Vol. XIII, June 2007


Behold, a Watcher, a Holy One,
Came Down From Heaven (Dan 4:13)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In the next chapter of the Book of Daniel the king of Babylon is eager to understand another dream he has had, which caused him to be afraid. “The magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in; … but they could not make known to me its interpretation. At last Daniel came in before me … and I told him the dream: … ‘I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven” (Dan 4:5,7,13). This “watcher… from heaven” is understood throughout history as an angel.

1. The angels are watchers.

It would be necessary in a larger work, to clarify the semantics involved in this and similar texts. Watcher, or vigilant or attentive ones, guards and contemplatives, solicitous souls all may fall under a common genus here. In any case, “watchers” is practically the ‘terminus technicus’ for ‘angels’ in St. Ephraim the Syrian.

It is methodologically better to reflect first upon the meaning of the word in itself before we ask for the biblical testimony in this particular context.  

a) Phenomenological Observations

The Sacred Text speaks of a “holy (one who) came down from heaven,” an Angel as “watcher”. We can make three observations about a person who watches: Such a person is, first of all, in an alert attitude, the opposite of sleeping or only relaxing. A watcher is very attentive, sensible and ready to react quickly. A second characteristic is a very strong concentration on someone or something which is expected. If a community expects the bishop for the Confirmation, then the pastor or a member of the parish council watches at the door for the car and informs immediately when he arrives. In this case, the watcher knows that someone will come and for whom he has to look. There is, however, another situation, in which the watcher does not know if at all that someone will come or something will happen. It is when a watcher has to watch over something of importance or of value, which is already present. Such a watchman is on night vigil or the security guard of a bank. Here the watching person is concentrated on what she is guarding, and at the same time very attentive for anything dangerous that may, or may not ever come at all.  

b) The Incorporeal Angelic Spirit

Due to their “purely spiritual” nature (CCC 330; cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I, q 50), the angels never “slumber nor sleep,” (Ps. 121:4). The freedom of a physical body gives them the possibility of total dedication. “With their whole being the angels are servants and messengers of God”   (CCC 329). A very quick look into Sacred Scripture shows that their attentiveness goes in different directions, up to God in unceasing adoration and attentive contemplation. They are constantly open and expect any hint of God’s Will, ready to fulfill at every moment any call of God. At the same time, their spiritual nature permits them to look “down” to man or to any other part of creation, which God entrusted to their care as the personal instruments of Divine Providence. All they do with “their whole being”.

2. The Angels as Guards of God and Man

If we look into Sacred Scripture, we find often the call to watch, and people who are attentively watching. The frequent reference to watching angels may surprise us, but we can see them with this attitude in different regards.

Right from the beginning, God chose angels, Cherubim to watch over Paradise (Danielou calls “the angels of heaven, the guardians of Paradise”, in The Angels and their Mission, 97): “He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24). – Here, according to God’s direct order, the angels have to watch, protect and defend first of all God’s holy Will, God’s rights and God’s property. First, then, they look back to the treasure that is threatened by man and the serpent, the proud and already fallen angels. Their task to watch also has the purpose to prevent that unauthorized people approach and cause damage to the garden of God.

Without using the explicit words, God gave the order to Moses to build a sanctuary with the representation of Cherubim in a position which shows them as adorers of God, but also with the function of being vigilant watchers over His sanctuary: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst… They shall make an ark … and you shall make two cherubim of gold; … on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end… The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Ex 25:8,10,18-20).

A prayer which St. Joseph Maria Escrivá recalled from a friend, interprets this position in the sense of watchers: “O angelic spirits, who guard our tabernacles, wherein lies the adorable treasure of the Holy Eucharist, defend It from profanation and preserve It for our love” (St. Jose Maria Escrivá de Balaguer, The Way, 569).

Another statement on the holy angels we find shortly before this command of God. God sends an angel to His Chosen People with the mission to watch out for them:“Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” (Ex 23:20). The goal of this watching task is to help men to fulfill God’s holy Will and not to turn away from Him. Similarly the Psalmist described this task. “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, … He will give His angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot” (Ps 91:9-13). The angels’ task is here twofold: they should prevent men from offending the Ten Commandments to which the expression “stone” would refer according St. Bernard. And they should keep away the enemy, symbolized in the lion and adder.

Of course their care does not dispense man of his collaboration: “Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him...” (Ex 23:21). This, then, is illustrated in the book of Tobias: There the father told his son: “Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and be disciplined in all your conduct” (Tob 4:14), so he did and he received help through St. Raphael (cf. Tob 5-9). This book shows also that the angels watch over man’s body and soul, although that does not mean that God wants them to avoid every harm, sickness or suffering.

We can correctly call the angels Bodyguard and Soul-Guard of men, because there is still another dimension in the mission of the angels where they have to watch out for man. It is man’s spiritual journey to his final goal in heaven. We know how often man starts out joyfully and with great resolutions, and how quickly he compromises and turns aside, stops here and resolves something else there, and so looses the goal out of sight. It is a grace, when God in His mercy sends in these moments His angels to wake us up, to correct us even with suffering, and to bring us back to the only worthy interest: God. The bride in the Song of Solomon describes this common situation in our spiritual life: “The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those watchmen of the walls. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love” (Song of Songs 5:7-8; cf. Arintero, The Song of Songs, TAN 1992, 430-435).  

Many more situations are described in Sacred Scripture were we find the angels vigilant and watching, and at the right moment entering into the history of salvation. In this way one can recognize the help St. Joseph received through the angel: While he was sleeping, the angels watched and saw the enemy coming nearer and nearer. The angels were present in the desert with this readiness and watchfulness (cf. Mt 4:11). So they were in the Passion of Jesus (cf. Lk 22:43), so at His resurrection. They gave testimony of Jesus’ victory. And so they watched Him ascending to heaven and asked for the apostle’s obedience (cf. Acts 1:11).

3. Imitation of the Angels

More than we can imagine or believe today, the people of Israel were aware of the existence and presence of the angels in their life. We may recall the reaction of the people praying for Peter in the house of John Marc (cf. Acts 12:15; cf. also Tob 5:20-21; Gen 48:15-16). The angels were not only near them, but also an ideal they wanted to follow, somehow drawn to it by the word of Jesus: “In the resurrection (men)…are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). The desire to imitate the angels or live already as close as possible to them, led to a questionable ascetical effort, namely to sleep as little as possible. Arsenios, one of the desert fathers, asked his monks to diminish their need to sleep to one hour. The basis is not a confusion of the angelic and human nature; rather it is the desire to serve the Lord with unceasing prayer and praise like the angels (cf. Lk 18:1). Another motive is the Fathers’ awareness of the spiritual battle which requires the angels’ watching attitude at every moment (cf. II Vatican Council on the spiritual battle “…until the last day,” GS 37; CCC 409).

In many regards God asks every man to be watchful like the angels: “Be sober, be watchful” (1 Pe 5:8), “watch and pray” (Mt 26:41; cf. Mt 24:42). We priests have not only to watch out for ourselves, but also for those entrusted to us. It is one of the most angelic dimensions of our ministry. We all remember the words of God to Ezekiel: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ez 3:17). And how surprised were the elders of the church of Ephesus over the words of St. Paul: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert” (Acts 20:29-31). We can scarcely think of a better help than union with the spiritual watchers of God. They help us to watch God in adoration and contemplation, to have the eyes open for the dangers which are present among and threaten our parishioners, to alert them and teach them the full truth for discernment.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The holy angels, and especially our Guardian Angel, are asked in many prayers to “watch over us”. We believe that men live under watchful, heavenly companionship in all situations, under the escort of heavenly “police”. Beyond this protection we enjoy ourselves, we belong also to these escorts in collaboration with the holy angels as our “fellow servants” (cf. Rev 22:9). Let us ask them more for their help, as we cannot watch over our parishioners at all moments and in all circumstances.

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC