Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Thinking about Angels

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God's love entrusts me here, ever this day, be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide.
Most members of my generation – and presumably generations before us – learned this little rhyme in school and were taught to recite it regularly as a prayer to our own individual guardian angel.  This belief in the particular protection of each individual by a guardian angel is an ancient one, which is enshrined in the Church’s calendar and liturgy in today’s feast of the Guardian Angels. Citing Saint Jerome as his authority, Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, q. 113, art. 5, ad 3) expressed his conviction that each individual human being has a specific guardian angel appointed to him or her from the moment of birth. (Intriguingly, Thomas thought it probable that while still in the womb a child is guarded by the mother’s guardian angel and only gets his or her own individual angel at birth).

However one understands the protective function and action of the guardian angels, the image that struck me most forcefully as a child was that of the guardian angel as witness at the particular judgment. I think I was in 5th grade, but whenever it was, I remember hearing that at the particular judgment, the judge would (obviously) be God, the prosecutor the devil, and the witness one’s guardian angel. (What immediately struck me about this was the obvious lack of any defense attorney!) For years, I had thought this a clever catechetical maneuver to highlight how nothing we ever thought, said, or did during life (cogitatione, verbo, et opere, as we used to say) would go unrecorded. In fact, as I later learned, even this image of the guardian angel as a witness enjoys a properly Thomistic pedigree (I, q. 113, art. 7, ad 4). And while it may be difficult to imagine exactly how my guardian angel specifically helps or protects me in life (apart, I suppose, from praying for me), it's very easy to conceive of how my guardian angel will serve as the expert witness at my judgment.
Jesus reference to the guardian angels in today’s Gospel – 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 (Matthew 18:10) – is in any case consistent with Old Testament imagery of angels as guardians of individuals, from Joseph's invocation of the angel who has delivered me from all harm (Genesis 48:16) to Job's subtle reference to a divine messenger, a mediator, one of a thousand, to show him what is right (Job 33:23).

Jesus' association of the guardian angels with the "little ones" might seem to reinforce a common cultural association of guardian angels with children. But it is precisely  the "little ones" whom we are supposed to emulate. We need not pray in cutely rhyming couplets. But we are challenged to identify with the "little ones" in their dependency and their openness to those they depend upon. Perhaps, if we were more ready to recognize out limits and our dependency on others - above all, God - we might avoid some of the pointless posturing that characterizes so much of our human experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment