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from The Catholic Encyclopedia





St. MichaelSaint Michael:
Warrior from Heaven

by Mary C. Earle

Portrait of St. Michael by Sally Markell

St. Michael the Archangel is no sweet cherub. He is traditionally known as the commander-in-chief of the heavenly host, a strong warrior and a presence who presides from on high.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find him in the Book of Daniel in chapters 10 and 12, where he is referred to as “the great prince, the protector of your people” (Dn. 12:1). In the Revelation to John, the last book of the New Testament, Michael figures prominently in the great war in heaven: “And war broke out in heaven, Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.” (Rev. 12:7)

Along with Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, Michael is one of the four archangels revered in Christian tradition. Traditionally Michael (whose name means “one who is like God”) is known as a divine messenger, a protector of the faithful, the angel who guides our souls upon death. Often depicted with sword in hand, subduing a dragon or with a snake beneath his feet, Michael represents divine strength and courage in the face of evil. He is the patron of the sick, a champion for those who are weak, a defender of the oppressed and the righteous. Soldiers, grocers, radiologists and police are among the many who claim Michael as their patron.

Michael has held a special place of honor and reverence in the Celtic Christian tradition. My husband and I discovered this some years ago when we made a pilgrimage to western Ireland. There we became aware of Michael as one who dwells in the midst of the wild energy of sea and wind at the ancient monastic site of Skellig Michael. In the midst of the turbulent currents off the southwest coast of Ireland, the tiny island of Skellig Michael juts up abruptly from the white sea-spray. Centuries ago, hardy monks devoted to Michael lived on that rocky wilderness, buffeted by gales. Living in their stone huts on this eerie crag of rock, the monks named their community after the great Archangel, perceiving in their life and in their vocation a call to dwell in the wild forces of God’s creation, on that old eternal rock, learning to love each other and God through prayer and work.

In the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, various high places are dedicated to St. Michael—Mont St. Michel off the northwest coast of France, for example. On the Isle of Skye, off the northwest coast of Scotland, Michael was honored on September 29 with “St. Michael’s bannock,” a kind of bread made with the grain from the harvest. Cakes and other foods were brought to the church and blessed, then distributed to the poor. In this way the congregants participated in Michael’s own protection of Christ’s cherished poor and sick.

The feast was also marked by racing, and by the “appropriating” of horses for the day. (If you did not have a horse, and you wanted to race, it was permitted on this day for a man or a woman to “borrow” a neighbor’s horse for the racing.) The race was accomplished without bridles or saddles, in imitation of the depictions of Michael riding bare-back without a bridle. Among the people of the Hebrides, Michael represented risk- taking energy, offered on behalf of others. He was invoked on journeys, on pilgrimage, and during the process of dying.

The prayers from the Hebridean tradition invoke Michael’s protecting presence:

O Michael of the angels
And the righteous in heaven,
Shield thou my soul
With the shade of thy wing;
Shield thou my soul
On earth and in heaven;
From foes upon earth,
From foes beneath earth,
From foes in concealment.
Protect and encircle
My soul ‘neath thy wing,
Oh my soul with the shade of thy wing.

(Carmina Gadelica III, 149)

Among the Celtic peoples there was a clear awareness that, even though creation is good and comes from God’s own goodness, evil is in the world. They understood the patristic teaching that God’s gracious gift of freedom, which always allows us the room to choose life or to choose death, brings with it the risk of our choosing evil. Archangel Michael was invoked as a defender of body and soul from forces within and without. Michael and the host of heaven were called upon in the face of “spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” and “the evil powers of this world.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302)

As an angel of God, Michael rides the winds of God’s creative goodness, serving the living Christ, the Word through whom all comes to be. Michael accompanies us in the twists of life’s journey and the passage of death, sometimes known in the Celtic tradition as “the river hard to see”. He is with us at the beginning, with us at the end:

Thou chief of chiefs,
Thou chief of the needy,
Be with us in the journey
And in the gleam of the river;
Be with us in the journey
And in the gleam of the river.

(Carmina Gadelica III, 145)

©2006 Mary C. Earle

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