St. Aloysius Gonzaga and the holy angels

Angels seem mysterious and familiar all at the same time. Angels are by definition different than you and I are—they’re spiritual beings, without bodies, but can be present in our world. St. Augustine says “angel” is the name of their office, or what they do: they are servants and messengers of God.

They show up throughout the Bible, in the Old Testament and New Testament at key moments…

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For example the siege at Jericho:

He replied, “Neither. I am the commander of the army of the LORD: now I have come.” Then Joshua fell down to the ground in worship, and said to him, “What has my lord to say to his servant?”

Joshua 5: 14

Or in the Book of Tobit

“I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” Greatly shaken, the two of them fell prostrate in fear.”

Tobit 12:15

And all throughout the Gospels:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.”

Luke 1:13

“And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

Luke 1:35

“…saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.”

Luke 22:43

Jesus mentions angels a lot, as they are His angels…they did after all help explain the Resurrection of Christ to confused disciples.

“…two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. They said to them, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?”

Luke 22:4

In the Gospel of Matthew at one point Jesus tells us that angels that watch over us, the Guardian Angels, also “always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which explains what Catholics believe, says, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.”

What more do we know about angels and how we should think of them?

In this episode we learn about St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s Meditations on the Holy Angels, translated by Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB.

When think you might die, you tend to lean more heavily on your deepest beliefs, and for me, a Catholic, that means prayer for God’s protection.

For years I rode a motor scooter to work, similar to a Vespa. It was a 250cc, meaning it had the pep of a small motorcycle that could travel on highways, if I wanted to. I usually stuck to residential streets on a carefully calibrated route to avoid the most hectic intersections.

On a nice, sunny spring day in 2020—just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to pick up—I was looking forward to a pleasant ride into work after a messy winter. I put on my full-face helmet and jacket with body armor in it like normal. A friend long ago told me to wear the helmet I would want if ever I hit the back of a truck. Vivid, and effective lesson learned.

That morning I was delayed by a few minutes because I needed to add gas, but otherwise I was on schedule. About half-way to work I stopped at a red light, and after it turned green I cautiously continued as all motorcycle riders do through intersections. I got through no problem and then…

I’m hit.

In an instant I’m no longer on my scooter, and I put out my hands to try to catch myself from the fall that I can’t avoid. I roll onto the tree lawn just a short distance from parked cars that I narrowly missed.

I didn’t know what was wrong, only that my body wasn’t working right. I had a separated shoulder, a fractured wrist, some road rash on my leg and other soft tissue damage in my arm, not to mention the psychological pain that lasted long after.

I looked up at the beautiful blue sky as I took stock of my situation and said to myself over and over “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.” The adrenaline and maybe shock began to take over, but I knew that I was alive.

I prayed as the EMTs got me into the ambulance, thanking God I was still alive, and had more time with my wife and children. And as I said Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and even portions of Hail Holy Queen, I began contemplating all that led me to that crash. How did it happen? And could it have been worse?

If I didn’t need gas, would I have missed the car that made an illegal U-turn? If I had been a little faster would I have missed the red light? Or if I was a little slower might I have died? Was my Guardian Angel helping me arrive at the point where I would make it out alive? What happened is clearly what was supposed to happen, but what role might angels play in this plan?

I spoke about this and many other issues of angels and faith with Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB, who translated St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s Meditations on the Holy Angels. We began with the big picture view—why this work?

***Rough transcript follows***

Fr. Nixon: Well, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga is such a fascinating Saint and a very highly venerated one, there’s a massive devotion to him because he’s the patron saint of youth and students, and he’s always been one of my particular favorites. But the thing about him was he passed away when he was extremely young, when he was only 23 and um virtually he was only a student when he died, still in formation, and I was quite surprised to come across almost by chance a collection of his collected writings. I hadn’t even realized that he wrote so much and his most important work was this Meditations on the Holy Angels. And in his own life his devotion to the Holy Angels in particular to the guardian angel was something which really inspired me and touched me, and it made me realize that for a lot of Catholics in the modern world devotion to the Holy Angels is something which we perhaps uh a little bit less aware of than we should be.

Tony: Gonzaga being a saint you’d be forgiven for thinking well of course he was saintly during his life, but as you note he was so young: he only lived on this Earth for 23 years um and so many biographers as you note in the introduction call him angelic. What does “angelic” mean in this sense when we talk about Gonzaga?

Fr. Nixon: Yeah so this is exactly right, so one of the attributes which is given to him one of the highest compliments paid to his sanctity is that he lived like an angel or he followed an angelic life, and for monks as well traditionally um one of the things is we’re we’re called to live an angelic form of life. Now what does this mean? We think about the angels they’re beings which devote themselves entirely to the glorification contemplation of God and also to the service of God for the benefit of other people. So the angels are moreover are freed from the temptations of of the flesh and the world and so forth. Now while a human being as long as they’re alive can’t literally be free from those things we can certainly aspire to emulate the angels in this great freedom and and liberty and joy they have in the service of God. So I think the saints are wonderful examples for us but the Holy Angels are also wonderful examples that we should each aspire to live angelic lives. Of course we never quite get it right but we uh we need to set our sights high, I believe.

Tony: Yeah you know I was struck by the devotion to angels uh for intercession in our lives in these meditations angels seem like um fully formed characters. You know they’re agents of the Lord but angels when we read the Catechism of the Catholic Church these are pure intellect, they’re spiritual not physical beings, so can you talk about maybe Gonzaga’s view of the angels in light of this: you know spiritual beings who are watching over us in a spiritual sense, but are also involved somehow in the physical realm.

Fr. Nixon: Very much so. So of course Gonzaga was deeply schooled in Thomistic theology so he was deeply uh familiar with the the orthodox teaching about angels and so forth, and they’re purely spiritual beings who exist outside of the realm of time and space, but having said that they are able to interact to to become involved, and we’ve got evidence of that if we read for example the book of Tobit in which the angel Raphael accompanies uh Tobias on his long journey and helps him in all ways and of course we believe in our own holy Guardian Angels who are protecting us in this physical world. So there’s this possibility of interaction between the realm of the spirit and eternity and the realm of the material world, the realm of time, and of course as Catholics of people of faith we need to believe that these realms are interrelated and they’re interacting all the time. You know if we if we put the divine, the spiritual, as something completely separate and unable to touch us then you know it really leaves us with um with a very uh empty and barren spirituality that we we’ve made the spiritual reality is so remote and so utterly transcendent — of course they are transcendent but through the mystery of the Incarnation we know that even the Son of God Himself was able to take flesh and dwell among us and how much more so these these angelic beings, these lesser celestial beings arranged to come and involve themselves within our world. You know I think it’s important to conceive the world as as a continuum between matter and between spirit, not as a kind of dichotomy of a hard and fast division between the two certainly we experience that in the sacraments where their spiritual realities, ineffable realities of physical presence to us.

Tony: Yeah um you know along that vein how might the influence of angels has talked about by Gonzaga be parsed from the Holy Spirit itself, because there is a devotion to the Holy Spirit uh as one of the three persons uh the in the triune God um and there there’s a devotion where we talk about the Holy Spirit has come into my life has influenced XYZ in in what’s going on and some of the language that I’ve heard from you know confidants of my own about the Holy Spirit mirror what Gonzaga was talking about and attributing to the angels. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Fr. Nixon: You know um look I I think um in fact there’s there’s no dichotomy and sometimes you know uh non-Catholics especially Protestants say well you know why are you venerating angels and Saints and everything, why not just go directly to to the Holy Trinity or whatever, and uh my my answer to that is that we know from this created universe that things work through a process of agencies and mechanisms. So uh for example if I if I have a complaint about um that the mail is being delivered I don’t write to the Queen or the President if I was in the United States I write to the person actually concerned. Um if I need to ask permission for something I ask the Abbot of my Monastery I don’t write to the Pope so um that we always we ask human beings for help if we can ask another human being to help us in this life, why can’t we ask a spiritual being a saint or an angel, and this isn’t taking away from the role of God because God has the ultimate Creator works through every single human being, every single spirit you will be, so um you know I think that there’s there’s no problem and by directing our prayer to a particular angel we’re directing it more uh closely to the actual agency involved, so the Holy Spirit of course works through all the angels, God the Father God the Son works through all the angels, and all the saints for that matter, God also works through other human beings, so we shouldn’t hesitate to ask the assistance to to venerate to turn to a particular one who’s appropriate to our particular need or our particular situation at the time.

Tony: They’re not mutually exclusive uh the Holy Spirit, God can work through whatever means um He chooses and and needs to work through.

Fr. Nixon: Exactly and we’ve each got a a holy guardian angel and this guardian angel is protecting us and guiding us in innumerable ways every single day of our lives. You know we think about it there might be sometimes when we notice that our guardian angels helped us out but there’s for every time we notice there’s a thousand times we haven’t noticed, you know a thousand possible catastrophes that we’ve avoided uh quite without acknowledgement of it. Ultimately of course our help comes from God, our protection our guidance comes from God, but it happens by means of these um of these agents.

Tony: I’m not sure if you remember but years ago there was a movie called Angels in the Outfield and it was about a boy in foster care who prayed to have a family again and his uh father who had abandoned the family said he would have a family again if this baseball team won a division title. So the angels in the movie come and help the team to win– it’s a fun movie uh but it’s also kind of representative of how angels have a role in society outside of the Catholic faith, um they they almost have this fairy tale quality about them absent of their identity as Servants of the Lord. I wonder if you have any thoughts of the separation of angel?

Fr. Nixon: Yeah so of course you know angels are an important role within Christianity also within Judaism also within Islam and strangely enough within what you might call the new age uh uh spirituality there’s this kind of fascination and devotion with angels and within um films and literature and so forth they have this uh ceaseless appeal um and it’s kind of paradoxical that people seem to be ready to venerate the angels or to to admire and love them and so forth but at the same time they they might not actually give that important a role to God in their lives, which is kind of a bit strange when you think about it isn’t it? And there are various reasons for that I suppose for some people God by the just seems to remote or they don’t want to accept the moral imperatives which accompany uh true belief in God but you know I I would hope that people who have a sense of the importance of angels, the beauty the the splendor of the angels and their role in our lives should be turned from that towards a recognition that of course their agents their agents of God to believe in angels presupposes that you believe in God you can’t believe in angels without believing in God yeah that’s it’s you know you bring up the New Age movement and that also came to mind that somehow uh people some people are so open to thinking angels are are uh mystical in and of themselves which are without recognizing their relationship to the Creator being itself, yeah of course, and and to believe in any kind of spiritual or mystical entity presupposes a belief in the ultimate uh spiritual mystical entity which is God. You know to imagine a universe that’s populated by spiritual entities and without any God is is kind of completely absurd uh so yeah and yeah you know I I often pray for people in into kind of spirituality without religion um you know I I pray that the spirituality will in fact lead them to religion that it’s not an either or you know the Catholic religion is is spiritual and the truths which we teach are are fundamental that they they can’t really be rejected without rejecting the whole um spiritual reality of life and I don’t think many people are already would be prepared to do that because it places us in a very bleak situation indeed.

Tony: Mm-hmm yeah um you know returning to something you were talking about and which comes through in the meditations of Gonzaga is the guardian angel as someone looking after us uh on days when things go bad and and days when things go right um and at the beginning of this pandemic I was actually hit by a car and I was I found myself in an ambulance praying an Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Hail Holy Queen, whatever would come to mind um but I also thought about my guardian angel and I had thought of how many things had happened that day to lead me to this point where I was hit by a car but also that I was hit in such a way that I could survive and I had a broken bone and and injuries but I live, um and again I don’t want to attribute too many things like a fairy tale or a superstition, but Gonzaga seems to make space for this and it’s okay to think of the guardian angel as an advocate in that way in our lives, right?

Fr. Nixon: Yeah yeah um he does and at one point he talks about he urges the reader to imagine how many times disaster could have fallen any day you know every time you walk up and down a set of stairs anytime you um you know maybe he’s exaggerating a little bit but he says you know a thousand times a day he could have been kicked by a horse, or fallen down a well already, but the point is those those dangers are in fact real um you know any of us good at any day wake up with with cancer or have a stroke regardless of how young or old or healthy or unhealthy we are um on top of that there’s the whole you know covert situation and innumerable other things going on, and as well as physical dangers there’s also um you know moral and social dangers, and I I often think myself you know it’s amazing how um when you almost said the wrong thing but somehow you didn’t you know or you things somehow seem to work out well against all possible indications to the contrary, uh and the fact that each one of us is is alive here today with our faith the impact um you know able to listen to this show and and to you know to think about these things is a testimony to what we’ve been given and on top of that the great gift of our of our Catholic faith, which is something I think which we can easily forget what a great privilege it is.

Tony: We have what I consider them the All-Stars of the angels uh the ones that most people would identify uh Michael the Archangel, Gabriel, Raphael um I I wonder though if we look back to the Old Testament and you talked about their role in Judaism and I think about before the fall of Jericho and you have an angel of the Lord coming and this question is posed at the angel are you for us or are you for our enemies, um and the answer is neither I’m I’m here on behalf of the Lord, um and I I have always been struck by that that as a believer we try to stay on the righteous path and we try to do what the angel is is guiding us toward and what the Lord is guiding us toward um and I’m I’m just always struck by that identity of an angel um in in the Old Testament. I don’t have a question pointing this out but I feel like people always think of Gabriel, Raphael, Michael the Archangel, but angels show up all over.

Fr. Nixon: They they do indeed and and we have these three angels whose names we know for sure because they testified to by Scripture um there are a couple of other angels in the um non-canonical books of Scripture uh Uriel, Barachiel, Selaphiel. Traditionally there was a belief that we know the names of the seven principal angels in the presence of God which Raphael refers to he says I’m one of the Seven Angels before God, we find in the Book of Revelation as well but the Church did um decide at a certain point um which was in about the 1500s that we shouldn’t try to work out more names of angels than the three which are officially provided for us and the reason for this was because it was starting to become a bit of a superstition, um I might you might call it a kind of proto new age thing that was going on in the 1400s and 1500s where people were trying to find out the name of their own guardian angel the name of other angels to ask for particular things and um the reason that that’s problematic isn’t that there aren’t the angels there and that they can’t do these things but it seems to be trying to sidestep the limits of our knowledge which Scripture has given us, so you know I think of that incident where um where the angel is asked what’s my name and he says don’t ask me my name for it is wonderful so that we should respect the limits of the knowledge which God um has given us through scripture and through the magisterium of the church.

Tony: Yeah we don’t want to be Gnostics that’s frowned upon.

Fr. Nixon: Yeah um and and and of course despite the fact that we only know the names for sure of three angels and possibly seven so the other four are kind of accepted but not regarded as doctrine, um there are obviously innumerable angels for every human soul there’s an individual guardian angel whose sole duty it is to protect that human being, to guide that soul, to protect their physical well-being as well and beyond that there’s innumerable ranks and Saint Aloysius Gonzaga points out here that the total number of angels um exceeds the total number of created things in the entire universe, which is pretty awesome when you think about it because that’s including every single grain of sand, every single ant grasshopper, bird whatever you could think of.

Tony: Yeah that’s amazing, um as as we close here just uh two more things: what do you think we should keep in mind about angels in our time? What do you think is something that Gonzaga tells us in these meditations that might help us through our particular age of uncertainty?

Fr. Nixon: He tells us that the angels are active that they’re at work, that they’re protecting, guiding, and helping us in innumerable ways that we don’t even recognize. He’s telling us to take the time to give thanks to our guardian angel, to venerate it, um in doing so we’re giving glory to God because the angel is an extension of the power of God, a creation of God. The other key point is he’s asking us to emulate the lives of the angels– this might seem like an overly ambitious type of thing a thing which is way beyond the human being, of course it is in a certain sense, but this call to uh to aspire to purity of soul, to seek not to be bound by the the lower part the Earthly part of ourselves but to keep our gaze fixed upon the glory of God in contemplation, which of course is the ultimate destiny of every single human soul, so I think it’s good that we start practicing for that ultimate destiny while we’re right here on Earth. T

ony: So the saint tells us to be a saint, that’s what you’re that’s what you’re getting at?

Fr. Nixon: Exactly exactly and that we’re all asked to do that, Tony, we’re all we’re all designed we’re all created to be saints

Thank you to Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB, for a fascinating conversation. His translation of St. Gonzaga’s Meditations on the Holy Angels is available now from TAN Books—I’ll have a link in the show notes and our website. I hope to have some more episodes on the way soon, but in the meantime may the angels help lead us all toward Heaven. In Paradisum deducant te angeli, as is said in the funeral liturgy: may the angels lead you into Paradise.

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