John Gayford introduces the Guardian Angels

Angels are heavenly beings created by God whose function is to serve and do his will. Guardian Angels are assigned by God to watch over souls (and even bodies) of individuals, groups and churches, to bring them to heaven by defending them from evil. This church tradition has Biblical support and also that of the teaching of the Fathers of the Church but it is not a doctrine of faith. The concept of the Guardian Angel is not confined to Christianity. The Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) in Phaedo, (On Immortality) has the concept of a guardian spirit. There are spiritual beings that act like Guardian angels in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

The concept of the personal Guardian Angel is not clearly formulated in the Old Testament.

Behold I send an angel before you on the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice. (Exodus 23:20-21). This was God’s promise to Moses but it is not clear if this is also made to individuals or collective to the community. Nevertheless in ancient Jewish belief I Enoch 100: 5 shows acceptance of a protective spirit for the just. And over the righteous and holy he will appoint guardians of holy angels to guard them as an apple of an eye until he makes an end of all wickedness and sin. And though the righteous sleep a long sleep they have nought to fear. I Enoch is a product of the second temple period but is not canonical for all Jews or Christians. It was accepted by the Qumran community and is canonical to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Rabbinic literature developed and influenced Christian scholars by its many Biblical commentaries and ability to convey basic facts simply. In commentary on the Book of Danial, especially the tenth chapter dealing with terrifying visions, the concept of Guardian Angels was that they had powers to see things that humans did not and that in dangerous situations they could convey terrifying anxiety to human beings. Also suggested is that the role of the heavenly representative (guardian Angel) is to transmute ideas that are beyond human understanding into common sense. There is even a belief that there are two supernatural forces allocated to each person; one good and the other evil. A person’s good makes the good angel stronger but evil works make the evil angel stronger (vide infra).

The best evidence of Guardian Angels in the New Testament is from St. Matthew 18: 10:-

See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven. Acts 12 implies a belief in Guardian Angels as Mary the mother of John Mark thought she was seeing Peter’s Guardian Angel when he was miraculously released from prison. It must be his angel!  The implication in Hebrews 1:14 is that those who are to receive salvation have a Guardian Angel. In Revelation 2 and 3 we hear of angels of individual churches but chapter 8 implies a belief in Guardian Angels offering up the prayers of the faithful (saints).

Christian devotion to Guardian Angels can be traced back to the early church, gaining strength in monastic tradition. Later the concept had Franciscan and local support in some areas like Spain. From the time of Alcuin who died in 804 there was a votive Mass Missa ad suffragia angelorum postulanda (Mass for the angels’ support of plaintiffs). There was much English devotion to the angels in the twelfth century. There was an office composed for Guardian Angels used in Valencia in 1411. In 1607 this feast was added to the Roman calendar by Pope Paul V who assigned October 2nd as the Feast Day of Holy Guardian Angels with a special Mass and Office. Much of the chant for this feast was “borrowed” from other feasts with the exception an Alleluia at Mass and the two office hymns for the feast composed by St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). For Vespers Custodes hominum psallimus Angelos, and Orbis patrator optime for Lauds. John Mason Neale and others tried the almost impossible task of translating these into rhyming couplets in English to fit exactly the original chant but regretfully with distortion of the meaning or ungainly English. As the feast was introduced after the reformation, when the Sarum Rite was abandoned, the Anglican Church left the feast out of the calendar. But those Anglicans wishing to keep the feast with an English translation have made sincere efforts to provide antiphons that fit the original chant. This is especially seen in the monastic tradition. Many Anglo-Catholic churches keep the feast.

St. John Henry Newman wrote and published his poem The Dream of Gerontius in 1865. This gives the clear Catholic message of the work of the Guardian Angel to guide the soul to eternal life but needing a further period of preparation after death. It is only after death that Gerontius meets his guardian Angel who hands him over to the next stage of his journey. In Newman’s poem purgatory is not projected as a place of torment and suffering but as a place of healing and restoration. This was set to music as an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar in 1900 and brings the message to wider audiences.

Art has difficulty depicting angels and especially Guardian Angels as they are pure spirits. It became an early tradition to depict angels as androgynous humans but with wings and often halos. There are ancient mosaics that thus depict angels but not specifically Guardian Angels. Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805-1875) produced a picture of the Angel of Peace carrying a sleeping child which became very popular. Various similar images were reproduced in many formats including tapestry and stained glass. This released a market of sentimental representations of Guardian Angels shepherding children through dangerous situations. Statues of Guardian Angels are seen in abundance especially on the graves of children. There are also modern stylized icons of Guardian Angels. 

Often Guardian Angels in addition to watching over individuals are seen as protecting nations, places and churches, in this respect the Archangel Michael is over worked. There are churches and chapels dedicated to Holy Guardian Angels. All Anglicans have a Guardian Angel even if they do not keep the feast. There are many beautiful legends about Guardian Angels one of which is that if a personal Guardian Angel has difficulty they can send for a consultant archangel. 

Father John Gayford is a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross