Away with the fairies

Co-writer of the BBC Radio 4 play 'No Future in Eternity' wonders why a godless society has started loving angels instead.

Timandra Harkness

Topics Politics

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People find it odd that a committed atheist like me should have co-written a comedy featuring two unemployed angels.

Not nearly so odd, I reply, as the sudden proliferation of apparently sane people claiming to have actually seen angels or even to have a personal guardian angel who communicates with them regularly. This, in a world where churchgoing is dying out and even those who claim to be Christians are prepared to equivocate about things like the resurrection.

You can buy books telling you how to work with ‘your’ angels, or go to workshops on ‘The Healing Power of Angels’, where you learn which chakra is activated by which archangel, and what colour is his ‘ray’. (See? I couldn’t make it up.) Singer Macy Gray claimed to have met an angel who, fortuitously, was driving a truck just when she needed a lift. You don’t even need to be a Christian (or Jew, or Muslim – they had them first) to believe yourself protected and helped by a personal angel.

Angels coming among us are nothing new. My co-writer Linda Cotterill, a professional storyteller, has plenty of ancient stories telling how angels come to Earth and are taken for human beings. In some, they are jealous of humans, because God ordered the angels to bow down and worship us as the pinnacle of His creation (don’t let the animal rights people hear that one). In most, apparently, they have a weakness for humans – ‘They always ended up sleeping with them’. With all our mortal frailties, the message of these stories is that we humans have something the angels desire.

Nowadays the angels you try to encounter at your weekend workshop will not be trying to sleep with you. They offer a cosy, nebulous spiritual comfort that will make you feel better without making any demands. You don’t need to change anything major about your life – a bit of meditation and some inspirational pictures will be enough to attract the angels, and they will do the work for you. ‘Playing religious and classical music will draw the angels into our lives and homes’, suggests the Summit Lighthouse in its leaflet. So there you are – bung on some Bach, sit on the floor and chant ‘Beloved Archangel Jophiel, by the power of God, I receive, I accept, and I absorb the energies of the Flame of Illumination which make me aware, here and now, of the perfect plan for my life, my family, my finances and my health’. Much easier than having to think about it yourself.

Much easier, too, than having to relate to real people – and, since they’re no longer trying to get into your bed, much less laundry. Unlike the comfort of a real friend, who’ll put an arm around your shoulders at times of stress, an angel won’t be asking you to return the favour when the Heavenly Host are under pressure (just before Xmas, perhaps). The great thing about imaginary friends is they do what we want them to do, and don’t have inconvenient agendas of their own. That’s why so many children have them.

But fully grown adults, talking to their guardian angels? A few years ago only very holy people and nutcases did that. Now the holy people are the least likely to be seeing angels and, conversely, the angel-spotters are the least likely to be following the 10 commandments and observing religious festivals. Why does nobody want God, but everybody want his angels? What’s the point of a messenger (Greek – Angelos) with no message? Angels used to come down with important messages from on high – ‘Oi, Sodom and Gomorrah – no!’; ‘Message from Allah, Mr Mohammed. It’s quite a long one – got a pen?’; ‘Merry Xmas, Mr Shepherd’. Now they just pop in to see how we are and make us feel better – like a supernatural cup of tea.

No wonder they appeal to people who don’t fancy a God who lays down rules and sets standards. An angel never says ‘I told you so’. Not any more. Angels have turned into our mum – ‘Mum, mum! Kiss it better!’ we cry, and they come, not with warnings about what will happen when Our Father gets home, but with ‘an armour of light all around us’. No more fiery swords for us, thank you very much.

Angels used to appear at times of great crisis – on the battlefields of the First World War, or to individuals near death. Now they reportedly show up when people could do with a hand. Most reported sightings of angels involve desperate straits like a flat tyre or not being able to find the bus station. The angels who appear are in disguise – most are only recognised because of their clothes (apparently a clean white t-shirt is a dead giveaway) and their habit of no longer being there when you turn round to thank them. In other words, they are quite indistinguishable from a human being who lends a hand and doesn’t hang around waiting to be thanked (apart from the clean white t-shirt, of course – I always regard that as a miracle after the first wash).

The sad truth is that for many people, the idea of another person helping a complete stranger is more incredible than the idea that a supernatural being took human form in order to carry their shopping for them. I’m not sure what depresses me more about this – the idea that many of us are so unwilling to look to each other for support, or the idea that divine beings once regarded with awe and described as pillars of fire, or six-winged burning wheels, are now taking the jobs of bagpackers at Sainsbury’s.

Imaginary beings reflect on those that imagine them, and if I’m going to bother dreaming up a divine helpmate, he’s got to have more going for him than a white t-shirt and knowing where the bus station is.

No Future in Eternity, a play by Timandra Harkness and Linda Cotterill, is on BBC Radio 4 at 2.15pm on 24 July 2001.

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