October 2 being a Sunday, the day takes precedence over the memorial on the calendar of the Catholic Church, but as we look at images left by the devastation of Hurricane Ian (and, at this writing, its continued threat), it would not be uncommon to hear some ask, “Well, where were the Guardian Angels? Why weren’t they protecting lives and homes?” Such questions always extrapolates into, “Why do bad things happen at all, if the Guardian Angels are on the job? Why does one person avoid getting sucker-punched on a New York City street while another gets clobbered? Was one person’s angel just more on the job than the others? Is it all a fantasy?”
Guardian angels are not fantasies. They are real, and scriptural. But the questions we ask are fair and utterly human. As a child I once ran out into the street without looking and a driver jammed on her brakes; I just missed being hit. My mother said, “your guardian angel was protecting you.” Okay. But when a boy threw a rock at me that hit me in the eye, where was my guardian angel, then? For that matter, in moments of abuse, terror and torment, where was my angel, and why was I not protected, then?
Or, taken from the headlines, why did some die from the flooding effects of the hurricane, while others were sometimes miraculously rescued? A few years ago there was a Boy Scout Jamboree, a gathering of tens of thousands. Several boys died of lightning strikes. Why them? Why not others? Why not the whole of them? Why any of them?
Well, it’s a mystery!
I certainly don’t have any answers to those questions. They pop into my head from time to time, but I don’t lose sleep over them. We know that the things that occur all around us and in our lives only occur because they are permitted, and that this permission has something to do with a Divine Plan that is beyond our ken — a mystery of love, grace and divine wisdom that is unsolvable to all of us — save, perhaps, a few saints — and has been pondered since Job’s time, and before. I do believe it. As I’ve often said, I’m a true daughter of St. Philip Neri and do believe that all of God’s purposes are to the good, and that “although we may not always understand this, we can trust in it.”
I do trust in that, though I don’t profess to understand it. Or, I understand it the only way we ever can — in hindsight — when I look back on a difficult, painful memory even years (sometimes decades) later and discover that the suffering I had borne, bore sweet fruit, or that the Good Friday I’d lived through was necessary in order to permit an Easter of joy. This is the continual lesson of the crucifix, one that commingles with our questions about angels and protection, and why God ever permits bad things to happen, even to himself in the form of Christ Jesus.
Still, it’s understandable when people (especially modern people who want everything explained instantly) scoff at such hopeful-yet-unsure answers and ask us, as it were, “how the hell are we meant to deal with a God who seems to be so cruel and capricious, in all of his mysterious and myriad ways?”
It’s the question that was put to a priest in a short “script” I wrote for the Cinema issue of the Evangelization & Culture Journal a while back. In the story, a young man who has endured a brutal assault and comes bearing shame and humiliation asks it of a priest and the discussion turns to the opportunistic nature of evil and how the seemingly random nature of chaos makes so little sense. “Sometimes,” the priest muses, “it seems as though darkness and light are battling it out all around us, and some of it’s just spillin’ on us, willy-nilly. Might explain why it all seems so out-of-balance — saints who suffer and bastards who flourish. Or why sometimes what looks like a blessing ends up being a curse, and what seems the worst possible thing can, with a time’s hindsight, become what has formed us in strong ways, resourceful ways.”
The young man does not receive the priest’s inexact ponderings with anything like gratitude, but I think he silently appreciates that the older man doesn’t have any sort of easy, pat sort of answer, or a go-to platitude on offer. I think we all can appreciate honest questions born of frustrated unknowing, and the fact that none of us really have any answers to these questions. There is actually some comfort to be taken from that.
Sometimes protection looks strange
Still, I do believe in Guardian Angels and like to think I have a fair relationship with my own, asking mine for intercessory prayer for myself or others, or to meet with the Guardian Angel of another before what I suspect will be a difficult or uncomfortable encounter, or for the completion of prayers, when I am sleepy. Over in her Forming Intentional Disciples group, Sherry Weddell recently pointed to this article on the reality and understanding of angels, which I thought was pretty good. I liked this, especially:
I like to quote the beautiful film Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, in which we see guardian angels going around the city of Berlin. In a scene taking place in a bus in Berlin, we see a totally desperate man. He thinks he wasted his life; he even considers suicide. At this point, we see a guardian angel appearing (the character doesn’t see him) and putting his arm around his shoulders, without saying anything. We can feel that he is transmitting something. We hear the man’s internal rumination suddenly stop, while, little by little, his thoughts start going in another direction. He starts seeing some positive aspects about his life: He remembers a nice gesture he received from a friend, he remembers the people who care about him, and he finally starts taking new heart.
This scene is, in my view, a very beautiful way to explain the guardian angels’ action that can inspire us with good thoughts and desires. They can also act on external circumstances of our lives to protect us in difficult times, to avoid accidents, favor encounters with other people, and so on. All these actions belong to Providence, which is made concrete through them.
One of my favorite U2 videos takes its cue from that film, if you’re interested in checking it out.
Thanks to Sherry Weddell for including this in her post on angels, from St. Bonaventure (2 Sent. Dist. 11 art. 2 q. 1):
Twelve actions of the guardian angels.1. To rebuke faults2. To free from the chains of sin3. To remove impediments to good4. To bind demons5. To teach6. To reveal mysteries7. To console8. To comfort and encourage on the way to God9. To guide and conduct one on that way10. To cast down armies11. To mitigate temptations12. To pray, and to carry prayers to God.