Learning from the Angels
Studying the nature of the spiritual beings can help us to purify the aspect of our nature that corresponds to theirs: the soul. The soul is usually thought of as having three faculties: (1) memory, the sum total of the experiences of our lives with which we construct our identity; (2) intellect or mind, by which we reason and understand and grow in knowledge; and (3) will, by which we love and choose what is good and true and beautiful. These spiritual faculties are “who we are” after we die; when we come into the Lord’s presence for the particular judgment, they are flooded with His light. When we enter Paradise, we experience the Beatific Vision and the Communion of Saints through them.
Here on earth, we can be attracted to and choose what is sinful because our intellect is clouded and our will is weak. As part of the spiritual life, we must progress in purifying our memory, our will, and our intellect so that Christ may reign in us, ruling all these powers of our soul. That is how we become holy.
The angels can help us in this task by leading us to and teaching us about prayer and adoration. Further, they lead us to see comprehensively God’s plan for us. The example and prayers of the angels can help us to cease cultivating the memory of past sins and nursing past hurts; to direct our mind to the truth of God; and to strengthen our will so that we might choose what is good and right day after day.
Cardinal Newman points out the difference between the way human beings and angels think and understand. This is his description of human learning:
We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not at a glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process, by going round an object, by the comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of mind.
Angels don’t do any of these things. An angel’s intellectual knowledge starts about where ours leaves off. His knowledge of the world is part of his very nature; it is innate and total. He starts off with the complete picture that you and I, with time and hard work, have to piece together. The turn-of-the-century theologian Cardinal Alexis-Henri-Marie Lépicier wrote this about the angelic intellect:
Although an angel’s intellect is not his own substance, just as our intellects are not our own substances, yet he possesses such penetration, that he is able, by a single glance, to take in the whole field of science lying open to his perception, just as we, at a glance, can take in the entire field of vision lying exposed to our view.
Now, angels do grow in knowledge because they have participated in the history of salvation and in the revelation of Christ. As Christ has progressively disclosed Himself through the course of salvation history, the angels, too, have added to their understanding and experience of God. We might say, too, that an angel grows in knowledge and understanding through his ministry on our behalf. As an angel accompanies a man or woman as guardian and sees how the grace of God grows in that person, and how he or she experiences fulfillment through the love of God and the life of the sacraments, the angel comes to know the ways of God in a new and powerful way.
And what does that knowledge serve in the angels? What is its purpose? Well, it must be for the increase of their love and adoration because, as we have said, the angels were created for adoration. They constantly behold the face of God in Heaven (Matt. 18:10). They live to proclaim His glory. Their entire being, all of their activities, and all that they experience in their relationship with us contributes to this praise and magnifies in them a happiness that is beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not experienced it.
Even while they are watching over us, even while they are declaring their dominion over all creation as servants of the Lord, they are at the same time gazing on the face of God in Heaven. It is this loving and adoring union with God that is the source, not only of their praise, but also of all the help and clarity they offer to us — that is, the grace they communicate to us that flows from God Himself.
Praying with the Angels
If we want to benefit from the companionship and guardianship of the angels — if we want our minds, our hearts, and our memories to be purified and sanctified — we must look to the angelic way of adoration. Remember: Mankind, too, was created to adore and to love God above all else. We can adore Him here with these bodies on this earth, but we can view Him only with the eyes of faith; as St. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Even so, our worship is, by the grace of God, true and good and worthy.
The angels, though, can amplify our praise by reflecting it directly to God, “face to face.” This is what we call upon them to do in every Mass when we pray the Gloria, adapted from the angelic praise the Shepherds heard on Christmas night and found again in the book of Revelation: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” (Rev. 7:12).
It is precisely because the angels never turn their faces from the Lord that they can carry out His missions for them on earth. In the same way, if we want to grow in the spiritual life; if we want to become holy; if we want to be divinized, as the Fathers of the Church describe the life of grace, then we should ask the angels to help us never to turn our faces away from the face of God and to be mindful of Him always and in everything, just as they are. In loving our neighbor, we love God; in loving our God, we learn to love our neighbor. Let us ask the angels, therefore, for three gifts: First, to pray always; second, never to withdraw our face from the face of God; and third, to live, to act, to move, and to choose always in the presence of God. Whenever we pray the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), we can remember these three angelic characteristics and order our prayer of petition in union with their praise.
We learn how to pray always by remaining united to the will of God, by asking that the Lord’s will be done in us and through us in our every action. One way to make this possible is to offer up short prayers throughout the day. Every time we finish something — whether it’s writing a work memo, finishing class preparations, correcting a law brief, washing the dishes, or changing a diaper — we can offer up our efforts to the Lord with a little prayer: “For the love of You, my God.” Or: “Jesus, I offer You this work for Your glory and that I may be transformed and changed.” And when we have this spirit of prayer, addressing the Lord with little aspirations throughout the day, we will also learn to offer up to the Lord the crosses and the hardships of daily life.
One of the most powerful and thought-provoking prayers that we can say is the very simple, “Jesus, I want what You want for me.” It is a prayer that little children can learn in just a moment and that we can pray until the very last moment of our lives. To say these words means that we believe and trust that Jesus not only wills what is the best for us but that He knows better than we do what is best for us. It is a prayer that expresses dogmatic faith and personal loving trust.
Of course, in a very real sense it is no different from repeating the words of the Our Father, “Thy will be done,” or the Blessed Mother’s reply to St. Gabriel, “Behold the handmaid (or, for a man, servant) of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.” However, sometimes we need to take the words of Scripture or the formal prayers of others and make them our own by repeating them in simple, short, and direct language that is adapted to our needs and our stage in the spiritual life. Even the saints did this; for example, one holy Italian priest and famous spiritual writer, Father Dolindo Ruotolo (1882–1970), used to say in moments of anxiety or frustration, “O Jesus, I surrender myself to you; take care of everything!”
“I want” is an expression that we hear our children say constantly; but if we are honest, it is even more often repeated, even if silently or subtly, by adults. We grown-ups also mistake wants for needs and are thus drawn to things that may satisfy us for a moment but soon leave us empty and hurting. Overcoming our selfishness, bending our pride, submitting our will to that of another out of love — these are lessons that we must learn and live in our family life, in our human loves, and in our friendships as well as in our relationship with Almighty God. Yet, because we do not always realize the full consequences of our actions for ourselves and others and because our previous sins (even if they are forgiven) and our unexamined emotions often influence our decisions, such learning may take an entire lifetime.
The holy angels, unlike ourselves, have an intelligence and a way of understanding that sees a decision in all its dimensions, as well as the potential consequences of each possible choice. They are not influenced by past sins, since they remained faithful to the Lord in their moment of trial, and they are not subject to emotions as we experience them. If we turn to them in our moments of choice and decision, asking for their clarity, strength of purpose, and obedience to the will of God, our minds will become ever clearer and our wills shall become ever freer as we pray, “Jesus, I want what You want for me.”
There will be times when it will be difficult to say this little prayer because it is not always easy to let go and to let God act. And there may be moments when we clearly know that what we want is not what Jesus wants for us or from us. Love and obedience begin in the will before they are expressed in our actions. If we do our best to will what He wills and to ask for His grace with humble and trusting hearts, He will not refuse us. And our little prayer, however weak, will be magnified by our angel’s presence and his joyful shout, “Here I am Lord, I come to do Your will.”
The angels will always watch over us with wonder and awe if we give ourselves to Our Lord, remaining in His presence and uniting our daily crosses to His. As we do so, we’ll find that we will make Him present to others. Other people will find in us a magnetically attractive beauty — the beauty of holiness, the beauty of Christ shining through us. And we will find that the Lord makes use of us to be messengers to others, to collaborate with His holy angels, and to bring our brothers and sisters closer to Him, the Source of love and life.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Horgan’s His Angels at Our Side: Understanding Their Power in Our Souls and the World, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.