Vol. XIV, August 2008


Saint Paul and the Holy Angels

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Our Holy Father Benedict XVI established a special year, dedicated to Saint Paul in commemoration of his birth 2000 years ago, and in honor of his “example of total dedication to the Lord and to his Church” (July 2, 2008). “The goal of the Pauline Year (is) to learn from St Paul, to learn faith, to learn Christ, and finally to learn the way of upright living.” The Pope began already “a new series of catecheses aimed at understanding more deeply the thought of Saint Paul and its continuing relevance.”

Following his guidance, we want to interrupt our biblical meditations on the angels and look at the person of St. Paul. Now, since we are called to imitate Christ especially from the point of view of the holy angels, with their help and according to their example, we will consider St. Paul between angels and demons in life and doctrine.

1.“What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?”

a) St. Paul, the Pharisee

The Holy Father asked: “Who was St Paul?” and answered: “In the temple of Jerusalem, faced with the frenzied crowd that wanted to kill him, he presented himself with these words: ‘I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God…’.” (Acts 22:3). Shortly afterwards, St. Luke reported in the Acts of the Apostles a further detail: “But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial.’” He calculated correctly: Namely, “when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose; and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended, ‘We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?’” (Acts 23:6-9)

b) Saul confronted with the angels

St. Paul was a Pharisee, and as such he believed in the existence of the angels. He believed in the numerous testimonies of angelic interventions in the Old Testament. He believed with Gamaliel, his teacher (cf. Acts 5:38-40), that God is still active in the life and the history of the Chosen people. He most likely had heard about the miraculous deliverance of the apostles from the prison – reportedly – through an angel (cf. Acts 5:16-25). With his faith and zeal for God, Saint Paul witnessed the great testimony of Stephen. He was probably among those who “gazing at him (Stephen), …[and] saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). He heard the accusation: “You who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it…” (Acts 7:52-53). St. Paul confessed this truth later himself in the letter to the Galatians 3:19: “The law? It was… ordained by angels through an intermediary”. Stephen was given ample time to give his testimony that must have torn at the heart of St. Paul: He believed in angels, he wanted to do the right thing, and yet, when “they cast Stephen out of the city and stoned him; … the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58), and “Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 8:1; cf. Acts 22:20-21).

2. “Zealous for God”

It is important to see St. Paul’s interior religious zeal, for good will is the necessary disposition for change and conversion by means of the grace of God: He was “educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day. I persecuted this Way [discipleship of Christ] to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness” (Acts 22:3-5). In the letter to the Philippians he characterized himself again as a zealous “persecutor of the church” and “under the law blameless” (Phil 3:6).

a) Belief in a personal angel

As we all know, St. Peter was freed from prison by an angel in a very special way. It is not important, whether this happened before or after Paul’s conversion. What is important is that the narration clearly testifies to the strong faith of the Jews in the Guardian Angel. Namely, when the angel led St. Peter out of the prison and then left him alone, he went to the house where the community was gathered together and praying in his behalf.

“When he knocked at the door of the gateway, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and told that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are mad.’ But she insisted that it was so. Then their understanding was and they said, ‘It is his angel!’” (Acts 12:13-15)

They would rather have believed it was “his angel” than that Peter himself was at the door. This anecdote expresses well the general belief of the Chosen People, to whom Paul belonged.

St. Paul himself once confessed this belief in the personal Guardian Angel. On the way to Rome, “…as we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to throw the cargo overboard; and the third day they cast out with their own hands the tackle of the ship. And when … all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.… Paul then...said, ‘Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.” So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.’” (Acts 27:18-25,39)

St. Paul’s faith is based on the testimony of others and on personal experience. The last word, however, rests on God’s power and goodness (cf. Gal 1:18, 2:1).

b) Called by an angel

On another occasion, Saint Paul shares an experience, the explanation of which reasonably points to the intervention of an angel: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 16:9-10) This reminds us of St. Peter who was introduced into the mission towards non-Jewish people by an angel (cf. Acts 10) or of Philip, whom the angel had brought to the Ethiopian eunuch (cf. Acts 8:26). Cornelius a Lapide comments on this vision of Paul in a very lapidary way: “This vision was a dream from God, caused in Paul’s imagination by an angel.” He even adds: “It seems, this angel was the Guardian of the Macedonians” (in Acts16:9; Dan 10:20s; 12:1). To support this, he points out that St. Francis Xavier and others were called in a similar way to India and Africa. Theologians commonly maintain, that such practical help comes through the angels (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 171, a.3; 172, a.2 e 5-6).

These few examples show how much the holy Angels were really part of St. Paul’s life. We can and should approvingly affirm with the Pharisees who contended, asking concerning St. Paul: “What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” (cf. Acts 23:9)!

3. St. Paul between angels and demons
a) Lifted up to the heavens

Another reference shows us St. Paul lifted up into the ranks of the angels. He refers to himself when he speaks of “a man in Christ”, “who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” (2 Cor 12:2-4) According to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul was elevated into the first hierarchy of the angels where he could see Divine mysteries “like the angels of this higher hierarchy” (cf. In II Cor 12, lect. 1; n. 454). This experience may be the basis behind the rich theology expressed in the letter to the Hebrews:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)

By the grace of God and on account of his past persecution of the Church, St. Paul always remained deeply humble. When referred to his graces he adds immediately: “On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” (2 Cor 12:5)

b) Cast down to hell

Whereas on the one hand, a certain familiarity with the holy angels was granted to him, so, on the other hand, he was not spared of a certain contact with the devil. He openly confessed:

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7-9)

And again:

False apostles are deceitful workmen, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no wonder: for Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light. (2 Cor 11,13-14)

Such not uncommon confrontations with the fallen angels led him to write to the Ephesians this exhortation:

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-12)

His life, furthermore, demonstrated his teaching. Therefore we do well to read his letters attentively without changing what he says. With the holy angels he guides us to God our goal.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

St. Paul is a very great example of a priest in his love and zeal for God as well as in his total dedication to his mission and the people, far from any form of a “hireling” (Jn 10:12). Let us first of all pray to him and ask for his intercession that we may grow in faith and imitate him in his love for Christ. Then, through meditation on the presence of the holy angels in his life, may they find us open to their light, guidance and help. The more we imitate Paul in his humility, the more freedom they find have to act in our lives.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC