October 2nd, Feast of the Guardian Angels
For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways (Psalm 90:11)
“From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.” (CCC 336)
A plethora of questions may well be asked about guardian angels. We have attempted to discuss some of these in a previous article [here].
However, we did neglect to answer one question which is probably most common: Can my guardian angel (or any angel, for that matter) know the secret thoughts of my soul? Does my angel know everything I am thinking? Co-relatively, Does Satan or any of the demons know all that passes within my soul?
Our answer will be derived mostly from the Angelic Thomas, Summa Theologica I, q.57 [here] and q.111 [here].
How do angels know what happens on earth?
All that angels know they know not through sense experience, but through intelligible species infused upon their souls. This is the natural mode of knowing, which perfectly accords with the powers of their soul.
When a man is lead to know in this manner, it usually results in an ecstasy whereby his senses are suspended and the mysteries of the faith are infused upon his soul in a most marvelous manner. In the highest form, these revelations are not even visions (properly so-called) for they have no place in the imagination and therefore do not use any images, but they are purely intellectual. Such intellectual “visions” greatly shocked even the greatest mystics, like St. Teresa of Avila.
However, this is the natural mode of angelic knowledge. Their knowledge is deeply interior, and highly intellectual (rather than relying on images presented through the imagination).
Do angels know the future?
Contrary to popular belief, angels do not know the future. At least, they are not able to know the future in any way essential greater than that by which any man may “know” the future.
Indeed, the future may be known in two ways: Either by projection from the present causes, or in itself. Now, both angels and men can know the future from a consideration of present causes. Indeed, if a necessary cause (a cause which will necessarily bring about a certain effect, that is) is known, then the future will be known with certainty. However, most things relating to the future are not necessary, and thus the angels can only make some projection and estimation about what the future will hold.
Indeed, the angels know things in a much higher and more intellectual way than do men, and they are far more intelligent than men, therefore they can make a much better prediction about the future than can men. However, they do not know the future in itself, nor do they “see” the future, but they are only able to make certain judgments about the future from those present realities which they know.
God alone knows the future in itself, for he alone is outside of all time and motion. He alone is the universal and primary cause of all – thus, he knows the future not only as “seeing” it, but as its cause. Because there can be only one first cause and first mover (himself uncaused and unmoved), God alone can know the future perfectly and in itself.
Do angels know what is in my imagination?
Angels most certainly are able to know what passes in the imagination of man. The imagination is not the same as the mind itself. In fact, if we consider that our soul is like a certain “interior castle” we may say that the imagination is on the very edge of the castle, while the intellect is nearest to the center. Thus, the imagination is much more easily known than are the intellectual thoughts of man.
As the imagination is highly sensitive (relying upon the exterior senses of the body) and not so purely intellectual, it is much more open to the influence of the angels. As an angel can move a physical body, so too he can know many of the images and words that pass through our imagination. In fact, the angels can cause certain images and words to come forward in our imagination – calling to mind certain memories, and even re-presenting the sensations previously felt.
Thus it is that St. Teresa of Avila often warns that many imaginative visions (and also locutions) could perhaps be the work not of God, but of the devil. Indeed, she tells us that Satan can make us imagine all sorts of things during our prayer – notably, he can make us imagine that we have a great love of God, but the only proof of this love is if we live charitably in the concrete circumstances of our vocation.
Because the imagination and all that passes through the imagination is so tied to the corporal sense of the body, your guardian angel can know (and, indeed, probably does know) what “pictures” and “sounds” are passing in your soul at any given moment.
Do angels know my secret thoughts?
That being said, we recall that the intellect is distinct from the imagination. While an image of Christ Crucified is present to the imagination, the intellect may be thinking various and diverse things – one many thinks, “Behold, my God who loves me so!”, while another thinks, “He should have saved himself!”, or another does not recognize what the image means for he has never been instructed in the Gospel.
Hence, while the angels (both the guardians and even the evil spirits, insofar as God permits) are able to know the human imagination, it does not follow that they know the intellect or the secret thoughts of the soul.
Here, we will give the concise answer of the Angelic Doctor (ST I, q.57, a.4 [here]):
A secret thought can be known in two ways: first, in its effect. In this way it can be known not only by an angel, but also by man; and with so much the greater subtlety according as the effect is the more hidden. For thought is sometimes discovered not merely by outward act, but also by change of countenance; and doctors can tell some passions of the soul by the mere pulse. Much more then can angels, or even demons, the more deeply they penetrate those occult bodily modifications. Hence Augustine says (De divin. daemon.) that demons "sometimes with the greatest faculty learn man's dispositions, not only when expressed by speech, but even when conceived in thought, when the soul expresses them by certain signs in the body"; although (Retract. ii, 30) he says "it cannot be asserted how this is done."
In another way thoughts can be known as they are in the mind, and affections as they are in the will: and thus God alone can know the thoughts of hearts and affections of wills. The reason of this is, because the rational creature is subject to God only, and He alone can work in it Who is its principal object and last end: this will be developed later (63, 1; 105, 5). Consequently all that is in the will, and all things that depend only on the will, are known to God alone. Now it is evident that it depends entirely on the will for anyone actually to consider anything; because a man who has a habit of knowledge, or any intelligible species, uses them at will. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 2:11): "For what man knoweth the things of a man, but the spirit of a man that is in him?"
Do angels hear men’s prayers?
Just like all the saints, angel guardians most certainly hear all those prayers which are offer to them with love and devotion. Whether spoken audibly, or only interiorly thought, God knows them and he will always grant that the angel will know them too.
[And, in case anyone is wondering: No, you should not attempt to name your guardian angel! (here)]
Angels of God, our dear Guardians, Pray for us!