Rolheiser: Do we have guardian angels?

04 October 2021

Appears in: Columnists

As a child, I was taught that I had a guardian angel, a real angel given me by God to accompany me everywhere and protect me from danger. I remember a pious holy card given to me by my mother, showing a young boy playing dangerously close to the edge of a cliff and an angel protecting him there. Most Roman Catholics of my generation, I suspect, remember a pious prayer we prayed each day asking for the guidance and protection of our guardian angel: Angel of God, my guardian dear …

What’s to be said about guardian angels? Do such personified spirits really exist or are guardian angels simply creatures of our imagination created to be helpful in the religious development of children? Are we meant to outgrow our belief in them?

Whether or not we are meant to outgrow that belief, the fact is that today for the most part we have outgrown it. Most adults, within all Christian denominations, either see the existence of guardian angels as pious fantasy or are simply indifferent to the idea.

Are we still meant to believe in guardian angels? If yes, in what exactly are we meant to believe? Are angels real personified beings or simply another word for God’s presence in our lives?

Scripture scholars don’t give us a definitive answer but rather suggest that the question can be answered either way. In scripture, the word ‘angel’ might be referring to a real personified spirit or it might be referring to a special presence of God in some situation. Church tradition affirms more strongly that angels are real. Here angels have a rich history and for the most part are taken to be real persons (albeit spirits). Christian iconography and music abound with angels, and the Roman Catholic Church has major feasts celebrating angels and guardian angels. The Fourth Lateran Council (taking place in 1215, long before the Protestant Reformation) stated that belief in guardian angels is implicit in scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “from infancy to death human life is surrounded by their [guardian angels’] watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”

Where does that leave us? Divided. Conservative Christians generally assert the existence of angels as a dogmatic teaching. Angels are real.  Liberal Christians tend to doubt that or at least are agnostic about it. For them, ‘angel’ more likely refers to a special presence of God. For example, they take the statement in the Gospels where the evangelist tells us that while Jesus was praying “an angel came and strengthened him to mean that God’s grace came and strengthened him.

Who’s right? Perhaps it doesn’t matter since the reality is the same in either case. God gives us revelation, guidance, protection, and strength and does so in ways that are “angelic”, that are beyond our normal conceptualizations.

Those who believe that angels are real have a strong case. Even if we just look at the origins and dimensions of physical creation (whatever scientific version of this you subscribe to) mystery immediately dwarfs our imaginative capacities. It is all too huge to grasp! We know now that there are billions of universes (not just planets) and we know now that our planet earth, and we on this planet, are the tiniest of minute specks inside the unthinkable magnitude of God’s creation. If this is true, and it is, then this is hardly the time to be skeptical about the extent of God’s creation, believing that we, humans, are what is central and that there can be no personified realities beyond our own flesh and blood. Such thinking is narrow, both from the point of view of faith and from the perspective of science itself.

However, the agnosticism of those who doubt the existence of angels is ultimately benign. When scripture tells us that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her pregnancy and when it tells us that after Jesus had exhausted himself with struggle in Gethsemane, an angel came and strengthened him, it makes little difference whether this occurred via the modality of a personified spirit or via some other modality of God’s presence. Either way, it was real. Either way, it was a particularized, real entry of God into someone’s life.

So, do we have guardian angels? At birth or at baptism does God assign a particular angel to journey with us throughout our lives, giving us invisible, heavenly guidance and protection?

Yes, we do have a guardian angel, irrespective of how we might imagine or conceive of this. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves and God’s solicitous love, guidance, and protection are with us always. At the end of the day, it matters little whether this comes through a particular personified spirit (who has a name in heaven) or whether it comes simply through God’s loving omnipresence.

God’s presence is real – and we are never alone, without God’s love, guidance, and protection.