When asked by Baylor University whether they'd ever been protected by a guardian angel, 55 percent of respondents said yes.
"I'd have guessed 15 percent instead of 55," said sociologist Rodney Stark, who codirects Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. "This is the taboo subject in American religion. No one studies it, but there is a lot of it out there."
There is a lot of it out there, and I think the reason is fairly straightforward.
Angels are impossible to miss in the scripture and tradition of the Christian church, something driven home for me after spending over a year researching my book, Lifted By Angels: The Presence and Power of Our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, which focuses on what the early church thought and believed about these celestial beings.
One of the things they believed is that everyone has a guardian angel.
"This is a truth," says John Chrysostom, as one example, "that each man has an angel." And in his book On the Holy Spirit, Basil the Great likewise speaks of angels being "tutors and teachers arranged for men" and "those...entrusted with the care of souls."
The scriptural basis for such considerations come from passages like that in Genesis 48 when Jacob credits his angel for keeping him from evil, or Matthew 18 when Jesus speaks of the guardian angels that watch over children.
From these and many other passages, the early Christians held that guardian angels are present in our lives and attend to our needs, encouraging us, praying for us, protecting us, even implanting godly thoughts in our hearts and minds.
The early second-century book The Shepherd of Hermas, for instance, speaks of "the angel of righteousness" who provokes in our hearts thoughts of "righteousness, purity, reverence, contentment, every upright deed, and every glorious virtue."
Another theologian of the early church, Clement of Alexandria, dwells on this a bit in his Miscellanies.
"[T]he thoughts of virtuous men are produced through the inspiration of God," he says, adding that "particular divine ministers" contribute to "the divine will being conveyed to human souls." These particular divine ministers are the angels, some of whom are assigned to nations and cities, and others who are "assigned to individuals."
These angels encourage us as we grow in knowledge and incline our minds and hearts ever closer to divine understanding and wisdom. "For by angels," he added, "the divine power bestows good things."
Likewise, in his fourth Oration Gregory Thaumaturgus speaks of "those beings who are not seen, but yet are more godlike [than people], and who have a special care for men."
About his own guardian angel, Gregory says that he was "allotted to [the angel] from my boyhood to rule, and rear, and train." This celestial teacher, given by God, "fed me from my youth," he says, and "still at this present time sustains, and instructs, and conducts me."
Beyond conducting us through our life's journey, angels are employed by God to orchestrate certain events along that journey. We experience nothing by chance, and Isaac the Syrian says in his Ascetical Homilies that our guardian angels actually take part in managing the so-called "accidental occurrences" of our lives.
God intends trials and testing as tools for teaching and training, and angels participate in his plans for us. "There is a guardian with each one of us, whose notice nothing escapes and who never weakens. But all occurrences are very carefully managed by this appointed guardian," says Isaac.
Imagine this as training with guardian angels serving as coaches, helping us get through the moment, urging us on, praying for us, even arranging the circumstances for our victory if we respond as God desires. If we seek to fulfill God's will, says Isaac, we will "have the angels of heaven as [our] guide."
The angelic-human relationship is deeper than coach or guide.
In his book The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa speaks of a filial fellowship. "[T]he angel does share a kinship with the soul in its intellectual and incorporeal aspects," he says. "He is rightly perceived as being older, since the angelic and incorporeal nature was created before our nature, but he is clearly a brother by virtue of his intellectual nature to ours."
This kinship is in some sense very close. When the apostle Peter, feared dead, showed up at the house of friends knocking on the door, they insisted the voice outside couldn't be Peter's. It had to be his angel's. The passage demonstrates not only the belief that people had particular angels assigned to them, but that angels share a certain symmetry and likeness with their charges.
With such a kinship, we shouldn't think the assignment of guardian angels would be random or willy-nilly. Rather, Gregory Thaumaturgus suggests that angels are assigned by a "momentous decision." We are paired with an angel individually suited to our personal pursuit of salvation.
"[W]e are not to imagine that [the angels] obtained these offices otherwise than by their own [individual] merits," remarks Origen, "and by the zeal and excellent qualities which they severally demonstrated."
Origen's speculation makes perfectly good sense. Angels are individuals and bear individual names. Angels, furthermore, have social structure and hierarchy, according to the scriptural witness. All of these are facts that testify to their differences and variances in position, place, and even person. Origen's point is simply that God uses this diversity to our advantage-a sort of heavenly division of labor.
Each angel is paired with his charge, says Origen, "agreeably to the merits and good qualities and mental vigor of each individual spirit."
The reason we think we have guardian angels is because we always have thought so. The tradition reaches back into the furthest memory of the Church and is informed by countless people who testify from revelation and sometimes direct experience that guardian angels are real and present in lives of God's people.