Human beings over the centuries and across cultures have long been fascinated with and captivated by angels. We seek their protection and pray for their guidance. We both fear and crave their presence. We put them on necklaces, coffee mugs, mouse pads and more. When it comes to angels, our expressions of love run from the ridiculous to the sublime, inspiring everything from a wildly inappropriate Victoria’s Secret ad campaign to the strikingly beautiful film “Wings of Desire.”
Although Catholics often begin their prayer connection to angels in childhood, with the sing-song words of the Angel of God prayer — “Ever this night, be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide” — angels are by no means child’s play. They are complex spiritual beings, often misunderstood by us humans who try to give them features and attributes that are more akin to existence on earth than heaven. Chubby little babylike cherubs sporting wings and harps cannot begin to do justice to the reality of angels in our midst.
So, what exactly are we dealing with here, and what role do angels play in our personal prayer lives?
“Angels are purely spiritual personal beings. They’re persons like us. They have intellect and will. They’re capable of love. They’re spiritual, as we are,” said Mike Aquilina, author of “Angels of God: The Bible, the Church and the Heavenly Hosts” (Servant Books, $12.99). “Unlike us, however, they don’t have a physical, material component. As [Van Halen singer] David Lee Roth used to say, they ‘ain’t got no body.’ So they’re not limited in many of the ways we are.”
The Bible lists so many different types of spiritual beings in the angel category — angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, principalities, powers, thrones, dominions, watchers and holy ones — it’s no wonder humans get a little confused about who’s who and resort to thinking of angels as little more than friendly ghosts. But don’t be fooled by the seemingly sweet demeanor; these are serious beings with a serious job.
Matthew Bunson, author of “Angels A to Z: Who’s Who in the Heavenly Host” (Random House, $16) explains that “angel” is really a description of their “office,” not the name of their nature. “We know that they’re spirit but also what they do,” he said. “Their essential function, as St. Augustine put it, is attending the divine throne. They are messengers … somebody who brings word, someone who acts as a carrier of a message. Angels deliver into our lives messages from God, messages from the divine that have great importance in our lives.”
So angels are mediators between God and humanity, as evidenced by what we read in Scripture. The same archangel Gabriel who brings a message to Daniel in the Old Testament appears to Mary in the New Testament. An angel appears to the shepherds in the field to bring them “good news of great joy,” and we know from Luke’s Gospel that they were “struck with great fear.” Angels surprise us, encourage us, assist us, teach us and, according to Bunson, “rebuke” us. That certainly goes against the cherubic image their PR people have been promoting.
“There is that fraternal correction that all of us need, and that’s something we need to mindful that angels can also be told to do,” Bunson told OSV, explaining that the “rebuke” may come in the form of a quiet gnawing at our conscience for something we know we’ve done wrong. “The thing I come back to with that is the spiritual power of angels. … Their power, their beauty is almost beyond our imagining. We have long sold the angel short. We try to reduce them to our level. In doing that we undercut who they are, but we also undercut a little bit God’s magnificence and the beauty of his creation because he made them, and he made them with a specific purpose.”
As powerful and as magnificent as the angels are, that “specific purpose” is to serve humankind, demonstrating God’s immense love for us and putting humans and angels into in constant contact and, even, constant tension.
My guardian dear …
As a Catholic who grew up saying the Angel of God prayer every night, I have to admit that I figured I’d outgrown angels by the time I reached young adulthood. When the angel craze hit in the 1990s, well, that was just one more reason to avoid the subject of angels entirely. It was only later, in more recent years that the presence of a guardian angel has become palpable in my life. As I pray for my children, my husband, myself and my friends, I find more and more that I appeal to the guardian angels, trusting completely in their presence in our day-to-day lives, and sensing their presence on more than one occasion, not in the “struck with great fear” fashion, but in a subtle feeling that God is at work through someone or something that has been placed in my life at just the right moment.
“The fact that we have guardian angels is evident in the Scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New. Devotion to the guardian angels was a basic element in the piety of the early Church Fathers and all the saints in subsequent ages. It’s part of being Christian,” said Aquilina, whose latest book, “A Year with the Angels” (TAN Books, $44.95) will be released in November.
“I don’t know how people survive family life without a deep devotion to the guardian angels. The angels are expert at interpersonal relations. I ask my guardian angel about the best ways to deal with my wife — who is, after all, from Venus, while I’m from Mars. For the angels, that’s no great distance,” Aquilina told OSV. “I also go to the guardian angels of each of my children, asking them to help me know the best things to say and do for each kid. Family life can and should be a grand conspiracy of love. From one of the saints, St. Josemaría Escrivá, I picked up the habit of greeting the guardian angel of everyone I meet — silently, in my heart. I try to be faithful to this. It seems to make life a little easier.”
And yet praying to your angel is not a guarantee that life will go along without pain or problems. For every person who can recall a time when he or she made the right move at the right moment and averted disaster, there is another person who landed in the wrong place at the wrong time, guardian angel and all. So what’s the point of praying to an angel who can’t necessarily change the outcome of our lives?
“The guardian angel’s job description is to get us to heaven — not to minimize our pain or even keep us from dying, unless that helps to satisfy their primary mission from God,” Aquilina said. “Sometimes our greatest spiritual growth will come through pain, which we never would have chosen for ourselves; and dying is the only doorway to everlasting happiness. Our angels will not prevent these things, even if we think we want them to!”
Aquilina explained that while our guardian angels may at times help us find a parking space or avoid serious danger, the angel has a “providential purpose” that supersedes the earthly stuff we tend to focus on.
“We’re all going to suffer, and we’re all going to die, even though we all have guardian angels. But we all want to get to heaven, and that should be what we want more than anything else,” he added. “Our guardian angels are here to help us get there.”
Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York. Her latest book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha, $16.95).