Lorna Byrne says she has been communicating with angels since she was a child. It seems she has also been visited by the Virgin Mary and spent time in the presence of God. Now she has published a bestselling memoir – but is she guided by divine inspiration or merely deluded?
LORNA Byrne says four angels are beside us as we talk. Sometimes they sit on the edge of the table. There are some on the other side too, with pen and paper in their hands, just like me. They are great mimics, angels. I see only a busy hotel lobby with anonymous people moving between the caf bar and reception. But Byrne sees the lights of guardian angels behind all these people. The receptionist has a soul watching over her as well as an angel.
Sometimes Byrne sees only the lights, but at other times the angels reveal themselves. In fact, she tells me quietly, my own angel has now stepped forward. I ask nothing about my angel, merely listening. Byrne smiles. My angel is saying, “She’s dying to know. She’s dying to know.”
Byrne is Irish and her book, Angels in my Hair, which tells the story of her communication with angels, has gone straight to number two in that country. It has celebrity endorsements from Coronation Street’s earth father William Roach and Ireland’s own demi-god Daniel O’Donnell, who says Byrne has “made a big difference to my life”. The book has been the subject of a bidding war in America, which was won by the Da Vinci Code publisher and is expected to be an international bestseller. Yet Byrne cannot read or write. She recorded her words on to tapes and later into a voice-activated computer.
Byrne is a tiny figure in the corner of the lobby, dressed in pistachio green. Five foot nothing, she sits very straight-backed in the chair. She has auburn hair and penetrating eyes, but a face that softens into warmth when she smiles. Her presence is still and unadorned; there is a great serenity about her. She will take nothing from me but a glass of water. And there is something about her… this simplicity, this ordinariness… that is baffling. If I could tell you that she seems odd, it would be almost a relief. She does not.
But her book does. Byrne claims she has talked with angels all her life. Her descriptions of them vary, but most chime with the angelic figures of religious art and popular mythology. Flowing locks and feathered wings and swirling robes of gold and silver and blue. (If she lived elsewhere, she says, they would manifest in a form familiar to that culture.)
As a child, the angels gave her visions of people’s deaths. They twinned her with dying souls to help them pass into the next world. The angels also showed her Joe, the man she would marry, before she met him, and told her she would nurse Joe for many years but that he would die young (he did). She describes seeing Joe’s soul leave his body; having a visitation from Mary, “the queen of heaven”; being in God’s presence; and even of having battles with Satan.
But why would angels show her the future? And why would an all-powerful God need assistance to take souls to Him? Byrne makes no attempt to give complicated explanations. She says simply she doesn’t know and does only what she is asked. She was brought up a Catholic but says that doesn’t matter. “Some day, all religions will come together and be one. That is going to happen. Anyone who looks through all the different books of religion will see that they are all connected. I know they are because I have been told they are, and I just wish man would realise that and stop using God as an instrument of war, as an excuse for killing someone else when really they are after power for themselves.”
Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Muslims… it’s all the same God. So is Jesus Christ God? Byrne hesitates. “It’s the same God. I have never seen any other God.” Christ is God, then? “Mmm,” she agrees, a bit vaguely. “All I know is that God has given himself different names through the centuries. He keeps on coming. He’s there; he works through different people all the time.” To her, religion is, “a horrible word. But it is a universal word.”
There is no doubt this is a strange story. What Byrne has to say is only one part of it. The other important factor is what each reader brings to it. Do you believe only in the body, or also in the soul? Are you a rationalist who thinks all knowledge comes through reason alone, or an empiricist who thinks it comes from experience? Do you think faith is a gift or a delusion? Our baggage comes into this: yours as the reader, and mine as the filter for the story.
We all see the world in different ways. At the heart of science is the concrete: factual analysis and proof by experimentation. At the heart of philosophy is the abstract: an exploration of concepts in a search for absolute truths. The scientist says: here is a table in my laboratory. The philosopher says: how can I be sure of the reality of this table that I think I see? These different instincts only become conflicting if we try to create a hierarchy of human thought in which only one is valid. Albert Einstein saw the necessity for both. “Science without religion is lame,” he once said. “Religion without science is blind.”
When Byrne says my angel has stepped forward, I can feel those different instincts battling. It’s like putting a block of puff pastry into an oven and watching it rise and separate into layers in the heat. Layers of reason, of emotion, of scepticism and of longing. Anyone who has watched the mind games of Derren Brown on television knows that a seemingly psychic phenomenon can be psychological trickery. So at first I try to remain neutral, give out no signals about this angel, of whom we will hear more later. One part of me turns away. The other part? Well, if that angel exists, she is right about one thing. Part of me is dying to know.
BUT LET’S try layers of reason first. There are three possible explanations for Byrne’s story: she is lying; she is deluded; or she is telling the truth. A lie detector test might reveal deliberate lying, but how can we ever prove the non-existence of something we can’t see? Of course, the fact that we can’t see what Byrne claims to does not necessarily make her a liar, but it makes the instinct to call her one stronger.
Then there’s delusion. What, I ask, if she is mentally ill and her reality is distorted? Byrne accepts the question without resentment. “The only thing I can say to you is that I see the angels just like I see you sitting in the chair. If they were in my head, I wouldn’t see them.” Not necessarily true, but her answer certainly underlines her inability to see angels as anything less than tangibly real.
And if she’s telling the truth? What are angels? According to the Catholic church, they are, “spiritual, non-corporeal beings” and are regarded as “a truth of faith”. But they are not only a Christian phenomenon. Angels are mentioned in the Koran as well as the Bible. They are neither male nor female, though they can take on the appearance of both genders. Traditionally they are God’s messengers, the bridge between Heaven and Earth and they exist in a hierarchy: cherubim and seraphim, we are told, never leave the sight of God.
Astonishingly in an increasingly secular world, a poll in Time magazine showed 69% of people claim to believe in them. The last 20 years has seen a surge of interest with a plethora of angel books by authors such as Diana Cooper. Gift shops are crammed with angel memorabilia – angel art, angel trinkets, angel jewellery. We may not fancy that church malarkey but we like the idea of a guardian angel who is always on our side and demands nothing in return. The instinct that once took people to the pews now leads them to stick an angel pin on their jacket lapel.
Byrne claims angels have been with her from her earliest days. She grew up in Dublin where her father repaired bicycles and later managed a garage, and her family had very little money. Even as a child she seemed different from everyone around her. She had few friends and was considered “retarded”. It puzzles her why she should be chosen. Why not someone educated? When she tries to sign a book for Spectrum’s photographer, she needs help to spell his name, Robert. Later, she talks about receiving text messages, but she also says the angels have helped her with reading. Yet curiously, despite her illiteracy, she seems neither unintelligent nor incapable of talking in abstract principles. On the contrary, she is very articulate.
fundamental difficulty with Byrne’s story is the convoluted way angels apparently communicate. Why would they need Byrne as a conduit? Why don’t they talk to all of us? In fact, why doesn’t God just appear and then everyone in the world would get down on their knees. “Well, I wish He would. I really wish He would,” agrees Byrne. “I often say, why don’t you do something absolutely fantastic? I’ve even asked for it to happen up in the sky, for the whole world to see. And for it to stay, not just for a few seconds, but for a good long time so that all nations can see it.”
It wouldn’t be enough. ‘The Miracle of the Sun’ has already been historically documented. It happened on October 13, 1917 at the Cova da Iria near Fatima, where Our Lady had reputedly appeared to a group of children. She told them the date and time a miracle would be performed. At the appointed time, 70,000 people gathered to watch. Dr Jose Maria de Almeida Garrett, professor at the Faculty of Sciences at Coimbra University, Portugal, was one of many who would later describe what he saw. “The sun, whirling wildly, seemed all at once to loosen itself from the firmament and, blood red, advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was truly terrible.”
The Portuguese press covered it extensively but despite being less than 100 years ago, it might as well be 2,000. Every generation needs to see with its own eyes.
When it comes to ‘miraculous’ events, the Catholic church is understandably cautious. How do you apply reason to assess miracles? The Church has, though, acknowledged the veracity of apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous (who, like Byrne, had difficulty reading and writing) at Lourdes in 1858, as well as to the children of Fatima. But miracle claims can be fuelled by earthly rather than spiritual ambitions. Since June 1981, pilgrims have flocked to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Our Lady was again said to have appeared. But recently, official church spokesman Monsignor Andrea Gemma denounced the apparitions as fraudulent. “Rather than the Blessed Virgin at Medjugorje, there has appeared so far only rivers of money… the seers are lying under the inspiration of Satan to enrich themselves economically.”
Byrne has been poor all her life and she and her children exist on a widow’s pension. People do visit her for consultations and, in the beginning, they would bring her family a cake, or perhaps some meat. Because of Joe’s illness, they always struggled financially and the offerings were a help. Now, she doesn’t see many people but admits they sometimes leave money. Understandable, perhaps, but it’s a mistake to mix money and spiritual services. It leads to misunderstanding about intent.
There is no doubt a bestseller could change Byrne’s life financially. But she certainly doesn’t come across as a very materialistic person – something people often find difficult to hide in lots of small ways. Everyone needs material things, she says, including her. But, while the angels have predicted many books for her, they have also told her she will establish a charity. “Whatever material things come out of this, they are not all for me. I have no intention of keeping it all. You can’t take any of it to heaven with you. I have met people who have a lot and are miserable. Money can’t buy you happiness, and it can’t buy you love, and it can’t buy you life. We should share more. It’s great when God allows someone to be wealthier but they’re meant to share it.”
She has no idea what the Catholic hierarchy thinks of her. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. In fact, the church condemns anyone claiming to see into the future as being influenced by Satan, but the head of a religious order in Rome consults Byrne, as do theologians from different religions. And interestingly, so do scientists, asking her to get information from the angels to aid their research. But her message is mainly for ordinary people. “It’s full of hope and that’s what the world needs. You have a soul. You don’t die. What God has shown me is that if you do your best, that means a huge amount. Even if now and then you fall down and you try again. I have never seen God condemn anyone. He and the angels are full of so much love, compassion and understanding. I write about God and the angels to strengthen people’s faith. I know God exists. But I can’t prove it.”
Dying to know? Well we’re all dying to know the unknowable. That’s why we have emotional responses as well as rational ones to this kind of story.
A childhood memory: a girl in primary school. She is like a little middle-aged woman with her round, pasty face and thin-lipped tightness. She wears a prim kind of cruelty. She is older, corners me and my friend to tell us she communicates with spirits. The spirits say my friend will die at 16; I have until I’m 25. Her name is Pratt and when we’ve stopped shaking, we joke with some bravado about that. It is a Catholic school. Neatly paired children marching to Mass, cold stone and stained glass and soaring arches, the scent of incense and melted wax, candle flames flickering below the statue of the Virgin.
And all these years later (keep it to yourselves but we’re past the 25-year deadline) Byrne is stirring some instinctive, guttural response far below my layers of reason. An instinctive antipathy to the idea that anyone can foresee another’s death. If God exists, would that not seem an odd betrayal? An inappropriate intimacy, like someone rifling through your underwear drawer. I don’t want to know. But I don’t want a stranger to know either.
Having written about fake psychics, I know they do their research. They study death notices in towns they visit for weeks beforehand. So what, I think before I meet her, if Byrne is a fake? It’s easy to research a journalist’s background. I, for example, have written about my love for my late father. And with just a little knowledge, she would find newspaper cuttings about my brother who died so tragically suddenly. I know rationally how she might operate, but reason and emotion don’t always cooperate. I am frightened she will know which buttons to push and that I won’t control my emotional response. Which, in a kind of way, is exactly what happens.
I’d rather not tell you this bit but it happened in my hour with Byrne so I ought to. “You are a very spiritual person,” she tells me when my angel appears. I say nothing. “Even if you deny it.” She smiles. These angels. If they don’t stop talking all at once, she’ll go mad. All these things they want her to tell me. Right now, my angel is showing herself as female. She is very beautiful, gentle and compassionate. (Which I guess covers most angels.) She wipes my tears.
Then Byrne tells me what my angel says about me. Horoscopes are like lycra – they stretch to fit every life – and I suppose the same could be said of what Byrne says. But there is no doubt that although things she says are not exclusive to me, they are very, very personal to me. So deeply personal that while I do not cry exactly, my eyes fill. (Allow me this fine distinction. It’s a Bill Clinton-type fig leaf. He did not have sexual relations with that woman. I did not cry.)
She notices, apologises. She has to be very careful of people’s emotions. And then, at the end of the interview, out of nowhere, she says something very similar to something my father once said to me and I look up sharply. But again I say nothing. She hugs me and wishes me many miracles in my life. “You are not alone,” she says, with great gentleness. I cannot tell you whether Lorna Byrne is a fraud or a mystic. I don’t believe the cleverest scientist could tell you either. But I can tell you that if she is a fraud, she is the most compassionate fraud I ever met.
Byrne laughs at the idea anyone understands the universe. We are all mere children. What is evident is that we cannot reject something because it sounds beyond reason, because our understanding of “reason” evolves. New truths sometimes contradict old ones. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the earth was the centre of the universe, that the stars were fixed to a crystalline sphere, and were constant and unchanging. That view didn’t change until the 16th century.
In the 20th century, Albert Einstein believed the best mind was the open mind. “The important thing,” he said, “is not to stop questioning. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”
• Angels in my Hair is published by Century (12.99)