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St. Thomas Aquinas on guardian angels.

In previous articles I considered the different choirs of angels, the meaning of their names, and their mission in relation to God ("Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones," Part I: Jan/Feb '99, pp. 14-15, 29; Part II: March '99, pp. 27-28). I propose that we look more closely at the last choir of angels, to whom is entrusted the custody of the individual. They are usually referred to as guardian angels. I turn to St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on the matter in the Summa Theologica. I shall look specifically at the first four articles of Question 113 of the First Part, entitled The Guardianship of the good angels. [1]

St. Thomas has a great deal more to say on angels in general, and on guardian angels in particular, than does the official teaching of the Church, which has always been conscious of the importance of keeping her teaching on angels subordinate to the more central truths of Catholic doctrine. We can see the wisdom of her position, especially in relation to the recent craze about angels. However, she has never discouraged the work of theologians on this question. Among these stands out St. Thomas with his extensive treatment, which, in the words of Fr. Kenelm Foster, "is probably the most brilliant piece of speculation on the subject produced by a Western theologian."

Reason in support of faith

St. Thomas begins his question on the guardianship of good angels by considering on rational grounds whether men are in fact guarded by angels. There is no doubt that St. Thomas accepted as a matter of faith the existence of the guardian angels. But that did not preclude him from considering the question from the point of view of reason, since in his view faith and reason cannot be opposed.

He presents three possible objections against the existence of guardian angels: 1. Men are able to take care of themselves through their free will and they know how to do so through the natural knowledge of the law. Therefore, they do not need a guardian angel. 2. Men are guarded by God Himself. Therefore, they do not need another guardian. 3. Since many people are lost every day through sin, this would imply negligence on the part of their guardian angel. But this is obviously false.

As is his method in the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas presents the counter-argument, quoting Psalm 90 (91), 11: "He has given his angels charge over you to guard you in all his ways." Then he gives his own answer, showing that it was necessary that angels should be appointed to guard men "so as to direct them and set them on the way to goodness". He concludes by refuting each objection in turn:

1. Man can avoid evil to a certain extent through the use of his free will, but not entirely, because his love for the good is weakened by the many passions of his soul. In the same way, even though man knows the natural law, he has difficulties applying the universal law to particular acts. Therefore, he does need the help provided by angels.

2. Yes, God guards men directly by infusing grace and virtues in them and by being their universal teacher. However, God's instructions come to men through the angels. For, as St. Thomas had shown earlier (in Q. 111), it is in the order of Providence that lower things should be subject to the influence of higher things, so that just as the angels of lower rank receive enlightenment from angels of higher rank, so men, being inferior to angels by nature, receive enlightenment from them.

3. The fact that some men are lost does not mean that their guardian angel has been negligent. The responsibility is rather with man himself who chooses freely to do evil.

One angel per person

St. Thomas goes on to show that to each man is assigned a particular angel because the guardianship of angels is "part of the carrying out of divine providence over men." In response to an objection which argued that if one man is adequate to guard a number of people, all the more can one angel guard a number of men, St. Thomas makes an interesting distinction. He sets forth two reasons for assigning a guardian to a man: First, insofar as he is an individual "in this respect one angel may guard one man, or sometimes many angels may guard the one man". Secondly, in so far as he is a part of a community: the role of the guardian is then to provide for the individual as a member of the whole community. Consequently, one angel could very well be looking after a community of people. However for each individual as individual, a particular angel is assigned, whose specific task is to protect and help him in relation to his personal salvation.

These angels belong to the last choir of angels. [2] The reason why they belong to the lowest order, explains St Thomas, is that, when it comes to carrying out the particular actions that have been decided by the higher order of angels, the salvation of an individual is seen as the least important task. This is not to say that it is not an important task, but in relation to the two choirs above, the archangels, the princes of angels, who are entrusted with the greater missions (such as, for example the Annunciation to Mary), and the Principalities, who preside over the government of kingdoms and nations, we can see St. Thomas' logic, following St. Gregory's in assigning the guardianship of individuals to the lowest order of angels, those who announce the less important matters.

St. Thomas explains also why each and every person, including Adam and Christ, has an angel appointed to guard him, although in the case of Christ he says that "it was right that he should have not a guardian angel superior to him, but a ministering angel inferior to him." He uses the image of the wayfarer, beset by many dangers on the road to his homeland:

Man in the present condition of life is, so to speak, on a road along which he must make his way to his homeland. On this road lurk many dangers, both internal and external. Thus, as the Psalm puts it [142, 4], "Oh this road on which I walked they set up an ambush for me". So, as guides are given to men walking along an unsafe road, guardian angels are also given to each man while he is a wayfarer in this life.

As I write these words I have in front of me an image that was given to my little Mathieu, now one year old, by his godmother: it represents an angel with beautiful wings and a star above his head, arms stretched out protectively over two children walking on a wooden bridge, which has a broken rail on one side, no rail at all on the other, and a missing plank behind the children. Many readers will be familiar with this image from their childhood. Is it not a wonderful representation of the role of the guardian angel as described in this passage of St. Thomas?


There is a tendency in our world to scorn this kind of image, mainly, I think, because we have lost the sense, and understanding, of symbols. And also because we do not know anymore who the angels are. But, as Catholics, we should know that angels are purely spiritual creatures; that is, without a body (see the new Catechism #328), that they possess intelligence and will (#330), that they are God's servants and messengers (#329), created through and for Christ (#331-333), and that they play an important role both in the Church's life (#334-335) and in our own personal life (#336).

An image like the one I have just described reminds us of the presence and the role our guardian angel plays in all of our life, as our defender against evil, whether physical or spiritual, from the time we are born. That the angel is represented as a beautiful young man with wings should not embarrass us: how else should we picture a purely spiritual creature, whom we resemble by the spiritual side of our nature, but who is greater and more nearly perfect than we are in the order of creation?


The symbol of wings, by which birds soar high up in the sky, has been used from ancient times "to express glory, beauty, sublimity, exaltation, favour or help from on high that was hoped for or received, and aspiration toward spiritual or philosophical heights." [3]

Furthermore, a winged man is the conventional form attributed to the angel in art. This symbol was adopted early by primitive Christian art "as a convention to represent the angels who, in the Bible, sometimes manifest themselves as handsome young men--and also, sometimes, represent the Christ taken as Angelos, as 'Angel': that is to say, as 'the one sent', a messenger from the Father, and the bringer of salvation". [4]

So, in conclusion, I suggest that we bring out our old image, or look for a new one, to remind us of the reality of angels, in general, and of the help they give us in our everyday life. Since it is natural to man, as St. Thomas writes, "to attain to intellectual truths through sensible things, because all our knowledge originates from the senses", [5] this image will help us to raise our spirit and senses "to the understanding of the immaterial and sublime." [6]

It should also remind us to pray to our guardian angel. The simple prayer of our childhood should stay with us to the end of our days, until, as St. Thomas says, we reach the end of the road in Paradise, where our angel will be no longer a guardian angel but an angel reigning with us in the kingdom of heaven: [7]

Angel of God, my guardian dear,

To whom God's love commits me here;

Ever this day be at my side,

To light and guard, to rule and guide.


Dr. Kussmaul is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia.


(1.) For those who are interested to go further, there are four more points raised by St. Thomas:

a.5 When does guardianship begin?

a.6 Do angels always guard men?

a.7 Do angels grieve over the loss of the one guarded?

a.8 Does rivalry over guardians exist among men?

(2.) That is, from the point of view of God, they belong to the ninth and last choir of angels, in decending order. In ascending order, from our human point of view, they belong to the first choir, closest to us.

(3.) See the chapter "Wings and feathers" in the Bestiary of Christ by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (trans. and abr. by D.M. Dooling, Arcan (Penguin Group) N.Y. 1990.

(4.) Ibid, p. 33.

(5.) I, Q. 1, A.9 (Whether Holy Scripture should use metaphors).

(6.) Dionysius the Areopagite, De Caelestibus Hierarchiis, as cited by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay in his Introduction to The Bestiary of Christ, p. vii.

(7.) See Q. 113, A.4.
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Author:Kussmaul, Marguerite Bourbeau
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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