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Gabrielle Burton Headshot

Angels I Have Heard on High

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Every so often I discover I'm still comfortably carrying a little backpack of my Catholic baggage. Right now, during the holiday season, just like every shopping mall, it's filled with angels.

That I find the multitude of angels around me -- on evergreens, in stores and song -- deeply appealing shouldn't be surprising. I was named after one of the grandest of angels, an archangel at that: Gabriel, the bringer of glad tidings. I was also taught I had my own special guardian angel. Everyone got one at birth: one baby, one guardian angel given only to her or him. What a comforting notion for a child to have her own personal security detail.

I don't know how much you know about angels. A few years ago they were a fad, the unicorn of the 90s, but I'm not talking about those saccharine New Age angels. I knew angels when. In case you ever wondered, there are nine choirs. I used to recite them -- angels, archangels, virtues, dominions, powers, principalities, thrones, cherubim and seraphim -- along with the capitals of each state. My parochial grade school may not have had a science lab but by God we knew our choirs, our seven deadly sins, our times tables and that Montpelier was the capital of Vermont. (That's a cinch, give me South Dakota, give me Idaho).

Although each choir had its own special powers, status, dignity and rank, archangels tended to get the most press. Most people have heard of Michael the Captain, Gabriel the Announcer (that's mine), Raphael the Healer and Lucifer. You always put Lucifer at the end because he's the Fallen One, but they say he was the greatest of the four, the most brilliant, the most shining, the biggest wingspan and so on -- that's why he took on God. And of course Lucifer isn't really a he because angels don't have gender, they're pure spirit. But like God the Father with his long beard, they're often automatically assigned masculine characteristics.

I was glad I was named after an archangel but, in my book, the nameless guardian angels were the Marine Corps of angels, the elite, Semper Fi. They protected and shielded you, kept you from falling off cliffs. I loved the picture on my classroom wall: the girl and boy walking over a wooden bridge, blithely unaware that only steps away waited the missing plank, the whirlpool raging below, and behind them, the guardian angel at the ready to swoop them up in the nick of time.

Guardian angels were dedicated workers, but they weren't sweet little putti sitting on your shoulder. They might guide you to the good and defend you from evil but your cooperation and effort were required. You had to work with them, careful they didn't butt you in the head with those tremendous wings.

In this season of good will, whether you wish others Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, let me add another wish for religious and non-religious child and grown-up alike: May you walk lightly, blithely, safely to wherever you're going, someone watching over you, having your back.