In Praise of the Holy Angels
When I was in college, my priest gave a sermon for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels which I still remember. “Angels are like living thoughts flowing from the mind of God,” he said, “and the mind of God sustains and fills all things.” He went on to remind the congregation that the existence of angels is assumed by Jesus throughout the Gospels, and that it seems that God has placed human beings in a universe filled with life, both seen and unseen, biological and spiritual.
I had never seriously considered this theological truth before, and as I did so I realized that it was deeply significant. Angels are not spiritual adornment. The ministry and purpose of angels touches upon the nature of God Himself and shines light upon the eternal telos of His Creation. By contemplating the angels, I saw that I was invited to awaken to this reality, to encounter a cosmos teeming not just with life, but with unseen depths of memory, reason and will.
Even back then, I recognized that modern people, including modern Christians, are under intense pressure to demythologize angels. It feels sophisticated (and reassuring) to tame this ancient festival by celebrating it as a delightful instance of vivid metaphor or poetic fancy — a traditional aspect of Christian culture to be enjoyed for sure, but not to be taken seriously. This is, of course, a form of epistemological snobbery. Christians always have to bear in mind that human sinfulness affects not just our earthly desires and moral life, but our intellectual and imaginative life as well. We are not fully attuned and sensitive to the whole of reality. We do not always see the fullness of being as we ought. Thus, it is salutary for us to take Shakespeare at his word: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And if this is so, then it befits us to think more carefully about angels. What should we say and teach about them? How might we think and pray more faithfully with them? In recent years, it seems to me that most Christians have followed a safe and standard recipe: to the extent we say anything about angels at all, we focus solely on their roles in Scripture and their continual worship of God. This is a wonderful place to begin, but the richness of New Testament cosmology demands more. For if the Triune God reveals to us only that which fulfills His good purposes for his children, then the revelation of angels to human beings must be meant for our good and to help us to seek the good as long as we are in this world.
This, at least, has been my experience of the matter, and lately, it has shaped my own piety in three distinct ways.
Angels reveal that ordinary world is extraordinarily sacred
In a world inhabited by angels, it seems to me that nothing is without potential. What we call matter is always open to spirit because, as Scripture tells us, what we call the physical world is always open to the ministry of angels. Indeed, if the Christian Platonists are correct, the physical world is a ministry of angels, and every aspect of our world of form is mediated in and through angelic agency as part of the metaphysics of participation. Such a view, of course, need not imply any “distance” from the Divine. Much like sacramental mediation, angelic mediation is a form of communion, or to put the matter more paradoxically, a form of mediated immediacy. Angels prevent us from ever having to choose between the solidity of the so-called “real world” and the subtle energies of some hidden, inner world. Instead, they show us that Kingdom of God is at hand. Every moment of our lives already comes to us across the interval of the supernatural, a gift shared in and through angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Angels reveal the virtue of curiosity and the sin of boredom
In a cosmos inhabited by angels, I think we learn to see honest and heartfelt curiosity as a spiritual virtue. Here I do not speak of the traditional sin of curiositas, which describes an insatiable intellectual desire that leads to covetousness, but rather of a holy curiosity that manifests as a rightly-ordered openness to Creation. A truly curious person is open to self, to neighbor, and most of all, to God. Nothing is ever wholly reducible to prior experience and set preconceptions. There is always the possibility of transcendence; there is always the possibility of something more. Thus, the curious person knows that the words of the Letter to the Hebrews are true: one really can entertain angels unawares.
Boredom, by contrast, is exposed by angels as a devastating sin. This boredom is more than an occasional bout of frustration and listlessness. It is a deep, habitual refusal to listen, to look again, to attend to the possibility of something new. The bored person is the person who believes she already knows all that she needs to know, and angels reveal this to be the purest hubris. When we worship with the angels, we are drawn back into a childlike state of openness that we might once again taste the endless delight of the God who is so present to His Creation that He could never be bored. Angels remind us that the God who made the hosts of heaven is also the God who, as G. K. Chesterton once quipped, is always saying to the universe, “Do it again!”
Angels reveal that holy communion isn’t confined to Sunday mornings
In a universe filled with angels, I believe that holy communion is disclosed as the very heart of life. Like a deeply connected ecosystem, the orders and ministries of angels illumine endless connections and correspondences between matter and spirit, bios and zoe. Angels remind us all life is enfolded in the life of the God who is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And in so doing, they call us to enter into holy communion in its most mystical and expansive form.
Thus, the world of angels is a world that moves us beyond ourselves and towards an ever-deeper union with God and neighbor. To embrace the whole heavenly order — angels and archangels, principalities and powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim — and to trust that such presences are felt upon the earth is to embrace Creation in the most capacious sense imaginable. To commune with the angels is to acknowledge that the natural and the supernatural are indeed “fitted” to one another, capable of receiving and blessing one another in and endless dance of mutual joy. This, after all, is the beating heart of Christian worship, a thrumming before which both humans and angels bow. Its other name is Incarnation.
Like us, the angels long to look into this mystery, but they do not understand it any better than we do. Indeed, the Scriptures seem to suggest we might even have (for once) a leg up in this regard. For the God of spirits and all flesh, who calls all creation out of nothing and who fills the cosmos with life and breath, intelligence and will – does so not for human or angelic reasons, but only for the sake of His infinite and redemptive love.
Angels can direct our hearts and minds towards this love, but even they cannot comprehend it. This is why Scripture tells us that they join us in worship. Angels too must adore and share in the mystery of God in Christ. This worship is the fulfillment of their nature just as much as it is ours. Only when we are together, side by side in the choir, can we move towards our proper telos. Only when the tongues of mortals and angels unite in common prayer and praise, we will we have the Love for which we all were made.