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.


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.


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.


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. . . .


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.


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?

What is an Angel?

archangelsWith the feast of the Archangels (Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel) on September 29, and the Guardian Angels on October 2, September is a good time to think about angels. What are they? What do they have to do with us? This week we will learn about angels generally. Next week we will learn more about Guardian Angels.

The angels seem a pretty uninspiring meditation. The tradition says they are “immaterial intellects,” disembodied minds. It’s hard to say which word is less exciting. Immateriality seems doubly alienating: they have nothing to do with us, but somehow they make us feel bad about our bodies. And intellects sounds like something intellectuals talk about to alienate normal people.

On the other hand, the artistic world gives us some grossly bodily pictures. The tradition started painting them with wings to show that they are not bound to place – but since we are, and since you can’t really picture something that is nowhere, the wings have become part of a terribly sentimental image. On the “liberal” side are those for whom angel just means fluttery and nice. On the “conservative” side are some really goofy modern novels, with angels that look and act like pro wrestlers.



Well, first, some traditional doctrine. According to, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Angels are disembodied intellects. They know and love. They are capable of forming matter, turning it even into a human body, and so they can take shape and appear as men, or as anything else. But disembodied means they are not constrained to any particular time and place.

There are good angels and bad angels. Being disembodied means not living in the progression of time, but in a kind of eternal now. That is freedom, not a constraint; because they are not bound to one particular time, they can act in every instant of history. But one consequence of their kind of eternal now is that the choice they make for or against God does not change at some later date.

The bad angels are identified with Lucifer, or Satan. Lucifer is a Latin word that simply means “light bearer.” It reminds us of the original goodness and “brightness” of all the angels. “Satan” is a Hebrew word that means “adversary” or “accuser.” It points us to his opposition to God, and to all who stand with God. Lucifer’s motto is “I will not serve!” (non serviam!) The bad angels are so great, they want to be their own gods.

The good angels are identified with Michael, a Hebrew name that is a rhetorical question: “Who is like God?!” To those who want to be their own gods, Michael says, “ah, but God is so much greater!” The old-fashioned image of a baby head with wings is weird – but it comes from a tradition that paints with symbols, instead of sentimental images. The baby is like Michael, who lets God be God, and does not grasp after power. The wings remind us of the angels’ freedom from the constraints of time and place.


The angels can teach us some things, by comparison. They can teach us humility. The wings are meant to remind us that we are constrained in a way that not all God’s creatures are. They remind us of our limits, and that there are others who are infinitely more intelligent than we are.

They also remind us to embrace our materiality: we are not angels! Our way of sanctity and happiness can only be through the little here and now where we live.

And they can remind us, too, of God’s greatness. God is not an angel, not just an especially smart immaterial creature. The angels can speak to us, and enlighten us – but God made us, and he made them. Angels are awesome, but need a creator; God needs no creator. Angels cannot create, and do not cause us to exist; God does. It is worth pondering sometimes whether we realize just what an awesome being God is.


Finally, not only can we learn from the angels by looking at them; they can actively teach us. The old cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad one on the other is not far from the truth.

Although angels can work in the material world, that is not the main thing they do. They see more than we do, and they can show things to us. Good angels remind us of the greatness of God, and can show us where he is acting now: just as Gabriel (whose name means “God is mighty”) taught Mary her vocation, and Raphael (whose name means “God heals”) showed Tobias where to find God’s healing.

And, of course, as C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters shows us, the bad angels can plant bad ideas in our minds, to lead us away from the one God. We should be aware of where these ideas come from.

Are we aware of the influence of bad angels? Could we practice greater devotion to the good ones?