True Believers' Tales of Heavenly Helpers


April 19, 1992|By JAY MERWIN | JAY MERWIN,JAY MERWIN is a metropolitan reporter covering religion.

It was an angel "in raiment as white as snow," according to the Gospel of Matthew, who rolled the stone from the tomb on the first Easter. And it was an angel in white tennis shorts, says Barbara Anthony, who changed her flat tire when she was stranded outside the Harbor Tunnel.

She was driving from her home in Seabrook to a dog show in Wilmington when she pulled her car onto a narrow shoulder to wait for help as tunnel traffic whizzed by.

"I didn't think a thing when he pulled over," she remembered. A young man in white tennis shorts and a yellow shirt got out of a late-model white station wagon. Though Mrs. Anthony asked only to be driven to the next exit to call for a tow truck, the young man insisted on changing the flat tire.

He could have been any college student heading for the beach that day, Mrs. Anthony remembered, except "the eyes were so blue. They were like hot ice."

He changed the tire "like, instantly," she said. And when he stood up, after sprawling on the dirty pavement to place the jack, his clothes were still spotlessly clean.

"It was a surprise, but it wasn't," Mrs. Anthony said. "It's a job. It's a task that they do."

Angels, which figure prominently as messengers of God at turning points of biblical accounts, apparently continue to appear, unsensationally, in the humdrum of many modern lives. But they are less a part of contemporary conversations about faith and skepticism about faith.

Mrs. Anthony is 58 years old, an outgoing woman with a great puff of white hair, who has always believed in angels as part of her Lutheran upbringing. But she didn't come face to face with them until the tire changer in 1986. And she didn't feel comfortable talking about that experience and others like it until the publication in 1990 of "A Book of Angels," by Sophy Burnham, a Washington author and journalist.

The book covers Ms. Burnham's own experiences, those of others, and a survey of the place of angels in the traditions of various religions. It prompted an outpouring from hundreds of people who wrote the author about feeling the presence of angels, praying to them as guardians and even seeing them, either in human form or the artistic renderings with wings and halos. Ms. Burnham culled the best of these letters for a book in 1991, "Angel Letters."

For many of the letter-writers, including Mrs. Anthony, reading "A Book of Angels" was a catharsis for stories of their own that they had yearned to tell, but had withheld for fear of being scoffed at.

"I don't think I've been chosen by God or anything," said Mrs. Anthony, a former English teacher and press office editor at the National Institutes of Health. Angels, she says, "are there for all of us, but we're just not always aware of them."

Mrs. Anthony couldn't miss, however, the man who sat across the Washington Metro platform from her, on and off for about a year, as she commuted to work. It happened during a year that was turning out badly. Her 37-year marriage was ending in divorce. Her father, with whom she had been closest in a close family, had died the year before. Her mother was near death in a nursing home. "I probably was feeling alone and unsupported at this point," she said.

The man sitting on a bench across the platform looked exactly like her father. He even sat as her father used to do, Mrs. Anthony said, legs splayed to make way for a large belly. "The first day I just stared," she said. "The second time, I smiled and he just kept staring."

He didn't appear every day, but when he did, he didn't always board the train when it stopped, but just looked at her. Mrs. Anthony said she didn't cross to approach him, assuming that if the man were meant to contact her, he would have arranged it himself.

"I think that this presence was sent to let me know I wasn't alone. I didn't need to be frightened," she said. "At first it was eerie. After a time, it was comforting to know he was there."

Mrs. Anthony doesn't demand belief, only respect for these accounts of unexpected comfort in dire times. "These things are so personal you hate to cast your pearls before swine," she said.

Jennifer Ailstock, 37, a school secretary from Arlington, Va., had tried to tell her husband and her best friend about how someone -- angels, she believes -- changed the wet bed of her 4-year-old daughter in the middle of the night. But relating the experience "was awkward," she said.

Mrs. Ailstock never saw anything, but as she stumbled in the night 2 1/2 years ago to change her daughter's bed, she felt a presence and could see that the sheets were being tucked in with little effort from her. "It was instantaneous," she said. A small help, but one that made her feel as if the drudgery was "more than worthwhile."

With the publication of Ms. Burnham's books and the subsequent publicity, "it's as if the dam has broken, and everybody feels free to talk about it," Mrs. Ailstock said. "Which -- is good."

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