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Our Guardian Angels: Angels of Penance and Prayer

by Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is on: Our Guardian Angels: Angels of Penance and Prayer

All that we have seen about the guardian spirits being angels of peace applies equally to their mission as angels of penance and angels of prayer. So true is this that when Christ instituted the sacrament of penance on Easter Sunday night, He introduced Himself by telling the disciples to be at peace. In the Church’s tradition, a perfect synonym for the sacrament of penance is the sacrament of peace.

After all, what is the cause of the deepest conflict in the human heart? Is it not the realization that a person is not at peace with God? We can expect only as much peace of soul as our wills are conformed to the will of God. There is, we may say, a mysterious proportion between peace of heart and purity of heart. The more pure our hearts are from sin, the more peace of soul we will have. All sinners are in conflict. All guilt causes dissension in the human heart. That is what peace means, it is the absence of conflict. And the deepest conflict is between a created will and the will of God.

If there is one thing that Dante brings out in his Inferno, it is the hellish conflict within the demons and within the souls of those who are condemned. We might even dare to compare Christ, who is the Prince of peace, with the Devil, who is the prince of conflict.


Angels of Penance

The same early masters of the spiritual life who speak of the guardian angels as agents of peace are equally eloquent in describing them as angels of penance. We speak of penance as what a sinner does to return to God’s friendship. Thus we are told that the convert from sin is received by the angels.

Why? Because, “He who has approached the angel of penance will have to repent no more when he leaves his body behind, he will not blush when he sees the Lord coming with His armies” (St. Clement of Alexandria, Quis Dives Salvetur, 42, 18). That is why we are told that the angel of penance holds the devil in his power. As the angel of penance, he is also the messenger of hope for those who have been converted from sin. It is for the same reason that converted sinners are encouraged to remain firm in their resolution of not relapsing into their estrangement from God.

Once again it is Origen who is most detailed in describing the role of the angel of penance. In context, Origen has just spoken of the role of bishops and priests, “When instructing the sinner, reproaching him and rebuking him with severe words. It happens too that we are guardians when our patrons, for which I mean the angels to whom has been, confided the task of directing and guiding our souls.” Moreover, “we are subject to various forms of remonstrance. We are not first chastised by the Father of the family Himself, but by the angels whom He has sent as masters over us with the office of chastising and correcting each one of us.”

What are we being told? The Church’s tradition tells us that sinners are indeed punished by God, but, strange word, but gradually. First the Lord sends His angels to send us pain. This pain is a divine reminder to arouse us from our stupor of sin. If we convert, that may be all the chastisement that will befall us. But, if we resist, God Himself will enter the picture and exercise His divine punitive justice to bring us back to our senses so that we will begin to live as repentant sinners. Two words that can never be separated are sin and pain. Where there is sin, there is pain. And in God’s mysterious providence, He allows us to experience pain so that we will be awakened to the condition of our spiritual life. Remember, we shall suffer either here, or hereafter.

The angel of penance is not only the agent of chastisement. He is also sent by God to provide us with means of remission of our sins as a restoration of our souls to spiritual health. In this sense, the angels are messengers of spiritual healing. The parable of the Good Samaritan has been used for centuries to explain how the angels of penance are angels of healing. After the Good Samaritan had brought the Jewish victim of cruel robbers to the inn, he gave the innkeeper some money to care for the poor victim. The Good Samaritan, we are told, symbolizes the angel of the Church whom God commands to look after the spiritually sick people and nurse them back to health.

As we know, for generations the Catholic Church has named hospitals after the Good Samaritan. Nursing the sick back to physical health is a corporal work of mercy as a prelude to the spiritual work of mercy, cared for by the angels, who are restoring people to health of soul.


Angels of Prayer

There is no single angelic theme in biblical revelation that is more commonly described than the role of the angels as communicating our prayers to God. But our focus here is on the guardian angels as angels of our prayers.

How, we may ask, is our guardian angel the angel of prayer? He is first of all the angel of prayer by enlightening our minds with holy thoughts, without which we could not pray. Let me emphasize, the foundation of the spiritual life is in the mind. What we think we desire. What we desire we choose. What we do makes us what we are. It all begins, I repeat, in the mind. How desperately we need the help of the angels to continually enlighten our minds with holy thoughts without which prayer would be a pious fantasy.

Our natural tendency is to be so preoccupied with the things of this world that we have to do, dare I say, violence to ourselves to place ourselves in the spirit of prayer. When Christ taught us the Our Father, He told us to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” This is a primary need of our souls if we are going to pray we must lift up our minds and hearts beyond the perishable things of this world and raise them to the heavens above. Who is better equipped to raise these earthly minds of ours to the thoughts of God and the heavens where He lives? Surely it is the angels who are inhabitants of that spiritual kingdom which they merited not long after their creation by their fidelity to their Creator. What do the saints and the angels mainly do in heaven? They pray. And needless to say, they enjoy the experience ecstatically.

In so many ways, Christ tells us, reminds us, warns us to lift up our souls to the heaven in which He lives. We might say this is the deepest spiritual struggle of our lives here on earth. It is the struggle of living physically in this world of noise or shall I say tinkling symbols, and yet constantly raise our souls to the heavens where the angels dwell. They are not only inhabitants of heaven. Heaven is familiar to them. They enjoy their heavenly surroundings. They know what it means to be in the constant vision of God and experience the beatitude which this vision provides.

Whatever we know about the theology of prayer, we know that we need the assistance of those experienced in prayer who can teach us what it really means to pray. It means to be in the presence of God, enjoy His intimacy and experience the nearness of our God. The angels are experienced-prayers. We should therefore expect that, in many ways, the principal assistance they can give us as our guardians and guides is to train us in the art of prayer.

In this connection, there is no single phrase reporting Christ’s words in the gospels than when He told us that the guardian angels always see the face of the Father who is in heaven and therefore constantly behold the divinity of our Creator. Prayer is many things, and by now a library of volumes has been written on the theology and practice of prayer. But one thing is certain prayer here on earth is seeing the face of God by faith. In order to communicate with this God who we believe engages in conversation whenever we pray. That is what the angels are constantly doing in heaven, engaging in conversation with the Most High. We might say they are professionals in the practice of prayer and we are still little children who need to learn the rudiments of talking with our Heavenly Father.

There is another profound sense which our guardian angels are the angels of prayer. Strictly speaking whenever we pray, the principal object of our prayer is God Himself. There are so many things that we need from the hands of God. So many things that only He can provide. But we need mediators between God and ourselves. We believe there is such a thing as praying directly to God. But there is too much in Scripture to remind us that we need persons who are closer to God than we are to be our intercessors with the Almighty. This is where the angels serve the indispensable function of mediating between the Almighty and ourselves. The closer a person is to God, the more holy that person is, the more pleasing to God, the more effective is that person’s intercession before the throne of the Holy Trinity. We define the Beatific Vision as the face-to-face, intuitive seeing of the Trinity. The angels not only see God, they are deeply loved by God. Their power, therefore, as pleaders for us before God is beyond human explanation. What we know by faith, however, is that their holiness as the angelic hosts makes them potent interceders on our behalf. The more devoted we are to them and the more fervently we invoke their aid, the more of God’s blessings they will obtain for us who are still living in the shadows of faith.


Guardians of the Universe

When we speak of the guardian angels, we commonly associate them with individual spirits who are leading and protecting each one of us as single persons. This is true. Each one of us does have our own guardian angel.

However the guardianship of angelic hosts goes far beyond their care for individual persons on earth. One of the favorite themes of St. Thomas Aquinas is to represent the whole physical world, the sun, moon, and stars, the oceans and seas, the animals and birds and the fishes, indeed everything as being entrusted by God to the keeping of the angels. We should believe that the stars and their courses are watched over by the mighty spirit. Nations are committed to the care of the heavenly host. Indeed, there is no part of the universe which does not experience the breath of those whose minds always behold the countenance of God. Behind this thoroughly Catholic outlook is the principle which merits the angelic ministry. The inferior beings in creation are invariably under the tutelage of higher beings. This great law has no exceptions. The universe is held together with the golden threads of spiritual power, which is more important than the physical forces of the atoms or molecules of crude matter or even the gigantic forces of an earthquake or hurricane. You might also say this stands to reason. The Creator of the universe is a pure spirit. There is not a proton or a neutron in His being. He has no measurable shape or size or weight. Yet He is the infinite Reality by whom everything in the world was created and on whom everything in the universe totally depends.

Having created the angelic world of pure spirits, what would be more logical than for Him, who is pure Spirit, to entrust to created spirits the governance of the rest of the world.

Mary, Queen of the universe, we ask you to ask your divine Son to appreciate more deeply the role of the guardian angels in our lives. As Queen of angels, you are in their heavenly company and understand how important is their role in our lives. We ask you to ask your divine Son to make us understand how important the angels are in our lives. Help us to be grateful for the inspiration of the angel of peace, the angel of penance, and the angel of prayer - who is our guardian angel. Help us to show our gratitude by cooperating with these angelic inspirations until we join you and the angels in the heavenly glory for which we were made. Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #20, Friday 3/1/96, 4:30 PM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica






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