Saint Michael, Defender in the Day of Battle, by Michael Derrick

[Michael the Archangel]There are several curious problems in the history of the cult of Saint Michael. In the first place – and this is the chief of them – why was the great warrior-Archangel of the Apocalypse, whose very name was a battle-cry to the angels that cast forth Satan, known through so many centuries of the Christian era not as a defender in the day of battle, but only in the mild and humble role, shared by so many human saints, of a patron of the sick? So it was; and the occasions selected by Saint Michael for his terrestrial apparitions in these first centuries showed that he was content that it should be so. He appeared in a vision to Constantine, not to commend the Sign of the Cross, or to inspire him to battle against Maxentius for the Christian mastery of Italy, but only to show him where to build the Michaelion, where the faithful might be cured of their ills. He was the source of miraculous springs, at Colossae, at Chairotopa, at Pythia and elsewhere in Asia; and his principal feast in the Eastern Churches remains that which he was given as patron of the medicinal baths of the Emperor Arcadius, the son and Eastern heir of Theodosius, who consecrated a famous church to him in Constantinople. But he showed an apparent indifference to the military aspect of the establishment of Christianity.

It was the same in the West: the earlier tradition makes Saint Michael a patron of healing. It is not until the seventh century that he is acclaimed as a celestial champion in battle, and by that time all the important battles were over; the armies of Christendom had met the barbarians under lesser patrons, while Saint Michael – if one may put it so – was asked to do no more than ambulance work in these campaigns. His apparition rid Rome of the plague in response to the prayers of Saint Gregory the Great; hence the name of the Castle of Sant ‘Angelo on Hadrian’s Hill, where Gregory had seen the Archangel sheathing his sword as a sign that the plague was over. But no one had seen him draw it against the Lombards who were even then approaching Rome; no one, apparently, had even thought of asking him to do so.

The most famous of the Western apparitions of Saint Michael is that which took place at the close of the fifth century, during the pontificate of Saint Gelasius, on the peninsula of Monte Gargano, the spur of Apulia overlooking the mouth of the Adriatic. A herdsman there lost a bullock from his herds, and – so the story goes – searching for it found a cave; and Saint Michael revealed to the herdsman his desire that this cave should become his shrine. Therein arose, inevitably, a healing spring, and pilgrims became many, while the fame of the place spread far and wide; there is an account of it, for instance, in the Anglo-Saxon Blickling Homilies. This was the apparition that is commem orated by the Church on May 8th. The date shows the new idea of prayer to Saint Michael for victory in battle, for it is not that of the apparition, but of a victory which, nearly two centuries later, expelled the Greeks from this first of many Saint Michael’s Mounts. Although the Lombard victors were by this time orthodox Catholics, it is curious to find that the first recorded intervention of Saint Michael in a human battle was on behalf of the political opponents of the Pope.

His monastery on its Mount off the Normandy coast did not, as one might have supposed, derive from the one that arose on this Monte di Sant’Angelo; it was founded by Saint Aubert, so the story goes, by direct command of the Archangel himself, which should surely have given it equal rank with Sant’Angelo as a place of pilgrimage. It was, indeed, a great place of pilgrimage; and the cockle shell, the medieval emblem of pilgrimage, was taken from the monastic arms. But it never equalled the Shrine of Sant’ Angelo on Morite Gargano. Saint Aubert lived long before there were any Normans in Normandy, yet when they arrived many of them seemed to prefer the longer journey to Apulia rather than the short one to Avranches; and it is said that the Normans went to Italy in force in the days of Tancred de Hauteville only because some of their pilgrims had been persuaded to send help against the Greeks by a citizen of Bari whom they met at Saint Michael’s shrine. On Saint Michael ‘s Mount in Cornwall was a dependent priory of Mont-St.-Michel, established soon after the Conquest; but there is no tradition of the Archangel’s apparition there. It was dedicated to him only because it is a mount, and mounts belong to him as of right. Throughout Europe there are mountain-monasteries of Saint Michael – the Emperor-Saint Henry II founded one near Bamberg; there is another, a little earlier, at Frigolet in Languedoc; there is Saint Michael’s monastery on the Mont de Chatillon, and again on the mountain of Marzha which is the home of the Catholicism of the Serbs. There are too many to count here. Wherever you are, indeed, if you see even a little church on the top of a hill, the odds are that it will be dedicated to Saint Michael, like the one on Glastonbury Tor.

Few of these are national shrines such as Mont-St.-Michel became. Yet as he had been a national patron of the Jews of the Old Testament, so also in time Saint Michael became a champion of Christian nations, and, in particular, of those who fight for the soil of their own country. It was Saint Michael who first appeared to Saint Joan at Domremy, to tell her that she must deliver France. Affonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, according to tradition won the great battle of Ourique against the Moors – the battle which gave him his kingdom – with the visible assistance of Saint Michael, who .

rode before the Portuguese armies on the field. In commemoration of this victory King Affonso founded the great Cistercian Abbey of Alcobaca, and a military Order of lay-brothers which he placed under the jurisdiction of its abbot. This was the Order of Saint Michael’s Wing, the first of several military Orders of Saint Michael.

Another, better-known, was founded in Bavaria in the eighteenth century. A third, founded by Louis XI, was the chief of the military Orders of France, to which even the Knights of the Holy Ghost were subordinate; it was disbanded at the Revolution, and, although revived, disappeared finally under the Orleans monarchy. In ,England there was a similar Order, wearing the cockle of Mont-St.-Michel”a mantell of cloth of silver lyned with escallop shells,” and “a hood of crymsin velvet, embraudered with escallop shells.”

In England we have honoured Saint Michael well; the Anglo-Saxon chronicle is witness that we kept his feast at least as early as 759, and no saint except Saint Peter has had more churches in this country dedicated to him. We could not select a more fitting patron for our arms in this war than the Archangel whose intercession in battle, in practically every recorded case save that original one of his invocation by the Lombards in 633, has been on behalf of those driving back an invader. The Royal Air Force, of course, has already claimed him as a patron. In the Middle East the Army of the Nile has a special reason for invoking him, since the Christians of Egypt placed the Nile under his personal protection at a very early date, and on June 12th, when the Nile is beginning to rise, they have a special feast in his honour.

And if someone should interject that he is claimed by pious Germans as the patron saint of their country, where he replaced Wotan, to whom all German mountains were previously dedicated, we can reply that the revival by Herr Rosenberg of the cult of Wotan makes it all the more certain that Saint Michael is the enemy of Nazism.

– article from The Tablet, 27 September 1941