Chapter 5

The Properties of Angels

Angels continue to be a popular subject with artists and poets, but theologians seldom have much to say about them - unless the theologians concerned are of fundamentalistic persuasion and accept angels en masse because the Bible repeatedly mentions them. Admittedly, the eucharistic liturgy speaks fulsomely of "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" (this is a characteristically Anglican phrase, but the Roman Catholic Mass also mentions the hierarchy in a rather similar context), but the number of priests who really believe in these obscure beings is probably disconcertingly low. Older priests may remember the stones they heard at their mother's knee, and even look back nostalgically to times barely within recall, but younger priests familiar with depth psychology (to say nothing of computer science and its challenge of artificial intelligence) will shake their heads impatiently at the repetition of such nonsense unless personal experience suddenly opens their closed minds to areas of life that were previously hidden from view. This closure of the mind is the result of pride (the attitude that modern humans know it all), ignorance, and a vague, scarcely formulated, fear of the unknown.

So what have modern theologians against angelology - that is, the belief in angels and their scheme in the nature of the universe, and hence in the lives of us all here and now? First, and probably most important, is the allegedly formless, spiritual nature of angelic beings. That which is real should have "body" - in other words, corporeal substance. The concept of intermediate entities that float around in the cosmos, inaccessible to most of us, becomes unacceptable - especially as developments in cosmology and nuclear physics can explain most of the phenomena of our universe quite satisfactorily. While we are alive, humans function in physical bodies - to the extent that even the Son of God himself became fully human during his salvific work among us, which in a distinctly mystical way continues, and will continue, until the end of the world (at least as far as we poor mortals can glimpse such a profound mystery). The Son of God is with us when we do a charitable act in the course of everyday life, as the solemn parable of the sheep and goats reminds us (Matthew 25.31-46); and when two or three meet together in his name, he is there among them (Matthew 18.20).

The second objection to a belief in angels is closely related to the first. It concerns relying on the help of "spiritual" agents in such a way as to absolve ourselves from the effort of exercising our own free will. This objection is especially valid when we consider the dark angels, or demonic spirits, and the effect they can have on the human psyche. Again, this matter is a closed book to most people, but no one involved in the work of deliverance, commonly called exorcism, can ignore this question. (We will deal with it later on.) In short, the argument is that a powerful belief in angels can protect us from too close an involvement in the material world in which we are meant to function.

We have already considered the third objection in our mention of nature spirits: too close an attachment to the angelic forces can easily lead to us venerating them. This attitude can lead insidiously to idolatry. There are two passages in the Book of Revelation that explicitly deprecate any such tendency: "I prostrated myself to worship him, but he said, "You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your brothers who bear their witness to Jesus. It is God you must worship. For those who bear witness to Jesus have the spirit of prophecy"" (19.10), and "When I had heard and seen them, I prostrated myself to worship the angel who had shown them [all these things] to me. But he said, "You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your brothers the prophets and with those who take to heart the words of this book. It is God you must worship"" (22.8-9). So long as we view the angels as fellow-workers, and in no way more important than we humans in the maintenance of our world, we will not go far wrong. Unfortunately, though, human nature desires glamour above all else, and so is attracted to phenomena rather than a voice that cries out in the wilderness, saying, "Prepare the way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him" (Matthew 3.3). The angels are ambivalent creatures, at least in their separate forms, and can delude us instead of directing us to the divine source. It is certain that spiritually, our capacity to seek after God and to work his ways, should proceed pari passu with our investigation of the properties of angels, including our own guardian angel, who is a way of knowing the direction to God and our response to this, but no more divine than we ourselves are.

So should we concern ourselves with angels? We have already pointed out that such beings have been an increasing source of embarrassment to the modernistic type of theologian, who describes them as mythological. There is nothing especially derogatory about the concept of myth, which is simply a spiritual truth illustrated symbolically. Yet this definition implies that angels do not exist in an objective form, but are merely ideas in the mind of the percipient. In this view, they are a part of the great archetypal system of belief that constitutes much of the collective unconscious experience of humanity, so well delineated by Carl Gustav Jung. Such an archetypal experience may have a very therapeutic effect on the recipient, but it would be hard to substantiate the literal existence of an angelic being. This would be the view of an agnostic psychotherapist. Even to this day, there is controversy among Jungian therapists as to whether their master believed in the objective reality of God or whether he saw it as simply an intrapsychic formation that he called "the self". I personally believe that God is indeed immanent in the human soul in its highest and holiest part, which is traditionally called the spirit, or the "apex of the soul". This could indeed be similar to "the self" that Jung describes. But I also hold that the transcendent God, who is beyond all rational knowledge and comes to us as pure love, makes contact with us through the spirit, where he is eternally present. The same scheme might apply to angels also. Yet many learned people have convinced themselves about the non-existence of angels, despite the growing number of books describing angelic encounters. My own view is that many of these reported encounters are quite genuine, and have had a distinctly beneficial effect on the person concerned.

The twentieth century is very much a century of apparitions and UFO sightings are just one example. Jung believed that the flying saucer with its rounded contour was a classical mandala, and signified a soul seeking after wholeness. In other words, he believed that the UFO is an intrapsychic construct. Many people who claim to have seen UFOs would contest this viewpoint most strongly, and there are many investigators who accept the literal existence of UFOs. There are even people who believe that they have been abducted by the inhabitants of UFOs. Most psychotherapists will be incredulous concerning such claims, for they are we aware of the dramatizing capacity of the psyche - especially when it is unhappy; in this situation, anything that takes the individual away from the facts of the moment will be especially welcome. There is nothing dishonest in all this, only a cri de coeur of a somewhat disordered psyche; on the other hand, it may be that the phenomenon is of a demonic nature.

The problem of all parapsychology is to discern truth from fiction. One type of fiction is frank dishonesty, which implies a fabrication of the evidence, but a second type is a genuine misconstruing of what has been perceived. This fiction applies not only to the percipient, but also to the investigator. The integrity of parapsychology has been severely impugned by falsified research, although probably no more so than in other disciplines. However, whereas such claims in other disciplines are soon unmasked by parallel investigation, parapsychology is largely related to the analysis of reported phenomena that cannot be repeated quite so easily. In other words, parapsychology seeks to attain a scientific status; but until its phenomena are easily repeatable, there are many who will continue to dismiss its findings until they have personally had an encounter with the psychic dimension. Only a psychically sensitive investigator can penetrate this realm of human experience. Angels find their place here too. Incidentally, UFO expert Ivan Sanderson has suggested that why we have not been able to "catch a UFO" is because they do not come from another planet, but from another set of dimensions. Thus when UFO forms travel into our space operating according to another set of laws, people see them differently, but the imaging power of the beholder always determines what is seen. This is quoted by G. Don Gilmore in a fascinating book called Angels and Mortals: Their Co-creative Power. It could well be that the spaceman is the angel image most tractable to non-churchgoing members of the younger generation, a proposition hardy likely to be palatable to the traditional believer In the end, though, what matters is the effect of an image on the spiritual evolution of the viewer: "You will recognize them by their fruit" (Matthew 7.16). Some extraterrestrial communicators give a strong warning about the fate of humankind unless it radically changes its ways, and the truth of this cannot be faulted - even if it does smack of New Age teaching.

An apparition of another order entirely is that of the Virgin Mary, who has shown herself in a number of situations during the twentieth century. One famous apparition was at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, to three young, illiterate, shepherd children. The appearance was preceded by the manifestation of an angel, who seemed to be preparing the three for the appearance of Our Lady. She was described as "A lady, dressed in a white garment that was brighter than the sun, emitting a light that was clearer and more intense than a cut-glass goblet full of crystal-clear water through which the strongest rays of the sun are shining.." Yet it was the angel that gave the essential teaching, not the Madonna.

Another Marian apparition was seen by four children at Garabandal, near Santander in Spain, between 1961 and 1965. There were various phenomena. In the first instance, the Madonna appeared, bringing warning messages to the children and telling them what they should do; this was in 1961. A second message was relayed by the Archangel Michael in I965 "I, your mother by the intercession of St Michael Archangel bid you to mend your ways . . . pray with sincerity, and whatever you ask will be granted..."

A notable current apparition is that seen at Medjugorje in Bosnia, near the Croatian border. Six young visionaries have had direct communications with the Virgin Mary, and various psychical phenomena have caused a considerable sensation both among pilgrims and uncommitted visitors. Once again, angels have been mentioned. One of the visionaries, Ivanka, reported that Mary came to her with two angels. On another occasion, Jelena, a locutionary through whom the Virgin Mary spoke, saw and heard her guardian angel, and went on to describe other appearances of angels. In 1981, many people saw the sun spinning towards them for some fifteen minutes, disclosing angels with trumpets. This incident is known as the Miracle of the Sun.

The messages received in these examples are very much what a proficient spiritual director would stress: constant prayer, attendance at the Eucharist, and a more disciplined life generally. Marian apparitions appeal most strongly to the Catholic temperament. A committed Protestant would be less likely to respond so enthusiastically, and the same would be true of those of other religious faiths. The angel assuredly comes from God, but we can clothe it in our own form. Catholic Christianity is more sympathetic to angels than is Protestantism, and so it is not surprising that nearly all the Marian appearances occur in Catholic areas. There have also been sightings in more neutral areas like Egypt, but here the focus was probably the Coptic Church, which was under persecution at that time (1968-71).

It should also be noted that the Virgin Mother is a notable archetype in the collective unconscious. In classical Greece and Rome, some of the heroes and legendary figures were believed to be conceived of a virginal mother, and also to undergo a physical resurrection after their death. The Christian would counter this damaging aspersion to their faith by seeing in the life and resurrection of Jesus a miraculous working out of archetypal material in the world of flesh and blood In this way what appeared to be pure myth has now been realized in our world. One of Mary's other titles is "Queen of Angels", and she herself is called the "Angel of Peace".

As we have already said, neither artists nor poets have been as reticent as theologians in accommodating angels. How wonderfully reassuring is the first verse of Richard Baxter's hymn:

Ye holy Angels bright,
Which stand before God's throne
And dwell in glorious light,
Praise ye the Lord each one.
There you so nigh
Are much more meet
Than we the feet,
For things so high.

On a different level, but with a not dissimilar thought, comes Francis Thompson's insight (from "The Kingdom of God"):

The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

A rather more wistful farewell to angels in the modern world is contained in Robert Bridges's poem called "Spirits":

Angel spirits of sleep
White-robed, with silver hair,
In your meadows fair,
Where the willows weep,
And the sad moonbeam
On the gliding stream
Writes her scatter'd dream:

Angel spirits of sleep,
Dancing to the weir
In the hollow roar
Of its waters deep;
Know ye not how men say
That ye haunt no more
Isle and grassy shore
With your moonlit play;
That ye dance not here,
White-robed spirits of sleep,
All the summer night
Threading dances light?

Yes indeed, the angels have been progressively banished from the company of sensible humans, but to what end? The answer would probably be "truth", and this cannot be disregarded. No self-respecting person wants to cling on to an illusion, let alone rely on a type of idol. But let us hear what Rainer Maria Rilke has to say about angels in The Duino Elegies.

Who, if I cried out, might hear me - among the ranked
Even if One suddenly clasped me to his heart
I would die of the force of his being. For Beauty is only
the infant of scarcely endurable Terror, and we
are amazed when it casually spares us.
Every Angel is terrible.
And so I check myself, choke back my summoning
black cry Who'll help us then? Not Angels,
Not Mankind; and the nosing beasts soon scent
how insecurely we're housed in this signposted World

This is the beginning of the first elegy. The beginning of the second elegy has a somewhat similar ring:

Every angel is terror I know it, yet still, alas!
I must sing you - you, great near-deadly birds
of the soul! Where have they gone, the days of Tobias
when one of those brilliant ones stood at the door
of the unexceptional house? Dressed for the journey
he was not at all terrible, a youth to a youth
who eagerly spied him. But should the Archangel -
dangerous, masked by the stars - should he tread
but a step lower and closer we should be struck down
by our hammering hearts. What are you?

Later in this second elegy Rilke asks:

Does then the cosmos in which we are gradually melting
not take a touch of our flavour? Not even
a taste of us? And the Angels, do they truly gather up
only their own ... what flows out from them?
Isn't some of our essence, sometimes, by chance,
gathered up with it?

Quoting David L. Miller, once more from Angels and Mortals: Their Co-creative Power, Rilke was looking for a means of transforming visible things into invisibility, so that their essence might be retained at a deeper level of sensitivity. He wanted to transfigure visible earthly forms into their true essence, which might then be available to a more comprehensive psychical awareness. Rilke believed that this poetic act involved one with a "terrible angel'", a being who forced one to let go of things completely for this very purpose of transfiguration. The renunciation involved one in leaving things free from the grasp of the ego - such words as I, me, and mine - and praising them in words. And so he writes in the ninth elegy:

Were we put in this World here, truly, for speech? To say:
House, Fountain, Bridge, Gate, Jug, Fruit Tree; or Window?
Or even rise higher and say the word: Column
Say: Tower? But to say these, remember,
to speak them .. . in a manner that those things,
at heart, never intended to be? Could it be . . .
might not this be the World's cunning purpose,
speechlessly, secretly urging all lovers
so that each thing and all things themselves might
rejoice in the feelings they feel . . .?

Further on in the same elegy he writes:

And these things, whose own life is nourished by dying,
will hear how you praise and commend them, and, mortal,
entrust their survival to us, the most mortal of all;
willing us, wishing that we
in our hiddenest hearts might translate them
and take them - O World without end! - take them
into ourselves . . . whatever our selves may finally be.

The angel is the image of this experience. Rilke wrote to a friend in 1923,

The angel of the Elegies is that creature in which the transformation of the visible into invisibility, which we are accomplishing (in poetry), appears already fulfilled. For the angel of the Elegies all past towers and palaces are extant because long since invisible, and the still standing towers and bridges of our existence, already invisible, although (for us) they still physically continue. The angel of the Elegies is that being which stands security for recognizing in the invisible a higher degree of reality . . . Therefore "terrible" to us because we, its lovers and transformers, are still clinging to the visible ... All the worlds of the universe fling themselves into the invisible as into their next-deeper reality; some stars heighten directly in intensity and pass away in the infinite consciousness of the angels... others are dependent on creatures who slowly and laboriously transform them, in whose terror and ecstasy they reach their next invisible realization. We are, be it emphasized once more, in the sense of the Elegies we are those transformers of the earth: our whole existence, the flights and downfalls of our love, all capacitate us for the task (beside which, essentially, no other holds).

What all this means to me is that the angel brings spiritual life, true spiritual body, into something that is as near lifeless as one can dare to view anything. This applies horrifyingly to the products of the pure reason, often called "intellect" in our modern terminology. Rational theology throughout the ages is heavily tarred with this brush of unimaginative arrogance. It does not move apart from the spirit of the age, useful as this may be in seeing that it does not go ludicrously off course. Yet how can the messenger figures that appear so consistently in contemporary accounts of angelic visitations to disarmingly ordinary people play this role of spiritual renewal? The angels lighten the darkness of those whom they encounter, so that these people begin to feel better physically, and to attain some degree of spiritual illumination. In other words, they bring something of God's presence into people's lives and also into the workings of the human mind. As such, I believe they are an essential part of the divine economy. They should work in complete harmony with the human intellect; an imbalance of either leads to a sentimental superstitiousness if the angels take charge and a heartless rationalism if the intellect runs human life.

A typical concept of an angel is that of a spiritual being gifted with intellect and free will, and superior to the human in its capacity to fulfil the divine purpose. This is a characteristically Aristotelian perspective, and was championed by Averroes (Ibn Rushd), the great Islamic philosopher (1126-98) of Spain and North Africa, who did so much to introduce Aristotelian philosophy to Jewish and Christian thinking. The crown of Christian Aristotelianism is St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), whose Summa Theologiae and Summa contra Gentiles form the classical systematization of Roman Catholic theology. Thomas articulated the necessity for the existence of angels, inasmuch as they filled the gap between the rational human soul and God. Frederick Copleston, in his History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy, explains this more fully:

We can discern the ascending orders or ranks of forms from the forms of inorganic substances, through vegetative forms, the irrational sensitive forms of animals, the rational soul of man, to the infinite and pure Act, God: but there is a gap in the hierarchy. The rational soul of man is created, finite and embodied, while God is uncreated, infinite and pure spirit; it is only reasonable, then, to suppose that between the human soul and God there are finite and created spiritual forms which are without body [i.e. Angels].

Therefore, according to this point of view angels are without body and are logically necessary to a human knowledge of the embodiment of spirit.

Yet there is a contrasting view to the so-called necessity of angels. Here an earlier Islamic philosopher, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), who lived exclusively in Persia from 980 to 1037, is important. He too was a notable advocate of Aristotelian logic, in addition to being a physician of world repute; indeed, the scope of his knowledge and interests were those of a great genius. He split with Aristotelian logic on the very matter of the nature of angels. He disagreed with the traditional view that they were bodyless, and took the first steps upon a path of mystical theosophy that was to mark the direction that Islamic philosophy was to follow subsequently - especially in Persia and the other eastern lands of Islam. Whereas Averroes argued rationalistically and cosmologically, Avicenna, more than a century later, adopted a neo-Platonic and ontological (being concerned with the essence of things or being in the abstract) approach.

This neo-Platonic view is somewhat anticipated by the interpreting angel (angelus interpres) that we met in Chapter 2 in respect of the later Old Testament prophets Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel, and that speaks interiorly and interprets the visions they see, and also in the angelic conversation that concludes the Book of Revelation (22.6-21). After telling John not to worship him, the angel says, "I am coming soon, and bringing with me my recompense to repay everyone according to what he has done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (verses 12-13). It is hard to distinguish between Jesus and his angel in this account. The neo-Platonic view is also anticipate in the early Christian tradition of the Trinity as angels. It comes fully into its own in Plotinus, who hands it on to Proclus, who in turn inspired the pseudo-Dionysius (whose views on the angelic hierarchy we considered in Chapter 1), and from him, John Scotus Erigena. The last was an Irish theologian (c. 810-77), who was a fine mystic. He translated the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius and St Gregory of Nyssa, thus making them accessible to Western scholars. His writings were later condemned on a charge of pantheism - that is, the tendency to identify the creator with his creation.

The neo-Platonism of Plotinus entered Christian thought especially through St Augustine, whose writings influenced a number of medieval theologians. Among these were Alexander of Hales (1170/85-1245), who was born in Gloucestershire. He was basically an Augustinian, but had taken into account the psychological, physical, and metaphysical doctrines of Aristotle. In the matter of angels, however, he adopted a neo-Platonic stance, as did two more famous theologians of the school of Saint-Victor in Paris. The older was Hugh (1096-1141), an eminent scholastic theologian who began the tradition of mysticism that made the school of Saint-Victor famous throughout the twelfth century. The younger, and more important, was Richard, who was born in England or Scotland at an unknown date and died in 1173. He entered the Abbey of Saint-Victor and studied under Hugh, becoming prior in 1162. Though he wrote on the Trinity and the Scriptures, he is chiefly remembered for his works on mysticism. He is certainly one of the greatest Christian mystics, and had an influence that extended to the seventeenth century. Two later mystics who had a similar view about the nature of angels were Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1327), who described angels as "ideas of God", and Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), the greatest Protestant mystic.

It is evident that those of mystical temperament have had no difficulty in recognizing angels as manifestations of the divine presence, or at least the uncreated energies of God, given unreservedly to the whole cosmos. In this respect, it is of interest to consider Paul Tillich's views on angels, which side distinctly with the ontological and Platonic perspective:

If you want to interpret the concept of Angels in a meaningful way today, interpret them as the Platonic essences, as the powers of being, not as special beings. If you interpret them in the latter way, it all becomes crude mythology. On the other hand, if you interpret them as emanations of the divine power of being in essences, in powers of being, the concept of Angels becomes meaning and perhaps important... The Angels are the spiritual mirror of the divine abyss - the essences in which the divine ground expresses itself.

Elsewhere in his work, Tillich is even more concrete about angels. He writes, "In our terminology we could say that the Angels are concrete-poetic symbols of the structures or powers of being. . Their "epiphany" is a revelatory experience deter-mining the history of religion and culture." He also writes "The rediscovery of angels from the psychological side as archetypes of the collective unconscious and the new interpretation of the demonic in theology and literature have contributed to the understanding of these powers of being, which are not beings (Aristotle's and Aquinas's "separate intelligence's"), but structures."

All this is quoted from an article by David Miller, in which he then makes the comment that angels are not logically necessary; they are not necessary as a category of creation in order that the rational mind may grasp the whole scheme. Yet they are necessary simply because they are what they are and not something else. G. Don Gilmore provides an excellent working definition of angels as those forms, images, or expressions rough which the essences and energy forces of God can be transmitted. More succinctly, he says, an angel is a form through which a specific essence or energy can be transmitted for a specific purpose. The image or form of an angel is a creation of inspired imagination that is built up in group consciousness over the years by those who have visualized angels in a particular way. (Incidentally, Gilmore ministers at a Congregational church in the United States, while Miller holds a Chair of Professor of Religion - also in the United States.)

There is a tendency nowadays to "psychologize" angels, to identify them exclusively with the archetypes of the collective unconscious. While this may be an accurate enough assessment on a particular occasion, we should always be wary of the tendency towards reductionism, ascribing a spiritual phenomenon to nothing but some quirk of the mind, that is so much a feature of our time. That which can be reduced to the measure of our understanding can be conveniently manipulated, but in the process its own integrity and life are destroyed, and it becomes merely a plaything of the psyche. Paul Tillich himself may have over identified angels with psychological archetypes. It is much more probable that an angel reveals itself through the archetypal apparatus of the unconscious; in addition, though, there may be an incontrovertible physical presence that testifies to its objective reality in our very material world of phenomena.

In the next two chapters, we will examine the interaction of angel and human in the demonic dimension.

Chapter 6
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