Daily homilies by the Prior of Pluscarden at the Arundel and Brighton Clergy Retreat, 27-30 September 2016
Homily for St. Michael the Archangel, 29 September 2016, for the A&B Clergy
Apocalypse 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
According to the best traditions of monastic life, a man does not leave the world, and go into the desert, and become a monk, for the sake of a life of peace. On the contrary. He leaves the world, and goes into the desert, and becomes a monk, in order to fight, to wage unceasing warfare. This fight of ours, says St. Paul, is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world, the spirits of evil in the heavens (Eph 6:12).
We tend to psychologise the war we all have to fight against our inner demons, our thoughts, our passions, our vices, our destructive tendencies and addictions. As a matter of fact, the desert fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries did the same, and their clinically accurate psychological insights have become extremely popular again in our day. Nevertheless, in the spiritual combat, we are ultimately not talking about psychology, but of confrontation with the devil himself, and with his fallen angels. We have to fight the devil, because he does not cease waging war against us. Left free to his own devices, he everywhere sows division, enmity, bitterness, hatred, isolation, despair. His aim is by all means to separate us from God, and to draw us at last to join him forever in hell. In function of that he fosters in us, and in everyone, all the vices and sins, of which the chief is his own special vice, the one that above all defines him, and to which he most tenaciously clings, that of pride.
There’s a story from the Egyptian desert of the 4th century. A young monk was having terrible trouble with the demon of lust. It would not leave him alone, so in desperation he went to see his Abba, for some wise guidance and advice. The old man listened to his story, then took him out onto a little terrace overlooking the vast expanse of the desert. Open your eyes, he said, and look out to the West. The young monk looked, and there he saw a most horrible sight. A huge army of demons stood there, drawn up aggressively in battle array against him, and ready for the final assault: terrifying, hideous, powerful, determined. See that? said the old man. It’s what you are up against. But now turn round and look to the East. So the young monk turned round and looked, and there he saw, standing ready, a vast army of Angels, shining with light, beautiful, all arrayed in gold, and all singing, radiant with joy. The old man said: See that? Well, the ones who are for us are more numerous, and more powerful, than the ones who are against us.
Each year on the 29th of September, and then again on the 2nd of October, we given special opportunities to celebrate the Holy Angels. Today then we honour the Angel, we enter into conscious communion with them, we rejoice with them, we thank them. But of course the Angels are with us, and fighting on our side, every day of the year, and every moment of every day; and the Church does not forget to mention them in every Mass, and very frequently in her Psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles.
Two aspects of the Holy Angels are celebrated especially in today’s liturgy. There is their warfare on our behalf against the devil, symbolically portrayed in our reading from the Apocalypse. And there is their ceaseless praise of God, their dwelling ever in his presence, their participation in and praise of his holiness, evoked many times, for example in the entrance Antiphon, the Collect, the Psalm, and the Preface.
In today’s Gospel Jesus recalls the dream of Jacob at Bethel, as recounted in the book of Genesis. You will see heaven laid open, he says, and the angels of God ascending and descending above the Son of Man. John’s contemplative gaze here, as so often, is drawn to the event of Christ’s Cross. By the saving death of Jesus, a free communion is established, opened up, between heaven and earth; between the holy Angels and us. As a result of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, we are already in communion with them, and they with us, sharing one fellowship, one bond of love, one worship, one joy. The holy Angels descend with Jesus to our level; they descend with him in his Incarnation, and further yet, in his final humiliation on the Cross. And they ascend with him, as they take our praises, our gratitude, our good aspirations, our prayers to the throne of God in heaven.
I once saw a depiction of the Angels’ descent in an exhibition of Venetian Art in London. I suppose the picture was of the late 16th or early 17th century. I’ve no recollection who painted it, but its title was Christ of the Steps. Jesus, on his way to Calvary, is slumped exhausted on some narrow steps leading from the street up to a house doorway. His flesh is cold, grey, clammy. The whole picture is grey, dull, miserable, except for a small flash of red up in the corner. This is the garment of an Angel looking down on Jesus there. The face of the Angel in that picture is twisted in the anguish of grief.
If the Angels descend and ascend especially over the Cross of Christ, then they do so also in a special way at every Mass. They descend to join us in our wonder at the depths of such love, taken to such limits, to the very end. They descend to adore Jesus in his humanity, and his humility, and his sacrifice. Then also, especially at every Mass, the Angels ascend, bearing with them to heaven the pure and acceptable worship of Christ’s Body the Church, rejoicing at this chance to serve us, mortal creatures of flesh and blood, who nevertheless in Christ have the dignity of God’s beloved sons.
The Church has always acknowledged that monks, by reason of their consecration and state in the Church, live the Angelic life. This is not at all because monks are somehow ethereal beings, separated from human cares and necessities, but because by profession monks do what Angels do: we aim to praise God day and night and without ceasing. Actually this is also what the whole Church does, and ultimately what the whole Church is for, and what the whole Church will spend her eternity doing: praising God, for he is good, and his merciful love endures forever.