Angels aren’t what they used to be. According to St Luke’s Gospel, the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night (currently being portrayed by small children wearing tea towels in nativity plays across the country) were ‘sore afraid’ when the angel of the Lord came upon them. Even the Virgin Mary was at first ‘troubled’ by Gabriel’s visit. No such anxieties seem ever to have afflicted Jacky Newcomb, ‘the Angel Lady’, who writes a number of columns in the mystical press, teaches at Colin Fry’s International College of Spiritual Science and Healing in Ramsbergsgarden, Sweden, runs www.angellady.co.uk, and has now written a book, An Angel Treasury: A Celestial Collection of Inspirations, Encounters and Heavenly Lore (Element, £12.99).[*] Colin Fry – he of the International College in Ramsbergsgarden – says it is ‘probably the most fascinating book on angels yet made available to the public’.
An Angel Treasury is very user-friendly, without too much rebarbative unbroken text. There’s a ‘frequently asked questions’ section: ‘What is an angel?’ ‘Can my Grandma be my Angel?’ ‘What is angel music?’ ‘The area in “heaven” that produces the unbelievable angel music,’ Newcomb says, ‘is believed to be over England.’ You can read as much as you like into the slightly unhappy (or not) proximity of the words ‘unbelievable’ and ‘believed’ in that sentence. The Treasury also includes an A to Z of angels’ names, from A’albiel to Zuriel, and an ‘Angel Almanac’. ‘Can an archangel help you with your job? You bet!’ Editors, I learned, are assisted by Haniel, Gabriel, Zadkiel and Metatron, who kindly took time out from their work with dieticians and economists to dictate a paragraph of Short Cuts each (the footnote unfortunately had to be written unaided). Newcomb provides an optional formulation for thanking angels for their help, though you don’t have to bother too much about showing gratitude since ‘helping us brings them extreme joy’ and ‘is their very reason for being’. There are short chapters on ‘Angels in Culture’ and ‘Angels in Religion’: if you’re some kind of cynic who thinks those are the only places angels are to be found, then this book probably isn’t for you. Most of the half-dozen ‘culture’ pages are taken up by summaries of films and TV shows, from It’s a Wonderful Life (‘a timeless Christmas film favourite’) to Charlie’s Angels (‘the ladies are not actual angels’).
Jenny Smedley, a TV presenter and the author of a book called Come Back to Life (I don’t know whether the title is imperative or adjectival or both), puffs An Angel Treasury as ‘the only angel book I’ve read where there really doesn’t seem to be a thing missing’. This is in apparent contradiction to Newcomb’s preface, where she writes: ‘The more I discovered about angels, I realised the less I actually knew about them.’ In answer to the frequently asked question whether or not they are ‘the messengers of God as the Bible claimed’, Newcomb says that ‘one of the translations of Angel is “Messenger” but they have so many more roles!’ I’m not quite sure what she means by ‘translations’ here, or indeed ‘one of’: the word angel is derived from the Greek angelos (‘messenger’), which was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew malach (‘messenger’). Perhaps surprisingly, Newcomb doesn’t follow the prophetic tradition of claiming authority for her assertions by describing them as the pronouncements of angels. Instead, she uses exclamation marks.
The contradictions, fuzzinesses and inaccuracies don’t really matter, because the great thing about all this touchy-feely mind-body-spirit stuff is that anyone can think what they like and none of it needs to make any sense so long as it makes someone feel better. As Robbie Williams sang in his glucosic smash-hit rock ballad ‘Angels’, ‘through it all, she offers me protection, a lot of love and affection, whether I’m right or wrong.’ But if you’re going to believe in angels, it seems to me (young fogey that I am), it ought to be with at least a little bit of awe. Here’s Milton, for instance, describing Michael’s heavenly forces setting out to do battle with Satan and his rebellious hordes (from Book Six of Paradise Lost):
At which command the powers militant,
That stood for heaven, in mighty quadrate joined
Of union irresistible, moved on
In silence their bright legions, to the sound
Of instrumental harmony that breathed
Heroic ardour to adventurous deeds
Under their godlike leaders, in the cause
Of God and his Messiah.
These days, Michael spends his time helping out flight attendants, traffic wardens, watch repairers and service station attendants. How are the mighty fallen – though I suppose he can count himself lucky that editors don’t fall under his remit.
[*] In recent weeks, the LRB has received a far greater number than used to be usual of faith-related books. Whether the phenomenon is merely a symptom of Advent (a season that seems to creep further back through autumn with every passing year) or a sign of a more widespread trend is unclear.