Circular Letter: Spring 1997
Devotion to the Holy Angels: Putting Theory into Practice
The First Goals of the Spiritual Life
The first aim of all Christian piety and, therefore, also of a true devotion to the Holy Angels is the increase in charity, whereby we love God with a pure heart and seek His glory. This consists, first of all, in our perfect conformity to His will. So doing, we become like the Angels and join their praise: “Bless the LORD, 0 you his Angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will!” (Ps 103,20-21)
The second goal to devotion to the Holy Angels is a corresponding increase in love for neighbor. (the Angels included) cannot outstrip our growth in love for God, for by charity we love our neighbor for God’s sake.
These two goals coalesce perfectly with the mission of the Holy Angels who greatly desire to lead us to God, to His Divine Heart, “the place” He has prepared for us (cf. Ex. 23,20). Since the “way” to the Father’s Heart is Jesus Christ, it follows that the entire endeavor of the Holy Angels is to prepare the way for Christ’s coming into our souls. Like John the Baptist, they rejoice to hear His voice, and desire that HE increase, while they willingly decrease. As the new Catechism teaches: “Christ is the center of the angelic world. – He has made them messengers of His saving plan” ( n. 331).
How important it is to understand this matrix of the spiritual life. While it is important to come to know our ‘fellow servants,’ the Holy Angels, so as to cooperate better with them, it is also important to learn how to cooperate with them in the obscurity of faith, for they mostly work invisibly. Notwithstanding, the Holy Angels really are our fellow servants. So we have a common Lord, a common mission, a common destiny. This unity expresses itself in the common liturgy uniting the whole Church, about which the Catechism explains: “In her liturgy, the Church joins with the Angels to adore the thrice-holy God. She invokes their assistance. … Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of the Angels and men united to God” (CCC.335.336).
Fatigue in the Spiritual Life
Beginners in the spiritual life love to read every book about the spiritual life, about the Angels that they can get their hands upon,… they gladly call upon the Angels for a thousand ministries and helps. These exterior spiritual activities, however, cannot offer the biding, sustaining joy which Comes through interior union with God. This is why the fervor of many souls, after their initial zeal and labors, begins to flag. The imperfections of self-love, which still mar their love and service of God, do not alone suffice to explain the sadness and confusions these souls suffer. Ignorance of the spiritual life also plays a great part.
New things are fun! But once the novelty wears off, once the initial consolations pass, the soul must know how to grow in the routine of daily life. The time soon comes for souls to pass beyond spiritual milk to more substantial food. “I fed you with milk,” St. Paul explains, “not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready” (I Cor 3:2). And the Author to Hebrews explains, “for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child” (Heb 5:13).
Unless souls are willing to be weaned from the ‘milk’ of spiritual infancy, they will not be able to advance to perfection, and it will be impossible for them to maintain any fruitful contact with the Holy Angels. Souls need to be encouraged (for this weaning is painful) and exhorted: “Love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day” (Rm 13,10-13)–
To help these souls, we wish to present the A,B,C’s of the spiritual life, so that they may better direct their efforts and persevere through the darkness and, so, come to Divine Union and to an intimate friendship with the Holy Angels. This then will be the beginning of a series of Circular Letter Articles on the basics of the spiritual life and how we may grow spiritually at the hand of the Holy Angels.
I. Intimacy with God is possible
Three simple considerations constitute our first lesson. Though fundamental to spiritual life, they are often neglected or overseen. The first point is this: friendship and union with God are possible to all: “the Father … has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col 1: 12). The root qualification is sanctifying grace by which we have become living temples of God in which the Blessed Trinity delights to dwell. Mutual indwelling is essential to friendship of charity. Now, God’s inclination towards us in love cannot be greater, it is eternal and prior to any response from our side: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph I:4). “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
God’s love is like the shining noonday sun. He “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), who is “the true light that enlightens every man …coming into the world” (Jn 1:9). The prophet assure us, “the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Is 60:19). St. Paul explains, “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8).
The Divine light of actual graces largely comes to us through His Holy Angels, whom God made “flames of fire” (Heb 1,7; Ps 104,4). Thus, “the Angel of the LORD appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire” (ex 3,2). In the NT we meet an Angel “coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor” (Rev 18, 1; cf. 10, 1). God sends His Angels as invisible mediators of His light and love into our lives: “I Jesus have sent my Angel to you with this testimony for the churches” (Rev 22:16). They both dispose us for the light of Divine wisdom and infuses this ray of divine goodness into our hearts. St. John of the Cross describes how the divine light shines through the Angel:
This wisdom (which purges and illumines these souls) descends from God through the first hierarchies (of Angels) unto the last, and from these last unto men. It is rightly and truly said in Scripture that all the works of the Angel and the inspirations they impart are also accomplished or granted by God. For ordinarily these works and inspirations are derived from God by means of the Angels, … This communication is like that of a ray of sunlight shining through many windows placed one after the other. Although it is true that of itself the ray of light passes through them all, nevertheless each window communicates this light to the other with a certain modification according to its own quality (personality) …Man (is) the last one to whom this loving contemplation of God is communicated,… (Dark Night. Bk.Il, ch. 12, nn.3.4)
Clearly, whenever God sends His Angel, the latter always receives the power to accomplish his mission well. Since God and the Angel are faithful and sure, success comes down to our cooperation. If the shining rays of divine grace fail to penetrate regularly and deeply into our soul, warming and enlightening us, it will be because the windows of the heart are dirty and so resist the entrance of the light. We need but to cleanse them, then His light will enter in. St. Paul exhorts: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2Cor 7: 1). St. Peter’s rescue from prison offers an allegorical illustration of the Angel’s part in this salvific enlightenment: “Behold, an Angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands” (Acts 12:7).
No labor is more rewarding than seeking Divine union, nor is there any labor in which God offers us greater grace and angelic assistance. In the sincere pursuit of holiness we enjoy the certitude of having our wills conformed to that of God. Faith provides the certain knowledge that God has ordered and ordained all things so that we might become holy. This is why the world was made; this is why God became man and died for our sins; this is why He has sent the Holy Spirit; this is why He sent us His Angels. Contrarily, “what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26).
To savor divine intimacy in this life, God must be sought sincerely and perseveringly; for this it does not suffice to merely hope to catch onto the coattails of heaven (purgatory) after death. A genuine striving for divine intimacy will strengthen our hope for eternal life. Extended striving produces endurance, “endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5,4-5). Hope and charity reinforce one another sevenfold. This is why saints stand out so much:
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Blessed are those who dwell in thy house, ever singing thy praise! Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee…. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Ps 84,22.214.171.124)
Intimacy with God is not only delightful, but this union also energizes and gives purpose to every other undertaking in life. Could a man returning home to his beloved spouse after a prolonged absence find any peace or pleasure in consciously directing his steps away from his goal? And if his love be great, he will avoid the slightest deviations from the straight path home. Slight delays are great pains when love is great. Things, which might otherwise be delightful, lose their sweetness at the thought of the delay they cause.
Difficult and laborious matters, contrarily, are sweet to him in the measure that they are perceived as the fitting means to bring him ever closer to the embrace of his loved one. What mother, who has lost her child, would interrupt her frantic search to window-shop? Her anxious love for her child weans her of every other concern and vanity. The stronger the love, the straighter and more rapid its course becomes. Love is like gravity, notes Aquinas, because attraction constantly increases velocity (intensity) as objects (lovers) approach their goal.
II. The Certitude of the Goal
Theologians point out that “the final cause (goal) is the cause of all causes.” Practically, this means that the knowledge, conviction and the sure hope of attaining the goal are keys to success in the spiritual life. If they remain abstract concepts, they will help us little. Unless I be truly convinced that loving union with God is really possible for me, my spiritual life will remain lethargic. Not even a fool would undertake hardships where there’s no hope to enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the farmer did not hope for the harvest, would he plow or sow? If the fisherman did not hope for a catch, would he cast out the net? If Jacob had not hoped to gain the hand of Rachel, would he have labored seven years?
Many souls, while granting the hypothetical possibility of holiness, discount themselves as candidates for union with God. “that’s only for the saints”, they say. Discouraged by misery and weakness, they tend to ignore the fact, that, although salvation “is impossible (for men), (it is) not for God; for all things are possible for God” (Mk 10,27). In the life of grace God comes more than half way, “for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2,13). His will is that we produce abundant fruit (cf. Jn 15,8). He has sent out his servants, the Angels, to lead us to the place He has prepared for us.
Souls are also discouraged because they have made little progress in the past and so paint a prognosis for the future. Yet they need not be discouraged. Were not Abraham and Moses both called (through an Angel) after they were 70 years of age?
A certain soul, that had been visited for some time by aridity and desolation to the point of practically doubting God’s love for her due to her many sins, was assured by her spiritual director: “My child, it is an unchangeable truth of faith that God loves you with an infinite love and has an infinite desire for union with you. This knowledge of faith is a more certain and solid foundation for your response in love than thousands of passing consolations, however sublime they might be!” These words were like a light which penetrated to the depths of her soul, and she passed days in delightful communion with God. She had been seeking Him in consolations, but now had come to find Him in the purity of faith. And for this faith God responded with abundant consolations, that this truth of faith might be impressed even more indelibly into her soul.
God’s invitation to holiness is universal. All are called to the wedding feast. The Angels are sent out into the street and to the byways to bring in the poorest of the poor and the vagrants. The Master would even have them compel the guests to enter the wedding feast (Lk 14,22) The whole initiative is on the side of God. We need no money to seat ourselves at the banquet:
All who thirst, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. (Is 55,1-3)
He invites and exhorts to increase our longing. Longing for God is a singular grace and promise. As St. Augustine points out, God cannot deceive us; He would never inspire a desire that He did not wish to fulfill. There is no discrimination, no a priori elimination on the part of God. Even the prodigal son is clothed anew with the splendor of grace. God supplies the wedding garment. Were we not all poor slaves to sins?
He (the Father) chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him,… by nature we were children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph 1,4; 2,3-6)
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? (Rom 8,32)
How well souls defend themselves against the thousandfold protestations of divine love: Some due to a kind of spiritual sadness induced by the devil, which makes them fix their gaze on their own impotence and misery rather than upon the omnipotent and merciful love of God. Others prevaricate,for though the invitation is so obliging, it also obliges!1 Aye,there’s the rub! Francisco de Osuna, a 16th Century Spanish Mystic responds:
I imagine you still maintain that your age or your position, temperament, illness, or talent excuses or precludes you from communion (with God). I do not know how to reply other than in the words of the wise man: ‘Whoever wants to leave his friend looks for pretexts and for all time will be reprehensible’ (Prov 18, 1). I do not know if your excuses satisfy you, but as for me, I assure you that they are scandalous, and, agreeing with St. Augustine’s teaching, I do not quite believe you, for nothing can eradicate your capacity to love. Now if you said that you were unable to fast, discipline yourself, wear rough clothing, or work, or even walk, we would believe you, but that you cannot love is not acceptable. If St. Augustine affirms this about love of enemies, how much more certainly it applies to loving God, who offers far greater reason for our love. 2
III. Union Comes One Way Alone: By Fixing our Heart on God
The simple (to some, a hard) truth, is that regardless of the school of spirituality to which one adheres, they all cohere in this: that union with God can only be achieved by fixing the gaze of their heart on God. By this all souls become imitators of the Angels, “for I tell you that in heaven their Angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18,10).
We can understand this truth by a simple comparison. Should seeking of the kingdom of heaven be any less engaging than searching for a lost drachma or seeking after a lost sheep? or the priceless pearl? Unless souls be armed with a like mind and resolution they will never make substantial progress in the spiritual life. It is vigilance of heart, fixing one’s gaze upon God that will finally distinguish the pure of heart, the true friends of God.
Presently, let us draw your attention to two kinds of solicitude we ought to have in the pursuit of divine union. The one is infused by God,the other results from our own labors. The first is like the fire which flashes from the rod of the Angel to enkindle Gideon’s sacrifice (Jdg 6,21); it is a special grace from God through the Angel. Concerning such graces St. Ignatius writes:
I call it consolation when some inner motion is prompted in the soul, of such a kind that it begins to be aflame with love of its Creator and Lord, and consequently, when the soul cannot love any created thing on the face of the earth in itself but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when a soul pours out tears that move to the love of God … 3
These are great graces, but principally for getting the fire going and for strengthening faith, not because they are great enjoyment. Many souls merely rejoice in consolations, and foolishly fail to feed and tend the fire of divine love with their own labors. As a result the fire of love greatly diminishes or dies out entirely. We scarcely need Francisco Osuna’s admonition: “Those who have this gift (of infused solicitude) or who have tasted this food are advised to take advantage of it, because the fervor and desire for God usually do not last long.”4
Souls should cooperate rightly with this gift of solicitude like the prudent virgins who carefully provided sufficient oil to keep their lamps burning through to the end. Consolations are not an end, but a means for firing the soul with urgent longings, so that it becomes indefatigable in the service of God and in the practice of virtue. This resolution is the second solicitude. And it may be known by this trait: even after many labors, even in the midst of aridities, such souls do not return to seek the consolations of the world, but they remain steadfast in their spiritual longing to seek the face of God and to rest nowhere except in him.
My soul thirsts for God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? 0 God, thou art my God, I seek thee, My soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. I stretch out my hands to thee; my soul thirsts for thee like a parched land. (Ps 42:2;,Ps 63:;Ps 143:6) I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in thin tents of wickedness. (Ps 84, 1 0)
Fr. William Wagner, ORC
1 “All the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their own state in life. ” (Lumen Gentium. 42: cf. CCC. 2013).
2 Francisco de Osuna The Third Alphabet Classic of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, NY 1981, pp.47-48.
3 St. Ignatius of Loyola. Spiritual Exercises. nr., 316. He attributes these graces principally to the ministry of the Holy Angels. Only spiritual consolations with no previous, phenomenological cause are directly attributable to God; the others comes through the agency of the good angels. And these are the vast majority of consolations in the spiritual life (loc.cit. cf. nn. 329-333).
4 Francisco de Osuna. p. 48-49.
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