In this excerpt from Proof of Angels, Ptolemy Tompkins shares how we experience the spiritual world.
- Posted on Apr 4, 2016
A few years ago, I took my stepdaughter Evie snorkeling for the first time. She was eight, and though she’d put a face mask on before, she’d never had a chance to look below the waves in an area that was really populated with sea life. We were in the Bahamas, floating in the water by what looked like a pretty humdrum chunk of rock. Evie pushed and fumbled at her mask, getting the water out of it and blowing through her snorkel so she could breathe. When she was finally comfortable with her equipment, she lowered her head beneath the water.
Kaboom. The reef was swarming with fish—parrot fish, triggerfish, and swarms of little black-and-yellow sergeant majors that were all around her, investigating her completely without her knowledge. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes when she brought her head back out of the water and the uncontrollable smile that formed around the snorkel in her mouth. She had thought she was just bobbing about by a barren rock, when in fact she had been immersed in a whole other universe of color and light and life.
Imagine: the world, changed in an instant from a place of fear and uncertainty and emptiness to a place of wonder and beauty and overwhelming numbers of beings, invisible but present all the same. Imagine a helmet like the ones old-fashioned divers used to wear: one that covers the entire head like a fishbowl. Then imagine that this helmet is made of a magical, glass-like substance, one so thin and unobtrusive that it lets just about everything through.
It never gets dirty, never gets wet, and is absolutely transparent to light and penetrable by air. Essentially, it’s as if this helmet isn’t there at all. Except it is. And the one thing this helmet blocks out—the one thing it keeps the person wearing it from experiencing— is the spiritual world. Everything else gets past these helmets. But that one thing—that singular, all-important part of the world, without which the world isn’t really the full, complete world at all, but only half of it—doesn’t make it through.
Sometimes, if the light and the circumstances are just right, you can catch a glimpse of the helmets on the heads of other people as they pass by you in the street. Sometimes the helmets other people wear are so obvious—so completely visible—that it seems laughable that they themselves could fail to notice that they’re wearing them. But then, just as often, most of us fail to notice that we ourselves are wearing one.
What kind of a world do we see when looking through these magical, spirit-filtering helmets? We see a world in which the earth is just the earth, where good things and bad things happen, where there is happiness and sorrow, where people are born and people die. Yet somehow, none of this seems to mean all that much. We see a world in which every- thing is relative and essentially insignificant, but complaining about this fact, or even bringing it up, seems silly.
Along with having no real purpose, the world seen through the glass of this helmet has no real justice either. Some people do “good” things, and others do “bad” things, but these are really just words we have cooked up to try to make sense of things that we actually can’t make any sense of. Bad people often do very well in this strange, pointless world, while nice ones have to bear up under all manner of pressures and struggles.
One of the strangest things about these helmets is that, even when we become aware that we’re wearing them, we can’t simply take them off. They can’t be wrenched off with our arms or shattered with a sledgehammer. They are extremely stubborn, extremely resilient.
At least, they are most of the time. But sometimes moments come along when these helmets seem to disappear all by themselves, with no effort on our part at all. Suddenly they are just . . . gone.
In moments like this, we find ourselves looking around at the world as if we’d never seen it before. Those moments are what Proof of Angels is about.
After I retired, I signed up for an art class. Angels quickly became my favorite subjects. Heavenly figures holding babies or puppies or flowers or musical instruments—I’ve painted them all. But not every one of my paintings has an angel in it. Or so I thought. “Look!” a friend said when I showed her this seascape. “They’re here too.” I hadn’t even realized it. How many “surprise angels” can you spot? —Marilyn Aitken, Cookeville, Tennessee
By the time I left the community meeting in my Brooklyn neighborhood, it was already dark outside. “And it’s only six o’clock,” I groaned. “I feel like it’s always dark in February.” I couldn’t wait for daylight saving time. It would still be cold, but at least there would be a little more sunshine. I was walking to the subway when my eyes caught this lamp and its shining wings—a little reminder that there’s always light in the dark. I took a photo to prove it.—Kaylin Kaupish, Editorial Assistant
My daughter Katrina hoped to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University, so I took her to Nashville to visit. She loved the city, but I wished it was closer to me in Florida. Walking around after our campus tour, we stumbled upon this mural. “Let me take a picture of you in front of it,” I told her. My daughter got accepted to Vanderbilt a few months later, and I know that angels there are watching over her. I’ve got a picture to remind me.—Carine Lespinasse, Port St. Lucie, Florida
This embroidered angel wing is part of a stunning show of costumes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. The exhibit features liturgical vestments and clothes that were inspired by them. The wing, from the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, is exhibited at the Cloisters, a branch of the Met, opposite a medieval tapestry of the Annunciation, a sign of God delivering the good news through his messengers over the centuries.—Rick Hamlin, Senior Contributing Editor
Late in the day at my family’s cattle ranch, I noticed something strange on my way through the field. One of the newborn calves had a white spot on her side. It shone like a beacon. That’s strange, I thought, making a beeline for her. Almost all of our cows were solid red or solid black. As I got close I saw that this white spot had a very unique shape. When it came time to name the calves we had no problem coming up with a name for Angel.—Susan Topham, Sprague River, Oregon
It started out as a spot on our garage. My husband never got around to cleaning it off with the power washer and by the next summer the spot had onlyl gotten bigger. "Can you please try to get it off?" I asked again. But the power washer still never made it out of the shed. Maybe that was a good thing, because I noticed that the spot looked like something. See for yourself. We have a guardian angel keeping us safe when we pull out of the garage.—Susan Terwilliger, Emlenton, Pennsylvania
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, my husband and I lost everything. In the weeks that followed, I found myself craving normalcy—and sweet strawberries. So I bought a whole crate of plump red berries from a roadside stand, planning to share with my neighbors who were also still recovering from the disaster. I was washing the fruit when I noticed that one strawberry looked different from the rest. It was very large and oddly shaped. In fact, the more I stared at it, I realized it kind of looked like…an angel! Turned out I had more than fruit to share with my neighbors. I had hope.—Dawn Adams, Pass Christian, Mississippi
"Look, mom, an angel!” What? I thought, straightening up and wiping the dirt from my hands. The year was 1996, and my husband and I had decided to do some afternoon yard work. Our son, Dustin, who was six years old at the time, had offered to help. “Where? Where do you see an angel?” I asked him patiently. Dustin pointed up at the sky. I followed his finger, tilting my head up to look where he was pointing—and gasped. He was right!—Darla Deupree, Greenwood, Indiana
I sipped my coffee on the couch that cold and icy February morning, sunlight filtering in thorough the curtains. I was determined to enjoy some well-deserved alone time while my husband was out, but I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering. My eyes fell on my mother’s prayer books, stacked on the end table. It had been three weeks since Mom had passed away. The night before she died, she gathered me and my sisters together. “Know I’ll be watching over you,” she said, looking so small in her hospital bed. I wanted to believe that was true. I also wanted to believe she was with my dad, who’d died eight years before. Now, Mom was buried alongside him. They shared a headstone—two hearts interlocked.
Sighing, I got up and threw open the curtains. I gasped. There in the frozen snow were tire tracks in the shape of two hearts.—Sue Osborn, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Each Wednesday, my friend Carol Merlo and I, along with others, serve residents of the Dogwood Village community right nearby in Orange, Virginia. We “Blue Birds” (as we are called) sing hymns there at a weekly devotional service. One day, Carol called my attention to the angels in the carpet of the common room. We consider them honorary members of the Blue Birds—singing always gives us wings.—Betty R. Rollins, Rochelle, Virginia
Why does my license plate say “D-Stork”? Because I delivered babies for 35 years before retiring in 2003. In my spare time, I always took pictures. Now I’m president of the Naples (Florida) Camera Club. So when our backyard pond drew over 50 birds for two days straight, I made sure to get them on camera. I’d never seen so many birds in one place! They were egrets, not storks, but equally angelic. As you can see.—David Garrison, Fort Meyers, Florida
At my mother’s yesterday, we decided to sit outside to soak up some sunshine. I wanted to enjoy every minute I had left with her. We got to talking about how much God loves us. “If he cares for every little bird, just think how much he cares for us,” I said. “He even knows the number of hairs on our heads!” Mom looked at me and nodded. “And every feather counted!” she said, pointing to the sky. I looked up, and this is what I saw.—Mary Whitney, Leavittsburgh, Ohio
Fractals are a computer-generated art form, a manipulation of triangular shapes to make a symmetrical picture. A fractal is a never-ending pattern, much like a kaleidoscope. I found the program online. Once I got the hang of it, fractal art became a wonderful way to relax and create beautiful designs. This one, called “Angels Watching Over You,” is my favorite. Why? Because I know it’s true.—Sister Violet Ann Bloomer, Syracuse, New York
Chicago’s Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows exhibition on Navy Pier was a must-see for my husband and me when we were in the Windy City for our anniversary. I hadn’t expected all of the magnificent angels! If I had to pick a favorite, it would be this depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus bracketed by two adoring angels. I snapped the picture and immediately realized I had found my next Christmas card.—Jennifer Clark Vihel, Bayside, California
The very first set of wings I drew on the doors of The West Volusia Beacon newspaper office in DeLand, Florida, were done in chalk (and with permission, of course). Summer rain washed them away. Another set was brought back by popular demand, though, this time with weatherproof paint. Those wings became a social-media sensation. Find me, and lots of people posing with my wings, on Twitter: #delandwings. Come visit!—Erica Group, DeLeon Springs, Florida
I was in a little shop in the tiny town of Cambria on the coast of California when I saw this angel made out of tools like the ones my Nana used to cook with. Her kitchen was a magical place, and Nana was an inspiration. Today I’m a seasoned chef and cookbook author, but I like to think that this kitchen angel and my Nana in heaven are what keep the sauce from burning on the stove. Even the best chefs need help.—Rebecca Katz, San Rafael, California
At the age of 56, retired from teaching and office work, I decided to try my hand at wood carving. I learned to use chain saws, angle grinders and die grinders. Twenty years later, I’m still at it. My favorite part is that first cut into a piece of raw wood. That’s when I find out what unique patterns and colors are inside. Like the day I cut a piece of shaggy bark juniper and discovered this angel waiting within.—Paula Dimit, Albuquerque, New Mexico
When I met my husband he was in California finishing his dissertation in art history and I was living in New York. I passed the time until we could live in the same place by embroidering a picture based on one of the thirteenth-century illuminated Bibles he studied. It took him longer than it took me, but finally we both were finished. My favorite part? The angel handing him his diploma.—Kate Norris, Teaneck, New Jersey
Moving can be stressful—I should know, I’ve done it more than a dozen times. But my latest move threatened to be too much. I sat on the floor amid boxes stacked around my antique oak desk. I just couldn’t face unpacking again. Then I looked up and saw the comforting angel wings carved into the old oak desk. Somehow, I’d never noticed them before! God and his angels were with me on this move, just like they’d been on all the others.—Lillian Brown, Rancho Mirage, California
The sun was setting over Wildcat Stadium, where my son’s football team was playing their last game of the season. I hoped it could end on a high note. On the road, my newly licensed daughter was driving to a student ambassadors event. Both kids need your attention tonight, Lord, I thought, looking up. That’s when my dad pointed out this angel above us in the clouds. My daughter arrived safe, and my son was victorious.—Melinda Lake, Northport, Alabama
Anglin Lake in Canada is a favorite place to vacation for my husband and me. Most people wait until summer to visit, but we go later in the year, when the days are cold and peaceful. One night, with the place all to ourselves, we set up a few lawn chairs in a clearing to watch the aurora borealis—the northern lights. That’s when this angel suddenly rose up among the stars. And we were right there to see it!—Tami Zurakowski, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada
Downtown Vancouver is a treasure chest for a shutterbug like me. Strolling through Granville Loop Park with my digital camera one afternoon, I finally stopped at a fountain sculpture. Sunlight reflecting off water always made for a nice shot. I circled the fountain, snapping pictures from every conceivable angle—until one revealed quite a hidden treasure!—Patrick Chin, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Saint Isidore was a Spanish farmer who lived between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. According to tradition he prepared for work by attending morning Mass. When others criticized him for preferring this act of piety to the tilling of his fields, he won the admiration of even his detractors because at that very hour when he was in prayer, an angel was seen doing Isidore’s farm work. In this anonymous Bolognese painting, we see him in worship while outside an angel is taking his place behind a team of oxen.—Timothy Verdon, author of Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God
My brother and sister-in-law threw a family BBQ at their new house on Puget Sound. My niece discovered quite a welcoming sight nestled in the rocks along the beach. Clusters of oysters and barnacles aren’t uncommon to these sparkling waters, but what a lovely occasion to see a group of them in this inspiring shape.—Mary Michael Garlichs, Lacey, Washington
When my nine-year-old son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with a kidney problem, I didn’t know how we would cope. I worried while I lay in bed at night and when I woke up in the morning—even as I cut up an orange for Gabriel’s lunch. As half the fruit fell away, I found this angel staring back at me. An angel for Gabriel, and peace of mind for me.—Terisa Tuffin, Lindfield, England
The Bethesda Fountain has stood in Central Park since 1864, to commemorate the year that fresh water came to New York City. What better symbol of the new water system than the Angel of the Waters from the Gospel of John, sculpted by Emma Stebbins. The Bethesda Fountain angel graced the back cover of Angels on Earth’s premiere issue in 1995.
Finally, I'd earned my master's degree in archival studies. But now I had to go out and start my career. What if I couldn’t make it work? The day before graduation I took a walk to calm my nerves. I wound up running into this huge pair of angels. “We are each of us angels with one wing,” the words above them read. “We can only fly embracing each other.” I couldn’t predict what would happen post-graduation, but I knew how I’d make things work out—with friends, family and God to help me.—Alexandra McNish, Los Angeles, California
Things were feeling a little hopeless after I got my master’s in journalism at NYU. Months of searching, and I wasn’t any closer to landing my dream job. I took a weekend trip to the beach to clear my head. While wandering the boardwalk, I spotted this angel over the water. I knew it was a sign for me to keep at it. And a month later, I did find my dream job–here at Guideposts! —Allison Churchill, contributing editor
We’d been living in our new house for days, but I wished there was a way I could know for sure we’d made the right decision. I was inside unpacking dishes, and my husband was outside putting up a wood fence. He popped his head into the kitchen. “Kristy, come and see this,” he said. Out in the yard he pointed to one of the planks. Embedded in the wood was an angel. This was definitely the house for us.—Kristy Chism, Lincoln, Nebraska
My husband and I are avid cyclers, and our favorite place to bike is the Santa Ana River Trail in Southern California. We went this past June especially to see the Matilija poppies in bloom. We didn't expect to be greeted by this little angel beside the bike path. Looks like she is waving hello!—Penny Braund, Corona, California
There was plenty of time before I had to meet my friend in the city one winter day, so I ducked into a store to warm up while I waited. Inside on display I noticed a watch with angel wings. If only I had a pair of wings, I thought, I’d fly off to warmer weather! Looking at the watches, I remembered the “rule” for daylight saving time–spring forward, fall back. Fall was far behind me, but spring was just around the corner. I felt warmer already.—Audrey Razgaitis, Montclair, New Jersey
"Space—the final frontier," they call it on Star Trek. Recently I was exploring space right from my home computer. A few clicks brought me to Sharpless 2-106, the angel-shaped nebula. The orbiting ring of dust and gas forms the angel body. The wings are created by the heat emanating from the large, young star at the center. Space may be earth's final frontier, but I was reminded of the heavens beyond that waited unexplored.—Kelly Gallagher, Middletown, New York
Spending time outside on the porch was my favorite way to relax—until my husband, Ron, set up a hummingbird feeder in the yard. The birds flitted here, there and everywhere, chirping constantly. Their restlessness made me crazy! So much for peace, I thought one morning. Then I noticed the feeder’s shadow created the perfect angel on the pavement. I guess those restless creatures do have a peaceful side!—Kathy Keeley Anderson, Wautoma, Wisconsin
I was taking a walk with a coworker on my lunch break when we spotted this unique chandelier hanging in a store window. I love the little wings! I thought.I have to get a photo. Later that night over dinner I showed the pictures to an interior decorator friend. 'That's by my favorite lighting designer, Ingo Maurer,' she said. 'It's called Birdie's Nest, and it's made with real goose feathers.' They sure looked like angel wings to me.—Olga Jakim, Cold Spring, New York
Last May, I took a trip to see my son and daughter-in-law's new home in Arizona. After I got settled, I stepped outside to take in the landscape, so different from my home in North Dakota. Autumn sage, Acacia trees and—what was that? A cactus in the shape of an angel! North Dakota or Arizona, angels are at home everywhere.—Marjorie Walter, Dickinson, North Dakota