September 26, 2017

Simcha Fisher: What do guardian angels do?

A carved and polychromed Gothic-revival angel kneels beside the High Altar of St Mary’s church in Nottingham, England. PHOTO: Fr Lawrence Lew OP

We just got back from camping for a few days. Well, “camping.” When we’re home, we live like savages, but when we go camping, we keep it pretty civilised. But that didn’t stop our two-year-old from going completely feral. We were surrounded by lakes, streams, machetes, open campfires, pitfalls, poisonous berries, sharp metal skewers, and potential bears, and the child devoted herself, night and day, to almost dying.

More than once, I found myself thanking her guardian angel for keeping her safe. And more than once, I realised that this is the only time I remember that she has a guardian angel, and that all of us do. What a shame! If I owned a spectacular, gleaming motorcycle, I wouldn’t park it in storage and never get around to using it, or only think of it in extreme emergencies. I’d be thrilled and delighted to have such a thing, and I’d spend as much time with it as I could.

It’s a silly analogy, of course. We don’t own our guardian angels as we would a motorcycle, nor do we use them, nor are we capable of keeping them out of circulation. But they are spectacular, and they should not be forgotten; and we should be thrilled and delighted to be associated with such a thing as an immortal being, unconfined by space or time, ready and eager to help and guide us.

In the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life, a guardian angel must “earn his wings” by helping a desperate human realise that it’s a good thing he’s alive. The movie is not, of course, intended as Catholic catechesis, but it’s a good jumping-off point to discuss what angels are and are not.

In the movie, the angel Clarence is in disgrace, and must struggle to mend his ways and get back in God’s good graces. In reality, angels have once and for all made their free choice to love and serve God, and the angels who did not choose to follow Satan into eternal separation from God now rejoice in His glory forever, and they do not sin, err, or struggle.

In the movie, the angel Clarence is goofy and bumbling, and although he has some supernatural powers, he is a comical figure. In reality, angels are non-corporeal beings who appear however they wish (scripture reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”); but dozens of personal accounts will tell of inexplicable encounters with a young man who appears strong and happy, who appears out of nowhere to help, and then vanishes.

The movie also gets some things right. The angel Clarence is entirely focused on saving the life of George Bailey, his assigned human, and on putting him back on the right path. But he does not force him to do anything. He simply shows him things, encourages him, draws his attention to what he needs to know and understand, reminding him of things he has forgotten—and in this way, he rescues George from despair, and he encourages him to be the man he is meant to be: generous, forgiving, strong, and sacrificially loving.

In the movie, George Bailey can see and have conversations with his angel. Few of us have this privilege (although I can’t be the only mother who wonders just what her newborn baby is gazing and smiling at, when the adults in the room don’t see anything); but we do have the privilege of speaking to our guardian angels, and we can be confident that our angels always hear us.

Do our guardian angels intercede physically, saving us from bodily harm? I don’t see why not, as long as it’s God’s will. I do pray to my children’s guardian angels, and I do believe they have protected their lives, either by causing them to fall this way instead of that way, saving them from death; or by helping me to see danger and move quickly so I can rescue them myself. But that is not all that they do.

Some saints have taught that we may ask our guardian angels to go and help or comfort someone in need; that our angels finish our prayers for us if we drift off to sleep; that our angels can stand in for us at Mass if we can’t go ourselves; and that they may accompany us in purgatory, to continue encouraging and guiding us as we are purified in preparation for Heaven. Perhaps most importantly, they constantly intercede for us to the Father.

St Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, was especially confident in the help of his guardian angel, even referring to his angel as “my dear watchmaker” after his alarm clock broke and he trusted his angel to wake him on time. He said that, when he met someone, he would always greet that person’s guardian angel first, partly out of respect for the angel, and partly to remind himself that everyone he greeted was precious enough, in the eyes of the Father, to merit an immortal guardian. This jibes with Matthew 18:10:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

The Catechism quotes St Basil: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” One Catholic apologist puts it succinctly:

The purpose of all of the angels is to serve God, praise God, worship God, and pray to God. In the process of serving God, they also protect us, pray for us, inspire us, encourage us, and guide us during our journey on Earth.

So when we allow our guardian angels to help us come closer to God, we are cooperating with their entire reason for being. All the more reason to develop a habitual, even affectionate relationship with our guardian angels — not only speaking to them, but being alert to hearing them and being aware of their help, as they use what is already in our hearts and minds, and what is already present in our lives, to nudge and guide and remind us why we were made and where we are going.

Our guardian angels are neither sentimental nor magical nor imaginary (and they are certainly not, as one bizarre bumper sticker claimed, “Teddy bears with wings”). They are joyful, devoted warriors who always see the face of God, who know us well, and who want nothing more than to help us find our way to Heaven, which includes keeping us alive when we’re feral two-year-olds who want to jump into the campfire.

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