Friends for Life: The Influence of the Guardian Angels
Gift-giving is a natural part of our heavenly Father’s nature. The gift of a guardian angel lists among the numerous things that God bestows on us. The superabundant love among the persons of the Holy Trinity gives us life, a beautiful world to live in, a share in God’s own creativity, a rational intellect—and that’s before we get to grace, redemption, and salvation. It is a fruitful spiritual exercise to contemplate everything God has given us.
Guardian angels hold a place in the secular imagination, agnostic and Christian alike. The thought of a unique angel watching over us brings a warm feeling. That is well and good, but angels do more than provide fuzzy feelings. Let us explore what we know about these special angels, their role, and devotions to them.
Different Angels, Different Roles
Nine choirs of angels comprise the hierarchy in heaven. We are indebted to St. Thomas Aquinas for listing them all in his Summa. From the top, descending in order: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. Each of these names come from Holy Scripture: “for the name ‘Seraphim’ is found in Isaiah 6:2; the name ‘Cherubim’ in Ezekiel 1 (Cf. 10:15-20); ‘Thrones’ in Colossians 1:16; ‘Dominations,’ ‘Virtues,’ ‘Powers,’ and "Principalities’ are mentioned in Ephesians 1:21; the name ‘Archangels’ in the canonical epistle of St. Jude (9), and the name ‘Angels’ is found in many places of Scripture” (I, q. 108, a. 5). Each choir of angels has its own role, but we will focus on just the guardian angels. They may occupy the lowest rank but have one of the hardest jobs: accompanying us on the path to holiness.
The English word ‘angel’ traces back first to French, then Latin, and originally Greek. Angelos (Gk.) simply means “messenger.” From staying Abraham’s hand in Genesis 22 to the Archangel Raphael in Tobit, to the Archangel Gabriel in Luke’s Gospel, we can see angels serving as messengers from God throughout the Bible. On top of their messenger duty, Psalm 91:11 adds protection to the list. This was one of the verses that Satan tried to tempt Jesus with:
“For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” v. 11-13 (also see Matthew 4:5)
One of the better job descriptions of a guardian angel was written by St. John Henry Newman in his poem, The Dream of Gerontius. In this poem, the subject dies and is conducted by his guardian angel to heaven. Gerontius gets to converse with his angel along the way. His angel describes his protecting role:
“Then was I sent from heaven to set right
The balance in his soul of truth and sin,
And I have waged a long relentless fight,
Resolved that death-environ'd spirit to win,
Which from its fallen state, when all was lost,
Had been repurchased at so dread a cost.
Oh, what a shifting parti-colour'd scene
Of hope and fear, of triumph and dismay,
Of recklessness and penitence, has been
The history of that dreary, life-long fray!
And oh, the grace to nerve him and to lead,
How patient, prompt, and lavish at his need!”
Humans’ free will is what makes a guardian angel’s job so tricky. St. Thomas Aquinas notes the things angels can do: they can act on our senses, intellect, and imagination. As a reminder, the fallen angels can do the same. However, our will is our own—no angel or demon has the power to wrest our will from us. There are great examples of saints that lived among evil (think St. Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz) and nevertheless persevered in grace. On the other side of the coin are the rest of us. How many of us have recognized grace, or a way out from committing a sin, and stubbornly chose sin?
Importance of a Devotion to Our Guardian Angel
St. John Henry Newman named it a mark of a saint that lives in an intimate relationship with his/her guardian angel. Dom Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat is a timeless spiritual classic. He also recommended a close relationship: “let no day pass without imploring the assistance of Our Lady, the queen of all the saints, your guardian angel, the glorious archangel St. Michael, or any other saint to whom you have any particular devotion” (pg. 146). Just as holy friendships are vital to the Christian life on earth, friendships with the saints and angels in heaven can help us through the large and small trials of our lives.
One of the foremost apostles on behalf of the guardian angels was St. John Bosco (1815-1888). He maintained a strong personal devotion to his guardian angel, even writing a pamphlet on the subject. St. John frequently exhorted others to nurture the same devotion:
"Remember that you have an Angel as a companion, guardian and friend. If you wish to please Jesus and Mary, obey your Guardian Angel's inspirations.—When tempted, invoke your Angel. He is more eager to help you than you are to be helped!—Take courage and pray: your Guardian Angel also will pray for you, and your prayers will be answered.—Ignore the devil and do not be afraid of him: he trembles and flees at your Guardian Angel's sight.” (The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco, vol. II, pg. 205).
Why is this devotion an important one? There are two big reasons in the above quote. First, our guardian angel is more eager to help you than you are to be helped. Second, the devil trembles and flees at your guardian angel’s sight. An eager spiritual bodyguard that can repel the devil? We would be foolish to neglect this gift from God.
Guardian angels are a signature grace to humanity. Their presence further establishes men and women as unique among the entire earthly order of creation. Every other creature in the world operates under natural law. St. John marveled, “How sublime the dignity of man, how great the goodness of God!” (Memoirs, vol. II, pg. 210).
How to Cultivate a Devotion to Your Guardian Angel
Here again we turn to St. John Bosco for suggestions (see Memoirs, vol. II, pg. 207-209). He recommended many ways to engage our guardian angels, but here are four.
First, recite the Angel of God prayer in the morning and evening. This is an easy, quick prayer that takes about 10 seconds to pray. Don’t stop with just that, however: thank God for our angel’s protection. I also think it helpful to consider times when we were rescued from our own devices. What a grace that this/that happened the way it did—and see how God worked through your angel.
Second, whenever attending Mass, invite your angel to adore Jesus with you. All the angels behold the face of God. They rejoice to do the Father’s will and want nothing more for our lives than the same. God willing, we will worship the Holy Trinity alongside our angel for eternity. Why wait for heaven when we can worship together at Mass?
Third, when tempted, turn immediately to your guardian, asking your angel that we might not not offend God. This is a great insight by St. John. We might usually ask for our angel to save us from temptation or preserve us from sinning. St. John points our gaze beyond the mere act and has us focus on the result of the act. Sin offends God; it affects our relationship with God. This change in perspective will hopefully aid in turning away from temptation.
Fourth, consider the afterlife. Entrust the care of your soul in your last hours to your guardian angel. Death comes differently for all of us, but even the greatest saints have undergone immense trials at the hour of death. We need all the help we can get! Also, pray for the holy souls in purgatory via angel-related prayers. St. John Bosco especially recommended using the Angelus and Angel of God prayers. He also used the feast of the Holy Angels as a day to make special offerings for the holy souls.
This year on the feast of the guardian angels, celebrate your holy protector, friend, and guide!