Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel 
and the Scales of Hesed

Saint Michael the Archangel is often depicted wielding a sword and a set 
of scales to vanquish Satan. His scales have an ancient and surprising 
meaning.

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.

St-Michael-2There’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).

St Michael 4

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.

St-Michael-6

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.

St-Michael-3

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.”

St-Michael-7

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. HELEN says:

    Fr. Gordon… You knock my socks off. This whole article was too short….I didn’t want it to stop. Could it be that sin abounds outside of Your walls, now, at a breath-taking rate? I NEEDED to absorb every word You are saying here. St. Michael seems to be increasingly busy, these days.

    By God’s grace, I pray to St. Michael every morning. But Your wonderful writing has boosted my faith.

    How very much I enjoy Your posts, Fr. Gordon.. BUT, I still look forward to reading them…when the title will be:
    ‘THOSE STONE WALLS’.

    God bless You… and make Your ‘hopefully shortened’ stay there brought swiftly to an end.

    May His grace abound upon You… and once again, thank You so very much for Your Christ-like love.

    Helen

  2. Mary Fran says:

    Another great post, Fr. Gordon. So many things to ponder. And what a coincidence (?) that I’m reading this on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. I’d read before that mercy is God’s greatest attribute, but I’d never considered that we are most like him when we are merciful.

    And all the new (to me) information about St. Michael. I never even knew what Michaelmas was all about even though I’ve run across it in many novels of the middle ages.

    We have a large wall in our living room dedicated to pictures of family, the ever expanding family wall. High above it (we have a cathedral ceiling there), is hanging a large painting of St. Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni that our son gave me for Christmas a few years ago. I look at it often and think about how he is protecting our family.

    I’m copying the prayer for justice and mercy. Thanks for posting it. Thanks to Pornchai for suggesting it. God’s best to both of you. Even when it doesn’t look like the best.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for another wonderful post. Where else may anyone get that
    type of information in such an ideal manner of writing?
    I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the look
    for such information.

  4. Chris Peralta says:

    Dearest Father,
    I have stumbled across your blog by accident but cannot express the encouragement it has given me since I have recently suffered injustice in my professional life. I know that St. Michael has guided me here to gain a more full understanding of what it is to stand in the light in the face of adversity. You are an example of strength. I will pray for truth and justice to prevail as a final.outcome. Please understand that you are God’s Instrument in providing strength to others who have been placed in prison unjustly.

    • Fr. Gordon says:

      Thank you very much for this comment, Chris. As a prisoner I have no online access at all, but your comment was read to me. St. Michael has become a great symbol of justice for me as well as an advocate in Heaven. I appreciate your words and I hope you will continue to read These Stone Walls and recommend it to others.
      With blessings,
      Fr. Gordon

  5. Terry Hahn says:

    Fr. MacRae:
    I just read your information from ICatholic and on your website, etc. I am speechless! Innocents are always caught up in every type of war–and that is what you are in. My prayers are with you. St. Michael the Archangel Defend us Battle..Be our Protection Against the Snares of the Devil……
    As difficult as it is, you are the Light of Christ shining in the darkness. The matches I give to you to keep the light shining are my prayers and sacrifices to help you along the way.
    Terry

  6. Father, Saint Michael is the patron of paramedics, and as such, holds a special place in my prayer intentions. I pray to him daily, in fact, several times each day. Your post gave me some new information about this great saint. I thank you for that.

    Father, I want you to know that I am having a Mass said for you at my FSSP parish in Vancouver. It generally takes about four months to be said, and I will try to let you know when it happens, so that you can unite yourself in prayer to this Mass.

  7. Kim says:

    In order to fight, and win against evil, one must call on Michael! If you have This warrior you can not fail!!! Our Blessed Mother never leaves Heaven without him what does that tell ya???

  8. Mary says:

    I don’t think it strange that so much of Saint Michael is reaching you-to me the Holy Spirit is reminding you that like Michael you are involved in a struggle of heroic proportions against the forces of evil and you are achieving great things even though at times you must feel disheartened and down.

    Like Michael you have taken up arms to fight for Truth and Justice and with the grace of God you shall conquer the darkness
    God Bless Father G

  9. Faith says:

    Relating to prisoners personalizing their belongings. I belong to a Lay Dominican Chapter in a prison (http://sites.google.com/site/ourladyofmercychapter/) and I love to look at my brothers’ prayer books. One of my cloistered brothers used an old tee shirt as a book cover. The book cover was tee shirt material. On the cover and the back, he had drawn with a pen, a Dominican Cross. It was eye catching.

    I also know well the prayer the Prayer for Justice and Mercy. I know it as a Prayer for those in Prison Ministry and it was used in an ecumenical prayer service for us in prison ministry. I actually pasted on the inside cover of my prayer book–to personalize it.

    Prayers will go up for you, tonight. God bless you.

  10. Sharon says:

    I copied and pasted the prayer and will be passing it onto some friends and saving it for use personally. Thank you for the article today, FAther Gordon, as well as the personal notes about pictures in prison and blocks. They remind me to not forget.

    Sharon

  11. Kelly says:

    As always, thank you for this informative and inspiring post. Thanks you for re-doing it! It was worth it.

    What a comfort it is to have Saint Michael watching over the world. Especially in the midst of our present time, in which the term “truth” is being trampled upon, and “religious” Christians openly mocked. We need the help of the angels in our daily struggles. Saint Michael, having been present throughout history, and being present now, affords us with the hope and strength we need to live faithfully in our time. We feel the continuity with the people of times past, and the assurance that there is “nothing new under the sun”–there is a kinship and comfort in that.

    When I go to pray outside abortion facilities I often picture a band of angels among us and over us, and ask for an impartation of courage for the women going inside, to confront the evil that is so prevalent and has darkened their minds and deceived them. The angels are beauty and strength–we so often forget about them.
    Thank you for this wonderful post and the images.

    Peace,
    Kelly

  12. Karin says:

    Dear Father,

    Your post has given so much more depth and meaning to this feast day of St Michael and the Archangels. Evil is all around us and so I thank God for His angels~my Guardian angel and St Michael and his protection.

    I did not know about the meaning of the scales he held. What a wonderful reminder that we are to be merciful as God is merciful with us.
    I always look forward to your Wednesday posts. My faith and knowledge are always increased by them.

    Continued prayers for you and all the men there.

  13. Dympna Kearns says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    Your articles – and courage- are so uplifting! We have some priests here in Ireland who also have been falsely accused and imprisoned.What a martyrdom! You are in our prayers. We pray that justice will be done. May God continue to bless and strengthen you.Thank you for your witness to the Truth.
    God Bless you.

    • justice says:

      I can only hope many will mend their ways soon enough, i understand your troubled thoughts of this world and i will always be here to listen. Fear not Justice will continue with her vengeance, harmony, and truth unto all.

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