By Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Copyright Visionary Living, Inc.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed a tremendous resurgence of interest in angels. This interest seems new to many people who are discovering angels for the first time. However, our presentation attention is but the latest part of a long tradition that has sought to preserve a sacred mystery. Angels reveal the path to God.
Special devotion and veneration of the angels have been permitted, even encouraged, in the Christian church since the church’s beginnings. Devotional cults are most prominent in Catholicism. Catholic tradition regards angels as conscious beings of high intelligence, not bound by the limitations of physical laws, who can be of help to humanity–but who must not be worshiped or adored, or placed above Christ or God. Devotion to angels centers on imitating them, for they in turn imitate God. Veneration of saints is closely associated with angelic devotion, for saints are considered to be the real friends of angels and models of piety to men and women.
Though angels played an important role in Christian piety from a very early stage, it was not until 325 A.D. that the Council of Nicea made belief in angels a part of dogma. This stimulated theological discussions and writings on angels that have continued to the present.
The early Christian Church looked to St. Paul for setting the standard for veneration of angels. On various occasions, Paul referred to angels within a context of respect and veneration. In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, for example, Paul discusses proper ways to worship. Women should worship with their heads covered, he says in 11:10, “because of the angels.” In this way, they show respect for the divine order, which is administered by angels (also, women are assigned a lower status than men, whose heads are Christ; men should not worship with their heads covered).
Early Church Fathers were sometimes cautious about encouraging veneration of angels. On one hand, angels were convenient substitutes for pagan gods and daimones, a type of intermediary spirit, and thus aided the campaign for conversion. On the other hand, the Fathers did not wish to see worship of pagan gods merely transferred to angels. St. Justin Martyr defended veneration of angels, and the philosopher Celsus declared that angels were different from gods, else they would be called demons.
Origen took pains to distinguish between worship of God and devotion to angels. In his work Contra Celsum, he states: “We indeed acknowledge that Angels are ministering spirits, and we say they are sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation, and that they ascend, bearing the supplications of men, to the purest of the heavenly places in the universe, or even to the supercelestial regions purer still, and they come down from these, conveying to each one, according to his deserts, something enjoined by God to be conferred by them upon those who are to be the recipients of His benefits… For every prayer and supplication and intercession is to be sent up to the Supreme God through the High Priest, who is above all the Angels, the living Word and God… It is enough to secure that the holy Angels be propitious to us, and that they do all things on our behalf, that our disposition of mind toward God should imitate, as far as possible for human nature, the example of these holy Angels, who themselves imitate the example of their God.”
St. Augustine was among those who feared that veneration of angels would be confused with worship of pagan gods. “We honor them out of charity not out of servitude,” he said primly in De Vera Religione.
Nonetheless, angels found their place in Christian faith, and by the sixth century veneration of them was firmly established. St. Benedict and Pope St. Gregory fostered devotion to angels. Devotion reached a height during the Middle Ages. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was especially ardent about the guardian angel. Citing Psalm 90:11, which states, “God has given his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways,” Bernard advocated lavishing great respect, gratitude and love upon angels.
Testimony of the saints
Devotion to angels was stimulated for centuries by the accounts of the saints, many of whom wrote or spoke of frequent encounters with angels. St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) had a rich visionary life, recorded in detail in her diaries and letters. She saw her guardian angel and heard his voice. Her conversations with her angel were observed and recorded by others who could only hear one side of the conversation–hers. Her spiritual director commented that whenever she saw or listened to her angel, she entered into an ecstatic state of consciousness, lost in another world; as soon as she turned her eyes away, she resumed her usual personality.
Gemma’s angel was her constant companion, so familiar that she often treated him like a brother. She was once admonished by Father Germano, her spiritual director–who overheard one of her one-way conversations–that she should treat him with more respect. She agreed, and vowed to remain one hundred steps behind the angel whenever she saw him coming.
Sometimes the angel was severe with her in order to keep her on the straight and narrow spiritual path. He would find fault with her, and tell her he was ashamed of her. If she strayed from the path, he would depart from her presence for awhile.
Perhaps the most remarkable trademark of Gemma’s angel was his couriership. She would send him off on errands to deliver verbal messages to people in distant places, and return with their replies. Gemma considered this angelic postal service to be a natural thing. Others reportedly received the messages. Sometimes replies were delivered back to her by the guardian angel of Father Germano. When some suggested this was the work of the devil, Father Germano subjected Gemma to various spiritual tests, asking for irrefutable signs, and got them.
One June 8, 1899, when Gemma was twenty-two, she received the stigmata. Her angel helped her climb into bed. Gemma was visited by other angels as well, and often by Father Germano’s guardian angel, who, she said, had a brilliant star over his head. No thought or deed of hers ever escaped angelic attention. If she was distracted in prayer, her angel would punish her. If she did not feel well, or if she would not eat enough, the angel exhibited a tender side, inquiring after her welfare and urging her to eat.
Veneration of the angels also led to the establishment of confraternities, legal and approved associations whose purpose is work of piety or charity and the advancement of public worship. The first Archconfraternity of Saint Michael was established in 1878 in Italy (an archconfraternity has the right to affiliate other confraternities). Confraternities were particularly popular during the nineteenth century; they have had renewed interest in the latter twentieth century. In 1950, Philangeli was established in England with Episcopal approval, and has spread worldwide. Members seek to become real friends with angels.
The Opus Sanctorum Angelorum (“The Work of the Holy Angels”) is one of the newer Catholic movements intended to renew and bolster belief in guardian angels, and to foster a collaboration between angels and humans for the glory of God, the salvation of humanity, and the regeneration of all creation. The Opus Sanctorum Angelorum was sanctioned by Pope Paul VI in 1968, who probably was influenced by Pope Pius XII, who advocated a renewal of devotion to angels.
The goal of the Opus is a divine marriage between humanity and the angelic kingdom. The Opus teaches that the guardian angel protects against physical and spiritual danger, and evil thoughts; corrects people when they sin; enlightens and instructs; conveys prayers to God; assists in death; and takes souls to heaven or purgatory.
How should we regard angels today? While some people participate in devotional orders as a way of recognizing angels, most of us are more informal. Regardless of how we wish to try to communicate with angels, or what role we believe they play in our lives, it’s important to keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of angelic communion is to purify the soul and reach God. If we stay focussed on this idea, our interaction with this vibration of the Godhead will stay on a high plane of consciousness.