Few Americans, or even Californians, know the origin of the name of the City of the Angels. Of San Francisco, perhaps, but not of L.A. In case even some of the erudite readers of this Blog share that excusable ignorance, permit a former Friar to tell you that Spanish Franciscan missionaries founded their missions all along the Camino Real, and gave them Saints’ names, beginning with that of their founder, Francis of Assisi. Santa Maria degli Angeli, the famous church in the Poverello’s home town, provided the Spanish “Los Angeles”.
No one – even in the Church – talks much today about Angels, become almost … lost angels. They used to be a popular feature of daily prayers and litanies, and are still referred to in certain rites, notably funerals. They have gone out of fashion, though we still have them at Christmas singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. They have recently made a remarkable comeback, in a most unexpected form, quite different from the effeminate, winged, long-robed, pasty-faced figures we admired on holy cards (ask your grandfather what they were) and as statues in the parish church and cemeteries.
Hollywood’s recent peplum, “Noah”, stars our own Russell Crowe and the weirdest Angels you ever saw. When people think of Noah, they think of an Ark, not Angels. The film broke new ground in featuring a bunch of extraordinary Angels called “Watchers”, giant, grotesque creatures made of rocks which you might expect in a movie like “Godzilla”. They are described as “fallen angels”, but seem to be good guys, ready to help Noah build his boat and floating zoo with the wood provided by a forest which suddenly appears in the barren landscape out of nowhere (God’s on Noah’s side). There is no reference to the apocryphal Book of Enoch where these Watchers are mentioned. They are, of course, unknown in the canonical biblical narrative.
Why am I talking about these incredible, fictional, gigantic fallen angels which only a computer could bring to life on the screen ? Because the Angels of traditional Catholic piety are just as incredible, fictional and unreal as their cinematic cousins. It is astounding that anyone, including me, ever recited the “Angelus” as church-bells, like the Muslim call to prayer, rang out over Christendom every midday, repeating the Gospel text of the Archangel Gabriel’s “Annunciation” to Mary, the future virginal Mother of the Son of God. It blows my mind to realize that I once believed I had a personal Guardian Angel, to whom, as a primary school child, I prayed every morning :
“Angel of God, my Guardian dear, To whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side, Hop on my bike and off we ride.”
I think I got the last line wrong.