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The Presence of the Angels
‘If the lowest angel could be reproduced or born in the soul, the whole world would be as nothing in comparison, for from the single spark of an angel there springs all that is green, leafy and bright in this world.’
Meister Eckhardt, Mystic and Theologian (c. 1260-1327)
Heaven and Earth
In the previous two sessions we have looked at ways in which Heaven and Hell have been perceived by succeeding generations. For Christians, the pursuit of paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven is the desired end of our earthly existence. However, during the course of our mortal lives Christians are called to work towards a better world to live in, which more closely reflects the love of God. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said:
‘…when you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray; “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”’1
This is the most frequently repeated prayer in the history of Christian worship, petitioning for the building up of the Kingdom of heaven, here, on earth. Earthly utopias are, however, impossible ideals to create. Sir Thomas Moore clearly exposed the folly of this endeavour in his book ‘Utopia’ in the early sixteenth century. Nevertheless, although the Heavens may seem far removed from the realities of our ordinary lives, heaven and earth are not entirely divorced from each other. The kingdom of Heaven and its citizens touch our lives on earth in a myriad of different ways. The ministry of the angels act between heaven and earth, seeking to draw humanity into a closer relationship, and understanding with its Creator.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that the Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.’ The catechism goes on to observe that ‘… the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of the angels … from its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.’ 2
Protestant theologians have tended to downplay the importance of angels in the Christian life yet they agree on their unequivocal importance in the Scriptures. Angels appear all over the Bible in countless guises and employed in a wide variety of tasks. Sometimes they appear as messengers, as protectors, as judges, as guardians, as comforters or as the herald of death. In the Gospols they frequently appear to Christ, announcing his birth, ministering to him in the Wilderness, rolling away the stone from the tomb and bring the first witnesses to the Resurrection. In the book of Acts they continue their activity in the life of the Church, often in a literal, seemingly prescient manner – liberating Paul from prison and guiding the Apostles during their missionary expeditions. There are, in fact, 117 references to Angels in the Old Testament and 188 references in the New Testament. Sometimes they are only mentioned fleetingly and, on occasions, the reference may be a metaphorical or literary device, but in many cases a clear, literal understanding is implied.
A belief in angels is common to most world religions. It is one of the few doctrinal beliefs which is common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as to a range of indigenous Oriental religions. Angels also appear in ancient pagan beliefs from Roman and Greek mythologies. In the modern world they are widely revered in New Age or Holistic Spirituality circles and continue to hold a fascination in modern popular culture, from Hollywood films to paperback bestsellers. A Google search on the internet in November 2005 revealed more than 43,900,000 sites associated with Angels, 9,960,000 sites associated with Archangels and 9,960,000 sites associated with Christian Angels.
A skeptical modern mind might dismiss the angelic world as part of religious romanticism. They have become part of a supernatural, spiritual world which is often perceived as a sentimental cliché. Faith in a God may still be accepted by many, but a belief in angels often vanishes from the world vision of even very devout Christians. The ‘disneyification’ of Angels on greeting cards and popular art has hardly helped a credible belief in them to continue. This is a tragic loss for our spiritual growth. The angels are supposed to radiate the Glory of God throughout all his Creation. The brilliant, pre-raphaelite nineteenth century artist, Edward Burne-Jones once wrote to Oscar Wilde that ‘…the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint; their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul.’ 3
Time and time again angels appear in the Bible as a clear and dramatic manifestation of the Heavenly realms touching the lives of people on earth. However, since the publication, in 1972, of John V. Taylor’s best-selling book; ‘The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission’ many English Christians have given greater recognition to the power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time the ministry of the Angels has become increasingly overlooked. Perhaps some Christians attribute their spiritual nourishment to a direct experience of the Holy Spirit, rather than being touched and guided by an Angel. We will return to this in Session Five. The Holy Spirit and the Angels are, however, not incompatible, even if may sometimes appear that the work of the Holy Spirit has rendered the Angels redundant.
Worshipping God with the Heavenly Host
In the Old Testament Book of Daniel, the prophet, has a vision of God as ‘the ancient of days’ seated in the Heavenly Court. Daniel describes how ‘Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.’ 4 The number of angels was, by implication, seemingly infinite, often described as ‘the angelic or heavenly host’.
Traditionally the Christian Church has held that there are nine orders of Angels descending from the heights of Heaven to touch the fringes of the earth. In descending order, they are normally ranked as: The Seraphim, The Cherubim, The Thrones, The Dominions, The Virtues, The Powers, The Principalities, The Archangels and The angels. These nine are normally grouped into three choirs, each rank of the Angels having a different function, yet all sharing in a united purpose, to praise God and to perform his will. Only the last two ranks, the Archangels and the Angels are held to have a direct mission to humanity. Some early theologians have developed a different grouping of the Angels, counting only seven ranks. This has arisen over a divergence in the names of the Middle ranks. The Thrones, Dominions and Virtues are sometimes merged into one.
The higher echelons of the Heavenly Host principally serve to worship and wait upon God, face to face. The proper preface for the Eucharistic Prayer on St. Michaek’s Dat provides a brief summary of how our worship may join with them;
‘Through Him the archangels sing your praise, the angels fulfill your commands, the cherubim and seraphim continually proclaim your holiness, the whole company of Heaven glorifies your name and rejoices to do your will.’
Christian worship is believed to join with the silent music of the angels in the praise of God. By definition ‘worship’ can also mean ‘to be full of adoration’, To adore is to be full in love, to be full in love implies a desire to be joined together as one. The unceasing worship of the Angels seeks to create a union with earth, to draw us into God’s presence as the source of all being.
Although the term ‘angels’ appears only once in the Eucharistic Prayers, most of the liturgy is taken from passages in the Scriptures which describe the worship of the angelic host. The Kyrie Eleison, Gloria in Excelsis, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei are all derived from biblical references to the Angels. The Gloria, in particular, is sometimes described as ‘the Angelic Hymn’.
The Inspiration of the Angels
As well as their role in enriching the worshipping life of the Church the angels play an important part in teaching and revealing to the Christian community a closer understanding of God. The angels are often thought of as ‘messengers’ but their teaching ministry is far more than that of a mere emissary. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most influential theologian during the Middle Ages, described the highest orders of angels as ‘intelligences’. Early Christian art often depicted them simply as faces continually looking upon God. They didn’t have bodies, and certainly wings were a much later accretion.
The angels were often also associated with the creation of light. The words of the Creed talk of a belief in God from God, Light from Light. Medieval belief held that God illuminated the hearts and minds of humanity through his Holy Angels. Illuminated medieval Bibles frequently took up this metaphor. Some artists in the later medieval period painted angels with lower halves which resembled pillars of fire. 5
The popular colloquial phrase ‘a flash of inspiration’ is often used to describe a moment when something which has been either troubling or confusing us becomes much clearer. Perhaps this may sometimes be seen as a way in which the teaching ministry of the Angels is at work. It may also be in out intuitive response to a situation when it is not clear why are instincts have selected a particular approach in response. Another way in which the teaching ministry of the angels may be at work in the human mind is through the power of the imagination to inspire us to work for a better world. There are, no doubt, numerous subtle and, perhaps, hidden ways, in which Angels reveal the power of God at work in our lives.
The English twelfth century historian and biographer, Eadmer, who wrote the life of St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drew heavily on Anselm’s reliance on his Guardian Angel during the closing years of his life. In one of his later texts he described how when:
‘…being far from my native soil and from my companions and friends, I often sat and turned over in my mind many things, some of them transitory and temporal, and some – but more rarely – eternal. At times, the enormity of my sins overcame me, and I sighed with confusion and wonder at the long-suffering patience and goodness of God. I seemed to see Him deputing some good Guardian to defend me from the attacks of evil demons … meditating often about this, I greatly desired to know the name of my Guardian, so that when possible I could honour him with some act of devotion. One night I fell asleep and saw someone standing by me saying that my prayer was heard and that I might know without doubt that the name I desired to know was Gabriel.’ 6
A belief in Guardian Angels remains widespread amongst Roman Catholics to this day. It also appears to be a popular and comforting belief for many who struggle to accept the doctrinal teachings of institutional Christianity. How though do Guardian Angels take care of their charges? On one level it may be seem as a literal protection from harm, a mystical way in which one may understand good fortune or a lucky escape from a threatening situation, but the role of Guardian Angels may also be viewed in a different manner. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that:
‘Men can avoid evil to some degree through free will, but not completely, for their affection for the good is weakened by the many passions of the soul. Similarly also, universal knowledge of the natural law which naturally belongs to men to some degree directs men to what is good, but not completely, for men fall down in many ways in applying the universal principles of the natural law to particular acts. So it is written, “The thoughts of mortal men are fearful and their plans uncertain” [Wisdom CH: 9 v. 14] Thus it is necessary for men to be guarded by angels. … God guards men in that he is their universal teacher, and his instructions come to them through the angels … Man in the present condition of his life is, so to speak, on a road along which he must make his way to his homeland. On this road lurk many dangers, both internal and external. This, as the Psalm puts it ‘On this road on which I walked they set up an ambush for me.’ [Psalm 42 v.4.] So, as guides are given to men walking along an unsafe road, guardian angels are also given to each man while he is a wayfarer in this life.’ 7
Aquinas uses the phrase ‘the promptings of the good angels, which take place invisibly when they enlighten men to do what is right.’ The angels then act as an external reference on our conscience. The Guardian Angel, for Aquinas, pricks our consciences into a more holistic understanding of what is the good path to follow. In this regard Aquinas saw a role of the Guardian Angels was to strengthen within us, a sense of faith in a providential and all-loving God.
‘There are two things needed for faith. First, a disposition of the mind that leads it obey the will’s orientation to the divine truth. For the mind does not assent to the truths of the mysteries of faith by being rationally convinced, but by being impelled to assent by the will. From this point of view faith comes from God alone.
The second condition for faith is that the objects of faith are made known to the believer. This is done by human agency, for according to St. Paul, faith comes by hearing, yet primarily by the Angels through whom the divine mysteries are revealed to us. Thus angels play some part in the enlightenment that faith brings. In addition, we receive enlightenment from the angels not only about what we are to believe, but also with respect to how we ought to behave.’ 8
Questions for Study
- 1, Do you believe in Angels? How would you describe them? If not, why do you find it difficult to believe in them?
- 2, Have you ever had any experience of an angel? Can you describe this?
- 3, Do you believe in Guardian Angels? Have you ever felt’ rescued’ from a very difficult situation or ‘protected’ from harm? Can a true Christian believe in pure luck without any reference to divine intervention?
- 4, Have you ever felt ‘strengthened’ by an invisible presence during a moment of temptation or weakness to do something morally wrong? Do you think Angels play a role in pricking your conscience or in strengthening your faith?
- 5, Why do you think a belief in Angels has become so popular today, albeit outside mainstream Churches? Is it simply a result of the Holistic Spirituality movement?
- 6, Why do you think a belief in Angels is so widespread in world religions?
- 7, Have you ever entertained an Angel and been unaware of its true nature?
1 Matt. Ch: 6. v. 7-10.
2 Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church pp. 76-78.
3 Quoted in B. Graham, Angels: God’s Secret Agents pp. ix-x.
4 Daniel Ch: 7 vv. 9-10.
5 G. duchet_Suchaux and M. Pastoureau (eds.,) The Bible and the Saints (Paris, 1994) p. 30.
6 R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in Landscape (Cambridge, 1990) p. 432.
7 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (London, 1970) Vol: 15, ‘The World Order’ p. 51 and 59.
8 Ibid., p. 21.