It was a cold winter day when he first appeared as I was stacking books in the religion section of a major bookstore. We began a conversation about classic Catholic authors, mysticism, and spirituality. He was surprised I knew something about the mystics and inquired about how I came to have read so many books on spirituality.
I revealed that I had studied theology and had worked in the Church as a minister of religious education. He asked if he could pray for me because he felt God was leading him to do so. I immediately had a sense that God was present with us. The man’s presence brought a sense of peace and calm to me in a time of turmoil and confusion.
It was my break time, and the man and I went to the café to talk. I learned his name was Michael, and he was studying for ministry in the Orthodox Church. We talked, and I shared that my father was in the hospital in Connecticut and not doing well.
I was working at the bookstore after being laid off from a teaching position and I was also suffering from depression. He prayed for peace and God’s presence in my life and the health of my father. I experienced an immense transforming peace that I hadn’t known in a long time.
I never learned Michael’s last name even though, over the next few months, when he would come into the store, I would try to take my break so that we would have coffee and talk about life and prayer. We talked about how family life can be difficult and challenging. We also shared our love for the Eucharist. I wrote in my journal that Michael was like an angel from God who was sent to offer hope and peace during a very difficult time in my life. My father died that May, and I only saw Michael once more after that.
My experience with Michael—and others who have touched my life—seems as though God sent my guardian angel in human form. Reflecting on how God has entered my life through “angels,” I realized that my prayer also led me to ponder ways in which God called me to be one for others.
To Protect and Serve
Everyone has an angel story. It may be the experience of barely avoiding a car accident, or a stranger stopping to help you when your car breaks down on the side of the road. Recently, I was driving the speed limit when the car behind me began bearing down on me. I resisted going faster. Suddenly, a deer raced across the road. Realizing that I probably would have hit the deer if I had been going faster, I gave thanks to God for the protection I felt.
Once, when I was working in a parish, I was leading a Communion service on the feast of the Guardian Angels because the pastor of the parish was called to an emergency and couldn’t say the daily Mass. I read the readings for the day, and one of the daily communicants, a man named Jim, asked if he could share something.
With tears in his eyes, he shared how his guardian angel had protected him from serious injury and had been there at other times. We were all touched by his sharing. Jim got me to become more aware of God’s presence and protection in my life.
The Church teaches that we each have a guardian angel, though I feel as if I’ve had several. Many of us may have had the traditional picture hanging in our rooms of a winged angel helping a child cross a bridge. Or perhaps we have wondered what our angel’s name is. My angels—the non-winged variety—have been called Michael, Jim, Ellie, Rita, and many other names.
I, too, have been called to be an angel. When I was walking home from my job once, I met an older woman who seemed confused trying to cross a busy intersection. I offered to help her. She told me she was lost and looking for the post office so she could pick up her food stamps. I offered to walk with her to the post office and realized that it wasn’t a task she could accomplish on her own.
A phone call the next day to social services arranged for the food stamps to be mailed directly to her and for additional assistance that she needed. I never met her again, but my experience with her told me that I needed to become more aware of how to help seniors, especially those without families.
Easing Life’s Burdens
While I was working as a religious educator in a parish in Lynchburg, Virginia, I took a class in pastoral counseling at Virginia Baptist Hospital, where I visited patients. For several weeks I visited an elderly man in rehab who had suffered a stroke and was learning to speak again.
It was hard for me to understand him in the beginning, but I stayed and listened and came back the following weeks. One day, when I went to visit him, his wife was there to take him home. He introduced me to her and thanked me for listening and talking with him when he was just learning to speak. He told me I had been an angel in his life.
It seems that everywhere I have lived I have met people who have come into my life and been there spiritually for me during lonely and difficult times. After a major traffic accident 20 years ago, I needed rides to and from physical therapy.
A neighbor, who was the mother of four young children, somehow got me there and back many days. It is the caring, the meals, and the assistance we offer to those in need or at a death of a loved one that make God present to others.
Another story I’m reminded of is when my son was very sick just after being born. He spent two weeks in the neonatal intensive care. People I hardly knew brought meals and support.
Friendship is a training ground for angels. During my senior year of college, I lived in a lay community called Emmaus, along with 11 others. Our landlady, Rita, lived next door, and she provided a listening ear, a cup of tea, and baked goods if we came over to do laundry free of charge in her machine. She patiently listened as we grew in faith and maturity. She would take my hand and say a prayer. She was like a mother to us.
All around Us
During the year between college and graduate school, I went back to Connecticut and lived with my great-aunt, Mary. She had been a widow for many years and was a very prayerful person. During the course of that year she was diagnosed with cancer and decided to forgo chemotherapy. She did not want to die in a hospital and spoke of going to heaven and seeing her beloved husband.
While I believe God wanted me here to help care for Mary, I realized that, in many ways, she was teaching and ministering to me. As she grew weaker, she could do less and less, but the last thing she gave up was helping prepare meals for shut-ins. We talked about her funeral and planned it. Mary was more of an angel to me than I was to her.
Indeed, human angels are all around us. They offer a comforting word or a smile to us when our day may not be going well. On our spiritual journeys, they stand by us during the valleys and dark times.
These angelic people, for me, have been the good listeners who help us in our times of grief or despair. Their reflective listening and encouraging words, a shared verse of Scripture, or a question that causes us to look at life in a new way help us know God’s presence in our lives.
The Catholic Church on Angels
As I write this, I find myself in prayer, reflecting on people in my life who brought glad tidings to me and announced the Lord’s presence.
There’s a difference, however, between angel in the strict Catholic sense, and angel in the broader context. Friends and family who support us in times of struggle are angels, in a sense, but the Catholic Church’s formal definition of the word is quite different. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) speaks of the Church and humans benefiting from the presence of these holy beings. “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition” (CCC 328).
The Catholic Church believes there is a link among believers, angels, and the God who made us all: “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (CCC 336).
Laura Stanko Britto, OFS, is a middle school teacher and a mother of two. She and her husband, Greg, live in Woodbridge, Virginia.