Yesterday was the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels. I’ve alluded to this already in the post for St. Michael’s Day and how in the popular imagination angels look something like this.
Apart from anything else, I think this arises as a degradation of the artistic tradition depicting angels carrying souls to Heaven, where the soul is represented as a small, swaddled infant or as childlike in comparison.
Over the centuries, the representation of angels has dwindled down to the sugary imagery we are all too familiar with today. Then there’s the popular misconceptions, such as that in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where we get an “apprentice” angel who has to “earn his wings” or the notion that after death, humans acquire wings, harps and halos and spend eternity floating around on clouds. Even more recently, as in the film “Wings of Desire,” is the idea that angels can ‘fall’ and become human. Humans do not become angels and angels never were nor never will be human, though they can indeed fall.
Much of this, of course, is a misunderstanding of Scripture: the ever-popular bit from Genesis about the sons of God and the daughters of Men, and all the associated legends about the Grigori and the Nephilim and their offspring, the giants and mighty men of old. Add to that the Gospel passage where Jesus instructs his disciples about “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” by taking a child and telling them “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,” then it was all too easy to associate angels and children and let sentiment have free rein.
But don’t listen to me moaning about bad popular art; here, courtesy of Julie over at “Happy Catholic,” is an excerpt from Peter Kreeft’s 1995 book, “Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them?”
O.K., so I’m browsing through this book and wondering: why should I buy it? What can you tell me about angels in one page?
- They really exist. Not just in our minds, or our myths, or our symbols, or our culture. They are as real as your dog, or your sister, or electricity.
- They’re present, right here, right now, right next to you, reading these words with you.
- They’re not cute, cuddly, comfortable, chummy, or “cool.” They are fearsome and formidable. They are huge. They are warriors.
- They are the real “extra-terrestrials,” the real “Supermen,” the ultimate aliens. Their powers are far beyond those of all fictional creatures.
- They are more brilliant minds than Einstein.
- They can literally move the heavens and the earth if God permits them.
- There are also evil angels, fallen angels, demons, or devils. These too are not myths. Demon possessions, and exorcisms, are real.
- Angels are aware of you, even though your can’t usually see or hear them. But you can communicate with them. You can talk to them without even speaking.
- You really do have your very own “guardian angel.” Everybody does.
- Angels often come disguised. “Do not neglect hospitality, for some have entertained angels unawares” — that’s a warning from life’s oldest and best instruction manual.
- We are on a protected part of a great battlefield between angels and devils, extending to eternity.
- Angels are sentinels standing at the crossroads where life meets death. They work especially at moments of crisis, at the brink of disaster — for bodies, for souls, and for nations.
That’s as good a run-down of the basics as you could want. I’m not so sold on the emphasis on spiritual warfare (excuse me, good people of America, but this whole “angels and demons locked in warfare! going on right now! all around us! with our lives as the battleground!”angle does seem to me more of an American obsession, perhaps to do with Rapture theology or the idealization of the military as an expression of the best of American values of selfless service and love of nation? I don’t know, so ignore my vacuous ramblings).
Anyway, those points above are the general ones to consider in the context of the feast of the Holy Angels. Guardian angels are not just associated with children, they are with us all our lives and up to our deaths (and even after, if Blessed John Henry Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius” is to be believed):
It is a member of that family
Of wondrous beings, who, ere the worlds were made,
Millions of ages back, have stood around
The throne of God: — he never has known sin;
But through those cycles all but infinite,
Has had a strong and pure celestial life,
And bore to gaze on th’ unveiled face of God
And drank from the eternal Fount of truth,
And served Him with a keen ecstatic love,
Hark! he begins again.
O LORD, how wonderful in depth and height,
But most in man, how wonderful Thou art!
With what a love, what soft persuasive might
Victorious o’er the stubborn fleshly heart,
Thy tale complete of saints Thou dost provide,
To fill the thrones which angels lost through pride!
He lay a grovelling babe upon the ground,
Polluted in the blood of his first sire,
With his whole essence shattered and unsound,
And, coiled around his heart, a demon dire,
Which was not of his nature, but had skill
To bind and form his opening mind to ill.
Then was I sent from heaven to set right
The balance in his soul of truth and sin,
And I have waged a long relentless fight,
Resolved that death-environed spirit to win,
Which from its fallen state, when all was lost,
Had been repurchased at so dread a cost.
O what a shifting parti-coloured scene
Of hope and fear, of triumph and dismay,
Of recklessness and penitence, has been
The history of that dreary, lifelong fray!
And O the grace to nerve him and to lead,
How patient, prompt, and lavish at his need!
O man, strange composite of heaven and earth!
Majesty dwarfed to baseness! Fragrant flower
Running to poisonous seed! and seeming worth
Cloaking corruption! weakness mastering power!
Who never art so near to crime and shame,
As when thou hast achieved some deed of name.
How should ethereal natures comprehend
A thing made up of spirit and of clay,
Were we not tasked to nurse it and to tend,
Linked one to one throughout its mortal day?
More than the Seraph in his height of place,
The Angel-guardian knows and loves the ransomed race.
The Catechism tells us:
“The angels in the life of the Church
334 In the meantime, the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels.
335 In her liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God. She invokes their assistance (in the funeral liturgy’s In Paradisum deducant te angeli “May the angels lead you into Paradise”). Moreover, in the “Cherubic Hymn” of the Byzantine Liturgy, she celebrates the memory of certain angels more particularly (St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael, and the guardian angels).
336 From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.”
So think less of “Touched By An Angel”, “Highway to Heaven” or films such as “Michael” or “The Prophecy” or “Wings of Desire” when thinking of angels, and more – well, more like this – Fauré’s “In Paradisum”, as mentioned above.
Or even better, creatures who would sing in the manner of the song “The Host of Seraphim” by the group Dead Can Dance, possibly based on the ancient prayer the“Triasgion”, which is based on Isaiah 6: 2-3: “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
To quote Wikipedia, “In the Latin Church, the main regular use of the Trisagion is on Good Friday, when it is sung throughout the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross. In the Sistine Chapel, the traditional setting was the polyphonic musical setting of Palestrina. During this service, the hymn is sung by two choirs, alternately in Greek and Latin, originally two antiphonal Greek and Latin choirs, as follows:
Greek (First) Choir: Ágios o Theos. (Holy God)
Latin (Second) Choir: Sanctus Deus.
Greek (First) Choir: Ágios íschyros. (Holy Strong One)
Latin (Second) Choir: Sanctus fortis.
Greek (First) Choir: Ágios athánatos, eléison imas. (Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us) Latin (Second) Choir: Sanctus immortális, miserére nobis.
Definitely not ladies in nightgowns or fat babies with fluffy wings or bumbling apprentices who are on probation, or even impersonal anthropomorphic forces representing light or self-actualization or our inner fabulousness where we can participate in workshops with angel therapy practitioners to learn how to read angel cards and work towards angel lightworker certification (personally, I think such well-intentioned hoo-haa is equivalent to saying “We’ll teach you to go out on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing steel-toed boots and brandishing a golf club, so you can call down the very lightning into your hands to use as fairy lights on your Christmas tree!”) Not a good idea, in other words, to mess around with Vast Cosmic Powers.