I worked for days on a post about Saint Michael the Archangel. I finally finished it this morning, exactly one week before the Feast of the Archangels, then rushed off to work in the prison library. When I returned four hours later to print the post and get it into the mail to Charlene, my friend Joseph stopped by. You might remember Joseph from a few of my posts, notably “Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night” in Advent and “Forty Days and Forty Nights” in Lent.
Well, you can predict where this is going. As soon as I returned to my cell, Joseph came in to talk with me. Just as I turned on my typewriter, Joseph reached over and touched it. He wasn’t aware of the problem with static charges from walking across these concrete floors. Joseph’s unintentional spark wiped out four days of work and eight pages of text.
It’s not the first time this has happened. I wrote about it in “Descent into Lent” last year, only then I responded with an explosion of expletives. Not so this time. As much as I wanted to swear, thump my chest, and make Joseph feel just awful, I couldn’t. Not after all my research on the meaning of the scales of Saint Michael the Archangel. They very much impact the way I look at Joseph in this moment. Of course, for the 30 seconds or so after it happened, it’s just as well that he wasn’t standing within reach!
This world of concrete and steel in which we prisoners live is very plain, but far from simple. It’s a world almost entirely devoid of what Saint Michael the Archangel brings to the equation between God and us. It’s also a world devoid of evidence of self-expression. Prisoners eat the same food, wear the same uniforms, and live in cells that all look alike.
OFF THE WALL, AND ON
In these cells, the concrete walls and ceilings are white – or were at one time – the concrete floors are gray, and the concrete counter running halfway along one wall is dark green. On a section of wall for each prisoner is a two-by-four foot green rectangle for posting family photos, a calendar and religious items. The wall contains the sole evidence of self-expression in prison, and you can learn a lot about a person from what’s posted there.
My friend, Pornchai, whose section of wall is next to mine, had just a blank wall two years ago. Today, not a square inch of green shows through his artifacts of hope. There are photos of Joe and Karen Corvino, the foster parents whose patience impacted his life, and Charlene Duline and Pierre Matthews, his new Godparents. There’s also an old photo of the home in Thailand from which he was taken at age 11, photos of some of the ships described in “Come, Sail Away!” now at anchor in new homes. There’s also a rhinoceros – no clue why – and Garfield the Cat. In between are beautiful icons of the Blessed Mother, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Saint Pio, and one of Saint Michael the Archangel that somehow migrated from my wall over to Pornchai’s.
My own wall evolved over time. The only family photos I had are long lost, and I haven’t seen my family in many years. It happens to just about every prisoner after ten years or so. In my first twelve years in prison I was moved sixteen times, and each time I had to quickly take my family photos off the wall. Like many prisoners here for a long, long time, there came a day when I took my memories down to move, then just didn’t put them back up again. A year ago, I had nothing on the wall, then a strange transformation of that small space began to take shape.
When These Stone Walls – the blog, not the concrete ones – began last year, some readers started sending me beautiful icons and holy cards. The prison allows them in mail as long as they’re not laminated in plastic. Some made their way onto my wall, and slowly over the last year it filled with color and meaning again.
It’s a mystery why, but the most frequent image sent to me by TSW readers is that of Saint Michael the Archangel. There are five distinct icons of him on the wall, plus the one that seems to prefer Pornchai’s side. These stone walls – the concrete ones, not the blog – are filled with companions now.
There’s another icon of Saint Michael on my coffee cup – the only other place prisoners always leave their mark – and yet another inside and above the cell door. That one was placed there by my friend, Alberto Ramos, who went to prison at age 14 and turned 30 last week. It appeared a few months ago. Alberto’s religious roots are in Caribbean Santeria. He said Saint Michael above the door protects this cell from evil. He said this world and this prison greatly need Saint Michael.
WHO IS LIKE GOD?
The references to the Archangel Michael are few and cryptic in the canon of Hebrew and Christian Scripture. In the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel, he is Michael, your Prince, ”who stands beside the sons of your people.” In Daniel 12:1 he is the guardian and protector angel of Israel and its people, and the “Great Prince” in Heaven who came to the aid of the Archangel Gabriel in his contest with the Angel of Persia (Daniel 10:13, 21).
His name in Hebrew – Mikha’el – means “Who is like God?” It’s posed as a question that answers itself. No one, of course, is like God. A subsidiary meaning is, “Who bears the image of God,” and in this Michael is the archetype in Heaven of what man himself was created to be: the image and likeness of God. Some other depictions of the Archangel Michael show him with a shield bearing the image of Christ. In this sense, Michael is a personification, as we’ll see below, of the principle attribute of God throughout Scripture.
Outside of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision, the Archangel Michael appears only two more times in the canon of Sacred Scripture. In Revelation 12:7-9 he leads the army of God in a great and final battle against the army of Satan. A very curious mention in the Epistle of Saint Jude (Jude 1:9) describes Saint Michael’s dispute with Satan over the body of Moses.
This is a direct reference to an account in the Apocrypha, and demonstrates the importance and familiarity of some of the apocryphal writings in the Israelite and early Christian communities. Saint Jude writes of the account as though it is quite familiar to his readers. In the Assumption of Moses in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, Michael prevails over Satan, wins the body of Moses, and accompanies him into Heaven.
It is because of this account that Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew 11. Moses and Elijah are the two figures in the Hebrew Scriptures to hear the voice of God on Mount Sinai, and to be assumed bodily into Heaven – escorted by Saint Michael the Archangel according to the Aggadah, the collection of milennia of rabbinic lore and custom.
SAINT MICHAEL AS THE DIVINE MEASURE OF SOULS
In each of the seven images of Saint Michael the Archangel sent to me by TSW readers, he is depicted brandishing a sword in triumph over Satan subdued at his feet. In five of the icons, he also holds a set of scales above the head of Satan. A lot of people confuse the scales with those of “Lady Justice” the famous American icon. Those scales symbolize the equal application of law and justice in America. It’s a high ideal, but one that too often isn’t met in the American justice system. I cited some examples in “The Eighth Commandment.”
The scales of Saint Michael also depict justice, but of another sort. Presumably that’s why so many readers sent me his image, and I much appreciate it. However, some research uncovered a far deeper symbolic meaning for the Archangel’s scales. The primary purpose of the scales is not to measure justice, but to weigh souls. And there’s a specific factor that registers on Saint Michael’s scales. They depict his role as the measure of mercy, the highest attribute of God for which Saint Michael is the personification. The capacity for mercy is what it most means to be in the image and likeness of God. The primary role of Saint Michael the Archangel is to be the advocate of justice and mercy in perfect balance – for justice without mercy is little more than vengeance.
That’s why God limits vengeance as summary justice. In Genesis chapter 4, Lamech, a descendant of Cain, vows that “if Cain is avenged seven-fold then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven fold.” Jesus later corrects this misconception of justice by instructing Peter to forgive “seventy times seven times.”
Our English word, “Mercy” doesn’t actually capture the full meaning of what is intended in the Hebrew Scriptures as the other side of the justice equation. The word in Hebrew is ”hesed,” and it has multiple tiers of meaning. It was translated into New Testament Greek as “eleos,” and then translated into Latin as “misericordia” from which we derive the English word, “mercy.” Saint Michael’s scales measure ”hesed,” which in its most basic sense means to act with altruism for the good of another without anything of obvious value in return. It’s the exercise of mercy for its own sake, a mercy that is the highest value of Judeo-Christian faith.
Sacred Scripture is filled with examples of hesed as the chief attribute of God and what it means to be in His image. That ”the mercy of God endures forever” is the central and repeated message of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The references are too many to name, but as I was writing this post, I spontaneously thought of a few lines from Psalm 85:
“Mercy and faithfulness shall meet. Justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring up from the Earth, and justice shall look down from Heaven.” (Psalm 85:10-11).
The domino effect of hesed-mercy is demonstrated in Psalm 85. Faithfulness and truth will arise out of it, and together all three will comprise justice. In researching this, I found a single, ancient rabbinic reference attributing authorship of Psalm 85 to the only non-human instrument of any Psalm or verse of Scripture: Saint Michael the Archangel, himself. According to that legend, Psalm 85 was given by the Archangel along with the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Saint Thomas Aquinas described Saint Michael as “the breath of the Redeemer’s spirit who will, at the end of the world, combat and destroy the Anti-Christ as he did Lucifer in the beginning.” This is why St. Michael is sometimes depicted bearing a shield with the image of Christ. It is the image of Christ in His passion, imprinted upon the veil of St. Veronica. Veronica is a name that appears no where in Scripture, but is simply a name assigned by tradition to the unnamed woman with the veil. The name Veronica comes from the Latin “vera icon” meaning “true image.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas and many Doctors of the Church regarded Saint Michael as the angel of Exodus who, as a pillar of cloud and fire, led Israel out of slavery. Christian tradition gives to Saint Michael four offices: To fight against Satan, to measure and rescue the souls of the just at the hour of death, to attend the dying and accompany the just to judgment, and to be the Champion and Protector of the Church.
His feast day, assigned since 1970 to the three Archangels of Scripture, was originally assigned to Saint Michael alone since the sixth century dedication of a church in Rome in his honor. The feast was originally called Michaelmas meaning, “The Mass of St. Michael.” The great prayer to Saint Michael, however, is relatively new. It was penned on October 13, 1884, by Pope Leo XIII after a terrifying vision of Saint Michael’s battle with Satan:
“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, 0 Prince of the heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”
It’s an important prayer for the Church, especially now. I asked Suzanne to place a permanent image of Saint Michael on These Stone Walls as well. I know the enemies of the Church lurk here, too. There are some who come here not for understanding, or the truth, but for ammunition. For them the very concept of mercy, forgiveness, and inner healing is anathema to their true cause. I once scoffed at the notion that evil surrounds us, but I have seen it. I think every person falsely accused has seen it.
Donald Spinner, mentioned in “Loose Ends and Dangling Participles,” gave Pornchai a prayer that was published by the prison ministry of the Paulist Catholic Evangelization Association (www.pncea.org). Pornchai asked me to mention it in this post. It’s a prayer that perfectly captures the meaning of Saint Michael the Archangel’s Scales of Hesed:
Prayer for Justice and Mercy
“Jesus, united with the Father and the Holy Spirit, give us your compassion for those in prison. Mend in mercy the broken in mind and memory. Soften the hard of heart, the captives of anger. Free the innocent; parole the trustworthy. Awaken the repentance that restores hope. May prisoners’ families persevere in their love. Jesus, heal the victims of crime; they live with the scars. Lift to eternal peace those who die. Grant victims and their families the forgiveness that heals. Give wisdom to lawmakers and those who judge. Instill prudence and patience in those who guard. Make those in prison ministry bearers of your light, for ALL of us are in need of your mercy! Amen.”