Angels as Guardians
In Matthew 18:10 Jesus says; “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.” Based on this verse, the Fathers of the Church affirmed that each person has a Guardian Angel. There was some early debate among the Fathers concerning such details as: Are guardian angels only for children? (No.) When do you receive an angel? (At birth or at baptism?) Can an angel be driven away by evil conduct? (Origen and Jerome thought, yes.) The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas agrees with Jerome noting that ““. . . from the very moment of his birth” (ST 1.113.5) “each man has an angel guardian appointed to him.” (ST 1.113.2). Since we believe each of us has an Angel, if we assume that Guardian Angels are not recycled after our death, then we get an idea of the sheer number of angles that must exist. Billions of angels!
Because of their spiritual nature Angels are able to simultaneously “look on the face of God” (Matthew 18:10) and be present to us and interact with us. This is kind of puzzling to think about. Is it like a mystic who contemplates God’s presence in a vision but is still aware of his or her surroundings? Are we to think of angels ascending and descending to God but perhaps time and space are meaningless to spiritual beings?
Although angels purely spirit, they can assume bodies whether merely in appearance as in a dream or vision or in reality. At times in Sacred Scripture angles appear bodily to more than one person at a time. St. Thomas took this fact as evidence that at least in some situations angels must assume something like real bodies, because he reasoned, a vision would not be shared by a group of people.
In the Old Testament the cherubim were depicted as the guardians of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24) and of the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-26) and in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-27). Angels are also depicted in Scripture as guardians of Churches (Rev 1:20) and even of nations (Deuteronomy 32:8).
O God, who in your unfathomable providence
are pleased to send your Holy Angels to guard us,
hear our supplication as we cry to you,
that we may always be defended by their protection
and rejoice eternally in their company.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Sprit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Collect for the Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels)
The Testing of Angels
One way that angels are the same as humans is the fact that they have a free will. After being created they were given the ability to either follow God or to rebel and choose not to serve him. After making this choice their will was fixed by their own decision.
Based on a few hints in Scripture, we believe that Satan gave in to the sins of envy and pride and freely chose to separate himself from God. The book of Wisdom notes, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wisdom 2:24). Satan’s deception took a third of the other angles with him. In the book of Revelation Satan is depicted as the huge red dragon that “swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth” (Revelation 12:4). Michael and his angels battled against the dragon (Rev. 12:7) and won. St. John tells us;
The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.
Fallen angels are called devils. Their will is twisted forever against God and all that is good. It is well to remember that they are outnumbered by the righteous angels two to one and that although powerful spirit beings, they are creatures under God’s dominion.
The Catechism reminds us,
Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil". The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing (CCC 391).
When we think of devils we are accustom to think of demon possession. Our thought jump to the Hollywood version of these experiences. We need to put that vision out of our mind without denying the reality of demons.
Demons are real and demon possession is possible. In the New Testament Jesus and the Apostles cast out many demons. The Bible actually describes this phenomenon simply as the person “having an unclean spirit.” There are two facets to consider here, like two axis on a graph. One is the frequency of visitation by the evil spirit and the other is the degree of control. What we think of a dramatic possession is a constant visitation with a high degree of control. The catechism reminds us;
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. (CCC 1673)
I don’t want to give much time to this subject, but I believe that the influence of the demonic in our life occurs not randomly or by chance but through our invitation by habitual involvement in mortal sin. Sinful attachments and especially dabbling in occult practices can open the door to demonic influence.
We live in a world where we have literally invented new ways of sinning. A number of new trends in culture such as internet pornography, and wide spread immorality, a return to pagan worship and the occult though the New Age movement have led to increased calls for priests to perform the Rite of Exorcism. Recently several conferences have been held to train new priests as exorcists.
A reported by the Catholic News Service the signs of demonic possession might include:[i]
- Speaking in a language the individual does not know.
- Scratching, cutting, biting of the skin.
- Profound display of strength.
- Lack of appetite.
- Aversion to anything holy, such as mentioning the name of Jesus or Mary, or the act of praying.
- Strong or violent reaction to holy water.
Thinking about this topic can be unnerving so we need to be reminded again of the protection the Church offers us through frequenting the Sacraments and the life of prayer.
St. Josémaria Escrivá (The Way 307) gives us good advice on his subject;
That supernatural mode of conduct is a truly military tactic.
You carry on the war — the daily struggles of your interior — far from the main walls of your fortress.
And the enemy meets you there: in your small mortifications, your customary prayer, your methodical work, your plan of life: and with difficulty will he come close to the easily-scaled battlements of your castle. And if he does come, he comes exhausted.
As the Curé d'Ars said;
The devil is a great chained dog which puts people to flight, and which makes a great noise, but which only bites those who come too close. (Curé d'Ars, Sermon on Temptations).
Angels in the Church
Saint John Chrysostom in a homily on the Feast of Ascension notes, “The angels are present here. The angels and the martyrs gather here today. If you want to see the angels and martyrs, open the eyes of faith and look upon this scene. For if the air itself is filled with angels, so much more the Church!"[ii]
During the Mass, St. Chrysostom notes that at such a time angels stand by the Priest; and the whole sanctuary, and the space round about the altar, is filled with the powers of heaven, in honor of him who lies on the altar....“ He confesses, “I myself heard someone once tell of a certain old, venerable man, who was accustomed to see revelations .... At such a time, he suddenly saw, as far as was possible for him, a multitude of angels, clothed in shining robes, encircling the altar, and bending down, as soldiers might in the presence of their king. And for my part I believe it.”[iii]
"The angels surround the priest," writes St. John Chrysostom. “The whole sanctuary and the space before the altar is filled with the heavenly Powers come to honor Him who is present upon the altar." [De sac., 6, 4]. And elsewhere: "Think now of what kind of choir you are going to enter. Although vested with a body you have been judged worthy to join the Powers of heaven in singing the praises of Him who is Lord of all." [Adv. Anom., 4][iv]
We are reminded that angels accompany us to worship, that they are also guardians of Churches.
[ii] As quoted in Mike Aquilina, Angels of God , p. 55.
[iii] NPNF 9, p. 76 with slight revisions by Aquilina above.
[iv] Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou, Les Anges et Leur Mission, (Chevetogne, Belgium, 1953), Trans. David Heimann The Angels and Their Mission (Maryland : Newman Press , 1957), p. 62.
© Scott McKellar 2012
(this is an edited version of a talk given at the Granfalloon, Kansas City, MO 02/15/2012 in the presence of 70 or so guardian angels )