Our Guardian Angels
by Raphael V. O’Connell, SJ
The angelic nature, being wholly spiritual, is far superior to ours. It is not, then, a matter of course that they should wait on us, but a dispensation of infinite love, the same love which prompted God’s own Son to come among us, “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” For He has given His angels charge over thee, that they keep thee in all thy ways. In their hands they shall bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. (Ps. 15:11–12)
In the words of the Psalmist we find, not only a clear assertion of the fact that the guardianship of men has been entrusted to the holy angels, but the motive also for so loving a dispensation,—man’s frailty and the dangers to which he is exposed. These might, indeed, of themselves have moved the good angels to sympathize with us, especially when we bear in mind that the main source of danger to us is the warfare which the fallen angels cease not to wage against us. But, as a matter of fact, it is in fulfillment of a sacred trust confided to them by our common Creator, that our guardian angels surround us everywhere with their powerful protection. It is not of their own free choice, but as a solemn duty, that they are ever alert and active for our welfare.
Thus, if we confine ourselves to the general statement that by the ineffable providence of God, the angels have been deputed to guard men on their pathway through life, it is, as Suarez says, a doctrine of faith, for it is expressly contained in Holy Scripture. If, going a step further, we assert that each individual of the human race has a guardian angel appointed to watch over him from birth, we are still enunciating a Catholic belief, not indeed contained in Holy Writ, nor defined by the Church as an article of faith, but so universally received and with such solid foundation in Holy Scripture, as interpreted by the Fathers, that it cannot without great rashness be called into question.
Certainly our Divine Lord says, speaking of little children: See that you despise not one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in Heaven always see the face of My Father Who is in Heaven. (Matt. 17:10) Saint Jerome, commenting on these words, infers from them the great dignity of our souls, seeing that each has from birth an angel to watch over it. The holy Doctor argues to the same effect from the words of the disciples, when Peter stood at the gate and knocked, after his miraculous escape from prison. They could not credit the message of the portress, that it was Peter himself, and they said, It is his angel (Acts 12:15), showing thereby what was already the common persuasion of the faithful.
Another passage of Holy Scripture, which the Fathers quote to prove that we each have our own guardian angel, is that wherein Jacob, in blessing the sons of Joseph, says, The angel that delivered me from all evils, bless these boys.(Ex. 48:16) In their comments on this text and on those previously quoted, Catholic interpreters are quite at one. The texts all alike imply the doctrine universally received in the Church, to the effect that not only are angels commissioned in a general way to guard mankind, but, as Saint Anselm says, “every soul, at the moment it is infused into the body, is entrusted to the keeping of an angel.”
For God denies to no man sufficient help to save his soul, and in the actual order of Divine Providence, the guardianship of the holy angels is one of the elements which go to make up that sufficient help. For God permits men, good and bad, to be tempted by the demon, though of themselves they are unable to resist the tempter successfully. Hence, He also provides them with the assistance and protection of the holy angels, so as to supply for their insufficiency.
Just as the angels guard those who have never had faith or sanctifying grace, so too, they continue their guardianship over those who have lost the Faith or have fallen away from grace. In fact, this is one of those special provisions of Divine Mercy, whereby God ever seeks the reconciliation of the sinner and urges him to turn from his evil ways.
Then, too, even the just and the elect are exposed to the assaults and temptations of the evil one. Why should not the good angels solicit the sinner and by holy inspirations and illuminations seek to bring about his return to God, or at least prevent him from sinking to even lower depths of sin? Either result would be apt to contribute greatly to the welfare of the just, by removing from them to a greater or less degree the bad example of the wicked, which often has so baneful an influence on the lives of others.
What Our Angels Do For Us
The most obvious service which our angels render us is to guard us from harm. It is implied in the very name of the guardian angels, and they do indeed watch over us and keep us from a thousand perils of both body and soul, perils of which, oftentimes, we ourselves are unaware. This they affect either by removing the occasion of danger, or by prompting us to avoid it. They flash into our minds rays of heavenly light and stir our hearts with salutary emotions, setting before us in an attractive manner the good they would have us do or moving us to dread and shun the evil which they would have us flee.
Again, our good angels hold the demons in check, not suffering them to tempt us as often or as violently as they fain would do….
Then too, especially, they offer our prayers and good works to God. When we say this we mean that they unite their prayers with ours, to give them greater efficacy. Indeed they cease not to entreat God in our behalf and this constant intercession for us is one of the chief benefits coming to us from the guardianship of the holy angels. But while all the angels pray for us, our guardian angel does so with special earnestness by reason of the ties that bind us to him more closely than to the rest of the blessed spirits.
Sometimes, however, it is the duty of our guardian angels to chastise and punish us, when it is expedient for the welfare of our souls. Here we must distinguish such punishments as are penalties and nothing else, and those which have for their motive the amendment of the sinner, and are called medicinal. To these should be added yet another class of penalties if they may be called so, which imply no fault on the part of the person suffering them, but are merely trials sent for his greater spiritual profit.
The first species of punishments proceed, not from the mercy, but from the outraged justice of God, and are intended to strike terror into the hearts of all who come to know of them. These are commonly inflicted by the evil spirits, whom God in such cases uses as His instrument. Yet at times we see even the good angels employed as the agents of God’s wrath. It was so in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. The two holy angels who befriended Lot and brought him with his wife and daughters safely out of Sodom, then brought down fire and brimstone from Heaven to consume the wicked cities of the plain.
It was a good angel who stretched forth his hand over Jerusalem to destroy it for David’s sin of enumerating his people, and only spared it because God was appeased by the repentance and entreaties of His servant.
It would, however, seem more in keeping with the beneficent office of our guardian angels, that God should make use of them for the infliction of medicinal chastisements—that is, of those which have for their end the cure of our spiritual ailments—as well as of that other class of sufferings, which are meant to try the virtue of the servants of God, and afford to others an example of patience.
Our Guardian Angels After Death
The guardianship of our good angels, properly speaking, ends with death. For at death all dangers cease, nor is there further opportunity for spiritual progress. Yet our angel’s loving care surrounds us still. If we are so happy at that dread moment as to be found without spot or wrinkle, if we are free from every stain of guilt, and if our debt of punishment for sin has been fully paid, then our guardian angel will joyfully conduct us to our heavenly home. Such is the prayer of our fond mother, the Church, for each and every one of her children whom she is called upon to aid at the hour of the last supreme struggle. “Assist him, ye saints of God,” she prays, “come forth to meet him, ye angels of the Lord. Receive his soul, and present it in the sight of the Most High.”
For our own good angel will be joined by troops of blessed spirits, who will rejoice at our happy lot, and will gladly applaud the fortunate issue of our warfare with the wicked angels. Hence once more, in the burial service, as the remains of the deceased are being borne to their last resting-place, Holy Church bids her ministers chant the touching antiphon: “May the angels escort thee to Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs welcome thee, and conduct thee to the holy city Jerusalem. May a choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once poor, may thou have rest everlasting.” This is the Lazarus who once sat as a beggar at the rich man’s gate, all full of sores, without a crumb to eat, but of whom Our Lord himself assures us that, when he died, he was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom. (Luke 16:22)
We shall not then be forsaken by our good angel in death, and if, at that solemn hour, there are still certain remains of sin which must be cleansed away in the refining flames of Purgatory, some debt of punishment which we have yet to pay to the divine justice, our faithful guardian will conduct us to the place of expiation, and will often visit and console us in our prison-home, until at last our debt is fully cancelled, and our soul, resplendent with heavenly light and beauty, is ready to wing its flight upward to the place of everlasting bliss. How gladly will he then embrace us!
How We Should Requite Their Love
Our guardian angel is our best and oldest friend. He has been with us from our birth, and will abide with us until the end. In all the ups and downs of our life, he has never once departed from our side. Even our coldness towards him, our utter forgetfulness of him, our rank ingratitude, have not been able to drive him from us. Our sins themselves, however heinous, have not silenced his voice of admonition and warning. They have only served to move him to pray more urgently for us, to chide and rebuke us, and to endeavor to rouse within us sentiments of bitter remorse, in order to bring us back once more to the narrow path.
We may choose for ourselves this one or that one among the saints, to be our specially beloved patron, but God himself has picked for us our guardian angel, and has given to him a very particular affection for us, and a very deep solicitude for our best welfare. Behold I will send my angel, who shall go before thee, and keep thee in thy journey, and bring thee into the place that I have prepared. Take notice of him, and hear his voice, and do not think him one to be contemned; for he will not forgive when you have sinned, and My name is in him. But if you will hear his voice, and do all that I speak, I will be an enemy to thy enemies, and will afflict them that afflict thee. (Ex 23:20–22)
These words were spoken by the Lord to His chosen people when they were on their way to the Promised Land. But we know that everything that befell them was symbolical of God’s dealings with his Christian people, and the Church herself applies these words to our guardian angels.
Here, then, we have clearly pointed out to us our duty towards our guardian angel. God wants us above all things to be docile to His voice, and not to imagine that we can disregard it with impunity. We owe him, doubtless, love and respect and gratitude, but we show these best by our fidelity in following at all times his guidance. His voice may be still and small to those who open wide their ears to the prompts of the passions, and of a worldly spirit, but by one who listens, it can be distinctly heard above all inward strife, and the din and tumult from without.
Saint Bernard, commenting on the words of Psalm 90—He has given His angels charge over thee, that they keep thee in all thy ways—lays down three duties that we owe to our guardian angels. The first is reverence, which the mere presence of so exalted a being demands of us. If we had an abiding sentiment of reverence for him, we should never permit ourselves to do aught in his presence that we should fear to do before the eyes of a man whom we respected.
The second duty is one of devotion, in return for all his affectionate love for us. We cannot doubt its depth and sincerity. It is enough for him that God has made us in His own image, that He has so loved us as to give His only-begotten Son for us, that He has confided us to the keeping of the angels, as younger brethren of and future coheirs with these holy spirits, in the heavenly kingdom.
The third duty is that of unbounded confidence in his watchful guardianship and protection. No real harm can come to us if we trust in him. He is ever on the alert; the demons can never take him by surprise. He is endowed with heavenly wisdom and will surely direct us aright amid the deceits and snares of the evil one. He has undoubted might to repel even the fiercest assaults of our enemies, if we but recommend ourselves to him. We may go forward fearlessly under his protection, but we ought to strive to render ourselves deserving of it, by frequently appealing to him in our various needs.
There is yet another duty which we owe to the guardian angels in general. It is one of reverence for those over whom they watch, how little soever and insignificant they may otherwise appear to be. Our Divine Lord makes the dignity which comes to the little ones from the tutelage of their guardian angels, a very pressing motive for respecting them and avoiding aught that might prove a scandal or a stumbling-block to them.
But if regard for their blessed guardians forbids us to show contempt for the little ones, surely our interest in their spiritual and physical welfare, whether proceeding from general motives or from some particular relationship which binds us to them, may well prompt us to pray often for them to their guardian angels, and to recommend them earnestly to those powerful protectors whom God Himself has charged to watch over them, and to keep them in all their ways. Parents and teachers who adopted this practice, would doubtless quickly see the effect of their prayers in the greater docility of the children, and their more rapid progress in knowledge and in virtue.
For ourselves, too, devotion to our guardian angels cannot fail to be the source of many heavenly favors, but it should especially insure to us the possession of three precious gifts which are strikingly characteristic of the holy angels. The first is that of walking constantly in the presence of God. Never for a moment are they distracted from it. They are not allured by the pleasures of the world, they are not disturbed by the din and tumult of human passions. Their gaze is ever riveted on the face of their Creator, and their mind is absorbed in the contemplation of His unspeakable beauty.
The second treasure which this devotion should secure us, is a true spirit of obedience. The angels are ever ready at God’s beck, and the accomplishment of His will is their greatest joy. They will gladly ask for us a like devotedness, and the habitual proposing to ourselves of their example will be a powerful incentive to us to endeavor to imitate them.
Lastly, the pearl of the virtues, holy purity, will be safe under their protection. It is called the angelic virtue, and the angels are eager to see us become by its practice most like unto themselves. The struggle is a hard one—in some cases it is fierce and unremitting—but by the grace of God and the assistance of our good angel, whom we should lovingly invoke while the combat lasts, the victory will be ours, and what a glorious victory it will be! To have overcome in our frail flesh and in spite of the treachery of the flesh which is arrayed with the demons against us, all the wiles and malice of our wicked foe, and to have kept intact amid the most violent assaults the priceless heritage which we carry in vessels of clay—that, to be sure, is a triumph to which we may holily and wholesomely aspire, and for which we shall remain forever indebted to the encouragement and support given to us in the conflict by our ever-loving, ever-faithful guardian angel.