A guardian angel is an angel assigned to protect and guide a particular person, group, kingdom, or country. Belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity. The concept of tutelary angels and their hierarchy was extensively developed in Christianity in the 5th century by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
The theology of angels and tutelary spirits has undergone many refinements since the 400s. Belief in both the East and the West is that guardian angels serve to protect whichever person God assigns them to, and present prayer to God on that person's behalf.
According to Leo Trepp, in late Judaism, the belief developed that "the people have a heavenly representative, a guardian angel. Every human being has a guardian angel. Previously the term `Malakh', angel, simply meant messenger of God." The belief that angels can be guides and intercessors for men can be found in Job 33:23-6, and in the Daniel 10:13 angels seem to be assigned to certain countries. In this latter case, the "prince of the Persian kingdom" contends with Gabriel. The same verse mentions "Michael, one of the chief princes". In the New Testament Epistle of Jude, Michael is described as an archangel. Scripture says that God will "set a guard of holy angels over all the righteous" (1 En 100:5) to guard them during the end of time. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says of children: "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven" (New International Version). This is often understood to mean that children are protected by guardian angels, and appears to be corroborated by Hebrews 1:14 when speaking of angels: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?"
In Acts 12:12-15, there is another allusion to the belief that a specific angel is assigned to protect each individual. After Peter had been escorted out of prison by an angel, he went to the home of "Mary the mother of John, also called Mark". The servant girl, Rhoda, recognized his voice and ran back to tell the group that Peter was there. However, the group replied: "It must be his angel"' (12:15). With this scriptural sanction, Peter's angel was the most commonly depicted guardian angel in art, and was normally shown in images of the subject, most famously Raphael's fresco of the Deliverance of Saint Peter in the Vatican.
In Rabbinic literature, the Rabbis expressed the notion that there are indeed guardian angels appointed by Adonai to watch over people.
Rashi on Daniel 10:7 "Our Sages of blessed memory said that although a person does not see something of which he is terrified, his guardian angel, who is in heaven, does see it; therefore, he becomes terrified."
Modern rabbis clarify that people might indeed have guardian angels. God watches over people and makes decisions directly with their prayers and it is in this context that the guardian angels are sent back and forth as emissaries to aid in this task, thus, they are not prayed to directly but are part of the workings of how the prayer and response comes about.
According to St. Jerome, the concept of guardian angels is in the "mind of the Church". He stated: "how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it".
The first Christian theologian to outline a specific scheme for guardian angels was Honorius of Autun in the 12th century. He said that every soul was assigned a guardian angel the moment it was put into a body. Scholastic theologians augmented and ordered the taxonomy of angelic guardians. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Honorius and believed that it was the lowest order of angels who served as guardians, and his view was most successful in popular thought, but Duns Scotus said that any angel is bound by duty, authority and obedience to the Divine Authority to accept the mission to which that angel is assigned. In the 15th century, the Feast of the Guardian Angels was added to the official calendar of Catholic holidays.
Centuries later, in his 1997 Regina Caeli address, Pope John Paul II referred to the concept of guardian angel twice, and concluded the address with the statement: "Let us invoke the Queen of angels and saints, that she may grant us, supported by our guardian angels, to be authentic witnesses to the Lord's paschal mystery".
The guardian angel concept is clearly present in the Old Testament, and its development is well marked. The Old Testament conceived of God's angels as his ministers who carried out his behests, and who were at times given special commissions, regarding men and mundane affairs.
In Genesis 18-19, angels not only act as the executors of God's wrath against the cities of the plain, but they deliver Lot from danger; in Exodus 32:34, God says to Moses: "my angel shall go before thee." At a much later period we have the story of Tobias, which might serve for a commentary on the words of Psalm 91:11: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;" (Cf. Psalm 33:8 and 34:5) Lastly, in Daniel 10 angels are entrusted with the care of particular districts; one is called "prince of the kingdom of the Persians", and Michael is termed "one of the chief princes"; cf. Deuteronomy 32:8 (Septuagint); and Ecclesiasticus 17:17 (Septuagint).
In the New Testament the concept of guardian angel may be noted with greater precision. Angels are everywhere the intermediaries between God and man; and Christ set a seal upon the Old Testament teaching: "See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 18:10). A twofold aspect of the doctrine is here put forth: even little children have guardian angels, and these same angels lose not the vision of God by the fact that they have a mission to fulfill on earth.
Other key examples in the New Testament are the angel who succoured Christ in the garden, and the angel who delivered St. Peter from prison. Hebrews 1:14 puts the doctrine in its clearest light: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?" In this view, the function of the guardian angel is to lead men to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Guardian angels as trustees of children
Jean Daniélou writes in his classic study of Jewish Christianity that:
It is a remarkable fact that later theology can be proved to have borrowed the doctrine of the guardian angel for Jewish Christianity. Clement of Alexandria, . . . writes in the Eclogae Propheticae: 'Scripture says that little children who are exposed are entrusted to a guardian angel, who brings them up and makes them grow; and they shall be, he says, like the faithful here who are a hundred years old' (XLI. 1). Later on Clement quotes a similar doctrine, which derives from the same background, and which he attributes explicitly to the Apocalypse of Peter: 'Divine providence extends not only to those who are in the flesh, Peter, for example, says in his Apocalypse, "Aborted infants are entrusted to a guardian angel, so that having obtained a share in the gnosis they may arrive at a better destiny"' (XLVIII, 1).
Daniélou also noted:
It is in Jewish Christian theology that the angel of peace occurs, who is charged with the task of receiving the soul as it leaves the body and leading it to Paradise. Thus Test. Asher states: If the man dies in peace, he goes to meet the angel of peace, who leadeth him to eternal life' (VI, 6; cf. also Test. Benj VI, 1; Test. Dan VI,5). The doctrine does not appear in earlier apocalyptic, in which the angels have the task of watching over the bodies of the saints (Life of Adam, 46-47); and in the New Testament, Jude 9, following the Assumption of Moses, and indeed is more reminiscent of the Hellenistic doctrine of the angel-escorts of the soul, though it does not in fact derive from it. Later it was to have an important place in Christian liturgy ('In Paradisum deducant te Angeli'), which seems to be one of the ancient inheritances from Jewish Christianity.
Interaction with Guardian angels
Christian mystics have at times reported ongoing interactions and conversations with their guardian angels, lasting several years. Saint Gemma Galgani and Maria Valtorta are two examples, both having also reported extensive visions of Jesus and Mary.
Saint Gemma Galgani, a Roman Catholic mystic, stated that she had interacted with and spoken with her guardian angel. She stated that her guardian angel had acted as her teacher and guide, at times stopping her from speaking up at inappropriate moments.
The bed-ridden Italian writer and mystic Maria Valtorta wrote The Book of Azariah based on "dictations" that she directly attributed to her guardian angel Azariah, discussing the Roman Missal used for Sunday Mass in 1946 and 1947. In these dictations, each Sunday her guardian angel, Azariah, commented on the Missal for that day.
Saint Pio was known to instruct his parishioners to send him their guardian angel to communicate a trouble or issue to him when they could not travel to get to him or another urgency existed.
This is the traditional Catholic prayer to one's guardian angel.
- Angel of God, my guardian dear
- to whom God's love commits me here.
- Ever this day/night be at my side
- to light, to guard, to rule and guide.
- Angele Dei,
- qui custos es mei,
- me, tibi commissum pietate superna,
- illumina, custodi,
- rege et guberna.
An Eastern Orthodox prayer to the Guardian Angel:
O Angel of Christ, my holy Guardian and Protector of my soul and body, forgive me all my sins of today. Deliver me from all the wiles of the enemy, that I may not anger my God by any sin. Pray for me, sinful and unworthy servant, that thou mayest present me worthy of the kindness and mercy of the All-holy Trinity and the Mother of my Lord Jesus Christ, and of all the Saints. Amen.
Also known as Arda Fravaš ('Holy Guardian Angels'). Each person is accompanied by a guardian angel, which acts as a guide throughout life. They originally patrolled the boundaries of the ramparts of heaven, but volunteer to descend to earth to stand by individuals to the end of their days.
Guardian angels were often considered to be matched by a personal demon who countered the angel's efforts, especially in popular medieval drama such as morality plays like the 15th century The Castle of Perseverance. In Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, of about 1592, Faustus has a "Good Angel" and "Bad Angel" who offer competing advice (Act 2, scene 1, etc.). These useful dramatic characters have enjoyed continued popularity in popular media, as the shoulder angel, often matched by a personal demon, of modern films and cartoons.
Guardian angels appear in literary works of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Later the Anglican English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82), stated his belief in Religio Medici (part 1, paragraph 33):
Therefore for Spirits I am so farre from denying their existence, that I could easily believe, that not only whole Countries, but particular persons have their Tutelary, and Guardian Angels: It is not a new opinion of the Church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato; there is no heresay in it, and if not manifestly defined in Scripiture, yet is it an opinion of a good and wholesome use in the course and actions of a man's life, and would serve as an Hypothesis to salve many doubts, whereof common philosophy affordeth no solution.
By the 19th century, the guardian angel was no longer viewed in Anglophone lands as an intercessory figure, but rather as a force protecting the believer from performing sin. A parody apperars in Lord Byron's Don Juan:
- "Oh! she was perfect past all parallel—
- Of any modern female saint's comparison;
- So far above the cunning powers of hell,
- Her guardian angel had given up his garrison" (Canto I, xvii).
- "Oh! she was perfect past all parallel—
- cf. CCC 336.
- Leo Trepp: A History of the Jewish Experience. p. 55, Zarathushtra.com
- "The Book of Daniel, Chapter 10". Tanach with Rashi. Chabad.org and Judaica Press. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
- Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales p57
- "Do we believe in guardian angels?". Do we believe in guardian angels?. Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
- Pope, Hugh. "Guardian Angel." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 5 Aug. 2013
- Vatican website
- Note that gnosis here simply means the teachings of Christianity.
- The Theology of Jewish Christianity. The Development of Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea. Volume One. Translated and edited by John A. Baker. (Chicago: The Henry Regnery Company) p. 186.
- The Apocalypse of Paul, 13-14, was later to elaborate this doctrine considerably.
- Cf. F. Climont, 'Les vents et les anges psychopompes', Pisciculi, pp. 70-75.
- Danielou, pp. 186-187.
- Michael Freze, 1989 They Bore the Wounds of Christ OSV Press ISBN 0-87973-422-1 page 272
- Maria Valtorta, The Poem of the Man God ISBN 99926-45-57-1
- Rudolph M. Bell, 2003 The Voices of Gemma Galgani: the Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint University of Chicago Press ISBN 978-0-226-04196-4 pages 47 and 185
- Maria Valtorta 1972, The Book of Azariah ISBN 88-7987-013-0
- Beliefnet Christian Children's Prayers. beliefnet.com. Retrieved on January 11, 2008.
- Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican, Retrieved on January 11, 2008.
- Quran 86:4
- Yasna 26.4, 55.1
- Bundahišn 6.3, Zatspram 5.2
- Religio Medici 1:33
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- Joe Nickell. (2011). "On a Wing and a Prayer: The Search for Guardian Angels". Csicop.org.