Are Guardian Angels Redundant?

Last year’s post on this subject prompted some interesting comments, but also embarrassed some readers. How can intelligent, educated people believe in ‘guardian angels’ — or in angels at all, come to that?

To take the latter point first. I have no difficulty believing in angels, though I suspect my belief about who and what they are is a little less simple (both senses) than many suppose. Spiritual beings whose dwelling is, metaphorically speaking, fire and flame, who see the face of God and proclaim his holiness, are not to be trifled with. They inspire awe and a godly fear. They are, as the bible says, messengers of God; and when God speaks, his message is apt to cause consternation because our own ideas are too little, too shallow. Mary, alone of all our race, heard the message of an angel and embraced what was asked in all its fullness. The rest of us hedge our responses round with qualifications, doubts and sometimes retractions.

That such mighty spirits should take an interest in each of us as individuals is breath-taking; but the thought that they are appointed to their task by God himself is more breath-taking still. St Benedict’s writes of angels in his Rule with the familiarity of one who prays and thinks much, who lives in a world where sign and symbol have not lost their efficacy and the spiritual and the physical are seamlessly interwoven. I think we are often embarrassed by such notions because we feel the need to protect ourselves against an avowedly spiritual vision. We have substituted something we call science for God and are unhappy at the idea that there is anything we cannot explain or rationalise even though we are, every minute, confronted by the inexplicable (and if you don’t believe me, just think about the unpredictability of your partner’s/friend’s mood at times).

It is an old Catholic custom to pray to our Guardian Angel every morning and ask him/her to be at our side; to watch and wait, to rule and guide. Childish? I think myself it would be petulant to refuse to ask the help of such a powerful being who is on God’s side rather than the world’s or the devil’s. Guardian angels will never be redundant until the human capacity for sin and foolishness is at an end.

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Kieran Conry, St Michael and ‘Acceptable Evil’

The resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry and its impact on the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton is being picked over by the media. There are those who delight in the idea of sexual shananigans involving a bishop — a Catholic bishop at that! — and are whooping with glee at the prospect of salacious ‘revelations’ in the press and online. There are others who are taking the opportunity to have a pot-shot at everything they regard as liberal and wrong in the Church, with dark mutterings about who knew what and when. Others again are calling for a change in the Church’s celibacy rules and expressing support for Bishop Kieran as he faces not only private humiliation but public shame over his actions. Some, probably the majority, simply feel sad, sensing both the personal tragedy and the tragedy for the diocese.  Inevitably, there is a feeling of betrayal. When clergy in particular are found to have deceived others, people naturally ask whether anyone actually believes what they profess to believe. Is it all moonshine as far as they are concerned? What few within the Church seem to have grasped, however, is that for many people in Britain today, it is all a typhoon in a teacup. For them, the  Church’s teaching is out of step with modern sexual mores. Kieran Conry did no more and no less than lots of other men in this country. End of story (almost).

I think we need to be clear about three things. First, by his own admission, Bishop Kieran seems to have been guilty of fornication, if not adultery; and this breaking of his promise of celibacy and the Church’s rules about sexual behaviour was something that went on for years. Whatever society thinks about it, the Church’s understanding of such behaviour is that it is wrong, sinful. There is no such thing as ‘acceptable evil’. Second, his actions have hurt others as well as himself — the women involved, their families, the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton and the wider Church. There will be a price to pay, and it will be far from painless. Third, and just as important, God’s grace is open to us all. We are not called to judge the state of Bishop Keieran’s soul and certainly ought not to revile him. Who among us has a conscience so spotless we can condemn another? We must forgive whatever there is to forgive, pray for his conversion (and remember, confession of wrong is a first step in that direction) and continue to try to live godly lives ourselves as well as we can. That is where St Michael the Archangel, whose feast we keep today, comes in. He is the great protector saint whose aid we invoke against evil in all its most seductive forms.

Those who think of angels as charming little putti, running riot over Baroque altarpieces and ceilings, have clearly never stopped to consider the terrifying aspect of angels in the Bible. They are mighty spirits, messengers of God, with Michael the chief of them. The old Catholic prayer asking his intercession is not ‘quaint’ or ‘outmoded’ any more than evil itself is quaint or outmoded. Evil is deceptive and leads even the best of us astray. The sad story of Bishop Kieran is a reminder to us all that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ I think there are good reasons for making the prayer our own and praying it whenever we face situations that place us in moral, physical, or spiritual danger — remembering always that pride, the idea that we can cope without help, is one of the biggest sins of all.

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

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Chumminess and Our Guardian Angel

Attitudes to the feast of our Holy Guardian Angels can be quite revealing of how we approach the holy. Some people are clearly embarrassed by the very idea. For them, angels are chubby little putti, charming adornments to Rococo ceilings, but not to be taken seriously. We have outgrown all that, surely?  For others, angels are a constant presence — chums in the original sense of the word—sent to guide and guard us through life’s troubles. If a little sentimentality mingles with our devotion, what’s wrong with that? And then there are those who are awed by these mighty spirits sent to serve, these messengers of God whose dwelling is fire and flame. Their presence with us is a sign of the holy and we tremble at the thought. Siegfried Sassoon once wrote to D. Felicitas Corrigan that he had seen an angel. She replied very crisply that she did not think an angel of God could be so circumscribed as his description suggested. (I suspect D. Felicitas knew something about angels; she certainly had the measure of Sassoon!)

Have you ever stopped to consider the presence of angels all around you? St Benedict refers to their constantly reporting our deeds to God as they make their way up and down the ladder between earth and heaven Jacob saw in his vision. It is an arresting thought. We are more and more aware of State surveillance, of the long reach of the internet into our private lives, but we have forgotten that everything about us is known to God. Nothing escapes His merciful eye. The problem for most of us is how to live with that knowledge without being either crushed by it or making it into some kind of bugbear. You might try asking the prayers of your guardian angel to help you.

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Routine Holiness

On 30 April 1993, four years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee had developed a technology to help physicists around the world share information, the European space agency CERN, where he worked, made the software public domain. Thus, what we think of as the world wide web (and less accurately, the internet) became part of geeky consciousness. It took time to become popular, but the speed at which it has developed since is astonishing — and that for many is the problem. We live in a world where change has become routine, and the speed of change seems ever increasing. Thanks to the web and the new communication technologies to which it has given rise, we are more than ever aware of these developments; but we still have the same intellectual and emotional power to process them all.

After a certain age, human beings are not very good at speed — or change, for that matter. Although we may deny the fact, we tend to be creatures of routine. From what we eat for breakfast to where we sit in church (if we go to church, of course), there is a certain predictability about us. Routine requires less effort and makes for a calmer kind of life. Those who mock it are usually much younger, not yet ready to assume the greyness of their elders; but for those of us who look at our thickening waistlines with barely a twinge of regret, there is a certain comfort in routine. It is what our life is.

I was thinking about these things, and the fact that today is May Day, the feast of St Joseph the Worker, and wondering how much routine there must have been in the hidden life of Jesus in Nazareth. The regular round of work and prayer, the routines of family and village life, formed Jesus as a person, made him the man we meet in the Gospels, richly human, gloriously holy. For most of us, work and family life dictates the shape of our day, and the holiness we strive after is attained (or not) through the fidelity and generosity with which we accomplish the everyday tasks laid upon us. The element of routine is not to be despised. Just like the www.protocol, it can open us to things we never dreamed of, things into which even angels long to look. And if you are asking yourself how change itself can become routine, remember Newman’s wise observation, that the Church must be constantly changing in order to remain the same:

In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

(Development of Christian Doctrine)

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Our Need of Freedom

Today we ask the Key of David to come and free us from darkness and the shadow of death. Shortly before we sing that antiphon, I shall have given the traditional monastic talk called the Missus Est on the words ‘an angel was sent from God’. The two things come together beautifully, because I think Mary was the most supremely free person who has ever lived. It was given to her either to accept or reject motherhood of God. St Bernard pictures the whole world kneeling before her at the angel’s coming, waiting for the answer she will give: ‘Give the word, Mary, which will give us the Word.’ It was indeed a moment of unequalled faith when Mary embraced the divine Word in her heart and spoke the human word that would set us free: ‘Let it be done to me as you have said.’ The Greek uses the optative, which makes our rather passive English phrase look weak and inadequate. Mary willed her conception, was eager to do God’s bidding, co-operated gladly.

In these last few days of Advent, when the birth of Christ seems very close, let’s spend a few moments thinking about what we owe that young Jewish girl. She let go all her dreams in obedience to the word of God, accepted a vocation that would ask more of her than she could ever have imagined. So it may be with us. Our oblate Pauline quotes these lines of the poet Czeslaw Milosz

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible,
and only late do we discover how obedient we were.

They are worth pondering in the light of our own vocation. We may think we have lived all our lives circumscribed by the bonds of duty only to realise that, in fact, we have been, like Mary, supremely free, blessed beyond measure.

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St Michael and All Angels

Many people smile when one speaks of angels. I am surprised they do not fall to the ground in terror. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. One of the reasons I am a Catholic is that the Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

Today, let us pray for all who struggle; for all who believe that love and goodness are better than hatred or selfishness; who want to be what, as children of God, they are called to become; and let us ask the prayers of St Michael and all angels to defend us in the conflict that will assuredly be ours.

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