The liturgical tradition does not have a ready ceremony for every scenario of loss but it does offer a rich ritual repertoire from which we can draw inspiration and hope. From September 2021 through June 2022, I aim to explore with you here on this blog how we can ritually recognize, hold and welcome the grief of those among us.
Do you ever just miss a green light while commuting and after a moment’s annoyance console yourself with the thought that maybe this delay just saved you from being in a wreck? It’s a psychological sleight of hand that aims to coax meaning out of such a minor misfortune. In the face of large-scale loss and grief, such as that caused by war, natural disasters or a pandemic, those who survive look for the silver lining. When you say “what didn’t kill you made you stronger” you haven’t reclassified the tragedy as good so much as testified to your ability to rise from the ashes.
A few weeks ago, I met a disappointment that was nowhere near a global calamity but somewhat worse than a missed traffic light. As several other things in my life had recently not gone the way I’d hoped, this snub felt like insult to injury. Disheartened, I grumbled to a friend of great faith who proposed that my guardian angel was protecting me. On the surface, the suggestion harks back to the conjectured purpose behind a red light. My friend was trying to soothe me after all. However, upon deeper reflection, the tradition of the guardian angel, commemorated by today’s feast, offers a potent spiritual ally in our grappling with discouragement and defeat.
Psalm 91 is the Responsorial Psalm of the Mass for the Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels. Most North American Catholics are familiar with this psalm through Michael Joncas’ famous setting “On Eagle’s Wings” often used in funerals. The refrain of the psalm in today’s Mass, from verse 11 of the psalm, is “The Lord has put angels in charge of you, to guard you in all your ways.”
Christianity inherited belief in guardian angels from the Jewish tradition and the ancient world. God has assigned an angel to each one of us as an intermediary of his will and to serve us as guard and guide. That is not to say that evil will never befall us. The verses of Psalm 91 enumerate all manner of tribulations that human beings encounter: the snare of the fowler, destroying pestilence, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that roams in darkness, and the devastating plague at noon! It is not difficult to identify parallel threats and miseries in our own lives.
Bad things will happen but even with our angel protecting us we have free will in terms of how we respond, that is, whether we grieve, ask for help, retaliate, attempt to heal, wallow, live in denial or forgive. It is in this, our reaction to loss, that the angel protects us. “The Lord has put angels in charge of you” not in charge of those who do evil. And the Lord has done so “to guard you in all your ways.” You could say, the guardian angel’s job is to save you from yourself.
Our guardian angel is not a mere lucky talisman or a convenient justification for any trial that befalls us. Our angel is an adviser sent to keep us from making bad decisions, if only we would listen! In a homily from 2014 on this feast day, Pope Francis nailed human nature saying: “when we don’t want to listen to his advice, to hear his voice, we tell him: ‘Go away!’ . . . it’s dangerous to drive away our travel companion, because no man, no woman can advise him/herself: I can give advice to another, but I cannot advise myself.”
In times of disappointment, we can pray Psalm 91 to remind ourselves not to forsake our guardian angel. As the pontiff also said in the same homily, “no one walks alone, and none of us can think he is alone: this companion is always there.” Remember when we used to meet in person? Single people, venturing into a social milieu in hopes of securing a date, would always bring a friend. The friend hangs back so as not to attract attention but close enough to whisper your next move into your ear. The name of this role came from fighter pilots flying into danger. They brought along another pilot, called a wingman, flying slightly behind, for support. Although angels do not actually have bodies and thus do not require feathered appendages, let us think of them as spiritual wingmen, always ready to support and guide us through life’s tribulations and to guard us in all our ways.
Simone Brosig is an educator, author, and liturgy consultant with a PhD in Medieval Studies and a MA in Pastoral Liturgy from the University of Notre Dame. She writes and teaches about living the liturgy. Simone is a near-native Calgarian, who enjoys spending her free time “forest bathing” in the Rockies and learning languages. Simone’s new book, Holy Labours: A Spiritual Calendar of Everyday Work, can be found here.