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BY Jim Cosgrove
My last column dealt with the problems of the new angel phenomena. Most of the present angel fad has its roots in the New Age movement and its fascination with spirit channeling. However, the angel fad is more than a substitution of the angels for channeled spirits.
Many of the proponents of the angel phenomena are storytellers with little interest in spirit channeling. They enchant talk-show audiences with stories of help from heaven, covering a range of problems from finding a parking place in Manhattan to being rescued from an avalanche.
These angel advocates do not focus on advice about past lives and hope for reincarnation. Rather, they emphasize angelic aid in the present, in concrete, everyday life and even death situations. What purpose does this serve them? Why are so many people interested in stories about the angels?
One reason is that a large number of people today hold serious doubts about the existence of the supernatural world. The reality of God, the saints, the devil, and the good angels seem farfetched to many in modern society. At the same time, they do not want to deny the supernatural outright. Maybe, they think, a reality beyond the boundaries of logic and science is possible. When a former skeptic appears on television or writes in a newspaper of an episode of supernatural help in a risky situation, modern skeptics are fascinated and even comforted. A materialistic life feels empty; the possibility of the supernatural helps fill the void.
A second factor with the angel phenomena has to do with the fact that many people rush around in their lives with little direction or clear purpose. They frequently feel alone and isolated in a large world that pushes them around with its demands. For people who are accustomed to satisfying other people's demands but who feel that no one cares for them, stories of angels who freely extend acts of kindness are a great source of comfort.
A third factor for the angel craze flows from the second: The celestial creatures make few if any demands on those they help. They are sent from God (if there is a God), they save your skin, and they do not ask for return favors. Besides, what could you possibly give to a spirit who has everything? Herein lies a problem for the spiritual life. Many modern people perceive angels as spiritual aunts and uncles. When you want someone to like you, help you out, or give you a treat, who better than a favorite uncle or aunt? My uncles took me to stock car races and the circus, helped me build model cars, and bought me ice cream cones at a place that looked like a castle. We had a lot of fun, and the demands were few. My Mom and Dad let me have a lot of fun, too, but they also set curfews, and demanded housework, homework, and good behavior. To a young boy, the demands seemed greater than the rewards.
Similarly, some people want angels to be their spiritual uncles and aunts who treat them to goodies, rescue them from trouble, and comfort them in times of need. They do not necessarily want a heavenly Father who threatens to punish them if they disobey the Ten Commandments. They are uncomfortable about the demands Jesus Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount or about taking responsibility for their ultimate destiny—eternal life in heaven or hell.
However, the demands my parents made on me were correct demands. The punishments for wrongdoing taught me to be responsible for my behavior and to accept the fact that my actions had consequences. My parents taught me, day in and day out, the proper way to live, share, and mature. Not that my uncles opposed my parents' wishes; they simply did not have the full responsibility of raising me. They had fun with me as a little kid, and I had fun with them. My parents raised me.
Looking to the angels as spiritual aunts and uncles has a certain risk. Some people may simply want angelic help and even fun. However, we all need our heavenly Father to set moral demands and eternal goals for us. Our Father in heaven requires responsibility for our actions and seeks that we be holy as he is holy (Lv 19:2), perfect as he is perfect (Mt 5:48), and compassionate as he is compassionate (Luke 6:36). Our Father in heaven desires to raise us from one glory to another.
We Catholics should never deny the role of the angels; their ministry is a great gift from God. We should love the angels and trust that our Lord has given us a wonderful guardian angel. However, we should not substitute the angels for our faith in God. We should not let the world trick us into being satisfied with the spirits who help us as replacements for the God who demands moral righteousness and holiness.
God not only makes the demands, but he gives us his Son to redeem us from our failures. He gives us himself and makes us sons and daughters who are made responsible for behavior and are made heirs of the Kingdom of heaven. The angels are good to us, but God makes us his children and raises us.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.