Catholic Spirituality, Catholics Do What?, Evangelization, feast days, Italy pilgrimage, liturgical living

Defend us in battle

September 29, 2016

Today is Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael, the archangel, and actually of the rest of the archangels, too. I’m not building my kids a satan piñata to smash or baking anything with blackberries, but those are both tradition things that people do, and sound cool. Probably we’ll pray the St. Michael prayer with candles around the dinner table and talk a little bit about kicking the devil’s butt, which is a favorite expression of my eldest.

I took the two littlest to mass with me this morning. We walked in during the Psalm, and we sat contentedly on our bottoms in the foyer, not even attempting the sanctuary itself. Some days you’ve just gotta do what’s easy. I let Evie walk laps around me and bring a backpack full of stuffed animals along for the ride, and Luke cruised contentedly up and down the dividing wall of glass and doors, occasionally slamming his fists and blowing raspberries against the panes. I sat cross legged on the floor with pleasantly low blood pressure and let the need to perfect their pew habits slide, for the morning, and it was nice.

It’s better for me to be at daily Mass, when I can manage it, then to miss out. And sometimes it’s better to be doing what is easiest and least painful for all parties involved. Sometimes solo pew wrangling sessions leave me so frazzled and angry that I hardly feel properly disposed to receive Communion, which is kind of the whole point, so I’m trying to balance expectations with reality and not just survive this season of littleness with gritted teeth. Already I feel the years slipping through my fingers. I watched a young mom only a few years behind me swaying with her newborn in a wrap, reprimanding a renegade toddler while her preschooler sat politely in the pew, and my heart clenched a little to remember that just 2 year ago nobody was in school full time, and my days of alltogetherallthetime are in the rearview mirror. I was telling my little sister the same thing later and starting to get tears in my eyes when she helpfully deadpanned that summer would be here again, and with it the very, very together-centric months of long hot boredness that we’d only just recently escaped by the skin of our teeth, lest I’d forgotten.

Oh, yeah.

Sometimes it’s hard to be part melancholic.

But anyway, back to St. Michael. I’ve had a particular devotion to him since college, back right around the time my conversion/reversion kicked into high gear. I remember having a dream about him one night where we met on a battle field and he took his cloak (because angels totally wear human clothing) off his back and put it on me, and gave me a sword. I was kneeling before him and the whole thing had a very Joan of Arc air about it. Anyway, I love St. Michael. And yet I struggle a bit with the practical implications of a relationship with an invisible, non-human entity. Angels are decidedly outside the realm of skeptical realism. I mean yes, they’re in the Bible. Yes, they’re kind of big time players in the story of salvation history, popping into the narrative of the Gospels at key moments and helping move the story along. Where would Sting be without the Angel Gabriel?

But it’s hard to explain what they are, exactly. And who they are.

It’s almost easier to talk about what they aren’t.

They aren’t dead babies, reincarnated as disembodied heads with wings. They aren’t your dead grandma Margaret, who finally got her angel wings after a years-long battle with breast cancer. Angels are distinct, non-human beings created by God before humans were. The devil, Lucifer, was the most powerful and beautiful angel in the hierarchy. His non-servium, his refusal to participate in the Creator’s cockamamie plan to redeem lowly humanity by deigning to become small and poor and one of us and then to suffer and die for us, was a kind of pre-emptive “Fall before the Fall.”

God already knew we would fall when He made us. And He did it anyway. The angels, who live outside of space and time, were also privy to that knowledge. And upon receiving it, a third of them followed suit with Lucifer, issuing a resounding “hell no” and exiting stage south. They chose to reject God rather than serve us.

But Michael did not.

The great and glorious battle captain of the heavenly hosts chose to bend his fierce knee and bow his fiery head before the vast, helpless expanse of humanity stretching out from creation to the completion of the world and he gave his consent to serve. To defend. To protect us in battle.

And make no mistake, we are in a battle. A war rages for souls, and the same revulsion for God’s plan of redemption still animates our great enemy, the devil. Remember the piece about time and space being a uniquely human construct? The devil is still just as angry today as he was the moment he rejected God.

And Michael and the other archangels and angels and all the heavenly host are still just as resolute to defend us.

The most powerful moment of my pilgrimage to Italy came in a small village called Monte Sant’Angelo. In this small, isolated mountain town in southern Italy, not far from San Giovanni Rotondo, there is a church built around an ancient cave. It’s actually the oldest pilgrimage site in western Europe, and has been visited by such heavy hitters as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Brigid of Sweden, St. Thomas Aquinas, and even St. Francis of Assisi (though he deemed himself unworthy to enter and remained outside to pray. Which begs the question, the h was I doing walking inside.)

The church itself is pretty on the outside, but small and kind of unremarkable in a European setting. Here, it would probably still be the most beautiful building in town, but I digress.

st michael 1

I don’t have any pictures from the interior because they were strictly discouraging (and severely shushing and gesturing to) photographers. But even if I’d been allowed to snap a shot, I don’t think I would have had the wherewithal. After descending some 300 feet underground down shallow marble stairs that twisted into the earth, we emerged before a kind of second exterior of a church, and upon entering, we found ourselves inside a basilica that was comprised on one side of cave walls and the others of white marble. The atmosphere was thick with electric candlelight and damp, heavy subterranean air. We made our way to a pew near the statue of St. Michael in the grotto, commemorating the spot where he’d appeared 3 times over the years.

If you have ever been to Assisi, you know the deep, all-encompassing peace of which I am about to speak. The holy heaviness of the air there. The way the spirit of St. Francis himself imbues the town even to this day, his presence thick in the air and on the streets.

This place was like that. The same heaviness. The air of expectancy, of presence, of otherness.

I sank to my knees in front of my pew and watched as a family of small children accompanied their mother up to the rail and recited together a consecration prayer to St. Michael. They were speaking German and as the unfamiliar cadence floated back through the semi dark and flowed over my ears I started to weep. I was struck with a profound and certain conviction that St. Michael loves us. That he loved me, specifically. And that he was ready and willing and able to protect and defend my children more effectively than I could ever hope to. As that had been the persistent cry of my heart this entire trip, I found myself unable to stop the flow of tears for several minutes as the peace and conviction of this knowledge of Michael and his protection flowed over me and filled my heart.

I do not have a particularly emotional faith. I am not prone to tears (contrary to pretty much the entirety of out pilgrimage), but I was a snotty mess by the time we left the grotto.

st michael 2

Before we reluctantly (at least for my part. Luke was pretty much vv ready to peace out upon arrival, thanks for the baby wearing, Dave) parted from the place, I knelt at the altar rails and read that same consecration prayer I’d heard the German family reciting, reading the words in English from the prayer card I’d been handed at the entrance. I sighed in relief as I entrusted our children and their vocations to St. Michael, begging for and believing in his powerful intercession, and knowing with a deep certainty that he could and he wanted to protect them. That he loved them even better than I could.

I know it sounds nuts. There’s so much about this piece that is making me wince internally because it’s so personal and so…out there. But it was one of the most profoundly real things I’ve ever experienced, and so today, on the feast of St. Michael and the Archangels, I felt compared to share it with you.

“St. Michael the archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou oh prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

st michael 1

12 Comments

  • Reply Sarah September 29, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks for sharing so deeply jenny, it was beautifully done.

    Thanks also for the brief definition of angels. I never quite know how to respond when people talk of miscarried babies as angels. They aren’t, and people aren’t trying to be rude. They are trying to comfort in a way that doesn’t work because angels are real and very different from saints (which is probably more what they mean…though not necessarily accurate either…I am done now because that is a whole other topic I’ll let you jump on!)

    • Reply Sarah September 29, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      To clarify, I meant to say “people talk of MY miscarried babies…”

  • Reply Cari Haag September 29, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I’m leaving right now with my husband for a weekend getaway, leaving my two small children behind. After reading this I’ll be praying to St. Michael the archangel for them while I have somewhat irrational mommy worries about them. Also, I think I’m going to be able to relate to your posts about missing your kids so badly while you were away. I’m super excited for a weekend away with my husband, but I will be so happy to get home to my babies!

  • Reply Drusilla Barron September 29, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Very personal but not too out there. This is what it means to be God’s family members. Thank you so much for this piece. In this time of madness, I need to be reminded.

  • Reply Elaina Lewis September 29, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    How beautiful Jenny. I know exactly what you mean by that holiness. I went there in the middle of their winter and the wind was howling everywhere. It was so cold yet I felt a certain warmth and when I came from the cave to the outside there had been a heavy snow storm. It was so beautiful. I love St Michael too and consecrate my whole family to him. Love your Blog.

  • Reply Leslie September 30, 2016 at 6:32 am

    Another great piece. Thanks for sharing, Jenny. A priest of ours when we first moved to Europe has a strong devotion to St. Michael the Archangel. Every day after the Mass, he said the prayer. I am glad for that gift because my sons know it now, too, and enjoy praying it after the Mass. My sons see St. Michael the Archangel everywhere here in Europe and always point him out! It is especially popular to see a statue of him over the top of confessionals. Look up the story of the prayer and the Pope who wrote it. His vision of the conversation between Satan and Jesus is fascinating!!

    • Reply Jean September 30, 2016 at 8:55 am

      I think we should return to the practice of praying the St. Michael Archangel prayer at the conclusion of each Mass. We certainly need all the help we can get in these troubling times. One habit I’ve grown into is the praying of the St. Michael on the crucifix of my rosary at the conclusion of all the usual prayers. This was taught to me by a Carmelite priest who said in coming full circle the crucifix would remind me to do so.

      • Reply Kati September 30, 2016 at 1:41 pm

        Our parish adopted this practice. At the end of every mass, before the song, we pray the St. Michael prayer as the clergy bow at the altar and prepare to depart. I love it.

  • Reply Caroline September 30, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Jenny, this is an excellent brief account of angels, thank you! I have begun to truly thank my children’s angels for watching over them- and to emphasize my pleas that they be guarded carefully- that my children never stray from the light that shines over them! A good book about the different choirs of angels is St. Michael and the Angels, by Tan Books.

  • Reply jeanette September 30, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    Yes, I have been there, too. Isn’t it amazing how different places in your pilgrimage journey will touch you in a profound way? Tears aside, it takes a certain spirit of openness in your heart. See how you brought your children there to St. Michael. They were there with you, even though they were not. If they had been there in person, maybe your heart would not have been torn open so widely? (Chance to wipe away some of that ordinary mommy guilt for leaving them behind that you carried with you in those tears). Keep remembering everything you can and writing it down while it is fresh, because it will become a distant memory before you know it. Written down can help you continue to profit from it all.

    Loved what you said at the beginning here: “It’s better for me to be at daily Mass, when I can manage it, then to miss out.” You are so very right. Those graces are there for you EVERY day. Receive them as often as possible.

    I was reminded in your description of pew behavior management of my very first experience bringing my daughter to mass. She was not yet living in our home, but I picked her up at her birth family’s home in order to take her with me to Sunday mass. She was 2. I opted for the side chapel area instead of the main church area. We were quite early. She immediately started enjoying running back and forth on the pew. I had no idea! So, off we went to the “crying room” which was in the back of the church. I realized that training would be necessary. It didn’t take long at all, though, before I had my kids with me at mass and they had little halos (I don’t know how I got so lucky…it was definitely the work of God, not me). So, don’t feel too alone in that task of pew behavior management. God is with you!

    PS There is an order that specifically has a charism to preach about the angels (Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross). I’ve been to some of their parish missions. Great information. They have a website you might like to look at:
    http://www.opusangelorum.org/english.html

  • Reply Bley October 1, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    Thank you for sharing this Jenny! We should take comfort in the knowledge that heavenly beings, in addition to God, are protecting our children.

  • Reply Lorna Mackie October 4, 2016 at 7:02 am

    While the tale of taking your kids to Mass may have been just a little tiny bit of this tale, it came at just the right time for me – so once again, Thank you!!
    Today, for the first time ever I went to weekday Mass, and I took my 3 year old boy with me. It was his very first time in the Church and I was more than a little nervous about how it would go. And, it was fine, he was fine, he was great! I packed a bag, he had toys and crayons and snacks and he just seemed fine. He stood, he kneeled (he smacked his face off the pew so we stopped him kneeling) he watched he played and he was super excited about getting a blessing! He is little, I am learning and I have you to thank for the courage to try. It worked kinda and we’ll do it again together and with his big brother.

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