By Denise Trull
We have arrived at the place on the liturgical calendar where angels alight, hovering in dazzling array over these bright, autumn days that flow from September into October. Two days ago, we gloried in the Archangels: Mighty Michael, Gabriel the Messenger, and Raphael the wise and protecting guide of young Tobias. There are also angels who ever sing the praises of God around His throne whom we hail as Seraphim and Cherubim. Angels are myriad. The Medievals believed it was the angels who moved the planets and sang as they did so. They called this the music of the spheres. There was a great army of angels, we are told, who watched Lucifer fall from Heaven. Angels exist all around, above and beyond us. They are pure spirits and so we cannot see them, but still we believe and know by faith that they are there. Sometimes, though, God allows these marvelous spirits to break through to our world of men with messages or aid. Cardinal St. John Henry Newman observed once that:
“There is a veil spread between this world and the next; we men ranging up and down in it and seeing nothing….yet every once in a while marvelous disclosures are made as to what lies beyond it.”
Our Lady beheld the angel Gabriel and was filled with holy fear. Tobias, who walked many miles in company with kind Raphael, was awed unto confusion when Raphael revealed himself as “one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord”. These were ‘marvelous disclosures’ of the highest kind. But today’s feast of the Guardian Angels shows us that even we, insignificant as we are, can experience our own small but marvelous disclosures.
The Church teaches that we each receive a guardian angel at our Baptism, an angel who does not leave our side for the entire earthly journey on which we travel to the Father. This angel protects us from the wiles of the evil one, prays for us all the day long, and sometimes sends us inspirations when we need them most. Guardian angels have even been known to protect us from physical dangers we might know nothing about until later. I did not give my own angel much thought throughout my childhood and teen years, I am sad to say. I pictured him as a sort of fairytale creature of sorts. Shining, beautiful, but never as a reality in day to day living. It wasn’t until one evening when I was twenty-two or so that I realized it was all true.
I had spent many hours waiting for a plane from Dallas to St Louis. Some fierce thunderstorms were settling over the airport and we could not take off at the scheduled time of 5:00 pm. Delays turned day into night and we finally took off at 12:30 in the morning. The flight was choppy and frightening. Leftover lightning still had its way around our plane and there was heavy turbulence. I was an anxious, exhausted mess when I set foot into the terminal at last, expecting to see my friend at the gate waiting for me. It was 2:00 am. There was no one there. As I watched all the other passengers fan out and disappear into the terminal, all looking like they meant business and had a definite plan, I felt suddenly overwhelmed by solitude. My friend had finally stopped waiting after many delays, thinking that I would be able to take a taxi home if my plane took off at all. It was a logical thought, but with the lack of planning that sometimes accompanies youth, I had no money in my wallet and did not yet own a credit card. There was no such thing as a cell phone when I was twenty-two. I was in a predicament.
The terminal was empty and echoed with a hollow loneliness. Once in a while a worker would pass with a vacuum cleaner, or a stray shadowy figure far down the hall would pass, but I truly felt like a stranger in a strange land. I walked the hall to the baggage claim and came upon my lone suitcase taking its eery little journey around and around the baggage carousel. Everyone had left. I was alone.
Perhaps it was because I was dead tired, that I felt myself being overwhelmed with an irrational fear -- the kind six-year-olds might feel when suddenly aware they have lost sight of their mother in a crowd. Everyone becomes a thief and a marauder in your imagination. This was my mindset as I resigned myself to spending the rest of the night in this desolate emptiness filled with rows of chairs meant to be filled. I found one and sat. I could not sleep. Thieves and marauders danced in my head.
Then I saw him. Up a row of chairs to the left. Sleeping the sleep of the just. A large, affable man in a blue suit with a rumpled tie, snoring happily among his pile of battered suitcases. His face was older, with wrinkles about the eyes. He smiled benignly in his sleep. He exuded comfort and serenity sitting there in the midst of empty chairs, filling only his own. I moved closer and sat very near to him. I inexplicably felt washed over with a relief that, to this day, I have never felt as strongly. My anxiety melted away. I stood mysteriously in some protective circle that surrounded him. Then I saw it. There, on his lapel; a little, golden angel pin sitting pretty as you please. I smiled at him then and wondered suddenly who he was -- this benign stranger who bore angels on his lapel.
I felt a great desire to pray at this point. To pray to my guardian angel whom I had neglected all these years, but who, I knew, had never borne a grudge towards me on that account. I prayed fervently for help to get home. My stranger shifted in his chair and settled again with a little puffy sigh. Then up popped a sudden idea. Judy! The older lady I worked with at a doctor’s office. She was always making me eat things and asking about boyfriends. She was funny and smart and always took me under her wing. Judy was an empty nester who just enjoyed mothering people. She had given me her number once in case I needed to call her for anything. It was stuffed in the bottom of my purse with all the other important numbers you stuff into your purse. So, I made my way to a payphone all the while keeping an eye on my angelic sleeper. Judy answered and before I could ask her what I should do, she immediately got in her car and raced to the airport no questions asked. She collected my sorry self and my bag with nary a lecture on the importance of always having cash in your wallet. She trundled me away to treat me to a sunrise breakfast at a local Denny’s. I had been saved, and the stranger in the chair, who snored on contentedly, had no idea. Or did he?
I thought of that sleeping benevolence of a man for many years afterwards. It was such a small drama I had lived through that night. But it was the night I began to believe in my guardian angel and his power to protect me and to love me. I think he inspired me to think of Judy and I think he let Judy know how much I needed her motherliness at that moment. I still get chills at the memory.
All the angels are powerful beings, magnificent to behold. C.S. Lewis points out quite astutely, that
“In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not’….. not ‘there, there.’”
We always stand, and rightly so, in awe of this invisible world that beholds the face of God --these bright spirits who are superior to us in every way. Holy fear is our proper reaction to angels.
Yet, in speaking of the Guardian Angels, there is more a sense of homeyness about them, and we find within us the true child we are called to be every time we ask for their help or listen carefully for their promptings when we pray. In many ways they are like a best friend. I find it quite touching that even the most highly intellectual and educated saints, the most gifted in the arts and sciences had a strong and childlike belief in the power of their guardian angels. Padre Pio used to send his own angel to people in trouble or those who were being tempted. His angel would also tell him when someone needed to go to confession or was in need of consolation. Cardinal Newman loved his guardian angel most dearly and was never embarrassed to speak often of his care and protection in his life. He wrote a beautiful poem in honor of the angels. St. Gemma often asked her guardian angel’s help. St. Therese would ask her angel to fly from her monastery to her sister Leonie who was at home with Celine taking care of their ailing father. Therese asked that Leonie be comforted and strengthened in her task, being so far away from the steadying love of her other sisters. And Leonie always felt the grace. Brilliant St. Hildegard, with the artlessness of a child, asked the angels for ears to hear the music they were singing to God. They obligingly sent it to her and she wrote it down in beautiful melodies that are sung even today.
I never knew what happened to the sleeping man on the airport chair. I think perhaps he was my angel in disguise. No matter. It is enough that I know God to be such a caring Father that he has sent each of us a glorious, bright, powerful angel to keep us in all our ways. And once again I cry with the psalmist, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” That angels stoop from Heaven to travel down the dusty road of life with us, and are obligingly happy to do so until we reach the New Jerusalem.
Blessed be God in His Angels and in His Saints.