What are angels and what effect, if any, do they have in our lives? To begin with, angelic and human natures are totally separate and distinct forms. People often confuse angels with deceased persons, probably stemming from countless Hollywood depictions such as Clarence, the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Real angels are spiritual beings who have never been attached to a body. Just so you and I will never become angels because we are human, something entirely different in both essence and nature. Catholic teaching has long insisted that our special human dignity derives from the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God. But if God is pure spirit it would seem more likely that he is reflected in his angels, not men and women. Yet man actually bears a closer resemblance to God than even the highest angelic hosts. We know this because God himself took the form of a man, not an angel, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Angels are quite literally God’s ministers who execute his divine will in the universe as they have from the beginning. They are of the spiritual order which is superior to and in control of the material order. They are like cosmic traffic cops charged with implementing and directing the physical laws of nature. Science may understand, for instance, how gravity hold stars, planets, even galaxies together and can even make mathematical predictions based on it’s laws. But what science cannot fully answer is why gravity exists in the first place and what mysterious forces cause it to behave as it does. In other words there must be, behind all the physical sciences, some Divine science which ultimately orders the cosmos.
God is the universal “First Cause” of all things, manifesting his providence through secondary “particular causes:” the Big Bang, laws of physics, chemistry, etc. Angels are his agents tasked with overseeing and enforcing those same laws. They are the day to day managers of creation. Drawing from the Sacred Scriptures, Aquinas along with other profound thinkers surmised nine different categories of angels which he grouped in threes. A metaphor may help to illustrate. Think of the art of sailing, for instance. Before sailing is possible one must first take into account the art of shipbuilding, however. Yet shipbuilding itself requires the combined skills of various artisans from lumberjacks to carpenters to makers of rope and sail makers. So too with the vast spiritual and material order which has as its end the accomplishment of Divine providence.
At the top of the ladder are those who actually sail the boat, in spiritual terms these are the heavenly choirs of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones who gaze directly, intently, and worshipfully on the grand vision of God’s providence fulfilled in his creation. A second group consisting of Dominations, Virtues, and Powers articulate and dispose God’s providence in particular ways, namely organizing the material universe, arrayed in its full splendor. Did you ever gaze on a spectacular sunset and wonder who the cosmic artist is? Finally the third group consisting of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels whose job it is to direct Divine providence as it applies to the human race. These angelic choirs preside over the fate of peoples and nations even down to the affairs of individual men and women. Hence we are assigned guardian angels, who at the very base of the angelic pyramid, lead, inspire, and guide us in our particular journey towards the Beatific Vision, which for each one of us is the final realization of God’s providence.
Like God, angels possess a wholly spiritual nature consisting of two deliberative powers, namely intellect and free will. While it is true that humans also possess these attributes, such powers in an angel are far keener and more unequivocal than our human equivalents. The limited human intellect is a mere wisp of vapor compared to the angelic mind. We are more apt to rationalize than to carefully reason through something. Our memories are notoriously forgetful and fragmented whereas once an angel comprehends a thing it retains that truth like a steel trap, literally forever. Then consider our fickle and highly mutable human wills which can change course like a summer breeze. The thing we most hate one day we might absolutely love the next. The angelic will, on the other hand, is resolute and constant once it has made its determination. Angels possess powerful intellects which tower above their human counterparts. Yet the amazing thing is that their charge is to serve pitiful humanity, so that Christ himself could say, “Do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven look constantly upon the face of my heavenly Father.” (Mt 18:10)
We humans find ourselves in a rather paradoxical position in creation. We have one foot in the material world and the other foot in the spiritual world. We are the lowest of the spiritual beings and yet the highest of the material ones. We are the only bodily creature that has an immortal soul, yet that soul cannot fully function without the body since we rely on our bodily senses to inform the soul and mind. In other words, the spirit is subject to the body just as the body is subject to the spirit. Our souls are thus said to be in the form of our bodies. Angels do not depend on a body for understanding, they apprehend things directly, completely, and instantaneously.
Yet the Bible informs us that God created man (but not angels) in his own image, “in the Divine image… male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) While in one sense the entire created order reflects its Maker, Genesis singles out homo sapien sapiens as special Divine icons, so we may ask ourselves why? Unlike the angels God is much more than just intellect and will. He is transcendent, omnipotent, and creative. His all-powerful Word is so forceful that its very utterance first caused creation to spring into existence, for “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (Jn 1:3) Now an angel (or a demon , who is but a fallen angel) is able to communicate its thoughts and even to manipulate physical nature. But no angel can form something from nothing or create another angel. Angels are non-creative entities in that respect. Yet God, the supreme Creative Being, has bestowed on humans, and not angels, the amazing power to pro-create other humans.
This is a huge plus for our human family. Only God can will an angel into existence but a man and woman together are empowered by God to will an entirely new human being into existence. So God, the absolute Creator, allows man to participate in his ongoing work of creation through the generation of new and totally unique human beings, no two of which will ever be exactly replicated! And unlike the lesser animals who also procreate, but only through brute instinct, man is given the freedom to either procreate or not. He is not under compulsion as are the beasts. In this way he resembles God, not only in the work of advancing creation but also in his ability to do so freely and willingly.
This sublime power of procreation gives mankind a likeness to the Divinity that no angel possesses. Our human freedom not only allows for choosing between good and evil (like the angels) but it further allows us to choose the creation of new life (unlike them). There is, of course, an inherent danger of abusing this freedom because it also places us (for a time) in power over our offspring. An angel cannot hurt or subvert another angel by its particular choices, for each angel acts autonomously according to its own capacity. This should not be confused with unity of action, for angels can and do act in unison when directed by a higher power. But they are not social beings in the way that we are social. We are dependent upon, and influenced by, our fellow humans in many things. Therefore our choices will inevitably affect others, both spiritually and materially; for better or for worse. And just as we have the power to will other humans into existence we can also will them out of bodily existence by killing them. (Whereas no angel has the power to kill or annihilate another angel.)
Because we are such dependent, and thereby social beings, we are able to support and uplift one another and in doing so we reflect the Triune Godhead in a way that angels do not. That is why the family, as a community of love, truly reflects the Holy Trinity which itself is the supreme community of love. (Angels are hierarchal but not social, unlike the Trinity which is profoundly social but not hierarchal ─ perfect equality exists among its persons.) Our social nature in other words is a further reflection of the Divine nature ─ this despite the fact that it also gives man such great destructive potential (e.g., a violent mob is also a social entity). But such is one of the costs of exercising human freedom. This close patterning of the human family on the Divine Trinity may explain why the demons, or fallen angels, are so antagonistic towards the family unit and do everything they can to disfigure it through divorce, abusive violence, contraception, abortion, and that cynical parody called same-sex marriage.
Man’s Trinitarian Nature ~ Body and Soul
Even our bodies are reflective of the Divine nature, meaning that the body has a far greater dignity than we might have ever imagined. For it is our bodies, and not just our souls, which must cooperate to produce other unique human beings in the Divine image. We are not Manicheans who consider the body to be useless at best and consummately evil at worst, because body and soul together reflect God and so both rightfully share in the dignity and glory which that likeness portends. Man is spirit and body and this fact underpins our unique Biblical-Christian anthropology which assumes, not surprisingly, a trinitarian form: man consists of a soul, mind, and body. Somehow these three elements must all fit harmoniously together if he is to function as a unity. And being both spiritual and material, it stands to reason that each of these three elements must also contain within themselves both spiritual and material components, and so they do.
Catholics have a custom prior to the proclamation of the gospel of signing ourselves on the forehead, the lips, and over the heart: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This action has a deep significance to the believer, reminding us that God’s own Trinitarian nature suffuses our very bodies. The human mind reflects the all-knowing Father who is absolute Mind. His Son, the Incarnate Word of God, is reflected in our words and speech when we proclaim the truth. Finally the Holy Spirit, eternal Font of Love binding Father and Son together, dwells in our human hearts. Think of God as three co-equal persons: Knowledge, Truth, and Love who together constitute one Divine nature, inseparable yet distinct. By contrast, each of us is but one person containing three distinct aspects: soul, mind, and body, each corresponding to one particular member of the Blessed Trinity.
And what is the human mind exactly? Is it some spiritual essence or merely a complex bundle of neurons and synapses? This question has been endlessly debated for centuries now with little resolution, but we do know for certain that the brain is an integral part of the mind. What remains highly doubtful, even today, is that the mind consists of a material working brain and nothing more. Our own consciousness, dreams, spiritual insights and imaginations should quickly dismisses such a speculation. Our ability to ask the question “Why?” strongly suggests some spiritual mental essence needed to energize the physical brain.
The soul which animates us is often identified physiologically with the heart which pumps the blood needed to sustain life. Perhaps that is why we often refer to the heart as the center of our being, where our deepest feelings, passions and desires reside. It is also where we exercise our will to make important choices. “Let your heart decide,” is the advice we often heed. To give one’s heart away is to give one’s very self. Heart and soul therefore become synonymous expressions for something that is both physical and spiritual, a life force in both its biological and metaphysical dimensions.
Finally we have the body itself, an obviously material entity, but the human body has an extraordinary power that no other biological species can claim: the ability to communicate through speech. But we must understand language and speech not as human inventions but as gifts from God. It’s origin is therefore not anthro-centric but spiritual. Of course speech is only made possible through the bodily medium of the tongue and so the tongue, like the heart and the brain, becomes the physical organ through which our spiritual being is expressed. It allows us to communicate those deepest feelings and ideas that might otherwise remain forever hidden. In fact it is speech which makes the social bonds on which our very survival depends possible.
In all three of these areas the spiritual and bodily functions must work harmoniously together in order to fulfill our human needs and aspirations. In short, the mind knows, the heart expresses its deepest passions (ideally to love), and the tongue proclaims outwardly what these may thinking or feeling. Mind and heart both operate internally, while the tongue externalizes. In doing so they further imitate the very Blessed Trinity who first endowed the human race with such powers. The Trinity is structured much the same way as our own persons if we dare to ponder the mystery. For the Godhead consists of two members who operate internally, that is invisibly, namely the Father and the Holy Spirit, and one member who became the external or visible spokesman of the Deity to the world, namely the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
This Divine Word bears witness to the truth by revealing his Father and Holy Spirit to the world. The Father is, of course, the all knowing Mind of God just as the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of the Trinity and is often described as the bond of Divine Love between the Father and Son. So here we have the supreme Mind, Heart, and Word which dwell together in an unbreakable communion of eternal love. Distinct and yet equal, each indwelling with the others in unparalleled majesty, the splendor of God spills out over the entire universe in a joyous profusion of divine fecundity and love. Incredible as it may seem, this is the ineffable Being who patterned us in his very image and likeness: mind, heart, and tongue. Thus the Trinity is indelibly imprinted on our very being, not only in our souls but visibly on our human bodies.
Modern society has strayed from this Christian understanding of man made in the image of the Divine Creator, body and soul. Mankind today pays a terrible price for such forgetfulness as the exponential increase in terrorism and mass violence of every sort bears out. As a materialistic, utilitarian mindset becomes more widely accepted suicides, indiscriminate killing, and even nauseating practices such as human composting will continue to erode our common sense of human dignity and worth. Human beings are gradually becoming commodities to be traded or disposed of as political or market conditions may dictate. We must urgently recover that sense of our own trinitarian nature which reveals a kinship to the Divine. Then we may once again view every person as a true reflection of his God.
We’re no angels, to be sure, and yet we are called to an even higher destiny. As St. Paul noted, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1Cor 6:3) We are currently surrounded by angels, both good and bad. The evil ones work only to spread chaos and confusion in the world. The good ones, particularly our guardian angels, stand by our side to enlighten and strengthen us daily in our struggles and temptations. Never neglect to implore their aid and protection for they are God’s personal messengers sent to assist us. If we accept their help now we will later be raised even higher than they in eternity. St. John confidently confirms this lofty destiny for all those who will remain obedient to God. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1Jn 3:2)
Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.
Francis – Thank you so much for this writing and thought. I have always pondered the role of Angeles and this certainly gives a deeper thoughtful insight. Thank you.