The contemporary fascination with angels is everywhere, like an explosion of St. Valentine's day cherubs in the world of supermarket kitsch. Guardian angels hold a particular interest for many people - often the folks who would describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious". An intense affection for spiritual guardians seems to be incongruent with a general lack of interest in the Church these guardians were sent to serve.
What's behind all this? It is worth noting that the increased focus on angels has happened at the same time as the drop in interest in the labours of personal devotion, such as going to services, saying prayers, and tithing. An interest in angels conveniently wraps together vague spirituality with a trip to the shopping mall, and can usually be purchased for under twenty dollars. Church is more expensive, prayer takes more time, and - perhaps most importantly - neither Church nor prayer have the flexibility of believing or doing whatever one wants.
Pop culture angelology is thoroughly flexible. It can range from sentimental feelings attached to cherub ornaments and coffee table books, to New Age rituals designed to get in touch with spiritual forces. In all cases, pop culture angelology is entirely self-defined: the best authority for spiritual truth is the individual, who seeks spiritual contact for various reasons, all of them to satisfy personal interests, affections, or curiosities.
The great saints of the Church present numerous examples of encounters with real angels, which bear a consistent witness that contrasts radically with pop culture angels. In almost every case, true guardian angels (those assigned at Christian baptism, not at birth) serve as invisible protectors, rarely being revealed to human beings, even saints. Those angels who are revealed are almost always fallen angels - i.e. demons - who while still bearing the qualities of an angelic being, have as their express purpose to deceive those to whom they appear. In almost all cases, they appear as scripture tells us, as angels of light (2 Cor 11:14) - which is usually just the thing their witnesses are dying to see.
It is the fathers and mothers of the Christian desert - that is, the monastics - who present to us the authentic image of angels in the Orthodox Christian faith. These "angels in the flesh" live on the food of paradise (perpetual fasting), and devote themselves to constant prayer, just as the heavenly angels spend their days before the Throne of the Lord. The monastic angels live in obedience to a superior, never as free agents, since this kind of false "freedom" is exactly the thing that turned the heavenly angels into the fallen angels. These monastics also reject the idea of spiritual experiences or feelings as something that one should seek out, the way one seeks out a good bargain at a clothing store or an article of juicy gossip at the checkout aisle, Rather, these angels in the flesh live their lives in repentance for their sins, knowing that this act of repentance is the only truly spiritual experience most of us ever see, outside the Holy Mysteries. The fullness of the encounter with God comes not in carnal feelings, but in the Kingdom of Heaven, if we are vouchsafed to enter it.
Pop Culture angels are easy, cheap, appealing, and easy to find; this is the life of the fallen angels. The truly angelic life - the life of the heavenly angels - is bought at a much higher price, and has inestimably higher value, forever and ever. The real question for angel-seekers is, for which brand are you looking?