Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule, to guide. Amen.
Today, the feast of the Guardian Angels, reminds me of this childhood prayer, which I used to say every night along with the Our Father and Hail Mary. As I grew up, the prayer unfortunately disappeared from my spiritual life, along with any particular attention to the angels at all. Devotion to one’s guardian angel seemed so sentimental, so pietistic—more “Precious Moments” than Fra Angelico.
Yet the angels feature prominently in Scripture, and the Church brings them to our attention every day: just before the Sanctus at every Mass, at the Angelus, in sacred art and music. Dominicans in particular have a special duty of devotion to the angels, for the Church has entrusted the Order of Preachers with the promotion of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity. Yes, that’s angelic warfare—not the sort of thing one tends to associate with cute, six-inch figurines, available for only $49.99 plus shipping and handling.
The Confraternity started in the sixteenth century, taking its inspiration from a story about the life of the Angelic Doctor himself, St. Thomas Aquinas. When imprisoned by his family for his obstinate resolve to join the Dominican Order, St. Thomas was surprised to discover one night that, in order to tempt him to abandon his vocation, his older brothers had smuggled into his cell a woman of ill repute. The poor woman received the shock of her life when Aquinas grabbed a burning brand from the fireplace and chased her, screaming, out of the room. Later that night, after praying earnestly for the gift of perseverance in chastity, St. Thomas received a vision of angels, who girded him about the waist with a special cord—a token that, for the rest of his life, he would be safeguarded against all temptations to impurity.
Today, following the example of St. Thomas and seeking his intercession, the Angelic Warfare Confraternity provides its members with blessed cords or medals to wear, along with several short daily prayers, which are said not only for the preservation of one’s own chastity, but for that of all those enrolled in the Confraternity. In this way, the members spiritually and mutually support each other in the difficult struggle for purity.
But why “Angelic Warfare”? Well, for one thing, striving to preserve chastity is profoundly countercultural. Everywhere we turn, society urges us to yield to every craving, to satisfy every desire. Standing up to this is a real battle, culturally and spiritually. It is a direct challenge to the prevailing spirit of self-indulgence, and, in the eyes of many, it just won’t do.
The battle is not merely against outside forces, though. A consequence of original sin is that we are at war with ourselves—our passions against our reason—and often we end up doing the very things we hate (cf. Rom 7:15). Sexuality is one of the strongest human drives, and so maintaining chastity (according to our state of life) requires the grace of God. Realizing our utter dependence on Him, cooperating with His will, and accepting the love He offers us almost always involves a profound personal struggle.
The “angelic” aspect of the Confraternity reflects our desire to imitate the angels, as well as our need for their help. The angels enjoy the beatific vision, which is the fullness of everlasting happiness, peace, and joy. Their wills are entirely conformed to God’s, and they live in perfect union with Him. That complete abandonment to God is our key to happiness as well. The joy God offers us is so powerful that we could not bear it unless the powers of our soul were prepared and elevated by His grace. And the struggle for chastity is part of this preparation. In the development of this virtue, our souls are stretched and strengthened so that one day we, too, may delight in that blissful union which the angels now enjoy.
Of course, we do not seek to imitate the angels by somehow pretending we don’t have bodies, or by denying the body’s goodness, but rather by repairing the divisions that sin has caused in us. Submitting to God’s grace, and allowing it to purify our senses and imaginations, we order our bodies to their final end, which is God Himself. In this process of sanctification, God does not leave us to our own devices. He sends us the guardian angels to “light, guard, rule, and guide” our path back towards Him.
One of the greatest tragedies of the modern sexual culture is the profound alienation it breeds. Exalting the pursuit of pleasure above every other good, it trains us from a young age to view others as mere instruments to satisfy our cravings. Needless to say, this thwarts the development of meaningful human relationships.
The Angelic Warfare Confraternity assures us that we are not alone in our fight. Through prayer, we are bound to our brothers and sisters in the Confraternity, to our patrons the Blessed Virgin and St. Thomas Aquinas, and to our guardian angels—those heralds of God’s loving concern for each and every one of us.