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.
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.
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.
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.”