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Advent/Christmas Circular Letter 2011

Devotion to St. Michael the Archangel - Part 2

Complacence – the First Act of Love

The first act of creaturely love is complacence. Complacence is the attractive delight we take in beauty and goodness, when we discover it. Even so does our devotion to St. Michael begin. We hear about his goodness, his closeness to God! We hear about the help and protection he has given to Israel and the Church throughout history. We are filled with admiration. We also begin to ‘see’ his beauty and goodness existentially in the combined light of his deeds and our needs. For we understood that his goodness is at our disposition; we need but to call upon him. He can help us because he is so close to God; he wants to help us on account of the friendship he bears us for love of Christ!

The devotion we render to St. Michael in no way detracts from the adoration and honor we owe to God. Far to the contrary, our devotion to the holy angels is like a ladder which leads us up to God. In the Mass in honor of St. Michael, the priest prays:

In praising Your faithful Angels and Archangels, we also praise Your glory, for in honoring them, we honor You, their Creator. Their splendor shows us Your greatness, which surpasses in goodness the whole of creation. (Preface of Angels, Missale Romanum)

Seeking Help!

The stories extolling St. Michael are mostly about those who have sought his help. In our great need, we call upon St. Michael for help: He comes to our rescue! When we implore his help, we already begin to honor him, since in so doing we confess his greatness in heaven and upon earth. And when he comes to our aid, we honor him anew by our gratitude and by proclaiming his greatness to others.

Additionally, he comes to our aid many times without our calling upon him directly. We call upon God, in whose service he stands, and God sends His angel to help us. The Psalmist experienced this and sang:

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him: and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him: and shall deliver them. O taste and see that the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopes in him.      (Psalm 34:7-9)

Here again, we see that the experience of the angelic assistance will naturally draw us closer to the Lord, for in the angel’s help, the sweetness of the Divine goodness is made manifest to us.

We might say that danger is the common denominator behind St. Michael’s help. When we meet St. Michael in Scripture it is usually in a military context. He is the protector and defender of Israel (Dan 11-12). It is likely he who instructed and assisted Joshua in the takeover of Jericho and the Promised Land. In the Apocalypse, it is he who leads the angelic forces against the devil, casting him and the reprobate spirits out of heaven (Apoc 12:7ff).

In the history of the Church St. Michael is also venerated largely for his protection against evil. This can be of four kinds: a) the physical evil of sickness; b) physical danger; c) the political evil of war and oppression; and d) the spiritual evil of oppression by the devil and evil persons. Yet, all in all of his interventions, his principal concern is for the integrity of our faith.

Sickness

The earliest recorded veneration of St. Michael from the first Century in Phrygia was linked to healings of the body. Near Colossae two sacred springs are attributed to his salutary intervention from the earliest centuries. It seems that in one place at least, the natural baths had formerly been dedicated to a demon. It is as if St. Michael had performed an exorcism, so that the early Christians might be assured that health and salvation are from God alone!

Fifteen Centuries later, St. Michael appeared in Mexico in the analogous situation of the missionary evangelization of the New World, a few generations after the apparition of our Lady at Guadalupe. On three separate occasions he appeared there to a local Indian, Diego Lazaro, and commanded him to “Make my message known.” The message was an announcement of a new spring of water, infused and aglow with the “virtue of God.”

Danger

A few years ago, a pilgrim bus on its way to Fatima was descending the western slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains. Suddenly, one of the pilgrims saw that the bus driver had fallen asleep; his hands hung limp at his side. Still, the bus continued down the steep, winding road. This continued for some ten to fifteen minutes. Finally at the foot of the mountain the bus pulled off to the side of the road and stopped. A voice was heard: “I am Michael the Archangel; I have been sent to your rescue by God and to strengthen your faith!”

The story could be a parable for the dangers in which the Church has found herself in modern times. We mentioned in the last Circular the vision Pope Leo XIII had in 1884 of the devil, boasting to our Lord that he could destroy the Church in 100 years. Pope John Paul II commented on this at the Angelus on April 24, 1994:

 It is this same battle to which the Book of Revelation refers, recalling before our eyes the image of Saint Michael the Archangel (cf. Rev 12:7). Pope Leo XIII certainly had a very vivid vision of this scene when, at the end of the last century, he introduced a special prayer to Saint Michael throughout the Church. Even if this prayer is no longer recited at the end of every Mass, I ask everyone to remem-ber it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.

Oppression and War

As Prince of the heavenly hosts, soldiers also naturally seek his assistance and protection. St. Gregory the Great writes: “Every time there is needed the deployment of extraordinary force, it is St. Michael who is sent” (Homily XXXIV on the Gospels). From the beginning, he protected Israel from its enemies and drove off the evil demonic prince of the Persians.

In the Christian era, since the Cross belongs to the symbolism of St. Michael, it has been suggested that St. Michael presented the sign in the sky to Emperor Constantine in 312, when he heard the words: “In hoc signum vinces.” (By this sign you will conquer.) Constantine, buoyed up by the apparition, encouraged his 20,000 troops for the upcoming battle against Maxentius and his 100,000 men. Constantine’s soldiers, the majority of whom were pagans, placed the sacred image of the Cross on their shields. The two military forces clashed near the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River. Maxentius succumbed in the Tiber. The battle won, Constantine became emperor.

Under similar circumstances, King Alfonso Henriques of Portugal (who became a lay member of the Order of the Holy Cross) gained a principal battle against the Moors at the reputedly invincible Castle of Ourem after St. Michael appeared, promising his help. That led to the consecration of the entire nation to St. Michael in 1140 by St. Theotonius, co-founder of the Order of the Holy Cross.

In the 15th Century, God sent St. Michael to assist and accompany St. Jean d’Arc in driving the English oppressors out of France. Mindful of this help all the dioceses of France consecrated France to St. Michael on May 19, 1912. He was not long in rewarding such honor. In the midst of an important battle during the First World War in France the German soldiers had a vision of St. Jean d’Arc and St. Michael leading the cavalry into battle. The Germans fled, lost the battle, and were convinced that the outcome of the war had already been decided in heaven by the sending of St. Michael.

Spiritual Combat

Even more than in the case of physical danger and combat, St. Michael hastens to the aid of those in spiritual danger who call upon him. Bossuet explains the logic for this well:

“We must not hesitate to acknowledge St. Michael as the defender of the Church…. If the dragon and his infernal army fight against her, it is no wonder that St. Michael and his angels defend her.” Pius IX proclaimed for his part in 1868 that “if on the one hand the wicked of our times have dared to honor the prince of darkness, having become his sons and imitators, on the other hand the faithful are determined to reveal the devotion and confidence the Catholic Church has always placed in St. Michael the Archangel, the first vanquisher of the accursed spirit”.

Growing from Complacence to Benevolence

St. Thomas observes that nature is generally inclined to do the right thing (f. Summa Theol. I, 63, 9 c). Hence, by its very nature the incipient love of complacency naturally tends to lead us on towards perfect love. The same is true of devotion. We initially delight in the greatness of St. Michael and see therein a great help for us in our needs. But by rights, this devotion should grow into a perfect devotion marked by benevolence. It is then no longer a question of what St. Michael can do for me, but what I can do for St. Michael!

How does this take place? This transition takes place by persevering in our devotion with an innocent and pure heart. There is no other way, St. Francis de Sales assures us, to grow from the love of complacency to the mature perfection of charity in benevolent love.

Let us mention three expressions of holy devotion that issue from the benevolence of love. The first is praise and gratitude. The second is imitation. The third is by means of vows and/or consecrations. We shall discuss the first two. A full discourse on a consecration to St. Michael is not possible in the scope of this article. Let it suffice to say, that by our consecration we make our whole life into act of veneration of St. Michael.

Praise and Gratitude

The first expression of perfect devotion towards St. Michael is the praise we offer him. There are many prayers, songs and litanies that serve this purpose well. Now it may be objected that we also praise him in the devotion that issues forth from charity’s complacence in love. This, of course, is true, but it should not surprise us that there is both imperfect and perfect praise. It is one thing, when I invite you to praise St. Michael with me because he helped me find my lost drachma. When I am the focal point of this delight and praise, then my devotion is imperfect; it issues from complacence. I would be pleased with St. Michael simply because he is so talented at finding lost thing! But if I add to this any one of the following three thoughts, it enters into the realm of benevolent love, into the realm of perfect devotion:

I rejoice simply in the goodness of St. Michael, for his own sake, that he is so good and powerful to help those in need. I rejoice in God’s goodness, for St. Michael’s help simultaneously manifests the goodness and solicitude of God towards His creatures. I rejoice for my neighbors’ sake, for if St. Michael can help me, he can also help you find your lost drachma, or even the one denarius of eternal life. In addition to the normal prayers by which we may expresss our gratitude to St. Michael for his help and protection, one in particular especially befits our union with the holy angels in the Communion of Saints: We do well to invite them to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass together with us. And let us offer our Holy Communion up in their honor and in gratitude for their love and assistance. Indeed, the Liturgy makes it very clear that they do participate at every Holy Mass, but few are they who consciously cultivate this union with the holy angels.

St. Gertrude relates the wonderful fruits that would come from this practice. In her biography we read:

As the Feast of St. Michael approached, St. Gertrude prepared herself for Holy Communion by meditation on the care which the angles had of her, by the divine command, notwithstanding her unworthiness. And as she desire to render some return to them, she offered in their honor the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament, saying: “I offer You this most august Sacrament, O most loving Lord, for Your eternal glory, in honor of the princes of Your Kingdom and for the increase of their felicity and Beatitude.”

Then our Lord drew this oblation to Himself in an ineffable manner, thereby causing the greatest joy to these angel spirits, who appeared even as if they had never before experienced such blessedness and super abounded in delights. Then each of the choirs of angels, according to their rank, inclined respectfully before St. Gertrude, saying: “You have indeed honored us by this oblation, and we will therefore guard you with special care” ( Life of St. Gertrude, IV, ch. 54, p. 462).

Moreover, thereafter a representative from each of the first six choirs approached her to thank her and promised her special graces in gratitude: 1) the Angels promised special protection; 2) the Archangels, light into the divine mysteries; 3) the Virtues, assistance in her writings and meditations; 4) the Dominations, by their praise and intercession to make good any negligence on her part; 5) the Principalities, to adorn her and present her to God; 6) the Powers, to remove every impediment to her spiritual growth (ibid, pp. 463).

Imitation

When it comes to either praising or imitating St. Michael fittingly, we need to know and understand him properly; otherwise, we will end up praising him vainly. Moreover, our imitation would be a counterfeit.  

There is a woman psychologist who does street apostolate among the drug addicts and prostitutes in Vancouver, British Columbia. That sub-culture is rife with Satanism; many of them wear his emblem on their clothing. This clever woman would ask them why they were devoted to him. Generally, the answer came back, “Because he’s powerful!” “Powerful?” she returned, “Why, he was a loser! St. Michael kicked him right out of heaven!” And she would give them a medal or a T-shirt with St. Michael on it. Many of them would accept it gratefully and wear it from then on. That was a beginning of their devotion to St. Michael. Though they had no deep idea about St. Michael, they could begin to call upon him for help.

Their vision of St. Michael unfortunately is akin to a popular misconception about St. Michael that tends to turn him into a superstar, a super-gladiator, something like an angelic “Schwarzenegger”. Moreover, this position appears to find some support in the common theological position that St. Michael is the first and highest of all the angels. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, soberly places St. Michael among the Archangels, the penultimate choir. He understands St. Michael’s title “Prince” in a generic fashion, namely as leader of the heavenly hosts of the 9th choir angels (cf. Summa Theo. I 11, 3, c). This position, to the dismay of many, really reflects the wisdom and power of God.

Battle can only be engaged for the souls of mankind here on earth and for the physical creation. It is here on earth in the depth of spiritual battle, that St. Michael exercises his military leadership over the angelic hosts as “Prince”. And for this he draws his strength from on high, from God and the higher choirs of angels.

The Son of God emptied Himself, He took on the form of a servant. He did not redeem us by a stroke of omnipotence, but by His omnipotence on the Cross. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:8). St. Paul prayed three times to the Lord for a singular strength to defeat the demon that tempted him, but Jesus replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” St. Paul drew the only conclusion that worthily reflects the mystery of our Redemption: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Similarly, the greatness of the Blessed Mother lies in her extreme humility and purity of heart: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:46-48). Here we must seek the true grandeur of St. Michael; he is not a giant, but much more like the little child, whom Jesus exalts: “[Unless you] become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3-4).

Michael is like the spiritual twin of the blessed Virgin of Nazareth, for all his greatness and power comes not from any natural strength, but from His extreme humility. In her humility and faith, Mary could proclaim her “Ecce”, her “Fiat” and become the Virgin Mother of God. In his unconditional faith and humility, St. Michael could cry out, “Who is like GOD!” and so “by the divine power cast into hell Satan and all the other evil spirits.”

St. Michael is the ‘original’ David who went out to slay the original Goliath, the devil, who blasphemed against God. David went out to meet him, not clad in the armor and weaponry of nature, but clad in faith and in confidence in the Name of God. And taking up five stones – which symbolized the wounds of Christ – he went out to meet Goliath, saying:

You come to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, which you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will slay you, and cut off you head… [so] that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear: for it is His battle, and He will deliver you into our hands.  (1 Sam 17:45-48)

Behold St. Michael, the humble servant of God! It is in his extreme humility and faith, in his most sublime innocence and purity of spirit that we must honor him, praise him and imitate him. And this must be the spirit that animates our spiritual life, when we propose to consecrate ourselves to St. Michael, so that as his fellow servant, we might proclaim by our very lives, “Who is like GOD!” and come to the service of our brethren in the faith.          

(W. W.)