Guardian Angels

guardian_angel_boy_500October 2 is the memorial of the Guardian Angels. I hope I will not offend you, readers, if I say I find this an awkward and potentially over-sentimentalized feast. What exactly is a guardian angel, and what do they mean for us?

A little serious theology of the angels can awaken us to the significance of this feast, but let us begin with some of the manifestations of devotion to the guardian angels.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).

From this verse the Church concludes, “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (CCC 336, quoting St. Basil the Great).

The funeral liturgy concludes with a hymn for the carrying of the body to the grave (often replaced by something more modern): “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you when you come, and may they lead you into the holy city Jerusalem. May the chorus of angels receive you, and with the poor man Lazarus, may you have eternal rest.”

That hymn doesn’t refer to your guardian angel in particular, but does emphasize the role the angels play in caring for us – and leading us.

From this also comes devotions like greeting guardian angels: both acknowledging the presence of your angel, and looking over the shoulder, as it were, to the guardian angel of each person you meet. I have to confess that I find such devotions somewhat off-putting.

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We also get the children’s prayer:

 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,

Rule and guide.

Amen.

Personally, I never took this prayer very seriously. It seemed to me a classic sentimentalization both of children and of their angels. It’s not that I didn’t believe in angels, including guardian angels. It’s just that I don’t find it helpful to make everything sugar sweet.

Then I came across the same prayer, in Latin, in the writings of the fourteenth-century theologian and prophet of penance, St. Vincent Ferrer, OP:

 Ángele Dei,

qui custos es mei,

me tibi commissum pietáte supérna,

hodie illúmina, custódi, rege et gubérna.

Amen.

The sugar-sweet children’s prayer turns out to be a remarkably literal translation of a prayer used by an oldtime preacher who is about as unsweet as can be imagined. Maybe there’s more to this devotion. . . .

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The key is in what we discussed last week, the intellectual nature of the angels. Note that in the verse from Matthew we quoted above, it says not only that the little ones have angels, but that “in heaven” – it repeats that word – “their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

So too notice that when the Archangel comes to Mary, he says, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19).

Angels can move matter. My five-year-old once fell down an entire flight of stairs without a bruise or scratch. We all have that kind of guardian angel story.

But that’s not the main thing angels do. They see God – they know God – and they tell us the good news they see. They tell us of his goodness, and where to find it.

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guardian angelLook again at that (apparently) sugary guardian angel prayer.

 Be at my side,

To light and guard,

Rule and guide.

They are “at our side” not primarily to protect us when we fall down the stairs, but to “illuminate” us. This is the way they “guard” us: not primarily by physically fending off physical evils, but by spiritually warning us of spiritual evils. They “rule and guide” us by showing us the path we should walk – and by reminding us of the goal we seek. They protect us from more dangerous falls than down the stairs.

The heart of traditional devotion to the guardian angels is not in “be at my side to guard me,” but in “illuminate me.” “God, grant me light; let me see.” We can pray the words of the blind man in the Gospel, “Domine, ut videam”: let me see (Luke 18:41).

But we can acknowledge, too, that God so loves us that he grants us light, grants us even illuminators, with infinitely more powerful eyes than ours, to help us see what we are too weak to notice.

How could you practice devotion to the guardian angels?

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. I tbink you rationalize too much.. Affection is important too. There is a source con Ángels in the book of Tobias.

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