02 October 2013

Tolkein: Guardian Angels, the personalized care of God not plump ladies with swan-wings

It often happens that when an infant or a young child dies, the bereaved are comforted by their family and friends with such statements as, "Now you have a guardian angel in heaven." The bereaved already have Guardian Angels in heaven, as the Lord Jesus himself makes clear in Matthew 18:10, but they are not the ones who have recently died.  The deceased remain human beings and never become angels, though he or she could certainly be an intercessor for the bereaved before the Throne of God.

When thinking of Guardian Angels, people have all sorts of notions as to what they are, most of which involve either a small man dressed in white with wings and harp standing on the right shoulder and arguing with a devil (often weakly), such as this:

Or perhaps some schmaltzy and sentimental image, such as this:

Rarely does anyone envision a Guardian Angel as who, you know, can actually be a guard, such as this:

While we are on the topic of the depictions of angels, we should note that angels, in fact, have no bodies; they are pure intellect. We show them in the form of human beings to indicate their intelligence and free will and with wings to symbolize their swiftness in carrying out God's commands.

It is, I suspect, the above conceptions of angels that led J.R.R. Tolkien to write to his son, Christopher, on the 8th of January in 1944, J.R.R. Tolkien urging him to "remember your guardian angel. Not a plump lady with swan-wings!"

In another letter, written between the 7th and the 8th of November of the same year, the elder Tolkien relates to the same son an experience he while participating in the Forty Hours Devotion in the church of St. Gregory:
I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God's very attention itself, personalized.  And I do not mean 'personified', by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person. Thinking of it since - for the whole thing was very immediate, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love) - it has occurred to me that (I speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate: it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the poised mote( this is a finite parallel to the Infinite. As the love between the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.
Despite his fumbling language to describe this experience (such moments of grace are always difficult to relate), Tolkien describes the Guardian Angels as "God's very attention, personalized," though he was not sure if he was correct in this description.

Sixty-seven years late, Pope Benedict XVI would describe the Guardian Angels as "ministers of the divine care for every human being" (Angelus Address, 2 October 2011).  Tolkien's description of the Guardian Angels was both profound and correct.


  1. I wonder why the three Archangels are all men?

  2. They aren't; angels do not have a gender: http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/can-angels-be-male-or-female

    The name Michael means, "who is like God". I think it is actually a question: http://dzehnle.blogspot.it/2008/09/on-saint-michael-archangel.html

    The name Gabriel means, "God's strength", which is revealed to us in His becoming small.

    The name Raphael means, "God's salvation/healing".

    Peter Kreeft has written an excellent and easy-to-book on Angels which I highly recommend: http://www.ignatius.com/ViewProduct.aspx?SID=1&Product_ID=587&SKU=AAD-P&ReturnURL=search.aspx%3f%3fSID%3d1%26SearchCriteria%3dangels