Did you ever find yourself, during a familiar activity, interrupted by the disturbing thought, why am I doing this?
One night, praying the same words in the same order I constructed years ago (occasionally veering for spontaneity, I take comfort in the familiar, what C.S. Lewis called “ready-made” prayers), I caught myself wondering about a verse learned in second grade. Was anyone listening? Was the someone to whom the prayer is directed actually there?
Dear angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side,
To light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.
I felt a bit foolish. After all, I am no longer the child given a holy card picture of a little girl crossing a rude bridge, protected by the wings of an angel guarding against a false step, a fatal plunge. The credulous child is now the often skeptical adult.
Mostly, of course, we forget about angels. They come in handy only as examples of esoterica. The ultimate dismissal of someone’s idea is to liken it to how many angels fit on the head of a pin. Then, too, there are people like me who are generally allergic to metaphysical speculations. Yarns having to do with Captain Kirk or a galaxy far, far, away, not to mention disarming extraterrestrials, do not get my box-office dollar. Even saints who were mystics give me problems. I want to believe, but those who record chats with the Lord severely try my faith. Television testimony by a cheerful, portly woman in polyester in whose living room the Blessed Virgin is said to make regular visits makes me yearn for the tidy sterility of Calvinism, where God’s in His Heaven (with those who ought to be), all’s right with the world. There is something shattering to one’s peace of mind to think spiritual beings desert celestial spheres to appear next to the futon.
I do fervently believe in continuity, a connection between God’s creatures living and dead. I believe in the communion of saints, mindful and not uncomfortable with those deceased who earned the capital S. Once they were flesh and blood, with all it implies. Trying to bond with angels, however, makes the mind reel. Who are they? What are they? It is impossible not to recall the witty summation of Ogden Nash: “When I think of Cherubim, / I don’t know if it’s her or him.”
In the context of today’s squabbling about gender equality, it may be that angels occupy the sole DMZ. I’m unaware, so far, of any campaign to make it Saint Michelle the Archangel.
Modest investigation discloses that other religions have angels, too. The concept of winged creatures pops up in ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, all the way to Greece with Iris and Nike sporting winged appendages. As a Christian, I don’t want to think my angels are derivative of those mythological concoctions. I am consoled, doubts vanish, when I realize great minds of the Church, not the least of them Saint Thomas Aquinas, were similarly aware of such data and found faith unthreatened. Parenthetically, I am sorry to learn Saint Thomas was referred to as the Angelic Doctor because he wrote discourses on angels and not, as I’d supposed, because of a sunny disposition.
The bare essentials are that angels are spiritual beings who are messengers of God—angels and archangels, that is (about their siblings a mention below). From time to time they are dispatched to earth, sometimes in human guise, to bring messages from God, to protect and guide us, to execute God’s punishments.
Hollywood finds particularly fetching that middle classification. We’ve experienced several three-hankie movies having to do with angels masquerading as mere mortals to move a plot. God saw fit to advance the real story with corporeal angels several times, Abraham supping with two pretenders is one such. Frankly, I find it a bit demeaning to put celestial beings in contemporary threads, no matter how short the duration. I prefer the pure product, wings and flowing robes. Of course, had I been Mary at the Annunciation in the luminous presence of Gabriel, I would have passed out in shock. There would have been no Incarnation, one decade only for the Joyful Mystery.
That’s the thing about angels. They range in appearance from adorable cherubs, recurrent figures in religious art, to the forbidding images of angels who stand between Eden and the banished Adam and Eve, when they lost our lease. Angels in the larger sense, other than depicted as babies or loving guardians, strike me as quite terrifying. I recently saw an illustration which to me absolutely embodies the concept. It is an awesome, sobering, radiant, magnificent angel, taking up a huge amount of starry sky, wings and robes alit, face obscured, blazing sword held aloft. Every time I look at it I want to cast my insignificant self to the ground. I think it a most accurate representation, but it boggles the finite mind.
On reflection, I suppose our susceptibility to trauma and intimidation when we behold grandeur precisely leads the Lord to place, at times, angels in forms we can accept as they carry out temporary assignments. They then instantly revert to their “pure intellect” as described by Saint Thomas Aquinas. In no way are such materializations to be confused with the repugnant notion of reincarnation, which conceives of the winsome child of our acquaintance as in reality the late, cantankerous Aunt Bea coming around for a second go at it. Angels are not recycled human beings, Hollywood notwithstanding.
Since we are a hierarchical Church on earth, it should come as no surprise that spiritual beings may be ranked, or at least differentiated, in heaven. We use the term “angel” as a generic when it may be specific. According to assorted theologians and writers, conspicuously Dante and before him Saint Ambrose, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Saint Thomas Aquinas, certain distinctions and duties are discernible from Biblical references. Their catalogue contains such orders as seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels. Each has his own duties which, with deference to great minds, I do not contest.
My heretofore unexamined loyalty to a personal guardian angel, however, beyond the lasting impact of the holy card, is strengthened by words from the mighty intellect of Saint Augustine. “Every visible thing in this world,” he wrote, “is put in the charge of an angel.” It’s the “an” that gets me.
The stumbling block to accepting Saint Augustine’s conviction, as with many an article of faith, is due to a trap of our own making. Lest we be hoodwinked, we analyze and scrutinize, as if faith were a microbe, complaining that we need validation. Inquiring minds want to know. We envy those who witnessed the miracles of Jesus and find it hard to believe there was among them a scintilla of doubt.
We would have caught on. Yet we wish there could be some demonstration now, for our benefit. On the other hand, every time there is a report of heavenly manifestation, intervention, or apparition, we grow uneasy. We want proof from the other side there is another side, but we are uncomfortable when it comes. And we forget, of course, that if we had proof we would not need faith.
If we accept angels as God’s messengers at major events in the Bible—an angel even had the last word on Jesus to the men of Galilee—why do we think the connection ended there? Does it make sense that, having forged a link between angels and men in biblical times, God would sever that link ever after? Or is it not logical there is a continuing presence, a lasting communion between angels and men, whose creation by Him we both are? And wouldn’t it be sad, insulting really, not to acknowledge that presence?
So I will continue to say the little verse I learned as a child, believing—after some thought as an adult—that it is biblically grounded, that a providential Lord dispatched “an” angel guardian to me, trusting with the faith of the psalmist who wrote, “to His angels He has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways.”