There is a series of paintings by an American artist, Thomas Cole, which depict the stages of life, from infancy to old age. In the first image an infant is seen in a small boat while at the helm stands a radiant angel who guides the vessel out of a dark cavern into a misty dawn light. In the next painting the infant has become a youth and the landscape opens up into a vast and exciting prospect. The youth now takes the helm while the spirit gestures farewell from the bank. In the third canvas, entitled Manhood, the boat is poised at the brink of a dangerous cataract. The helm is broken, the sky dark with menacing clouds, and the grown man now seems lost. Only in the upper corner of the painting can there be seen a faint light of hope where we can just make out the delicate shape of his angelic companion.
The final scene, Old Age, shows the stream of life reaching the ocean to which all life is tending. The now time-worn traveller recognises that his journey in life is ending and for the first time he sees the spirit who has accompanied him throughout, and the spirit is pointing ahead to a brilliant light.
In the Celtic tradition, as John O’Donohue reminds us in his book Eternal Echoes, there was a strong sense that each of us has an invisible companion who walks the road of life with us. The Christian tradition says that when we were sent here onto earth a guardian angel was chosen to accompany our every step, to watch over us and keep a circle of light around us lest any negativity damage us. Without our even knowing it our angel is always at work for us.
I learned this when I developed cancer of the thyroid some years ago. I was alone, my companion being in India at the time, and I was filled with fear. Then, one night I awoke with an interior voice saying ‘You are not alone. You have an angel working alongside you.’ And from that moment I ceased to have any fear.