Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday 2 October 2020

Angelic matters

For much of the coronavirus outbreak the Fathers of the Oxford Oratory have sent out an online Weekly Reflection to parishioners. The one this week was, I thought, particularly good and worth sharing with other people, especially as today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels:

Spiritual Battles

We are thinking about the angels a lot this week, with the feast of the archangels yesterday and the feast of the guardian angels on Friday. But almost like Tom without Jerry, when we think about the angels, we can’t help thinking about who it is they are guarding us from, and who it is that St Michael defeats in battle. This is also a time to think about their opponent.

We’re very familiar with the main images scripture uses to describe the devil. At one end of the Bible, we meet a serpent in a garden; at the other, the great dragon of the Apocalypse. And in Monday’s Mass, we were reminded of one of his more subtle appearances as ‘the Satan’ — the Accuser — appearing in God’s presence to point an accusatory finger at the innocent Job.

In modern times, there are two extremes view points that are often adopted in the Church. Either that this is all old-fashioned superstition not to be feared, or that the devil really does exist and is to blame for all the evil in the world. Both of these extremes are not only wrong, but dangerous. If we believe the devil doesn’t exist, then we don’t use the appropriate spiritual weapons against him. But if we blame him for all our faults, we won’t take any responsibility for our failings and therefore can’t improve. The answer lies somewhere between the two. The devil does indeed exist (as scripture tells us), but he is not to blame for absolutely everything — an awful lot of sin is our own fault too.

Should we be scared of him then? No. As the serpent who tempts us in to sin, we have an answer: Christ forgave our sins on the Cross, and continues to apply that forgiveness in the confessional. As the dragon who fights against God’s faithful even to the point of martyrdom, we have an answer to that too: Christ rose from the dead, and shares that life with those who died in union with him. Death is not the end. The devil doesn’t have the final word. And as to the accuser, who stands before God and points out our weaknesses, Christ gives us another Advocate, the Spirit of Truth to be our defence in the heavenly court. (John 14:16)

The fight between Michael and Satan in the Apocalypse describes a great cosmic war between good and evil that is always going on in the background of our lives. We may take part in some of the battles, but we know the outcome of the war already because Christ has won the definitive victory on the Cross. We will win our own personal battles in the end. And our weapons are fairly simple. Most powerful of them all are the sacraments. As St James says: ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’ (James 4:7–8) The devil cannot touch us if we are filled with Christ himself. Or as St John Chrysostom described the effects of Communion: ‘When we come back from this Table we ought to be like lions breathing fire, dreadful to the devil.’

Our own St Philip used to warn us that ‘there is nothing the devil tries to hinder so much as prayer’. Presumably that’s because prayer makes the devil’s task so much more difficult. The great travel writer H.V. Morton described this form of spiritual combat among the ancient desert fathers:

The ancient Egyptians believed, as the moderns do, that the desert was haunted by evil spirits and that was one of the reasons why the hermits went to live there: they deliberately entered Satan’s country in order that they might pit the strength of their faith against the evil which they felt to exist all round them. It is wrong to think that these men entered the desert to escape temptation. It was the exact opposite, for to an Egyptian of that time the desert contained infinitely more temptation than a city, and, as the tempters were supernatural, they were more difficult to fight.

There was only one way to keep evil at bay: by unceasing prayer. All the fiends together, led by Satan himself, were powerless against the pure soul of a truly holy man. Thus the great hermits, though they were encompassed by clouds of devils, remained safe and secure in the strongholds of their sanctity. Every hermit was surrounded by a wall of prayer which grew higher and stronger with the years. Every day and night spent on the knees in communion with God added another stone to the protective rampart. 

(H.V. Morton, Through Lands of The Bible)

We might wonder what the point of all this is. God could simply wish the devil out of existence and he would be gone. But the quality of a hero is marked by the quality of his enemy. That mere humans should (with God’s help!) triumph over a fallen angel says something about how much God achieves in us. And similarly, we could argue that St Michael and his heavenly host also seem unnecessary — God can do all that he wants without them. But if we think of God quite literally as the author of creation, then we see that the story is so much richer for the imagination that creates such wonderful beings. And if we stop to think how impressive the angels are, and consider that each one of us is given a guardian angel whose sole task is to look after us — how much more impressive must God have made us in the sight of the angels?

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