Last week I heard about a woman who recently picked up a prescription at her local pharmacy. She couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the worker at the pharmacy counter with the man in front of her, who was picking up prescriptions for each of his 4 sick children. This man was unemployed and had Medicaid for his family, but the co-pay for each prescription was $2.00. Unfortunately, he did not have $8.00. There he stood, agonizing over which of his children was the sickest so that he could at least purchase one antibiotic. The young woman stepped forward and paid the $8.00 so that all of the children could have their meds.
I don’t know the name of that woman, but I do know this. She was an angel. I like to think of angels as intermediaries between heaven and earth – celestial or human messengers who witness to God’s love. As people of faith, we believe that God watches over us and sends people to help and guide us, especially when we are in need. How many times do we say to another, “You’re an angel!”
The invisible dimension of heaven becomes real when we minister to one another. At the same time, there is a spirit world beyond this physical world. I have Christian friends whose spiritual gift is the ability to perceive the world of the Holy Spirit and tap into its power. They teach me that if we are open, we, too, may experience times when a voice speaks to us, an invisible hand guides us, or we feel a spiritual presence walking beside us. This is the realm of angels.
Angelology, the study of angels, was all the rage a few years back. People still collect angels (my aunt has 250 angels!), read and write books about angels (Angels and Demons) and even produce TV shows about angels (Touched by an Angel). One of the most comforting aspects of traditional Catholic piety is the belief in guardian angels, that each person has a heavenly being assigned by God to watch over them, protect them from danger, and represent them to God. Psalm 91:11 says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” Since the 17th century the Catholic Church has celebrated a yearly feast (currently October 2) honoring guardian angels.
Advent, more than any other time of the year, gives us the opportunity to marvel at angelic activity, for the Christmas stories are full of references to angels. Would there even be a Christmas story without angels?
- In Luke 1, an angel named Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that that his wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to a son who will prepare the way for Jesus.
- Later in Luke 1, the same angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High.
- In Matthew 1 an angel appears to Joseph, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife and to name the child Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
- In Luke 2 an angel appears to shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Then a multitude of angels cries out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
- Finally, in Matthew 2, an angel appears to Joseph and tells him flee toEgyptwith Mary and the baby Jesus in order to escape Herod’s wrath.
Have you ever been touched by an angel? I dare say that most of us have experienced the presence of an angel in our life, human or divine – leading us, protecting us, and giving us strength during the most difficult of times. Have you ever heard of the “The Third Man Factor”, which is also the title of a new book by John Geiger? Geiger’s thesis is that there is a common experience that happens to people who confront life’s extremes: an unseen presence or “third man” that guides them and plays a role in their survival.
The origin of this concept came from the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, who set sail for Antarcticain August, 1914, in order to cross the continent by foot. Before Shackleton and his men could even begin their adventure, their expedition ship The Endurance broke apart in ice 1,000 miles from the nearest human settlement. Enduring unspeakable terrors during 5 months of walking and 680 miles in a small boat, Shackleton reached an island. After a last desperate hike over glaciers and mountains, he and 2 men reached help at a whaling town, and the entire party was eventually saved.
Ernest Shackleton wrote in his book, South, published in 1919, “We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole’… We had reached the naked soul of man.” What Shackleton purposely left out of his original draft was that he experienced the presence of another person during his ordeal, “I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” In his final draft, Shackleton decided to include this strange story and admitted, “One couldn’t write this sort of thing … about the mystery of that Fourth in our journey; but it was the heart of it, all the same.” The extra unseen presence, which Shackleton felt was a spiritual manifestation of Divine Providence, gave him the will to survive.
Shackleton’s experience was immortalized in one of the most famous poems of the 20th century, The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot, written in 1922.
“Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…”
This phenomenon of the extra person, changed by Eliot from Shackleton’s “fourth man” to the “third man,” has been verified by dozens of people who have endured amazing physical challenges and extreme danger under the most grueling conditions. Mountain climbers, divers, astronauts, ultra distance runners, soldiers, and sailors have all spoken of the unseen and positive presence of a companion who joined them at a critical point to guide, encourage, offer courage, comfort, and hope, and even the show the way out of danger.
What can we say about angels, or the “Third Man Factor?”
- Angels often come alongside us when we are at the edge of the abyss, at the point of extreme need.
- Those who experience this unseen presence are imaginative, unconventional, and are willing to suspend disbelief, consider things beyond their knowledge, and “pierce the veneer of outside things.”
- Believing that a divine companion stands with us when we desperately need one can give us the strength to endure.
- Is it any coincidence that in 4 of the 5 appearances of angels in the Christmas story, the angel says, “Do not be afraid”?
Have you ever experienced the “third man (or woman) factor?”
Are your eyes, ears and heart open to the one walking beside you?
Are you in tune with the fundamental principle of human existence that we are social animals and need each other in order to survive and thrive?
Are you willing to allow human and divine angels to guide you to the goodness of God?
Are you willing to incarnate the angelic spirit this Christmas and always?
Work in a soup kitchen, donate to your church’s Christmas offering, sit with a cancer patient, visit your elderly neighbor. The list is endless.
To whom will you be an angel this week?
P.S. I’d love to hear of your experiences with angels by responding on the blog or individually.
P.P.S. The next Leading From the Heart will be published on January 4. May you know the deep joy of Christmas now and always.