Circular Letter: Summer 2001
The Angels in the Life of the Saints
I. Faith, Hope and Charity : the Measure in the Spiritual Life
Every true growth in the spiritual life comes from a return to the ultimate principles of the spiritual life and their application in daily life by the earnest practice of charity. Growth in the spiritual life means an increase in faith, hope, and charity, and it manifests itself in a greater diligence in the life of prayer and the practice of the virtues. The angels’ mission in the interior life is both to challenge us in this regard, to help us respond in grace, and to protect us against the enemy, not least of all, against his deceptions.
What makes spiritual growth so difficult, of course, is that faith is a conviction about the divine truth in the obscurity of our understanding. The more we grow in faith, the more we abandon ourselves to the guidance of God in ‘darkness’, for faith is the conviction concerning the desired substance of things not seen (cf. Heb 11:1). This often demands the renunciation of our own natural understanding, which seems so lucid and bright. As St. John of the Cross shows, this surrender becomes increasingly difficult because the trials become increasingly severe. Moreover, the infusion of the divine light is extremely painful, because it purifies the soul. Now, faith and fidelity to God are the first trademarks of the holy angels, for it was only in the humility of faith that they, together with St. Michael, remained firm in their fidelity to God.
Hope desires a great, indeed, an infinite good: the beatific vision in loving union with God – but the Cross stands in the middle of the path. Moreover, the soul, in the face of its own unworthiness, is often haunted by the thought, Who am I that God should love me so much?” Further, the more God pursues this union by purifying the soul, the more it seems that He turns the enemy, and its manifest misery threatens to crush it (cf. St. John of Cross, Dark Night II,6).
The hope of the angels, during their trial, was totally and exclusively fixed on the divine goodness, since the darkness of their trial seemed to have dashed their every natural hope and expectation. Like Abraham, they had to hope against hope, trusting and believing in the goodness of God. Behold this folly: the very sacrifice of his son bore the seed of hope, all the more in that it typified the sacrifice of the Son of God for our Redemption. This mystery of universal hope is carried by St. Gabriel in the Annunciation of the Incarnation of the Son of God to Mary.
Finally, the fruit of love is communion, whose happiness everyone desires. But the love of our Lord drives the soul into solitude and demands self-denial:
“Whoever loves his life will lose it; whoever hates his life in this world, keeps it unto life everlasting” (Jn 12:25). In their trial, the angels had to die ‘mystically,’ for God let them know that mankind, though far less than they by nature, had been preferred before them. For the salvific plan of God focuses primarily on the salvation of men by the Incarnate Word of the Father, in whom also the angels recognize their Head (cf. Eph 1:20ff; Col 1:16ff). God’s predilection for man is what explains the entire economy of salvation (cf. Heb 2:16; Pope John Paul II, General Audience, July 9, 1986).
This thought occasioned the great rage, envy, and hatred of the devil against mankind, but the holy angels, who surrendered themselves in love to this divine plan, were confirmed in grace, raised up to glory, and became participants in God’s plan, “so much so that sometimes we see them carrying out fundamental tasks in the name of God Himself” (Pope John Paul II., ibid.). In their trial the angels embraced the ‘cross’ of the inscrutable love of God and were rewarded both with glory and with a most profound love for mankind. St. Raphael exemplifies this great love of the angels towards the children of men.
The Lesson of Abraham: Faith, Obedience, Detachment and Hope
The life of Abraham is a great model for our striving for perfection and life with the angels. Although the angel is not mentioned in every circumstance, we know that “man cannot advance in merit without the divine assistance, which is borne to man by the ministry of the Angels. For this reason the Angels take part in all our good works” (St. Thomas, Summa Theol. I. 114,3,3m; cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 350). This means, as the Holy Father teaches us: “The Angels, spiritual creatures, have a function of mediation and of ministry in the relationships between God and man” (General audience, July 30, 1986). The foundation of this relationship is faith, and here the angels help us with their light, so that we will understand the truths of our faith more deeply, love them more intimately, and live them faithfully. The first help which the angel offered Abraham was in the realm of faith. He helped him to believe in God and set the word of God absolutely above everything else in his life.
And so when God called Abraham, he rose and followed God, leaving his own home and his own family. Imagine what conviction, courage, and generosity this required of Abraham, at seventy-five years of age to leave his family and go wandering off to a strange land in the midst of many dangers. He was willing to do this because he believed in God. Abraham believed in God and put his hope and trust in the promise of the Lord. God had promised him a land that his countless progeny were to inherit. Here he is, eighty-five years old, thinking his servant will inherit all his possessions; and God promises him a son. Abraham renounces all his natural considerations and firmly believes the word of God. Their struggle in this trial of faith can be seen in the fact that Sarah, who was sterile, gave her maid-servant, Hagar, to Abraham, thinking that through her, at least, she could offer Abraham a son. She, Hagar, gave birth to Ismael (cf. Gen 16:15). It was in him that Abraham at first put his hope.
However, when Abraham is ninety-nine years old, God appears to him again, promising through Sarah a son who is to be his exclusive heir. Considering his advanced age and the love he had for Ismael, Abraham vacillated momentarily and implored God to accept his son Ismael and through him to fulfill the promises. The Lord repeated His promise of a covenant and a multitude of progeny through Sarah. Abraham again set aside all human considerations and believed in God.
True to His word, God granted Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac, in whom all the promises should be fulfilled. How overwhelming, then, must have been the trial of Abraham, when twelve years later God calls Abraham to take his dearly beloved son, Isaac, and sacrifice him to God on a mountain God would indicate to him (Moriah in Jerusalem). How exemplary is the faith and obedience of Abraham! First, consider his great silence in the trial. Not a word is lost in unnecessary discourse. Second, consider his great promptness: He rose in the night to carry out the command. He himself saddled the donkey, he himself cut the wood for the holocaust. It is as if Abraham was afraid that if he did not do these things himself, he might fall short in his response to God.
Recall that he had many servants and that he is now 112 years old. They traveled for three days till they came to the appointed mountain. He loaded Isaac, the type of Christ the Victim bearing the Cross to Golgotha, with the wood, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. His son asked him – the question must have cut and burned his heart: “‘My father, here is the fire and the wood, but where is the victim for the holocaust?’ ‘God Himself,’ he answered, ‘will provide a victim for a holocaust’” (Gen 22:8).
It was not so much that Abraham hoped that his son would be spared in the last minute, but rather, as St. Paul explained, Abraham “hoped against hope” (Rom 4:18), and “reason[ed] that God has the power to raise him up even from the dead; whence also he received him back as a type” (Heb 11:19). Even as Abraham raised the knife to sacrifice his son, the angel called out to him from Heaven: “‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he answered: ‘Here I am.’ The angel continued: ‘Lay not your hand upon the boy, neither do any [harm] to him. Now I know that you fear God, and have not spared your only begotten son for my sake’” (Gen 22:11-12). At this point, Abraham saw the ram, caught by its horns in the brush, and offered it in place of his son as a holocaust to God. “And the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, saying: ‘By my own self have I sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this and have not spared your only begotten son for my sake: I will bless you, and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, … Your seed shall possess the gates of their enemies. And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed: because you have obeyed my voice!’” (22,15-18).
By his obedience in faith, Abraham merited to become the ancestor of Christ and our father in faith. St. Paul points out that the promise is about his ‘seed’ in the singular, referring to one, namely Christ (cf. Gal 3:16)! What also takes us aback in this story is the manner in which the angel speaks, so immediately in the name of God. This is due to the Angel’s union with God in the beatific vision, in which the angel is perfected. What does this mean? Without the loss of their creatureliness, the angels have entered by grace into a perfect mystical union with God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “Of the Angels He says, Who makes His Angels winds, and His servants flames of fire” (Heb 1:7, cf. Ps 103:4).
Sanctified by the Holy Spirit and set aglow with the fire of His love, it is the Holy Spirit Who guides and moves them in their ministries with His gifts. The words of St. John of the Cross about a soul in mystical union apply with even greater force to the Angels in glory: “The Holy Spirit makes them [the acts] all and moves it towards them. As a result all the acts of the soul are divine, since the movements toward these acts and their execution stems from God. … [The flame of divine love] raises it up to the activity of God in God” (Living Flame of Love I:3-4). “Thus all the movements of this soul are divine. Although they belong to it, they belong to it because God works them in it and with it, for it wills and consents to them” (ibid. I:9). In short, the holy angels are perfect instruments and the perfect messengers for the communication of God’s light and the fire of His love to souls.
While it is true that God could do all this without the ministries of the holy angels, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God does send His angels to us in this kind of spiritual mission. In the beatific vision the saints and angels possess God and are possessed by God, and so they enjoy a great freedom in their activity. If the angels and saints accomplish little in our lives, it is not because they lack the desire or because they lack the means, rather it is because we lack the dispositions and the will to cooperate properly. They could quickly help us towards holiness, if we would only be willing to embrace the cross, which is the only way of true discipleship. Again, the words of St. John of the Cross about a soul in perfect mystical union with God apply even more forcefully to the angels and saints in glory: “It is conscious there that God is indeed its own and that it possesses Him by inheritance, with the right of ownership. Having Him for its own, it can give Him and communicate Him to whomever it wishes” (ibid. III:78).
When, from the vantage of the ‘Doctor Mysticus,’ we view the angelic ministries, we find it not at all surprising that they should appear in the splendor of God, that they should speak and promise in His name. For not only is He present and actively speaking through them (cf. Dark Night, II,12), but He has given them great freedom in the exercise of their ministries. They have the mission to lead us to holiness, and the freedom to admonish and enlighten, to strengthen and inflame us within the parameters set by the Divine Wisdom in the Economy of Salvation. Abraham cooperated with this grace and achieved greatness before God.
II. The Spiritual Battle
Elisha: “There are more with us than with them!” Other texts of Holy Scripture show that the life of man is a life between the holy angels and the fallen spirits. The great tragedies of mankind are not just human weakness, nor even simply human malice. There is a personal spiritual force behind them seducing, deceiving, inciting to sin, according to the words of St. Paul: “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the word of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph 6,12).
Here, too, God sends the holy angels as a proportionate response to our assistance. It is not without reason that a principal title of God in the Old Testament is the “Lord of Host.” The angels form the militant host or army of God, not, of course, because God needs protection, but because we do. This is brought home in the story of the Prophet Elisha during the reign of Achaz. The king of Syria was at war with Israel and had been setting ambushes against Israel. However, his plans were foiled many a time because the prophet Elisha reported the enemy’s strategy to the king of Israel. The king of Syria, therefore, made plans to capture Elisha while he was sojourning in the village of Dothan. The enemy troops and chariots came in considerable force and lay siege about the town during the night, such that when the prophet’s servant arose in the morning and caught sight of the enemy troops preparing to attack, he was filled with fright and cried out: “‘Alas, alas, alas, my lord, what shall we do?’ But the prophet, quite unmoved, responded: ‘Fear not; for there are more with us than with them!’ And Elisha prayed: ‘Lord, open his eyes, that he may see.’ And the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw. And behold the mountain was full of horses, and the chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kgs 6:15-17).
The enemy attack was foiled, for the prophet had prayed and the angel struck them with blindness. The prophet went out and led the Syrian troops off to the king of Israel in Samaria. And only when they had been brought into captivity, did he open their eyes again. (cf. 6:20). The sequel is important for those who seek a deep union with the angels. The King of Israel wanted to cut the captives down. But the prophet, through his intimacy with Almighty God, was filled with the spirit of clemency. Accordingly, Elisha ordered the king to prepare a banquet for the Syrian troops and to send them back to their master in peace. The fruit of this merciful gesture was an era of peace with Syria (cf. 6:23). A prayerful soul once expressed the lesson like this: we should aspire to be angels of mercy, not angels of the wrath of God.
St. Anthony of the Desert
The desert fathers, too, had ample experience of this truth that the holy angels are both more numerous and more powerful than the devil. Their experience with the angels teaches us confidence, perseverance, and clemency towards our neighbors. The devil always wants to make us feel his power as awesome and ominous and constantly insinuates the lie that his power is overwhelming and irresistible. In this same vein, he inspires harshness and brutality towards one’s enemies. The holy angels, contrarily, do not make a display of their power, for they all, like St. Michael, oppose the enemy not in their own strength but rather humbly in the strength of God, which infinitely exceeds that of every and all creatures. And so it is not the powerful who can face and rout the enemy in spiritual battle but the humble and the simple.
To appreciate this truth better, let us turn to the life and doctrine of St. Anthony of the Desert. St. Anthony (? mid 4th C.) was a wealthy young man. His parents had passed away and left him in possession of several hundred acres of prime property. Puzzling over what he ought to do with his life, he entered the church as the Gospel of the rich young man was being proclaimed from the pulpit. In a flash of illumination (the angel!), Anthony knew this was meant for him. He proceeded to sell his property, distributed the proceeds among the poor, and then withdrew to the solitude of the desert.
His Victory over the Evil Spirits
The devils, perceiving in him a potentially formidable foe, opposed him in every conceivable way. First, they tried to trouble him with thoughts about the wealth he had given away (“Avarice is the root of all evil”). They troubled him with concern for the care of his sister, with what relatives might think, with thoughts of comfort and fame. As these did not dissuade the young man, they tried to weary him with thoughts about the hardness of a life of virtue and self-denial, suggesting that the body is weak and time is long (St. Athanasius. Life of St. Anthony, II). Routed by the firmness of Anthony’s prayers, faith and resolution, the enemy resorted to cruder weapons, obsessing him with sexual temptations day and night. In a similar battle, Padre Pio declared: “By every kind of phantasms the malignant spirit is trying to insinuate into my heart unclean thoughts and despair” (Letters I,33). “The demon is constantly making his suggestions and what is more painful, he is constantly insinuating into my mind extremely discomforting thoughts” (Letters, I,87).
By prayer and fasting, by thinking of the suffering of Christ and those of hell, Anthony beat back these assaults of the devil, “Yet not I, but the grace of God with me!” (1 Cor 15:10). After seduction, the tempter turned to flattery and vainglory. Here again, Anthony humbled himself, “for the Lord is my helper, and I will despise my enemies” (cf. Ps 117:7).
Even after these victories, Anthony did not cease his vigilance in prayer and discipline, and turned to even greater fasts and penances. Nor did he fear to diminish the strength of his body, knowing that “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12,10). Finally, the enemy, fearing, “lest by degrees Anthony should fill the desert too with monks” fell “one night with a throng of demons [upon him and] so scourged him, that Anthony lay on the ground, speechless from the pain” and close to death (Life of Anthony, I,3). By divine interventions, friends came, and finding Anthony in such miserable straits, brought him back to the city, and nursed him. But waking at midnight the first night, Anthony constrained his friends to carry him back to his cell in the desert.
There, once again alone, although he could not even stand, he prayed, and afterwards called out to the demons: “Here am I, Anthony. I do not run away from your blows. For though you should give me yet more, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ (cf. Rom 8:35). Then he sang the Psalm, ‘If armies in camp should stand together against me, my heart shall not fear’ (Life, I.3; cf. Ps.26:3)”. A night of sheer pandemonium ensued in which the hordes of demons wracked him with every kind of pain, and appeared in every kind of bestial form. But Anthony, placing his trust in the Lord, issued forth the victor. Finally, the Lord shed His light upon him; the demons retired and his pain subsided. Anthony asked Him, “Where were You? Why didn’t you show Yourself from the beginning, to end my suffering?” And a voice answered Him: “I was here, Anthony, but I waited to see your resistance. Therefore, since you have endured and not yielded, I will always be your helper, and I will make you renowned everywhere” (Life, I,3).
Counsels in the Spiritual Combat
After nearly four generations of experience in prayer and in spiritual combat with the spirits, Anthony had become a master of discernment. In the end, he could say this: The demons “envy us Christians and move everything to hinder us from the way to Heaven, lest we mount to where they fell from. Therefore there is needed much prayer and self-discipline, that a man may receive from the Holy Spirit the gift of discerning spirits” (Life, VI). “The great weapon against them is an upright life and trust in God” (Life, VII).
“But the assault and appearance of the evil ones is troubled, with crashing and din and outcry, as might be the rioting of rough youths and thieves. From which comes at once terror of soul, disturbance and disorder of thoughts, dejection, hatred of ascetics, recklessness, sadness, the memory of one’s family, the fear of death; and then a craving for evil, a contempt of virtue and an unsettling of the character” (Life, IX). Their presence causes a kind of confusing darkness while they flash stimulating false lights, a false sense of security and vanity.
The holy angels, on the other hand, always inspire tranquility and deep interior peace; they attract us to the meekness of Christ, which is manifest in their mission to us poor sinners. The angels fill the soul with joy, for the Lord is in them and with them. “There comes upon the soul a longing for heavenly things to come, and the soul is ready to be wholly united to them (the Angels), if she might go with them” (Life, IX). The light which the angels communicate always exalts God and humbles the soul, filling it with the fear of the Lord; the soul is left with an intense longing for God and a wonderful interior detachment from the things of this world and its many cares.
It is true, he notes, that the initial presence of the holy Angel inspires fear, but this quickly changes into holy reverence and loving confidence in God. Frequent are the words of the angel, “Fear not!” He counsels, “If you are initially filled with anxious fear at their apparition”, in the case of the holy angel, “this fear quickly passes and in its place the soul is filled with indescribable joy and zeal, trust, fresh strength and dominion of though with virile resolve and love for God. In this case, be confident. For the love and this entire state of soul [seven gifts received!] witness to the holiness of this apparition. So it was that Abraham rejoiced when he saw the Lord (cf. Jn 8:56); so did John the Baptist leap in the womb for joy at the words of the Blessed Mother” (Life, IX).
In the end, he gives us this counsel for spiritual battle: “We must be brave and glad, as men who are being saved. Let us bear in mind that with us is the Lord, who defeated the demons and brought them to naught. And let us always believe and ponder this, that, while our Lord is with us, our enemies shall not touch us. For when they come, as they find us, so do they themselves become to us: they fit their phantoms to the mind they find in us. If they find us in fear and panic, at once they assail us, like thieves who find the place unguarded; and all that we of ourselves are thinking, that they do and more. For if they see us afraid and cowardly, they increase our fear yet more by phantoms and threats…. But if they find us glad in the Lord and pondering on the good things to come and thinking thoughts of God and accounting that all is in God’s hand and that a demon avails naught against a Christian, nor has power over any — seeing the soul safeguarded with such thought, they turn away in shame. … Therefore, if we would despise the enemy, our thoughts must always be of God and our souls always glad with hope” (Life, X).
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