Thursday 31 July 2014

I'm loving angels instead

In the recession, more and more people are turning to heavenly creatures. Damian Corless talks to the Irish author who knows all about them

Munster players share a light-hearted monent during the Captain's Run ahead of their Heineken Cup semi-final showdown with Leinster

In these strained times it's fast becoming the shared experience of a generation to suddenly find yourself with no visible means of support. With a whole gospel of material values exposed as a cruel fraud, it's no surprise to discover a widespread yearning for some invisible means of support. Step forward your guardian angel.

Not that these heavenly creatures are invisible to Lorna Byrne. She sees them all the time. She says: "I first saw angels in the first moment I opened my eyes as a newborn. They played with me. As a young child I thought everyone else saw them too. It was only later I realised this wasn't so."

Six years ago the chronically dyslexic Byrne approached Jean Callanan, then Marketing Director of Waterford Crystal, suggesting that Callanan help her write her story. It took five years of hard slog and Callanan says she often doubted it would ever see the light of day, but when Angels In My Hair was published in Ireland last year it took up a long residence at the top of the bestseller lists.

In January it shot into the UK bestsellers, and last month repeated the feat in Germany. This week it was published in the US by Doubleday, with 40 more territories to follow this year.

Despite its starry cast of angels, the book mightn't be ideal bedtime reading for young kids. A slow-learner at school, Lorna was shunned by other children as an oddball. She explains: "The angels kept me away from people and from other children too. They said they didn't want me contaminated by human contact. And that wasn't hard. I had the angels."

She married her first sweetheart, Joe, who died young leaving her with four children. She says God and the angels had forewarned her of his early death.

Having reportedly paid a hefty sum for the US rights to the book, Doubleday is putting the full weight of its marketing muscle behind Angels In My Hair in the expectation of big sales. Byrne insists she never doubted success would come, saying: "I was always positive about it because God and the angels told me it would be a bestseller, but that it would be hard work. But everybody in the world has a part to play in its success, and that role is to allow hope into your life."

She talks of the strangers who have thanked her for injecting hope into lives racked with fear and uncertainty. She reports that many are young people who've found escape from despair through her feelgood message that there's a guardian angel always at your side.

She says: "It doesn't matter to me whether people believe a word I've written. People come up and say I don't believe in that, but it made me think. In lots of cases it makes them rethink the religion that they may have given up 20 years earlier."

Raised a Catholic, she says she's not religious in the conventional sense, explaining: "I believe in God and my faith is very strong, but I don't think it matters what religion you are because we all have a guardian angel. I can see this light behind every human being."

And that includes even the nastiest, most malevolent, of our kind. She says: "They have a guardian angel trying its best to get them to do right. But they're listening to the other side, to Satan. But a guardian angel never gives up on anyone. On occasion an angel will ask me to intercede on behalf of someone doing bad things, but I'd never say it to the person because people are delicate. I'd intercede with prayer."

She invites people to submit their "wishes and worries" in confidence to her website. She includes their wishes on a prayer scroll which the angels handed her some years ago. Her site says: 'When I'm in a meditative state of prayer I hold in my hand this spiritual scroll with every name and every request written on it and I hand this scroll to God."

This service, which she says has helped achieve miracles of healing, is performed for free. She is reluctant to criticise pricey phone services which claim to have a direct line to the angels, and just says: "I think it's better to say a prayer."

By setting herself up as an intermediary to God and the angels, does she accept she could be charged with elevating herself? "You can say that if you like," she responds, "but if I can take away the pain and hurt from even one person that's all that matters."

Millions who were enjoying comfortable lives not long ago are experiencing unforseen pain and hurt, so her book could not have been better timed. A recent survey in the US concluded that 55pc of those poled believed they were protected by a guardian angel. (This comes with a warning as it was conducted by the staunchly Baptist Baylor University.)

Citing the number of angel shops springing up in Ireland, psychologist Patricia Casey suggests that angels are, for want of a better word, trendy. She says: "People articulate their religious experiences in the currency of the day. At another time they might say Jesus appeared to them, or the Virgin Mary. Angels help fulfil a human need to be looked after. Angels are gentle creatures. They don't make demands in the way that, say, Jesus makes demands."

Lorna Byrne isn't sure it's quite so wishy-washy. She stresses: "I was told to always use the term 'God and the angels'. Angels have a gentle image, but God created them to do his work."

At their shop Angels Of Ireland in Finglas, Dublin, Stephen Buckley and his wife Patricia speak in almost identical terms and with the same absolute belief as Lorna Byrne.

Like Byrne, Patricia saw angels from infancy. In her late teens however, resulting from a personal trauma, she became convinced her visions were a madness. After electro-therapy sessions and two decades of anti-depressants she came around to the belief that the madness was imagined and the angels real.

Appreciating the profound change, husband Stephen traded his grocery store for an angel shop, and says the family have found contentment. Fittingly for these times, their biggest selling items are worry stones. (The size of a large pebble, with an angelic figure enclosed, they appear to serve a similar function to rosary beads, though Stephen stresses the family follows no conventional religion.)

He says: "Some people hurry past the door. Our former landlord was such a devout Catholic that she had a clause inserted in our lease saying we couldn't sell books by a certain author because she thought they'd lead people astray."

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