by Zak Weisfeld (email@example.com)
Angels like to get going pretty early. By ten on an overcast, but hardly apocalyptic, Saturday morning the sixth floor of the Candy Factory in Knoxville has undergone an angelic transformation. A formerly staid gallery space and conference area has become a full-blown Angel Day arena.
20 vendors from around the southeast dispense a full array of angelic merchandise. There are angel t-shirts, angel tapes, angel paintings, angel magazines, angel post-cards, angel candles, angel lotions, angel books, and all different shapes and sizes of angels; wax, ceramic, wooden, corn husk.
In the corner, a snack bar has miraculously become the Angel Cafe, where one can dine on angel biscuits (with or without sausage), angel hair pasta (with or without meatballs) and angel cake. Clearly, angel's diets are not constrained by the FDA's food pyramid recommendations concerning fruits and vegetables.
Though this is only Knoxville's First Annual Angel Day, the angel phenomenon is national trend. Books on angels and angelic experiences have sold more than five million copies in the last several years. A recent poll has revealed that sixty-nine percent of Americans believe in the existence of the winged minions of the Lord. 1996 alone saw the opening of more than three-hundred and fifty specialty stores and catalog merchants that deal almost solely with angel-themed products.
And though the mercantile aspects of Angel Day dominates the sixth floor, the seventh concerns itself with rather more serious consideration of angels and their doings. In a room at the rear of the floor, a brick walled, flourescently lit chamber with a sign on the wall reading Angel Workshops. This is Phyllis Ransom's room.
Ransom is an Angelologist.
"An angelologist," says Ransom, "is a person that studies all about the philosophy of angels. They study the ancient texts. They make their occupation and their livelihood studying angels."
Phyllys Crowe Ransom is a handsome woman. Middle-aged, with a strong, angular nose and red hair tending towards brown. And, like many of the more serious Angel Day players, Phyllys reveals a sartorial preference for white and gold, as evidenced by her white blouse flecked with veins of gold and white stirrup pants tied with a gold and white rope. On her very dainty feet are golden slippers.
Matthew 13:41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Angels, or the belief in them has been around for a long time. All three of the main western monotheistic religions describe angels. In Exodus the lord sends an angel before him to, "...drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite." In Islam, angels are known as Malaa'ika which means messenger or envoy.
The Koran also describes four angels for each person who are there to record their actions -- two record good deeds and two record evil. Christianity too is rife with angels though for many years the Protestant churches and conservative post-Vatican II Catholicism played down their role in the Christian cosmology. But make no mistake, angels are back.
The first seminar of the day is called Angels Unaware, an intro to angels for those of us just getting acquainted with the phenomenon. Phyllys sets up an easel holding a large, Ross Perot-style flip chart. There are chairs for about forty people but only seven, including myself, arrive. Like the rest of Angel Day, the participants in the workshop are, with two exceptions, women.
We spend the first part of the workshop doing getting-to-know-you exercises. We pair off, but since everyone else came in with another person, I'm left in the old schoolyard dilemma and end up being picked by the teacher. Phyllys and I sit facing each other and take turns issuing the command, "Tell me something I should know about you." To which the interrogated one answers, "Something you should know about me is..."
The exchange is sealed by the interrogator pronouncing the words, "Thank you." Phyllys, as she does with everything, encourages me to answer and thanks me with great sincerity. And then we begin to talk about angels.
Abashed by the good faith of the rest of the group I admit my skepticism. My nervousness is eased by Phyllys who tells us, "Angels love skeptics because they're just as important and valuable as everyone else." Which may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about skeptics.
During the workshop we learn that angels are great facilitators, they are helpful, they are caring and they can be gotten in touch with through meditation. We practice this, closing our eyes and listening to Phyllys' very soothing voice as she instructs us to breath and visualize various colored lights enwrapping our feet, our legs, our abdomens, heads, etc.
At the end of the meditation, she tells us, we should expect to receive either a name or a few letters; letters which will eventually, upon repeated mediations, grow Ouiji-like into the name of our guardian angel. Several women get names, one gets the letter G which could mean she's drawn the archangel Gabriel from the angel grab bag. Despite the angel's great love of skeptics, the exercise gets me very relaxed but fails to raise even a cosmic dial tone.
Genesis 16:7 And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.
Much of the workshop is spent discussing the dramatic rescue of a Down's syndrome child that took place earlier in the week. The child had been lost in the Smokie Mountains overnight in sub-freezing temperature. In the morning, rescuers were led to the child by the barking of two dogs. He was found alive and in good health.
The child's rescue is described as a miracle and the dogs are imputed to be transmogrified angels (angels are able, like the Greek gods, to take on any form they wish). This clear and heartening evidence of angelic intervention is muddled, just slightly, by the information one woman provides that it was the dogs that led the child away from his parents to begin with. No one's faith is shaken, however. It is obvious to all that the child's survival and rescue could only have been the work of angels.
This conundrum is a recurrent problem not just with angels, but with any theology that imputes a benevolent cosmic power. Guardian angels, though not at the top of the overall angel scheme, are the ones with whom humans have the most contact. As the name implies, guardian angels are an angel assigned to each of us (and some would say animals as well) at birth, like a social security number. One's guardian angels stays for life, ostensibly protecting the guarded one from harm.
After listening to a number of angel stories it became obvious that guardian angel is a misnomer. These angels don't seem to keep us out of trouble. The guardian angel isn't a prophylactic against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Instead, they are there to help us once the trouble starts -- preventing us from going through the windshield when we drive our car into a post, or saving us when the cancer cells, described as unstoppable by the specialist, are running riot through our lymphatic systems.
Like the capricious god whom they serve, the capriciousness of angels receives a dispensation from those who believe in them. If bad things happen it is so that we can learn. "The earth," Phyllys tells us, "is a kind of school for us to evolve."
The tautological (and often selfish) reasoning behind angelic intervention is best summed up by something Phyllys mentions in the Angels Unaware workshop, "Special needs children are here to teach unconditional love."
Which is all well and good for those of us doing the learning, but what about the poor bastards who have to teach us the lessons -- where are their guardian angels?
Revelation 8:22 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
The other workshop of the day is called, "Exploring the World of Angels." It begins with a brief lesson in angel morphology. There are, according to Phyllys, three different spheres of angels. The first sphere consists of Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; the second of Dominions, Virtues and Powers; in the third reside the big boys, the Principalities (otherwise known as guardian angels), Angels and Arch-Angels.
While we didn't get down to how many angels can dance on the head of pin it becomes apparent that whoever's considering the experiment should have a pretty big pin. There are millions of angels and their job descriptions vary considerably. Some of them simply flit around the throne of god, casting a cheerful light and being worshipful. Other angels -- Angels and Arch-Angels particularly -- are given much more autonomy and interact mostly with the earth and its most peculiar denizens, people.
In addition to guardian angels for every man, woman and child there are environmental angels (who, apparently, are unable to vote) angels of music, healing arts, teaching and technology. Not to mention angels of business, whose self-promotion department must really be booming.
Marti Martin, of the Angel Emporium in Atlanta, is one of the vendors experiencing Knoxville's first Angel Day.
"The angel market's still growing," Marti says with a knowing smile, waving a hand at the other vendors. Her table sells handmade angels, Angels of Friendship with rhyming cards attached, Silver and Golden Anniversary Angels, a host of occasion specific cosmic servants.
"People all over the world are searching for a peace and a happiness. And more and more people are beginning to believe in the guardian angels. The angel market is certainly growing, up into the billions by now worldwide," Marti says.
But how do the angels feel about their recent, and expanding, commodification?
"Angels love to help business succeed," says Ransom. "Angels are about bringing order to our lives and the world. Angels can help business by giving us the ability to harmonate the incongruencies in the way we run a business."
Revelations 8:13 Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!
Today's angels have mellowed quite a bit from their Biblical forebears. No more flaming swords or quaking shepherds, angels today are care givers, facilitators, here to help us communicate better with each other and with ourselves.
Even the Angel of Death has discarded his dark robe for a nice white suit and comes with a retinue of helper angels to ease the passage from world of the flesh to the eternal mall in the sky. What's better, according to Ransom, is that, "He can be talked out of it." Apparently, the 90's Angel of Death is one hell of a salesmen.
And the explanation for this softening?
"Angels are very much reflections of where we're at. And we were very tough, very hard," says Ransom, "ancient rules, eye for an eye, and our experiences of angels are created by who we are." Plus, the 600 foot tall, four eyed, multi-winged angels with the flaming swords are hard to fit comfortably in the back of an Explorer.
Still, the question is not so much why angels, which have been worshiped for centuries by many different cultures, as why now?
"The world as we know it is changing very rapidly. The normal structures are no longer there" Phyllys explains, echoing the sentiment of many a presidential candidate. "And when everything sticks out around us we suddenly realize that we need to go deeper and find something else. You're not just a physical being, but a spiritual being as well."
Others, however, disagree. Anne Simpkins, of the Unity Church and one of the event's organizers provides the other accepted angel argument, "There's not more angel activity, just more reporting of it."
Now, facing a calendrical odometer rolling implacably towards a new millennia, people are feeling more comfortable letting it all hang out. Whether the world is really any more chaotic now than it ever was is another question entirely. What's undeniable is that people think that it is.
This is bad when it means Patrick Buchanan can be considered a semi-serious presidential candidate. But what about when it means believing there's a benevolent cosmic force attending to our fears and insecurities?
Throwing restraint to the winds, we're indulging ourselves with confessions and daydreams -- of angelic intervention, alien abduction, government conspiracy -- calling out in the lowering darkness like a man revealing his love to a seatmate on a 767 with both engines flamed out. Which, when the plane lands safely may seem silly, and even a little embarrassing, but hardly disastrous.
As Phyllys Ransom put it, "We just go from one extreme to the other and then we find a balanced perspective. Whatever is real will last and whatever is false will fall away."
A Thirtieth Annual Angel Day, anyone?
The Journal of Substance, Wit,and Dangerous Masturbatory Habits