By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
Did you catch that Tuesday was the feast of the Archangels, saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael? Or that today is the memorial of Guardian Angels? I only noticed because I signed up for the USCCB to email me the daily readings (scroll to the bottom of the daily readings page to sign yourself up if you are interested). Honestly, I would not normally have thought much of either celebration. Angels really don’t do it for me. I’m not devotional in general, never mind devotion to angels. I don’t often ask for this saint or that to intercede on my behalf. In fact, most of the time I’m not even directing my prayers to Christ! Why bother when you can pray straight to the Father, right? Sacred hearts, relics, mercies, indulgences, rosaries, benedictions, adorations, patrons, vicars – none of those are very high on my list of “Why I’m Catholic” and I don’t devote a lot of time to thinking about them. I haven’t even considered praying to or for my guardian angel in years. Why would I? I’m not a child anymore – I’ve got a master’s degree in theology, for crying out loud! I’ve got more profound and more practical things to think about than guardian angels.
That is, at least, how I would have looked at yesterday’s feast had I not been in the middle of reading, Yves Congar, Essential Writings, edited by Paul Lakeland. Just a couple days before yesterday’s feast, I finished reading the section where Congar talks about devotion to the angels. It put the devotion into a new perspective, one that has given it a new importance for me. To start, Congar perfectly describes the reasons why I don’t pay attention to angels: 1 – my spirituality is not fueled by the Scripture, and 2 – my spirituality is individualistic and moralistic, in other words, I am concerned about my behavior and my effort of achieving my salvation. Together, these two trends make my spirituality artificial and narrow. I can only accept that which is within my own ability to make sense of.
Of course, this leads to missing out on an infinity of sources of grace since what I have the ability to make sense of is only an infinitely small part of the mystery that is God. As Congar points out, it takes quite the opposite type of spirituality, one based on scripture and liturgy (which is community) to appreciate devotions like that to the angels. “From these [scripture and liturgy] they [pre high scholastic Christians] gained an acute understanding of the totality in which the mystery of Christ consists, a totality which includes the Church and in which our own salvation is a function not of autonomous struggle maintained by our own strength, but of an action entirely based on what Christ the conqueror has already achieved and supported on every side by the universal Church” (Congar, Essential Writings, p. 125). Praise and Joy are intimately bound up in this spirituality – our praise of God is the source of our joy and our joy moves us to praise.
Appreciation for the angels comes from the appreciation of the actions of Christ and the full meaning of “universal Church.” “Our relationship with the angels and the devotion which we owe them has its roots in the economy of the kingdom of God which gathers them together with us, in a special way, within a single Church. …We should not forget, first of all, that in heaven a single Church exists, made up of all those who live in fellowship as friends of God: the angels form part of this kingdom of God’s saints described by the prophet Daniel, just as humans do” (Ibid, p. 126). Membership in the Church is dependant upon grace received from Christ – this goes for angels as it does for humans. “On account of this ministry they are to exercise among the redeemed people of Jesus, the angels may be said to come under the influence of Christ, the sole mediator of the new economy of grace, for it is from him that they receive the grace of this new ministry. This fact enables them to be admitted and incorporated into Christ’s kingdom, the Church; they have their place in that economy of Christian grace of which Christ is the source, the originator, and the head” (Ibid, p. 127).
So why should we be more devote to the angels? “Because the angels give incomparable glory to God, because they are our elder brethren sustaining in us the reflection of God’s face, because our real struggle is not against flesh and blood but against far stronger spiritual powers, we should love them deeply and pray to them often. God will ask for an account of how we have appreciated this among his other mercies, whereby he has bestowed on each of us an angel of his face, to help us in our journey back to him” (Ibid, p. 129).