HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF ST MICHAEL & ALL ANGELS
preached by Dom David Bird
at Belmont Abbey (UK)
Angels are out of fashion, but people are fascinated by devils. Films about possession and exorcism attract huge crowds: few would wish to see a film about angelic activity. Only a few days ago, the death of a Vatican exorcist was on the national and international news, His death would not have been news if he had been involved with good angels'. Many reject a belief in angels but hesitate to disbelieve in devils.
The reason for this is instructive for anyone setting out to live the Christian life. While diabolic activity can easily be spotted, angelic activity cannot be distinguished from the activity of God:
"Look at me!" says the devil, as possessed people convulse, cry out in languages they do not naturally know, or vomit out weird and horrible things. Satan does this because he wishes to display his power, his diabolical force that is based on pride.
In contrast, an angel says, "Look at God!" and speaks about himself only when it is necessary. This is because his weapon is humble obedience and his power is the kenotic love of God. ("Kenotic love" is a love that pours itself out on the loved one without wasting any of its energy on the lover himself. Not a weak feeling, but the love that created the universe!)
If this be true of all angels, it is especially true of St Michael who, as an archangel, commands the heavenly host, though, in his case, "commands" means, "looking after their angelic welfare, serving them. For this reason, both in Old and New Testament times, St Michael is believed to be both a military commander of the whole angel host and as a healer, and there are shrines to St Michael the Healer that are attended by both Catholic, Orthodox and Muslims.
This may well be true; but why are angels so important for us? Why are so many monasteries dedicated to St Michael? Why are we celebrating the feast of St Michael and All Angels as a solemnity? And why, sixty years ago today, like so many monks of Belmont, this very same Mass was chosen by the abbot of the time to be the context in which I made my vows. Many of the older monks took their vows today, and we include them in our prayers. I remember especially the late Fr Dyfrig who, forty-two years today took his vows at this very Mass. What connection does St Michael and all the Angels have with the Christian life in general and the life of the monk in particular?
To answer this we must go back to the Gospels and to a Gospel theme that is paid little attention nowadays. The theme is Christ's combat with the devil. It is not immediately obvious, but whenever Christ casts out the devils, he is involved in the battle with Satan that has cosmic significance, for him, a battle that begins with Herod's attempt to kill him, is dramatized in the Temptations in the Desert, and reaches its climax on the Cross and its final and definitive victory in the Resurrection. Christ is, above all, the victorious one, Christus Victor. The war did not begin with him. It has its roots in the creation of matter to which Satan objected. It is a battle between Satan whose weapon is force based on Pride, and Christ with his kenotic love acting through humble obedience.
Now, during the time of the Church, there is the mopping up operation, so that his victory can be accepted freely in every situation by everybody. His power is not force that limits freedom, but a love that needs our free assent. This combat is at all levels of our existence, and even takes place within ourselves, whenever we have the choice between acting in humble obedience and allowing Christ's love to flow through us, or to act with self-assertion and pride. When we act with humble obedience, we are accompanied by angels and saints; when we act with pride, we join the army of devils. There is a meditation in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola on this theme. He says we have to make the choice.
Thus, as the 2nd lesson from the Apocalypse says, the martyrs triumph over the devil by the Blood of the Lamb. The rest of us can triumph too, by fulfilling our vocations, by practising humble obedience, whether we are lay people, monks or clergy. For all of us, God's will is made known to us at every moment by our present circumstances. Through his divine Providence, every moment becomes, as it were, a sacrament of his presence and of his will. Our humble obedience to his will, as revealed moment by moment in our lives allows God to work in us and through us. The humbler and more obedient to his will we are, the more transparent we become, the better conductors of his love and the better instruments of his grace we become. Like St Michael and the angels, our activity will gradually become inseparable from his and our Christian activity will grow in fruitfulness and will have consequences we could not possibly even imagine. The Church recognised this when it made St Therese of Lisieux patron saint of foreign missions, even though she died at 24 without having ever left her convent. It was implied by Our Lady when she told the children in Fatima that the prayers and penances of ordinary Christian could be used by God to bring about the fall of Atheistic Communism in Russia. It seems that Christ can multiply the fruits of our Christian actions as he did the bread in the feeding of the five thousand.
To take part in this combat is so important for us as individuals as well as for the human race, that it is not astonishing that monks and nuns dedicated their lives to it Their devotion to St Michael and the angels reminded them that their personal battle with all that was bad in them was part of a wider war against evil and that, because they were fighting in union with the angels and in Christ, victory was assured.
Why are monks so fond of angels? Why are so many monasteries dedicated to St Michael?
Firstly, because angels remind us that they are our companions whenever we praise God or humbly do his will. The Fathers called our life "angelic life" because we are basically dedicated to the same thing as the angels.
Secondly, we learn from them that our goal is not just to say prayers but to become prayer, to dedicate every moment of our existence to giving glory to God so that our action becomes as much a prayer as when we say prayers. This is a gift from God. St John Vianney suffered from activity pushing out prayer; and he tried to escape from parish life several times in order to give himself more to prayer. It was only when he embraced God's will so perfectly that the contrast between prayer and activity simply disappeared.
Thirdly, because they point out to us what is truly important in our lives. We can be forgiven for not believing in angels because their activity cannot be distinguished from God's. What makes them what they are is not standing out but fidelity to his will. I remember Woolly. I don't suppose he will have a large place in the history of Belmont. He held no important post and is remembered for no original work; yet, whenever I have been tempted to doubt the value of the monastic life, either that of my companions or of my own, I have remembered Father Wulstan and people like him I have known. He did nothing of historical importance, but he was what Belmont is all about. So with St Michael and the Angels. Devils show their power in people they possess or places they infest: they leave their mark. But angels care for us in a self-effacing way, so self-effacing that we forget their presence and only give glory to God, which makes them very content. Yet their power is the power of God himself; and the power of the devil and his angels are mere circus tricks in comparison with the power wielded by the angels.
Sixty years ago, at this very Mass, I took my vows after a year's novitiate. I was nineteen years old. During the years that followed, I have not always lived up to the exigencies of my calling to live a life of praise and humble obedience in company with the angels. On the other hand, I have never, even for a moment, regretted my decision. Please pray that I may be more faithful to my vocation in the years I have left than I have up till now.
On behalf of the abbot and community, I wish you a happy feast day. Please pray for monastic vocations, especially at Belmont and at Pachacamac.