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.
We need to start taking these blessed creatures seriously again. Here the Anglican patrimony spoken of by Benedict XVI in Anglicanorum Coetibus has never seemed a more valuable gift. Milton was at his best writing about the angels and their “undisturbed Song of pure concent, / Aye sung before the sapphire-colour’d throne / To him that sits theron.” Sir Thomas Browne speculated in his learned manner about whether our guardian angels were assigned to us at conception or birth. Angels were also the subject of what must be among the most moving scenes in any biography – Hooker’s final hours from the admirable Life written by Isaak Walton:
Dr Saravia visited Hooker on his death-bed, and found him deep in contemplation, and not inclinable to discourse; which gave the doctor occasion to inquire his present thoughts; to which he replied, “That he was meditating the number and nature of angels, and their blessed obedience and order, without which peace could not be in heaven; and oh that it might be so on earth.”
There is also the story of a very sage-sounding divine of the 18th-century, Bishop Thomas Wilson, who was reading the Greek Testament with a theology student one day.
“Don’t you see them? Don’t you see them?” Bishop Wilson cried.
“See what, my lord?”
“The angels ascending and descending upon those trees.”
Not to mention Blake, who happened upon angels everywhere, and his followers the Pre-Raphaelites, who painted them with more charm and brilliance than anyone since Fra Angelico. It is to the kindly ministrations of his own guardian angel that Wodehouse’s Pongo Twistleton readily attributes the appearance of a decanter of port in his Uncle Fred’s drawing room. Even Iris Murdoch’s atheist clergyman Fr Carrel Fisher believed in angels after a fashion.
Unfortunately, those who, like me, care deeply about the angels are much too unlearned to write about them in a substantive manner, while far too many brilliant young Thomists are obsessed with answering Karl Barth’s objections to the analogia entis and other yawn-inducing topics to give them any care. What a pity. For there are many pressing questions in the field of angelology to which one would like an answer.
What, for example, do the six-winged seraphim sound like when they “cease not to cry out daily, with one voice, saying ‘Holy, holy, holy’”? (I have always imagined something like Handel, in one of those gorgeously lush old Leopold Stokowski arrangements that bores dismiss as “unhistorical”.) And what do they actually look like? Did Michelangelo come nearer the mark than the Byzantine icon painters?
One of the silliest claims made by those who do not share my affection for them is that devotion to Michael and Gabriel, as with the Seven Dolours or poor neglected St Aloysius, smacks of grandmotherly piety. This is entirely true, and speaks very much in its favour. Heaven, one suspects, will be full of grandmothers, and angels keeping them company.
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow