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We humans are an interesting breed. Blessed as we are with a natural curiosity, we have plumbed the depths of the earth and sent satellites millions of miles into space. We have explored the tiniest of atoms and the most majestic of mountains. But for all our delving into the physical world, we are still strangely uninterested in the spiritual world.
We are taught in our catechism that our lives are surrounded by the “watchful care” of angels (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 336), but apart from the few people who follow false New Age philosophies, most of us go through life with hardly a thought about these powerful spiritual beings.
So now, let’s do a bit of exploration into the realm of angels. While there is much about the angels that we probably will never understand on this side of eternity, God has given us many glimpses into their character and ministry. He has shown us just enough to prove how much he loves us. He has shown us enough to encourage us as well, for the angels prove that we are never alone in this world. These mighty, compassionate, and wise beings are yet another piece of evidence that God truly has blessed us with “every spiritual blessing in the heavens”—including the blessing of angels (Ephesians 1:3)!
What Is an Angel? So what do we know about angels? First and foremost, we know that they were created “through him and for him”—Jesus, that is (Colossians 1:16). We know that they are “purely spiritual creatures” who have “intelligence and will” (Catechism, 330). We know that they are “ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation”—that is, us (Hebrews 1:14). And we know that angels have been active in this grand story of salvation from the beginning.
Angels stood guard over the garden in the creation story in Genesis, and angels will have a crucial role to play in the final judgment, when Jesus comes again in glory (Genesis 3:24; Revelation 20:1). Angels figure prominently in the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and many other Old Testament heroes and heroines. They are also pivotal in the stories of Mary, Peter, Joseph, Paul, and even Jesus himself in the New Testament. Looking at all the stories about them in the Bible, you can see how central they are to God’s great plan of salvation.
But what do angels do? The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger. In his commentary on Psalm 103, St. Augustine tells us: “ ‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’ ”(On Psalm 103, 1, 15). In other words, angels are pure, immortal spirits; and what they do is act as messengers, or ambassadors, for God. And as ambassadors, they do more than just deliver messages. Many stories in the Scriptures depict them acting on God’s behalf, even wielding divine power to bring about his plans and purposes.
Scripture speaks about different “orders” or types of angels. First, there are the Seraphim, who surround the throne of God and glorify him with songs of praise and adoration (Isaiah 6:3). There are also Cherubim, who guard God’s presence (Genesis 3:24; Ezekiel 10:4-8; Psalm 99:1). There are three archangels as well, who have more direct interaction with God’s creation: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Michael is depicted as a mighty warrior leading God’s army in war against Satan (Revelation 12:7; Jude 9). Gabriel is the high messenger who announced God’s plan to Mary and Zechariah (Luke 1:18-19, 26-28). And Raphael is known as the angel of healing for the way he delivered Tobit from blindness and Sarah from demonic harassment (Tobit 8:1-3; 11:7-14).
Scripture also makes brief mention of other angelic orders, but does not explain them: Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers (Ephesians 1:21; Colossians 1:16). Over the centuries, saints and theologians have proposed different hierarchies of angels, as well as different names for these orders. But no matter their differences, they all agree: Angels are very real—and they are very active, both in the heavens and on the earth.
Heavenly Guardians. Jesus taught us: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father” (Matthew 18:10). The church has always understood this to mean that all of God’s children are protected by guardian angels: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (Catechism, 336).
Reading this passage, we may think: “What a nice, comforting thought! God has given each one of us a guardian angel.” But St. Jerome saw in this verse something more profound than a simple sense of comfort and encouragement. “How great the dignity of the soul must be,” he wrote, “since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it” (Commentary on Matthew, 18, 2).
Where many feel comfort, Jerome felt awe. The mere fact that each of us has an angel—a powerful, immortal, spiritual being—protecting us and guiding us showed Jerome how important we are. It showed him how great our stature is, and how deeply our heavenly Father honors and loves us.
Think of how very wealthy people will sometimes hire a bodyguard. Some feel it is essential for their well-being, while others feel they deserve such protection because of how important they are. Bodyguards like these are usually very costly, and only the richest among us would even think of hiring one. But no matter how much or how little money we have, God gives each of us our very own guardian angel—free of charge! This gift shows how concerned he is for our welfare and our spiritual protection.
The words of the psalmist not only confirm this truth, they provide us with a vivid image that reinforces how valuable we are in our Father’s eyes: “God commands his angels to guard you wherever you go. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). The image reminds us of how a father will lift his child high above a crowd so that she can see a parade. Or it makes us think of the way a mother will hold her son’s hand so that he won’t get lost in a crowd. It’s an image of tenderness and concern, an image of protection and delight, an image of promise and inspiration.
Guardian angels lift us above the ways of the world so that we can see the ways of God. They hold our hands so that we won’t lose our way in this world. As Pope Pius XII once said, angels have the task of “keeping careful watch over us so that we do not become separated from Jesus. . . . They are by our side, helping us to go even higher in our union with God” (October 3, 1958).
An Encounter with an Angel. Guardian angels are always working behind the scenes to protect us from temptation, to guard our hearts and minds, and to help us deal with any danger or difficulty we may face. Take, for example, the following story from a reader.
“Having a son on the autism spectrum often leads to many challenges and new opportunities for us to see God’s hand at work in our lives. I can remember a time a few years ago when Sam told us that he saw his guardian angel. At this time, he was unable to speak in complete sentences, and we were having thirty tantrums a day because communication was so difficult for him. My husband was traveling on business, and it was bedtime. I had come back into Sam’s room to try to settle him down again because his sleeping habits were not very good.
“As I stood in the dark next to him, I heard him say, as clear as a bell: ‘It’s okay, Mom. The angel said: ‘Don’t be sad, Sam. I know you’re sad because your daddy is away. He’ll be back soon, so don’t worry.’ Then he lay down and went right to sleep, leaving me staring in amazement. He had just used perfect language and then put himself to sleep with no meltdowns! When I couldn’t understand my son and he couldn’t express himself to me, God solved that problem through his guardian angel.”
Led by an Angel. Angels are real. They are actively involved in the world, in the church, even in our own lives. God wants to sharpen our spiritual senses so that we can begin to detect how much they are helping us—preparing us to meet Jesus and equipping us to serve him and his church. He wants us to believe that he has sent angels to protect us, to guide us, and to inspire us. So be open to the way your guardian angel is trying to lift your heart to heaven. Let him lead you and draw you closer to Jesus every day.