Every October 2nd, the Church asks us to remember our guardian angels. But what kind of picture do we have in our minds when we think of guardian angels?
Surely every Catholic has seen some version of this image, which is from an early twentieth century postcard by German painter Fridolin Leiber. This heartwarming image is certainly an excellent choice to use when explaining the concept of guardian angels to small children. The painting testifies to an important concept that kids should know: every Catholic’s guardian angel is constantly present and always watching out for the person, even if he or she doesn’t recognize it. The image of a guardian angel as a motherly figure or cherub can certainly help children see angels as friendly.
But none of the angels described in Sacred Scripture—and there are many of them—act quite like that.
The first angel that’s explicitly described as an angel in the Old Testament appears to the pregnant slave Hagar. The angel does not act like “bubble wrap”, protecting her from stubbing her toe or keeping her from slipping on a bridge. Instead, he tells her to return to her abusive mistress1 and leads her to a well so that she and her son won’t die of thirst2–and makes sure that she knows that Abraham’s God is watching out for her. Something similar happens, for example, with Lot and his daughters,3 Abraham,4 Jacob,5 the entire Chosen People during the Exodus,6 the prophet Gideon,7 the parents of the prophet Samson,8 the prophet Elijah,9 and the prophet Daniel.10 That is, the angel announces a message from God (“angel” does mean “messenger”, after all) and provides help from God.
The angel who spoke to Saint Elizabeth11 and the Blessed Virgin Mary,12 as well as the many angels who announced the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds,13 were also primarily concerned with conveying an important message from God. Even the angel who rescued the apostles from prison14 gave them marching orders: now that you’re free, go preach the Gospel. Many other angels appear in the Bible, some explicitly named as angels and others not. But the general impression of such angels is better reflected by paintings such as this one, in which the three archangels next to the young man Tobias dwarf him in size. Such angels are not cute and cuddly but strong and powerful.
More specifically, there are the angels that we call guardian angels. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 336) explains guardian angels in this way:
From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by [angels’] watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”
The Catechism thus reminds us of our belief that every believer has an angel protector, a guardian angel, who watches out for him or her to help that person reach eternal life. Our guardian angels are less concerned about us being temporarily inconvenienced by getting wet in a stream or even facing some physical danger than in not reaching Heaven at all because of sin.
That concern with eternal matters is certainly something we see in the lives of the saints. Some holy men and women have talked about the strong personal relationship that they had with their guardian angels. According to one ancient tradition, Saint Cecilia of Rome, the third century virgin and martyr, managed to convince her new husband Valerian to accept her personal vow of chastity with the help of her guardian angel. That is, her guardian angel appeared to Valerian after he had been baptized into the faith, as she had encouraged Valerian to do, to convince the young man that he should live with his new bride chastely. Or else.
The eleventh century Spanish abbot Saint Eneco was near death and had to be carried to his monastery on a stretcher late at night. When he reached the monastery, Eneco told his monks to provide food for the “boys with torches” who had accompanied them. The puzzled monks slowly realized that their holy abbot had seen angels lighting the way during their journey. Since Eneco died soon afterward, perhaps those angels were about to lead him on his final journey.
Then there are saints and blesseds who regularly saw their guardian angels. Saint Frances of Rome was not a flighty visionary; she was a practical woman who managed a large household and cared for the poor even during times of civil unrest. A year after her beloved son had died from the plague, he appeared to her in a vision, accompanied by a guardian angel who had the appearance of an eight-year-old child. For the rest of her life, Frances was able to see and hear her guardian angel, who directed and protected her.
Saint Faustina Kowalska, the twentieth century Polish nun best known for promoting the Divine Mercy devotion, described her guardian angel, whom she saw regularly, as very beautiful. On the other hand, the nineteenth century Italian priest Saint John Bosco claimed that his guardian angel appeared at his side as a huge gray dog whenever he was in trouble.
Obviously, angels do not have bodies because they are spiritual beings, not spiritual-and-material beings like us. God does not permit people to see or hear angels just to satisfy human curiosity but for His own purposes: to communicate an important message, to remind us to trust in God, or to protect us when we are serving Him, for example. Perhaps if we take the time to thank our guardian angels for the innumerable times they have helped us without our knowledge, we might become as aware of their presence as are little children and great saints.
1 Gen. 16:7-11
2 Gen. 21:17-19
3 Gen. 19:15
4 Gen. 22:11-12
5 Gen. 28:12
6 Exo. 14:19
7 Judg. 6:11-22
8 Judg. 13:3-21
9 1 Kgs. 19:5-7
10 Dan. 6:22
11 Luke 1:11-19
12 Luke 1: 26-38
13 Luke 2:9-15
14 Acts 5:19-21
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