"Mommy, What's an Angel?"

From Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks AngelShortly before Christmas, I got a text from a friend: "What's an angel?" she wrote. How do I explain this to a 3yo from an agnostic POV? I told him I had to get back to him!

In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.

"According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes."

Um, like, no.

At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.

That's why, beginning this week, I'll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.

Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they'll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.

In each segment, I'll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend's three-year-old. Then I'll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)

Sistine Madonna, detail

"What's An Angel?"

The Short Answer:

An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.

The Long Answer:

Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only "good" things. That's why people might use the word "angel" when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children "little angels.") Some stories say God has special angels, called "guardian angels," who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die. 

Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don't really exist. 

 

A Nonbeliever’s Near-Death Experience

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So can we talk about near-death experiences for a minute? You know — the whole tunnels-and-bright-lights thing?

I bring it up because a good friend recently shared with me a YouTube video featuring an 18-year-old with heart disease. In the video, the high school senior, whose name is Ben Breedlove, uses index cards and music to tell the story of his life, his illness and his three near-death experiences.

Viewed more than 2 million times, the video seems to be Breedlove's way of explaining what it's like to pass from one world to the next and back again. He describes the journey in somewhat mystical terms — bright lights, a white room, a feeling of deep peace and calm. He also reports feeling proud of himself, of all he’s accomplished in his life. And he marvels at how good it had felt to be in that calming, bright-white place — so good, in fact, that he never wanted to wake up.

“Do you believe in angels or God?" Breedlove asks his audience just before the video ends. "I do.”

Unknown
Unknown

This young man's experience, and his words, are meant to be affecting — and they are. Especially knowing that only a week after Breedlove uploaded that video to YouTube, his heart stopped again. Only this time it didn’t start back up. Ben Breedlove died on Christmas day.

As I watched the video, I was touched by Breedlove's courage, optimism and humor. He's clearly a good person who deserves to be happy. And that he appears to find happiness, even in the grip of death, is both sweet and uplifting.

But to answer Breedlove’s question: Do I now believe in God or angels?

No. The answer is no. Not even a little.

While I truly believe Breedlove saw those bright lights and felt that deep sense of calm, I don't believe that what he saw and felt were "evidence” of another realm. Rather, they were the dreams and hallucinations so often brought on by brain malfunctions, powerful drugs and our own rich imaginations in the midst of life-threatening illness or trauma.

I'm intimately familiar with the phenomenon because I, too, had a near-death experience 16 years ago. Only I experienced it as a nonbeliever.

My own story begins in a restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., on the evening of May 20, 1995. I was in college at the time, and that night I was having dinner with my mom and my boyfriend, Charlie. (If the name rings a bell, that's because I eventually married him.) I started off the meal by informing our waitress that I had a serious allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. But, by the time we ordered dessert, she'd forgotten. I took one bite of our cheesecake and knew immediately there must be nuts in the topping. Soon, I began feeling sick to my stomach. The waitress apologetically confirmed there were crushed almonds on top of the cheesecake, and we left.

About 30 minutes later — after my mom had begun her two-hour drive home and Charlie had headed to a video store to get us a movie — my face swelled up and I began having trouble breathing. Nothing like that had ever happened before, but I sensed that something must be terribly wrong. I called 911, then ran to the porch to wait for help. Charlie met me there, video in hand. Within seconds, I was lying down, struggling against my ever-shallowing breath. The effect was terrifying. I can still feel the chipping paint on the wood slats below me as my body thrashed around, desperate for air. “Try to relax,” I remember Charlie saying, as he held me in his arms. “You’re breathing. You’re breathing. You're breathing.”

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t breathing anymore.

I immediately lost consciousness. As Charlie tells it, my body went rigid and my lips turned blue. He tried to administer CPR, but my tongue had swelled to the point where he couldn't do anything. From the look of it, he said, I was either dead or dying.

By the time the paramedics arrived, I was in full respiratory arrest. Their first rule of business was to get a tube down my throat so they could push air to my lungs; but it wasn't easy. According to the paramedics' report, the first several efforts failed. And when they finally did intubate me, it didn't do much to improve my situation. By the time I got to the emergency room at Lincoln Memorial Hospital, I was still in respiratory arrest. There, I was injected with all kinds of drugs, fitted with a chest tube for a collapsed lung, and given a rather grim prognosis. As I lay in a coma, breathing only with the aid of a respirator, doctors brought up the distinct possibility of severe brain damage.

Obviously — or maybe not so obviously if you believe Fox News fans — I made a full recovery. I remember coming out of my coma, but still not able to speak (or even swallow) because of the tube running down my throat.

The only way to communicate with my parents was to trace out letters with my finger. At first, they didn't know what I was trying to do, but then my dad figured it out and offered me his palm to write on.

GET THIS DAMN THING OUT OF MY MOUTH, I scrawled.

When I got to the word "damn," the smile that spread across my dad's face said it all: Not only was I alive and awake. Not only was I able to form words. But, by God, I was cursing again. All was right with the world.

NUTS
NUTS

Now, about that near-death experience...

I can't tell you exactly when this happened, other than to say it was sometime after I lost consciousness and before I was stabilized in the hospital. But, just like Breedlove, I had a vision that accompanied an extreme sense of calm. I didn't see angels or bright lights or tunnels or staircases to heaven, though. What I saw was my own funeral. Or, more specifically, I saw the feet of the people at my own funeral. (Kooky, I know.) It was as though I were sitting under a table. That was my vantage point as I watched these black dress shoes shuffle back and forth on a wooden floor. There was no question that it was my funeral, but instead of feeling depressed or scared or even very sad, I felt a peaceful acceptance. In fact, it was kind of nice seeing all those people getting together to remember me.

And that was it.

Feet. Then nothing. Then cursing on my dad's hand.

I don't tell this story to undercut or minimize Ben Breedlove's experience. I think his visions were profound and beautiful and life-changing and remarkably comforting. Just like mine, but in a different way.

I say it only to show that near-death experiences are colored entirely by our own unique backgrounds, philosophies, personalities and values. When faced with our own mortality, Breedlove and I both imagined what comes after death.

He's religious; I'm not.

He saw an after-life. I saw a funeral.

This post originally appeared in January 2012.