Angels mean different things to different people – to some their presence can be profoundly comforting, to others their existence is barely tenable at all. Over the course of the past few days we have had the feasts of the Archangels – Michael, Gabriel and Raphael; also known as Michaelmas or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (September 29th) – as well as that of the Guardian Angels (October 2nd), and both have caused me to reflect on the role of angels in our lives. During the past few days’ reflections, I realised that there is not much I can say about angels that is either hopelessly speculative, or has been said much better by someone else already, and so I remembered a letter written by Flannery O’Connor on the subject.
Very often people’s ideas about angels are overly sentimental and can be an obstruction either to belief in them, or veneration of them/asking for their intercession. O’Connor here, with her usual directness and perspicacity, relates how she had fought against this sentimental imagery as a youth, and how the reality of angels was brought back to her:
‘From 8 to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel. This was the guardian angel with which the Sisters assured us we were all equipped. He never left you. My dislike of him was poisonous. I’m sure I even kicked at him and landed him on the floor. You couldn’t hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers – I conceived of him in feathers. Anyway, the Lord removed this fixation from me by His Merciful Kindness and I have not been troubled by it since. In fact I forgot that angels existed until a couple of years ago the Catholic Worker sent me a card on which was printed a prayer to St. Raphael…The prayer asks St. Raphael to guide us to the province of joy so that we may be not ignorant of the concerns of our true country. All this led me to find out eventually what angels were, or anyway what they were not. And what they are not is a big comfort to me…’
from a Letter to ‘A’ on January 17th 1956.
This un-sentimental view of angelic reality has also been well described by Fr. Robert Barron, who discussed them here (almost exactly four years ago) in conjunction with the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux (October 1st) summarising well their role and awesome nature. As for Flannery O’Connor, the impact of that prayer to St. Raphael on her was great, and she continued to pray it daily for the rest of her life. In fact, in one of the last few letters she wrote before she died, she recommended it to Janet McKane, whom she had recently begun corresponding with, and was close to her throughout her final illness:
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
July 14th 1964.
Angels are real, they are powerful, and, as messengers of God’s purposes, they are conveyors and purveyors of love, always ready to aid us in our time of need and bring us closer to the Lord. May the angels be a comfort to us as we journey through life, and may their presence remind us of the reality of the spiritual realm, helping to keep our minds on the things that are above, and directing everything towards God, who is Love.