I belong to that group of Catholics whose religious upbringing straddled both sides of the Second Vatican Council. In my first four years of parochial school I memorized catechism answers to questions like, “Why did God make us?” and “What is a sacrament?” In my second four years I pondered opaque quotations from Vatican II documents and made felt banners for folk Masses. In my first four years I was taught by Sisters of Charity who had stepped out of early nineteenth-century New York; in my last four I was taught by (many fewer) sisters who dressed in the mainstream of the mini-skirt ’60s.
And in my first four years we learned about angels. Angel of God, my guardian dear—it was a prayer as simple and singsong as Now I lay me down to sleep. A child’s prayer. It was a prayer I had no need for, it seemed, once I had left childhood. I never experienced doubts about the existence of angels—my relatively few moments of paralyzing agnosticism centered on the existence or non-existence of God, beside which, we can all agree, angels are small potatoes. But for some years angels were an article of belief rather than a living presence, a test of orthodoxy rather than awe-inspiring elder brothers to man.
In my early twenties I moved into my own apartment. Apart from the excitement of setting up housekeeping for myself (on a very small scale!) came occasional sharp fears of dangerous intruders. A friend of mine game me a housewarming present—a charming picture of St. Michael girded for battle against Satan.
The picture was not a magic amulet or a heavenly promise of immunity from burglars and wandering psychopaths, but it was immeasurably soothing as a visual reminder of God’s ever-watchful care. It made me recall the world of Julian of Norwich’s vision: “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Not “all shall be as you wish,” but “all shall be well.” St. Michael—the real St. Michael, invisible but ever-vigilant nonetheless—would ward off whatever God wanted warded off. That thought killed fear by drowning it in a floodtide of divine love.
It was around this time that Flannery O’Connor’s collection of letters, A Habit of Being, was published, and in it I came across a prayer to St. Raphael whose beauty and bright images captured my imagination. I copied it out for my own use:
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us. Raphael, angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the requests we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
Each reading revived in me a sense of the power and awesome beauty of those bodiless beings whose wills never wavered, whose affections never fluctuated. A few more years passed, and I married and then had my first child. We moved from New York to Maryland when Peter was five months old and we could no longer depend on my parents to babysit when we wanted an evening out. I located a sitter through a friend. The night before we tried her out for the first time, I had a classic anxiety nightmare: I dreamed the sitter killed Peter while we were out. I had never had the slightest indication that I possess prophetic powers. Still, the dream badly shook me up, and I didn’t see how I would be able to leave Peter for anything like an enjoyable evening. Then the thought of Peter’s guardian angel came to mind, and I dropped the whole burden of Peter’s care onto him for the evening. Like the picture of St. Michael, my prayer to Peter’s angel was no guarantor of security. But acknowledging the angel’s role in guarding myself and my children made me acknowledge the providential love of God, Who is the overarching Guardian of us all.
My two oldest children are now old enough for night fears and anxieties. When these began, I was ready to teach them as I had been taught. I told them God had given each of them an angel, whose special job was to keep them from harm and to help them make the right decisions. And I added to their bedtime prayers the one I had learned long ago and thought I had forgotten: “Angel of God, my guardian dear….”
God’s bright messengers know more than we will ever know of the overwhelming, never-tiring love of God. Their constancy—immune from either adolescent moods or agnostic times—should both reassure and abash us.