Not long ago I gave the basic Angels 101 talk to a group of about 200 people: What are angels; why do they come sometimes and not at others; to one person and not another?Telling stories jogs memories, and afterwards at a reception many people came over totell me their own small miracles or dizzying angel sightings. (I invite yours, too. Please tell!)
One of the stories I told at this talk (also in the new edition of A Book of Angels)
was about a man sighted one New Year’s Eve in the midst of a snowstorm in a small
West Virginia town. It was late at night. He was wearing a plaid lumber jacket shirt,
as he walked down the center of the snowy, empty street, utterly self-absorbed. He
passed a group of four people who were sweeping the snow off the sidewalk. They were astonished to see him in such a lonely area. Who was he? Where had he come from?
“Not far,” he answered curtly. He trudged on, around the corner, and disappeared.
After a few moments the four friends, caught by curiosity, dropped their brooms, and
followed his footsteps, clearly visible in the snow. They turned the corner, walked
partway up the block… and suddenly the footsteps stopped. The snow was pristine
I love that story, but possibly Linda Reed, who approached at the reception, has given
me a new favorite—also about a lumber jacket-wearing man.
It’s important to remember that angels like disguise. If they come as humans, they
want to blend unnoticed into their surroundings, and so they will wear something quirky
or “normal” like a baseball cap, though nothing else is normal about their appearing and
disappearing as they do.
Linda Reed and her husband David were living in Atlanta Georgia in the mid-90’s,
when one Fourth of July her mother and sister came to visit. For a treat the family drove
to a State Park to hike along a verdant stream with its rushing waterfalls. Suddenly, as
happens in the mountains, a thunderstorm hit. They ran back to the car in the pelting
rain, and while they drove down the zig-zag switchbacks the storm grew worse, with first
leaves then twigs then branches blowing across the road in a slashing sideways-slanting rain. Trees were falling. Theirs was the first car to be blocked by a fallen tree across the road, a magnificent maple with half its roots still clawing the earth.
When the others got out in the torrential rain to inspect the tree, Linda’s mother
stayed in the warm dry car: “I’ll just pray to my guardian angel,” she said with
The other three, together with passengers from other cars, tugged in vain at the huge
tree–as if seven or eight people could hope to move a maple.
Linda returned to the car, wet and chilled. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said. “It looks like
we’ll be here for a while.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said her mother. “I’m praying to my angel.”
A few moments later a man walked out of the woods to their right. He was dressed
in a black and red flannel shirt, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, and in his hand he
carried a powered-up chain saw. Silently he cut up the tree. It took about three minutes.
Everyone rushed to thank him, even pay him, but as with most angels, he accepted
nothing. He walked back into the trees as quickly as he had arrived.
Linda’s Mom made the quiet observation that sometimes angels smoke “for effect.”
A few weeks later Linda and her husband returned to the same location. It was easy
to find because of the chopped-up branches, debris and the large tree stump, still half-
embedded in the earth. They wandered off the road and into the woods looking for a
campsite, or cabin, or signs of firewood or logging – anything that might have housed a
man with a chain saw on that stormy night. There was nothing.
What does it mean? I remember one day walking up the street outside my house in
Georgetown, a neighorhood in Washington, D. C. – this I will never forget, and yet
nothing whatsoever happened— when I saw a young man walking on the far side of
the street. There was no one else around. He was barefoot, dressed in ragged dull-gray
clothes, a kind of hippie, but I felt my heart lurch. “That’s Christ!” I thought. Or maybe
that thought only hit me afterwards, but somehow it came to me that he was “special,”–
so much so that I yearned to be with him. I crossed the street, hurrying my steps to draw
up beside him. At the same time I dug into my purse and pulled out some money, for this
unfortunate (but oh, too fortunate) pure and shining creature, this son of someone. As I
passed, I thrust coins in his hand.
He glanced over at me, and I truly think he took no notice of his surroundings. He
shook his head, pushed the money back and walked on, indifferent. I respected his desire to be alone. I walked ahead of him hastening, as if I had some place to go, or as if I were not allowed to see him enter his mother’s house. But I have never forgotten that strange encounter. Who was he? A shining angel on some mission? An angel waiting for the street to clear so he could disappear?
I wish I had answers. I wish I understood. Understood what? All of it. What we’re
doing on this strange and pretty planet, what is life about.