When we read the lives of the saints, we can be sure that the angels played a large part in their spiritual formation and the development of their interior lives, but we do not always find detailed evidence of this in their biographies, beyond perhaps a brief mention of their devotions or prayers.
When we do find evidence of a real collaboration — a covenanted friendship between the angels and one of God’s servants — it is a very special gift indeed. Here too, however, it is helpful to make a distinction between what is admirable and what is imitable — between the exceptional mystical gifts that many saints experienced and the heroic though often unnoticed responses to angelic influence given by others.
The writings of great mystics such as Teresa of Avila, Veronica Giuliani, or Anne Catherine Emmerich reveal many wonderful insights into the angelic world, but each of those holy women — as well as their guardian angels — would tell you that the most important aspect of the angels’ role in their lives was found in their understanding of the Cross, their growth in divine charity toward their neighbor, and, ultimately, their transformation in Christ. The angels are messengers of these truths, guides to these mysteries, and spiritual teachers of this way of life.
Perhaps the most angelic of all the saints is Francis of Assisi. He has become known far and wide as the “Seraphic Saint,” and within the Franciscan family he is called the “Seraphic Father.” In other words, his love for Jesus was so great, so intense, so fiery that he could be compared only to that highest choir of angels. Just as the seraphim do not simply burn with the love of God but also inflame others with that love, so too St. Francis gathered followers who caught fire with the love of God.
The likeness to God that came from this great love reached its perfection when the Lord sent His seraphim to seal St. Francis with the five wounds of the stigmata, impressing in his flesh the marks of the Cross. Every age needs to rediscover Francis, because that rediscovery represents a new finding of Christ Jesus. To Christians of every stripe and to many outside the Church, St. Francis’s “seraphic love” is a mysteriously attractive and fascinating proof of God’s presence among us.
Though the little church of San Damiano will always be remembered as the place where Francis began his mission, it was the church of Our Lady of the Angels that St. Francis loved most in his final years, and it was there that he died. This small chapel, now enclosed in a beautiful basilica, is the heart of the Franciscan family, and the title has become the distinctly Franciscan name for Mary. Countless Franciscan churches and chapels — and even the entire City of Los Angeles — have been named in her honor.
When Mother Angelica came to Irondale, Alabama, she too could think of no more fitting name for her Poor Clare foundation than that of Our Lady of the Angels. This name not only evokes the Immaculata’s special relationship with the Lord’s messenger-servants, but also calls to mind her protective care — so often expressed by angelic means — over us, her children.
The great Franciscan theologian and cardinal St. Bonaventure (1221–1274) continued Francis’s devotion to the angels in his own mystical and theological writings. He pondered the angelic gifts and their ways of knowing and compiled a devotional list of their activities on behalf of souls, drawn from the Scriptures. His theological studies and writings often led him to experience mystical contemplation and to conclude his written works in loving praise of God — a truly seraphic expression of Franciscan theology.
Another saint from the Middle Ages who is known for his relationship with the angels is St. Thomas Aquinas — known as the “Angelic Doctor” due to his marvelous intelligence and his ability to view truth from every single aspect, comprehensively, almost like the angels themselves. Early in his religious life, Thomas experienced a remarkable grace of confirmation in chastity when two angels appeared by his sides and wrapped a cincture (a rope-like belt) around his waist as a symbol of that divine gift. The Dominican Order has translated this mystical experience into a religious movement called “The Angelic Warfare” for people young and old to maintain purity of body and spirit. Members wear a special medal or cord and participate in prayers for this gift of integrity of body and soul.
Thomas Aquinas is venerated throughout the Church as the patron of all theologians and the chief teacher of all who are in preparation for the priesthood. The collection of prayers he composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi is the source of the hymns used at Benediction throughout the Catholic world. In these hymns and his other prayers, we see Thomas’s soul ascending to God, his mind and heart seeking Him and Him alone, even as he dedicated all his physical and mental labors to leading his fellow men and women to the Beauty he had contemplated. The purity of his thought has never been surpassed, and the passionate love of his heart has never been forgotten.
The great Benedictine St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) provides us with an extraordinary example of monastic-angelic life. She understood her vocation to be an imitation of the angels’ life of praise and glory offered to the Lord, which she expressed in her writings, the illustrations of her manuscripts, and, especially, her music. St. Hildegard is an extraordinary example of a woman who used all her human talents, skills, and creativity to translate her unique mental and mystical enlightenments so that others could benefit from them.
She made great truths perceptible to the senses. In the exquisite miniatures that translate her visions into pictures, we see the fall of the angels in the form of dark stars that have lost all their light and have been cast down to earth. She saw the nine choirs arranged in nine concentric circles around Almighty God, each choir and sphere displaying its own characteristics, in a marvelous synthesis of her own visions and the theology of Dionysius. Though the subject of many controversies during her life, her mission in the life of the Church took on a new impetus and luster when Pope Benedict XVI declared her to be a Doctor of the Church in 2012.
Angels at Their Side
In the lives of the saints we also find many simple men and women for whom the angels were companions and helpers in their daily life and work. St. Isidore the Farmer, who is venerated throughout Spain and the Hispanic world, received assistance from the angels with his work in the fields. It is said he would become wrapped in prayer and the angels would carry on his plowing and other labors for him.
The angels came repeatedly to Blessed Anna Maria Taigi (1769– 1837), the poor Roman housewife and mother of seven children who was graced by God with extraordinary gifts of prophecy and prayer. Though illiterate, she was able to see events of the past, present, and future — all for the purpose of bringing comfort and strength to Christ’s Church and to souls who were burdened with heavy crosses. But these gifts were not the source of her holiness; Anna Maria was first and foremost a wife and mother. Her husband was a good but uneducated man who sometimes had a difficult temper. Her children were her constant concern, even after they had married and left home.
Anna Maria Taigi did everything in the presence of her guardian angel, sending him to bring comfort to the sick and protection to those who were tempted. We can do the same thing: Every day we can speak to the angels of the poor, of the sick, and of the strangers whom we see in the streets. If you find yourself distracted by someone in church, speak to that person’s guardian angel, apologize for your distraction, and tell him that you pray that his work will be successful this day and that he will bring his charge ever closer to Christ.
There are many riches to be found in the world of the angels as we grow in our understanding of how the Lord unites angel and man in His service and for His glory. Every day when we open the Sacred Scriptures, we ask the Lord to reveal Himself to us, to open our mind and our heart: “Holy angel, help me. Take away from me all lukewarmness and narrowness of mind. Let me see the wonders of the Lord in all their fullness and glory. Let me grow in discipleship. Let me realize the vocation that God has given me.”
The Lord calls each one of us by name to love Him. Every morning when we wake, our first thought should be: “Today I can give glory to God. Today I am loved by God. Today the angel is at my side. My Heavenly Mother watches over me. The Lord Jesus calls me.” When we begin our day in this way, we begin with the joy and vitality of the grace of the Gospel and the life of the Church. Each morning, let us ask the Lord to give us the clear-sightedness to see His will so that we might become His instruments and so that we might be guardians for others, stewarding the gifts of God within them and cooperating with His grace so that with our elder brothers, the angels and the saints, we might praise Him always.
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.