THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman whose life was turned upside down when she was contacted by her guardian angel. It was not long before she was receiving messages from God
There are two things I can say for sure about Vassula Ryden. The first is that she makes very fine bulle, a doughy Swedish bun (her husband is Swedish) spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. The second is that she communes with spirits, sees the souls of the dead, and has been talking to her Guardian Angel (whose name is Daniel) and God Himself on a regular basis since November 28, 1985.
Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s easy to be sure about the bulle because I actually tried them. They were brought out, along with other snacks, at the end of our interview, in the comfortable family home belonging to one of her followers where Vassula was due to hold a prayer group immediately afterwards (she runs prayer groups in 80 countries, all under the name ‘True Life in God’; there are 200 groups in Brazil alone). When it comes to her mystical accomplishments, however – the word is “supernatural”, by the way, not “paranormal” which can imply demons as well as angels – all I really have to go on is her own testimony, plus her undoubted success in inspiring others. In the 28 years since her experience she’s been “living in the plane,” as she puts it, travelling all over the world and presiding at over 1,000 conferences, not counting interviews and TV appearances.
I’m not qualified to judge whether Vassula is telling the truth about her extraordinary experiences; all I can really disclose is whether the bulle are good (they’re yummy) and what she’s like as an interviewee, on which more later. I haven’t even read her new book, which is called Heaven is Real, But So is Hell – though even a skim-read seems to provide some solid evidence for her claims. For example this, on page 137:
“There have been countless occasions when all sorts of people in different countries, without ever having heard of this phenomenon, have seen Christ’s Holy Face on me, covering mine, and sometimes He appeared in His entirety. This phenomenon has not only been seen with the naked eye, but on several occasions it has appeared on video as well.”
Or this, on page 158:
“While I was in the middle of my speech, talking about the Holy Spirit, I suddenly noticed that the people became very excited and were no longer looking at me, but at the sun. To many, it appeared as if the sun started to spin with different colours around it … This extraordinary sign in the sun was expressed so powerfully and so majestically that it produced reverence for the Message I was reading. It left everyone in awe. Those who previously had doubts came to tell me that not only did they see the sun spinning, but also had seen Christ’s Holy Face in the sky as well as on mine.”
Sceptics will presumably dismiss both those passages as examples of mass hysteria – but Vassula doesn’t fret very much about sceptics. She recalls something God said to her once: “He told me, ‘Just do it, and those that believe, believe. Don’t worry about those that close their ears’”.
What reactions does she get when she tells her story?
“Mostly positive,” she replies. “Those who are a bit sceptical, if they say ‘OK, I give it a chance’ and go hear my story, when they hear me they believe immediately.”
Don’t they ask for scientific proof, though?
“No, not really. Because faith does not need science to believe. You either open to the Grace of God, and you let your heart be touched, or you decide never to do that and you stay sceptical.”
She’s serene about that. She’s serene about everything, which is why talking to her is a bit disorienting. Take her account of the “experience” itself, for instance, that fateful day in 1985. Vassula was 43 and living in Bangladesh, where her husband was posted as a foreign-aid worker. Her two sons were 15 and 10. “I was writing a list of groceries,” she recalls – as she must’ve recalled in many other interviews – “and I had this feeling like somebody touched my hand. A tingling feeling on my hand, and especially on the wrist. My hand went straight on the paper, then I heard the voice and it was my angel. And as I heard his voice saying ‘I’m your Guardian Angel, and my name is Daniel’, immediately this electrical feeling pushed my hand and I wrote the words he said”.
That was her first real supernatural experience (though she’d had a couple of spiritual dreams as a child) – but what’s really striking is how well everyone took it, including Vassula herself. “I was waiting for my husband to come and tell him all about it,” she chuckles, as if she’d seen something funny on TV and wanted to share it. When her husband Per came home and heard the story, he listened calmly and didn’t seem too alarmed: “He said, ‘What did [the angel] say more?’. I said ‘Just that’. Then we changed the subject”.
Even when angelic communication became a daily occurrence (Daniel “prepared” Vassula for God Himself, who only arrived three months later), Per wasn’t overly worried; it helped, says his wife, that he mentioned her experience to his boss at the UN, an Indian gentleman who was intrigued rather than shocked. Even more surprisingly, her kids adapted straight away – especially the 10-year-old, who believed immediately: “He used to tell his best friend about the whole thing, and we caught them once opening the Bible and reading about Abraham talking to God – ‘Oh, she’s like Abraham’, you know”. Her younger son is still very involved, and made her a Wikipedia page which “my oppressors and persecutors destroyed,” she adds sadly, putting ‘oppressors’ in quotation marks. The older one was a bit more ambivalent: “He told me, ‘Mum, I can’t follow everything’,” she smiles with maternal indulgence. “OK. As long as he’s a good boy, it’s OK”.
Why was everyone so accepting (blasé, even) about such incredible claims? “Because they knew the person,” explains Vassula. Many of her friends admitted that, had it been anyone else, they wouldn’t have believed it – but Vassula was so grounded, so normal. Even now, talking to her in the comfortable house in Nicosia, with paintings on the walls and savoury snacks on the table, the overwhelming impression is of un-hysterical ordinariness. She seems slightly bored, if anything (admittedly, she’s said it all before), and might seem slightly boring, at least if she weren’t talking about divine communications. She’s blonde, made-up, and vain enough to look pleased when I mention that she looks much younger than her age (which is 71). A chic-looking pair of glasses sits atop her head. Her eyes are rather blank, her movements unhurried. When she talks of hearing voices, she might be talking of a trip to the supermarket.
What’s she like as a person? “Loving, caring, happy, funny. Definitely funny! And a fabulous cook,” says one of the acolytes sitting around us (her name is Gethsemane; she’s part of the Athens prayer group). How would Vassula describe herself? “A housewife. With a gift,” she offers modestly. Actually she was more than just a housewife, having been a fashion model and professional tennis player – but never religious: “I just wasn’t interested”. She was born in Egypt to Greek Orthodox parents (her maiden name is Pendakis) then moved to Switzerland in her teens – but seldom went to church as an adult, and her two boys “grew up like pagans”. She liked socialising, tennis, modelling clothes: “I had everything a woman desires,” or so she thought before her life changed completely.
So why? Why did God pick her? After all, it’s not just voices: Vassula’s a kind of emissary, bearing a Message from the Almighty. Every time she gets “called” – a feeling she likens to “a kind of urgency”, like hearing the phone ring and rushing to pick it up – she sits down to write and a divine hand takes over, her handwriting changing dramatically.
The crux of the Messages is that God is unhappy with the world. “I wish I’d never looked at the Earth. Because what I see is not in accordance with what I expected,” Vassula quotes Him as saying. “He’s very disappointed, the Father,” she adds. “And He said: ‘I created Man with free will, but he uses his free will to destroy himself’”. Apostasy is rife, the world must repent. Her Messages often include prophecies, Vassula tells me; she (channelling God) has foreseen 9/11 and the Asian tsunami. So what’s being prophesied for the future?
“Fire,” she replies simply.
So not like a metaphor for climate change or something?
“No, no. It’s going to be a real fire.”
“Soon. In our time. Just around the corner.”
That is indeed a heavy Message – imminent conflagration for the whole of humanity, unless we mend our ways – but I’m slightly puzzled. ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense if you were, say, the US President?’ I ask Vassula. Why should God choose an ordinary person for such a big task? “Why did He choose Joan of Arc?” she retorts. “She was a peasant. That is the way God works. Why did Jesus choose fishermen, and not go to the Pharisees and convert them? Why? I don’t know.”
Fair enough – but then why, for instance, does He choose only a handful of prophets? Why not bestow this gift on a million people? Surely we’d perk up and listen if there was someone like Vassula on every street corner, all of them preaching the same Message? “I asked Him that, in the beginning,” she admits. “You know, in my ignorance … I said ‘The world is in shambles. Why can’t You go to everybody and give that gift to them?’. Well, He didn’t answer. Didn’t answer”. She stops herself, recalling an extra detail: “No, He asked me ‘Do you think I can do something?’. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘You’re God!’. Then He didn’t answer.” Meaning it’s not up to Him, it’s up to us, she interprets: if we’re in trouble, it’s our own fault. “From our apostasy. Apostasy, falling away from faith.”
People have said such things before, of course. Prophets have been spouting jeremiads since the time of … well, Jeremiah. Predictably, the Church’s official line (both Catholic and Orthodox Church) is against her, though many priests apparently support her. What makes Vassula special, perhaps, is her ecumenical bent – her ‘True Life in God’ Foundation organises pilgrimages bringing together 22 Christian churches, from Orthodox to Lutherans – and the sense of an ordinary person which she radiates so effectively. God “took a blank white canvas to put all His work on there,” she marvels, and indeed that’s why her Messages touch so many people: “Because they feel that God is alive, and He speaks to them. And that’s what He says: take Vassula’s name away, and put in your own name”.
In the end, it’s futile trying to meet this kind of phenomenon with logical arguments. All one can really ask is whether the person in question is sincere or a charlatan – and all one can say of Vassula Ryden, after 28 years, many volumes of writings and the wholesale destruction of a pre-‘experience’ lifestyle which (by all accounts) was quite pleasant, is that, if this is a scam, it’s an unusually elaborate one. Does she miss her old life at all? “No,” she replies at once. “I think it was so superficial … What gives joy in life is when you get to know God – not to hear or read about God, [but] when you really have an experience with God and you know Him.”
“I’m happy to serve God in this way,” she affirms, though her eyes – after 28 years – remain blank, and a little bored. “You know, in the Bible they say when you serve God you become the slave of God. But I’m happy to be His slave”. Her cinnamon bulle aren’t bad, either.
If you’d like to learn more about Vassula or her work, visit www.tlig.org or contact Nora on 99-574303.