Guardian: Michael the Archangel above the entrance of Ascension Church in Oak Park

In my early school years, encouraged by the nuns who taught me, I’d often sit in my desk chair slightly off-center to make room for my guardian angel. Each child, we were taught, had an angel assigned by a senior spirit to protect and guide him or her on the journey to Heaven.

One had the option of naming one’s angel. I didn’t do so. But I did appreciate “him” (angels are not of a particular gender): I’d thank him for being there, and would ask him occasionally for advice, like how to deal with a difficult kid, how to make a tough choice, or what to tell Mom and Dad about something I’d done wrong.

In a neighborhood like ours in Berwyn, one couldn’t forget about angels, saints, the Blessed Virgin, or Jesus very easily, what with 1,000 kids from the surrounding blocks enrolled in St. Mary of Celle’s school. In my early grades, each day began at morning Mass. And beyond the school, just about everyone I knew was Catholic, including the barber, the butcher, the florist, and corner grocers. They took out ads in the church bulletin. The neighborhood oozed Catholicism.

The pervasive presence of Catholicism cultivated a palpable sense throughout the day of being immersed in a spiritual milieu. Daily prayer in school and at home would reinforce it. We acknowledged it in how we said hello to superiors: greeting a priest or sister entering the classroom, “Praise be to Jesus and to Mary, good morning, Father Bob (or Sister Mary Inocencia).” Furthermore, Catholicity wasn’t confined to church, school or home: I remember getting into a debate in the alley with a couple of kids about whether something we had done was a sin.

So the idea that a particular angel had my back didn’t play as odd, especially in the early grades. I let go of the concept somewhat as I got older, but angels still mattered to me. In fifth grade, I chose Michael as my Confirmation name out of reverence for the Archangel. As I saw it, who better to have my back; he’d slay the demons that were in the way of my doing in the world what God called me to do.

But now, in a world in which the Church is shrinking, and secularism tends to prevail in our neighborhoods, how do I relate to those spiritual beings? And if there is a different, undefined kind of spiritual climate that has emerged around us, what helps us make sense of it?

In our more secular culture, we’re in fact awash in myths, but they’re more likely propagated through games, movies and TV shows. They portray all kinds of magical creatures protecting our neighborhoods, fending off evil, and guarding innocents. Some gaming platforms allow us to create numinous, heroic characters to play ourselves.

In today’s milieu, it’s Daredevil poised like an avenging angel, looking down on his broken neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, from a shadowy rooftop. It’s Batman swooping into a fractured Gotham City, with wings. It’s Ironman, Thor, and Superman who can fly.

Maybe there are angels around us, maybe not, but our souls sure seem stirred by the idea that there is another world intermingled with ours where powerful, noble and self-sacrificial figures do battle for us, however invisibly. We pay a lot of money at the theater, through online games and in front of our television screens to participate vicariously in these mythical events. And we carry the experience in mind and muscle, reliving battles well after logging off.

In a milieu that is more secular than Catholic, whose myths flow from the likes of Marvel and DC Comics, where do I now stand with the angels of my faith? For some time, Batman, a mysterious, tortured and complex figure, has been my favorite of the comic heroes. But what of Michael the Archangel or that unnamed guardian who shared my seat when I was a little boy?

Maybe what I sense now is that our broken neighborhoods and fractured world do indeed need the steadying presence and compassionate ferocity of the angels. But the urgency I feel, whether it’s stirred by Michael or Batman, might come from an inner voice saying that it’s also on me to protect and support those I care about. I might not know exactly where the angels are, but I can do a better job of being one myself — for my community and those I love.

Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn and now lives in Oak Park.

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