I had hoped to get this angel-themed question out in time for October 2, the feast of the Guardian Angels, but I didn’t get to posting it. My wife Sarah didn’t get a chance to look over it either, so all grammar, logical, and stylistic issues are my own.
Unless she looks over this later, in which case, I’ll update.
Anyway. . . .
Clare from Maryland asks a few questions about angels
Can angels read your mind? Can Mary and the saints read our minds and hear our thoughts? Also, is it wrong to ask your guardian angel its name?
These are great questions, ones which, honestly, I did not know the answers to until recently, and I did not know the reasons why, exactly, until writing this blogpost. Everybody learns something today!
If you want to know way more about angels than you ever thought you could ever know, then check out Questions 50-64 of the First Part of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Thomas delves into pretty much everything he could about the angels, from their nature to the extent of their relationship with us. Thomas was drawing upon the rich resources in Scripture and Tradition about the angels, and more modern writers, like Jean Danielo, Peter Kreeft, and Mike Aquilina, likewise draw on the work of the appropriately named “Angelic Doctor.”
So let’s briefly look at Clare’s questions. To answer these questions, I’ll focus on what St. Thomas says in the Summa. I will also put some “Further Reading” at the end of the post if you want to dive deeper into the theology of the angels with some other books and resources. There are a lot of good resources out there; some of it you have to be cautious of, as angels have been dragged into the whole New Age movement, and have been misinterpreted by movies and TV. Here, we’ll stick to what the Church says.
First, can angels read your mind (and, relatedly, can the Mary and the saints do that)? The short answer is no, they cannot. St. Thomas answers this point in ST I.57, a4. Do angels know secret thoughts? No, because they are not God. God alone can know our inner thoughts, that is, what is not revealed but which stays in our mind. It is part of His omniscience. Angels (and saints) do not have that ability or power.
However, angels are incredibly rational. They have a perfect intellect, meaning they fully understand a situation and can more perfectly arrive at a more logical conclusion based on evidence than we can. Thomas examines this in I.57, a3, “Whether angels know the future.” In that discussion, he lays out how there are two ways of “knowing” the future: by examining known causes and by knowledge of future events in themselves. The first way is how angels and men know the future, that is, by recognizing the signs that point to a future event. We know that something will fall because we see it start to fall, and we know that gravity is pretty consistent here on Earth. The second way is how God sees the future. Thomas specifies that this knowledge of the future is not just knowing what must happen, or what will likely happen, but also what could have happened otherwise, “for God sees all things in His eternity, which, being simple, is present to all time, and embraces all time. And therefore God’s one glance is cast over all things which happen in all time as present before Him; and He beholds all things as they are in themselves.”
Now, Thomas says, look at the question of angels reading minds. An angel can know someone’s thoughts by the effects worked by the man’s actions. That’s not surprising; it is, after all, how we know what someone is thinking. However, angels and men cannot know the inner thoughts of someone unless the person reveals them (and thus it because an example of the first way of knowing someone’s thoughts). Thomas’ reason for arguing thus is that rational creatures (men and angels) are subject to God, and God, above men and angels as their Creator, knows their inner workings, knows their will, and thereby knows their inner thoughts.
As far knowing the name of your guardian angel, the answer is likewise clear. The traditional response is that you should NOT ask your angel its name, NOR should you give him a name. The reason, as with many things in the spiritual and moral life, is an issue of authority. We give nicknames to our friends and name our pets and children because we are equal to our friends and superior to our pets and children. That said, we are NOT superior to the angels. They are above us in being, as they are immaterial beings with perfectly unchanging intellects and will. It is not our place to give names to things superior to us (which is why it is not a good idea to start calling college professors by their nickname to their face, unless you have their permission).
Think back to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob asks the name of the angel, but gets a curt response: “Why should you want to know my name?” If you know the name of someone, in a sense you control that person; you can call upon them and they answer you. The angel’s name was none of Jacob’s business.
We do know the names of three angels, the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, because God revealed their names in Scriptures, and their names are thus a part of Divine Revelation. We can call upon those archangels by name, and they will help us. Scripture gives the names of no other angels, and we are not encouraged to speculate about such things.
If meditations on such matters by the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas are not enough, we can see a more recent reflection by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (promulgated in 2001), the Congregation writes the following, concerning the naming of guardian angels:
Popular devotion to the Holy Angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations. . . The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture. (217)
Do angels have names? Yes, but it is not for us to know them. Perhaps, in Heaven, God will reveal to us our angel’s name, just as we will see our whole life’s story, seeing every moment where our heavenly helper and guide kept us on the path to Him who is Lord of us and of the Angels.
For Further Reading
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I. 50-64 (especially 57, a4-and a5)
Peter Kreeft, Angels (and Demons): What Do We Really Know About Them (Ignatius Press, 1995)
Mike Aquilina, Angels of God: The Bible, the Church, and the Heavenly Hosts (Servant, 2009)
Jean Danielou, The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church (first published in 1957)