Chapter 1

Angels in a Mystical Context

"God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all," writes St John in his first letter (1 John 1.5). The problem of God's existence, let alone his purposeful activity in the world, never ceases to excite the speculations of the philosopher and the heated disgust of the many humans who suffer abominably at the hands of their fellow creatures no less than as a result of the various natural disasters that rock the earth. The God of theistic religion so often seems to be either vicious or else incompetent. There are episodes in the early part of the Old Testament that would seem to substantiate God's viciousness while the intolerable calamities that have punctuated human history would point to divine carelessness, if not frank cruel It is not easy to justify a constructive divine existence on purely intellectual grounds.

But it is not with the reason that God is primarily known. There is an even more powerful seat of recognition, which is traditionally called the soul - the point of a person's true identity. The enigmatic words of The Cloud of Unknowing, a mystical treatise of unknown authorship from the fourteenth century, speak volumes: "But now thou askest me, "How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?" Unto this I cannot answer thee. I wot now that thou hast brought me into the same cloud of unknowing that I would thou wert in thyself. But this I would say "By love He may be gotten and holden, but by thought never."" The writer of this work was a great mystic, a term which is used to describe someone apparently granted a direct awareness of the divine presence, so that he or she is filled with the divine light of illumination as well as the divine heat of love. Such a person is inwardly changed, and by their presence brings fresh hope and understanding to people around them, who are then open to a new vision of reality. "You will recognize them by their fruit" (Matthew 7.16) is a very sound canon of judgement.

Reading the works of the great mystics fills any receptive person with a joy of recognition that leaps out of the darkness of worldly agnosticism and lights up the way of love, joy and peace. What was always known in the depths of the soul is now confirmed in the life of the person, who can then proceed with hope and love. It would seem that the direct awareness of the God who transcends all human understanding lights up the divine spark within all humans, so that they may go forward through the darkness of intellectual doubt to the light of a new day, where loving concern will work in concert with an enlightened reason. The end is a growing wisdom that inspires the whole world with a dynamic concept of God in all things, as a reflection of the God beyond all names, whose essence is sometimes best expressed in purely negative terms.

There are two types of knowledge: the rational and the mystical. The first type follows the capacity of the mind to synthesize data received from the senses or learned by communication from other sources. As such, the mind can attain mastery over the tangible world to the extent of changing once-familiar landmarks. We are all aware of how modern technology has changed the face of our earth. We hope that such changes will work out for the good of everyone in the end, but at times the concomitant destruction may also cause a pang of regret. This is what is entailed in rational progress. In contrast, mystical knowledge is of an entirely different order. It not only stills the rational mind, but it also brings to light a new, or at least undiscovered, part of the person that was previously concealed by a dominating, arrogant reasoning mind that naively believed it was the source of all wisdom. With mystical knowledge, one knows by direct experience that into which one is unceremoniously immersed: it is in the darkness of complete ignorance that a very different approach to reality is opened up.

This is the knowledge that St Paul writes about in Ephesians 3.17-19. In a glorious prayer he appeals, "With deep roots and firm foundations may you, in company with all God's people, be strong to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge." This knowledge cannot be attained by an act of the will, for it is a spontaneous experience of God's grace in its highest dispensation. It comes to those who are ready to receive it, according to the divine judgement and not by human striving and once it is known, a very different understanding of the human journey is set before us. We can repeat the words, "by love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought never" with a new understanding: this love is a complete emptying of oneself so that the divine energies can pour through one, and so that one can say with Isaiah, after his shattering vision in the Temple, "Here am I! Send me" (Isaiah 6.9).

The result of such mystical enlightenment is that the will is reformed so that it becomes aligned to the divine will, and one works in a spirit of love that gives itself in compassion to all that lives: "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me; and my present mortal life is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me" (Galatians 2.20). The ego has indeed been crucified, and the true self, or soul, can begin to learn something of a real life that far exceeds the limitations of the ration mind, without in any way failing to concede its place in dealing with the things of this world. "Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and God what belongs to God" (Mark 12.17). The true mystic is a very practical person, bringing the energies of God down to the world.

Yet between the triune Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and creation - the mystically dominant and the physically ebullient - there exists an order of beings that is spiritual in nature, but able to convey the divine energies to all that lives. These beings are the angels, an angel being a messenger; and the message conveyed by this order of spiritual beings is the light of God, for God himself/herself is known to us by his/her outflowing energies, love and uncreated light. (We need to remember that personal pronouns limit our means of communicating information about the ineffable One who is assuredly beyond gender, and yet obviously is involved in gender through being the creator of all that exists. Having made this observation, I will use the masculine pronoun in order to keep the language succinct.) The light of God is the way of spiritual illumination, and in the universe it is the origin of the light that comes from the sun and other stars. This is the light recorded in Genesis 1.3.

One great mystic who wrote between AD 475 and 525 used the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite, after one of the few converts St Paul made during his frustrating visit to Athens (Acts I7.34). His treatise entitled On Mystical Theology (a more recent translation is entitled The Mystical Theology) is a classical dissertation on the workings of the mystical consciousness at the most profound level. Only a few pages long, it is a brilliant exposition of the apophatic way of knowing God, which has been the keystone in the teaching of many subsequent mystics, including the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Cross (I542-9I). The apophatic way of knowledge uses negatives - that is, it describes who God is by saying what he is not. Another, rather longer, work of the "pseudo-Dionysius" is On Celestial Hierarchies, or The Celestial Hierarchies, in which he describes at length the hierarchy of angelic beings - nine orders in all, ranging from the seraphim and cherubim, who are nearest to God, to the angels, who are closest to the world. The illumination of the pseudo-Dionysius was the basis of this final categorization of the angelic hierarchy, but much of it was known to the Fathers of the Christian Church. A number of the categories appear in the Bible and in some Jewish apocryphal writings, notably the Book of Enoch.

A hierarchy is defined by Dionysius as a holy order which, so far as attainable, participates in the Divine Likeness. He goes on to observe that each of those who is allotted a place in the Divine Order finds his perfection in being uplifted, according to his capacity, towards the Divine Likeness; and what is still more divine, he becomes, as the Scriptures say, a fellow-worker with God, showing forth the Divine Activity revealed as far as possible in himself. For the holy constitution of the hierarchy ordains that some are purified, others purify; some are enlightened, others enlighten; some are perfected, others make perfect; for in this way the divine imitation will fit each one. A glorious climax is attained in this mystical observation:

Inasmuch as the Divine Bliss (to speak in human terms) is exempt from all dissimilarity, and is full of Eternal Light, perfect, in need of no perfection, purifying, illuminating, perfecting, being rather Himself the holy Purification, Illumination and Perfection, above purification, above light, supremely perfect, Himself the origin of perfection and the cause of every hierarchy, He transcends in excellence all holiness.

The great influences on Dionysius are clearly Holy Scripture and the writings of the neo-Platonic mystics Plotinus and his disciple Proclus.

Dionysius, by systematizing the nine orders of the angelic hierarchy, makes them more accessible to us. As a mystic he deplores the tendency to express spiritual essences in material forms. This is called reification, but in the end he accepts both its necessity for purposes of general intellectual communication and its validity inasmuch as the creatures of the world mirror the beauty of their creator Dionysius reminds us that the theology of the Bible includes such symbols as the Sun of Justice, the Morning Star rising mystically in the mind, or the Light shining forth unclouded and intelligibly to celebrate the deity itself "So the Word became flesh; he made his home among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (John 1.14). In this famous statement we see a perfect apposition of the material and the spiritual.

The angelic beings, or celestial intelligences, are divided into three triads, containing the nine orders, and whose names, as we shall see, represent the divine attributes that they manifest to all below them. Continuing from the fine introduction to the work, Dionysius says these divine attributes also have an inner relation with every human soul, for through their ministrations the aspiring soul becomes liberated from the bondage of material things, receives knowledge of that soul's purpose, and is enabled to live its true life, ultimately attaining its divine likeness to the full.

The first order of the first triad is seraphim. They are described in the passage already quoted from Isaiah as the "burning" or "fiery" ones, from whom the stream of superessential grace flows (God transcends all essence). Like fire, the seraphim consume all that separates the human from God. The second order is cherubim. The name "cherub" means "fullness of knowledge". Through cherubim, the energy of God streams forth as a transcendental light that perfectly illuminates the soul and unites it with the divine wisdom. It imparts a full and lucid understanding to the universal divine immanence. In the Bible, cherubs are depicted as great winged creatures - for instance, in the construction of the Ark in the wilderness (Exodus 25.18 passim), King Solomon's majestic temple (1 Kings 6.23 passim) and the visions of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1.10 and 10.1 passim). In one passage, the cherub is portrayed as a flying creature on which God travelled in order to help King David (2 Samuel 22.11). All this shows how hard it is for the human mind to avoid conceptualizing a formless energy The third order of the first triad are the thrones; these are divine seats through which the soul is lifted up to God and becomes established in the constancy of the divine service. This first triad is closest at all times to the divine presence.

In the second triad come first the dominions, or dominations, that are free from all earthly passions, from all inward inclination to the bondage of discord, and from all that is low; they display a liberal superiority to harsh tyranny, and an exemptness from degrading servility. They are true lords, perpetually aspiring to true lordship, and to the Source of Lordship. The second order of the second triad are the virtues, that have a powerful and unshakeable virility welling forth into all their God-like energies. There is no weakness in them: instead, they ascend unwaveringly to the superessential virtue which is the Source of Virtue, and flow forth providentially to those below. The third order are the powers, or authorities, that are invested with a capacity to regulate intellectual and supermundane power which never debases its authority by tyrannical force, but is irresistibly urged onward in due order to the Divine. This order beneficently leads those below it, as far as possible, to the supreme power which is the Source of Power. It re-directs the forces that fetter the human mind to earthly things. Through this second triad, the soul is liberated from all that is below, and assimilated to that which is above.

The third, and lowest, triad is concerned with the final execution of the work of providence, which is God's beneficent care for his creatures. The principalities exhibit divine lordship and true service; through them, the soul may turn from attachment to earthly activities to the service of God, so as ultimately to become a co-worker with the divine ministers. The archangels imprint the divine seal on all things, whereby the universe is the written word of God. They impart to the soul the spiritual light through which it may learn to read the Bible, and also to know and use its own faculties correctly. The lowest order of this triad is the angels, who minister to all things of nature, including humans, by purifying and uplifting them.

In this triadic scheme, the higher orders inspire those lower than they, but not vice versa. Thus it is clear that the third triad is nearest the world, and transmits the illumination received from above. The end of the process is the transfiguration of the whole of the universe in the glorious light that proceeds from on high. This whole hierarchy spreads the divine light through the cosmos, that vast realm that includes the universe, as far as human understanding can define it, and also the psychic plane where we may meet the spirits of the dead and also the communion of saints and the ministry of angels. The great work of the angelic hierarchy is to praise and glorify God. This praise is not a rational acclaim so much as a great paean of joy that the world is as it is and that the angels are privileged both to know it and to participate in it. This is how we should say the Gloria of the Eucharist: that we are privileged to partake of the body and blood of the Saviour If the whole cosmos could resound to that praise, and move beyond prejudice and emotional bonds, we would pour out peace and goodwill to all creatures. The angelic hierarchy, with its enlightened will turned resolutely to the divine presence, helps to bring forward the Kingdom of God on earth - and elsewhere in our unimaginably glorious cosmos.

And so it is that all aspiring human souls move to the divine presence, aided by an immense angelic hierarchy, none more important than the other. If the humble angel leads the way, the destination is through the cherub and seraph to the source of all being whom we call God. It may well be that much illumination from the Holy Spirit comes to us through the angelic hierarchy, centring on our own guardian angel. (This is something we will consider later.) One thing is certain, though: we must worship the Holy Trinity and no other power.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that St Paul entertains a decidedly critical view of the angelic hierarchy. Thus in his two most mystical letters, those to the Ephesians and the Colossians, he proceeds at length to stress the superiority of Christ to any heavenly potentate. Christ is indeed, apart from being incarnate as the man Jesus, also the Cosmic Christ. All other powers in this vast realm are at the very least subordinate to him; at the worst, they may embrace evil tendencies. Speaking of the Father in Ephesians 1.19-21, Paul writes, "His mighty strength was seen at work when he raised Christ from the dead, and enthroned him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all government and authority, all power and dominion, and any title of sovereignty that commands allegiance, not only in this age but also in the age to come." In the Authorized Version, the angelic connation is even more decisive: "...far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion." In Ephesians 6.12, St Paul is even more explicit: "For our struggle is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark age, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavenly realms." A different image is portrayed in Colossians 2.15: "There he disarmed the cosmic powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, leading them as captives in his triumphal procession." This warning is especially pertinent in present times, when many listen to all manner of communications purporting to come from high sources in the cosmic realm. The judgement on such sources should always be: do these communications lead the hearer to a more Christ-like frame of mind that shows itself in positive action in the world around, or are they merely messages of complacency leading to self-satisfaction?

The nature of angels is still debatable. They appear to be spiritual agents with an independent will, who obey the directive of the one who sent them on their errand. Though normally invisible, they are capable of assuming a corporeal form, even appearing as humans on special occasions. They are what the parapsychologist would term "idioplastic" - that is, capable of assuming a number of appearances. They represent a distinct line of cosmic evolution that is unrelated to the human species; that is, a human cannot develop into an angel. Yet one thing seems certain: the human, though of a lower order than the angels, has the prospect of a far higher development. Christ assumed a human form, not an angelic one. The unknown author of the Letter to Hebrews stresses this in the first chapter of this fine work. There is something about the complete freedom of action of the fully integrate person that brings them closely into the divine presence: "When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God's Majesty on high, raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs" (Hebrews 1.3-4).

The angelic group, for all its exaltation, has probably reached the peak of its development. On the other hand, humans, incomplete though they may appear spiritually, have a capacity for infinite growth, so that the spark of God in the soul may eventually blaze forth into a glorious Christ-like presence. In the Hindu tradition, the same observations seem to apply to the devas, the angelic beings of that religion. They do not progress beyond what they are, though there may be a cyclical type of development. In the Buddhist faith, the angelic beings are called nats, many of which are nature spirits. In Tibetan Buddhism there are rather move elevated angelic beings called dakini (a Sanskrit word) or khadroma (the analagous Tibetan word).

It is evident that angelic beings are encountered in all the great world faiths, but it is in the monotheistic group (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that they play an especially prominent part. This may be due to the emphatically transcendent view of God that is native to these three religions. The angelic hierarchy may act as a bridge between God and his vast creation, or at least transmit God's will to his creatures. In this way, there is divine love inspiring human service. The Bible contains some three hundred allusions to angels throughout both Old and New Testaments; we will now examine some of these references.

Chapter 2
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