Michaelmas invites us to reflect on the mystery of the Angels, and perhaps to purify also our understanding and to approach an “angelology” really in communion with the mind of the Church. Perhaps in the first place, we should try to abandon the popular idea, if we have ever considered it, that Angels are spirits of the human dead. This seems to me (alongside the entirely abused image of the cherub in popular culture, which it would be too long-winded to go into) to be the most horrible misconception about the Angels. Not only does it rob them of their proper nature as spiritual beings, but it also destroys the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man as a creature belonging to both the spiritual and the corporal worlds. At any rate it is also quite incompatible with the teaching of the Fathers and the Tradition, which are both careful to explain to us that angels, while created beings, also belong to another order in creation from man himself, far exceeding him in intelligence, splendour, power and perfection.
In his series of so-called “science fiction” novels, CS Lewis develops a sort-of angelology which I find very interesting. In the first place, he wants to undo all the Victorian misconceptions and so presents his angels, that he calls eldila, as beings entirely unlike men they “do not eat, breed, breathe, or suffer natural death” they are perceivable to the senses under normal circumstances only as a “rod of light” and then only when the human involved has begun to be sensible to their presence. They may also manifest themselves sensibly in dramatic or frightening forms but it appears to be directly to the mind of the viewer, or, as Lewis describes in Perelandra, as if they acted “directly upon the optic nerve”. In their appearance they also seem to refer to “a whole system” based outside the one we are familiar with. They “move” at a speed surpassing that of light itself and therefore experience creation in quite a different way than man. They perceive directly the will and mind of Maleldil (God the Son), whom they serve and for whom they have been created.
Here we have something pretty close to the traditional understanding of Angels (modified a bit in language and perhaps with one or two difficulties if we take Lewis’s novels too literally), for it presents us with an entirely other kind of being who surpasses man in many regards, but also exists to help him and present God to him. The Catechism (332) describes it quite succinctly: “Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar or near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan: they closed the earthly paradise; protected Lot; saved Hagar and her child; stayed Abraham’s hand; communicated the law by their ministry; led the People of God; announced births and callings; and assisted the prophets, just to cite a few examples.” Of course the greatest of these interventions comes with the Annunciation, when Gabriel appears to the Blessed Virgin in her house at Nazareth, and the salvation of the world begins: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae… Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
The Angels in Scripture also appear sensibly to men; as the author of the letter to the Hebrews says, “And hospitality do not forget; for by this some, being not aware of it, have entertained angels. ” (13:2) I rather like this image of the Angel also being “disguised” in the flesh or in the appearance of flesh, though it has been abused in popular culture and, I suspect, has taken on a new meaning because of the Incarnation. Yet it also gives us something very important about the Angelic world: like the One for whom they were created to worship, Angels too are self-emptying. They too set aside the great dignity of their state in favour of Man and his salvation. Indeed, those who do not, whose pride means they take humankind as an aberration, become devils, whose will and intelligence, great as they are, have been corrupted to such an extent that the pure, intellectual and terrible love of which the Angels in their perfect state are capable of showing towards Man, is impossible for them and replaced by a hatred which is similarly fixed and terrific.
Fr. Blake makes the point that, linguistically, the name of “angel” (angelos) which tells us about these creatures’ office (and not their being) is in Greek related to the word for “gospel” (eu-angelion). I like his analogy which puts St. Michael’s war with Satan also in the context of the Church’s war against the things of the world, that is to say sin and death. Of course, it is important not to press this too hard – for the war between the Angelic powers is a real war, not an analogy, and, though spiritual, affects the corporeal world too for it is essentially a war about Man, and we are not only creatures of the spiritual, but also of the flesh. That means sometimes the war will be more on one side, and sometimes more on the other. It is a great temptation to see our fight as only in the spiritual realm, for while that is difficult, it means we can privatise it and make-nice with those hostile forces around us. To return to Lewis, he is keen to point out the severe difficulty of this problem in Perelandra and it is worth returning to that work to stimulate our thoughts on what standing up to Satan may sometimes involve. But the Angels also assist in this, and wonderfully aid the Church and humanity.
O Glorious Prince of the heavenly host, Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in this day of battle and in the terrible warfare that we are waging against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, against the evil spirits. Come to the aid of man, whom Almighty God created immortal, made in His own image and likeness, and redeemed at a great price from the tyranny of Satan.