Way more than “friendly spirits,” guardian angels are well explained by 2,000 years of Church teaching.
Our belief in Guardian Angels is one of the greatest treasures of the Catholic faith but also one of our big stumbling blocks.
Guardian Angels are a great treasure because everybody loves the idea of angels looking out for us — and people of all times and places, from ancient times to today, have intuited that friendly spirits are aiding them. They are also one of our greatest stumbling blocks, because they are easy to disbelieve, since you can’t see them and their actions rarely rise to the level of miraculous.
But the greatest thinkers in the Church and the great figures of the Old Testament, along with the Psalms and the teaching of the Church, all agree with Jesus that we each have a guardian angel.
After reading the late Cardinal Jean Danielou’s book The Angels and their Mission, I think both our delight in the angels and our disbelief in them need to be corrected a little bit. Danielou surveys what the Fathers of the Church teach about angels, and their answers are eye-opening.
First, the names the Fathers of the Church give the guardian angels clarify them.
The Fathers call them by Greek names meaning “watchers,” “guards,” “sentinels,” “guardians,” “keepers,” and “protectors.” They also call them both “superintendents” who organize and direct our lives, and “assistants” or “helpers” who contribute to our plans.
Right away, these are an answer to the best reason to disbelieve in guardian angels: Overdetermination.
Scientists, philosophers, and literary critics alike all warn against giving multiple causes where one is needed, and our disbelief in angels often comes down to overdetermination: If you survive a multi-vehicle accident on the Interstate, there are a dozen causes you can point to before needing to bring in angels, starting with your brake and seatbelt.
But when a military unit defends itself from a surprise attack, they can attribute its safety to watchers, guards, leaders and helpers, all at once; and it may not be entirely clear which made the decisive difference. Same with the angels and us.
Second, the Fathers clarify just what it is our angels guard us from.
Our “overdetermination” objection is also the result of us thinking of the guardian angels primarily as saving us from physical peril — but the Fathers thought of their main job as saving us from spiritual peril.
“To remain strong against the evil powers,” said St. Hilary, “the angels are our helpers.” In fact, he says, “If the guardian angels had not been given to us, we could not resist the many and powerful attacks of the evil spirits.”
When we think of warfare with demonic powers, we imagine something like invisible bats from hell dive-bombing us, while angels knock them out of the sky. Instead, though, the Fathers picture demons that agitate our souls while angels bring gentle refreshment. In St. Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, the saint is in torment and agony at the wild and frenzied attacks of demons, but “The vision of the angels works softly and peacefully, awakening joy and exultation.”
This is the kind of protection we most need from angels today, because our bored and distracted culture tends to seek out the kinds of wild and frenzied excitement that is the very opposite of the calm of the angels.
Besides, the Fathers of the Church — and the baptismal liturgy — remind us: Satan has rights to the race of Adam, and baptism is our renunciation of him. The guardian angels are “angels of peace” that help us live out that renunciation.
Third, the Fathers say the guardian angels encourage penance in us.
How does that renunciation of the devil happen? Penance.
The devil coaxes your appetites to give in to temptation and be a slave to sin. Your guardian angel inspires you to resist, precisely by mortification and self-denial that train your appetites. The ancient Christian work the Shepherd of Hermassees the guardian angel as “an angel of penance” who “holds the devil in his power.”
The Fathers again and again stress that the angels encourage us to embrace penance — something that we see powerfully in the third secret of Fatima.
So, are guardian angels not sweet, friendly spirits after all?
Yes, they are. They are angels of peace even as they call for penance. Jesus’ burden is easy and his yoke is light in part because joyful angels help us carry it.
Which brings up one last title the Fathers give to the guardian angels: angels of prayer. St. Clement of Alexandria says never to forget that even when we are praying alone, we are joined to the choirs of angels — truly, our invisible friends.