servants and messengers

Apparently it was the 7th century Syrian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius who first came up with the rankings of the angelic hosts, in his writing called the Celestial Hierarchies. It’s interesting that the same person who came up with one of the earliest seminal writings on the apophatic tradition––the via negativa, beyond all name and form, also gave us so much on kataphatic spirituality, the way of image and symbol, name and form. According to Dionysius the orders of the angelic host are made up of three ranks of three choirs: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; Dominions, Virtues and Powers; Principalities, Archangels and Angels. This is the order that gets picked up by the Scholastics and stays in the tradition.

The word ‘angel’ doesn’t actually describe what these creatures are; it describes what they do. As Saint Augustine wrote: “‘Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel.’” Their office, their job, you might say, is to be a servant and messenger of God. “With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God,” St. Augustine says.[1] Only the last two ranks of those heavenly choirs––the archangels and angels––have an immediate mission to human beings, and so, as far as I understand it, those are the only ones that are specifically angels. And of those two we are celebrating only one today: the archangels. (We will celebrate the guardian angels a few days from now.)

Angels appear often in scripture, both the Old and New Testament. They are the ones who closed the earthly paradise; they appeared to Abraham under the terebinths of Mamre and protected Lot; they saved Hagar and her Ishmael (the Quran names this angel as Gabriel); one of them stopped Abraham’s hand when he was about to sacrifice Isaac; Raphael appears as the great healer in the Book of Tobit. And finally the Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself.[2] And of course then we have the great Michael and his angels defending us in battle, as portrayed in the reading from the Book of Revelation today.[3]

The other notable thing about angels is that, in spite of the biblical images presented to us, according to the strictest tradition, they are different from the human soul because they are never destined to be united with a human body or to have any kind of a physical form. That’s why we usually refer to them as ‘spirits.’ And that’s where it gets interesting to me.

We use the word ‘spirit’ in so many ways, in almost a generic way to refer to any kind of supernatural being, even an evil or malevolent being that can possess someone, or a ghost; but sometimes we use it to mean a soul as well. I always go back to how Fr. Bede Griffiths used the word ‘spirit.’ He taught that spirit actually refers to a specific thing; like the Spirit of God, so our own spirit is that which is beyond all phenomena, beyond name and form. And our spirit is that point where we are in union with God and in contact with the spiritual realm––beyond all name and form, the source and the font of being. On the other end of the spectrum there is of course the physical realm––matter, our body, corporeality, which our tradition teaches angels never share in. But then there is this mysterious ‘realm,’ if you will, in between those two, usually referred to as soul, sometimes consciousness, sometimes psyche, and often when we use the word ‘spirit’ we are actually referring to this realm. St. Thomas Aquinas calls angels ‘intelligences’ and that leads me to think that that is where these beings, these angels, dwell––in that realm of soul.

St. Thomas Aquinas calls angels ‘intelligences.’ They angels have what is called scientia matutina–or “morning knowledge,” as opposed to scientia vespertina––evening knowledge. This goes back to Augustine too: they have morning knowledge––that is because they behold the face of the Father in heaven, the have direct intuitive knowledge of God’s will, as opposed to the rest of us who have evening knowledge––we have to arrive at knowledge of God’s will it by discursive thought, discernment, figuring it out.

We might have grown past the childish images of angels. In modern times it’s been interesting to see alternate images of angels, all the way from Michael Landon and Denzel Washington to the trench-coated angels in Wim Winders’ movie Wings of Desire. But even then we are still stuck in anthropomorphizing, making angels like us, when in fact our tradition teaches that the angels have no physical form. But as we go beyond those images in an iconoclastic sort of way we could also fall into the danger of leaving behind a real relationship we can have with these creatures in this other realm.

Post-moderns tend to dismiss angels as a bunch of hocus-pocus, but just like the Indian tradition led me to believe in the resurrection of the body, so a lot of contemporary spiritual seekers, including a lot of so-called New Agers, have made me reconsider my belief in angels. Not only the Jewish tradition but also in Islam belief in angels is one of the fundamentals.[4] It’s almost an intuitive sense, if not an experiential one, this sense of being watched over and guided by some extra-ordinary benevolent presences in the subtle realm outside of our ordinary consciousness.

I’m feeling particularly sensitive to and attuned to this subtle realm these days, you might call it the anima mundi, the soul of the world, the collective consciousness. There is a lot of darkness around us these days––in the world, in the church, even in our own community at times. And often it feels as if there is a great battle going on, and a lot of dark spirits even some who are masquerading as angels of light in very subtle insidious ways in that realm, with really good disguises. So with all people of good will, and all people who believe in angels, we ought to be very attentive to these benevolent spirits, these servants and messengers of God. Remember our Catechism states that, whether folks know it and recognize it our not, “Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels.”[5] We could pray today that perhaps we could share a little of this morning knowledge of God’s will and the power to do it. And, even if we don’t share their nature––being lucky enough to actually have bodies!––we can still pray to share their office, and pray to be angels ourselves, servants and messengers of God.


29 sept 18

[1] CCC #329

[2] CCC, 331.

[3] Rev. 12:7-12.

[4] The closest thing to a creed in Islam is surah 4 verse 135 tha professes belief in Allah, the Prophet, the Qur’an, sin and judgment on the last day––and angels–malak.

[5] CCC, 332.

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