St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
I actually didn’t learn this prayer by heart until graduate school, when the chaplain at my husband’s school would recite the prayer as he processed out of the chapel after weekday Mass. There’s been a lot of talk recently among friends (and the Catholic blogosphere) about bringing back the St. Michael prayer as a regular devotion after Mass: something I was also completely unaware of before approximately eight years ago. The popular story goes that Pope Leo XIII was inspired by a terrible vision of demonic spirits to compose the St. Michael Prayer, which was added to the so-called “Leonine” prayers after Low Masses in about 1886. This practice was almost completely abandoned after the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council. Obviously some priests still clung to this devotion, but they are few and far between.
I give you this brief history because even though this prayer wasn’t a part of my regular repertoire growing up, it has become a frequent utterance because… I have a boy. And little boys love St. Michael, or so I’ve observed. There’s something about the triumphant angel-with-sword stomping on the head of a writhing devil that just gets my little 3-year-old’s heart beating with excitement. I remember the first time he was old enough to really look around a Catholic shop with me: he saw all the various St. Michael statues and just stood, completely transfixed. He didn’t want to leave. He still looks for them any time we go into the shop. Two of his most precious possessions are a St. Michael holy card and a statuette, and he loves to talk about that ugly devil getting beat with the sword. I’ve decided to just go with it.
But this morning, my little guy surprised me by demonstrating that he’s been doing some deep thinking on the topic of “St. Michael killing the devil.” On our ride back from dropping his sisters off at school, he came up with this gem out of the blue:
“Mommy? I have a question.”
“Sure, honey, what is it?”
“Is Lucifer a bad name?”
…”Umm, that’s a good question. We think of it as a bad name now because it’s what we say the devil’s name was. But it’s actually a very nice name. The word ‘Lucifer’ means bringer of light. But because we associate it with the devil, we don’t use it as a good name, no.”
“Hmm. Well then we should use Lucifer for Jesus instead.”
“Why is that?”
“Because He’s the Light of the World. It’s a better name for Him because He brings all the Good Light.”
“Yes, I like that thought, sweetheart. You can also think about what a nice name bringer of light would be for an angel, because remember that the devil was created as an angel, to love and serve God.”
“Yes, that’s a nice angel name, too. Speaking of angels, I have another question.”
“Why does St. Michael fight the devil?”
“I bet you can answer that. Who is St. Michael.”
“He’s God’s warrior angel.”
“Yep. So why would he want to fight the devil?”
“Because the devil was supposed to be a good angel, but now he’s the enemy of God. And St. Michael serves God and will fight His enemies.”
Growing up, I have to admit that in addition to my ignorance of the St. Michael prayer, I had the overwhelming impression that angels were kind of… impotent, cutesy kitsch created to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Guardian angels were sentimentalized nannies to help your parents get over their anxiety about letting you go places without them. At some point, I’m pretty sure I also believed that good people who died went to heaven and “became” angels by getting some wings and a halo. In short: my perception of angels was completely driven by modern popular sentiment and completely void of any substance provided from sacred scripture or tradition.
Over the years, as I’ve read more scripture and delved into what the Church actually teaches about angels, I’ve realized that everything I thought I knew about angels as I was growing up was completely wrong. Instead of being cutesy, comforting things, angels can be downright terrifying. Daniel’s account is that upon seeing the angel, “No strength remained in me; I turned the color of death and was powerless. When I heard the sound of his voice, I fell face forward unconscious.” (Dn 10:8b-9, NABRE). Luke reports that the shepherds were “struck with great fear” at the appearance of the angel (Lk 2:9b, NABRE). In short: there’s a reason the first thing angels always say is “BE NOT AFRAID.”
I appreciate now the power and the complete otherness of these spiritual beings whom God created as “personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.” (CCC, #330) I am so glad that I can truly learn to appreciate angels through the eyes of my son, because through conversations like the one that happened in the car this morning, I am slowly learning to open myself to the presence of these strange and mighty beings. If guardian angels serve to reduce parental anxiety, it is not because we succumb to some fanciful notion that a spiritual Mary Poppins watches over our little darlings: it is because we have confidence that we’re sending our kids to school with the spiritual equivalent of Bruce Lee at their side. If we sing with the angels at Mass, it’s not because they are the heavenly equivalent of the Vienna Boys Choir. It’s because their trumpet-blasting is the triumphant herald of God’s victory and we should sing with the exuberance of a stadium full of drunken college kids storming the field as they belt the Notre Dame Victory March.*
I will probably never get to the level of familiarity with angels as someone like Padre Pio, but I am glad that I am learning to take these creatures seriously, rather than thinking of them as God’s spiritual kittens. Perhaps learning to be child-like can mean that we spend more time thinking seriously about the devil and his combatants. My son certainly does: enough to devote his spare time to thinking equally about Lucifer’s demise and the demise of the dinosaurs. Which, by the way, are also terrifying.
*totally hypothetical, imaginary situation that I would have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of.