Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: The Life and Task of the Angels

As today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels, I would like to take a look at a passage from one of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s homilies on the Psalms, in which he discusses their life and task. On Monday the 28th, we celebrated the Feast of Saint Michael and the Archangels – those who have special prominence amongst the angels and who have been given the task of defending, addressing and aiding the Church at large. Today though, we celebrate those angels who are given the task of attending to every individual and their particular needs – who are close to each one of us and work for the protection and sanctification of us as persons, not as part of the wider Body. This is not to set up the individual against the whole of the Body of Christ, but to draw attention to the different tasks that the angels have.

Saint Bernard, commenting on the eleventh verse of Psalm 91 (‘for he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways’) moves from the messianic application of this text to the wider sense in which we, as members of Christ’s Body, are cared for and guarded by His angels as well. To support his interpretation he also alludes to the passage in Saint Matthew’s Gospel where Our Lord says ‘do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven’ (18:10) and refers to the passage in Hebrews that describes the angels as ‘ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation’ (1:14). He then explores what form this service may take, and the motivations of the angels themselves:

You will see angels ascending and descending above the Son of Man. They ascend for themselves, they descend for us or, rather, they descend with us. Those blessed spirits ascend by means of the contemplation of God and descend to take care of us and keep us in all our ways (Ps 90[91],11). They ascend to God so as to enjoy his presence; they descend to us in obedience to his commands for he has commanded them to take care of us. However, in descending to us they are not deprived of the glory that is their happiness; they always see the Father’s face…

When they ascend to the contemplation of God they are seeking that truth by which, desiring, they are filled and which, possessing, they still desire. When they descend, they exercise mercy towards us since they keep us in all our ways. For those blessed spirits are God’s ministers sent to us to come to our aid (cf. Heb 1,14). And in this mission, it is not to God they render service but to us. In this they imitate the humility of the Son of God who did not come to be served but to serve and who lived amongst his disciples as though he had been their servant (Mt 20,28)…

God commanded his angels, not to draw you away from your path but to guard you carefully in it and lead you in God’s paths, those they follow themselves. How can that be, you ask? Certainly, the angels act in all purity, for love alone, but you, held back and chastened by the needs of your condition, at least lower yourself, condescend to your neighbour by giving an example of mercy towards him. Then, still in imitation of the angels, lift up your desire and, with all the fervour of your heart, strive to ascend to eternal truth.

from the 11th Sermon on Psalm 90[91], Qui habitat 6, 10-11, courtesy of Daily Gospel.

            There is a particularly striking part of this passage, in which Saint Bernard writes that the angels ‘imitate the humility of the Son of God who did not come to be served but to serve’, pointing to the fact that right through the ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ (c.f.; Ephesians 3:18) of reality is self-sacrificial love that not only exists to serve others but exults in that service. This shows us something of what the angelic life is all about – that the angels ‘always see the Father’s face’ is another way of saying that they eternally enjoy contemplation of the very life of God (which, as we know, is Love) and furthermore, that this contemplation is an active one, characterised by their living out of that love in their own activity.

The angels, as Saint Bernard says ‘act in all purity, for love alone’ and so the role that they have been given – to ‘take care of us and keep us in all our ways…and lead you in God’s path’ – is pure joy for them. It is a joy for them because life lived constantly before the face of God is to know that Love is life and Life is to love – they willingly come forth from the heavenly realms, eager to attend to our every spiritual need. More than this though, God has assigned an angel to each one of us, as it is also characteristic of love to be relational, which must thereby be personal – for the angels to care for us and guide us in the way they so desire, that one-on-one relationship is essential.

The Guardian Angels then, are those who have been given this task to express in a particular fashion their instinctive desire to guide us and draw us closer to the life they already enjoy in fullness. As Saint Bernard describes, the life and task of the angels is one – their whole life is a desire to live the life of God, which is to love; and the task God gives them is to go and do as they desire. It is fitting therefore that this feast follows the Feast of Saint Therese of Lisieux, as she famously declared that she would spend her time in Heaven doing good on earth by providing guidance and aid to those who needed it on their journey towards God. This is precisely what the angels yearn to do for us, and just as Saint Therese desired that we ask for her intercession on our way Home, so do our Guardian Angels, who also have an especial and personal interest in each one of us.

Moreover, the lives of the angels and the teaching of Saint Therese are themselves a pointer to the life we are all eventually called to participate in. What the angels enjoy eternally, and what Saint Therese of Lisieux saw already in her earthly life, is that the true nature of reality is Love, and that true joy comes from living that pattern of selfless giving that Our Lord is the pre-eminent example of. What they call us towards, and what they fervently desire, is that we be helped to grow in the knowledge of this truth, and to conform our lives to the life of blessedness in self-giving that they already enjoy in its fullness and perfection. May we therefore not neglect to ask our Guardian Angels, along with the saints, for their aid in our journeys, as they know better than us what is best for us, and desire more than anything to help us know the life they live as well.

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