There’s Nothing Childish About Devotion to Your Guardian Angel
It is childlike, but not childish, to recognize the involvement of angels and devils in our effort to love God and be saved.
[The Memorial of the Guardian Angels is preempted in 2022 by the Sunday liturgy for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. That said, because of the importance of devotion to the Guardian Angels, this “Saints and Art” essay explores the theology and artwork of the Guardian Angels].
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love entrusts me here.
Ever this day, be at my side
To light and guard, to rule and guide, Amen.
Devotion to the Guardian Angels might seem to some childish. The prayer asking for their care has a childish, sing-song rhyme. Most of us probably learned it as children. The picture we’ve chosen to illustrate the Memorial is probably the one that springs to most people’s minds from the old catechism: two little kids, the little boy scared, crossing a rude bridge while a protective angel hovers above and behind them. The Gospel for today’s Mass (Matthew 18:1-5, 10) even talks about children.
But there’s nothing childish about devotion to the Guardian Angels.
As noted in connection with the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, interest in angels has made a contemporary comeback, albeit not so much in the Church as in “New Age” and “spirituality” circles. That quasi-secular angelology is off-track: it talk about angels but never directly about God and it turns angels into “heavenly helpers” to get people out of fixes but rarely if ever demands moral change of their behavior, especially in the name of the Living God. But like, with most errors, it’s not so much a totality of error as much as a kernel of truth seized upon to the forgetfulness or exclusion of all others.
People deep down don’t want to think their lives are the results of random chance and quirks of faith. At the same time, they know they are not in control, even if certain contemporary behaviors suggest they’ve failed to outgrow helicopter parenting to accept the risks of normal adult life. But, in a culture tinged by deism that pushes God off into the removed, uncommunicative, and maybe even unknowable, the Christian idea of Providence seems alien.
Well, the good news of Catholicism is that people’s lives are not the results of fate or random chance, and that God is constantly involved in our lives. He’s not a “helicopter parent” that shields us from the risks of skinned knees or skinned lives: he gave us freedom and expects us to use it with adult responsibility. But neither did he leave us in this world alone, with “angels” maybe as an emergency clean-up crew.
Every moment of our existence is sustained by God. Creation was not a one-off act: God created and left. If God did not sustain existence at every moment, the universe would collapse into nothingness, because no being except God IS. No being except God is self-sufficient.
So we are dependent on God. God knows that and does not leave us in this world alone. Salvation is, after all, a community affair: we can be damned alone, but no one is saved except in community. That’s why he gave us the Church. And by “Church” I mean the Church in all its fullness: the Church on earth, the Church in Purgatory, and the Church in Heaven. The Church on earth — our brothers and sisters — are supposed to help us to live the kinds of life God wants us to. The Church in Purgatory, which already understand just how precious salvation is, can pray for us even as they ask in reciprocity we pray for them. The Church in Heaven is on our side, rooting for us in prayer. “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), not as passive spectators to see whether or not we screw up, but to support us on our journey to join them.
And God, in his Providence, does not just leave us with the support of human persons. Catholic theology teaches that God also supports each and every one of us with an angelic person, a personal guardian angel.
Our guardian angel already sees God. Our guardian angel is one of those angels who was tested at the beginning of creation and remained loyal to God. He is deeply interested in our salvation.
So God, in his Providence, gives us constant support. But we have to add one more element to this picture: the struggle against evil.
Our salvation is not something we can achieve automatically, on cruise control. Salvation is a drama because we can fail. We can not love God. We can be damned.
Our salvation is not achieved in the middle of some neutral playing field. There are angels, including our guardian angels, to help us on the way to salvation. There are also angels — devils — that want us not to be saved. Although it seems contemporary theology fails to say much about the reality of spiritual conflict and struggle, St. Paul was clear: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Perhaps one reason for the failure of some in the contemporary Church to talk about angels is their failure to talk about devils. The devil is explained away as some kind of “symbol” of evil, some medieval relic that modernity has “outgrown.” But this supposedly “modern” and “grown-up” perspective on the world of spiritual beings is, in fact, what is immature and childish. Evil itself is not a self-standing reality, but evil persons — angelic and human — are. As Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer observes in his book, Christ versus Satan in Our Daily Lives:
If a terrorist is living in our neighborhood, wouldn’t we want to swallow the bitter pill of knowing this fact so that we can do something about it? The devil, like the terrorist, does not go away if we ignore him. Instead, he increase his influence, domain, destructiveness, and malevolent intent to seduce and goad the ‘unaware’ into his eternal darkness. Putting our hands in front of our eyes and insisting ‘You can’t see me!’ is a highly ineffective strategy for contending with a demon of remarkable intelligence and cruelty.
If our salvation needs to be won in the midst of a spiritual struggle and our enemies — no less than our friends — are angelic persons, then no one St. Paul exhorts us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
These are not childish things. These are things that demand eyes wide open, a sobriety and alertness because “your enemy, the devil, prowls like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
So, let’s recognize that there is nothing childish about devotion to the Guardian Angels. Let’s recognize that there is nothing childish about recognizing the involvement of angels and devils in our effort to love God and be saved.
There’s nothing “childish” about this devotion, but there is and should be something “childlike” about it. That’s the point of today’s Gospel, where Jesus puts a child in the midst of his quarreling Apostles and tells them that, unless they become like little children spiritually, instead of acting like spoiled little brats when it comes to their petty ambitions, they will not be saved.
It is childlike to recognize one’s dependency on God. It is childlike to avail one’s self trustingly of the assistance God has given us, including our own personal guardian angel, on the road to salvation. It is both childlike and yet very mature to admit I need help.
Today’s artwork illustrating the memorial of the Guardian Angels is actually a postcard that appeared around 1900. Fridolin Leiber (1853-1912) was a German artist who produced a number of popular religious paintings that have been frequently reproduced in the twentieth century. Among them were various versions of the Schutzengel, the “Guardian Angel.” These versions usually depict a little boy and a little girl near some peril, with the protective presence of a guardian angel near them. The painting shown at the beginning of today’s essay is perhaps the most well-known, but other variants can be seen here. Leiber himself may have been influenced by what some commentators consider a development in Christian art that we saw when we considered Titian’s painting of the Archangel Raphael. Because Raphael accompanies Tobit and provides him and his family protection, the model of angel-with-charge may have eventually transferred to images of the guardian angels. Furthermore, as we noted last week, Titian paints Tobit as a young boy because he is under Raphael’s tutelage, but that is not how the Bible presents him. In the Old Testament, Tobit is a young man on his way to get married and Raphael protects him and his bride from mortal danger as well as curing Tobit’s blind father.
The popularity and broad dissemination of Leiber’s images may account for the association of guardian angels with children and perhaps with an idea of saccharine childishness. But, as noted above, the proper attitude should not look at this Providential friend as “childish” but to depend on one’s guardian angel and the God who entrusted him to me with “childlike” confidence. Recall that we just celebrated the feast of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus: her “little way” of childlike confidence was the way to heaven.
Christian art before Leiber did not shrink from emphasizing the guardian angel as every Christian’s companion. One good example of this are depictions of the guardian angel as the companion who leads the soul in Purgatory finally to his heavenly reward: see here. Another are depictions of guardian angels with their adult charges. Contemporary mystics like St. Padre Pio, St. Gemma Galgani and St. Faustina Kowalska also speak of their active friendship with their guardian angels. So let us join their mature, “childlike” confidence and put away any “childish” prejudices towards soliciting our angelic guardian’s help in our spiritual battle.
- guardian angels