Endowed with a nature more perfect than that of men, these pure spirits were created in order to give glory to God, to direct the material world, and to be powerful helpers of men toward their eternal salvation.
by Plinio Maria Solimeo
While in ecstasy, Saint Mary Magdalen de’Pazzi V(1607) saw a religious of her Carmelite Order taken from Purgatory and carried to Heaven by her guardian angel.
Saint Frances of Rome saw her guardian angel conduct a soul entrusted to it to Purgatory for purification. The heavenly spirit remained outside that place of cleansing in order to present to Our Lord the suffrages offered for that soul. As these prayers, alms, and penances were accepted by God, that soul was consoled amidst its torments.
God grants every man one of these angelic guardians at the time of his birth to accompany him throughout his life, protecting him and inspiring him to do good. If the person keeps God’s law to the point of attaining sanctity, by which he merits going directly to Heaven, the soul will be escorted to that blessed place by his appointed guardian. If the soul needs to be purified in the fires of Purgatory, as is more likely, the guardian angel will conduct him to Heaven only after his cleansing. On the other hand, if the person has rejected the good inspirations and impulses furnished by his guardian angel, his soul will damn itself forever and be abandoned by its angelic protector at the gates of Hell.
There is a growing reaction today against the havoc wrought by materialism and atheism in our society. Religious sentiment and belief in God and in eternal destiny are apparently gaining ground, especially among youths. Interest in angels and growth in devotion to these pure spirits as well as numerous petitions invoking their intercession are symptomatic of this rebirth of spiritual values.
Undoubtedly, in many cases this resurgence is intermingled with superstition and even manifestations of occultism. The devils, still of angelic nature and retaining their angelic powers, ever seek to turn human actions toward evil.
In order to attend to this salutary movement of soul so that it may develop along the proper paths, we present to our readers some of the Church’s ever timely and attractive traditions regarding the angels.
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The guardian angel assigned by God to each soul begins to care for his charge only after the baby has left the mother’s womb. From the moment of conception until birth, it is the mother’s guardian angel that cares for the child she carries, much as someone who cultivates a tree also watches over its fruit.
We surely need this heavenly protection. Our immortal souls are destined to be companions of the angels, each of us occupying beside them in Heaven one of the thrones left vacant by the fall of the angels who revolted against God. Yet, our human weakness and the constant onslaughts of these fallen spirits would frustrate our striving for this heavenly goal were it not for our angelic protectors.
Is there anything the devils would not do, from the very outset, to prevent a newborn child from receiving the regenerative waters of Baptism, for example? Indeed, how many young souls are deprived of this grace by having their lives cut short even before birth because of the diabolical sin of abortion? The devils are quite capable of numerous evils, physical, material, and spiritual. Against these angelic adversaries we surely need angelic protectors.
Saint Bonaventure affirms: “The holy angel is a faithful sponsor who knows the love between God and the soul, and he envies not, for he seeks not his own glory but that of his Lord.”
The diligence of our guardian angels in watching over us is well expressed by the prophet King David in words that, referring first of all to Our Lord, apply to all of us as well: “There shall no evil come to thee, nor shall the scourge come near thy dwelling. For He hath given His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. In their hands they shall bear thee up, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. 90:10-11).
When we consider the guardian angels, we generally think of their protective role. They do indeed help in this manner, averting dangers, repelling devils and hindering them from causing us physical or spiritual harm (e.g. Acts 5:18ff.; 12:7ff.; Dan. 6:22). Their principal function, however, is to enlighten our minds to truth and sound doctrine, inspiring our intellects with good thoughts and moving our wills toward good (e.g. Acts 8:26; 10:3ff.). They also pray for us and offer our prayers and good works to God, making them more efficacious by means of their intercession (e.g. Apoc. 8:3; Tob. 12:12). Sometimes they inflict remedial punishments upon us in order to correct us (e.g. 2 Kings 24:16). Very importantly, they assist us in the hour of our death, strengthening us against the supreme assaults of the devil at that all-important time.
Examples of the powerful help of the angels abound in the lives of the saints. We have already referred to the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts Saint Peter’s angelic delivery from prison. Saint Hildegund V(1186), for another example, had undertaken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with her father, who died on the way. One day, as she was travelling to Rome, she was attacked and left for dead. Finally managing to get back on her feet, she saw her angel guardian approach upon a white horse. The angel helped her mount and took her to Verona. There, he bid Saint Hildegund farewell, saying, “I will be thy defender wherever thou goest.”
Certain chosen souls, who fully preserved their baptismal innocence, were granted the special privilege of seeing their guardian angels extensively. Thus it was with Saint Frances of Rome, Saint Gerald Majella, Saint Gemma Galgani,* Saint Mariana of Jesus, and others. Let us look at two examples.
Saint Frances of Rome V(1440) was a lady of most illustrious lineage. Although she desired to embrace the religious life, her parents obliged her to marry. She thus strove to sanctify herself in her married state.
Several children were born of this marriage. One of them, Evangelista, who was extremely pious and endowed with the gift of prophecy, died angelically at the age of nine. One year after his death, he appeared to his mother resplendent with light and accompanied by a youth even more brilliant than himself. He told his mother of the glory he enjoyed in Heaven and that he had come to announce that his young sister Agnese would soon take her place among the angels. Also, at God’s command, he was to leave the youth accompanying him to help his mother in what remained of her earthly life. This youth was in reality an archangel.
From that time on, Saint Frances of Rome enjoyed the sight of this archangel who, according to her, shone more brilliantly than the sun. So much was this so that she was unable to fix her eyes upon him. He helped her spiritually and otherwise many times, defending her against the attacks of the devil, who constantly assaulted her. If Saint Frances allowed herself some unnecessary words or became overly preoccupied with domestic problems, the archangel would disappear, remaining hidden until she recollected herself once again.
Our second example is Saint Mariana of Jesus, known as the Lily of Quito V(1645). She was still an infant when her father died, after which her mother decided to retire to a house in the countryside. She traveled on the back of a mule, bearing little Mariana in her arms. While crossing a swift-flowing creek, the mule stumbled, and the child fell from her mother’s arms. The predestined child was held suspended in the air by her guardian angel until her anxious mother retrieved her.
Precious heavenly advisors
The guardian angels, our foremost spiritual advisors, inspire us with holy desires and good intentions. Evidently, for most of us they do this in the interior of our souls, although, as we have seen, there have been saints who by special merits have received heavenly advice face to face.
When Saint Joan of Arc was still a child, she was watching her flock one day when she heard a voice calling her: “Joan! Joan!” She clearly wondered who this could be in such a secluded place. Then she was enveloped in a most brilliant light, in the middle of which was an angel of noble and pleasing countenance, surrounded by other angelic beings who looked lovingly on the girl. “Joan,” the angel said to her, “be good and pious, love God, and visit His sanctuaries often.” With that, he disappeared. Joan, her heart aflame with the love of God, then made a vow of perpetual virginity. The angel appeared to her at other times to counsel her, and when he left her, she would weep with sadness.
Intrepid warriors of the hosts of the Lord
In various parts of the Sacred Books, the angels are mentioned as being the Heavenly Militia. Thus, the prophet Isaias tells of seeing the Seraphim proclaiming to one another “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts” (Isa. 6:3). And the Apocalypse mentions a great battle in Heaven, the very first war, in which the holy angels, led by Saint Michael the Archangel, defeated Satan and the other rebellious angels (Apoc. 12:7).
In other passages the angels even appear in bellicose missions. In the second book of Paralipomenon, for example, we read that Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians, invaded Judea and, blaspheming against the true God, sent a delegation to Jerusalem to dissuade its inhabitants from fidelity to their king, Ezechias. The King of Juda and the Prophet Isaias entered into prayer, imploring divine protection from the enemy soldiers. “And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the stout men and the warriors and the captains of the army of the king of the Assyrians, and he returned with disgrace into his own country” (II Para. 32:21).
Angelic warriors, both in the Old and New Testaments, often united with men against the enemies of the Lord. Thus, for example, they helped Judas Machabeus in a decisive battle (II Mach. 11:6ff.). Much later, angels helped the soldiers of the Cross against the Muslims, as is frequently told in the chronicles of the Crusades.
Protectors of men and messengers of God
The merciful and all-loving God, solicitous for the salvation of all men, appoints angel protectors for all. In the Book of Daniel, chapter 10, we read that an angel who spoke to that prophet contended on behalf of the Israelites for twenty-one days against the angel protector of Persia. Persia’s guardian wanted many of the captive Israelites to remain among the Persians for the spiritual good they did their captors. Both angels obviously sought the best for those in their charge. The Archangel Michael himself came to bolster the cause of Israel’s angel in the dispute, enlightening both guardian angels, we may suppose, as to God’s will concerning the Israelites.
Much more recently, we may read in the autobiography of Saint Anthony Mary Claret V(1870) that he, alone one day in the choir of the Escorial, saw Satan gazing fixedly upon him with great rage and resentment for having frustrated certain of his plans regarding the students. Saint Anthony then heard the voice of the Archangel Saint Michael: “Do not fear, Anthony. I will defend thee.”
In the Annunciation, Saint Gabriel, the great messenger and ambassador of God, conveyed to Our Lady the desires and plans of the Divine Majesty for the Messias and for her role in that plan. It is the opinion of many theologians that it was also Gabriel who announced the birth of Saint John the Baptist to holy Zacharias and who thrice appeared to Saint Joseph in dreams, advising him of the divine conception of the Virgin Mary, bidding him to lead the Holy Family into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution, and telling him to return from Egypt after Herod’s death.
We have already noted the apparition of an angel to Saint Joan of Arc in anticipation of her mission. In our own century, an angel, the Angel of Portugal, prepared Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta for the subsequent appearances of Our Lady at Fatima.
The Bible describes in detail Saint Raphael’s mission involving young Tobias. His intervention is also noted in more recent times with the eternal salvation of the treasurer of a king of Poland who had great devotion to him and with a bourgeois from Orleans whom he freed from the hands of assailants who had seized him during a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
In the life of Blessed Mother Humilitas of Florence V(1310) it is told that when she was elected abbess of her convent she received, in addition to her guardian angel, yet another to help her govern the community. For her religious, she composed a simple prayer for vigilance over the senses, a prayer in which the spirit of Calvary of the time is well noted:
Good angels, my powerful protectors, do thou guard my ways and cautiously watch over the portal of my heart, that my enemies may not take me by surprise. Wield before me thy protecting sword! Guard also the portal of my mouth, that no useless word may escape my lips and that my tongue may be as a sword, whether in combating vice or teaching virtue! Close my eyes with a double seal when they complacently wish to see anything other than Jesus, but keep them open and alert in prayer and in singing the praises of the Lord. Keep watch also over the portal of my ears, that they might ever repel with disgust everything that comes from vanity or the spirit of evil. Place shackles upon my feet when they wish to lead to sin, but accelerate my steps when laboring for the glory of God or the holy Virgin Mary, or for the salvation of souls! Make my hands, like thine, ever ready to execute the orders of God. Dominate my sense of smell, so that my soul might desire nothing save the suave perfume of the flowers of Heaven. In a word, guard all my senses so that my soul may constantly delight in God and heavenly things.
My beloved angels, sweet Jesus placed me under thy care; I beseech thee, for love of Him, keep me always. O my beloved angels, I pray thee one day to conduct me into the presence of the Queen of Heaven, and to beseech her that I might be placed in the arms of the divine Child Jesus, her well-beloved Son!
The nature of angels
Angels are purely spiritual beings, endowed with intelligence and free will, elevated by God to the supernatural order, that is, endowed by grace to participate in the life of God through the beatific vision. They always enjoy this vision, even as they carry out missions on earth. Much more perfect than men, their intelligences are inerrant and their wills immensely powerful. As they have absolutely no material dependence, their knowledge is considerably more perfect than that of men; for them, to see is to know. In an angel, knowledge denotes understanding what they behold in all its profundity, all its substance, and without possibility of error.
It is because of this that the trial to which they were subject had immediate and irremediable consequences. Their desire is absolute, and when they desire something there is no going back. That which they desire they desire forever. So it is that after their trial they passed immediately to an eternity either in Hell (the rebellious angels) or in Heaven (the faithful angels).
God created the angels, like men, to know, love, and serve Him, and also to proclaim His grandeur, to carry out His orders, to govern the universe and conserve the species and individuals it contains.
Msgr. Gaume writes: “As princes and governors of the great City of God, which comprises the entire system of creation , the angels preside, in the material order, over the movement of the stars, the conservation of the elements, and the realization of all the natural phenomenon that fill us with joy or terror. The administration of this vast empire is apportioned among them. Some care for the heavenly bodies, others for the earth and its elements, others for the products of the earth, the trees, plants, flowers, and fruits. To others is confided the government of the winds and the seas, the rivers and fountains; and to others still, the conservation of the animals. There is no visible creature, great or small, that does not have an angelic power to watch over it.”
Often, when God sends angels to men on some mission, the angels assume a human form in order to put our human nature at ease. This ethereal form does not, however, have our same human nature, that is, body and soul; it does not have animal or vegetative operations. To the contrary, it is much like a worker who operates a piece of machinery: He uses the machine to perform works peculiar to his craft, but his connection with the machine is only for the time he is working.
In relation to the forms in which they appear, it is opportune to say something of the way angels are depicted in art, which often leaves much to be desired both theologically and aesthetically. Many of the depictions that have accompanied the contemporary revival of interest in and popularity of angels are clearly not Catholic, being silly, sensual, or grotesque. What is more common, even in older “Catholic” artwork, however, is a sentimentality and lack of balance, “emphasizing the goodness and purity of the faithful angels, while failing to convey their admirable intelligence,” as Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira laments in an article aptly titled “Is the Guardian Angel Less Intelligent Than the Demon?”* He contrasts the portrayals of devils as astute, intelligent, and powerful, as well as malicious, with the all-too-common paintings of saccharine guardian angels.
Msgr. Gaume says that “according to the most erudite interpreters, the accidental apparitions of the angels in the world are no more than a prelude to their habitual appearance in Heaven. Thus, it is probable that in Heaven the angels will assume magnificent aerial bodies in order to delight the eyes of the elect and converse with them face to face.”
The marvelous classification of the angelic choirs
The division of the angels into nine choirs arranged in three hierarchies, although not derived explicitly from Revelation, is of general belief. This distinction is made in relation to God, to the general government of the world, or the particular management of states, societies, and persons.
While all of the angels constantly enjoy the beatific vision, it is the special duty of the three choirs of the first hierarchy to stand before and glorify God. As Scripture says: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated…. Upon it stood the seraphim…. And they cried to one another and said ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts’”(Isa. 6:1-3). “The Lord hath reigned…He that sitteth upon the cherubim” (Ps. 98:1).
The next three choirs are concerned with the general conduct and governance of the universe as a whole.
The three lowest choirs look after the particular management of states, societies, and persons. Guardian angels, it is generally believed, are usually angels of the lowest choir and occasionally archangels.
Conclusion: devotion and fidelity to the angels
Evidently, all of these marvels of the angelic world ought to lead us to a profound love, reverence, and gratitude toward all the holy angels, but especially toward our particular guardian angel. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, commenting on the aforementioned words of Psalm 90, says “What great reverence, what great devotion, what great confidence ought these words of the royal prophet cause within our breasts! Reverence for their august presence, gratitude for their benevolence, confidence in their protection.”
On the other hand, we should avoid everything that could sadden our angel. Saint Bernard goes on to say: “Live, then, with great circumspection, remembering that the angels are present because God has sent them to accompany and assist you in all your ways. Whatever be your stopping place, whatever your retreat, have reverence for your angel. Surely, you would not dare do in his presence what you would fear to do in mine.”
Saint Bonaventure emphasizes the importance of “the obedience we should render our holy angels, paying heed to their interior voices and sound advice, as that of our tutors, guardians, masters, guides, defenders, and mediators, as much in fleeing from the guilt of sin as in embracing virtue and growing in all perfection and holy love of the Lord.”
Reverence for his guardian angel led Saint Stanislaus Kostka V(1568), who saw him constantly, to the following degree of consideration: When both were about to pass through a doorway, he bid his angel go through first. When at times his angel guardian refused to do so, he would insist until the angel gave in.