by William Schmitt
I’d like to say a word for the angels. Especially the ones whom I lovingly call the “blue-collar workers” of the heavenly host.
Why now? The few weeks between our annual remembrance of the 9/11 terror attacks and the Catholic Church’s feast day of the Holy Guardian Angels on Oct. 2 place me in a headspace that seeks holiness.
Once again this year, after observing my Sept. 11 tradition of watching two or three documentaries to tearfully recall that morning in 2001, I have become especially mindful of the event’s impact.
Take that literally, since I was three blocks away from the World Trade Center when I heard the roar of a jet accelerating above me. Walking to the closest intersection to look upward for the explosive impact I had heard, I saw hell bursting from the tower. Flames scarred a tranquil blue sky.
My many memories of that day and months of emotional recovery include finding glimpses of comfort and intrigue: first, in photos of a remnant of intersecting girders which became known as “the cross at ground zero” and, second, in a painting which visualized guardian angels flocking toward the buildings’ billowing smoke. Some winged stewards were bringing their human mentees to safety while others ushered souls to heaven.
Plenty of people emerged from the 9/11 events with stories that contained, explicitly or implicitly, gratitude to guardian angels whose work rose above coincidence or luck.
I have harbored curiosity about, and devotion to, guardian angels ever since, and this has grown with age. My wife Eileen and I still often say the simple prayer which I hope we still teach to children: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side—to light and guard, to rule and guide.”
As we now approach the feast day honoring these celestial creatures, allow me to share my sense of commitment with you by offering several thoughts about practical wisdom, visible and invisible.
I think of guardian angels as the “blue-collar” cohort among the nine “choirs” of God’s angels. As described by a great Catholic philosopher of our day, Prof. Peter Kreeft, drawing upon insights from Scripture, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Gregory the Great, there’s a hierarchy of angels.
Starting at the top, we meet the seraphim, the cherubim, the thrones, the dominions, the virtues, the powers, the principalities, the archangels, and the angels. You can read Kreeft’s summary of each choir’s designated roles in an Aleteia essay.
God assigns one or more members of the lowest rank, still immensely powerful, to each human being on a 24/7/365 basis. They are our “working class heroes.”
They remind isolation-prone mortals that we are never alone.
It’s useful to look for such messages from our companion creatures. After all, the word “angel” means “messenger.” Angels, like all parts of God’s creation, accentuate relationship, communication, and community in ways that are both bold and subtle.
Humans have attested to the presence of angels since Old Testament times, and Jesus said one’s angel is a personal connection to God, resembling the bond between children and their fathers (Matthew 18:10).
The Church does not insist upon accepting angelic partnerships as a dogmatic belief. Our hotline to the Lord is secure anyway, if we pay for the landline. But imagine our abundantly creative God has given the universe a special cast of characters, a bonus feature of reality we can ignore or tap into as a resource.
Some of the higher choirs are focused on adoring and contemplating the glorious aspects of God—an attentiveness which is right and just, Kreeft says. Other choirs, including the archangels (the Bible names three of them), get more directly involved in service to the world, whose people are invited to participate in the glory.
Angels remind us of our call to divine kinship. But their existence also instructs us not to have a swelled head. As pointed out in the Church Life Journal from Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, the human race is seduced to think of itself as the “pinnacle of creation,” with dominion over the earth. However, we’re not top dogs. We’re “in the middle, between angels and nonhuman animals.”
We might say angels are special forces equipped for spiritual warfare. This battle is increasingly recognized on earth; even secular pundits point to “evil” events and actions all the time. Michael the Archangel famously led the conquest of Satan’s cadre during heaven’s civil war (Revelation 12:7-8).
Guardian angels reflect a less martial version of this in our culture’s imagery about making decisions—when we picture an angel advisor on one shoulder debating a demon on the other. We can ask for intercession, as in the Confiteor (“I confess”) at Mass: “I ask blessed Mary ever-virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sister, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
Before taking a long drive, I like to pray cumulatively, “Guardian angels, please protect.” I envision this invoking the extra engagement of sentinels serving fellow motorists who still might be tempted to give me a salute from the window.
I like the image of a guardian angel standing by with a bit of New York attitude and saying, “Hey, I’m waiting over here! Give me something to do!” It’s true: I sense we need a receptive and proactive friendship with these angels, asking them for help and gratefully conversing with mutual respect — because they want to help but won’t force us to do anything against our will.
Our guardians send us a message as blue-collar exemplars of practical wisdom, or Aristotle’s “phronesis.” They do not get their hands dirty in the same way required by the construction or manufacturing trades, but they remind us that wisdom is all about hard work — the task of tackling complex problems and discerning the simplest possible (but not oversimplified) answers.
What I envision as a working-class ethos, which is shared among persons of varied economic, educational, and ancestral backgrounds, favors simplicity and do-ability. Such wisdom emphasizes solving problems through a combination of individual responsibility and cooperation with families and neighbors, our brothers and sisters.
Just as guardian angels generally go nameless and are known by their purpose, their “choir,” and their readiness to serve, pragmatic workers and all fans of phronesis moderate the desire to be known by their fame, credentials, and complexity.
We should welcome recognition instead through the basic insights and skills we bring to the table and the goodwill that brought us to the table in the first place. We find meaning in the difference we can make at home, in the workplace, in the community, and in the broader public square.
We need to be communicators for the sake of a common ground where we can apply common sense for the common good. We can build our identities partly through our unique qualities and interests, but also through our relationships with God and with human beings. Our values must be a “good fit” with the help people need and the output people appreciate.
The joy of having guardian angels is a good fit with this mind frame, which accepts a certain amount of hierarchy, cross-bearing, needfulness, and modesty while enjoying respect and dignity as widely shared birthrights. We shouldn’t be ashamed to “know our place” if it’s a highly honored one.
Probably my biggest takeaway lesson from the events of 9/11 is that we all need to be guardian angels for each other, and God has created models for this.
Like the angels, we are not divine, but we have a special purpose that is inextricably tied to others. Unlike the angels, we struggle to understand this.
Happy feast day.
Bill Schmitt, a contributor to The Tablet, lives in upstate NY and writes “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.