and raised in Trinidad, Genelle was in the United States on a nonimmigrant visitor’s visa, which had expired. This certainly limited her job choices; if anyone found out, she could be deported.
Genelle was the youngest daughter of thirteen children, three of whom had died as babies. The family was poor, and her father was strict, and by the time Genelle was eighteen, she had left home to work in Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad. “I wanted independence,” she explains. Although Genelle is naturally shy, there was something about the nightlife there that made her feel confident and alive, and she even became a “party girl.” Later, Genelle gave birth to a baby daughter, Kimberly. In 1998, more adventure beckoned, and Genelle gave custody of Kimberly to the baby’s father and moved to New York. She had relatives there, and she would live with a sister in Queens while she looked for a job. However, the shabby neighborhood and the noise of the city disturbed her, and soon she returned to Trinidad. A short time later, Genelle’s mother died of ovarian cancer.
“I had always said I believed in God, but when Mom died, I wondered where he was.” Genelle was angry with the God she barely knew, wondering why her mother, so faithful to him, had had such a difficult life. Eventually, though, anger turned to indifference. Religion seemed superfluous, even an impediment to the life Genelle was now living. She resumed her “party girl” lifestyle and was often out until dawn.
Genelle met Roger McMillan at a carnival in Trinidad, and it was instant attraction. She went back to New York in 1999 to pursue a relationship with him, and they lived together in Brooklyn. They assumed they would marry eventually, but as Genelle says, “I was still busy partying. I didn’t want too much pressure on my relationship.”
Genelle was aware, however, that her lifestyle was missing something indefinable but vital. Twice she and Roger had attended services at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, an evangelical congregation. Genelle was intrigued by one of the lessons, which emphasized “If you let God lead you, he will.” What would that be like? To stop searching and just follow the lead of someone who loved you more than anything? This God had taken her mother away, though, and to join Brooklyn Tabernacle, she and Roger would have to change the way they lived. She decided that change wasn’t worth the price. Neither she nor Roger had joined the congregation.
One morning at work, as she booted up her computer, Genelle stuck her head into a few cubicles to greet some of her coworkers. One of them, Susan, admired Genelle’s gold braids, which Genelle and some of her cousins had done that Saturday. Just as Susan turned away to answer the phone, everyone in the office heard a loud bang, and the building shook. “What was that?” Genelle murmured as she hurried to the window. Stunned, she watched as bits and pieces of paper and debris fell through the air. The fire alarm rang, and a moment later the public-address system announced that an airplane had hit the upper floors and that people should stay put and not panic. Everyone was stunned. What kind of plane? How? Most ignored the instructions, grabbed their belongings, and fled. In a moment, just fifteen employees were left. Again there was an announcement that those in the building should stay where they were.
Another friend of Genelle’s, Rosa, had just phoned her sister, and Genelle followed suit. She left a message on Roger’s answering machine: “Honey, I’m staying in the building. I guess we have to wait until someone comes to get us out. I love you.” She also phoned her cousins. They were bordering on hysteria.
“Get out of there! Leave now!” they told her, describing the scene on television. But the stairwells were filled with smoke, and the elevators had stopped. How could she get out alone?
Meanwhile, firefighters had arrived at the base of the north tower, their hoses putting out flames on some of the people who were exiting. Crews headed into the building and a moment later heard the sounds of a second plane approaching. Within seconds, that plane hit the south tower. Thousands of people were trapped, but the firefighters were ordered out of both unstable buildings. Most of them turned back.
On the sixty-fourth floor, Genelle and her fourteen colleagues also heard the second crash. The ceiling shook, the air around them was getting hot, and smoke seeped ominously under the closed doors. “That’s it!” one of the men shouted. “We’re walking down!” Rosa and Genelle grabbed each other’s hands and followed the group to stairway B. It was less smoky than they had anticipated, and a wave of optimism filled them. Genelle phoned her cousin again and then Roger. This time he answered. He was waiting on a corner just a few blocks away, hoping that Genelle had managed to get out. “I’ll meet you there!” he told her. “Hurry!” It was just ten o’clock in the morning, more than an hour since the first plane had struck.
At first the trek went well. Rosa and Genelle clung to each other, and by the fortieth floor, when they met some firefighters taking a break, their confidence grew. On the thirtieth floor another rescue worker reassured them that they would be fine. (These men either had not heard or had not heeded the order to retreat and would die in the building’s collapse.) Genelle recalls counting the flights of stairs with Rosa: “Twenty, nineteen, eighteen. I was wearing a new pair of high-heeled shoes and my feet hurt. When we reached the next landing, I stopped to take my shoes off.” Just then there was a roar—like a locomotive coming straight at them. The floor shifted, and part of a wall fell toward Rosa and Genelle, separating the women from each other. Dust filled the air, steel beams crashed, and cement was pulverized as people hurtled down flights of stairs. Then the lights went out. An eerie calm descended.
Genelle, attempting to crawl downward, had been trapped by falling chunks of cement. Now her head was pinned between two concrete pillars, her arms above her head, her legs under debris. “Help!” she cried out. “Is anyone there? Rosa?” No one answered. Genelle did not know it, but her building had collapsed and she had been the only survivor in this area.
Slowly, Genelle took stock. “My right leg was buried up to the thigh in rubble, and my toes were numb.” Perhaps worse was the worry over what had happened outside. Had New York City been hit by a bomb? Were her loved ones alive? Would she die here, never being able to tell them that she loved them? As panic edged closer, she closed her eyes. For the first time in many years, she thought about God. She hadn’t been a very faithful daughter of his, she knew. But from what she remembered from her mother’s faith, she wasn’t alone in this terrible place. God knew where she was—and he was here too. She began to pray.
Time passed; as the dust settled, Genelle saw a thin shaft of light somewhere ahead. Was that an exit? If so, where were the rescue workers? How would anyone find her if they didn’t check this area? She heard nothing. As the light slowly faded, Genelle prepared to spend the night in complete darkness. She pleaded to God for him to stay by her side.
Genelle couldn’t know that the scene somewhere above her was one of pandemonium. Smoke billowed from the pile of rubble that was once the World Trade Center; gigantic beams lay everywhere, and sirens screamed. Shocked and bleeding people wandered aimlessly, while others ran for their lives. “There was a sense of crazed panic, people fighting to save lives, firehoses cascading all over the place,” said one eye witness. Thousands of people remained missing. Genelle was one of them.
Eventually, in the collapsed stairwell, the little ray of light returned, and Genelle knew morning had arrived. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she also knew that her life was ebbing away. “All feeling in my right leg was gone now, and I didn’t think I could go too much longer without water.” Still, she sensed the presence of Someone who truly cared about her. “God,” she prayed, “please send me a sign that I’m going to get out of here. Or that if I don’t, you’ll be there to meet me.”
Suddenly—was it true?—Genelle heard a muffled sound. “Hello!” she cried out, her voice hoarse and raspy from the dust. “Is anyone there?” There was movement, as if other people had entered the area. “I’m here!” she cried. “Can you hear me?” No one answered.
Genelle’s hand was still stuck above her head, but maybe she could attract some attention. Frustrated, she tried to wave, and suddenly she felt someone take hold of her hand, holding it in a warm and reassuring grip. “You’re going to get out of here,” a male voice told her. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Oh, thank God!” Genelle could hardly believe it. “Where did you come from? What’s your name?”
“I’m Paul,” the gentle voice answered. “I’m just ahead of the rescue team. They’re coming to get you. I’ll stay here with you.”
Holding on as hard as she could, Genelle tried to open her eyes so she could see Paul’s face. “But for some reason, my eyes just wouldn’t open.” However, Paul was right—soon she could hear men’s voices. “I’m shining a light down,” someone called. “Can you see it?”
“No!” she called back, still unable to see anything. She used one hand to knock the staircase above her with a piece of concrete. The rescuers were definitely getting closer, but whenever they moved wreckage, fear surged through her—would there be another collapse? Paul seemed to know how she felt and would give her other hand a squeeze. Sensing her terror, he soothingly told her more than once: “It’s going to take a while, but I will stay with you. You’re going to be fine.”
An eternity passed, and finally she heard two firemen above her, digging debris away from her leg, calling for others to send down a stretcher. “We’ve got her!” one shouted. As they reached her, in the confusion and joy of the moment, Genelle let go of Paul’s hand, letting the others lift her onto the stretcher. It was 12:30 p.m. She had spent twenty-six hours buried underground, and she would be the last survivor pulled from the wreckage. Crowds cheered as she was carried to an ambulance. “I noticed that it was a sunny day, and I could open my eyes now. I wondered why I had not been able to open them and look at Paul.” She had not seen him yet and didn’t want to forget his name. When Roger arrived at the hospital, the very first thing she told him was to write it down. She would never be able to repay Paul for the care and comfort he brought to her during this terrible time, but she would try.
Roger had assumed he was being summoned to the hospital to identify Genelle’s body. When he realized that he had not lost her after all, he suggested (through tears) that they get married. Genelle agreed. She had been given a new chance at life, she told him, and this time she would do it God’s way.
Since then, Genelle has faced many challenges. She endured several surgeries on her crushed right leg (however, she no longer needs a leg brace, despite the medical prognosis that she would always use one). Psychologically, Genelle may not have completely worked through her fear and loss yet, but she is not depressed. Her legal problems have ended; the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has decided not to prosecute illegal immigrants who were victims of this attack against America. Genelle is now a wife and a faithful member of the Brooklyn Tabernacle—she was baptized there shortly after she and Roger married. She is remarkably humble, quick to point out that she is not anyone special, just a child who has given her life to God—and she knows that this commitment does not mean a perfect life but one brimming with the “peace that passes all understanding.” She does not believe that her rescue was about luck. “It’s about God having a plan. And he will reveal it to me someday.”
Only one loose end remains. At Christmas time, some of the firemen who rescued her came to visit her at home. She thanked them all, and then asked which one was Paul. “Paul?” the men looked at one another.
“Paul,” Genelle said. “The one who found me first, the one who held my hand. He was just ahead of the rescue team.”
The men shuffled and shook their heads. They knew every member of that squad, all the firemen who were currently searching for survivors. There was no one named Paul in any of those groups, and there had definitely been no one ahead of them when they rescued her.
Genelle believes that God did indeed send her a sign that all would be well, a sign in the form of an angel. For that reason, she is determined to make the most of her life and to regard it as a gift. “Those hours in the building turned out to be a wake-up call so I could get my life in order. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Comfort from Beyond
We are each of us angels with only one wing.
And we can only fly embracing each other.
It was a quiet Sunday morning at Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church in Callahan, Florida. No more than eighty people were attending Mass, but the church was so tiny that most of the pews were filled. To Jackie Hall, everything seemed normal as she gazed around the sunny space. Who among her neighbors here would have guessed that, despite Jackie’s calm exterior, her mind and heart were in torment? Jackie was thinking seriously of committing suicide.
It is difficult, perhaps, for those who have never been clinically depressed to understand what a tremendous toll this illness takes on a person’s mind and soul. Even people with strong spiritual faith can succumb to unbelievable feelings of sadness and, often, the unreasonable fear that depression and chronic pain create. Jackie had suffered from back problems for many years as a result of a car accident. She had recently given up a retail job she enjoyed in order to have fusion surgery. Her rehabilitation had been long and arduous, but she was still not well enough to go back to work or even to resume normal living. “I felt useless,” she says. Her husband and children were at a loss to help her change from a morose and withdrawn woman back into the gracious, outgoing person they remembered. No one realized just how dark Jackie’s thoughts had become recently.
For the previous few days, Jackie had been “getting ready,” packing up family photos and organizing records, giving away certain possessions—all actions that are symptomatic of an impending suicide. On Sunday, she had awakened feeling especially fragile. Perhaps Mass would be her last outing. How she longed to feel God’s love for her, his support! Even though she had often prayed to be delivered from despair, the answers had not come. Now the emotional pain was closing in on her. She could bear it no longer, and there seemed no other way out.
“When we arrived at church, I knelt and prayed with all my heart. I told God how much I loved him and begged him to guard me against whatever was happening to me.” She needed a sign, just a little hint of reassurance or comfort. Once again, God seemed silent.
Several pews back and across the aisle, Judy Davies also knelt in prayer. She usually attended Sunday Mass at another church, the parish at which her son went to grade school, but today she had dropped into Our Lady of Consolation. Because the parish was so small, she usually knew everyone there.
However, this morning Judy noticed a woman just in front of her. She didn’t know her, but as Mass began, something about the woman caught Judy’s attention. What was it? The woman seemed sad, but she wasn’t behaving unusually, just kneeling and praying. “I sensed a presence there. It’s hard to describe, but the longer I looked, the more I seemed to see light around her, like an aura.” The cloudlike glow was particularly strong behind the woman, as if some kind of force was protecting her. But from what? There was no danger in this peaceful church. Judy was even more astonished when she realized that no one else was reacting to this strange light. Was she the only one who could see it?
“I tried to keep my thoughts on the Gospel and the homily, but my eyes kept drifting to her, to see if the aura was still there. It was.”
By the time Mass ended, the apparition had faded. Judy was in a quandary. Should she stop the woman and tell her about it? “Things like this are always hard to do,” Judy says. “You don’t want others to think you’re strange. But I felt that I had to tell her.” Judyfollowed the woman out and tapped her on the shoulder. When the woman turned, Judy plunged into her message.
“You are truly blessed,” she said earnestly. “I saw a glow all around you during Mass. It looked like an angel was looking over your shoulder, protecting you. I just had to tell you!”
An angel! Jackie was almost speechless as she stared at the woman. “Well, thank you,” she murmured politely and watched as Judy turned away. But her thoughts were racing. An angel, watching over her, caring for her? Could this be the sign she had asked God to send? Suddenly, she felt an enormous weight begin to lift and a small stirring of hope. Tears filled her eyes. She turned to her husband. “I need help. I want to live.”
Jackie’s life changed quickly. She found an effective medication and began to feel more like herself. One day at a meeting, she heard herself volunteering to visit a cancer patient in her parish, something unlike any activity she had ever participated in. It was the start of what would become a visitor program, ministering to the sick and the shut-ins in the neighborhood. The program became extremely popular, and after some consideration, Jackie agreed to become its director. Gradually, she came to understand that her own suffering had prepared her for this kind of ministry; in God’s eyes, there had been a purpose for it all. She had developed a wellspring of patience and tenderness for others in need, and she was constantly amazed and grateful when her work bore fruit.
Four or five years passed. Jackie improved dramatically, became a grandmother several times, and considered each day a blessing. There was just one mystery left: who was the woman who had brought her the reassuring news that critical morning in church? And would she even recognize her if they were to meet again? Jackie longed to thank her, to ask how she could have known. . . .
One evening, Jackie attended a parish meeting, and a visitor asked the group a question about the Catholic church’s teaching on angels. The host answered the question, and then Jackie spoke up. “I have an angel story. In fact, I think an angel saved my life!” As the audience sat transfixed, Jackie described her illness and that desperate morning when she almost gave up. “I haven’t seen that woman since, even though our parish is small. I sometimes wonder if she was an angel in disguise.”
From the back of the room, a woman spoke into the silence. “No,” she said hesitantly, “I think it was me!”
Jackie gasped as Judy stood up. Both recognized each other and then embraced as the rest of the group wiped away tears. How had they failed to become acquainted during the last several years? Neither had an answer. God’s timing is perfect, and he had started a chain reaction of faith that became an example to the entire parish.
Jackie and Judy have remained in touch and see each other every Sunday morning. “Our eyes often meet during Mass, and we share a smile from across the church,” Judy says. She is enormously grateful that she took a risk and reached out to Jackie on that important morning. “Call it instinct, intuition, or a sign from God, but if someone feels the presence of the Lord—through his angel messengers—that person should share it.”
We should also respond to any inner urge to pray, for a person or situation, even if we don’t know all the details. Such a process is called intercessory prayer. A recent example of this is the experience of the trucker Ron Lantz, who, in October 2002, felt suddenly compelled to organize a prayer service for America, for “an end to evil in our country” and for the arrest of the snipers who were then terrorizing the Washington, D.C., area. Ron used his CB radio to contact other truckers, and more than fifty came to a prearranged stop near Baltimore on October 16 to pray.
Just a week later, Lantz was driving on a highway not too far from where the prayer meeting had taken place. Again, he had an urge to pull off into a rest area. There he saw a parked car matching the description of the sniper’s vehicle. He dialed 911, and then pulled his rig across the exit just in case the two men sleeping in the car awakened and tried to escape. They did not, and a terrible siege of panic and fear finally ended. Ron was thrilled but not surprised. As do Jackie and Judy, Ron has always understood the power of prayer.