A note: Comprehensible scepticism might be the casual reader’s (or the commissioning editor’s) response to the perspective taken in this article, from, goodness, 2011. Do not judge too soon, please. A brief note, a little bit of abductive reasoning demonstrating why it would have been a cowardly failure of candour not to endorse the subject of the article’s claims, is available to those who are open to that type of truth and can reason well. Anyone so minded is welcome to get in touch to ask me for it. Even apart from my privacy, it feels wrong simply to publish it here.
Sunglasses on, Lorna Byrne saunters towards the hotel door and says hi. I said hi too. I can’t remember whether it was before or after her, and I must have been smiling anyway. Already I’d blown the first chance to see whether the famous visionary was on the level. But for one thing, I didn’t want to play the interview for too many laughs. For another, I already believed her: just from reading the books. That will take some explaining. And I believed her even more after meeting her. But first things first.
The angels do tell me lots and I have to say to them, ‘I don’t want to know,’ like. What they do is tell me really – because I’m not really interested in your life story – what’s important for you right now.”
Lorna is all business when we sit down, and brings up without prompting the economic crisis, suicide in Ireland, and the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr. She says that peace in Ireland hangs “on a shoestring,” but that she never thought we would get this far. She says that, “I myself, when I am in Northern Ireland to give a talk, encourage people to not put up with those who want to bring back war.” But she also says, “The Angel Hosus used to say to me, you know, ‘War is easy, but peace is the hardest thing to keep.’” It sounds very natural when she says it, but it sounds very weird too.
“I myself am proud of the people of Northern Ireland who stood up recently after the murder of the policeman,” she says. She says, as she has before, that she was told that Northern Ireland could be “the cornerstone of peace” for other places in the world: a big claim really. She was first told this in 1994, after the first ceasefire, but that it would take twenty years. With a hard head you can do the maths. With the terrible prospect of more violence, there is a powerful wish to believe her. Even if it sounds nuts. Or if it is angels… to prove them right, I guess.
Lorna would say that the killers only have to change their minds. Really it is that simple.
Lorna tells me about a businessman. He read her books, and got “a wake-up call.” When he met her, Lorna suggested that he should give someone a job gardening on his estate. Lorna rears back, imitating the businessman: “He kind of looked at me as if I had two heads. ‘That’d be an awful lot of money, Lorna.’” Lorna bobs her head a bit from side to side: “I said, ‘How much have you got?’ I won’t say how much he had. So he went and did that. I think…”
As you can see, she is quite funny. She wants to know a bit about me: “Do you kick a football? Go to the flicks?”
She asks me to get us coffee. (Remember: all business earlier.) She does want coffee, but when I come back, it’s clear she also wanted to talk to the angels. “I expect you know my life story now.” Lorna says: “The angels do tell me lots and I have to say to them, ‘I don’t want to know,’ like. What they do is tell me really – because I’m not really interested in your life story – what’s important for you right now.” Thanks Lorna, double memoirist! But I am charmed. Actually I am laughing inside.
Lorna’s thoughts on global politics go against the other experts’ wisdom. She says that choices made in America will determine the future of the world. Everyone else says that America’s day is past, and China is the place that matters. For Lorna, America is “the New World.” Some people might point out that it’s a good place to sell books. But think of it this way. America, with all its ups and downs, is where the world went to be friends: blacks and whites, gentiles and Jews, Protestants and Catholics. So at least in theory we could all be friends. It remains the cauldron of all the debates that matter. Americans are always arguing the question: how should we live? We actually do that a lot less over here.
When I mention how Americans are currently afraid of how things are going, she says, “Well, the fear is connected with the changes that are happening in the world. But one of the changes was peace in Northern Ireland, the cornerstone of peace.” You can’t deny it’s a beautifully simple way of looking at the world. “Simple” only means simplistic if you want to pick a fight.
A couple of times in the interview, Lorna returns to a set of reassurances: a little catechism. “God is real, you have a soul, your guardian angel loves you.” She wants to give each individual hope and courage. Well, probably no-one is going to change their minds about all that just because they hear it. They will probably change their minds when they begin to want to believe it. And even if you believe all that you need not necessarily believe everything else Lorna says – about herself or the world. As I say, I do.
Lots of the stuff that happens in Lorna’s books is crazy. Not stuff we’re used to anyway. It is a world – our world – of pure-spirited “glowing” babies who die early in life because the place is too bad. (The rest of us are brutes in comparison.) Lorna doesn’t feel sad about this when told – pretty callous, you might think – because she is looking at Gabriel. Martin Luther King is the reincarnation of a white, non-English speaking head of a community. At one point the Archangels Gabriel and Michael have a laugh about who’s more powerful in Lorna’s presence. That is for starters.
Even what a person might mean when they say they believe or disbelieve the books is different each time. Some people will read the books as reassurance, spiritual ballast, while getting on with things. Some will be sceptical – not exactly disbelief – but uninclined to mock, for reasons perhaps not clear to them. Some people will think them a laugh-riot, but only because they’re only reading the words. For some they will be chewing-gum. And some will be interested in the logic of every claim Lorna makes.
All these people will be defined in some way by the stance they take to the books, even where they judge them “irrelevant” to them. Not that there are any wrong answers, but it’s an interesting thought.
I asked Lorna about a strain of serious pessimism – I thought – in Stairways to Heaven. The “glowing babies” who should live; the suggestion, from none other than the Archangel Gabriel, no less, that humans must “change their ways” or there will be terrible consequences. “Yeah. Yeah. And it is very hard to do the right thing, you know, it’s easier for us to listen to the other side, because the other side exists. And we all have to stand up and say something is wrong, and have it corrected in a peaceful way.”
Any pub-talker or academic could be “pessimistic” about the fate of the world, as it is and might be, but they would be hard-pressed if asked why it matters. And any religious person could admit the truth of Philip Larkin’s line: “My life is for me, as well ignore gravity” – even if they’re not supposed to. So what can be said about a time in which those two things are possible? Well, a lot of what the old-time religion says begin to look ridiculous. Who wants to hear about an “eternal reward”? For what? Putting up with this crap? And who is this being who wants worship all the time?
Maybe as an answer, Lorna’s statements about the supernatural are wonderfully unorthodox – and interesting. Here are some ground-rules: reincarnation exists, but it’s on a “needs-must” basis, not perpetual rebirth; a spirit inhabits all water, and there is a spirit of the Earth; but still God is in his heaven, and Jesus is God; and of course there are angels, angels everywhere.
Or as Lorna scrupulously puts it in Stairways to Heaven: “a special kind of spiritual being, a special kind of angel – as we call them in our tradition.” So they’re not really angels, they’re just creatures. They could be called the gods: one for everything under the sun. Lorna’s books have chick-lit covers. As a marketing phenomenon, they are part of the angelic rage: New Agey stuff to show us we are not alone. All these angels congregate in Lorna’s kitchen. But Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mohammed to give him the Koran, and Elijah went to heaven on a chariot, so what are they doing in the kitchen?
Well, God is aware of the New Age stuff and is getting in on the act. “I have to smile because – and this isn’t my doing, this is God’s doing – I talk at a conference about God and his angels, and then I talk about God: and the audience accepts it! Which they wouldn’t have done otherwise.” God sounds here like a smooth salesman, for himself – aware of the competition. The nice spin that can be put on this is that the angels do populate the world, make it slightly more wonderful, so it’s not just us and our judger. The terrible One God wants to mediate his presence. That’s a bonus. And presumably they can pull out the shock and awe when they need to.
Lorna rather beautifully says that we are supposed to remember what heaven is like, because we have already been there.”
I get the impression that if she wrote all she could, we would be demented.: “you can’t give too much or people will say, ‘that’s unbelievable, throw it away, I couldn’t believe that.’” She’s talking about the stuff to do with the origins of the soul. She’s still funny about it. The fact is though that if you read the books closely they are an education. And a delight.
Actually, if I were asked to invent a spirituality for our times, I hope I’d invent Lorna’s. (But I couldn’t, not in a million years: that’s why she’s so interesting.) We have surely all had a sense that this life is the one that matters, and that this place, the round old earth, matters. If she would like to point out that there is a lot more than this world, still Lorna would go along with the rest of us to a great extent. And her message is not an individualistic one: whether Christian (that terrible line: “each man must, with fear and trembling, work out his own salvation”) or New Agey, angels and candles. The morality is cosmic, and earthly, not just eat-your-greens, and thou-shalt-not. The glories and the horrors are cosmic too: when you read the beautiful stuff, it’s like Plato; when you read the bad, it’s Steven King.
Lorna rather beautifully says that we are supposed to remember what heaven is like, because we have already been there. A big ask. And Joseph Ratzinger would not like the idea. But it’s an idea in Plato too. Smart people should note that if Lorna isn’t telling the truth, then she is a genius intellectual – she is, anyway. But the stuff that definitely checks out is her years of poverty growing up in Dublin, and later with her family in Maynooth; and her dyslexia. She didn’t have time to read the books.
And Lorna is wise. She says things that sound commonplace, but aren’t. In Stairways to Heaven she writes that children are treated pretty abominably today. They’re not down mines, but they are before the box. School is often unnecessarily boring. But who is she to say that? Well she saw this vision of kids full of wonder, looking at flowers and insects… She’s either truthful, or a genius intellectual and arrogant dreamer.
Really, I wanted to interview Lorna because it had dawned on me that our way of life was pretty weird. That is actually true of all times. And I wasn’t thinking of anything specific: terrorism or traffic jams. But as I say, it happened to occur to me slowly over the past year. I thought she might have something to say about things. She did: and she is not modest in her claims. “Everything is changing in the whole world, literally everything is changing, a way of life…” It is hard to think about. The Italians have a phrase for that kind of message: holy madness. But I can’t imagine a more level-headed messenger.
At the end of an interview that was much too short, I just said the planet was pretty small when you thought about it. Lorna was emphatic: “Tiny.” We say it’s a small world when we meet a friend of a friend on the street. We know it’s a small world when we think about outer space. But I think most of us think of it as quite big. When you meet someone for whom the world is “tiny,” and for whom that’s natural, you’re meeting someone special.