Angels are in. Americans have not displayed , such interest in angels since “Teen Angel” made the hit parade in the early 1960s. A few movies of the golden age of Hollywood centered around angels — Angel on My Shoulder was the best. But now angels are big time: there are catalogs of angel accessories; popular best-selling books by Sophy Burnham, A Book of Angels and Angel Letters; and, for all I know (I still refuse to have a television in my house), talk shows in which celebrities’ guardian angels tell all. The revival of interest in angels among fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants is not too surprising. Angels are pretty prominent actors in the Bible, which the Protestants at least read, even if Hal Lindsey is too often the authoritative interpreter (remember The Late Great Planet Earth). Billy Graham’s 1975 book, Angels: God’s Secret Agents, which sold 2.6 million copies, gave the imprimatur to Protestants to take up a branch of theology which many thought reeked of Romish incense; and I suspect that evangelicals have a livelier sense of angelic action than Catholics have these days. Frank Peretti’s various novels on angelic warfare have become smash hits, and may soon appear on the silver screen. His Present Darkness features a seven-foot, blond angel-hunk who opposes the forces of New Age darkness. What is more surprising is nouvelle angelology, that is, New Age interest in angels, which has suddenly become big, big, big. Crystals are out, talking to your guardian angel is in.
It is so in that Time on December 27, 1993 devoted a cover story to angels. There we learned that in our secular, technological society, 69 percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. We also hear some good angel stories. For example, in 1977, Ann Cannady learned that she had advanced uterine cancer. Before she could have an operation, a six-foot-six black man with “deep, deep, azure blue” eyes appeared at her door. When she and her husband invited him in, he announced that her cancer was gone, and said, “I am Thomas. I am sent by God.” He held up his hand, and such heat and light came from it that she was knocked down. Before she had her operation, she insisted on another biopsy — the cancer was completely gone.
That is a very impressive story; however, I would be even more impressed if the Time article had not also included the story of the “Angels of Mons.” In the British retreat in 1914, the story goes, soldiers saw St. George in the field leading angelic warriors against the Germans. This is still widely believed today. However, Paul Fussell points out in The Great War and Modern Memory that it derived from a fictional story by Arthur Machen which was published as a morale builder during the early British disasters, and was taken by an anxious nation as a true report. Some of the angel sightings today are no doubt a result of anxiety, like the flying-saucer sightings during the atom-bomb-haunted 50s, and the repressed-memory therapeutic fad of the 90’s. However, some of the angel stories ring true because the reaction of the humans involved is not relief but fear. Time, an unlikely bastion of orthodoxy, takes on the concept of the “non-threatening, wise, and loving” New Age angel: “An angel so mellow it can be ignored.” Angels, when they appear to humans, are alien and terrifying. Their first words are usually “Fear not!” because the initial human reaction is not joy or wonder but terror at the irruption of the invisible world into the visible.
Angelology is somewhat neglected in catechetics these days. Catholics who haven’t the foggiest idea of what the Trinity is about (say 90 percent of those educated after Vatican II) are not up to discussing the distinctions between the morning and evening knowledge of angels. (For those interested in pursuing this fascinating subject, see the Summa Theologica I. Q.58, A.6.) The doctrines about angels have a long history. The belief in angels seems to have entered Judaism from Persia, a country which always had a vital sense of the reality of angels, whom they called Peri (as in Paul Dukas’s symphonic poem “La Peri”). The Peri also entered Moslem folklore. Once, when I was tutoring English to a Persian lad, I learned that the Iranian Air Force under the Shah frequently scrambled to investigate sightings of angels. The angel of Yahweh was initially the appearing of Yahweh, and we can see in the books of the Old Testament how the angels were gradually separated from God, and became the mysterious beings who surrounded the Lord in his heavenly court. These beings were not effete wimps wearing white nighties. To us cherub means a fat, pink, dimpled-cheeked baby, but cherub is cognate to griffin. The prophets had visions of beings with eyes all over, wheels moving within wheels, and fire. The angels were the ministers and servants of the Lord — even the evil ones carried out his purpose. In Job, Satan came to the heavenly court with the sons of God. The good angels guarded Israel: Elisha let his disciple see the fiery guardians surrounding the town of Dothan to protect it from the foe. The angels become even more prominent in the last books of the Old Testament. Raphael plays a leading role in the charming short story Tobit. Michael is the angel who guards Israel, and his behind-the-scenes role is glimpsed in Daniel.
The angels become more and more prominent in the Old Testament, along with the belief in the resurrection of the dead. The Jews felt the two beliefs were closely connected, possibly because both involved a denial of gross materialism. The Pharisees accepted both beliefs; the Sadducees rejected both. Jesus, in this, as in many other of his teachings, was a Pharisee. Angels had announced his conception to Mary and Joseph, and His birth to the shepherds. At the beginning of his public life He encountered the evil angel, Satan, in the temptation in the desert, and after his trial was over, angels came and ministered to him. He referred to guardian angels, and to the angels that his Father could send to save him. An angel announced his resurrection. In Acts angels continue to work, setting Peter free and telling Paul that those in the ship with him would be saved. The book of angels par excellence in the whole Bible is Revelation, which lifts the veil to show the spiritual forces at work in the conflict of Church and Empire.
Angels are extremely prominent in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but mostly in their interaction with man. Unlike men, however, angels are pure spirits. God created them, probably before he created the material universe, to sing together for joy. Why did some fall? Here speculation had the least to go on, because how is man to imagine what would tempt an angel? The theory that I like best is that the angels were shown the Incarnation in a vision and told to worship the Son in human form. Some refused to worship a matter-laden being from pride in their own immateriality, and rebelled against God. Angels, even good ones, show a certain fastidiousness toward matter. After Raphael reveals his true identity to Tobias, he explains that he only appeared to be eating when he was among them. This may explain the hatred that Satan has shown for human reproduction. Tobit alludes to the demon that interfered with marriage. Human sacrifice to demons, as at Carthage, was usually in the form of infants. Behind Herod there lurked evil powers who desired the life of the child. The parallels in our own civilization today are sad and unmistakable.
What will become of the fallen angels? Here universalism met an obstacle. We are not told anywhere in Scripture that a particular human being is condemned to hell. Upon this absence, and with great confidence in God’s universal salvific will, some Greek theologians (and Hans Urs von Balthasar in this century) speculated about the possibility of universal salvation. But if all things are to return to God, what about the demons? Origen seems to have thought that they, too, would eventually repent and be saved, but this opinion was condemned by the Church. As beings immersed in matter and in mutability, men can repent; angels, for some reason, cannot.
Aquinas treats extensively of the angels, because they present a very interesting philosophical question to him. If matter is the principle of individuation in the species, each angel is a species. That is, angels differ among themselves as much as an elephant differs from an alligator. There is no angelic race. More importantly, Aquinas sees in the guardian angel a vindication of the philosophical axiom that it is more dignified to act through an intermediary than to act directly. Sharing in causality gives a being the dignity of a cause. Neo-Platonism, through the intermediary of Dionysius the Areopagite, is fully assimilated to Christianity by Thomas. All actions in the material world are accomplished through the agency of angels, who conduct the divine light to the world through their hierarchies as the ecclesiastical hierarchies conduct grace throughout the Church.
Mythology! most modern theologians will snort. Yes, such a conception has affinities with mythology. But does not mythology convey (usually in a debased form) some truth about the universe? The Romantic poets confronted in the 18th and 19th centuries a world which had been just about fully demythologized. God was the clockmaker who had set the world going, and now he was far away in his heaven and could be safely ignored. The world was a mechanism, devoid of personality, with which human beings could have no sympathy. The Romantics returned to mythology, not simply for stage dressing as Pope and Dryden had done, but to give form to the mysterious presences that they were sure lurked behind natural phenomena, especially the Sublime. To call it God was to identify God too closely with the universe; so they called these presences gods, dryads, sprites, or whatever term from mythology or folklore came to hand.
Romanticism was a result of the same impulse that has given the New Age its interest in angels. Man cannot live with a universe void of personality. He finds himself treating an empty universe like a toy to be taken apart. Many popular Christian writers tried to combat this worldview not only with arguments but with imaginative visions. C.S. Lewis used the machinery of planetary angelology in his space trilogy, and while there are some good moments, his machinery of angelic and demonic presences tends to creak a little. One of the most remarkable revivals of angelology is found in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Gandalf the wizard, Tolkien remarked, is an incarnate angel. The world of The Lord of the Rings is full of personality. In the Silmarillion there is a full-blown, Neo-Platonic Christian cosmology, in which the gods are angels who act upon the material world.
The New Age is a mixed bag of impulses: on the one hand, it veers off into spiritualism, the occult, and Satanism; on the other hand, the immediate ancestors of the New Age exhibited impulses in the right direction. The Waldorf School is based upon the works of the theosophist Rudolf Steiner; its children’s books contain songs to the Archangel Michael, in which children pray that he will make them as strong and bright as he is. In California, a New Age movement called MANS became involved in prayer, meditation, veneration of Mary, and the use of icons; many of its members are now full-fledged members and even priests of the Orthodox Church.
Theologians are accustomed to ditching dogmas — the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the like — with the explanation that “modern man can’t believe in these things any more.” What they mean by “modern man” are a few thousand Kantians in German universities. However, if by “modern man” one means the vast majority of the population, including modern Western societies, then modern man is capable of believing the most remarkable things. In Iceland, despite its secular Scandinavian culture, there is still a strong belief in the huldufolk (creatures like elves, but more dangerous) who live in rocks; and the roads are designed so as not to disturb them. Dreams in Iceland are widely thought to be messages from beings in the stars. For an idea of what Americans believe, visit any New Age bookstore which has every warmed-over superstition from divination by runes to Matthew Fox, in bright modern packages. Meanwhile, churches continue to be stripped of their images and vigil lights. Felt banners with mottos like “Service and Celebration” replace stained glass windows where radiant angels and saints glow in the spiritual light that fills the world. But the modern version of the Roman liturgy is something in which no self-respecting angel participates. No one invites them anyway.
As all Thomists know, one may sin by both defect and excess. Sinning by defect in the belief in supernatural phenomena (including angels) is to deny their existence or to almost completely dismiss their role in the life of the Christian. Because of the occupational hazard of skepticism, priests tend to do the latter. A priest is the recipient of confidences about miracles, visions, apparitions, and divine commands from every pious soul who has more time on her hands than she knows what to do with. Raymond Brown has decided that the New Testament cannot be literally true with all its stories of miracles and demonic possession, because it would be a fairyland, totally unlike Christian life as we (that is, fashionable seminary professors) know it. On the other hand, there are those who have an excess of credulity, who count the day wasted if they haven’t heard of three new Marian apparitions before lunch or who expect their guardian angel to balance their checkbook. Paul, in the early time of the Church, had to deal in Galatia with Judaisers who gave angels the central role in their religion, displacing Christ. Devotees of angels may also forget that there are spirits and there are spirits. Many people think that “spiritual” is a synonym for “good.” They forget that God has a body, and Satan doesn’t. Where is the media in which the virtus stands?
Catholics have traditionally prayed to their guardian angels, and Catholic children have learned the poem: “Angel of God, my guardian dear/To whom God’s love commits me here/Ever this day be at my side/To light and guard, to rule and guide/Amen.” Does contact with angels vanish with age, like the craving for lollipops? Or is there a mature faith in angels, our fellow citizens in the heavenly fatherland? I think there is.
Opus Dei has a charming and effective custom of praying to the guardian angel of someone one wishes to influence to the good. Why bother with angels — why not pray only to God? Because by multiplying intermediaries through whom He accomplishes His will, God gives them the dignity of sharing in His causality, and increases the number of those to whom gratitude is due. I have also discovered that guardian angels can be relied upon to find parking places in almost all circumstances. One law of the spiritual life is to begin with small things. First, develop your faith by praying for, and receiving, healing from a headache, then pray for healing from cancer.
Angelic action has also been the path to faith for some in the modern world. M. Scott Peck attributes his conversion to Christianity to his growing sense that the fingerprints of Providence were unmistakable in the circumstances of life, as were, alas, the marks of the enemy, including diabolical possession. Our true struggle is not with human enemies — Communists, abortionists, secularists, or even hardened sinners; these are but agents of the spiritual enemy who seeks to oppose God, and against that enemy we have every need of angelic help. As Catholics used to pray after every Mass: “St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle.”
My own feeling is that angels are at work in the preternatural events that defy rational explanation: sudden feelings that something is happening to someone you love; brief glimpses that seem to overcome space and time. These happen too often to be dismissed as coincidence, but they do not happen often enough to be examined scientifically. They do not appear to be the operation of some natural, impersonal, psychic unity of mankind. Rather, they bear they marks of personality. They cannot be predicted, but they accomplish some purpose when they happen. Perhaps angels are the channels of invisible communication among men, the hidden messengers that allow us to see briefly into the mind of another person. Sophy Burnham, in her inimitable ramblings on angels, an omnium gatherum of urban folklore, recounts an experience to which many parents can relate in their own childrearing. She left her baby sleeping on a bed while she worked in another room. She suddenly thought “Molly’s falling off the bed.” She ran down the hall, rushed into the bedroom, and caught the baby in mid-air. There are few children who would make it to adulthood if their guardian angels were not clocking overtime. When we meet them face to face, we shall have much to thank them for.