Theologically speaking, the stock of the angels in the Church has been falling pretty steadily since its Berkshire Hathaway-like peak in the 5th century, when the celestial hierarchy was outlined by Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite in an all-too-brief treatise.
It rallied, briefly, around 800 years later, with Dante and St Thomas before giving way to the heady quarrels of the Reformation, from which it never seems quite to have recovered. Nowadays angels are a somewhat tawdry subject. One thinks of the heavenly host, if at all, in connection with Roma Downey and John Travolta or that silly play about Aids made into an HBO programme years ago.
Not long ago I opened a book by a Dominican friar billed as the best recent treatment of angelology in which I came across these lines:
I do not claim that it is necessary to force oneself to experience psychologically the immediacy of the angelic presence. This type of immediate, naïve relation to the supernatural has become difficult for us, if not impossible. Attention to angels depends instead on a faith-based, reflexive interpretation of existence.
What, exactly, is “naïve” about our belief in the angels, and why should it be a question of “force”? I am unsure what a “reflexive interpretation of existence is”, but I feel comfortable guessing that it is not something our ancestors had any need of when they when enrolled in the Archconfraternity of the Scapular of St Michael and recited the Te Splendor. One sometimes gets the sense that we are supposed to be embarrassed of angelic beings.
That does not mean they are not around. Wherever our misplaced attentions might be, they continue going about their business: watching, interceding, giving the Devil a kick or two, assisting at Mass. Of all the violence done by those responsible for the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, nothing fills me with more sadness than the disappearance of those beautiful words, adapted from the Apocalypse, spoken by the priest as the thurible is filled with incense at every Missa Solemnis: “Through the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, standing at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all his elect, may the Lord kindly bless this incense and accept it as a savour of sweetness.” He is still there, of course, albeit unacknowledged and probably less than pleased to be listening to Here I Am, Lord. But it would be nice to thank him publicly.
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