Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Trouble with Angels



Today is the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels. The idea that everyone has a personal guardian angel isn’t an article of faith, which is good because I’ve always had trouble with angels. I’m not opposed to the idea of their existence, but I’m weary of speculation on their interactions with humans, and I’m skeptical of having a personal guardian.

Angelology (yes, it’s a word) can be confusing, because for an area that is almost pure speculation, there is a whole lot of complexity on what angels are, look like, and do. There are nine choirs (or types) of angels, categorized into three triads. The first triad is the heavenly counselors. The six-winged seraphim are the highest order and caretakers of God’s throne. The cherubim have four faces (man, ox, lion, eagle, the same animals connected with the Gospels) and guard the Garden of Eden. Aquinas imagined Satan as a fallen cherub. The thrones are my favorite, description-wise; they appear as a wheel within a wheel, and the rims of the wheels are covered with hundreds of eyes. They are living symbols of God’s justice.

The second triad is the heavenly governors. The dominions have the most traditional look of an angel: humanlike with two wings and orbs of light above their heads. They regulate the duties of lower angels. The virtues supervise the movements of the heavenly bodies, keeping the mechanics of the universe in order. The powers regulate, well, power and conscience. They are the warrior class of angels.

The third triad is heavenly messengers. The principalities wear a crown and carry a scepter. They oversee the earthly realm and groups of people. The archangels are what are best known through the Bible. They are the ones delivering the big messages from God, such as the Annunciation, given to Mary by Gabriel. The lowest order of angels is simply the Angels. They pray to God on behalf of humans and deliver messages from God. They are the closest to the material world and therefore, have the most interaction with humans (think the visitors to Sodom). Guardian angels come from this order.

I really like the categorizing and descriptions from a literary perspective, but from a theological point, I think it’s needlessly complex. Angels are spiritual and close to God, but they are not God, and therefore don’t require such carefully set descriptions. I find most of it medieval literature that isn’t opposed to Catholic faith, but not a requirement of it either.

The idea of individual guardian angels seems to gain hold because it promotes how each soul is valuable to God. Each and every person is worthy of having heavenly protection. The Gospel reading for today includes Matthew 18:10: “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.” While there is Scriptural support for this idea of guardian angels, I’m still not convinced that they serve on the individualized level others claim. Even mystics who have close interactions with angels doesn’t prove that we’re each given an angel, looking over our shoulder all the time. I don’t like the idea of human/spiritual matchmaking. I’ll grant that angels listen to prayers and deliver messages, but not on a 1:1 ratio. 

Or maybe they do. That’s the trouble with such speculation. I really don’t know, and I’m really not sure it matters (unless my personal guardian angel is disappointed in how ignored it is). I’m open to the idea of angels and spiritual beings. I hope I’m open to messengers from God. And if there are personalized guardian angels, I hope I’m not judged for my doubts.

All the angels used to share a feast day with St. Michael (who, depending on who you ask, is an archangel, the archangel, or a seraph). A separate feast for Guardian Angels started in Valencia in 1411 and gained enough popularity to be added to the General Calendar in 1615.

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