Circular Letter: July 2000

Docility to the Holy Angel

…give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him. (Ex 23:22)

Instrumentality as Means of Perfection

Through Sacred Scripture God exhorts us: heed and hearken to the voice of the holy angel. This means that we are to be docile: willing to listen and obey his voice. How are we to be docile to God’s holy angels? We may begin our discussion of docility to the holy angels by indicating the goal of such docility. By our docility to God we are first given a participation of his divine nature through grace. This divine life of grace is what confers on man his highest dignity. Beyond this, God has also given us the possibility to be his “co-workers”, his instruments. Far from demeaning us, the capacity to be an instrument of God is one of the ways that man is further ennobled.

The angels are sent to us from God to assist us in the acquisition of the divine life of grace, and also to help us become God’s instruments. The more we grow in docility, the more, on the one hand we can be sanctified, and on the other the talents which God entrusted to us can be invested according to his will. The desire to be God’s servant is beautifully expressed in the prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Make me an instrument of your peace…” Christ’s humanity was the perfect instrument of his divine nature. He, in turn was the perfect instrument of the Father: “…I do nothing of my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me…I do always what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:28-29). Mary was the perfect instrument of the Lord: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord…” (Lk 1:38). The faithful angels “who obey his command” are likewise perfected by being the instruments by which he accomplishes so much of his work among us.

A distinction should be made clear as to the difference between intelligent and unintelligent (or irrational) instruments. Every instrument is used according to the mode proper to the instrument. Irrational instruments, such as a shovel, or a knife, or a paint brush are expected to act in accordance to the reasoned desires of the one who uses them, without lending any additional reasoned consideration. As the prophet Isaiah remarks: “Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!”

An intelligent instrument, on the other hand, lends its own rational powers to the work to be done. A servant is an intelligent instrument. Whether the servant is human or angelic, it utilizes its own intelligence in the fulfillment of the master’s command. To illustrate this principle we may consider the Church’s explanation of inspiration of Holy Scripture. We know that Sacred Scripture is the Word of God. God is the author of the Bible. While at the same time there were men whom God used as his instruments to accomplish that task. The Second Vatican Council explained this as follows:

To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.

Each instrument lends its own proper qualities to the work to be done. A sculptor has many chisels. Each has a different shape, size and length. Each effects the work in its own unique way. So also God, the Divine Artist has endowed man and angel with many diverse talents. When he chooses certain men to accomplish something, he does not use them as though they were formless instruments. Rather, he uses their many diverse talents and gifts in order to accomplish his work. So it is with the writers of Sacred Scripture, the first point is that God chose certain men. It is he who chose them, and he chose the ones he knew would be the correct instruments. The second point is that they “made full use of their own faculties and powers.” They applied to the work at hand their own human efforts and intelligence, thus giving it a stamp of their own personality. This is evident if we compare the styles and vocabulary and grammar proper to each of the sacred writers. They are all unique.

It may also be noted that the inspiration of Sacred Scripture came through the mediation of the holy angels. In particular, the “Four Living Creatures,” angels from the choir of cherubim, seen by the prophet Ezechiel (10:9-21) and St. John, as described in the Book of Revelation (4:6-7), have been associated to the four Gospel writers. The Living Creature that has the appearance of a man is associated to St. Matthew. The one with the appearance of a lion is associated to St. Mark. The one with the appearance of an ox is associated with St. Luke. Finally, the one with the appearance of an eagle is associated with St. John. One reason the Fathers of the Church made this association was because they noted certain characteristics proper to each of these creatures reflected in each corresponding Gospel. This indicates that even the angels who brought the inspiration of God for Holy Scripture added to that inspiration their own personal characteristics. This was willed by God, and it is willed by God in the case of every instrument, especially personal instruments. This is expressed by St. John of the Cross:

[Divine Wisdom] descends from God through the first hierarchies unto the last, and from these last unto men. It is rightly and truly said in Scripture that all the works of the angels 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 angel… This communication is like 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. (Emphasis added)

Nevertheless, the third important point with regard to the inspiration of the sacred writers is that “they consigned to writing whatever God wanted written, and nothing more.” That is the ideal for a good instrument: it does what the master wants, nothing more, nothing less. For this to be the case the tool must respond to the artist’s motions. If the instrument resists the artist, then the artist cannot accomplish his work as well. Therefore, God makes commands, “give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him! (Ex 23:22).

It is helpful to note that instruments are sometimes enhanced with a perfection which goes beyond their natural dispositions. For example, not just any oil is sufficient for the anointing of the sick, but only oil that has received a special blessing. Further, not any man can offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but only the one to whom the special perfection of the character of the priesthood is added. Likewise, not just any one could write the books of scripture, but only those chosen to whom the gift of prophecy was granted.

With regard to our using the talents which we have received, let us examine the ways by which we may be docile instruments in the hand of God, so that we avoid resisting the movements of the Divine Artist when he wishes to work in us. Only then can we say with the prophet: “…for it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Is 26:12).

Listening as a Counter-Part of Silence

As previously mentioned our Lord and God, through the word of Holy Scripture, commands us to heed and hearken to the voice of the holy angel. These words “heed” and “hearken” indicate attentiveness, and active listening on our part. We can hear many things to which we take no note. In fact the more we hear things the less we tend to listen to them. It is like the traffic here in Detroit. When someone first arrives, it can seem so loud and constant. But then after some time he comes to the point that he does not even notice the frequent sirens from the fire engines any more. Listening, on the other hand, consists in the desire to hear. It is the fulfillment of holy silence. Holy silence provides the atmosphere helpful for listening. But beyond the practice of true silence, in order for silence to be fruitful, it must also be attentive. One spiritual writer explains it in these terms:

True silence is sometimes absence of speech–but it is always the act of listening. The mere absence of noise which is empty of our listening to the voice of God is not silence. A day filled with noise and voices can be a day of silence, if the noises become for us the echo of the presence of God, if the voices are for us messages and solicitations of God. When we speak of ourselves and are filled with ourselves, we leave silence behind. When we repeat the intimate words of God that he has left within us, our silence remains intact.

Listening is no simple task, given the many obstacles that the world and we raise up against it. This writer makes an important observation: “When we speak of ourselves and are filled with ourselves, we leave silence behind.” This is the first and fundamental enemy to listening: to be filled with oneself. What does it mean to be filled with oneself? One of the most common ways that someone is preoccupied with self is through pride or vanity. But it can also be self-absorption caused through self-pity.

More Obstacles to Docility

The fine art of listening must be exercised on the human level before we can expect to advance in the listening to our guardian angels. For if a man cannot listen to those whom he can see and hear with his senses, how can he expect to be attentive to the voice of the angel whom he cannot hear with the senses?

Two qualities are needed for docility: zeal to know the truth, and humility to learn from others. The consequent enemies to docility are, on the one hand sloth and complacence which are contrary to zeal; and on the other, pride which is contrary to humility.

We may first consider sloth, and complacency. People generally enjoy being “in the know”, to be on top of things and to be aware of what is going on. The whole news media supplies for that voracious appetite. The problem of sloth with regard to docility lies in man’s contentment in knowing truths and the facts about things, to the detriment or exclusion of knowing the Truth. This sloth is founded on, and feeds upon the sensuality of curiosity. Curiosity is a vice which seeks to gratify oneself through the abuse of the intellect. It is like the gluttony of the mind, or inchastity of the spirit. It is related to the kind of false friendship which only wants to use the other for our own personal gratification. We cannot learn to listen to others unless we are inclined to serve their needs. This is related also to our wanting to listen to get to know Christ, the Truth in order to serve him and his Church.

Take for instance the story of our Lord going to speak in the synagogue of his home town Nazareth. The people know many truths about Christ. They have heard of the miracles he has performed in Jerusalem. They note his learning and eloquence saying, “where did he get all this?” They know whose son he is, and who are his relatives, etc. And they are content with that. All these things are true. But they miss the Truth about Jesus. They do not receive the light of Truth that comes from the divine gift of faith.

In a parallel way it is all too common that Catholics know all about what Bishop So and So has done or failed to do; they know about what Fr. So and So has said; and they can tell you what Sister So and So has been up to etc., etc. They can talk about the various things going on in the Church. They can chatter on and on about these things. This gives them the sense that they are good Catholics, because they are concerned about these things, and they are knowledgeable. But in the end, they know about the human truths without ever getting any closer to knowing the divinity of Christ and his Mystical Body. They are like the people of Nazareth, who know many facts about the human nature of Christ, but they know little or nothing about the divine. They are not willing to make the effort involved in prayer and study in order to see and know the Truth. The chatter itself is detrimental to the silence needed for listening to these greater Truths. This is one form of sloth which is contrary to docility: the complacency of being filled with the facts, without desiring to grasp the Truth.

Another spiritual writer defines docility and indicates another fundamental attitude that is also contrary to the zeal for the truth:

Docility on the part of the one being directed implies the disposition of soul which consistently tries to listen and understand and wishes to be submissive to the prudent and disinterested advice which is being given. … Certain people do not have the necessary requisites for being docile. They don’t know how to listen. They speak alot under the pretext of informing their director; they discourse at length about a maze of absolutely useless details, without the least consideration for the time and memory of their director. They go from one topic to another without completing anything, without even having, according to all appearances, the desire to examine something with a certain degree of depth. They don’t try to understand. Their conversation seems to be some sort of biological or psychological necessity, rather than a means of knowledge and comprehension. They do not seem to manifest any effort to grasp a new point of view or a new manner of looking at something. Their intelligence never appears to be awakened.

The writer obviously has had some experience in spiritual direction. He speaks of the unwillingness to make the effort to listen, to grasp a new point of view, a new manner of looking at something. Often this is the case because man is not willing to change his life to conform to the truth. For this reason, he talks around the issue without actually addressing it. Zeal for the truth includes the courage to face the truth and all its consequences. The truth demands detachment from our own habits, detachment from our concern about the opinions of other people, detachment from our own opinions, detachment from things. The more people are attached to these things, the less they can bear the truth. Such was the case with the apostles the night before Christ died. He said to them: “I have yet many other things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (Jn 16:13). The problem can become very widespread as St. Paul described: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4).

The relationship between obedience and listening is reflected in the etymology of the two words. The Latin word obedire (to obey), comes from the word audire (to listen). The same truth is reflected in German: Gehorsam (obedience) comes from gehorchen, which means to listen to. The will to listen is the beginning of obedience.

But the other element, that of pride, is equally dangerous, if not more than sloth, in keeping men from the practice of docility. This is also evident in the story of Christ coming to his hometown and preaching in the Synagogue. The people did not listen to him. Their hearts were closed. Why? Because he was the carpenter’s son! “What can he possibly have to tell us. It is obvious that he does not know anything we do not already know.”

Another powerful example of the unwillingness to learn due to pride is seen in the story of the man born blind. Jesus healed him, and then when the Pharisees found out that Jesus had performed the miracle on the Sabbath, they refused to accept it as a sign of the divine favor. The man who was cured said to the Pharisees:

“Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God will listen to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out (Jn 9:30-34).

This is a most common type of fallacious argument called ad hominum. Rather than having to deal with the force and logic of an argument, attack the person. If we can dismiss the person we manage, at least psychologically, to dismiss the truth that the person is putting forth. Taking a more recent example, not too long ago in an article Cardinal Ratzinger showed with theological and liturgical reason why rock-music is absolutely unfit for use in the sacred liturgy. Of those who responded to the statement of Cardinal Ratzinger none of them even tried to touch his theological arguments. They simply dismissed him, saying that he was too old, and out of touch with the needs of today’s youth, etc. This is a serious and very common lack of docility. This is, unfortunately, one of the most common ways that people dismiss the truth. It is a serious offense against docility.

Along the same lines, but with a slightly different twist is our tendency to tune-out people simply because we are not attracted to the person. This is the case even when we agree with what the person is saying. But we do not respect the person. We suspect that he is not sincere, or he is conceited and proud. We do not think that he has any gift for speaking. We have cause to be angry with him, or we are jealous of him. For whatever other reason, we feel a natural antipathy towards him. As a consequence we do not listen to what he has to say to us.

These tendencies are most noteworthy when speaking about our docility towards our holy angel, because the angel does not only speak directly to us. The angel, not infrequently, will try to guide us through the people around us. When the angel is not able to get through to us, he tries to inspire anyone he can around us to speak the words that we need to hear.

Rebellious Tendencies

Another tendency to tune people out is from our rebellious unwillingness to submit to another. “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my cheeks to those who pulled my beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Is 50:5). A friend of mine, when he was young, used to torment his brother by ordering him to do things that he knew that his brother was planning on doing anyway. For example, when he would see his brother about to put on his coat, he would say to him: “Danny! Put on your coat!” Danny would get so upset with him he would refuse to put on his coat. He would rather go out in the cold rather than have to seem to submit to his brother.

In a sense, it is a great mercy of God that we do not see our guardian angels. For they would present to us in the clear mirror of their own being the inexorable will of God for us. This would no doubt wear on our false sense of freedom. And so, it would lead to rebellion. God is more gentle in his persuasions towards us.

Twisting the Truth to Meet Our Own Predisposition

Just as a vessel must be clean in order to receive clean water, so we must be silent in order to hear the word without twisting it or changing it in any way. There is a game in which something is whispered to one person, and they are to whisper the same message to the next person, and they in turn pass it on to the next and so on until it comes to the last in the line. That last person announces what he received. Usually it is quite different from what was first said.

The problem is that even when we have good will to listen, we are often already certain of what someone is going to say, so that when they speak, we do not hear what they say, but what we thought they would say. For us to imitate the youth Samuel by saying “speak Lord your servant is listening” and to be able to receive his response presupposes the capacity to truly listen without twisting the truth. St. Peter mentions that even with the written word of God, it is not difficult to twist the truth (2 Pt 3:16).

Docility to the Holy Angels

Having spoken about the nature of docility in general, we can speak more particularly of how to be docile to the holy angels. It is important to make something clear from the outset. When we speak of being docile to the angels, we are interested in the enlightenment which leads us to know the eternal truths which sanctify and perfect our minds in the light of Jesus Christ. The reason we mention this is because people have a tendency to drastically trivialize the role of the angel in our lives. No doubt we all have experiences where the holy angel has assisted us in our day to day needs. For example, the angel has helped to find our lost keys, or has reminded us to go back and check on something that needed our attention, or the angel has helped us out of a bad situation, etc. These stories are very common. They are indeed true indications of the working of the holy angel, and they are very good. But when we speak about learning to be open to the holy angels, it would be a very serious mistake to think that we are concerned with discovering ways of learning to be enlightened by the holy angel so that he can help us more frequently in such mundane affairs. Our point is not to learn how to teach our angel clever tricks, or how he can help us consistently find lost objects. The docility of which we speak goes far beyond the little practical concerns of our daily existence.

Having said that, we may consider how we can be docile to the angel. The first important point is that, considering the concept of instrumentality, an artist generally uses an instrument according to the nature proper to the instrument. Man in a rational creature. Therefore, God wills to use us as a rational creature. Therefore, our own cooperation requires our use of reason. Sin, especially addictive sin, in some degree deprives man of the free use of reason. Man is governed not by reason, but by his irrational passions. For this reason a person becomes less capable of being an instrument of God. This corresponds to the observation made by St. Thomas that the less the soul is controlled by the senses, the more open will it be to the inspirations of the angels.

Related to this, Blessed Peter Faber taught that vice, particularly over-eating or drinking shuts a person off from the inspirations of the good angels and leave them open to the influence of the bad angels. This is why he personally determined to “be very moderate in eating and drinking and in all his external activity… realizing that it is very important that evil spirits should lose their ability to dwell in his body and influence his soul, for they cannot find there a heart besotted by food and drink.”

Doctrine of Illumination

Having made those preliminary observations, it is helpful to consider the way that the angels can enlighten man. St. Thomas teaches the following:

The human intellect cannot grasp the universal truth itself unveiled; because its nature requires it to understand by turning to the phantasms (images). So the angels propose the intelligible truth to men under the similitudes of sensible things, according to what Dionysius says that, “It is impossible for the divine ray to shine on us, otherwise than shrouded by the variety of sacred veils.” On the other hand, the human intellect as the inferior, is strengthened by the action of the angelic intellect. And in these two ways man is enlightened by an angel.

St. Thomas indicates two things the angel does to enlighten man’s mind: 1) they have to strengthen man’s intellect and 2) they need to propose the truth under the similitude of sensible things.

With regard to the first point, the man’s intellect is strengthened by the action of the angelic intellect. This can be experienced in many varying degrees. One French mystic describes this phenomena in the following terms:

When the soul is at one with the angels, she experiences, as it were, a heightening of her faculties. An astronomer when he looks through a telescope discovers horizons which his unaided sight cannot reach. The effect produced in the soul is more or less analogous to this when, through the spiritual contact which unites her to the angel, she experiences a sudden extension of her mind and her love.

The strengthening of our mind can occur in a many subtle or not so subtle ways. For instance, it happens that we see or hear something a thousand times and then suddenly on the thousand and first time we see it as though we never saw it before. Suddenly there is a clarity that was never there before, and it tells us just what we need to know then and there. It can be that we suddenly have a new insight into the meaning of a passage from Scripture, or the significance of an event in our lives brings us to deeper conversion.

An example of this is the story of Whittiker Chambers. He was an atheistic communist. One day at the breakfast table he looked up from the morning paper and his gaze happened to fall upon his young daughter’s ear. In an instant he knew with certainty that there had to be a Creator God for the ear to exist. His whole life changed in that one unexpected, and unprepared for moment of insight. That is a dramatic example of the way the angel can strengthen the mind to grasp with clarity the truth. There are many other less dramatic examples of this which are occurring to us every day.

The second important point of St. Thomas is that the angel cannot communicate to us through the universal intelligible species as they use to communicate to one another. Our knowledge is acquired through the particular objects addressed to our senses. They must, therefore, enlighten us according to that sensible mode. This means that they communicate through images. There are ample examples of the use of images for revelation throughout Sacred Scriptures. In fact the Bible is largely composed of symbols and images, each of which have great depth of meaning. As the saying goes: a picture paints a thousand words. Angelic knowledge is far more universal than our knowledge. This is the reason why the angels use images, since images or symbols provide the way best adapted to our capacity to know to communicate a universal concept.

Let us take for instance, rather randomly, the passage from the prophet Jeremiah where our Lord instructs the prophet to go down to the potter’s house to watch him make pots. The prophet watches, and sees that the potter will sometimes make a good pot. But when the pot does not take the correct shape, the potter will start all over again, destroying what had gone bad. From this the prophet learns a lesson for Israel, but it is meant to be something far more than that. Rather than simply explaining in direct terms what God intended to do to Israel, and when he intended to do it, he presented the image of the potter. This image contains many levels of meaning which apply not only for the transitory historical situation of the prophet.

The angels teach us through the images from Sacred Scripture, or the outward signs of the sacraments in order to raise our minds up to the knowledge of the truth. But then again the angel is not limited to these sacred symbols. There are a thousand things that are presented to our attention throughout the day. This produces an endless flow of sense images. The holy angels would like to thrust the unhealthy and useless ones into the background, and emphasize those that are more refined, correct and healthy. The angel can combine various images stored in our imagination, in order to arrive at a new insight. He wants to reinforce the helpful images to make them clearer and nobler. Whereas, the devil wants to do just the opposite.

All this occurs within the realm of our free will control. We are not blind instruments, as we made clear earlier. We must cooperate with this process. First we do this by protecting our minds from the false and dangerous images: the images that feed our sinful tendencies, and worldly preoccupations. It is by our own mediation and reflection that we are disposed to receive this help from the angels. St. Paul gave the exhortation: “My brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). This, in a nutshell, is one of the fundamental ways of being docile to the holy angels. Think about those things, and rid your mind of the other things which are not lovely nor gracious nor excellent.

A Final Word of Warning

In conclusion, St. Peter gives us an important directive: “This then you must understand first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation. For not by the will of man was prophecy brought at any time, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt 1:20). For this reason we have a duty in prudence and faith to submit all our thoughts and inspirations to the Magisterium of the Church and to the rules of holy prudence and, when fitting, to a spiritual director or confessor. This will keep us from being deceived or falling prey to the nonsense that can come from our own human spirit or the fallen spirit. A sure characteristic of the holy angels is that when they guide and inspire they want to always anchor us more firmly in the Church and have us act according to the virtues. Thus they may use an image or a sign, but this is intended to lead us to a deeper understanding that we can verify by the doctrine of the Church or by consulting our director or a trustworthy source.

When the devil uses signs, he does so to flatter the ego and to make man surrender his reason, so that he no longer acts according to prudence and to the faith, but according to the power and authority of the signs. The devil begins with pious things, but by means of these gradually leads the soul away from God. This phenomenon can be verified in the fact that such souls lose more and more their docility to the authority in the Church, to their confessors and directors. This, however, touches upon the subject of the discernment of spirits, which we hope to treat at greater length in a subsequent conference.

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