Sunday, October 9, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 41 ~ St. Michael

Whenever I cycle to work, I pass a 300-foot medieval tower topped with a 16-foot gilt statue of St Michael casting down Satan. The statue, dark with soot, was removed ten or fifteen years ago for cleaning, so that now it shines and catches the sunlight as it moves – for it is also a wind vane. In the US it would long ago have been removed for good, because the tower is not that of a church, but of the city hall, and the Archangel Michael is one of the two patron saints of the city. Brussels cathedral has a double dedication, to St Gudula, a local woman of the 7th century, and to St Michael.

In 1886 Pope Leo XIII added a prayer to St Michael to the prayers to be said after Low Mass (basically any Mass without chants, music or incense):

Holy Michael Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do you, prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust down to hell Satan and all wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.  Amen.

The Low Mass as a distinct liturgy was abolished before I was born, but when I was a teenager somebody gave me a prayer card with this prayer on it, and for years I would invoke St Michael before any challenging event or confrontation, and during particular times of stress. At some point the card was lost or worn to pieces, but the first sentence at least I have by heart when needed (the rest, admittedly, becomes somewhat garbled, but the general gist remains the same). I’ve been repeating the opening words almost like a mantra the last couple of days, but not because of anything going on in my own life.

Seeking to know the names of angels, to be able to invoke them (or conjure them) in person, is one of the esoteric practices that the Church has from time to time had to warn against, and I have been in bookshops where the ‘spirituality’ section was filled with books about angels that were either frivolous or reeked of the occult. But Michael we know from Scripture as a powerful defender. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet records how (in Ronald Knox’s translation):

I stood by the banks of the great river, where it is called Tigris. I looked up, and saw a man standing there clad all in linen, and his girdle of fine gold. Clear as topaz his body was, like the play of lightning shone his face, and like burning cressets his eyes; arms and legs of him had the sheen of bronze, and when he spoke, it was like the murmur of a throng.

This was not Michael, but a lesser angel who speaks of Michael as ‘one of the high lords’ and ‘prince’, in effect as the guardian angel of the People of Israel (or at least the protector of those of them in exile in Babylon).

What prompted me to think of writing about St Michael here, however, was a recent reading of the Rheims New Testament, produced by Catholic priests in exile at Rheims in France in 1582. St John on Patmos had a vision of Michael himself, recorded in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: & being with child, she cried also travailing, and is in anguish to be delivered. And there was seen an other sign in heaven, and behold a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns: and on his heads seven diadems, and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth, and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered: that when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. And she brought forth a man child, who was to govern all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God and to his throne, & the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared of God, that there they might feed her a thousand two hundred sixty days.
And there was made a great battle in heaven, Michael and his Angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his Angels: and they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast forth, the old serpent, which is called the Devil and Satan, which seduces the whole world: and he was cast into the earth, and his Angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a great voice in heaven, saying: Now is there made salvation and force, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: because the accuser of our brethren is cast forth, who accused them before the sight of our God day and night. And
they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives even unto death.

This is the text of the 1582 Rheims New Testament (with spelling modernized), which has substantial notes explaining difficult passages. The woman clothed with the sun, the notes explain, is ‘properly and principally spoken of the Church: and by allusion, of our B. Lady also’. The iconography of Our Lady of Victories, and of the Assumption of Our Lady, have adopted this image of the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet (and the European Union adopted her crown as its flag). But as the note explains, the woman of the Apocalypse is first and foremost an image of the Church facing persecutions, and only by secondary application an image of Our Lady overcoming them. Linking this directly to the times in which they lived, the exile priests wrote:

As the Church Catholic now in England in this time of persecution, because it hath no public state of regiment nor open free exercise of holy functions, may be said to be fled into the desert, yet it is neither unknown to the faithful that follow it, nor the enemies that persecute it [...] it may also very well signify the desolation and affliction that the Church suffers and hath suffered from time to time in this wilderness of the world, by all the forerunners and ministers of Antichrist, Tyrants and Heretics.

Another note, perhaps as a warning to those too focused on the angels themselves, was that ‘When the Angels or we have the victory, we must know it is by the blood of Christ, and so all is referred always to him.’ But what struck me most was their note on the War in Heaven:

In the Church there is a perpetual combat betwixt St Michael (protector of the Church militant as he was sometime of the Jews’ Synagogue Dan. 10, 21) and his Angels, and the Devil and his ministers, the perfect victory over whom, shall be at the judgement. Mark here also the cause why St Michael is commonly painted fighting with a dragon.

This is a combat in the Church – not between the Church and outsiders – and the ‘the accuser of our brethren’ will be cast out for good only when the Heavens and the Earth are made anew. That new world brought about by the Blood of the Lamb is the theme of the Ghent Altarpiece; but many famous artists of the Renaissance (in these parts Gerard David, Brueghel and Rubens, to name only the most famous), took the War in Heaven as their theme. And that was my biggest surprise: that these priests in exile should take the time to add a sentence instructing their persecuted flock in art appreciation.

As I was pondering the writing of this piece, the final push was given by another reader of this blog, who posted the following link on Facebook: Saint Michael, Patron Saint of Leggings.

Oh, and this is the coat of arms of the City of Brussels.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. AnthonySt. CuthbertMargaretSt. Kizito, St. Margaret Clitherow, and St. Peter Ascanus  for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. I say that prayer every time I get in a car and almost every time I pull onto the expressway, and we pray it after every Mass at the parish where I work. I think this practice is becoming common in many parishes. The words I know are slightly different, which isn't surprising since everybody seems to know a slightly different very. Partially, I think, it's because of translation, and partially, I think it's a little ploy of the enemy to distract us.

    When on retreat sometime, I'd like to ask everyone there to write down this prayers and then see how many differences I find, and maybe start collecting them.


  2. Hard to believe there's now actually a primetime (at least here in NZ) TV series (titled "Lucifer") that has a sympathetic Satan helping to solve crimes. I'd forgotten about the show until I was flipping through the remote last night and came upon it. And now this morning, this post -- thank you!

  3. That show is here, too. I haven't watched it, on principle. I've heard people say it isn't as bad as it sounds but I'm sure I can do without it.