HARTFORD, Conn. -- If you don't think angels have much of a role to play in your life other than to perch atop your Yule tree or turn up in Christmas carols and Neil Sedaka songs, it might interest you to know that, according to Sophy Burnham, angels fix flats.
Ms. Burnham, a Washington-based author of two books about angels, has received so many letters from people who claim angels stopped and helped when their cars were broken down at the side of the road that she started a separate file on angelic AAA work.
Ms. Burnham says the stories are all much the same.
"A car pulls up, and from one to three handsome young men get out," she says.
They are wearing either white or yellow. If there are more than one, they're laughing and playing. If there's only one, he is very quiet and dignified. They do their work in silence and leave without accepting thanks. If they've been lying on a dirty, oily road, when they get up their clothes are clean. As their car drives away, says Ms. Burnham, it disappears, rather than rounding a corner or dropping below the horizon.
Ms. Burnham says a lot of people believe in angels but keep it to themselves because it's holy and private and maybe even a little embarrassing. However, these people are not embarrassed about buying her books: "A Book of Angels" (Ballantine, $10) is currently the No. 1 paperback title on Publishers Weekly's religious best-seller list. "Angel Letters" (Ballantine, $15), the sequel, is No. 3 on the religious hardcover list.
Angels abound, of course, in popular songs, poetry, movies and television programs. At this time of year they are inescapable.
But what are they?
It depends on whom you talk to.
Poet Margaret Gibson of Preston, Conn., says she doesn't know what angels are. On the other hand, she's had dreams of angels, and angels crop up in her books. She is working on a novel-length poem in which one characters has visions of angels.
She thinks angels may be an easy way of talking about parts of ourselves.
"I believe we have God within us. . . . We're uncomfortable with the parts of ourselves that know things and receive grace and even are charitable and good," she says.
So are there angels or aren't there?
"The ability to imagine is very vivid. It's hard to discriminate between the images we create and those that come from other sources," Ms. Gibson says, adding with a laugh, "so I've managed to get them delightfully mixed up."
Regina Plunkett Dowling, chaplain at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., says her idea of angels is "something more concrete than vague divine energy."
Ms. Dowling says, "In situations where I had gotten myself into some difficulty, I felt I was not alone."
Ms. Dowling, is an admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, who labored to define an exact place for angels in the natural order of Aquinas' very orderly universe. Aquinas decided that angels were rational, created beings but were not in any way physical. They were pure spirit.
Yale University scholar and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan has written that Aquinas' ideas about angels remind some present-day physicists of "the qualities now ascribed to quarks and other equally mysterious creaturely forces."
Mr. Pelikan has also called the medieval study of angels "the most ambitious sustained effort in Western intellectual history to imagine what extraterrestrial rational beings might be like."
J. Milburn Thompson, who teaches moral theology at St. Joseph, admits "angels are not a big part of my spirituality. I like to go directly to God."
Mr. Thompson says the modern Roman Catholic church has focused more on Jesus, Scriptures and God and less on angels, although that still leaves the questions of "what to do with them, and how do they affect us."
"I'm not denying angels," Mr. Thompson adds quickly and a little wryly. "After all, we have a new archbishop coming in."
Angels appear in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism. In Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Native American religions there are spiritual beings that are angels in almost everything but name.
You would think, writes author Malcolm Godwin in "Angels: An Endangered Species" (Simon & Schuster, $19.95), that the Bible would pretty much be the first and last word on the names, attributes and duties of Judeo-Christian angels.
"Surprisingly, this is just about the last place to discover such information," he concludes.
There are angels in the Bible, but the Old Testament only offers the names of two, Gabriel and Michael, three if you count Raphael in the Catholic Book of Tobit. Ezekiel sees angels, and Jacob wrestles one. An angel announces to Mary and to Zechariah that Jesus will be born, and an angel announces Jesus' Resurrection to the women who knew him. The Angel of the Lord kills 185,000 Assyrians in one Old Testament passage.