I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible. — the Nicene Creed, emphasis mine
Each time we pray the Creed at Mass, we acknowledge—in fact, we profess our sincere belief—that there is more to this world than meets the eye. We believe in saints and angels, heaven and hell, the devil and his minions. We believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Holy Eucharist. We believe in the power of prayer and redemptive suffering.
Practicing Catholics proclaim this belief in the invisible world and spiritual realities at least once a week. But do we live daily as if we believe heaven is for real?
I struggle in this regard for at least two reasons. The first is that I am very much an embodied spirit. I am still caught in the flesh and still gravitate toward those things I can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste. Our church’s love of the liturgy—candles and incense, icons and stained glass, organ and choir, wheat bread and red wine—help to ground me in the Mass, lest my fleshy self get lost in the ether. Like Thomas, I prefer to see.
“I do believe, help my unbelief!” — Mark 9:24
The second is that, as much as I long to know God and to be in communion with Him, it is frightening to touch the eternal. We take comfort in the familiar, and no matter what words or metaphors we use to explain or understand the Almighty (Father, Creator, Son, Redeemer, Spirit, Sanctifier…), in reality He is altogether unfamiliar. Why? Because He encompasses not only the tiny corner of the universe that we comprehend, but the vast reaches of space and time we know nothing about—and then He transcends even that! So each time I feel as though I’m getting closer to God in His fullness, I shrink back a little, afraid to explode the world I know and (at times) love.
But I’m working on that.
Our parish has a wonderful prayer ministry, in which believers can come to the church to be prayed over by specially chosen and formed lay people who have gifts of intercession and manifest other fruits of the Spirit in their lives. I have been prayed over twice now, and each time, the name of St. Pio of Pietrelcina—Padre Pio—has come up. In the past several months I have also been drawn to St. Gemma Galgani, a young woman I knew nothing about but whose face is so strikingly beautiful and serene that (as when I met my bride) I knew I wanted whatever it was she had.
Both of these saints had profoundly intimate relationships with Jesus, Mary, and their guardian angels, relating to all three daily on a personal level and asking their intercession and aid for those in need and for themselves. St. Gemma, it is said, asked her guardian angel to deliver letters for her to her spiritual director, who traveled extensively and who later wrote that he did not understand how the letters arrived, unstamped, wherever he happened to be. St. Pio said that his angel helped him to understand the confessions of pilgrims who came to him speaking languages he did not know and that others’ angels would bring their intentions and needs to him so that he could pray for them.
Both saints were devoted to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and to our Blessed Mother. Both bore the stigmata, the visible and mystical wounds of Christ, and suffered greatly out of love for the Lord. And just this morning I learned that St. Pio also had a strong devotion to St. Gemma, who, though she was only nine years older than Pio, died at age 25 and was well-known for her sanctity during his lifetime.
This morning, I read Meditation 10 from the book Praying with Padre Pio, entitled “Holy Angels Smile at Us,” then opened the morning readings to the Old Testament account of Jacob wrestling the angel.
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.” — Genesis 32:29
Our modern minds may scoff at the notion of guardian angels, mystical experiences, and invisible realities, but many of our forebearers in faith had no such doubts. They experienced these realities and benefited from divine assistance firsthand. Let us grapple like Jacob with the spiritual world, and God willing, we will come to do the same.