Vol.III, Dec.’97


"I...Withstand You"

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Sacred Scripture reiterates in the story of Balaam's encounter with the holy Angel, the common doctrine on the ministry of the holy Angels: they are messengers and representatives of God; they stand hierarchically between God and man. Fully cognizant of the sanctity and majesty of God, the holy Angels call man to strict obedience towards the will of God. Beyond this fundamental doctrine, however, more may be gleaned from the story.

1. In the central act of the "drama", situated between the call of Balaam and his testimony, we have three actors: man as the main figure, an animal and an Angel. Man is seen here in the total context of his life: he lives "on the boundary between spiritual and corporeal creatures" (St. Thomas Aq., Summa Theo.., I,77,2) for he unites in himself the spiritual and the material world as a "minor cosmos" (cf. ibid., 91,1 and 4c). This fact shows that a reciprocal bond links these three realms of creatures, the purely spiritual, the purely material and man in whom matter and spirit are substantially united.

This relationship among creatures may be considered on a horizontal level and here some authors perceive a certain reflection of the innertrinitarian relationships in terms of an analogy of proportionality: The three creatures should be united, and indeed are, as members of a single creation (CCC 336, 340 and 344; cf. A. Winklhofer, Die Welt der Engel, Ettal 1958, 45ff; E.Heufelder, Das Geheimnis der Dreifaltigkeit, Regensburg 1979,59-73). Although the encounter of Angel, man and the material world (represented in the animal) in this particular case is exceptional on account of the speaking donkey, and also due to the free discourse between the visionary man and the Angel, nonetheless, Balaam is in the proper element of man: being both surrounded by the material world and dependent on it, and placed by God under the help and guidance of holy, pure spirits (cf. also the book of Tobit; the reflection of the Blessed Trinity in creation is more often indicated, e.g. John Paul II., Catechesis 9.7.86, 4-5; 6.8.86, 5; Pdv 12; CCC 260,288,290-294.)

2. In this present case, this unity is at risk: the man Balaam is found in danger of breaking his union with God by falling into sin. Hence, the Angel tries to strengthen the bonds: If man consciously chooses the wrong way, the Angel is bound to respect man's free will; but when man's salvation is at risk on account of the natural limits of his intellect and will, and when he even desires by himself to avoid any fault before God, then the holy Angels are ready to help, be it in a natural or supernatural way.

Here the holy Angel helped like a companion at the side of the prophet in his mission. He himself blocked the ass of Balaam: "The ass saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand" (Gen 22,23). The pure spirit appeared visibly three times to the ass and the animal reacted naturally, avoiding the "hindrance": she "turned aside out of the road" (v.23), then she "pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam's foot against the wall" (v.25); the third time, "she lay down under Balaam" (v.27).

Then, the Lord opened the mouth of the ass and made the animal speak, or rather, the Angel spoke through the animal to Balaam as the fallen angel had spoken in Paradise through the serpent to Eve (Gen 3,1.4-5; according St. Thomas through "some supernatural operation", cf. S. Th I,94,4 ad 2). Balaam reacted to the different behavior of the animal: "He struck the ass." After the third time when the animal also spoke miraculously, "Balaam's anger was kindled" and he said to the ass, "I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you" (v.29). Not even through the miracle did Balaam advert to the fact that God was guiding him by means of the trouble with the ass.

It was necessary, that "the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam", of the man, towards the Angel, so that he himself like the ass "saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with the drawn sword in his hand." This helped Balaam understand, and "he bowed his head, and fell on his face" (v.31). The Angel explained to man, why he stood there and why the animal behaved in such a way: "I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me" (v.32) and Balaam reconfirmed his union with the spiritual and material world confessing to the Angel of the Lord: 'I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me. Now, therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again" (v.34). - Only after man had confirmed his adherence to God, the drama of God's plan with his creation could continue.

3. What does God want us to understand here? God allowed Balaam to follow the king of the Moabites under the strict command: "But only what I bid you, that shall you do" (v.20). Here it is first necessary to understand the language of God! Vatican II teaches in this regard: "This economy of Revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other" (Dei Verbum, 2; cf. General Catechetical Directory, Rome 1997, 38-39). Therefore, man must expect that God wants to speak not only by words but also through the surrounding circumstances. At all times and in all circumstances man has to ask what God wants from him. Behind all things man ought to perceive "the solicitude of divine providence," which is "concrete and immediate! ; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history" (CCC 303; cf. 295,302-314). This does not mean, that God is the only one who acts in this world: "God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of His plan" (CCC 306).

The Angel that intervenes first by deeds and then with words along Balaam's way shares in the providence of God. How he can act over material and human creatures St. Thomas explains accurately (cf. S. Th. I,110-111 and 114,4,ad2): The pure spirits, good and bad ones, can produce in material beings only such changes which normally can take place by the virtue of nature itself. They can also produce apparent effects, be it through influence upon the human imagination or some external senses, be it through the formation of an imaginative or unreal but visible body. This all applies to communication through deeds, gestures or circumstances.

Here, we may ask, why did the Angel first communicate through the ass and not immediately and directly with man? This would be the more natural way for the Angel as St. John of the Cross articulates once as a principle, affirming that the Angels always address man's mind (communication through a 'word'): "Reflect that your Guardian Angel does not always move your desire [a passion on the sensitive level] for an action, but he does always enlighten your reason" (Sayings of Light and Love, 34). Did the Angel "speak" first through deeds, because it would be easier for man to understand? Or did he do so because Balaam was not disposed for his word and did not want to "give heed to the Angel and hearken to his voice" (Ex 23,21), that is, to the interior word addressed to his reason. That the resistance continued even after the message had been made manifest through the speaking of the ass, only confirms the hypothesis.

Here we do not want to focus so much on the obedience or disobedience, but to consider rather the wonderful example of the firm link between the material and spiritual world (cf. Bar 3,33-35; Mt 8,27), and of the weak and broken connection of man to both. Man is the weakest member in the harmonious union of God's threefold creation. The material world is docile to and serves the ministry of the Angel, but the Angel with the material world resists man in his rebellion against God.

4. Dear Brothers in the priesthood, God and his Angels are nearer than we think or are aware. Balaam's experience teaches and helps us to reflect:

- God sends us his Angels not only with a message nor merely as co-servants in our ministry, but also to aid us personally when we have to fight with our rebellious passions, weaknesses and with temptations.

- God stands behind everything, so that not every hindrance is caused by the enemy and not every fraternal correction is a condemnation. If we love God and are docilely attentive, we can see that "in everything, God works for good" (Rom 8,28; cf. CCC 312). Anger, on the other hand, rarely serves the divine purpose, and no form of revolt will ever be a 'co-servant' of God and His Angels.

- God's fatherly and universal care invites and obliges us to an unconditional, undivided, blind adherence at all times and in all circumstances of life to Him (cf. Mt 22,37).

-Finally, hearkening the voice of the Angel is not just a question of our personal perfection, but also pertains to the order and harmony in creation and is the normal means by which the revelation of God is communicated to man (cf. Jn 17,23). Poverty in spirit in total detachment from self and an open disposition before God is, once more, approved as the first step into the brilliant and powerful world of God! May God daily grant this to each one of us, more and more deeply.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC