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The Guardian Angel
WHILE SERVING IN THE ROYAL NAVY during the Second World War, the British neurologist Macdonald Critchley studied the cases of 279 sailors and airmen who had been cast adrift. In his 1943 study Shipwreck-Survivors, he described the ordeals that befell the men, including gruesome physical conditions like "immersion foot," but also harrowing psychological aberrations such as bioscopic fantasies, where past events from a person's life flash before them at incredible speed. It was during the course of one interview for his study that Critchley first came across a report of a very different experience, that of a "guardian angel." The account came from a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot who, with his observer, was forced to ditch into the North Atlantic on May 25, 1941. They had been on a reconnaissance mission tracking the German battleship Bismarck, operating at night, in terrible weather, and without radar. They became lost over the sea; their aircraft eventually ran out of fuel and was forced down. They were soon adrift in a rubber dinghy. The conditions were appalling, characterized by Critchley as "severe physical discomfort . . . going on to utter collapse. There had been exposure to bitter cold and wet; and intense thirst and lack of food. . . . Prospects of rescue were remote, and though from time to time hopes would soar in an extravagant and unwarranted fashion, they would soon be dashed again with realization of their tragic plight." Through it all, the pilot and observer both "kept imagining that there was a third person along with them."1 The two men had no doubt as to the identity of their visitor. They said an angel had helped to seethem through their terrifying ordeal. Critchley found this "not surprising . . . especially in the case of distressed and exhausted shipwrecked seamen. The 'Guardian Angel' motif is inescapable to those with strong beliefs." He was aware of the weighty theological tradition behind the concept: "The notion of an angelo custode is a common teaching and is depicted in religious art as an angel with a wide wingspan standing as an unseen protector behind a little child." Not all who have encountered an unseen presence attribute it to a divine origin. But for those with strong beliefs, like Ron DiFrancesco in the World Trade Center, or the Fleet Air Arm pilot and his observer, help came in the form of an angel. For others of faith, the Third Man came cloaked in different religious garb, as with Shackleton's "Divine Companion" and McKinlay's overtly spiritual encounter with a presence. It was, then, not in scientific journals that Critchley turned to look for further accounts of the Third Man. Instead, he wrote, "in theological literature we find the most explicit references." Critchley examined works of purely religious character, and found examples he thought more likely to have been presence experiences than religious visions. He identified one in the autobiography of the Spanish nun Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582): I was at prayer . . . when I saw Christ at my side-or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for neither with the eyes of the body nor with those of the soul did I see anything. . . . I could not help realizing that He was beside me. . . . It is not a suitable comparison to say that it is as if a person were in the dark, so that he cannot see someone who is beside him, or as if he were blind. There is some similarity here, but not a great deal, because the person in the dark can detect the other with his remaining senses, can hear him speak or move, or can touch him. In this case there is nothing like that.2 IT HAS BEEN ESTIMATED that during the early years of Christianity, as many as five thousand Christian hermits retreated to the desert, where they sought spiritual renewal and communion with God through solitude, fasting, self-inflicted pain, meditation, and prolonged prayer.3 The fourth-century monks of the Thebaid felt the near proximity of God in the deserts of Egypt, where they lived in an isolated environment of reduced sensory input. Wrote the social critic and novelist Aldous Huxley about the role of sensory deprivation in religious traditions: "If you read the life of Milarepa, the great Tibetan hermit, or if you read the lives of St. Anthony and St. Paul, hermits in the Christian tradition, you can see that this isolation did in fact produce visionary experiences."4 Milarepa, after living for many months in a cave, was visited by his sister, who was terrified at the sight of him. She felt as if she had seen a ghost. Little wonder. In his Life Milarepa described his appearance: My body was wasted by asceticism. My eyes were sunk in their sockets. All my bones protruded. My fleshes were dried out and green. The skin covering my fleshless bones looked like wax. The hair on my body had become coarse and grey. From my head it streamed down in a frightening flood. My limbs were about to fall apart.5 Milarepa, however, is credited with having attained a state of complete enlightenment, and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery now stands at what is purported to be the entrance to his cave. Similarly, among tribal people in Africa, Asia, and commonly in aboriginal groups in North America, a solitary period in the wilderness, with attendant hardship and deprivation, marks a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood through the acquisition of a guardian spirit. In particular, the vision or spirit quest of North American Indians represents a "sought vision induced by hunger, thirst, purgatives, and self-laceration."6 A young man would be sent to an isolated place to fast and pray. The result: "He may be visited by what, he thinks, are supernatural beings."7 A similar rite is practiced by the Inuit, where monotony, through long walks on the tundra, or confinement to an igloo, is used to evoke a spirit. A Jesuit account from 1642 described a North American Indian spirit quest. A young man, "when but fifteen or sixteen years of age, retired to the woods to prepare himself by fasting for the appearance of some Demon." After living in isolation and going without food for sixteen days, "he saw an aged man of rare beauty who came down from the Sky, approached him, and looking kindly at him said, 'Have courage. I will take care of thy life.'" In another recorded case, a Plains Indian named Medicine Crow "fasted for four days. He cut off a finger and offered it to the Sun. . . . The blood poured down." He collapsed, but near dawn, "he saw a young man and a young woman coming from the west." The benevolent beings "talked with him [and] gave him medicine."8 These rare surviving aboriginal accounts are remarkably similar to those given by Western explorers and climbers, and also by survivors of man-made disasters.